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.
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).
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.