Tag Archive | birding

Postcards from Texas: Boy Scout Woods

Posted by Matthew Sim

Spring migration is starting to wind down here in Texas and I had still not been to the coast, thanks to a very busy schedule. This was made very painful a little over 2 weeks ago, when on Thursday, April 26th, a cold front grounded migrants and created a massive fallout of birds at coastal hotspots; what many locals were calling the best birding to be had in over 15 years. And I was stuck at school. Friday, there were still migrants everywhere. People were being told to try to avoid stepping on tired migrants that collapsed exhausted by the dozens on paths and lawns. And I was still stuck in school. Well surely I could get out on the weekend? Nope, weekend was already chock full of chores and commitments.

Finally though, on the Sunday I had the day off and I convinced my mom to chauffeur me down to High Island. She agreed (after a little while!) and we set off; though the weather forecast wasn’t going to create a fallout, I was still hoping for some good birds.

We arrived at Boy Scout Woods, a sanctuary run by the Houston Audubon at around 10:30 in the morning. The day got off to a great start when a very tame male Kentucky Warbler put on a show at one of the many small ponds and drips.

Kentucky Warbler

Kentucky Warbler

Things were looking good and as I walked through the woods I soon found my first Scarlet Tanagers and Black-and-white Warblers of the day.

Scarlet Tanager

Scarlet Tanager

I carried on through the woods, seeing more thrushes, vireos, tanagers, flycatchers, grosbeaks, orioles and warblers, including a Worm-eating Warbler which scurried about in the undergrowth, giving me only fleeting glimpses. Things started to quiet down apart from dozens of catbirds and a very vocal Eastern Kingbird.

Eastern Kingbird

Yellow throated Vireos were common throughout the woods.

Yellow throated Vireos were common throughout the woods.

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak

After an hour and a half, with fewer and fewer birds showing up, we decided to head over to another Houston Audubon run sanctuary, Smith Oaks, famous for its heron rookery. Before we left though, we stopped by at a house across from Boy Scout Woods whose front yard was covered in bottle brush and attracted many birds including Baltimore and Orchard Orioles; Tennessee, Chestnut-sided and Canada Warblers and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

Female Orchard Oriole

Female Orchard Oriole

As we left this property, we spotted a Common Nighthawk perched on the street, content to just sit quietly. From there it was on to Smith Oaks! The trip to Smith Oaks will be posted tomorrow, stay tuned.

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Spring Migrants and a warm welcome at Carburn Park

Posted by Dan Arndt

 

Finally we had a warmer day, and while there was a little wind and the light wasn’t perfect, there were certainly a few moments where everything made it all worth while, even the last few weeks of dreary, snowy misery.

Carburn Park

Carburn Park

We started, and finished, with the show-stealers of the day, and it made it difficult to really have anything match the incredible sight.

Great Horned Owls

Great Horned Owls

Protective male Great Horned Owl

Protective male Great Horned Owl

While Dad was protecting the young, the mother and babies were well guarded and seemed to be completely unfazed by the presence of 14 people checking out the area.

In the first pond at Carburn Park, we saw quite a bit of evidence of beaver activity, and we did manage to spot a pair of them swimming about, with this one getting close enough for me to photograph.

Beaver

Beaver

While we headed south in the earliest start of the season so far, we got lucky with a few birds we hadn’t seen before, like the Song Sparrow and Savannah Sparrow, but neither were in any position for me to get photos. Swarmed by low flybys of literally hundreds of Tree Swallows at a time, our eyes were on the sky much of the time, allowing me to spot this distant Rough-legged Hawk circling above the parking lot, most likely rising on thermals to continue his northward migration.

Rough-legged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawk

As we neared the parking lot again, and scanned along the river to see what we could see, we were gifted with this beautiful flyby of a male American White Pelican. Awesome.

male American White Pelican

male American White Pelican

We headed up along the bank of the river, and while we saw a good number of Franklin’s, Ring-billed, and California Gulls, and even bigger numbers of Tree Swallows, but due to the number of boats on the river, the photo opportunities were slim. That all changed once we turned back onto main pathway and reached the second pond. We got really good looks at Red-necked Grebes and a single Common Loon, and I knew that if they stuck around, I’d be back later on with the Swarovski ATX 85 to take some much closer shots.

Common Loon

Common Loon

Our next good views were on the river, one of which was, I think, one of the most surprising of the day. A lone Yellow-headed Blackbird was flocking with a group of European Starlings. For a bird that is almost always seen in cat-tail wetlands, seeing it foraging on the bank of the river was really odd!

Yellow-headed Blackbird and European Starlings

Yellow-headed Blackbird and European Starlings

Another of the awe-inspiring sights was the Tree Swallows banking, diving, and feeding over the Bow River, and I think we had just as much fun watching them.

Tree Swallows on nest box

Tree Swallows on nest box

Tree Swallow in flight

Tree Swallow in flight

Tree Swallows going for a drink

Tree Swallows going for a drink

We headed back, prepared to call it a day, and had our best views of a pair of Osprey in the distance.

Osprey

Osprey

After the rest of the group left, I returned to the bank of the second pond to see what I could see through the scope, and get some better photos of the Red-necked Grebes, Common Loon, and I ended up getting some nice ones of the Great Horned Owls as well!

Common Loon

Common Loon

Common Loon

Common Loon

Red-necked Grebe

Red-necked Grebe

Red-necked Grebe

Red-necked Grebe

Muskrat

Muskrat

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

Aren't they just adorable?

Aren’t they just adorable?

Thanks for reading!

Next week, we’re off to South Glenmore Park, to see what we can see on the Glenmore Reservoir, and maybe luck out with some early arriving warblers and a few more sparrows.

 

Good birding!

Friends of Fish Creek Autumn Birding – Week 9 – Elliston Park

Posted by Dan Arndt

Located on the eastern edge of Calgary, Elliston Park boasts the distinction of being the second largest body of water in the city limits, with a 20 hectare storm-water retention pond, stands of poplar, ash, and spruce located around the lake, and in the course of the week, over fifty species of birds were seen on or around the lake.

When I woke up on Sunday morning to head out to the lake, I was greeted by a bright, sunny sky, with great light, above-zero temperatures, and a very good feeling that it would be an incredible walk, and how right I was!

Elliston Park

Elliston Park route

 

When we arrived at the park, it was nearly completely full of geese, ducks, and gulls galore. The western half of the lake had frozen over, and the eastern end was still open, making the area where the ice meets the water the congregation point for the various waterfowl, with the gulls resting just behind them.

 

We headed around the north end of the lake first, into the poplars and aspen that border the fence on 17th Avenue SE, in hope of catching some Common Redpolls, or maybe a finch species or two. We were delighted when we came across this Townsend’s Solitaire that stopped to take a look at us and then flew right by.

Townsend's Solitaire

Townsend’s Solitaire

As we cleared the first stand of trees we got a great view of the rest of the lake, and all the birds out on the water and on the ice.

View of Elliston Lake

View of Elliston Lake

As we neared the east end of the lake, it became clear that we were getting a little too close for comfort for the large numbers of Canada Geese. Either that, or it was just their time to take off and go forage the surrounding fields for breakfast.

Canada Geese taking off

Canada Geese taking off

In the northeast bay of the reservoir we got wonderful looks at a pair of grebes that aren’t often seen together, though both have been seen regularly all summer. These grebes had been seen in this bay all week, and the excellent light and close proximity made even my stand-by 18-250 lens get close enough for some good shots! On top of that, there were quite a few Hooded Mergansers in the lake, and these three also posed nicely to have their photo taken.

Pied-billed and Red-necked Grebes

Pied-billed and Red-necked Grebes

Hooded Mergansers

Hooded Mergansers

 

As we rounded the lake, we found this small flock of House Finches, which gave us a bit of trouble with identification. They sure looked like House Finches, but their vocaluizations were very unusual and sounded more like Purple Finches. In fact, one of the males was much deeper red, almost purple, unfortunately none of the photos I snapped of that one turned out, so here’s the other, more normal looking male.

House Finches

House Finches

 

As we continued south and walked along the east shore, we had brief glimpses of a Northern Harrier harassing some gulls on a large pond east of the park, a rather noisy Blue Jay, and many more good looks at a few straggling Ruddy Ducks, Lesser Scaup, Green-winged Teal, and even a close overflight of Common Mergansers. The last of the waterfowl we picked out from the crowd was a lone Barrow’s Goldeneye, picked out by the crescent shaped patch behind the bill, the spotted pattern on the back, and lastly by the green, rather than purple iridescence of the head plumage of the Common Goldeneye. Quite a sight to see!

Barrow's Goldeneye

Barrow’s Goldeneye

Our last, and I would say possibly best bird of the day was this lone Golden-crowned Kinglet. I heard its distinctive “seet” calls in the last stand of spruce trees before the parking lot, and decided to pull out my phone and turn on my Sibley Guide app and see if it would come in for a visit. Here are the results:

Curious Kinglet

This curious Golden-crowned Kinglet was beginning to display the orange streak hidden beneath its bright yellow crest.

Curious Kinglet gets close

And then it came in to investigate even closer. At one point it was less than two feet away from me. What an experience!

Thanks once again for reading! Have a great week of winter birding!

 

 

 

Friends of Fish Creek Birding Course – Week 4 – Carburn Park

Posted by Dan Arndt

One of the regular parks attended by the Friends of Fish Creek birding courses is Carburn Park. Located just off Deerfoot Trail, it is an oasis of mixed deciduous and coniferous forest in the middle of the urban landscape, and is adjacent to Beaverdam Flats to the north, and the Southland Dog Park to the west. The route we took this week took us from the parking lot, south to a small grove of trees containing a special surprise for us, exploring some bird feeders just off the main trail, then back up along the river before returning to our vehicles by way of the east bank of the middle pond.

 

For some reason, I was pretty gung-ho about taking photos for the first half of the walk, but once we got near the ponds there weren’t a lot of opportunities given the general shyness of the birds, the close foliage, and shooting into the light, I didn’t really get many good opportunities.

Carburn Park

Carburn Park

Our first stop of the morning was at the bridge that crosses the Bow River, and but unfortunately there weren’t too many birds on, or over the water. What we did get was this (relatively) gorgeous Rock Pigeon posing gracefully on this dead tree limb.

Rock Pigeon

Rock Pigeon

Heading south along the river, we had hopes of flushing a Ring-necked Pheasant, or seeing something interesting on the river, or at the very least, getting some interesting birds at the bird feeders, but as they hadn’t been seen on any of the walks this week, we were quite surprised at a trio of Great-Horned Owls at the southern-most point of our walk!

Great-horned Owl

Great-horned Owl

Great-horned Owl

Great-horned Owl

This one thought that he could hide from the shutterbugs clicking away with their cameras…

Great-Horned Owl

Great-Horned Owl

Moving over to the feeders and allowing these owls their space, we came upon a large mixed flock of sparrows and warblers in a large Russian Olive tree. Orange-crowned Warblers, Yell0w-rumped Warblers, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, and even a pair of American Tree Sparrows!

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

Our walk continued with a few other nice sightings. Common Mergansers fishing alongside large flocks of Ring-billed Gulls resting on the gravel bars, and even a small flock of Green-winged Teals flushed up by one of the many fishing rafts on the river. One of the Ring-billed Gulls had managed to pluck a small fish from the river, causing all the other gulls around to fly at it in an attempt to steal away an easy meal. Sadly, I don’t think any of them ended up with lunch in all the commotion!

Along the river was also a stretch of about 10 meters that was highly productive, with many Black-capped Chickadees, a few Ruby-crowned Kinglets, another pair of Orange-crowned Warblers, Belted Kingfishers, Northern Flickers and a Downy Woodpecker to top off the list. Around the corner from there was another gravel bar populated entirely by Ring-billed Gulls, and this juvenile posed nicely for us. It wasn’t until it began walking away that we noticed that it was injured, with its tail-feathers skewed off to the side making it seemingly unable to fly.

juvenile Ring-billed Gull

juvenile Ring-billed Gull

We trudged through the woods getting very good, close looks at a lone Golden-crowned Kinglet, a Red-necked Grebe on the middle pond, and a few Buffleheads on the far north pond. On our way back along the east side of the middle pond, we were assaulted by another small flock of Black-capped Chickadees in search of a handout.

Black-capped Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee

As we rounded the bend and neared the parking lot, a few of us were reflecting that we hadn’t seen a Muskrat in any of the ponds. Sure enough, within a few moments, this little guy swam over to the far bank and hung around just long enough for us to get some shots of him.

Looks like we’ll be touring the Elbow River, from Stanley Park through to the Glenmore Dam.

Good birding!

 

 

 

 

Travel Tuesday – Elk Island National Park

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.

Storm over Astotin Lake

This storm cell over Astotin Lake was so severe that we were asked to evacuate our campsite and take shelter in our vehicle.

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.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

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.

Western Tanager

Western Tanager

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.

Red-necked Grebe

A Red-necked Grebe finds his favourite fish breakfast.

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.

Long-billed Dowitcher

Long-billed Dowitcher

Greater Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs

Semipalmated Sandpipers (centre, left) and Least Sandpiper (front right).

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.

Killdeer

Killdeer

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.

American White Pelican

American White Pelican

Evil Phoebe

This Eastern Phoebe looks downright evil with the flash reflection in its eye!

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.

Mostly Bonaparte’s Gulls with a few Franklin’s Gulls thrown in just to make things interesting (and confusing!).

 

Good birding!

Bowmont Park – An old favourite made new again

Posted by Dan Arndt

The Friends of Fish Creek Spring Birding Course spent the last two weeks visiting Bowmont Park, and then revisiting the Weaselhead the following week. Bowmont Park was rather quiet, and seemed to be a little less productive than most of our other locations, or so it seemed to me after the weeks prior to that adding so many new birds to my year list. The Weaselhead, which I’ll highlight later this week, seemed rather unproductive as well, but both of these locations provided some really great views of birds that tend to be rather discreet. Enjoy the photos and stories this week.

Bowmont Park

Bowmont Park

As a cyclist in Calgary, I’ve been through Bowmont Park a number of times, up on the hillside, down by the river, and all through many of the winding back trails in between. It’s almost definitive of the sort of environment that Calgary resides in. From the sheer cliff faces cut into the glacial till housing Bank Swallow nests on the north face, to the various small ponds home to Spotted Sandpipers, Blue-winged Teal, Mallards, and various other waterfowl, to the open prairie grasses on the hilltops home to White-crowned, Savannah, and Clay-colored Sparrows, it features everything from the foothills to west, to the plains to the east, and the range of birds that one would and could expect throughout.

It seemed a quiet day overall though, but we did get some good looks at a House Wren early on.

House Wren

House Wren

Northern Rough-winged Swallows, though not incredibly numerous, were just hanging around on some wires…

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

and in the air above the ponds.

 

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

This Osprey was busy flying back and forth from the river, providing for its mate sitting on the nest, and while there weren’t any chicks visible, chances are pretty good that she was at least incubating some eggs.

Osprey

Osprey

One spring bird that was in huge numbers were the Cedar Waxwings, many of which were posing nicely in the sunlight for us, while exhibiting their usual behaviour of resting on the edge of a branch before flying out briefly to snatch a fly, moth, or other flying insect right from the air before returning to the branch and swallowing it down.

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing

On top of the cliffs were a pair of Gray Catbirds which we could hear from half a kilometer away, calling back and forth among the caragana bushes continuously as we passed by.

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird

As we returned along the main pathway by the Bow River, we noticed a number of knotholes in the poplar trees lining the river valley, many of which housed Tree Swallows protecting their eggs from predators.

Tree Swallow in nest

Tree Swallow in nest

Also in protective mode were the American Crows, which were spotted harassing three separate Red-tailed Hawks in the distance as we reached the end of the pathway, and the end of our walk.

Crows harassing Red-tailed Hawk

Crows harassing Red-tailed Hawk

 

Good birding!

 

 

 

Birds and Beers (or, getting to know your fellow birders)

Posted by Dan Arndt

As a relatively new “serious” birder, I have a confession to make. Until about a year ago, I couldn’t tell you the difference between a Gadwall and a Northern Shoveler, a Bohemian Waxwing and a Cedar Waxwing, or in most cases, a Red-tailed Hawk and a Swainson’s Hawk. A lot of my job entails a lot of detail oriented work, that can be relatively monotonous, and I found that listening to something helped while away the time. I stumbled across Sharon Stiteler’s Birdchick podcast, and immediately knew that I’d found something great.

It’s not for everyone, and can sometimes get a little “blue”, but I find that it covers a lot of great birding news and information in North America, and it’s incredibly funny too. One of the things that Sharon has been great at promoting is the idea that birders really should just get to know each other better. Whether it be just to chat, share stories and experiences, or just as importantly, to be approachable not only to each other, but to folks who are completely inexperienced and who want to become more “serious” birders.

One of the greatest ideas for this is her “Birds and Beers” meetups, which are held semi-regularly, and generally well attended. I’m involved in a similar sort of meetup here in Calgary, with another group that I am involved with, the Calgary Skeptics, and we’ve run these events solidly for the past three years with good success and good turnout.

I agree with Sharon. Birders, especially those with a ton of experience, can be a little intimidating to talk to. Gulls, flycatchers, warblers, shorebirds, and many, many other groups can be very hard to identify properly, and no one wants to say “Hey, look at that Tennessee Warbler!” when you’re not entirely sure if it’s a Tennessee, a Nashville, an Orange-crowned, or even just a female Wilson’s Warbler. That goes doubly so when you’ve got incredibly experienced birders around who, one might expect, would be quick to chastise you for making an incorrect ID. What I’ve learned though, is that EVERYONE misidentifies birds. Even the most experienced and revered birders in the Calgary community have made mistakes, and will continue to make mistakes in the future. It’s really one of the only ways to get better!

But don’t take it from me. Come out to Calgary’s inaugural Birds and Beers on Thursday, May 10, 2012. We’ll be meeting at the Joyce on Fourth Irish Pub at 7:00 PM, and I definitely hope to see you and many others in Calgary’s birding community out there!