For the Global Big Day of Birding on May 4 we joined the Edmonton Nature Club tour of central Alberta, an all day marathon of birding. There is an excellent field trip report written up by field trip leader and I doubt I would do a better job at summarizing the day. I particularly like how she refers to the participants as “citizen scientists”. As it turns out, bird observations checklists submitted to eBird are being used in research and conservation efforts providing information about species range, timing of migration and estimation of population sizes and trends. So there you have it. It all started with trying to get out into nature more, then it morphed into birdwatching, birding and photography and now I am contributing to science. Who knows where this adventure will end up taking me.
A Big Day field trip is all about quantity and big numbers. We ended up driving almost 600 km and managed to see 80 different species of birds, of which 40 were lifers. For beginner birders like us this is an incredible learning opportunity. Yes, you are thrown in at the deep end and sometimes you sink. For example when seemingly everyone is awestruck by a bird in their binoculars while we cannot even find what they are looking at (happened several times). Yet others times you can say you saw a lifer, but you know that you would never be able to find it on your own, never mind identify it again. But you get to count it. On a Big Day everything happens at a hectic pace compared to the regular slow meandering nature walks I am used to. You do not get to spend much time with any of the birds or taking photographs because time watching one bird, is time lost scoring another bird. For us, it was about learning to identify new species, learning from the pros and scouting new birding locations for future field trips. We had lots of fun and we will definately be returning to many of the locations we visited during this tour de force of central Alberta.
Our planed itinerary was jam packed with lots of car birding and with the occasional short walk.
The Lyseng Reservoir was tucked in among stubble fields and Hutterite colonies and had an impressive diversity of water fowl and shore birds. Many of our lifers were found here.
One of the highlights were definitely the Sandhills Cranes. We encountered several large flocks grazing in the stubble fields. It was difficult to photograph them however as they very quite skittish. As soon as we stopped and got out of the car they started walking away from us although we were still quite a distance away.
All in all it was a fun day, with lots of Birding action and supere productive in terms of seeing new species. I did not get an opportunity to photograph much as things just happened too fast and we never spend much time in one location before moving on.
The alarm clock went of the next morning in the middle of the night at 3:45. At 4:30am we rolled in at the dimly lit Canadian Tires parking lot to meet up with our tour guide and the rest of the grouse afictionados. We were 8 people and our guide Randy, a local born, raised and well-aged Wainwrightian. Once everyone had arrived the convoy rolled out into the empty streets of Wainwright. A few minutes later we left the last outpost of civilization behind us as we took a narrow road heading dead south across the Canadian Forces Base. We traveled at high speeds down desolated country roads, enveloped by the impenetrable black night. Occasionally an animal scurried across the road. It was like a scene out of a movie – surreal, secretive and very exciting. About half an hour later, as the first rays of light started to creep across the horizon, the lead car slowed down and pulled off on to a non-existing path in the tall brush. We drove slowly a few hundred meters across the field until we were out of sight from the main road. After parking and regrouping Randy gave us the low-down on the viewing protocol: enter the blinds quietly and quickly, stay in the blinds during the entire viewing period, use bathrooms before entering the blind, keep the location to yourself and stay warm. It was definately chilly with the vegetation covered in frost, so that last advice could be a challenge.
It was only a few minutes walk over the crest of a low hill to get to the the blinds. As soon as we had cleared the hill the blinds came into view and we realized that the party already was in full swing. Three small box shaped blinds were lined up on the field. In front of the blinds there were already several dozen grouse moving around and making squeaking and cooing sounds. As we approached most of the grouse flew off, but surprisingly enough not all of them. Perhaps they were used to the drill. The blinds were small and only had sitting room on wooden benches. We crammed ourselves and all our gear into one of the blinds and closed the hatch. The blinds had cutouts on the front for viewing and for poking the camera lenses out. With four adults and camera gear in the blind it was cosy to say the least and the only wiggle room was whatever room your toes head in the boots.
We counted a total of 35 Sharp-tailed Grouse on the field in front of the blinds, some right outside the blind and up a radius of about 30 meters from where we were sitting. The display grounds, called a lek, were covered by short native grass that looked like it had been grazed. The large turds on the dance floor suggested that cattle could be grazing here. The lek was surrounded by taller grass and shrub that could provide cover for the grouse if a predator would show up and crash the party.
As we settled in we soon realized that the there was a definitive rhythm to the display. Periods of display was intermittently punctuated with everyone stopping and freezing. It resembled musical chairs, where individuals get eliminated as the game progresses. Instead of competing for chairs, however, the male grouse are competing for the attention of females. It was not clear which individuals paired up. All the males looked great to us and the females were strolling around with a sort of indifferently dignified coolness. We did not see any mating taking place in the lek so there might be a separate location for the hanky-panky, perhaps in the tall brush surrounding the lek.
Occasionally a dance-off between two males results in a physical altercation where the males lunged towards each other clashing midair. The males are trying to establish dominance of the lek by intimidating other males and I guess sometimes you just got to roll up your sleeves and get the job done.
The males have bushy yellow eyebrows making them look like real macho grouse that mean serious business.
It’s easy to tell the difference between the males and the females. Females are more plain looking and lack the bushy yellow eye brows and the purple patch on their throat. Also, contrary to most humans, the females do not dance. They just hang out on the lek observing the males. The females are looking for a male that can hold the dominant position within the lek. The male that can pull off that feat is likely going to be a toughest bird in the bunch.
It is obvious where the Sharp-tailed Grouse gets its name from – from the sharp pointy tail that they rattle as they dance.
The males’ lekking behaviour involves spreading out their wings, stomping their feet rapidly and forcefully, and rattling their tail feathers while moving around in circles. Males do this tail-rattling in synchrony with each other in between periods when they stop and pose for the females and size each other up.
After about two hours, around 7am, things had slowed down substantially. Most of the females had left by this time leaving mostly males in the lek area. Perhaps not surprisingly, once the females had left, the males stopped displaying and were just passively sitting on the field. Randy informed us that these are traditional lekking grounds. The grouse return to the same lek location each year. With a radius of only about 20-30 metres we were trying to figure out what made this lek location special. After all, on a big open field, what makes one location any different from another one? From a human perspective, there does not seem to be anything unique about the location the grouse have chosen for their lek. Maybe one has to think like a grouse to fully understand the significance of the location.
After the tour we went to the The Two Old Men at the Wainwright train station for a well-deserved breakfast with Randy. Perhaps not surprisingly, the place was run by…, two old men.
The Sharp-tailed Grouse was Lifer: #150 and AB Big Year: #101. It was an awesome experience and the icing on the cake on our Global Big Day tour the previous day. The grouse lek season is coming to an end in the next few weeks, but we are already planing to go and view them next year again. In the meantime I leave you with this video clip of the action from last Saturday.
The good great news is that yesterday, on May 4th, it was the Global Big Day of Birding. As it turned out, The Force was with us and the Big Day of Birding became the Big Weekend of Birding. It all started off with a whirlwind birding tour of central Alberta with the Edmonton Nature Club, followed up with an predawn Sharp-tailed Grouse Tour with the Wainwright Wildlife Society and wrapped up with a mellow and quick tour of the pelicans of Sherwood Park. There will be separate blog posts about these adventures in the close future. The not so good news (it does not really qualify as bad news as it is sort of a good problem to have I guess) is that once I came home I quickly realised that I did not have a device capable of importing, processing and uploading all the images and videos from the weekend’s adventures. All in all the weekend netted 500+ images and video clips with a combined size of about 15 GB. It is painfully obvious that my current workflow for processing images and video clips, which is the same one I used when my cell phone was my “camera”, is completely inadequate to deal with the volume of images I am creating with the Nikon P1000. As it stands now, I cannot even access the images from this weekend as I first need to backup exiting images (which will likely take several days), create space on a suitable device by deleting old photos and then hopefully be able to start working with the new photos and videos. Oh, and I should probably also overhaul my workflow for processing photos and videos after a day of shooting, but that is an entire different story. As a result, the only new image available today is this teaser photo from inside the blind at the grouse tour, yes that is a female Sharp-tailed grouse that is being recorded as she is checking out the boys strutting their stuff. Consider this photo just a preview of things to come in the next little while, once I get my photos in shipshape.
Over the last few weeks we have been searching high and low for the elusive Snow Goose. These geese breed and raise their chicks in the high arctic tundra during the summer and spend the winters in continental U.S.A. and Mexico, a migration of up to 5000 km. During their migration they fly at high altitudes in very large flocks (in the tens of thousands). Between the spring and fall migration they spend about 6 months a year on the “road”, travelling between their winter and summer habitats. During their migration they have several layovers to rest and refuel. One of these pit stops takes place East of Edmonton around the Beaverhill Natural Area. When the reports a few weeks back started rolling in of flocks with large numbers of Snow Geese being spotted, the chase was on.
The graphics below shows eBird reported sightings of Snow Geese in the Edmonton area over the last year. This screenshot was made mid-April (black vertical line indicates the date) and evidently the geese hang out in our area all throughout May before continuing on their north-bound migration at the end of May and beginning of June. The good news here is that we still have opportunities to see them during this migration before they leave. The next time they will be in our vicinity is between September to November when they are heading south to their overwintering grounds.
The map below shows the reported Snow Geese sightings around Beaverhill Lake in April this year, so basically roughly over the last three weeks. The location indicated by the arrow is where we found them. In our quest to find the Snow Geese we covered several hundred kilometres of dusty back roads in this area during three separate field trips. We visited most of the location where they have been reported this month. It appears, however, that the geese are quite mobile. While we saw lots of other birds (e.g. Canada Goose, Cackling Goose, Mallard, Northern Pintail, Northern Harrier, Rough-legged Hawk, Black-billed Magpie, European Starling, Ring-billed Gull, American Crow, Black-capped Chickadee), we never managed to catch the Snow Geese in any of the previously reported locations. In the end, once we had basically given up and started to head home, we stumbled across them at a location where they had not previously been reported at perhaps the most unlikely of places, a small lake at this side of a busy highway.
The map below is the GPS track of our last field trip looking for the geese. The “blip” on the track between the two highway markers on the south side of the map is where we found the geese in the end.
A short video clip of the Snow Geese taking off from the lake. I am, not sure what made them decide to leave. It could have been our presence, but I doubt it as we were quite some distance away hiding behind the reeds. The video was shoot From a large distance at a high-zoom magnification with our Nikon P1000. It is more likely that the large flock of geese flying overhead might have enticed the geese on the lake to take off and join them in their search of another lake in the area.
Picture below shows a “cloud” of Snow Geese in the background. The birds taking off in the foreground are Canada Geese. The Snow Geese cloud extended across much of the horizon as it was rapidly moving away from us. I am still struggling with wrapping my head around how to best estimate the number of individuals in massive flocks like this. There are techniques described online for estimating population numbers in airborne flocks by visually breaking the flock into units of 10, or 100, or 1000, and then estimate the number of “units” within the flock (see for example the following link). I cannot see how one can do this successfully (= accurately) “on the fly” in the spur of the moment. If one can take a good quality photograph or video of the entire flock then one can analyze the images or video back at home and perhaps get a more accurate estimate. It would be interesting to try this out next time we see them (or any other large flock of birds).
I tried to find out if the lake has a name, but it appears it does not. There are thousands of small pothole lakes in their area so I assume most of them remain un-named.
The Snow Goose is species 49 on our Alberta Big Year List and species 101 on my Life List. Unbeknown to us at the time, our 100th species was a Northern Harrier which was a “collateral” find during our quest for the Snow Goose. It was not until we came home and recorded our sightings that we realized the significance of the Northern Harrier sighting. And we did not even get a picture of it. I guess we will just have to keep better track of our tally to make sure we get a picture of the next milestone – The Big 200. That’s quite some ways down the road though.
Not all nature walks go as planed. While part of the excitement of heading out into the wild is that you never knows what you will see, sometimes unexpected events arise due to human errors (or human stupidity). During three recent nature walks things did not unfold as planed due to human (= my) mistakes. Here are these recent fails and the lessons I learned from them. A word of warning; there is some graphical content below. If you are squeamish at the sight of blood you might want to stop here and avoid scrolling past this point.
A few weeks ago I went birding in the Whitemud Ravine. It was a mild day and the trails were icy after several weeks of thaw-freeze cycles. Shortly after leaving the car I realized I had forgot my finger gloves in the car. As it was not cold I decided to forgo the gloves. I often veer of the beaten trail in favour of “off-roading” through the understory and along riparian vegetation. This time was no different. As I was descending a trail-less and particularly steep and icy section, I lost my footing, slammed into the ground and went sliding down the icy and muddy slope on my back. As my arms were flailing trying to grab hold of something to arrest my fall, I grabbed a thin tree trunk that ended up cut the palm of my hand. I always use gloves when I am out, both to keep fingers warm and for protection. As irony has it, the one time I did not bring gloves I ended up with a bad cut on my hand. I also did not bring a first aid kit so I had to seek medical attention from the ski patrol at a nearby ski hill. The least enjoyable part of the experience was when they had to dig out pieces of bark stuck in the gash. Take home message – always bring (wear) gloves and bring a small first aid kit! Oh, I and I should also get traction devices.
It was 6 am on a Sunday morning and I had decided to head out to Elk Island National Park to watch bison at the sunrise. It was a cold winter morning and, as expected, very quiet and tranquile at Elk Island. Once I arrived at the Bison Loop and started to assemble my gear I realized that I had forgotten my gloves (again) and my toque, and my sweater. While hiking around kept me somewhat warm, anytime I stopped and tried to use the camera or binoculars my fingers rapidly froze and became useless appendages. Take home message – always being warm clothes, gloves and a toque! It can be surprisingly chilly early in the morning (even in the summer) and when watching or photographing wildlife one often stands (or sits) still for long periods of time.
The following weekend I tried the Elk Island National Park at sunrise field trip again. By now I had been labelled a complete loonie by the rest of the family…, but the birds are calling…, so I got to go. It was a beautiful morning. The sky was clear and the sun was rising. What could possibly go wrong? I triple checked that I had packed my gloves, warm clothes and a small first aid kit. Finding myself at the Bison Loop again, getting myself ready to head out…, to my horror I realize that I forgot to bring the binoculars. I can suck up physical injury, blood, pain and suffering but to go wildlife watching and birding without your binoculars…, that is unheard of. It’s unforgivable. Fortunately I had my Nikon P1000 with me so it had to serve as a binocular substitute, a job it does not do very well. Take home message – do not forget the binoculars!
These are too many fails in too short of a time. Getting out into nature is supposed to reduce stress, not increase or cause stress. Time to reboot my brain, pull up my socks and get seriously organized. It is not like I am trying to land one the moon. It’s just a nature walk for Pete’s sake.
So it looks like spring is in the air. I would not dare to claim that spring has arrived. It’s in the air, like the smell of something yummy simmering and tempting us of greater things to come. The deep freeze has finally relented and we are back at more seasonal temperatures.
One of my recent “resolutions” is to get out into Nature more often. Now, “more often” is unacceptably vague. It’s like saying, “I will loose some weight”. Anyone into fitness and weight loss would tell you that “loosing some weight” just does not cut it. It needs to be specific. So, lets quantify what spending more time in Nature means to me. My aim is (currently) to head out into Nature at least twice a week, once during the work-week and a second time, for a longer outing, during the weekend. I have been doing well over the last few weeks, often going birding several times during the week and weekend. Undoubtedly the milder weather and the brighter evenings make it easier and more appealing to head out.
During a walk earlier this week at Whitemud Creek we tested our new camera, a Canon SX70 HS. My son managed to get a nice picture of a Black-capped Chickadee, something I found notoriously difficult as these tiny feathered bundles seem to be in constant motion. I did however manage to get a shot of a Southern Red-backed Vole peeking out of a tunnel in the snow trying to grab a sunflower seed. Southern Red-backed Voles are active throughout the winter and spend their time under the snow-pack in the subnivean zone. Here they enjoy protection from the elements and construct long tunnels as travel corridors. These forest dwelling voles are short-lived, with a maximum life-span of about one year, and depend on coniferous, deciduous and mixed forests.
May the curiosity be with you. This is from “The Birds are Calling” blog (www.thebirdsarecalling).
Today’s excursion, first one in March, happened to coincide with the World Wildlife Day (March 3). It was a beautiful sunny winter day with temperatures reaching a “balmy” -15 °C (-19 °C with the wind chill). Living in sub -30 °C range for a month changes one’s perspective on what constitutes cold weather. Anyone not having lived through these extreme temperatures for any length of time would likely and perhaps rightfully consider us a bit “nuts”. It is remarkable, however, that no matter how cold it gets, the birds are always out and active; with the exception of the owls, which just seem to “chill” (pun intended). Perhaps extremely low temperatures require birds to keep foraging in order to stay warm and to maintain their metabolism throughout the night.
Today we went for a 4 km walk along the Whitemud Creek Ravine (south of Snow Valley this time), our local winter bird hotspot. While we did not break any birding records it was well worth spending some time outside with the usual suspects; the Black-capped Chickadees demanding sunflower seeds, a Pileated Woodpecker going to town on an old tree, a very energetic Downy Woodpecker making a racket that seemed entirely disproportionate to its diminutive size, a Raven soaring silently overhead and a White-breasted Nuthatch snatching a sunflower seed before the chickadees found it. Lots of Red Squirrels were out as well looking for a morsel to eat.
The eBird record for today’s excursion:
Edmonton--Whitemud Creek, S of Snowvalley, Edmonton, Alberta, CA 3-Mar-2019 12:04 PM - 1:33 PM Protocol: Traveling 3.976 kilometer(s) Comments: Beautiful sunny winter day, -15C (-19C with wind chill). 5 species
As of end of February we have seen 40 species of birds in Alberta. While the winter may be a slow time for birding, the final count for the greater Edmonton area winter bird count was finalised by the Edmonton Nature Club on March 1. Between December and February total of 91 species of birds were observed in a 160 km diameter circle centred on Edmonton (West/east boundaries are roughly Seba Beach and Ryley and the north/south boundaries are roughly Westlock and Wetaskiwin). This is the highest number of species observe since the count started 7 years ago. This year there were several notable additions (e.g. Eared Grebe, Great Blue Heron, Hermit Thrush and Brewer’s Blackbird). A total of 119 species were observed over the last 7 years. This just shows that, despite the long harsh winter, there is a remarkably large number of species present in and around Edmonton during this time of year.
Although we have had a somewhat slow start to our AB Big Year, most of these species will be present throughout the year giving us opportunities to bag them later. Some species, however, only occurs in the Edmonton area during the winter, for example Snowy Owls (which we did see a few weeks ago), Snow Bunting (not seen), Common Redpoll (seen), Hoary Redpoll (not seen), Pine Grosbeak (not seen), Brown Creeper (seen) and Northern Shrike (not seen) just to mention a few. Since we are “lucky enough” to have winter weather for more-or-less half the year (Oct to March on a typical year), we still have a few weeks to track down these winter visitors.
I find myself still thinking of the poor Great Blue Heron that was found in Hermitage Park at the beginning of February (during the extreme cold spell). There was a discussion thread on the Edmonton Nature Club’s bulletin board that tracked the heron’s deteriorating condition and then it just vanished. It appears that this individual was at the wrong place at the wrong time of the year and it is unlikely this story had a happy ending. While many species seem to do well in our harsh winter environment, there is a fine line between survival and death when environmental conditions are at their extreme.
Here is the complete list by Edmonton Nature Club of species seen during the winter count 2018/19 in the greater Edmonton area:
Great Blue Heron
Great Horned Owl
Great Gray Owl
Northern Saw-whet Owl
Northern Hawk Owl
American Three-toed Woodpecker
American Tree Sparrow
May the curiosity be with you. This is from “The Birds are Calling” blog (www.thebirdsarecalling).