Category Archives: Field Trip

World Wildlife Day birding

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.

A Red Squirrel taking advantage of the sunflower handouts. Picture by Vero M.
After accosting us for sunflower seeds, this Black-capped chickadee got its demands met. Picture by Vero M.

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

Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens)  1
Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)  1
Common Raven (Corvus corax)  1
Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)  10
White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)  1

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.

Number of check lists reporting Snowy Owl sightings in the Edmonton area over the last five years by time of year clearly showing that Snowy Owl sightings only occur between November and March.

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:

  • Trumpeter Swan
  • Tundra Swan
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Red-necked Grebe
  • Western Grebe
  • Horned Grebe
  • Eared Grebe
  • Canada Goose  
  • Mallard
  • Gadwall
  • Northern Pintail
  • American Wigeon
  • Green-winged Teal
  • Canvasback
  • Redhead
  • Ring-necked Duck
  • Greater Scaup
  • Lesser Scaup
  • Common Goldeneye
  • Barrows Goldeneye
  • Bufflehead
  • Hooded Merganser
  • Common Merganser
  • Red-breasted Merganser
  • Ruddy Duck
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk
  • Cooper’s Hawk
  • Northern Goshawk
  • Rough-legged Hawk
  • Golden Eagle
  • Bald Eagle
  • Merlin
  • Prairie Falcon
  • Gyrfalcon
  • Peregrine Falcon
  • Gray Partridge
  • Ring-necked Pheasant
  • Ruffed Grouse
  • American Coot
  • Eurasian-Collared Dove
  • Rock Pigeon
  • Great Horned Owl
  • Snowy Owl
  • Great Gray Owl
  • Barred Owl
  • Northern Saw-whet Owl
  • Northern Hawk Owl
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Hairy Woodpecker
  • American Three-toed Woodpecker
  • Black-backed Woodpecker
  • Northern  Flicker
  • Pileated Woodpecker
  • Northern Shrike
  • Blue Jay
  • Canada Jay
  • Black-billed Magpie
  • Common Raven
  • American Crow
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • Boreal Chickadee
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Brown Creeper
  • Golden-crowned Kinglet
  • Townsend’s Solitaire
  • Hermit Thrush
  • Varied Thrush
  • American Robin
  • European Starling
  • Bohemian Waxwing
  • Cedar Waxwing
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Northern Cardinal
  • American Tree Sparrow
  • White-throated Sparrow
  • Song Sparrow
  • Dark-eyed Junco
  • Snow Bunting
  • Common Grackle
  • Evening Grosbeak
  • Pine Grosbeak
  • Brewer’s Blackbird
  • House Finch
  • Red Crossbill
  • White-winged Crossbill
  • Common Redpoll
  • Hoary Redpoll
  • Pine Siskin
  • American Goldfinch
  • House Sparrow

May the curiosity be with you. This is from “The Birds are Calling” blog (www.thebirdsarecalling).

Owling in the Frozen Wilds

This year’s Family Day weekend coincided with the Great Backyard Bird Count so obviously this called for heading out into the wild for some birding with family and friends. For the past three weeks, however, Alberta has been under, what appears to be, an unbreakable cold spell. The normal seasonal temperature this time of year in Edmonton is around -10 °C, but all through February temperatures have hovered around -30 °C…, and that is without taking the windchill into account. With the windchill, night temperatures have dropped down to between -30 °C to -40 °C. Needless to say, birding has been put on the back burner during this cold spell.

The current cold snap is almost in on its third week. The wind chills often push the temperature down another 10 °C to 15 °C.

After three weeks of increasing cabin fever, it was decided, it was time to brave the deep freeze and head out in the frozen wilds. We ended up doing two excursions over the weekend, one to Ray Gibbon Drive in St. Albert in search of our first Snowy Owl and a second to the Whitemud Creek for some general winter bird awesomeness.

Ray Gibbon Drive is a major thoroughfare with lots of traffic and I would have never expected for such a large owl to be hanging out in plain daylight in such a busy and mundane location. We had, however, received reliable intel from a fellow birder that Snowy Owls can often be seen perching on the light and utility poles along the road. So it was with anticipation and mounting excitement we headed north to Ray Gibbon Drive on Sunday. The heavy traffic and the lack of shoulders do not allow a car to stop so our strategy was simple. Drive as slowly as possible, but not so slow that drivers behind us would lose their cool (which would be indicated by honking and visible fists in our rear mirrors)…, while systematically scanning the roadside for owls. We figured that at a slow enough speed and with three pairs of eyeballs it would be difficult for an owl to go unnoticed. If we did not spot an owl on the first pass, we would drive to the end of the road, turn around and do another pass…, and repeat as long as necessary. As it turned out, luck was on our side. On our first pass, we spotted a large “poofy” organic-looking mass on the cross arm of a wooden utility pole. We decided to try to get a better view, so we pulled off the main road, parked at a gravel road and ventured into the Grey Nuns Spruce Woodlot. The good news is that after a bit of a hike we were able to get a clear view of the owl from a distance. The not so good news is that the cold got the better of us and we had to cut the birding short and as we do not have a camera yet we were not able to get a picture of the owl. The specimen was a large white snowy owl that looked completely at ease on its perch, despite the heavy traffic close by.

This sighting is special for us. Not only is it a lifer for all three of us but it is also our very first owl! One cannot help but be in awe of such a magnificent bird on a blisteringly cold winter day such as this, particularly when you consider that they migrate south to Edmonton to overwinter.

Reported Snowy Owl sightings along Ray Gibbon Dr between December 2018 and February 2019. Yup – the owls are definitely there!

The following day we ventured to Whitemud Creek. Over 150 species of birds have been identified along this creek, making it somewhat of a birding hotspot due to the riparian habitat and abundance of old growth forest with dead standing trees. Despite the biting cold we saw all the regular inhabitants of the area, from the bold and chatty Black-capped Chickadees demanding sunflower seeds, the odd White-breasted Nuthatch to a timid Downy Woodpecker and a splendid Pileated Woodpecker that could not care less about us ogling him as he was working away on a tree stump with such ferocity woodchips were whirling around him like there was no tomorrow. The highlight, however, was undoubtedly the Great Horned Owl pair we found, with the female snuggled up in a large cavity in a dead tree and the male hiding among the low-level branches of a nearby spruce tree. The pair, silent and perfectly camouflaged blended in with the bark of the trees. How did we find them? We just followed the throng of primates carrying cameras with large telephoto lenses. It turns out that the owl pair is a bit of celebrity for people that regularly visit the creek.

Female Great Horned Owl in her abode. Image: Patricia S.
Male Great Horned Owl, presumably the partner of the female in a nearby tree. Image: Patricia S.

All in all, the weekend’s birding did not become memorable for the sheer number of species but rather for the two iconic and majestic owls that both were lifers as well as our first two owl species. With the addition of these two owls, our Alberta Big Year tally is now at 40 species. Here is the full tally of our sightings for these two days.

St. Albert--Ray Gibbon (Riel East Pond), Edmonton, Alberta, CA
Feb 17, 2019 4:48 PM - 5:33 PM
Protocol: Stationary
1 species

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)  1     Large individual sitting on top of a wooden power post with feathers fluffed and just chilling. Beautiful sunny day, -17C, slight breeze and -24C with the windchill. 
Edmonton--Whitemud Park, Edmonton, Alberta, CA
Feb 18, 2019 1:00 PM - 2:30 PM
Protocol: Traveling
3.0 kilometer(s)
Comments:     Beautiful sunny winter day, -14C (-20C with windchill). 
7 species

Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)  2
Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens)  1
Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)  1
Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus)  2
Common Raven (Corvus corax)  1
Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)  40
White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)  4

May the curiosity be with you. This is from “The Birds are Calling” blog (www.thebirdsarecalling).