Christmas Weekend Birding Road Trip!

Merry Christmas, dear readers!

This weekend I had the opportunity to seek out some of the gorgeous birds seen around Calgary that are a little rarer than usual. On Saturday, I took a circuitous route down to High River, but first stopped in Bragg Creek, and Turner Valley before reaching High River, then headed south to the small town of Azure, then finally up to Frank Lake before returning to my family’s place in High River for a pre-Christmas get together.

The route itself was beautifully scenic, and was an incredibly warm day thanks to a Chinook arch that hung over the Rockies. Unfortunately, the wind didn’t die down until early afternoon, keeping much of the activity down until I reached Turner Valley. I had a few birds on my list that I was searching for, but unfortunately had little luck with any of them. First and foremost was one of the many Snowy Owls that have been seen recently thanks to a record irruption this year, possibly due to a crash in the arctic lemming population. Secondly was a Northern Hawk Owl seen just west of Turner Valley, which unfortunately was nowhere to be found, despite being recorded just a week before. Driving back through Turner Valley and over to Black Diamond, three Rough-legged Hawks were seen on power poles and fence posts, but were far too wary for me to stop the vehicle and get my camera leveled before they flew off.

Black Diamond, Alberta

Black Diamond, Alberta

Two more were seen on the eastern edge of Black Diamond and again flew off before I could take a photo. I was becoming a little disheartened until I saw a slightly unusual form atop a power pole less than two hundred meters from the last Rough-legged Hawk that had flushed.

Gyrfalcon

Gyrfalcon

Gyrfalcon

Gyrfalcon

Gyrfalcon

Gyrfalcon

I’ve convinced myself that this is a Gyrfalcon, based on the general size, thick moustache bars, black hood, and presence of a prominent eyebrow not seen on a Peregrine Falcon, and it certainly does not display the streaking or barring on the chest one might see in a Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawk.

Continuing on to High River, another three Rough-legged Hawks were spotted along the route, which ended up at George Lane Park, the location reporting the Red-bellied Woodpecker. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find it on this trip down, though it was getting a bit later on in the afternoon, but I will be back to find it again soon.

I headed down to Azure, where another Snowy Owl had been reported, and again I came up empty handed.

I decided Frank Lake would be a worthwhile destination despite the waning sunlight, and I got there with just a little over an hour of daylight left. Walking in from the main gate of Basin 1, it seemed eerily quiet, with the feathers from a recently killed pheasant or grouse littering the road. I thought for sure I would return empty handed from this location as well as it appeared that the entire lake had frozen over. I’m not sure if I would have been more upset had the entire lake been empty, but I did get a little bit of a twinge at my heartstrings when the only bird I found on the entire lake was this lone Tundra Swan. A little disheveled and dirty, it appears that this swan missed the larger flocks migrating south, or for some reason decided to attempt to winter here. I certainly hope that it survives.

Tundra Swan

Tundra Swan

Tundra Swan

Tundra Swan

Tundra Swan

Tundra Swan

I returned to High River to visit with my family, and vowed I’d see a Snowy Owl before Christmas was through, and I was not disappointed when I headed out on the afternoon of Christmas Day.

Just two days prior, Gus Yaki had reported that 8 (yes, 8!) Snowy Owls had been seen along Highway 9 between Drumheller and Irricana, on their return trip from the Drumheller Christmas Bird Count, so I thought for sure if I retraced their steps that luck would be in my favor.

The first Snowy Owl was just before we reached Irricana on Highway 9. In fact, I almost missed it as I was coming up to a turn, but just happened to glance up and see this female high up on a telephone pole. After turning around and getting my camera set, she flushed, and set down a little further away near an operating gas well, but decided to flush once again and lighted atop a fence-post on the west edge of is well site.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

The second was found a short while later, just off of Highway 21. This female flushed once from near the highway off to the nearby township road, and then returned to the Highway as I turned to head back to Calgary, affording a few choice views.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

All in all, I consider the weekend a success, with three more species to add to my life list, and a few decent photos to remember them by.

Posted by Dan Arndt

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