The last birding outing of the year was to the same location as the first one 365 days ago, at the Whitemud Creek. As far as birding goes 2020 certainly did not break any personal records due to the severely curtailed travel. The furthest I ventured were to our local patch of the Rocky Mountains, which of-course never disappoints in their magnificent awesomeness.
During my last birding walk of the year I encountered the usual winter suspects in these neck of the woods. A curious White-breasted Nuthatch was posing for pictures an armlength away, or maybe it was just waiting to see if I would offer it a snack (I did not). In the same patch of trees a pair of female Pine Grosbeaks were nibbling on frozen berries and some sunflowers seeds someone left.
After my walk, as I was getting into the car, I could hear the unmistakable call of a lone Pileated Woodpecker in the distance. It was almost as if it said good bye to me and to 2020. I paused and held out for a minute, just in case it would make an appearance, but I never saw it or heard it again. There is another day tomorrow and, following birding tradition, the first bird spotted on New Year’s Day is an omen for the year to come.
Edmonton--Whitemud Park, Edmonton, Alberta, CA Dec 31, 2020 2:30 PM - 3:45 PM Protocol: Traveling 3.231 kilometer(s) 6 species
Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) 1 Lone female Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) 1 Calling in the forest. No visual. Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) 1 Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) 10 White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) 4 Pine Grosbeak (Pinicola enucleator) 2
Yesterday was winter solstice which means that in our Northern Hemisphere it was our shortest day (7 hrs 27 min 41 sec) of the year and last night was the longest night of the year (16 hrs 32 min 19 sec). Today the day was already a modest 6 seconds longer than yesterday. It is curious that although the tide has turned and the light is returning, yesterday was actually the first day of winter. Now we have four months ahead of us of a winter wonderland with every day being ever so slightly longer until the sun greets us on the first day of spring on March 20.
After a long birding hiatus the indoor isolation of these crazy times finally caught up with me. On a whim, I took a few hours off in the afternoon and headed down to the Whitemud Creek, for the first time in seven months.
The usual suspects greeted me along the trail – Black-capped Chickadees, Nuthatches, Magpies and Red Squirrels. But as luck would have it there was something else in store on this day. Further along the trail, high up in a tree, I was able to discern three plump shadow hoping around on the bare branches. With the bright sky as backdrop it was tricky to make out any identifying characteristics, but it was soon evident that this was a new one. While I was ogling the suspects two other birders arrived. They too were stumped by the unidentified flying objects. I always though it would take more than a wee bit of courage for birders to admit to each other that they have no clue what bird they are looking at. But here we were, the three of us staring at these three plump silhouettes and all we were able to agree on was what it could not be. To small for waxwings or robins, too large and plump to be red polls or any other common finch. After going back and forth one of us managed to find a possible match using Merlin…, Pine Grosbeaks. It immediately dawn on me – here I am birding for the first time in seven months and I spot a lifer. More specifically #167. Later on as I was looking at my stats in eBird I realized that the previous lifer was on December 15 (one year and one day ago) at the same spot, along Whitemud Creek (a Black-backed Woodpecker).
Perhaps by coincident or perhaps through some sort of subconscious decision today, December 16, also turned out to be the two year anniversary of me starting birding. Exactly two years ago I brought my newly acquired Nikon Monarchs to my first birdingouting to the Beaver Hills Bird Observatory. It was a snowy and cold day, just like today. That was 185 checklists and 167 species ago. That day I racked up my first eight lifers.
Was the Pine Grosbeak’s auspicious timing a sign that it is time to pickup the binocular and camera again and head back into the green? Is it a sign that the time is ripe to get back to this blog. Maybe. The world has changed in the past seven months. I used to always looked forward to and plan grand trips to far-off destination, binoculars and camera in hand, hunting for new birds. These days, working from home and limiting even local outing, travel is out of the question and all these plans and dreams seem out of reach. The first big trip I did as a birder was to Chile and Argentina. The birds of southern South America blew me away (and this part of the continent is not even know for its bird diversity) and before I even returned to Canadian soil, the next trip to South America was already confirmed. We would have arrived in Chile this week…, of-course none of that happened and who knows when we can dare to dream about trips like that again.
I leave you with a snapshot from a rainy and grey day in Southern Chile. Its the day we managed to finally track down the glorious Torrent Duck. Yes, it was rainy, grey, one of us was suffering from Montezuma’s Revenge and the Torrent Ducks were tiny specks in the far distance…, yet it was one of the birding highlights of the trip. I can wait returning to the land of the Torrent Duck.
The trunk of the dead tree looks unassuming. It had withered to a light grey color and there were numerous large cavities along the trunk. If it would not have been for The Pileated Woodpecker landing on the trunk and entering one of the cavities just moments before I would have never noticed the dead tree. I was at the banks of the Whitemud Creek, at a location where I have seen beavers many times in the past. No beavers this time though. Only that Pileated Woodpecker. I waited for a long time, hoping it would come out or at least stick its head out to have a peek. It never came out. I will be returning with my camera, a tripod, a stool and some snacks for a Pileated Woodpeckers stakeout. I have seen many Pileated Woodpeckers over the last year, but I have yet to capture a good picture of one. They are large and conspicuous, but remarkably hard to photograph as they never seem to stay in the same spot for long.
It has been a few weeks since I visited the Whitemud Ravine last. Despite the early sunset and the dusk-like conditions I managed to squeeze in a short walk by the creek. Things were quiet and uneventful. The water level is low and the flow is slow and quaint. I was hoping to spot some beavers but alas had no luck. On the bright side as I was scanning the creek for furry little heads breaking through the water surface the unmistakable call of Pileated Woodpeckers caught my attention. Pileated Woodpeckers are easy to hear but can be tricky to spot. Not this time, an adult came swooping out from the dense forest and and landed on a dead tree trunk, right next to a large oval cavity. Next thing you know it goes inside. That is a first for me, a Pileated Woodpecker nest. I hang around for a while with the camera loaded and ready but the fella never came out. I will definitely be keeping an eye on the cavity in the future to see if I can get some pictures of its inhabitants. Pileated Woodpeckers stay in Alberta year round so chances are that this cavity will be used by them during the winter.
According to the Beaufort Scale for measuring the strength of wind the wind gusts on this day were at around Beaufort number 6, which is defined as a strong breeze with large branches in motion and umbrellas used with difficulty. I did not have an umbrella to check if it would be possible to use it, but there was plenty of reed that was being whipped back and forth by the gusts. Talking about “large numbers”, this is post number 200. 166 left to go. I thought this would be a marathon, but I was mistaken. I passed the “marathon threshold” a long time ago. This is more like a Forest Gump-style ultra marathon.
Today’s post is brought to you from Heritage Wetland park. Along the boardwalk going around the ponds there are informational displays for visitors. One of these displays is about the flight feathers of mallards. So I will let the anonymous writer of this display to do the talking today.
If summer seems short to you, be glad you’re not a mallard duck. They’re already preparing for fall by July. Males leave the open prairie breeding grounds and move to sheltered wetlands with lots of shoreline plants. They need to hide while they grow new flight feathers, and fatten up on insects before migration.
Now that the leaves are gone one can see them. Large conspicuous stick nests high up in the tree crowns all along the trails down by the North Saskatchewan river. When the trees had leaves the nests were, despite their size, almost impossible to spot. Now, with the leaves gone, one would be hard pressed to miss the nests. The nests are empty as their tenants have moved on on their southward migrations. Who build and occupied these nests? Judging from the size it was likely a larger species, perhaps a corvid such as crows, ravens or jays. Now that I know where the nests are located, I can keep an eye on them next spring to see who moves in (which does not necessarily have to be the same inhabitants as this year).
The North Saskatchewan river is know for its brown and murky water. The color is due naturally occurring sediments that are washed into the river, particularly during he spring melt and during periods of rain. People sometimes assume that the water is dirty, which is not entirely true. Run off from the storm outfalls contributes a large number of pollutants to the rive. In addition to this, people are generally discouraged from consuming fish from the river due to high levels of naturally occurring mercury. On sunny days and if the light is right the river can, however, become a chameleon and change colour. On a late afternoon, as the sun was getting low, I managed to take this picture of the pale blue surface of the river with the reflections of the Walterdale bridge. No brown color on this afternoon.
Throughout the river valley and along the creeks in the city many trees have been wrapped in metal wire to protect them from being chewed on and felled by beavers. Obviously not every tree can be protected like this so the city is focusing its effort on large and high-valued trees. One does not have to go far to see the effect energetic beavers can have on trees. The forest understory all over the city is littered with tree trunks having chewed on, stumps and felled tree trunks. Beavers require a large number of trees for food and for building dams. I have not seen any beaver dams in Edmonton so I assume that within city limits the beavers use the trees primarily as a food source. As soon as one goes outside the city, however, most lakes, ponds and creeks have lots of beaver dams in them. If the city beavers do not build dams, where do they live? This is a question I have not yet been able to find a satisfactory answer to.