Tag Archive | calgary birdwatching


 Posted by Matthew Sim

It was a bright, sunny winter afternoon in Calgary, nearly two years ago to the day. I had just retreated from a chilly walk around my neighborhood and was warming up when I happened to glance out the upstairs window. Upon doing so, I noticed a strange shape down on the snow. It took me a minute to figure it out, but once I realized what I was looking at, the story began to come together piece by piece. See what you come up with.

When you looked at this shot, you might have said that you see a bird’s impression in the snow. You would have been right. Now, you might have been a little more specific and described seeing a raptor’s impression. If you got this far, you did great. It’s not very easy to deduce much else. However, some may have gone even further, observing the shape of the raptor, comparing with descriptions in field guides and creating a list of possible suspects based on the fact that this was taken in Calgary, during the winter. If you came up with a few possible suspects, great work. But did you go any further?

If you did, you might have come up with a Sharp-shinned Hawk. You would be right. The wings are too rounded for Merlin or any other falcon, shape too small and body shape not to the right proportions of a buteo such as a Rough-legged or Red-tailed Hawk and the shape is once again far too small for either an eagle or a goshawk. Therefore it must be a Sharp-shinned Hawk. My neighborhood in Calgary has a healthy population of 4-6 Sharp-shinned Hawks so this make sense. From here, we can piece together a story,

Imagine a Sharp-shinned Hawk flying maybe 30-40 feet high, perhaps a little lower, circling at times. From its vantage, the raptor notices a small movement in the fresh snow below. Diving down, it attempts to nab a vole caught out in the open, plunging deep into the unmarked snow. Then what? Tough to say, and it will be a great mystery; we can only speculate at the final result but here is a breakdown of the photo.

I still wonder about the impression in the top right; what happened? Did the vole escape the hawk’s clutches the first time only to succumb to the second attempt? Did the hawk attempt to lift off without getting enough momentum the first go? Or was the impression in the corner caused  by snow falling off a tree limb?

It was quite interesting to see all the same, regardless of what the result was.

Sunday Showcase: More Starlings

Posted by Matthew Sim

This summer while I was up in Calgary, I noticed a lot of starlings as well, especially in Fish Creek P.P. On one of my excursions to the park, I positioned myself beneath a Starling’s nest hole and managed to capture a few shots as the bird descended to feed it’s young.

Preparing for landing…

Landing; note food in beak

At nest hole; seems to be startled by the ferocity of its two young!



Calgary Herald Bird Photography competition

Posted by Matthew Sim

Interested in entering a local bird photography competition? For those of you who haven’t yet seen the article, the Calgary Herald is having a contest for bird photos seen in and around Calgary with the chance to win a copy of the National Geographic Bird Watcher’s Bible: A Complete Treasury.  There are 4 simple ways to enter:

1. Tweet your photo on Twitter with the hashtag #yycphotovote in the tweet.

2. Submit your photo via Instagram with hashtag #yycphotovote in the caption.

3. Post it to the Calgary Herald’s Facebook page.

4. Email the photo as an attachment to readercontributions@calgaryherald.com.

Swainson’s Hawk

If you haven’t submitted any photos, go ahead and give it a try! The winners will be announced next Sunday on the Calgary Herald’s Facebook page. You can find out more about the competition here.

Good luck!


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..

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!

Clash of the herons

Posted by Matthew Sim

On a recent bike ride of mine to Votier’s Flats in Fish Creek P.P. I came across a juvenile Great Blue Heron in a storm water pond so I got myself into a good position to photograph it. I sat watching and photographing the heron for some time when suddenly, an adult Great Blue flew in.

Juvenile Great Blue Heron

A rather impressive landing…

The adult heron seemed to “own” the ponds and did not take kindly to the young heron fishing in his waters. The adult proceeded to hunch himself up in a bid to frighten the juvenile.

All hunched up, the adult Great Blue proceeded to hurriedly chase the juvenile around the pond until finally the young heron took a running start and flew off.

Taking off with a running start.

Far from being content however, the adult flew after the young one and the two of them disappeared over the hills. I didn’t move from my position however, because I had a feeling that at least one of the herons would be returning. Sure, enough, several minutes later, the adult returned finally content at having chased the young upstart off of his territory.

Finally able to relax and scratch his head.

A trip to Waterton

Posted by Matthew Sim

Recently, the Fur & Feathers 500 team ( a group of 4 birders/ naturalists from Calgary attempting to see 500 species of birds and mammals in Canada in 2012) visited Waterton Lakes N.P. in the hopes of adding several species of birds and mammals to their year totals and they kindly invited me along. We left the afternoon of Wednesday July 18th and came back the next evening after a great trip. You can see the full story on the Fur & Feathers 500 blog here.

Cameron Lake, Waterton Lakes National Park

Barn Swallow; en route at Frank Lake near High River