For the Global Big Day of Birding on May 4 we joined the Edmonton Nature Club tour of central Alberta, an all day marathon of birding. There is an excellent field trip report written up by field trip leader and I doubt I would do a better job at summarizing the day. I particularly like how she refers to the participants as “citizen scientists”. As it turns out, bird observations checklists submitted to eBird are being used in research and conservation efforts providing information about species range, timing of migration and estimation of population sizes and trends. So there you have it. It all started with trying to get out into nature more, then it morphed into birdwatching, birding and photography and now I am contributing to science. Who knows where this adventure will end up taking me.
A Big Day field trip is all about quantity and big numbers. We ended up driving almost 600 km and managed to see 80 different species of birds, of which 40 were lifers. For beginner birders like us this is an incredible learning opportunity. Yes, you are thrown in at the deep end and sometimes you sink. For example when seemingly everyone is awestruck by a bird in their binoculars while we cannot even find what they are looking at (happened several times). Yet others times you can say you saw a lifer, but you know that you would never be able to find it on your own, never mind identify it again. But you get to count it. On a Big Day everything happens at a hectic pace compared to the regular slow meandering nature walks I am used to. You do not get to spend much time with any of the birds or taking photographs because time watching one bird, is time lost scoring another bird. For us, it was about learning to identify new species, learning from the pros and scouting new birding locations for future field trips. We had lots of fun and we will definately be returning to many of the locations we visited during this tour de force of central Alberta.
Our planed itinerary was jam packed with lots of car birding and with the occasional short walk.
The Lyseng Reservoir was tucked in among stubble fields and Hutterite colonies and had an impressive diversity of water fowl and shore birds. Many of our lifers were found here.
One of the highlights were definitely the Sandhills Cranes. We encountered several large flocks grazing in the stubble fields. It was difficult to photograph them however as they very quite skittish. As soon as we stopped and got out of the car they started walking away from us although we were still quite a distance away.
All in all it was a fun day, with lots of Birding action and supere productive in terms of seeing new species. I did not get an opportunity to photograph much as things just happened too fast and we never spend much time in one location before moving on.
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.
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.
Yesterday my son and I went for a nature walk at the Whitemud Ravine. We quickly encountered the usual suspects. The Black-Capped Chickadees where out in full force as usual, Mr. and Ms. Mallard were swimming around in the swollen creek but got tired of the strong current and waddled up on a sand bank, a few Canada Geese flew noisily overhead, a lonely Downy Woodpecker made a brief appearance and a few dozen Bohemian Waxwings were gobbling down Mountain Ash berries, drinking water from puddles and eating snow. After a few hours, thinking we had seen it all for the day, we started heading back to the trail head. On our way back a subtle movement in the dense understory caught my eye. It was definitely a small bird. About the size of a chickadee, but the way it moved was different. We quickly focused in on the bird with our binoculars and camera. With a rufous coloured crest and a bi-coloured beak, it’s was definitely a new species. I managed to coax the camera into action and snapped a few pictures before a fitness buff came steaming down the trail and the bird took off. As we inspected the images and consulted Merlin Bird the verdict was unanimous. It was an American Tree Sparrow. A lifer for both of us and bird number 97 on our life list and number 44 on our AB Big Year list. It’s amazing how such small and and unassuming creature can make you so excited and happy. On our way back to the car my son and I talked about the significance of lifers and while it may be just another bird, it is also a once-in-a-lifetime experience that we can cherish for the rest of our life. Welcome to our life little American Tree Sparrow.
May the curiosity be with you. This is from “The Birds are Calling” blog (www.thebirdsarecalling). Copyright Mario Pineda.