Meadowlarks are handsome and eye-catching birds that are common in grassland and farmland. The male has a predisposition to perch on fence posts and sing his heart out. Our first meadowlark was the Long-tailed Meadowlark (Leistes loyca) in the province of Araucania in southern Chile two days after Christmas last year. We found it sitting on a fence post by a grassy field overlooking Lago Budi while it was serenading. Fast forward 4 months and 11000km to the North on a dusty country road in the outskirts of Camrose. Its the Global Big Day of Birding and we are travelling in a convoy with the birding contingent of the Edmonton Nature Club. On a fence post along a stubble field next to a Hutterite colony (you can see the dark outline of the colony buildings in the background) we spot our second meadowlark species, the Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta). Both species have the characteristic pointy bills and exhibit exactly the same behaviour; weakness to perch on fence posts and the typical meadowlark singing posture where they point their head upwards as they vocalize. Meadowlarks can be found in the Americas and interestingly all the North American species (2-3 species, depending on how you are counting) are yellow breasted while all the South American species (5 species) are red breasted.
After my latest post on the Sharp-tailed Grouse Lek tour my better half and biggest fan pointed out that the word “lek” looks like the Swedish word “lek” which means “to play”. Yes, she is fluent in Swedish and that is only one of her many amazing qualities.
A bit of research reveals that indeed she is right. The word was introduced from Swedish into the English language by the Welch-born amateur naturalist Llewelyn Lloyd who spend a few decades in Sweden studying and writing about all manners of natural history, in particularly ornithology. It appears that the Swedish word lek first appeared in his 1867 book The game birds and wild fowl of Sweden and Norway. Getting your hands on this book in the olden days would have been a royal pain in the tail feathers, but these days it turns out that the entire book has been digitized and made available for free online. In Chapter 2 the breeding behaviour of the Capercaillie, which belongs to the same family as the Sharp-tailed Grouse (Phasianidae), are discussed and this is the first time the Swedish term lek-ställe is introduced. Loyd defines lek-ställe (play place)as the “locality where affairs matrimonial are carried on”. In the same paragraph he also introduces the term lek-tid (play time) as the “pairing season”. It appears that over the years lek-ställe has been shortened to simply lek.
The question is how did the Swedish word “to play” (as in child play) end up going from “child play” to “adult play”? According to Svenska Akademiens Ordlista, which is the undisputed authoritative and comprehensive Swedish language dictionary (analogous to what the Oxford English Dictionary is to the English language) the word lek means:
What was that? You don’t speak Swedish? Well, I feel sorry for you, but ok, in English then: 1) activity that is conducted solely for pleasurable purposes (particularly child’s play), 2) activities of a competitive nature, 3) particular behavior in some animals in conjunction with mating and reproduction, e.g. in fish, amphibians and birds (since 1300 century). I was not aware of that last significance of the word in Swedish, then again the last time I use this word in a Swedish context was probably when I was wee tyke (or possibly when my tyke was wee), so there you have it.
On a different note, lek is not the only Swedish word that made it into Lewelyn Loyd’s book. He quite merrily mixes Swedish (and Norwegian) terms into the narration pretty haphazardly. For example: Troll-Foglar, kasse, nät, förtrollning, hällristningar, barrskogar, flytta, förflytta sig, spel etc. (It is left as an exercise for the reader to figure out what these words mean) The unofficial linguistic term for the habit of mixing English and Swedish in the same sentence is Swenglish and it is commonly but typically unbeknownst practiced in North American IKEA stores.
When I was a tyke we always asked our friends “Vill du leka?” (Do you want to play?) and in my youthful innocence I was never aware of any other meaning of the word. Thanks to our experience with the Sharp-tailed Grouse our Swedish and English vocabularies have become enriched. Now I can use the word again, this time with my better half…, Vill du leka ikväll?
One of the stops during our Big Day tour of central Alberta with Edmonton Nature Club was Lyseng Reservoir. This 564-acre site is located approximately 60 km southwest of Edmonton and consists of upland, riparian and wetland habitat. During our Big Day tour we drove along the southern edge of the reservoir, stopping repeatedly as more and more birds appeared. The place was just bursting at the seams with birds. In less than 40 minutes we observed 28 different species, many of which were shore birds (all new to us), but also a handful of raptors (including a Great Horned Owl), a gaggle of different geese species and other miscellaneous goodies. One of our lifers here was the funky looking American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana, Life: #133, AB Big Year: #83) which has the notable distinction of being my first bird ever with an upturned bill. A number of these were wading along the shallow shoreline looking for a morsel to eat. Looking at the recorded observations at eBird reveals that central Alberta is the Northern margin of its distribution. This is a story that seems to be repeating itself. In yesterday’s post a similar eBird analysis revealed that Alberta is at the western margin of the Eastern Phoebe’s distribution (at least in Canada, it seems to go more westward further south). It may be that latitudinally (central) Alberta is the northern margin for many southern species with the American Avocet being one example, perhaps because of the long and cold winters. Longitudinally Alberta appears to be at the western margin of species such as the Eastern Phoebe, perhaps because of the Rocky Mountains are a physical barrier. This is all just a theory though and I have not googled it or consulted any experts. If I am right, however, remember “that is my theory, that is to say, which is mine,… is mine.” (To paraphrase Miss Anne Elk from the Monty Python sketch on Anne Elk’s Theory on Brontosauruses).
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.
It was not until I saw my first Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) that I even knew there was bird with this name. In my “pre-Phoebe” days Phoebe was a synonym for Lisa Kudrow in the sitcom Friends. The Eastern Phoebe is an unassuming small songbird, and if it would not have been hanging out on a fence I would likely have completely missed it. I managed to snap a picture of it before it flew of into the shrubbery. One can clearly see distinct “peaked head” which is due to the bird rising its feathers on top of its head. Based on submitted observations to eBird the Eastern Phoebe is at the eastern margin of its range here in Alberta, with the main part of its distribution being in central and eastern parts of the continent. We saw this bird at the tail end of our central Alberta tour with the Edmonton Nature Club during Global Big Day of Birding on May 4. The phoebe was the first bird we saw as soon as we pulled into the parking lot at Big Knife Provincial Park. It became bird #146 on our life list and #97 on our AB Big Year list.
Our last stop of the day during our Big Day of Birding tour with the Edmonton Nature Club was Big Knife Provincial Park about 2 hours drive south east of Edmonton. The whole gang went for a walk through the forest, which was a nice change as we had spent most of the day doing in the car. This small provincial park straddles the Big Knife Creek, named after a fight to the death between “Knife”, a member of the Blackfoot tribe, and “Big Man” of the Cree tribe. I have not been able to find out why there were fighting, but clearly it must have been something of great importance. During our nature walk we found 15 species of birds, including a bunch of firsts (first of the year and first in our life); including the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias), Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus), Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe), and the diminutive Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa). As we were leaving we came across a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius, Life: #145 , AB Big Year: #96) hard at work drilling sap wells high up in a lattice of branches. Unlike other woodpeckers, Sapsuckers do not look for insects to eat in dead trees. Instead they make, and maintain, sap wells and use the sap as their main food source, just like humans utilize the sap from maple trees for maple syrup. These sap wells must be continuously maintained so that the sap continues to flow. It had a rather scruffy appearance, like someone that just rolled out of bed in the morning after a few days without showering. I have been told, however, that that’s how sapsuckers roll it.
I do not know much about the birding scene in the Calgary area yet, but judging from the birding-related Facebook feeds that I am following, Calgary seems to have a thriving birding scene with several hotspots that look really awesome, e.g. Inglewood Bird Sanctuary and Frank Lake. As Calgary is roughly 300 km south of Edmonton northward migrants tend to arrive there a few weeks earlier than in the capital. Over the last few months I noticed that Calgary acts as a birding early warning system, preparing us Edmonton birders for things coming our way. One of the migrants that arrived in Calgary over a month ago were the American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos). I have been looking forward to seeing this magnificent bird ever since I saw the first reported sightings of them in the Calgary area. They arrived here in the Edmonton a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, perhaps due to sloppiness on my behalf or just being a noob, I have been missing them on several occasions. The latest missed opportunity was a week ago at Heritage Wetlands Park, where, after several, hours of birding I came up empty handed on the pelican front. Once I came home and checked eBird, however, someone had reported seeing pelicans at that location the very same day. As I was bemoaning my lack of pelican luck, a fellow birder suggested that I check out Emerald Pond, a small pond behind Lowe’s in Sherwood Park. On our way back from our Big Weekend a few days ago we decided to make a stop at this pond. Sure enough, as we were parking a bird the size of a small airplane swooped down over the car and went in for a water landing on the pond. Once we sneaked our way down to the water’s edge we found four adult pelicans chugging along in the water. All four pelicans had horn like projections growing on their upper bills, indicating that they are breeding adults. They went along the shore of the pond, stopping to and from and fishing up aquatic vegetation. It looked like they were eating the aquatic plants growing along the reeds in the pond. While pelicans are omnivores I have not been able to find any information suggesting that they eat plants (but they seem to be happy to devour anything that has scales, fur or feathers, including pigeons and the odd chihuahua).
Birding keeps throwing me for loops. You can drive for an hour or more to the perfect birding spot, only to not see any bird at all. Or you can go to a small pond behind a big box store surrounded by busy roadways only to find the most amazing diversity of birds. In the 20 minutes we spend at the pond we saw 10 different species. There were the usual suspects, e.g. Canada Geese, Mallards, Ring-billed Gull, Franklin’s Gull. As we were about to leave a Common Golden eye came along, followed by a pair of Red-necked Grebes. When we were about to leave (second attempt) a squeaking Killdeer landed in the reeds and, out of nowhere, two Double-crested Cormorants came in for landing scaring the living bejeezus out of the merganser. On our drive home we were discussing what else we could have seen if we had stayed longer. We will definitely be back to this unassuming pond behind Lowe’s.
It was only as I was writing this post that I noticed that there are a pair of Red-necked Grebes next to the pelicans. One of the grebes looks like it is sitting on a mound. I am curious if this could be a nest. Yet another reason to head back sooner rather.