Found this lovely Common Merganser (Mergus merganser) down at the Whitemud Creek yesterday morning. There its was, just chilling on a log with its funky hairdo…, er, “featherdo”? If you look closely at the picture you can see the serrated edge of the bill. Mergansers eat fish so this helps them grip their prey. Sometimes they are referred to as sawbills. The famed naturalist and painter John James Audubon referred to these as Buff-breasted Merganser and Goosander in his 1827 book The Birds of North America. This particular merganser appeared to be alone and is likely either a non-breeding male or a female. Once males reach their breeding age (2 years) their appearance changes a black head and white body. Nonbreeding males and females are tricker to tell apart. None of the information online provided any clues as how to tell them apart. If in doubt, consult your Sibley! According to Sibley, adult nonbreeding males have a white stripe on their wing, which can clearly be seen in this picture. So there you have it folks, it’s a lonesome bachelor. Just a bit downstream there were several merganser couples swimming around romantically in the murky water. I guess this fella either did not get lucky this year or is not ready to commit, not that male merganser commit much as they do not help the female to care for the eggs or young.
My first flycatcher turned out to be a tricky nut to crack. I spotted it at the top of a dead spruce along the Athabaskan River along the old Ice Fields Parkway in Jasper National Park. Right from the get go I had no idea what I was looking at. I knew that the species was new to me and since I was nit even able to place it in a bird category, e.g. sparrows, finches, black birds, etc, I knew that this was something big. As I had not hope of identifying the bird in the field I focused on getting photographs of it from as many angles as possible. Fortunately it was a sunny day and the bird was perched in full sunlight, so I was able to get some decent pictures of it. Later on after the usual consultations with Merlin and Sibley it appeared that I had a flycatcher at my hands from the genus Empidonax. Flycatchers are small insect eating birds with many species looking similar. Sometimes positive identification is only possible based range, behaviour or vocalizations. My flycatcher is most likely a Hammond’s Flycatcher (Empidonax hammondii, Life: #155, AB Big Year: #106).
Canada Geese are big birds with an even bigger attitude. There does not seem to be much that faze them. As probably one of the most common birds in these neck of the woods it easy to start ignoring them in favour of more exciting and uncommon birds. This fella, however, was out to make a statement that could not be ignored. Perched on the ridge of the roof of a large house overlooking the the Heritage Wetland Ponds, this Canada Goose was not lacking any self-confidence. I spend quit some time watching it and it seemed quite comfortable hanging out at its lofty and exposed perch. The only predators that could threaten an adult Canada Goose would be non-flying animals such as coyotes, cats (big cat, not your domestic kitty), foxes, dogs and humans. In other words, while this fella may be in an exposed location the biggest threat facing it would be inclement weather. Not on this day though, the sky was blue with not a cloud in sight and this goose was the king (or queen) of this roof.
I will be the first one to admit that this picture is a good candidate to post in the Crap Bird Photography group on Facebook (and I will probably share it in that forum). There is more to the story, however, than just a picture of a bird through a jumble of branches. There is a tiny shallow side-pond at the Heritage Wetland Park in Sherwood Park. The pond is surrounded by thick brush and I had never bothered to look at it closely, partly because it is difficult to access through the thick understory and partly because I though it would be too puny for anything interesting to be there. The other day, as I was walking past it, I heard a symphony of croaking from the pond. I have not had much luck with spotting any amphibians to date, but I figure that my luck will never improve if I never try. Said and done. I found what appeared to me as a “weak spot” in the shrubbery and started to slowly make my way through the thick understory. As soon as the pond came within sight the croaking stopped abruptly. This is exactly the same story every time I try to sneak up on frogs. I found a tolerably comfortable spot by the side of the pond. Crouching in the thicket I made myself as comfortable as possible and decided to stay put for a bit so see if the frogs would relax and resume their business. As I was scanning along the water surface, the water’s edge and the shrubbery along the water with my camera I suddenly had to do a double take. In an impenetrable jumble of branches there was an eye looking right at me. I could see bits and pieces of the body of the critter and the pattern was unmistakable, it was a Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus). It was completely still, not moving a single feather, staring intently at me. So there we were, staring each other down in a human vs bird staring contest. After what appeared like an unreasonable long time I came to my senses and realized that I should probably try to take some pictures, after all the camera had in some miraculous way focused in on the eye of the flicker without getting tricked by all the shrubbery between us. Finding a flicker skulking around on the ground is not uncommon as they are well-known to have a particular fondness for munching on ants.
It is difficult imagining getting bored of watching birds. With 6 months and 2 days of birding under my belt in three different countries and on two continents every nature walk is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you will see. The diversity in appearance and behaviour seems never ending. Some birds are colourful, some have eccentric behaviours others have impressive physical attributes or perform remarkable physical feats. Then there are those birds that have style. They have brio. They are the Dany and Rusty (as in the Ocean’s film series) of the birding world. Purple Martins (Progne subis) at Heritage Wetlands Park in Sherwood Park definitely belong to this last category. Here they occupy elaborate multi-story bird mansions that balance on tall stakes high above the reeds. When they are not enjoying the vistas from their lofty perches they skip back and forth over the ponds in agile death defying maneuvers.
The White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) has been at the top of my bird wish list ever since I embarked on this journey in December. After signing up for eBird I set up a rare bird email alert. The number of alerts I received throughout the winter were few and far in-between, but there are two particularly notable alerts. The first one was a heron sighting in Hermitage Park in mid-February. Sadly, but not surprisingly, subsequent sightnings suggests that it did not make it though the winter. The second memorable alert actually consisted of a series of intermittent alerts of White-throated Sparrow sighting. Their normal wintering grounds are a few thousand kilometres south-east of here, in the southern and eastern United States along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coast. For some reason, however, every few weeks or so through the winter the odd individual was spotted in or around Edmonton. Sightings like these during the brutal central Alberta winter are extraordinary and rise many questions. Why did they stay behind? Were they lost? Did they make it through the winter? This unassuming sparrow is subtly beautiful with its black and white striped head, yellow lores (the area between the eye and the bill on the side of the head) and a white patch under its bill. It almost looked like a dolled up house sparrow. I spotted this lovely looking fellow (not sure if it a male or female) in the brush along the trail in Heritage Wetland Park in Sherwood Park.
The Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) have been back from their southern wintering grounds for quite some time now, but more and more of them seem to be appearing by the day. During my last visit at the Heritage Wetland Park in Sherwood Park their distinctive metal clanging vocalizations reverberated all over the wetland. I tried to keep a tally of their numbers but I gave up when I reached 30 and instead focused my attention on the other species that were there. While the male blackbirds were very abundant, there was a smaller number of females around as well. This was the first time I have seen female Red-winged Blackbirds. They have the same overall size and shape as the males, but none of the colours. Instead they are brown streaked and almost look like enormous sparrows. Their behaviour differs as well. While the males tend to perch on exposed high locations in the reed or on tree branches vocalizing and showing off, the females only seemed to be hanging out inside the reeds, occasionally coming out into the top level of the reeds. They seemed to check out the situation and then quickly dive back into the cover of the reeds again.
Last Sunday I went on my first bike field trip down to the Whitemud Ravine and through the river valley. It takes a bit of practice to bike, and, at the same time, be ready to bird and take pictures. Where do your keep your binoculars, camera and notebook while biking? You want this gear to be accessible yet out of your way while biking. Hanging the binoculars and camera around your neck does not work so well when on a bike. Still working on the logistics of that, but I am looking forward to doing more bike birding, or nature biking during the summer. The first critter I encountered when I arrived at the ravine was this diminutive Least Chipmunk (Neotamias minimus) scampering through the understory. He was bit apprehensive of the large critter staring at him and making weird noise (that would be me) yet too curious to just run away without checking out what the commotion was about. The Least Chipmunk is the smallest species of chipmunk and the most widespread in North America. These chipmunks are diurnal (primarily active during the daytime), which is probably a good idea considering the nearby Great Horned Owl family.
The female Great Horned Owl down at the Whitemud Ravine has now been holed up in her tree for 2 months (that’s 60 days folks). There is reliable intelligence (i.e. picture evidence) showing that her eggs now have hatched and that she has at least two adorable fuzzy chicks. I went down to check out the new family on Mother’s Day (last Sunday). It was a beautiful and sunny spring day and lots of people were out on the trails. The trail was busy with adults and kids walking and biking, dogs taking their owners for a walk and the occasional mandatory fitness buffs. I was surprised to find no other birders or photographers were at the nest site. Mom owl was in her nest, with her tail feathers sticking out. Dad owl was nowhere to be seen but the occasional hooting from inside the forest provided reassurance that he was around. I set up my gear and got to try out my new ultra-portable tripod, the JOBY GorillaPod 3K Video PRO with the Nikon P1000. As my mode of transport was my bike I did not want to pack the full sized tripod. The GorrillaPod performed commendable and had no trouble managing the hefty P1000. Of course a lone photographer with a camera pointed skyward attracts attention and it was not long before I had quite a gathering of spectators squinting against the bright sky trying to figure out what I was photographing. Everyone gets super happy and impressed when they are told about the nest with Great Horned Owl mom and her chicks. Owl mom seemed to be sleeping until an overly excited dog came running down the trail, barking and yapping like its life depended on it. Immediately a big yellow eye appeared in the nest scanning the horizon watchfully. She owl did not move a feather but her ever watchful eye was keeping close tabs on our activities below. I did not see the chicks that day, but I spend a long time at the nest taking photos, watching for the dad (which I never spotted, only heard) and talking to people about the owl family. Today’s photo was shoot through the emerging foliage. Your can see a few fuzzy green blobs of leaves bursting out after a long winter.
I have to admit there were days when I though this day would never come. The fact that the first day of spring technically was on March 20 almost seems like a cruel joke here in central Alberta. Its mid-May and it has not been until the last few days that we saw the first few green leaves bursting out. If white is the colour of winter, then the colour of budding foliage must be the colour of spring. This is not just any colour of green, it is a light, airy, fresh and rejuvenating color. Artist have a name for this particular hue of green – sap green. Some plain-air painters, in particular, prefer sap green for foliage because it is a warm, yellow green that mixes well for sunlight-infused trees.
Sun-infused objects make great subjects for photography. Today was a gorgeous sunny evening and it would have been criminal to spend it indoors. Said and done. After work I went out to Heritage Wetlands in Sherwood Park for some evening birding around the ponds. All in all, it was a great success with 23 species, including 4 lifers (indicated by *). I also managed to get a bunch of decent pictures of many of the species. After 6 weeks with the Nikon P1000 I am finally starting to feel that I am able to tame this beast of a camera.
Sherwood Park–Heritage Wetlands Park, Edmonton, Alberta, CA 13-May-2019 6:13 PM – 8:10 PM Protocol: Traveling 3.389 kilometer(s) 22 species (+1 other taxa)
Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) 2 American Wigeon (Mareca americana) 2 Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) 10 Redhead (Aythya americana) 4 Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis) 10 Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena) 3 American Coot (Fulica americana) 4 gull sp. (Larinae sp.) 1 Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) 5 * American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) 2 Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) 2 Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) 1 American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) 3 Common Raven (Corvus corax) 2 Purple Martin (Progne subis) 4 * Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) 4 Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) 2 American Robin (Turdus migratorius) 3 White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) 1 * Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) 1 Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) 30 Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) 1 * House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) 3