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.
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.
I came across a single Double-crested Cormorant at Heritage Wetlands Park in Sherwood Park a few days ago. Cormorants tend to hang out in colonies so this is likely an early bird. eBird records show that up to 16 cormorants were recorded at this location last summer (in May) and that they start arriving around mid-April and stay until the end of September. The Double-crested Cormorants appear black form a distance but upon closer inspection, particularly if the light is right, one can see a subtle beautiful pattern emerge on their wings. It almost looks painted. This particular individual, lets call him/her Early Bird, was perched at the very top of a tall tree, almost as he/she wanted to show everyone “Check me out, I got here first!”. One can also see that Early Bird has a bit of bad hair day, either that, or its a tad breezy way up there.
I recently ventured to Heritage Wetlands Park in Sherwood Park. This wetland is in a curious place, located smack dab in the middle of a sub-divisions in Sherwood Park where it is surrounded by residential properties to the North and South and bounded by Clover Bar Road to the East and Highway 21 to the West. The park consists of four small ponds with plenty of reeds along the shores. No matter where you go you are looking into someone living room and there is no escape from the noise of the busy roadways nearby. Despite what appears to be a less than ideal location the wetlands are bustling with bird life. During my two brief visits I saw 18 species of birds, six of which are lifers (Green-winged Teal, Double-crested Cormorant, Tree Swallow, Franklin’s Gull, Song sparrow, and Red-winged Blackbird). As I logged my observations on eBird later that afternoon I noticed several observations in the same location on the same day of American White Pelicans. A bit more research revealed that historically there is a group of 10 to 20 pelicans that hang out in the wetlands. With a wing span of up to 3 m, the second largest wingspan of any North American bird, after the Californian condor eBird describes it as “extremely large and conspicuous” . How I managed to miss spotting them beats me. I guess I have at least one good reason to go back “pelican hunting” as soon as it stops snowing (yes it is April 30 and it is snowing). Here are a few more really good reasons to go back (as soon as it stops snowing): Northern Shoveler, Barn Swallow, White-throated sparrow, Common Grackle, American Wigeon, Great Blue Heron, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Purple Martin. All of these species were seen by others on the same day I was there and all of them would be lifers for me.
The charming fella on the picture is a Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena). A number of Red-necked Grebe pairs were cruising back and forth on the ponds. I imagine they might be having their nests in the reeds. This species is know for ferrying their young chicks around on their backs, so it might be worth keeping an eye out over the next while for some unbearable cuteness.
It was a cold and windy spring day. Heavy wet snow had blanketed Edmonton overnight. The good news was that there was no need to remove any of the snow as it was rapidly melting. The bad news was that it made the roads, sidewalks and trails a mess. A cold and windy breeze made things generally unpleasant and cold. Not ideal conditions to go birding, but (in theory) the birds are going to be there, rain or shine. Nevertheless, with the miserable conditions and only 30 minutes to spare I did not have high hopes as I hit the gravel trail at the Heritage Wetland Park in Sherwood Park. I could not have been more wrong. Despite the bone chilling strong breeze, within seconds I was greeted by the metallic clanking call of several Red-winged Blackbirds (Life List #105, AB Big Year #54). During the next 30 minutes I was barely able to put my notebook down, the birds were everywhere. Eleven species later I had also scored two more lifers; the Song Sparrow (Life List: #106, AB Big Year: #55) and Franklin’s Gull (Life List: #107, AB Big Year: #56). The Song Sparrow was quite a hoot. There it was sitting on an exposed branch violently swaying in the wind singing up a storm in the blustering breeze. You can see the ruffled feathers from the breeze on the back of his head as he is going to town. Not sure if he is telling other males to stay away or if he is trying to impress some lady friend, or both. Either way, in the breezy conditions his efforts seem futile and perilous, but what do I know about Song Sparrow logic.
The Song Sparrow brings to mind a scene from the 1995 movie Crimson Tide where Capt. Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman) and Lt. Cmdr. Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington) on submarine USS Alabama get into an argument after Capt. Ramsey decides to run an emergency drill at the same time as there is a fire in the galley which ends up killing one sailor.
Capt. Ramsey: So, Mr. Hunter, do you think I was wrong to run that drill sing in the breeze? Hunter: Not necessarily, sir. Capt. Ramsey: Do you think I got that mansparrow killed? Hunter: No, sir. One thing had nothing to do with the other. It was an accident. Capt. Ramsey: Would you have run the drillbeen singing? Hunter: No, sir, I wouldn’t have. Capt. Ramsey: Why not? Hunter: The fire in the galley owl could have flared back up come back for seconds. I would have seen to it first, sir. Capt. Ramsey: I’m sure you would have. Me, on the other hand, I tend to think that that’s the best time to run a drill sing. Confusion onthe shipin the reeds is nothing to fear. It should be taken advantage of. Lest you forget, Mr. Hunter, we are a ship of war in breeding season, designed for battle to hook up with females and making baby birds. You don’t just fight battlesbreed when everything is hunky-dory. What’d you think, son? I was just some crazy old coot [sic]… putting everyone in harm’s way as I yelled “yee-haw”? Hunter: That was not my first thought, sir. But there’s no excuse. At the time I was fighting the fire in the galley the owl had Stan for lunch... I did not agree with your call, sir.