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
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.
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.