Friday 31 May 2013

Alberta May 2013 - The Blackbirds

You know you live in a bird impoverished province when seeing blackbirds on a mainland trip is good. Alberta has a full suite of Canadian blackbirds including prairie specializing species the Yellow-headed and Brewer's Blackbird. In Newfoundland when you say Redwing you are talking about the thrush.  The full name Red-winged Blackbird is required for that species which is only marginally more numerous.
The male Brewer's Blackbird is a smart looking bird when you look at it closely.  It is common and widespread in Alberta covering a variety of habitats ranging from open prairie to more wooded areas.
 The song and display of the male Brewer's Blackbird is nothing to rave about.
The female Brewer's Blackbird is a plain brown bird but with the sleekness of the male.
A male Brown-headed Cowbird does its best banana shape pose to impress a nearby female. 

Red-winged Blackbirds are a part of every slough and wet ditch in Alberta.
Yellow-headed Blackbirds are abundant being semi-colonial in the richer cattail marshes in Alberta.  Like breeding plumage Atlantic Puffins in Newfoundland, they are so gaudy that you become blase about them in short order. 


Tuesday 28 May 2013

Alberta Birding in May 2013 - Post # 2

The memory of fabulous birding for nine straight days in Alberta at the beginning of May 2013 is already being placed in storage on the dusty top shelf of my brain. The best of the trip photos are in danger of being buried for good without ever being looked at again. That is the way in this day and age where there isn't as much time as there once was for looking back on what you just did.

Tonight I made time to tackle Alberta grebes. There wasn't a big selection of photos to look through. Eared Grebes were just getting back to breeding colonies on selected sloughs in early May when I was there.  Horned and Red-necked Grebes were migrating north but stopping to rest on flooded fields that would be grazed by cattle in a few weeks. Western Grebes were also just getting back but it was with this species  that I had one my euphoric Alberta photo moments.
Eared Grebe is so common in southern Alberta that it might as well be the slough starling. This one is wet after a session of active diving for food. 
The Horned Grebe is a common breeder in isolated pairs in the deeper ponds among the aspen belt of central Alberta and other areas farther north.
My only close encounter with the Red-necked Grebe was during mid-day when lighting conditions were tough for proper exposure with the camera.
The Western Grebe is the favourite  grebe of east coast birders. Not just because it is so rare but also because of its unique long, black and white neck. 
I lucked into a Western Grebe situation at famous Lake Pakowki in southeast Alberta. The water was high on the shoulders of Hwy 885 crossing the western finger of the lake. Some of the Western Grebes were interested in diving under the bridge allowing for good photo opts from within the car.  It must be the male with the larger bill in this photo. There was lots of  vocal and physical interaction  between the 15 or so birds brave enough to dive near the bridge. Over all a blissful show for an east coaster. 

Part of the display of Western Grebes involes stretching the neck.  They must have elastic tendons holding the neck vertebrae together..

The Western Grebe is a classy bird.


Wednesday 22 May 2013

Codroy Valley Birding Retreat - May 16-20, 2013

John Wells, Ken Knowles and I made a five day holiday out of the Victoria Day Weekend.  We drove 900+ km across Newfoundland to the Codroy Valley.  The cold weather (including snow flurries and sleet) had delayed migration by about 5-7 days. This resulted in many of the warblers and most of the Codroy Valley specialities that we went for not being in yet.  The birding was still OK and we had a good time overall.  Photo opportunities were few.
An Eastern Phoebe was the only rare bird we found in the Codroy Valley area.  It is barely annual in the province. It was so cold it was picking up earthworms off the road.  This was my only shot of the fleeting bird.

Warbler photography is a highlight of a Codroy trip in spring, but we saw a mere six species of warbler.  Palm Warblers were still in full migration. 
The only place the Great Blue Heron nests in Newfoundland is the Grand Codroy River valley. We saw up to 11 per day.
Not a Codroy speciality but when there is nothing else to fire the camera at there is always a cooperative Gray Jay.
Piping Plovers nest at nearby Cheeseman Prov Park.  We watched a pair feeding on wet sand on the barachois side of the beach.
They became rather tame walking up to us while feeding
When the birding gets slow these introduced birds start to look attractive.
We had a chance encounter with a Codroy Samsquatch on the loose.  We retreated to the safety of the car and let this fearless, demented animal walk past us.
The rarity excitement of the trip was saved by two Little Egrets that showed up in Fair Haven, Placentia Bay while we were in the Codroy Valley.  We saw them on the drive back home and got lucky with a good photo opportunity. 

Monday 20 May 2013

Little Egret Interruption

Nothing like a duo of LITTLE EGRETS to shake things up a little.  Two Little Egrets showed up in Fairhaven, Placentia Bay (Isthmus of Avalon). Seems they arrived up on May 12 with word reaching the birding community on May 17. At least one has been visible for all who went for a visit.
Here are a couple of pictures taken today (May 20) on the way back from driving across the island. More later.

Two Little Egrets for the price of one. They showed no interest in one another perhaps indicating they are of the same sex.

This Little Egret found small fish in a brook.
A classic head pattern of Little Egret with the two thin plumes and blue lores. During the height of breeding season the lores can show yellow, the other bird has a yellowish wash in the lores closest to the eye.

Wednesday 15 May 2013

Alberta May 2013 - Willet Wrestling

On the dry prairie regions of southern Alberta, water holes are a valuable resource that has to be shared by birds and animals. Birds are highly territorial at the beginning of the breeding season and sometimes bring their fighting spirit to the communal watering holes.
Near Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park I came across a watering hole built for cattle.  A handful of shorebirds came and went - Willets, Avocets, Marbled Godwits and Wilson's Phalaropes.  I witnessed a particularly aggressive Willet fly in calling loudly and attack another Willet that had been feeding there for 15 minutes.  The first Willet stood its ground and would not be moved by the persistent aggressive antics of the new Willet. Maybe these two birds already had a history between them.  The Willet battle lasted nearly a minute before it was broken up by a Marbled Godwit.The original Willet won out and continued to feed while the aggressor flew off without feeding. 
An intruding Willet flew in calling loudly and attacked a feeding Willet by grabbing it around the neck and forcing it into the water.
Both Willets grabbed one another around the neck  and began pushing back and forth.
The aggressor broke free and tried to get on top of the other Willet and push it into the water.
  Despite the fierce attack the original bird stood its ground. when it could have simply flown away.
When all else fails go for the head.
A Marbled Godwit quietly feeding nearby could no longer stand the commotion and flew over screaming loudly and broke up the melee.
The bouncer flexes its out stretched wings triumphantly while the Willets separate.
The original Willet won. It stood its ground and went back to feeding looking only a little ruffled in what sounded like a fight to the end.

With peace and quiet restored, the godwit went back to feeding.


Tuesday 14 May 2013

Alberta Birding early May 2013 - Post # 1

I was birding in Alberta May 3-11, 2013. The purpose of the trip was largely to try out a new lens - the Canon 600 mm f4 version II.  Alberta has lots of great targets for a photographer.  Having been there a half dozen times during the breeding season in the last dozen years I had a pretty good idea what to expect and where to go. What I didn't expect was how the exceptionally cold month of April would severely delay the  arrival of spring migrants. During the first three days of the trip I saw no more than a handful of blackbirds. But the weather was excellent during my visit and migration soon caught up to normal.
The Alberta sloughs are great for photography with lots of large species to shoot at - Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Wilson's Phalaropes, five species of grebes, and endless ducks. But I am always drawn to the southeast corner of the province. Here the prairie is more arid. Sage brush grows. The Red-tailed Hawks disappear and the Ferruginous Hawks take over.  Sage Grouse may still occur here.  People look for Mountain Plover with half a realistic chance of seeing one. (I've yet to connect). Sprague's Pipit is common.  I particularly enjoy the breeding longspurs. Colourful and numerous, their songs breath life into the prairie.

McCown's Longspur is the uncommon species.  I happened upon a little fallout of migrant McCown's after a day of strong north winds.  A ten km stretch of road near Wildhorse contained 150+ McCown's right on the road and by the flock on May 8. This was exciting for an east coast birder. Got more good looks at the species then all my previous trips to Alberta combined.  Photo opportunities were good. 

The new lens performed well.  The new Canon 600 mm is very sharp, even with the 1.4x and 2.0x converters and there seems to be some extra magic with the image stabilization.  I am being conservative here - the lens is in a nutshell phenomenal!

Below are some McCown's Longspur shots. I hope to get to other Alberta species before the trip becomes a distant memory but already we are planning a five day trip to bird southwest Newfoundland this weekend which is going to no doubt produce more priority photos that will need to be look at.

The male McCown's Longspur is far more attractive in life than any illustration has made them look.

I imagine the female McCown's Longspurs is poorly known in life. During the nesting season they vanish from sight because they are incubating eggs.  Later in the summer (August) when the birds are fledged and longspurs form small mixed flocks in southeast Alberta, they are wary and difficult to view let alone separate from the more abundant Chestnut-collared Longspur.

Wednesday 8 May 2013

Off Blogger but Still Birding - in Alberta

Just to let readers know I am actively birding but have not been in position for posting lately.  Currently in a hotel room in Medicine Hat, Alberta taking a break from the camping. This was Day 6 of a nine day birding/photography trip to Alberta.  Turns out I was a little early and the spring was very late for some of the birds I was hoping to point the camera at but everyday something interesting happens.  Today it was running into a flocks of migrant McCown's Longspurs at the southeast corner of the province.  There will be plenty of photos to sift through when I get home on Sunday.
May there always be more Swainson's Hawks!  This is one of the species I was counting on to be present in full summer numbers but they were late in arrving due to an exceptionally long cold prairie spring. However, they waste no time once arriving.  I saw another Swainson's Hawk sitting on a nest.