2019 is coming to an end tonight and so is my Alberta Big Year. It seems appropriate to reflect back on the year that has past and some of the accomplishments and memorable moments. But first, let me introduce the New Year’s jackrabbit. This not so little fella was a complete surprise. It was hiding under a juniper bush right outside my front door. I already knew that someone liked to hang out under the bush as there are always fresh tracks in the snow. This is the first time, however, I caught the culprit. What ensued was a bit of a stare-down contest. The jackrabbit was just sitting there starting at me and did not seem to want to budge. Eventually it leisurely hopped away, crossing the street without even checking for any cars.
As my 2019 AB Big Year is coming to an end my final tally is 117 species, starting with a Downy Woodpecker on January 13 at Beaverhill Bird Observatory and ending with a Black-backed Woodpecker on December 15 in the Whitemud Ravine. I was hoping to reach a higher number but technical difficulties with our vehicle effectively eliminated all out-of town excursions about half way through the year (the number of checklist submissions drops in June due to this). Because of this, most of my birding excursions over the last 6 months have been to locations within the city limits, with the most common location being the Whitemud Ravine.
Globally I saw a total of 145 species in three different countries (Canada, Chile and Argentina). The first bird of the year was a Yellow-billed Pintail (Anas georgica) in the Ancapuli Humedal (wetland) in Araucania, Chile. The highlight of my birding year was definitely my trip to Chile and Argentina where I scored 53 lifers.
I am looking forward to the new year and the birding and nature adventures it will bring. With this being post 176 there are 90 posts left of Project 366. I feel like I am on a roll and the post have become a daily ritual. As Project 366 wraps up, however, I will likely take my birding and nature walks in different directions.
The Red Squirrels are rarely far away from the trail in the Whitemud Ravine. Sunflower seeds litter the logs and stumps along the trail, much to the delight of the squirrels, chickadees and nuthatches. Clearly these animals do not consider humans threatening, on the contrary, they associate humans with food. I am not sure if this is good or bad. While feeding wildlife is typically discourage this often refers to large animals that are potentially dangerous like bears and elk in the mountain parks and geese and coyotes in city parks. What could the possible harm be in feeding squirrels and birds sunflower seeds? Edmonton has a bylaw specifically prohibiting feeding wildlife and people have been known to be ticketed in the Whitemud Ravine for feeding the wildlife (presumable for providing sunflower seeds).
The Larch Sanctuary is a 59 acre part of the Whitmud Ravine located on the south side of 23rd Avenue. The combination of coniferous, deciduous, and mixed woods forests provide habitat for dozens of species of mammals and birds, including our largest woodpecker, the pileated woodpecker. Moose, deer, coyote, fox and other small mammals find a home here. Snags provide nest sites for cavity nesting species, shoreline vegetation lines the creek forming sensitive riparian areas, and Edmonton’s only ox bow lake provides important habitat for aquatic species, amphibians, and waterfowl. An oxbow lake is a U-shaped lake that forms when a wide meander of a river is cut off, creating a free-standing body of water. This land form is so named for its distinctive curved shape, which resembles the bow pin of an oxbow. Last time I visited the ox bow lake in the Larch Sanctuary was in the summer and at that point the muskrats were having a ball swimming back and forth across the lake. At this time of the year the lake is considerable quieter, yet still very beautiful in its frozen state.
On this day a year ago I was in the southern hemisphere at the edge of the Pacific Ocean in a small seaside village called Puerto Saavedra around 38th southern parallel. As we were walking along the ocean, Red-legged Cormorants were skimming along the tips of the breaking waves on their way out towards the sea or on their way back towards the shore. The inbound cormorants disappeared behind a cliff face jutting out across the beach. We made our way towards the cliff and as we emerged on the other side of the bend the cliff face continued into the distance. The cliff face closes to us was covered in Red-legged cormorants both sitting in pairs on tiny ledges. It was a spectacular sight and completely unexpected as there did not seem to be a report that there was a cormorant colony located here. While there were a few reports Red-legged Cormorants in this area on eBird, no report had been submitted from this exact location and with this many birds. The largest reported number of individuals was 88 birds from a location several hundred meters south of our colony while the rest of the handful of reports only counted a few individuals. There must have been several hundred birds visible on the cliff and quite likely there were many more past the next bend a few hundred meters away. The Red-legged Cormorants, locally referred to as Lile, are handsome looking and quite distinct from other cormorants I have seen. They are predominantly smoky grey colored with a white patch on their neck and red feet. Wikipedia reports that it is a non-colonial seabird living in pairs or small groups while eBird reports it as “scattered individuals”. Our observation would suggest that they do indeed live in colonies (at least on occasion). It is worth mentioning that Jaramillo’s field guide to The Birds of Chile states that the Red-legged Cormorant “breeds in loose colonies on cliffs”. I am with Jaramillo on this one!
Since this was during my pre-camera days the following pictures were taken by our fellow photographing birders on this day (Thanks Patricia and Francisco).
Our eBird report for the day went as follows:
Boca Budi, Araucanía, CL
Dec 27, 2018 11:41 AM - 1:28 PM
Kelp Gull (Larus dominicanus) 4
Red-legged Cormorant (Phalacrocorax gaimardi) 300 Nesting colony on cliff face. 100 m north along the beach from Boca Budi restaurant (38*49’17’’S 73*23’57’’). Adults collecting seaweed for nest building. Many nests with visible chick and adult feeding behaviour. Estimated minimum 300 individuals on cliff gave from photo. More individuals were seen flying in and out bound beyond far cliff strongly suggesting that 300 is an underestimate. All observed individuals exhibited characteristics identification marks of the species (whitish patch on neck sides, grey upper and underparts, bright yellow bill and red legs)
Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) 2
Chimango Caracara (Milvago chimango) 2
After spending a long time admiring the cormorants it had become lunch time, so we for a bite to eat to the restaurant mentioned in the report. Recently I found out that the restaurant, which used to be perched perilously at the very edge of the sea, was claimed by the sea during the Chilean winter. I wonder what has happened to the cormorant colony. While most of the nests were well out of reach of the waves, it was evident that the pounding action of the waves was “eating away” at the base of the cliff and that the cliff was likely not very stable.
So finally I was able to take a walk on the creek. The temperature has been consistently well below the freezing point for over a month now and the Whitemud Creek is covered by a thick layer of ice. Well-traveled trails on the ice provided enough reassurance that it would be safe now to walk on the ice. Going for a walk on the creek is a different experience. First of all, since it is flat it is an easy way of travelling through the forest. No ups and downs and as a result the risk of tripping or slipping is virtually eliminated, which is a bit of an oxymoron as you are walking on ice. The trick is obviously that the ice is snow covered so one does have quite a bit of traction. Secondly, the view of the ravine is quite different from the creek than from the trails above the creek and one is able to access parts of the ravine that are difficult to access by land.
Although the winter officially begun less than a week ago (on winter Solstice on December 21) we have been in the grips of subzero temperatures for several months by now with both the Whitemud Creek and the North Saskatchewan River solidly frozen for quite some time now. On Christmas Day we took the kids sledding at the hill at the north end of the ravine. It was a beautiful sunny day with a balmy -10 °C. I decided to go up a small icy trail off the main trail. It looked like the trail had been flooded at some point in time as it now was covered in a thick expansive sheet of ice. At the end of the icy section it became apparent where the water came from…, well sort of. There was a black rivulet of water flowing down the slope our of the forest and as it made its way down the slope it dovetailed with sheet of ice covering the trail. It was a very peculiar sight to see water flowing when all other bodies of water have been frozen solid for months. The snow had melted where the rivulet came down and judging from the thickness and extent of the ice sheet the rivulet must have been there for quite some time. For the water to remain in a liquid state while it was coming down the slope can only mean that it must be quite warm at the source. The obvious question is, however, where is the water coming from? Is it discharge from a human-made source higher up in the forest? Is it a warm spring? Unlikely, but possible. I did not have time to follow the rivulet upstream this time around. Perhaps next time.
What would be more fitting on Christmas Day than a cute little Downy Woodpecker that was enjoying the sunshine today down in Whitemud Ravine. Downy woodpeckers are the smallest of North America’s woodpeckers and other than being smaller are virtually identical to the Hairy Woodpecker. Despite their similarities the two species are actually not very closely related and belong to two different genus. While the reasons for their nearly identical plumage is not fully understood, studies have shown that their similar appearance is an example of convergent evolution.
A stubble field is a type of agricultural crop residue consisting of the cut stems after the crop has been harvested. Usually the stems are ploughed directly in to the ground in springtime. Stubble fields serve many functions, including nutrients recycling as the stems compost and fertilize the field as well as providing erosion control due to wind and water. Wildlife also benefit from stubble fields as the fields provide shelter and food to various animals, including birds.
On this day last year – December 23, 2018 – I landed in Araucanía lacustre, Chile. It was my first trip abroad as a birder and I was super excited about many things, but in particular the prospects of birding in the Southern Hemisphere. It was my first visit in Chile, the first time back in South America in about 40 years and the first time back in the Southern Hemisphere in about two decades. I was travelling light carrying only a single carry-on bag. These were pre-camera days, so in terms of birding gear all I had was my Nikon Monarchs and Alvaro Jaramillo’s Birds of Chile. After a layover in Cancun and an overnight layover in Santiago the last leg of my journey took me to Araucanía lacustre, about 800 km south of Santiago known for its lakes and volcanoes. My final destination was the country side close to the small town Villarica situated at the foot of a snow-covered and smoking volcano.
On my first day in and around Villarica I saw eight new species. Over the next three weeks in the Austral summer I would see a total of 53 species of birds in an unforgettable adventure.
It was the first hunt of the year for the Snowy Owls of the Ray Gibbon Drive in St. Albert. It was a beautiful winter’s day with the sun beaming down from a clear blue sky and the temperature in the single digits below freezing point. As we were scanning the fields and wood lots at the outskirts of St. Albert I noticed that the stubble fields and the branches of trees and shrubs seemed whiter than usual and were glistening and sparkling as the rays of the sun hit them. A closer inspection revealed that they were covered in a delicate layer of ice crystals, ever so fragile and ephemeral. Only later did I learn that when ice crystals are formed on exposed objects, such as wires, branches or leaves it is called hoarfrost. The conditions under which hoarfrost is formed are rather specific. Hoarfrost ice crystals are formed on exposed objects by condensation of water vapor to ice at temperatures below freezing and occurs when air is brought to its frost point by cooling. Hoarfrost is formed by a process analogous to that by which dew is formed on similar objects, except that, in the case of dew, the saturation point of the air mass is above freezing. The occurrence of temperatures below 0° C is not enough to guarantee the formation of hoarfrost. Additionally, the air must be initially damp enough so that when cooled it reaches saturation, and any additional cooling will cause condensation to occur. In the end, we never found any Snowy Owls today, but the beautiful weather and the unique hoarfrost created a winter wonderland fitting for the coming holiday season.