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Posted by Dan Arndt
Alberta has such a wide variety of environments that I’m constantly finding new areas, new regions, and entirely new birds around the province. One area that I have never spent any significant time in was in the south-east corner of the province. In fact, the last time I ventured east of Strathmore was in 2005, when I visited Dinosaur Provincial Park in my under-grad to do some prospecting in some of the private access coulees with a friend of mine working on his Ph. D.
I had hoped to visit Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park this summer, or at least Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park, time got away from me and other priorities came up. Thankfully, fellow blogger David Pugh, over at “A Calgary Birder” had some free time on his hands and asked me along to visit some spots he had heard good things about.
Our route was planned, and we headed out at just after 4:30 in the morning with plans to visit Kinbrook Island Provincial Park, Many Islands Lake, Cypress Hills, Pakowki Lake, and a few other stops along the way.
We arrived at Kinbrook Island Provincial Park campground at just after sunrise. The sloughs on each side of the road in were buzzing with insects, and a few Yellow-headed Blackbirds as well as the ubiquitous Red-winged Blackbirds were feasting. We managed to spot some early peeps for the day, along with some Spotted Sandpipers, a few Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, and we even managed to find some Long-billed Dowitchers in the early-morning light.
After a brief drive through the campground listening for warblers, we stopped at the south end to look over the lake. American White Pelicans, hundreds of eclipse plumage ducks, and even a Common Loon were visible from the point, but I think one of the best birds of the day (so far) was this lone Brown Thrasher, who was mixed with a small flock of Yellow-headed Blackbirds feeding on insects beside the road.
One final stop at the far south end of the campground was a row of low brush along the lake front, which was inhabited by no less than ten Western Kingbirds, the same number of Eastern Kingbirds, some Wilson’s Warblers, and a few other species of flycatchers, like this (seemingly dark) Western Wood-Pewee.
After a very successful first stop, we moved out and headed further east to Medicine Hat and points eastward. Just outside of Suffield, I spotted what appeared to be a raptor in the field sitting on the ground, presumably dispatching its prey. I hesitated only for a moment, but thought it would be a great photo opportunity, so we turned around to get a closer look. On the second pass, David and I scanned the field like hawks ourselves, until we both, almost simultaneously blurted out “Burrowing Owl!?”. The brakes were applied liberally, and as we both scrambled with our gear, it seemed our sudden stop had spooked a few of them, who flew off in various directions. Two brave holdouts remained, with one coming quite close to inspect us, then returning to the burrow. The other, a juvenile, attempted to hide in the tall grass at the edge of the clearing.
After spending about a half hour watching these beautiful little owls from a distance, we decided it was time to continue onwards. We rolled through Medicine Hat without incident, spotting many different birds as we drove, but nothing new for the day until we turned north. The terrain was visibly different than even the farmers fields near Calgary, and the birds present were distinctly “prairie” species, unlike those nearby which are a mix of boreal, grasslands, and foothills species. The first major indicator of this was the massive Ferruginous Hawk that we passed as we headed to Many Islands Lake. Sadly, I didn’t get any shots of the bird until it was too far off to distinguish. As we got onto some of the side roads though, we did find a small slough, along with its iron-fisted dictator overseeing its subjects, which included Mallards, Northern Pintails, and Green-winged Teals primarily. The dictator of which I speak is the majestic and impassionate Peregrine Falcon, ruler of these wetlands.
As we neared Many Islands Lake, the variety of the sparrows was made up of old familiar faces, some less familiar ones, and some brand new ones to both David and I. First, the Savannah Sparrows were numerous, but nowhere near as widespread as the Vesper Sparrows. Topping off the list though were no small number of Lark Buntings, which we were certain were some strange morph of Vesper or Lark Sparrows… turns out we were both dead wrong! Another old familiar face were the many and numerous Horned Larks, always posing perfectly for the camera.
And while we tend to focus on the birds we see on our outings, one cannot ignore the sheer number of Pronghorn Antelope at the SE corner of the province. In the span of the day, we saw no less than 40 of these beauties, but none came quite as close as this large male.
At Many Islands Lake we saw hundreds of ducks, shorebirds, and even managed to separate out a pair of Hudsonian Godwits among the numerous Marbled Godwits out on the islands, along with a few Willets, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, and Killdeer. Unfortunately they were too far out, and the sun far too hot, to allow for any acceptable photos. Atmospheric aberration at 500mm on a 30+ degree day is stunningly messy.
From Many Islands Lake, we headed south through Medicine Hat, and decided for a brief stop at Red Rock Coulee, between Medicine Hat and Pakowki Lake, turning up a few more Horned Larks, Rock Wren, and our first distinctively clear looks at a Lark Sparrow.
Between Red Rock Coulee and Pakowki Lake, we stopped at a few drainage ditches that ran under the road through culverts, and came across a pair of Loggerhead Shrike. Another bonus bird for the day!
Pakowki Lake gave us good views of Pectoral, Baird’s, and even a lone Stilt Sandpiper. It was a fortunate find, but not so fortunate for the bird who appeared to be suffering from a broken wing. Out on the lake further we spotted Western Grebes, American Avocets, many more Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Killdeer, and Willets.
Leaving Pakowki Lake, we stopped in at Foremost to fill up for gas and spotted a kettle of Common Nighthawks flying overhead. I had no idea they grouped up into such large groups to migrate. David and I estimated at least 40 individuals flying overhead, and at least half that many had already passed before I looked up to investigate that odd “PEENT!” call that they’re so well known for.
We finished the day at Frank Lake in the fading light, adding Clark’s Grebe, Great-horned Owl, and a few others to our list before calling it a day and heading home. In total, our species list came to 104 for the day, with a handful of lifers for the both of us, and many great new places to explore!
Posted by Dan Arndt
One of my favourite trips in the wonderful book “Day Trips from Calgary” by Bill Corbett, is the magical and amazing Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation, located in Coaldale, Alberta. The drive itself is wonderful and offers plenty of opportunities for birding the dozens of lakes, sloughs, and fields in the two and a half hour trip into southern Alberta, but the grounds of the visitor centre would turn any non-birder into a confirmed bird lover.
You don’t even have to go in to the centre to get your bird fix. Surrounding the visitor centre are a series of ponds and marshes that are home not only to shorebirds, but also to passerines, flycatchers, and even large numbers of waterfowl.
“But neither of these are birds of prey!” I hear you shouting. You’re right, they’re not. So, without further ado, on with the show!
Last year, the visitor centre housed a juvenile Swainson’s Hawk, which was penned near the front desk.
This year though, we were greeted by Basil, the Burrowing Owl, who cooed and huffed, but investigated us with as much curiousity as we had about him.
There is a huge portion of the Birds of Prey Foundation that is devoted to rehabilitation of injured or orphaned birds of prey. Some of the current residents are recovering from their injuries, such as the Broad-winged Hawk and the Rough-legged Hawk in their care. Both of these birds are recovering from wing injuries, and will require rehabilitation for quite some time before they can be released back into the wild.
A few others birds on display are of unknown affinity, and I wasn’t able to track any of the volunteers down to ask them for clarification, but they’re beautiful birds nonetheless.
Others are permanent residents of the centre, and are part of breeding programs that are incredibly successful. Both the Merlins and Burrowing Owls are successful parents, and have regularly fledged offspring for quite a few years.
Arguably just as important as the rehabilitation, breeding, and even the care of these gorgeous raptors are the educational animals that they keep on hand, (and in some cases, in hand!) for public events, or even just for a private moment or two with visitors to the Birds of Prey Foundation visitors centre.
It’s hard to narrow down from the dozens of pictures that I took here to figure out just which ones are the best and which ones to post. Even looking over the post now, I know I’ve missed a few species and quite a few great photos that would represent them, but really, it’s worth going and visiting for yourself. They’re open this season until September 10, 2012, and will reopen to the public early next May. Why are you still reading this? Get down there and visit them for yourself!
Posted by Dan Arndt
While this blog usually focuses on the birds in and around Calgary, many folks travel for work, for pleasure, or just to see new great birds in other areas of the province. In the last year, I’ve been up to Elk Island National Park twice, and each time has been absolutely amazing. I look forward to my next visit, and hope it’ll be sooner than next summer, but time is always fleeting and it can be hard to justify a trip without other things to do up there. Plus, with the Friends of Fish Creek Autumn Birding Course starting up in a few weeks, many of my weekends are spoken for!
The Beaver Hills region of Alberta, which includes Elk Island National Park, are a unique topographical area formed by the retreat of the glaciers at the end of the last ice age. As they melted and stagnated, they formed what is known as “kame and kettle topography”. Why is this important to birds, you might ask? These kettle lakes are home to tens of thousands of gulls, shorebirds, and a water source for the surrounding boreal forest that established along the top of the “kames” which are regional topographical highs. In many cases, these are up to a hundred meters higher than the surrounding landscape, and gently sloped on either edge, forming something similar to the foothills style landscape that we’re so used to around Calgary.
Over Heritage Day long weekend, we spent three days up there relaxing by the lake, enjoying the calm, serene waters, and weathering the sometimes frighteningly extreme weather.
Thankfully, the weather lightened up over the next two days allowing for some good sightings of some beautiful and amazing birds, some of which paid us many visits at our campsite over the weekend. This juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was part of a family group that spent every day in the trees nearby.
Western Tanagers are some of the most colourful birds we get in Calgary, and it was great to find not one but two breeding groups on hiking trails in the park.
The main campground is located a stone’s throw from Astotin Lake, which is home to dozens of Red-necked Grebes. Last year, there must have been nearly two-hundred just near the shoreline in late September, but this year, since it was a bit earlier, the numbers weren’t quite so high. The population was still healthy this August, as this adult shows.
Shorebirds were present in small numbers as well, though I would expect by this time, their numbers are much higher, and will continue to climb until late September as migration steps on its perpetual course. A few Semipalmated Sandpipers and Least Sandpipers seemed to be flocking with, and stalking, this Long-billed Dowitcher, who in turn followed around a Greater Yellowlegs every time it was startled and flew off in another direction.
One of my favourite shorebirds was present on the shores of Astotin Lake, and seemed to be the mother (or maybe father?) of at least three juveniles that tentatively poked their heads out of the long grasses every few minutes. This Killdeer kept a wary eye on me and would fly away any time I moved toward it, or toward the young ones, so I simply sat on a picnic table and waited for him to come to me.
Some of the other birds present in good numbers were a couple of flocks of American White Pelicans, Song Sparrows, and even a few Eastern Phoebe made their presence known.
By far though, the flocks that outnumbered all other birds combined were the huge numbers of Barn Swallows swarming over the lakes, and the massive flocks of Franklins and Bonaparte’s gulls, both quickly losing their breeding plumage and entering their winter molts.
Posted by Dan Arndt
Frank Lake has been one of my absolute favourite standby birding areas since I started seriously committing myself to the hobby. It’s been a little over a year now, and I must have visited the lake at least twenty times or so, in all seasons. Winter, Spring, Summer, and Autumn, though I’ll admit, I missed out on some great birds down there last fall as I was finishing up my degree, this year will be a very different story!
While shorebirds and waterfowl are the primary draw, sparrows, wrens, falcons, hawks, and even owls are also regularly seen down there.
Frank Lake is located about an hour south of Calgary, and east of High River on Highway 23. 2012 marks the 60th year of activity at Frank Lake by Ducks Unlimited Canada, and is considered one of almost six hundred of Canada’s Important Bird Areas, and you can find a ton of useful information about Frank Lake (and other Ducks Unlimited projects in Alberta) at the Ducks Unlimited website.
The areas most visited by birders are detailed in the map below, with Basin 1 being by far the most popular location, with a blind, driving loop, and water outflow which provides open water even in the coldest winter months.
Spring – It’s hard to gauge when winter ends and spring begins out at Frank Lake, as it sometimes seems that the water will thaw completely overnight… but the arrival of some of these favourites is a good indication.
Our travelling birders, Alan and Marg, have sent us some pictures of a species that has never appeared on the blog. They were driving along RR181 near Twp 172 when they spotted this bird.
Lark Buntings are very much a bird of the southeastern portion of the province, and breed on the native prairie grasslands. Adult males in breeding plumage are black with large white wing patches, and can’t be mistaken for any other members of the sparrow family. His bill is blueish, and the bottom mandible is paler than the top one. Adult females resemble the other brown, streaked sparrows.
You have to be fairly lucky to see these birds, and the Status of Birds In Canada explains why.
Lark Bunting populations are highly nomadic from year to year, avoiding areas of drought and seeking out areas with adequate rainfall.
This is a difficult species to survey, with populations shifting around the grasslands of North America in response to annual variations in climate. Data from the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) in Canada show large fluctuations and it is not possible to determine the direction of the population trend. BBS data from throughout their range suggest a moderate decline since about 1970, but again, the nomadic nature of the species creates uncertainty in this trend estimate.
Because of marked fluctuations and contradications among the available data sources, it is not possible to determine the population status in Canada.
Today marks the start of a new feature on Birds Calgary. While there are many great birding locations within the city, southern Alberta is awash with birds of all kinds that can be seen during an afternoon drive. The problem is, people who are new to birdwatching, or new to our area, don’t have any idea where to go. If you’re someone who enjoys a rural birding drive with camera in hand, we would love to hear about your route and the birds seen.
A huge thank you to Marg Matheson and Alan Plumb who gave us this idea when they told us about their drives last weekend, so they have the honour of our first Travel Tuesday post!
From Vulcan to Frank Lake is a 30 min drive then another 5 min drive to High River and the park. After leaving High River we went south on a secondary highway meeting and crossing Highway 2 just north of Nanton continuing straight east on gravel then paved to Vulcan..so thats 40 mins total driving time, 1 hour 15 mins with many stops enroute (3 hours) so a nice afternoon out with the puppies.
OK – we know this is a hawk. Anyone care to tell us what species this is? 🙂
Today we travelled from Vulcan East on Highway 534. Continued on Highway 531. Went onto RR 210 south to Highway 529. Then went west to Champion (Sunday brunch at the hotel is very nice, Western and Chinese). We then made our way back to Vulcan.