I will be the first one to admit that this picture is a good candidate to post in the Crap Bird Photography group on Facebook (and I will probably share it in that forum). There is more to the story, however, than just a picture of a bird through a jumble of branches. There is a tiny shallow side-pond at the Heritage Wetland Park in Sherwood Park. The pond is surrounded by thick brush and I had never bothered to look at it closely, partly because it is difficult to access through the thick understory and partly because I though it would be too puny for anything interesting to be there. The other day, as I was walking past it, I heard a symphony of croaking from the pond. I have not had much luck with spotting any amphibians to date, but I figure that my luck will never improve if I never try. Said and done. I found what appeared to me as a “weak spot” in the shrubbery and started to slowly make my way through the thick understory. As soon as the pond came within sight the croaking stopped abruptly. This is exactly the same story every time I try to sneak up on frogs. I found a tolerably comfortable spot by the side of the pond. Crouching in the thicket I made myself as comfortable as possible and decided to stay put for a bit so see if the frogs would relax and resume their business. As I was scanning along the water surface, the water’s edge and the shrubbery along the water with my camera I suddenly had to do a double take. In an impenetrable jumble of branches there was an eye looking right at me. I could see bits and pieces of the body of the critter and the pattern was unmistakable, it was a Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus). It was completely still, not moving a single feather, staring intently at me. So there we were, staring each other down in a human vs bird staring contest. After what appeared like an unreasonable long time I came to my senses and realized that I should probably try to take some pictures, after all the camera had in some miraculous way focused in on the eye of the flicker without getting tricked by all the shrubbery between us. Finding a flicker skulking around on the ground is not uncommon as they are well-known to have a particular fondness for munching on ants.
It is difficult imagining getting bored of watching birds. With 6 months and 2 days of birding under my belt in three different countries and on two continents every nature walk is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you will see. The diversity in appearance and behaviour seems never ending. Some birds are colourful, some have eccentric behaviours others have impressive physical attributes or perform remarkable physical feats. Then there are those birds that have style. They have brio. They are the Dany and Rusty (as in the Ocean’s film series) of the birding world. Purple Martins (Progne subis) at Heritage Wetlands Park in Sherwood Park definitely belong to this last category. Here they occupy elaborate multi-story bird mansions that balance on tall stakes high above the reeds. When they are not enjoying the vistas from their lofty perches they skip back and forth over the ponds in agile death defying maneuvers.
The White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) has been at the top of my bird wish list ever since I embarked on this journey in December. After signing up for eBird I set up a rare bird email alert. The number of alerts I received throughout the winter were few and far in-between, but there are two particularly notable alerts. The first one was a heron sighting in Hermitage Park in mid-February. Sadly, but not surprisingly, subsequent sightnings suggests that it did not make it though the winter. The second memorable alert actually consisted of a series of intermittent alerts of White-throated Sparrow sighting. Their normal wintering grounds are a few thousand kilometres south-east of here, in the southern and eastern United States along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coast. For some reason, however, every few weeks or so through the winter the odd individual was spotted in or around Edmonton. Sightings like these during the brutal central Alberta winter are extraordinary and rise many questions. Why did they stay behind? Were they lost? Did they make it through the winter? This unassuming sparrow is subtly beautiful with its black and white striped head, yellow lores (the area between the eye and the bill on the side of the head) and a white patch under its bill. It almost looked like a dolled up house sparrow. I spotted this lovely looking fellow (not sure if it a male or female) in the brush along the trail in Heritage Wetland Park in Sherwood Park.
The Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) have been back from their southern wintering grounds for quite some time now, but more and more of them seem to be appearing by the day. During my last visit at the Heritage Wetland Park in Sherwood Park their distinctive metal clanging vocalizations reverberated all over the wetland. I tried to keep a tally of their numbers but I gave up when I reached 30 and instead focused my attention on the other species that were there. While the male blackbirds were very abundant, there was a smaller number of females around as well. This was the first time I have seen female Red-winged Blackbirds. They have the same overall size and shape as the males, but none of the colours. Instead they are brown streaked and almost look like enormous sparrows. Their behaviour differs as well. While the males tend to perch on exposed high locations in the reed or on tree branches vocalizing and showing off, the females only seemed to be hanging out inside the reeds, occasionally coming out into the top level of the reeds. They seemed to check out the situation and then quickly dive back into the cover of the reeds again.
I have to admit there were days when I though this day would never come. The fact that the first day of spring technically was on March 20 almost seems like a cruel joke here in central Alberta. Its mid-May and it has not been until the last few days that we saw the first few green leaves bursting out. If white is the colour of winter, then the colour of budding foliage must be the colour of spring. This is not just any colour of green, it is a light, airy, fresh and rejuvenating color. Artist have a name for this particular hue of green – sap green. Some plain-air painters, in particular, prefer sap green for foliage because it is a warm, yellow green that mixes well for sunlight-infused trees.
Sun-infused objects make great subjects for photography. Today was a gorgeous sunny evening and it would have been criminal to spend it indoors. Said and done. After work I went out to Heritage Wetlands in Sherwood Park for some evening birding around the ponds. All in all, it was a great success with 23 species, including 4 lifers (indicated by *). I also managed to get a bunch of decent pictures of many of the species. After 6 weeks with the Nikon P1000 I am finally starting to feel that I am able to tame this beast of a camera.
Sherwood Park–Heritage Wetlands Park, Edmonton, Alberta, CA 13-May-2019 6:13 PM – 8:10 PM Protocol: Traveling 3.389 kilometer(s) 22 species (+1 other taxa)
Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) 2 American Wigeon (Mareca americana) 2 Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) 10 Redhead (Aythya americana) 4 Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis) 10 Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena) 3 American Coot (Fulica americana) 4 gull sp. (Larinae sp.) 1 Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) 5 * American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) 2 Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) 2 Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) 1 American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) 3 Common Raven (Corvus corax) 2 Purple Martin (Progne subis) 4 * Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) 4 Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) 2 American Robin (Turdus migratorius) 3 White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) 1 * Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) 1 Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) 30 Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) 1 * House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) 3
Coots are cute and unmistakable, resembling plump aquatic chickens. This might explain why they are called poule d’eau in some parts of the world (which translates to water hen). This fella was chugging along like a little tug boat on one of the ponds at Heritage Wetland Park in Sherwood Park. It’s an American Coot and it is the only coot species that occurs in North America. This was my third coot species, with the previous two being the Red-gartered Coot and White-winged Coot, both observed in southern Chile. There are ten species of coots in the world, of which six live in South America. The six South American coots tend to be distributed on the western side of the continent, down south along the eastern part of South America and across Patagonia. The one common locality where all the six South American coots co-occur is Chile. So as far as I am concerned, here is yet one more good reason to go back to South America and Chile in particular, to top up my coot list.
Swallows can be tricky to id and photograph. They are small, always seem to be airborne, skipping back and forth at breakneck speeds, never stopping and seemingly never landing. During a field trip in southern Chile in December I found these swallows flying around above a pasture. Despite visiting the same field almost every day over the next few weeks I never managed to catch one perching. As a result I never got a good look at one and, needless to say, I was not able to id or photograph them. Using the process of elimination all I was able to do was to narrow it down to two possible species, either the Chilean Swallow (Tachycineta leucopyga) or the Blue-and-white Swallow (Pygochelidon cyanoleuca). Of course, this left me very dissatisfied but they were simply too small, too fast and the morphological differences between the two species were too subtle for me to be able to pinpoint the species. Fast forward 5 months and I spot my first swallow of the year at Heritage Wetland Park in Sherwood Park. As it turns out, Canadian swallows behave the same way as Chilean swallows. Skipping back and forth at breakneck speeds, never stopping, never perching and never sitting still. Even with a new camera and more birding and photography experience there was just no way for me to catch up with them. As I was standing at the edge of the pond pondering my conundrum I suddenly spotted a lonesome swallow sitting on a dead branch that was jutting out over the water surface. It only sat there for a few seconds before taking flight again. Now I had a lead, I immediately trained my camera on that branch; pre-focusing and adjusting all the settings. I waited and I waited. I lost my concentration and focus several times but after what appeared to be an eternity, there it was, a very pretty Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor, Lifer: #107, AB Big Year: #56). It landed at the exactly same spot as last time. I don’t know if it the same individual or a different one that just happened to land on the same place. I did not care, it was the closes look I have ever got of a swallow. The wait was worth it.