We visited Francis Point last weekend as part of out Snow Geese chase. It was a windy day and the birds were notably absent. What the nature walk lacked in birds, however, the frogs made up for with a chorus of song. Even in the tiniest and most ephemeral of ponds the frogs were croaking loudly in unison as they were getting into an amorous mood. The frogs made a duck-like quacking sound that initially confused us. A recent survey of amphibians at the nearby Beaverhill Bird Observatory only found Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica or Lithobates sylvaticus) and o with only anecdotal evidence of Boreal Chorus Frogs (Pseudacris maculate) in the area. The Wood Frog is the most widely distributed amphibian in Canada and is associated with moist woodlands and vernal woodland pools. Wood Frogs are the earliest breeders in most of their range. Wood Frogs are known to be exceptionally freeze tolerant with their blood and tissue often freezing during the winter. We made a feeble attempt to visually spot the frogs, but anytime we approached a pond the chorus immediately fell silent. We figured that was their way of saying: “Leave us alone – we are busy”.
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.
The last few weeks have been a time of searching, a time of planing, and a time of scheming. Our patience and resolve has been tested repeatedly. We have accumulated hundred kilometres on dusty country roads single-mindedly in pursuit of our goal. We have been searching for the elusive snow geese. Over the last few weeks flocks of thousands of snow geese have been observed in the shallow lakes around Beaverhill Natural Area East of Edmonton, and more geese are reported to arrive on a daily basis. This was obviously too much of a temptation for us, so we decided to track the geese down to experience one of nature’s truly incredible events. Much can be said about this adventure and there will be a separate blog post about this (scheduled for tomorrow night) but suffice to say after several excursion and following leads from expert birders the geese evaded us. Finally we gave up and deflated started heading home while pondering how tens-of-thousands of large birds can hide so effectively. We had just got on the highway outside of Tofield when suddenly, from the passenger seat, “Dad – stop, stop, stop!”. As I was on the highway there was obviously no stopping, but a turn of my head to check what my son was pointing at revealed a myriad a fluffy white birds sitting on a pond along the side of the highway. What happened then, all occurred every fast. As I desperately was scanning the road side for any possibility of getting of the highway I found a tiny dirt road. After a quick check in the rear mirrors, I stepped on the break and careened of the highway and onto the dirt road. As it turns out, the dirt road took us directly to the lake with the geese…, and there they were! Thousands up one thousand of white snow geese on the water as well as a cloud of geese spanning a large chunk of the horizon flying overhead. We knew we did not have much time. We quickly and stealthily snuck out of the car with our binoculars and camera ready. It only lasted seconds, but all of a sudden the geese on the lake all took off simultaneously. There were geese everywhere, all the geese became airborne in the span of a few seconds. As they gained altitude they joined the large flock flying overhead. We were floored. Later on, in the car on the way home, we were discussing how many geese we had seen. It was definitely in the tens-of-thousands, but was it 10000, 20000, or more? In the end we decided to record the “conservative” figure of 15000 individuals, but quite likely the actual number was higher. We did manage to snap a few pictures but none of them make justice to overwhelming scene of a mega-gaggle of snow geese.
As you approach the trail head that takes you to the Beaverhill Bird Observatory a small side road takes you to Francis Point. We tried to find Francis Point in February when the snow still was deep, but were unable to find this inconspicuous side road. It was likely covered up with snow. It is about a 500 m walk through a forested patch to get to the Francis Point bird blind, an old wooden shed that looks like it is about to collapse any minute. From the blind you have an expansive and unobstructed view of a vast grassy field. I suspect that once upon a time, when the Beaverhill Lake was larger this field may have been under water. Over the last few decades, however, the lake has been shrinking and these days it is no longer visible from the blind. Along the rafters in the blind there are cup-shaped bird nest made out of mud. There are not many options in terms of who could have made them. It could be either swifts or swallows. As there are no swifts reported at this location that leaves us with the swallows. Three species of swallows have been reported here; the Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor), Cliff Swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) and the Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica). The tree swallow is out as it nests in natural cavities of standing dead trees, old woodpecker cavities or in nest boxes. Cliff Swallows build a nest out of mud that looks very similar to the nests in the blind. Cliff Swallow nests are different in that they are more covered and have small circular entrances. That leaves us with the barn swallow. A simple web search reveals that indeed the match is perfect. Barn Swallows typically nests inside accessible buildings such as barns and stables, or under bridges and wharves. They collect mud pellets and build neat cup-shaped nest attached to beam or other vertical projections. The inside of the nests is lined with grasses, feathers or other soft materials. It never crossed my mind to peek inside the nests, but next time we visit I will have a look. Judging from the eBird reports, the Barn Swallows do not return to Francis Point until May so we still have a few weeks to go before being able to acquaint with the inhabitants of the nests.
This time of year the area East of Beaverhill Natural Area is buzzing with returning migrants and where there is food, there are predators. I imagine the birds of prey must be busy hunting to recover from (or prepare for) their migration and get ready for breading season. This area has a rich diversity of birds, probably because of its vicinity to the Beaverhill Natural Area and the Beaverhill Lake, which is an important habitat for migrants and shorebirds in particular. We spend most of the last weekend in this area and were treated to an abundance of species, including a Snowy Owl and more Rough-legged Hawks that I can count. It was as if every tree along the road had a hawk in it. Many of them were soaring or hovering in the strong breeze over the vast open stubble fields. Occasionally one would focus in on a specific spot far out in a field, hover above it and then do a kamikaze-like dive towards the ground. Clearly they were in a hunting mode. We never saw one actually catch anything, so I am not sure what success rate is. I imagine, however, that with the snow gone and nothing growing on the fields yet, it must be a good set up for spotting any little rodent scurrying around on the ground. This was also an opportunity to test our new camera set up for some BIF (Birds In Flight) shooting. With a beautiful blue sky, no clouds in sight and the sun beaming down the conditions were perfect for some awesome photography. We did manage to get a few keepers, including the photo below of an adult light morph Rough-legged Hawk looking for his or her next meal. Apparently the “hockey pucks” on the wrists are typical identifies. During the summer Rough-legged Hawks breed in the arctic and during the winters they migrate to southern Canada and the USA.
Snowy Owls spend the winters in Alberta only to return to the arctic in March and April. Last weekend (April 6) we were out by Beaverhills Lake Natural Area, crisscrossing the country roads looking for returning migrants. We were hoping for a diverse assortment of water fowl and crossing our fingers for the ephemeral Snow Goose. We had just checked out a waterlogged field where a large group of Snow Geese had been seen the previous day. Alas, they had moved on by the time we made it there. A bit bummed we rumbled on along the dusty gravel roads when, all of a sudden, in the distance I noticed a large “poofy” mass on top of a fence post along the road. Although I am an owl noob, I have seen enough owls this winter that I know to scan for “large poofy masses”. I though to myself, “that looks like an owl”, never actually seriously thinking it would be an owl. As we approached, I could not help myself from slowing down, just in case. Well, would you believe it. It was a lonesome and gorgeous Snowy Owl. The car came to a screeching halt. I yelled to my companions in the back seat: “OWL UP AHEAD”. Everyone dropped what they were doing. I have never seen a pair of teens becoming unglued from their cell phones so fast. We had barely come to a stop, the windows were already down, binoculars up and I threw myself out of the car with the camera ready to shoot. The owl could not care less. It sat there looking at us indifferently and eerily cool. This was an unexpected treat. While we did see a Snowy Owl a few months ago I had simply assumed that they had all left for their arctic summer. Checking eBird later that day, revealed that, indeed the only Snowy Owl sightings for the month of April in Alberta were right in the area were we were. As a matter of fact, the same day another reporting of a Snowy Owl was recorded just a few km away along the same range road. Could it be the same owl? It’s possible, or maybe there are more holding on to our Alberta spring. I assume this will be the last Snowy Owl for this winter. So long Snowy Owls. Bon voyage and see you next winter.