Tag Archive | bird calgary blog

Famous Birders: Gus Yaki

Posted by Matthew Sim

It has been a while since I last did a famous birders post but today, we have a very special expert birder and naturalist who some, if not most of us know personally; Gus Yaki.

Photo by Bob Lefebvre. Gus with an injured Ring-billed Gull.

Gus is a lifelong naturalist who has had a profound effect on numerous Calgarians, Albertans and people from across Canada and many other countries, including me. In November 2009, I was just starting to get seriously into birding and enjoying nature when I went on a Nature Calgary field trip to Fish Creek PP led by Gus; he did such a great job leading the trip that he helped to propel me into the world of birding.  Gus leads many trips throughout the year whether they be birding, botany or anything else dealing with nature, you can see some excursions that he will be leading for Nature Calgary in the near future  here.

Originally from North Battleford Saskatchewan, Gus used to walk 3 miles to school each day and got to learn and enjoy local fauna and flora this way. He started a nature tour service and, in 1983, led a trip around North America, following in the footsteps of Roger Peterson and James Fisher who had gone 30,000 miles around North America 30 years earlier. As Peterson’s and Fisher’s journey was immortalized in the book Wild America, so Gus’ trip was immortalized in the book, Looking for the Wild, written by Lyn Hancock, who was on the trip with Gus. Gus is very active in all conservation, birding and overall nature aspects of Calgary and, for me, is undoubtedly qualified as a famous birder.

Below are some questions I asked Gus about various aspects of his birding and natural life and his responses.

Note: Photos below courtesy of  http://www.stmu.ab.ca/

Image courtesy http://www.stmu.ab.ca

When did you become interested in birds and nature? 
I had nothing to do for nine months before I was born, so I listed all the bird sounds that I heard: as a result, I had a life-list (heard only) of 14 species when I took my first breath.
Seriously though, I don’t ever remember not being interested in birds and nature. One of my first teachers had a little 3 x 6 inch bird booklet. Walking almost three miles to school, I would see a bird on its nest. At school, during recess, I would thumb through this little publication to find a matching description. On the way home, I would confirm that I had correctly identified it.
Later, the CCF government provided a lending library service to those living in Saskatchewan, so I was able to borrow such books as Birds of Canada by P. A. Taverner, with illiustrations by Allan Brooks. Needless to say, I soaked up those illustrations and texts, so that when I saw the real thing, I was able to instantly identify it.
By then, I had realized that birds were only part of nature: they needed the other plant and animal species to provide food, shelter, and reproductive services – as did all other species, so naturally, I expanded my horizon accordingly.
You led birding tours; how many different countries have you visited while birding and what are some of your favorite countries to visit for experiencing nature?
Yes, I started my own nature tour company, “NATURE TRAVEL SERVICE” in 1972, and personally traveled to some 76 political entities. Places such as Antarctica and the Svalbard Islands (Spitzbergen) are not countries – thus entities. I did operate tours to additional destinations, which others led for me.
What were some of my favourites? I have been frequently asked that. I usually reply that it is the place that I am at that time. In terms of the most bang for the buck, I would have to reply that it would be East Africa – particularly Kenya and Tanzania. The masses of mammalian life was outstanding. On one trip, we saw at least 75 species of mammals. One day we recorded 34 species – some of them in the hundreds of thousands, and the total for the day was in excess of a million individuals. To put that into perspective, when I moved to Calgary in 1993, after going afield almost every day, it took me six months to see 34 mammal species – and usually only one of a kind at that.
On one four week trip to Kenya, we saw 618 species of birds – more than all the species ever reported as being seen in Canada.
Other notable destinations would include Australia, which has some 750 species – many belonging to totally different families than we have.
In late March, Israel was also spectacular, observing a million birds of prey and storks, etc., using the Great Rift Valley to migrate out of Africa, and then spreading throughout Asia and Eastern Europe.
South America is known as the Bird Continent, because it hosts over 3,000 species. This diversity is great – but the richest areas are in forests, and that makes it more difficult to see many of those species.
What has been one of your most memorable birding experience?
Apart from seeing the sights in Kenya and Israel, mentioned above, my most memorable sighting was of 17 Whooping Cranes that were migrating south on 20 Aug, 1946. At that time, supposedly there were only about 21 individuals of this species alive in the world. This small population’s nesting ground in Wood Buffalo National Park was then still unknown, not discovered until 1954. Most wintered at Aransas Nat. Wildlife Refuge in Texas.
The day before, 19Aug1946, I had witnessed 100,000+ Sandhill Cranes flying southward over me all day. The next day, the Sandhills again poured over me in similar numbers. Just before noon, a flock of about 20 low-flying Sandhills suddenly appeared immediately above the trees just at the north edge of the field where I was stooking sheaves of grain. Upon reaching the open sun-lit field, the Sandhills encountered a thermal and began to circle and rise up. As I watched them, I noted a flock of white birds, which I first assumed to be gulls, also circling to the NW of me. However, they soon ceased their circling, probably not having an effective thermal, and headed my way, ultimately joining the Sandhill Crane flock above me. The two species joined and circled together, ever gaining altitude – and eventually drifted off in a SSE direction. Both species were similar in same size and shape. The white birds had black primaries – and thus could only have been Whooping Cranes. When you plot a straight line from Wood Buffalo to Aransas, it takes you right over where I was watching these birds, about 35 miles, NNE of North Battleford, Saskatchewan.
People questioning me about this sighting have suggested that the white birds might have been American White Pelicans or Snow Geese. The fact that the two species where so similar, with neck outstretched and long trailing legs, totally rules out any species other than Whooping Cranes.
How many birds have you seen in your lifetime?
I have never counted the species, but I would estimate that I may have seen at least half of the currently recognized total of 10,000 species – thus about 5,000 species.
I never set out to observe as many species as I could – instead, I made sure that my participants could see all that was available at each destination. I repeately visited the same countries, etc., but had I made a point of visiting new ones each year, the total obviously would have been much greater.
How have bird populations changed from what you have seen throughout the years, especially those in Calgary?
Sadly, many species have had dramatic declines. I remember Point Pelee National Park in Ontario well. I first visited it one weekend in May1952, when we saw 1000 Wood Thrushes ahead of us on the road as we drove along. By the late 1990s, when I was spending up to three weeks there, we wouldn’t see a single thrush of any species. A similar story involves the wood warblers. I recall seeing 34 species of warblers (and other small birds in a single tree) at one time one day. Today, it might take you a full two weeks, scouring the entire park, to see all of them.
Re: Calgary, some of the raptors, especially Ospreys and Bald Eagles have increased in numbers, with the cessation of the use of DDT in Canada and USA. However, I noticed a big decline in Swainson’s Hawk numbers; initially we regularly saw 50 or more individuals when driving from Calgary to Canmore. About 15 years ago, their numbers dwindled down to five sightings. This was probably attributable to the insecticide used to kill grasshoppers in Argentina, the winter home of Swainson’s. In my early years here, some seven pairs of American Kestrels regularly nested at Inglewood Bird Sanctuary. Their numbers have now dropped to zero in most years.
Shortly after arriving in Calgary in 1993, I started a monthly walk along the Elbow River, from Stanley Park to the Glenmore Reservoir. Since then, at least 14 species of birds that were relatively regular breeders, such as Belted Kingfisher, Eastern Kingbird, Western Wood-Pewee, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Baltimore Orioles, etc., have totally disappeared. Other abundant species, such as House Wrens and Yellow Warblers, have also greatly declined.
Where is your favorite location to bird in Calgary?
This varies with the season. In spring and autumn, the Glenmore Reservoir is host to many species of waterfowl. The White Spruce forests in the western end of Fish Creek Prov. Park, Weaselhead and Griffith Woods Park host a number of rarer passerines. The Bow River is a mecca to winter waterfowl, and attract many migrants and breeding species at other times of the year..
Advertisements

Postcards from Texas: Hawks and hummingbirds

Posted by Matthew Sim

Here I am, back in Houston, Texas once again for the school year and enjoying the southern birding. Last weekend I was able to make a trip from Houston down to the Gulf coast to several world-reknown birding spots, Smith Point and High Island.

We started out at Smith Point, where a hawk watch is held every year from September through November at the Candy Abashier Wildlife Management Area, counting migrating raptors on their journeys south. As soon as we stepped out of the car, we were treated to good looks at several American Kestrels and Sharp-shinned Hawks passing by upon their migration. Also, several groups of American White Pelicans greeted us. We got onto the 30 foot observation tower next, stopping to watch dozens of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds feed at the hummingbird feeders set up for them on the platform. While watching the hummingbirds, we noticed one leucisitic female. Leucism is when reduced pigmentation in an animal causes it to be partially white. In this case, the female Ruby-throated Hummingbird’s forehead was white, instead of being the normal green.

After watching the hummingbirds for several minutes we scanned the sky looking for migrating raptors though by this time it was late morning and most of the hawks had already soared upward on the thermals (columns of warm, rising air) and were mere specks in the sky. We did see several small groups of Broad-winged Hawks, a Peregrine Falcon, a Northern harrier and many Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks, the latter two which thankfully stayed fairly low, making some nice passes right by the tower. We also spotted several distant Magnificent Frigatebirds.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

We stayed for a while longer, realizing, that the earlier we get out the better birding there will be, though it was a couple hours drive just to get to Smith Point. Eventually, we left the hawk watch and went to another spot on the point, James H. Robbins Park where we saw quite a few shorebirds, including Least Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstones, American Oystercatchers and Semipalmated Plovers.

Semipalmated Plover

By now, the temperature was starting to climb so we decided to make just one last stop before heading home, world famous High Island which is well known for its amazing spring migrations, though it can be good in the fall as well. We attempted to get to Smith Oaks Bird Sanctuary though we soon discovered that the sanctuary was filled with mosquitoes, who spared no mercy on our exposed arms, legs and necks. After 3 minutes we were done. Dismayed we tried the Boy Scout Woods sanctuary, also in High Island though it was filled with mosquitos as well and a 5 minute stay was all we could manage. The one positive of High Island was I did get to see 2 Inca Doves, a new bird for me at Boy Scout Woods, though the ferocious mosquitoes made sure I did not get to fully enjoy these lifers.

It was a great trip and I did learn some new things about Texas birdwatching:

  • try to get to Smith Point before the hawks soar into the stratosphere!
  • High Island+ fall= lots of mosquitoes!

Bird Profile: Least Sandpiper, the smallest of them all

Last week I went out for a walk in my neighborhood down here in Houston, Texas. As I walked along a storm water retention basin, I noticed 2 very small shorebirds hanging out with the usual Killdeer. Upon further investigation, I discovered that they were Least Sandpipers, a species that shows up several times a year in my neighborhood during migration.

These Least Sandpipers are quite unique and their name might give you a hint as to why; this species is the smallest shorebird in the world at a mere 13-15 cm in length and weighing only 19-30 grams. The pair that I saw provided an interesting look at differences in plumage, while one was a drab adult in winter plumage, the other was a more brightly colored juvenile.

Adult Least Sandpiper in winter plumage

Juvenile Least Sandpiper

The Least Sandpiper is a shorebird known as a peep, a group of small, difficult to identify sandpipers. While many “peeps” can be challenging to identify, the Least Sandpiper is usually fairly easy to name. The number one characteristic that separates the Least from other peeps is its yellow legs, (the others have black legs) though sometimes their legs can appear dark in poor light or when covered with mud. I once read an interesting article from the American Birding Association (ABA) that described how to identify peeps based on posture; the Least Sandpiper, it said, could be separated from the other 4 regularly occurring North American peeps by these habits:

  1. They typically feed from a crouched position with their “knees” (tibia-tarsus joint) almost brushing the ground
  2. The way they plant their feet can often make it seem like they are feeding between their toes though this is not quite as evident in my photos
  3. Least Sandpipers also seem quite nervous, glancing around a lot and freezing at any sudden noise or motion.

Least Sandpiper in breeding plumage

I found this ABA article quite interesting because it adds a whole new dimension to birding, birding by posture, that not everybody may use or be aware of. You can read the full article here.

While the Least Sandpipers I saw this past week were quite timid as always, once I sat down and waited patiently, the juvenile approached me and passed by me within feet, though I had to be careful not to make any sudden motions.

Least Sandpipers have likely all passed through Calgary already on the way back from their arctic breeding grounds to warmer regions in the southern U.S.A., Mexico and South America where they will spend the winter however next May they will be right back again, to complete their long travels once again.

Migration at Hull’s Wood

Posted by Matthew Sim

Last week I rode my bike down to Hull’s Wood in Fish Creek P.P. twice to see how migration was coming along; I was not disappointed! As I rode through the woods both times, the chips of warblers and sparrows emanated from the trees and shrubs along the river. The woods were full of Yellow Warblers, Chipping Sparrows, House Wrens, Least Flycatchers and Warbling Vireos (not all of these were migrants) while several American Redstarts, Tennessee Warblers, Northern Waterthrushes and Baltimore Orioles were also present. There was also a single male Wilson’s Warbler, a single Yellow-rumped Warbler and a single Connecticut Warbler.

Least Flycatcher

Connecticut Warbler

Tennessee Warbler

This was all quite exciting but by 10:30 a.m. both days things quieted down for warblers so I went to Lafarge Meadows to check out shorebirds. Both days I found 6 species of shorebirds in Lafarge Meadows along the Bow River; Solitary and Spotted Sandpipers, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Killdeer and Wilson’s Snipe.

Lesser Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs

Migration is coming along well, so if you have the opportunity, get out there! There are lots of great spots in and around Calgary for migrating birds whether it be Inglewood Bird Sanctuary, Confederation Park, Weed Lake, Fish Creek P.P. or your own yard, find your favorite spot for migration and sit back and enjoy the show!

Something old, something new

Posted by Matthew Sim

For the third straight year, on a camping trip to southeastern British Columbia, I watched a family of Common Loons as they went about their lives despite living on a very busy lake and getting quite a bit of disturbance from vacationing families. As we watched the parents (something old as I have seen them before) tending to their young (something new) I couldn’t quite help but be amazed at how they can continue call the lake home despite the popularity of the lake among campers.

This year, there were two young loons. You may remember from last year’s post that there was only one chick last year (last year’s post can be seen here). It was quite remarkable to watch how the adult loons worked together this year with two chicks instead of one; sometimes each parent would take care of one of the chicks while at other times, one parent would give the other a break and watch over both chicks for a while before the parents eventually switched.

Though loons can be very sensitive to disturbance, these loons seem to have adapted well to human presence. Also, there is no motorized boat traffic on their lake, so maybe they are fine with kayakers, canoes and swimmers.

Off to feed its young

Common Loons nest on small islands, muskrat lodges and sometimes on the shores of their lake if these shores are forested and undisturbed. They lay one or two (sometimes three) eggs and take turns incubating these eggs for 28-30 days before the black, downy chicks are hatched.  These chicks can swim  immediately and they leave the nest with their parents within 24 hours of hatching. Though they can swim, for the first 2 weeks they will often ride on their parents backs perhaps to stay warm and avoid predators. Within six to eight weeks the young will be the size of the adults but until about eight weeks, they will continue to be fed by their parents. I noticed that of the 2 chicks, one seemed to be very independent already while the other one stayed close to at least one adult. Perhaps they had hatched several days apart?

The more dependent of the two chicks being fed; or maybe it just enjoyed free food?!

By three months, mountain lakes such as this one start to get colder and eventually the loons will have to leave; by three months the young can fly. During the 4 days that I was there,  the young loons attempted flying a few times, though judging by all the splashing and flopping around, they still need some more practice.

Learning to fly

I found it quite interesting to observe the loons. Often, when I would watch them from a distance, patience would pay off and they would eventually swim quite close to me, within a few feet. The young ones seemed to be especially curious and would often linger around my raft. I had a great time watching the loons and spent many hours with them up close, learning different aspects of their lives. I got plenty of photos and as these seem to tell a story better than words I will leave it at that.

The Scientific names of Birds

Recently, some birding friends and I were in the mountains listening to the strange song of the Varied Thrush. While its song may not always be described as beautiful, its plumage is definitely gorgeous and we thought its name did not do justice to its beauty. One topic brought us onto the next and soon we were discussing Latin names. While many birders tend to overlook the scientific names of birds, these titles can be quite interesting though I know I certainly had trouble digesting all the taxonomy and etymology! If you enjoy wrapping your heads around this, read on! If you’re like me though, it may seem simply too much!

I was looking in the Federation of Alberta Naturalists ‘Field Guide to Alberta Birds’ (1998) when I noticed that the authors had the etymology (study of the origin of names) of the birds scientific names translated. However, before we get to etymology, let’s look at taxonomy (the classification of species).

All birds are in the Animal Kingdom (Animalia), the Chordata Phylum (with a backbone), and the Class Aves (birds). This is where the similarities stop though and the birds separate into their respective Orders such as Falconiformes (hawks and eagles) and Passeriformes (Passerines). Then, species are divided down into Families for example Parulidae (Wood-Warblers.) After the Families come the subdivisions of Genus and Species. These last two are used in the bird’s scientific name as binomial nomenclature, which describes the species of living organism.  For example, a Red-breasted Nuthatch is Sitta canadensis. The word ‘Sitta‘ is the nuthatches genus and ‘candensis’ is the name that specifically describes the Red-breasted Nuthatch. With the name Sitta canadensis, scientists everywhere know that you are talking about the Red-breasted Nuthatch. This is where the classification of species ends and we can look at the origin of the species’ binomial nomenclature and the etymology of the name.

The Red-breasted Nuthatch’s scientific name is Sitta candensis

Etymology, the origin of words can be fascinating. I found that some of the scientific names of birds were quite interesting, for example the Red-necked Grebe. This grebe’s genus name is Podiceps which is Latin and means “rump foot”, referring to the posterior position of the grebe’s feet. Its species name, grisegena, is also Latin and can be translated to “gray cheek”. Thus when we look at the whole scientific name and try to make sense of it, we might come out with something like “gray-cheeked rump foot”, which in itself, can be quite descriptive of the Red-necked Grebe.

Yep, the Red-necked Grebe definitely has a gray cheek!

Here are a few more bird names and their meanings.

Black-crowned Night Heron- Nycticorax nycticorax nyctos: “night” and corax: “a crow”. Basically, a night crow!

Gadwall- Anas streperaAnas: “a duck” and strepera: “noisy”.  A noisy duck? Names like this really make me look at the species again as I never really thought of the Gadwall as a noisy duck.

Barrow’s Goldeneye- Bucephala islandica Bous: “bull”, kephale: “head” and islandica: “of Iceland”. Giving us… “Bull-head of Iceland”. Interesting.

Bald Eagle- Haliaeetus leucocephalushalos: “the sea”, aetos: “eagle”, leucocephalus- leukos: “white” and cephalus: “head”. White-headed Sea Eagle sounds descriptive!

Least Sandpiper- Calidris minutilla Calidris: ” a gray speckled sandpiper”, minutilla: “very small”. Very small gray speckled sandpiper is right- these guys only weigh 24 grams.

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher- Empidonax flaviventris Empidonax: “King of the gnats”, flaviventris: “yellow-bellied”. What a name! Yellow-bellied King of the gnats!

Tennessee Warbler- Vermivora peregrinaVermivora- vermis: “worm”, voro: “eater”, peregrina: “to wander”. Wandering worm-eater perhaps?

Lark Sparrow- Chondestes grammacus Chondestes: “grain eater”, grammacus: “striped”. Striped grain eater.

Lots of cool names in this book to look at though I must admit that some don’t seem to make much sense. I also find that I learn a lot about species when I know their Latin names as then it might tell me more, for example how Gadwall’s Latin name means noisy duck. Then you’ve got the neat names such as Empidonax meaning ‘King of the gnats’! Very interesting and worthwhile to know the scientific names!