The first time I ran into the conundrum of how to quantify the number of individuals in a large flock of birds was as at the edge of the Pacific Ocean at Boca Budi in southern Chile. On the cliff face overlooking the Pacific Ocean we encountered a colony of nesting Red-legged Cormorants (Phalacrocorax gaimardi). Our best estimated was that the visible portion of their cliff had a minimum of 300 individuals, a number that was likely an underestimate. Here is a link to the eBird checklist. The second time I ran into the same problem, albeit on a different magnitude, was at a small pond outside of Tofield (Alberta) full of snow geese (Anser caerulescens). Our best estimate was that there were 15000 geese on the water and in their air. Here is a link to the eBird checklist. Both times we had no particular estimation strategy, but rather we based our estimates on eyeballing and whatever “common sense” we had (whatever that means in this context). A few weeks ago we encountered a large flock of Canada Geese taking off from a farmer’s field outside of Camrose, this time I decided to go about the estimation more systematically by using one of the photos I took of the fleeing geese.
Once I had the photo on my computer screen I proceeded by according to the following steps:
I started by dividing up the image into a grid (see image below).
I counted each bird in the grid cell with a green outline. There were 23 individuals in this cell.
I used the patter from this cell to estimate the number of individuals in every other cell. The estimates are in yellow and fall into four categories, “looks like 23”, “looks like half of 23, i.e. 12”, “looks less than half, i.e. 5” or “no birds = 0”.
I added up the estimates (the yellow numbers) and got an estimate of 436 geese.
To check how good my estimated was I then counted the actual number of individuals in each grid cell (note the blue dots), indicated in blue numbers, and added it up. There are exactly 422 geese in the picture.
The estimate is not to shabby but obviously begs the question how one would (could) modify this approach to do “live” estimates in the field. I guess doing a “posts-observation” estimate like this is also fine to as long as all the birds are in the picture to start with.
The main issue with this estimate is that the image does not include all the geese. There were plenty more geese both to the right and left of the picture. This estimate was more a proof of concept exercise that still needs to be refined to be useful in the field when you have a gaggle of geese flying by in a matter of seconds.
Along a forested section of the trail looping around the First Lake on the Valley of the Five Lakes trail we encountered these small purple flowers poking through the thick moss cover. They had an “orchidy” sort of look to them but at the time I did not know what they were. It turns out they they are indeed orchids known by various names, including, Calypso Orchid, Venus’ Slipper or Fairy Slipper (Calypso bulbosa var. americana). It is a circumpolar perennial orchid found in undisturbed montane forests. They belong to the genus Calypso, which only contains this one species, which takes its name from Greek signifying concealment, as they tend to favour sheltered and undisturbed areas of conifer forest floors. Although it is wide spread globally it is considered threatened or endangered in some part of the world (e.g. several U.S. states and in Sweden and Finland) as it is sensitive to disturbances and has a rather finicky reproductive strategy. It relies on visits by pollinating insects, specifically bumblebees here in Alberta, by deception as it does not produce any nectar to reward its pollinators. As a result insects quickly learn not to visit it again. Talk about burning your bridges reproductively.
We were on the road to Jasper National Park for a camping weekend in the mountains. It is always a special treat to head up into the mountains, but this time we were a bit apprehensive as the weather forecast looked quite gloomy with rain and cold temperatures. Sure enough, as soon as we went through the park gate the rain started coming down. It was, however, too late to turn back now. The road between the park gate and Jasper is scenic as it meanders its way through a valley following the Athabasca River with mountains and lakes surrounding us on either. The highway inside the park is limited to 90 km/h with a number 70 km/h sections. There are good reasons for this as animals often hang out around and on the highway. In the past we have seen coyotes, foxes, bears, elks and bighorn sheep right on this stretch of highway. As we were crossing an isthmus between the Athabasca River on the right and Talbot Lake on the left half-dozen of Bighorn Sheep came galloping towards us along the highway. This must have been a good omen, if you believe in such things, The weekend ended up turn out great. Yes it rained for the rest of the day. but the next two days were sunshine allowing us to do some awesome hikes and birding, including scoring two lifers: Yellow-rumpled Warbler (Setophaga coronata, Lifer #156, AB Big Year #107) and Hammond’s Flycatcher (Empidonax hammondii, Lifer #155, AB Big Year #106). All in all, that would be considered a pretty awesome weekend.
Reliable intelligence indicates that the bisons at Elk Island National Park have had their calves. I have not had much luck finding bison over the last few months and things do not seem to improve. It is likely that the adult bison might be even shyer now that they have calves. During my last visit parts of the park had been shutdown to the public due to the calving, so that will likely not improve my bison viewing luck. Assuming the smoke from the wild fires clears I will be doing another dawn field trip to Elk Island this weekend, so wish me luck. If there is one thing wildlife watching has taught me is that crossing the path with wild animals takes good timing and no small amount of luck. Over the years I have had some very memorable run-ins with bison at Elk Island. The one that perhaps stands out the most in my mind is a bison stampede down the main access road involving around 30-50 bison charging down the road as we were driving the other way. Fortunately we were safely inside our car but as the bison passed us our vehicle was completely surrounded by bison hoofs and horns. It appears that memorable encounters are separated by long periods were no animals are encountered. Historically it has been the same situation with bears in the mountain parks. There are years were we do not see a single bear, only to have bears dropping out of trees all over the place the following summer. It takes patience and persistence, that is for sure. The rewards of viewing wildlife in their natural habitats are memories that last a life time.
In complete tranquility and at ease the Blue-winged Teal was resting on a submerged rock. If it would not be for the ever so subtle ripples on the water surface its reflection would have been indistinguishable from the real thing. The surface of the pond almost perfectly mirrored the waterfowls, the foliage of the surrounding forest, the reeds and the blue sky. It was a quiet and calm early morning with only the birds and beavers going about their business. The colours were vibrant and stunning with the emerald green foilage and the dark blue sky nestled together on the surface of the pond like a water colour painting. Unfortunately scenes like this are likely to become fleeting and elusive this summer and for the years to come. Fast forward less than a week and much of Alberta is covered in a grim post-apocalyptic yellow, smelly and impenetrable blanked of smoke. The smoke has drifted in from massive forest fires raging in northern Alberta. As of tonight the largest of the forest, the Chuckegg Creek fire, is over 500 000 acres in size, that is about 2300 square kilometres. The smoke is so thick that the street lights have turned on, their light sensors thinking it is evening time. The Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) is at 72…, and that is on a ten point scale…, let that sink in for a bit.
As climate change is going unchecked the forecasts are dire. All predictions indicate that longer and more intensive fire seasons are here to stay. Humanity has accomplished remarkable feats in the span of only a handful of lifetimes, proving that we are capable of astounding feats when we set our minds to it. Unfortunately we humans also suffer from a self-entered navel-gazing dysfunction that has made our society, our leaders and decision makers unwilling to grasp the severity of the situation. The smoke blanketing the capital of Alberta is particularly poignant as it conincides with our politicians in the legislature introducing a bill (Bill 1: The Act to Repeal the Carbon Tax) at 12:01 today killing our already weak climate change initiative.
David Attenborough once said that “No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”. I cannot imagine how anyone experiencing first hand the magic beauty of a Blue-winged Teal in repose in a emerald green lake under a dark blue morning sky could remain indifferent to the injustice that is being done.
Tucked away behind the visitors centre by the bison paddock at Elk Island National Park there is a large steel structure holding up a metal roof. It looks like it is being used for protecting materials and machines stored outdoors from rain and snow. On Google Maps one can see the large roof here. During a recent visit at the paddock I was walking around looking for bison. I barely noticed the structure until I came closer to it and all of a sudden a swarm of swallow-like birds emerged out of nowhere. The swallows seemed agitated and were swarming around me. It was reminiscent of scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. The reason for the commotion was soon obvious. The steel girders holding up the roof were covered in swallow nests. Most of them had swallows darting in and out and many were still under construction. There was quite a commotion with swallows peeking out of the nests, while others brought in the mud. I assume that these were breeding pairs that were building the nest together. It was quite a sight seeing these engineers of the bird world building their homes. In the picture one can see the darker wet mud that was recently added to the nest surrounded by the lighter dry mud. As I stood there admiring the swallows I completely forgot about the bison and it was not until I was about to leave that I realized that I had not yet identified the species. The only swallows I have seen to date in Canada are tree swallows and barn swallows and the bison paddock swallows seem to have features from both of these species, a white chest like a tree swallow and a bunch of rufous color on their head like a barn swallow. The white patch on their forehead, however, gave them away as Cliff Swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota, Lifer: #150, AB Big Year: #110).
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.