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Friends of Fish Creek Autumn Birding – Week 13 – Bow Valley Ranch and Sikome Lake

Posted by Dan Arndt

I will always remember my first visit to the Fish Creek Provincial Park Headquarters building in search of birds. It was a cold winter morning, quite similar to yesterday, and we were in search of some Great Horned Owls. We found them, of course, as the owls here are almost as reliable as the sunrise and sunset, before heading off and exploring the area around the Headquarters, and then down to Sikome Lake to look for some more owls and check out what was on the river.

This week was very similar, with maybe a few more surprise species popping up, a couple of near misses on the owls, but all in all, it was another wonderfully successful walk.

Since this walk covers two main areas, I’ve added two maps instead of your usual one for the same low cost as you pay for your current blog subscription! I know with the holiday season in full swing, money is tight, so I’m passing the savings on to you!

We started up at the Headquarters building area known as Bow Valley Ranch, and had quite a bit of success up there after some moderate search efforts. In the end, everyone left satisfied and content with what we had seen so far, with hopes for many more birds to come.

Bow Valley Ranch

Bow Valley Ranch

The pair of Great Horned Owls that have been consistently found here all week, and to my understanding, for well over ten years, were our primary goal here at the east side of the Fish Creek Provincial Park Headquarters building. In our searches, we were mobbed by a fair-sized swarm of Black-capped Chickadees, but as is typical for these mixed flocks in winter, we got a little added bonus of a lone Brown Creeper.

Brown Creeper

Brown Creeper

Nearby, there was a terribly dedicated Downy Woodpecker drumming at a small stand of low bushes in search of some tasty insect larvae or some other arthropods hidden in the bark.

female Downy Woodpecker

female Downy Woodpecker

We spent a good ten to fifteen minutes looking for the Great Horned Owls, walking to the far east end of the pathway, and on our way back we were greeted by the high-pitched flight calls of some White-winged Crossbills picking at the cones at the peak of the spruce rows.

White-winged Crossbills

White-winged Crossbills

We were about ready to call our search off when one of our keen-eyed birders noticed a small clump of something dark and grey huddled up against the trunk of one of the spruce trees.

There is an owl in this picture, I swear.

There is an owl in this picture, I swear.

A bit of hand waving and flagging down some of our group to come get better looks wound up with a fairly decent angle in the dull, overcast light, and it was clear that this was one Great Horned Owl that did not want to be disturbed this morning.

 

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

Once we had discovered our quarry and had our fill of its excellent camouflage skills, we headed west towards The Ranche, and out in the fields south of the compound was this White-tail Deer buck, casually browsing in the low bushes and making his way eastward along one of the many deer trails in the park.

White-tail Deer buck

White-tail Deer buck

Our last new bird at Bow Valley Ranch was this lone Red Crossbill, calling and preening and generally looking a bit out-of-place in a flock of White-winged Crossbills.

Red Crossbill

Red Crossbill

We headed back to the vehicles shortly thereafter and headed south to Sikome Lake. There were plenty of waterfowl in the fairly swift waters of the Bow River that morning, and quite a few of them were quite close to shore, allowing good looks, and excellent photo opportunities.

Sikome Lake and Boat Launch

Sikome Lake and Boat Launch

Once again, it took a bit of searching for the Great Horned Owls before we found one lone lookout.

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

This area is also one of the must-visit places within Fish Creek Provincial Park, mostly because of how familiar the birds here are with humans. While there may be some compunctions against feeding wild birds, the Downy Woodpeckers, Red- and White-breasted Nuthatches, and of course the ever-present Black-capped Chickadees are comfortable enough to eat right out of one’s hand.

 

White-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch

male Downy Woodpecker

male Downy Woodpecker

Once we had our fill of hand-feeding the birds, we headed down to the edge of the Bow River to see what waterfowl we might find. The river was full of Canada Geese, Buffleheads, Common Goldeneye, and even a few Barrow’s Goldeneye. We also did manage to pick out a subadult male Common Goldeneye just coming into his adult plumage, which was quite interesting to see!

male and female Barrow's Goldeneye

male and female Barrow’s Goldeneye

Common Goldeneye (r) and Barrow's Goldeneye (l) showing their distinctive field marks

Common Goldeneye (r) and Barrow’s Goldeneye (l) showing their distinctive field marks

Buffleheads in flight

Buffleheads in flight

immature Common Goldeneye

immature Common Goldeneye

Canada Goose

Canada Goose

male Common Mergansers amongst the Canada Geese

male Common Mergansers amongst the Canada Geese

 As we headed north along the river bank, we had a fairly low flyover of an adult Bald Eagle which is always a welcome sight… unless you’re a duck.

adult Bald Eagle

adult Bald Eagle

Dropping down into the poplar stands on the inside bank of the Bow River, we stopped for a moment to glance over what appeared to be skunk tracks, and continued north back up the slope in the quiet woods to find this female Hairy Woodpecker doing what they do best.

Skunk Tracks

Skunk Tracks

female Hairy Woodpecker

female Hairy Woodpecker

Topping off our day was this patient juvenile Bald Eagle watching over a flock of Canada Geese as the snow began to come down in heavier flakes and much faster than before.

juvenile Bald Eagle

juvenile Bald Eagle

As we headed back to the parking lot to head home, we did have a close encounter with a Coyote which dropped down into a creek bed and out of sight before popping up right along the trail we had been following not half an hour before, flushing up some of the Canada Geese we had been so close to earlier in the day.

Coyote

Coyote

It has been quite the productive, beautiful, and diverse course so far, and it’s a bit sad to see it end in just one more week, but on the good side, it also means that we’ll be well on the way towards spring migration with the start of the 2013 Winter Birding course starting up on January 7th!

See you here next week!

Friends of Fish Creek Autumn Birding – Week 12 – Votier’s Flats

Posted by Dan Arndt

As winter seems to be coming and going in bursts, this week’s visit to Votier’s Flats gave us both a few late fall migrants that appeared to be doing quite well in their attempt to muddle through the fairly mild autumn we’ve had so far, and a winter visitor that is once again making itself right at home in the city. On top of all that, we had a surprise sighting of a non-avian critter diving and splashing around in Fish Creek looking for a fishy breakfast! It was a good day, all in all!

Votier's Flats

Votier’s Flats

Our first bird of the morning, while we were waiting for some stragglers to show up, was this male Ring-necked Pheasant. He flew in along the hillside to the north-east before coming to a rest at the road, and started up and across the road as I approached. Thankfully, he stopped just long enough for me to snap a few shots.

male Ring-necked Pheasant

male Ring-necked Pheasant

male Ring-necked Pheasant 2

Looking both ways after crossing the street. Who ever said pheasants were smart?

We walked up the hill to the west overlooking the creek, and stopped briefly to look at a few Pine Grosbeaks, one of which had alerted us to its presence by flying directly above us and singing quite loudly. These two others kept their polite distance and allowed us to take good looks at them.

Pine Grosbeaks

female or juvenile Pine Grosbeaks

We headed down the hill and walked a brief circle, accosted by Black-capped Chickadees and a couple of Red-breasted Nuthatches, but none that would stop long enough for me to snap their photo. Striking out on any less common birds at the base of the hill, we trekked back up the slope and took a look over the creek bed, and almost all of us were surprised to see this little fellow dipping in and out of the water, searching for something to nibble on.

Mink

Mink on the ice

Following the river, and down through the spruce stands at the bottom of the hill, we saw a few Common Ravens giving us flybys, heard a distant Blue Jay, and many more flocks of Black-capped Chickadees. This Common Raven even paused in a treetop to pose for a photo.

Common Raven

Common Raven

As we passed this guy, it quickly became possible to measure our progress by the number of flocks of Black-capped Chickadees, and three flocks of Chickadees and a single flock of Dark-eyed Juncos later, we heard the very distinct calling of Red Crossbills in the trees above us. Once again these Red Crossbills were very polite, very calm, and content to just sit in the treetops and watch us pass by.

Red Crossbills

Red Crossbills

Red Crossbill

Red Crossbill showing off its namesake

Heading back to the main path, across the river, and over to the storm water drainage channel to where an American Dipper and Wilson’s Snipe had been seen, we came across a few more flocks of Black-capped Chickadees a couple of very large flocks of Pine Grosbeaks and a few flocks of White-winged Crossbills and Canada Geese flew overhead throughout. When we got to the drainage channel, we were surprised by this little beauty where the American Dipper should have been, and it allowed us very clear, diagnostic views allowing us to identify it as a Song Sparrow!

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow 2

Song Sparrow looking for food on a raft of twigs and branches

Moments later, the American Dipper popped out and began briefly foraging with the Song Sparrow, before giving us quite the demonstration of how it earned its name.

American Dipper

Our first views of the American Dipper

American Dipper

Our American Dipper briefly pausing on a rock before taking a dive

dipping Dipper

American Dipper taking a dip

Success!

And success! Our American Dipper comes up with… something edible I guess?

We walked back the way we came in hopes of glimpsing a Boreal Chickadee, Hairy Woodpecker, or maybe even get lucky enough to spot a Pileated Woodpecker, but sadly, no new species came to us on our walk back. As we parted ways and I walked back up the hill to check for the Mink again, I did spot this male Downy Woodpecker that was more than comfortable enough with me to let me get very close. Possibly too close for my camera to focus properly!

Downy Woodpecker

male Downy Woodpecker

Have a great week, and good birding!

May Species Count – Hull’s Wood to Lafarge Meadows – Highlights

Posted by Dan Arndt

One of the birding events that I have wanted to take part in since learning of it last year was the May Species Count. This is one of the many events that contribute to real science research on behalf of Bird Studies Canada. I was a little worried when taking on an entire area of my own, since I was certain that I’d miss some calls that a more experienced birder would have picked up and identified in seconds, or that I’d misidentify warblers, sparrows, or other shorebirds. Thankfully, I didn’t hear anything that really threw me for a loop (aside from a Western Meadowlark that sounded like it was a little confused) and didn’t see anything that I couldn’t readily identify with a quick reference to my Sibley Guide or Audubon’s Field Guide to Birds app.

Starting at about 5 AM, we hiked from the parking lot at Bow Valley Ranch, meandering south to 194th Avenue, then back north to the Ranch, which I’ve mapped below.

Hull's Wood to Lafarge Meadows - May Species Count Route

Hull’s Wood to Lafarge Meadows – May Species Count Route

Paul Turbitt came along both for the photo opportunities as well as to help out with spotting birds, but I always find the viewpoint of an experienced hunter and photographer incredibly valuable in the field. That, and having someone else around to see and hear birds that you might otherwise miss is indispensible. We racked up a total of 70 species, which included 3 new year birds for me, and something like 10-12 for Paul. It’s always great to show people new birds that they’ve never seen before, but also to get better views (and photos) of birds that you’ve seen dozens or hundreds of times before. Below are a few of my favourites from Saturday’s portion of the May Species Count.

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper

Alder Flycatcher

Alder Flycatcher

Western Wood-Pewee

Western Wood-Pewee

Great Horned Owls eating breakfast

Great Horned Owls eating breakfast

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler

American Wigeon

American Wigeon

Killdeer

Killdeer

Blue-winged Teal

Blue-winged Teal

Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Red-winged Blackbird and Heron

Red-winged Blackbird and Heron

Great Horned Owl Fledgeling
Great Horned Owl Fledgeling

Sunday’s photos and recount of the May Species Count from the Weaselhead, North Glenmore Park and Reservoir, and Pearce Estate Park to come soon…

Lafarge Meadows – Finally!

Posted byDan Arndt

The final Sunday Morning excursion by the Friends of Fish Creek Winter Birding Course took us to Lafarge Meadows. After going there for the first time with the Fall course, I was looking forward to getting back there as the spring migrants began to filter through, and what a visit it was!

One of the birds that most non-birders consider a sure sign of spring, is the charismatic and well known American Robin, many of which were present and singing their spring song.

Another of the early migrants we were treated to at the beginning of the walk was the ever beautiful song of the aptly named Song Sparrow.

While the field marks weren’t easy to see from that distance, the song was so distinctive that there was no way you could mistake this bird for any other. Over at the boat launch we had some decent views of Common Mergansers (pictured below) and a pair of Lesser Scaup.

We then turned southward to head into LaFarge Meadows proper, checking a few of the ponds near the bridge where we found a few close-ups of some Lesser Scaup and American Wigeon.

As we edged further south along the river, we took note of the huge numbers of gulls both along the river, and in the ponds along the west side that were still frozen, and were greeted by some nicely posing Herring Gulls on a gravel bar in the Bow River, as well as a small number of another new bird for the year, the Franklin’s Gull.

Finally, as we headed back north toward the beginning of our route, I spotted a small bird atop a nearby tree, thinking it may be another sparrow, or maybe even an early swallow species, but was immediately alerted to its identity by the single sharp note of its call, identifying itself as a Northern Shrike!

As we reached the vehicles, all of us were forlorn at the prospect that this was our last walk of the season with that particular group, but all attendees were looking forward to the next round of courses, starting up immediately the following week! Travel will keep me away for the first two weeks of the course, from which I will post some photos on my regular schedule, and but until then, good birding!