A Calgary Birder

A Calgary Birder

Full Description

Here’s the “About Me” from my blog:

I’m a junior high science teacher in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. I’ve been interested in birds ever since I was a little kid. When I was 15, growing up in Ontario, we found a Rose-Breasted Grosbeak on our lawn with a broken clavicle. This led me to volunteer at a wildlife rehabilitation centre for the summer.

After completing a biology degree, my wife and I moved to Calgary where I started volunteering with the Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation. When our son arrived in 2007, I regrettably ran out of time for AIWC but I wanted to continue to connect with birds.

I was inspired to start listing and organizing my birding in part by the book “A Supremely Bad Idea” by Luke Dempsey and I started maintaining a list in the fall of 2009. I also found this book to be something of a precautionary tale and I try to involve family in birding as much as possible – Michael can identify a handful of birds and does a great chickadee call!

Birding also ties in well with my two other principal interests – books and photography. You can find more about these interests under the appropriate tabs above. I don’t define myself by my lists but I do find them to be good motivators and you can find my year list and a few other things under the “Checklists” heading above.

  • Where in the World is Calgary Birder? Let me tell you…. 9 July 2013 If you’ve been following along with this blog over the past couple of months you will have seen a series of posts providing clues on the destination of our, soon to begin, month-long family adventure.  Here are the answers to those clues, each of which ties into one of the four legs of our journey.  You can click on each image to link-out to more information on the birds, not to mention the original source of the photo.

    Clue #4 was the Laughing Kookaburra.  A member of the kingfisher family (Halcyonidae), this is an iconic bird of Australia and as such represents our first destination, Australia’s iconic city of Sydney.

    After getting over our jet lag we’ll be heading to Darwin for some camping around Kakadu National Park.  With 280 species of birds and some wetland tours on the agenda, it’s likely that the Nankeen Night-Heron will be among our sightings.

    Following on from the Darwin camping trip, we’ll be camping once again out of Alice Springs, where the Dusky Grasswren might be seen hopping around among the desert grasses.

    After nearly 3 weeks in Australia we’ll be heading home via Fiji, where the selection of island was absolutely in no way whatsoever based on picking the one with the largest number of endemic birds 😉  By strange coincidence, our destination of Kadavu does in fact have the largest number of endemics and this, the Kadavu Honeyeater, is among them.  With a week to relax, snorkel, and hike, perhaps I’ll turn up a few!

    I’m not sure how much internet, time, or inclination I will have on the trip, but there are a few Alberta related scheduled posts while we are gone.  After the trip there should be lots of pictures to show and stories to tell – stay tuned….

  • Where in the World is Calgary Birder? – Clue #4 (and last!) 2 July 2013

    I’m heading off on an exciting trip this summer: a family vacation with lots of opportunities to see many new birds, as well as other cool wildlife.  Rather than just telling you where I’m headed, I figured it might be fun to post a few clues in the form of photos of birds that could/should turn up on this trip.

    This last clue should tell you exactly in which country we are spending about three-quarters of our trip!  It is common, noisy, and for many people inextricably linked to the nation in question.  Feel free to post your ID’s and destination guesses in the comments.

    All answers to be provided in one week from today!

    All of the images used in this series of posts are from the Internet Bird Collection, links will be posted to the original image and species pages when the big reveal is made.

  • Where in the World is Calgary Birder? – Clue #3 11 June 2013

    I’m heading off on an exciting trip this summer: a family vacation with lots of opportunities to see many new birds, as well as other cool wildlife.  Rather than just telling you where I’m headed, I figured it might be fun to post a few clues in the form of photos of birds that could/should turn up on this trip.

    For a third clue, meet this little songbird which is much less famous than the destination where we are most likely to spot it!  Feel free to post your ID’s and destination guesses in the comments.

    All of the images used in this series of posts are from the Internet Bird Collection, links will be posted to the original image and species pages when the big reveal is made.

  • Birding in Bowmont Park 7 June 2013 Last weekend I joined a small group of intrepid birders in braving the rain and heading out to explore Bowmont Natural Environment Park.  This park is on the north bank of the Bow River, below the community of Varsity in northwest Calgary (click on the location above for a map).  There is some great birding habitat in this area: riparian habitat, small ponds, deciduous woodland, and shrubby ravines.  The area is actually scheduled for redevelopment to reduce the impact of dogs on the river and to reintegrate the old gravel pit into the natural park, among other goals.  You can check out the redevelopment plan and, for the next couple of weeks, provide feedback on the City of Calgary website.

    As was to be expected with the intermittent, at times heavy rain, the light was not very good for photography but I did get a few decent shots, as captioned below.  There’s also a species list at the bottom of this post which is probably fairly typical for this area at this time of year, although Violet-Green Swallow and Common Yellowthroat were nice treats and we were surprised not to hear any Warbling Vireo.

    Osprey, Pandion haliaetus, bringing nesting material back to a platform beside the riverbank 
    Lincoln’s Sparrow, Melospiza lincolnii, is differentiated from other Melospiza sparrows by gray “eyebrow” and slightly buffy sides, finer streaking on the breast, and of course voice. 
    Downy Woodpeckers, Picoides pubescens, don’t always come to the hand even in the winter, so it was a nice surprise to have a visit from this male.
    This White-crowned Sparrow, Zonotricha leucophrys, was clearly a male – indistinguishable by appearance but singing boldly while his mate was keeping a low profile further down in the bush.
    There were lots of Grey Catbirds, Dumetella carolinensis, mewing from inside the silverberry bushes.  They don’t just do cat impressions either – also Robin, Flycatcher, Kinglet, and on and on.  Check this out…

    Species List for this outing…

    1. Canada Goose
    2. Mallard
    3. Blue-winged Teal
    4. Common Goldeneye
    5. Common Merganser
    6. Ring-necked Pheasant
    7. Osprey
    8. Spotted Sandpiper
    9. Rock Pigeon
    10. Downy Woodpecker
    11. Western Wood-Pewee
    12. Alder Flycatcher
    13. Least Flycatcher
    14. Eastern Kingbird
    15. Black-billed Magpie
    16. American Crow
    17. Common Raven
    18. Northern Rough-winged Swallow
    19. Tree Swallow
    20. Violet-green Swallow
    21. Bank Swallow
    22. Black-capped Chickadee
    23. Red-breasted Nuthatch
    24. White-breasted Nuthatch
    25. House Wren
    26. American Robin
    27. Gray Catbird
    28. European Starling
    29. Cedar Waxwing
    30. Orange-crowned Warbler
    31. Common Yellowthroat
    32. Yellow Warbler
    33. Chipping Sparrow
    34. Clay-colored Sparrow
    35. Savannah Sparrow
    36. Song Sparrow
    37. Lincoln’s Sparrow
    38. White-crowned Sparrow
    39. Red-winged Blackbird
    40. Brown-headed Cowbird
    41. House Finch
    42. American Goldfinch
    43. House Sparrow 
  • Magic Moments at the Nest Box 1 June 2013
    This term I’m teaching a short course to my Jr. High students called “Environmental Stewardship”.  One of the projects we have undertaken is building nest boxes under the guidance of local birder Andrew Stiles.  He uses recycled and recovered wood to construct a simple design that, with precut wood, takes kids about an hour to nail together.  You can find out more about the design and his program on his website.  I also came across this short video of him putting one together and talking about the different types of nest.
    One of our decorated nestboxes
    We enjoyed a sunny afternoon on the walkway in front of the school putting our nest boxes together and later decorating them.  As many of last year’s boxes had ended up abandoned at the back of the classroom, I wanted to take it one step further this year and actually visit some appropriate habitat to put up the boxes.  With Andrew’s help we picked a spot on the west edge of the city and headed out.
    Student and parent volunteer attaching a box to the fencepost
    I was a little skeptical about how much success we would have with attracting birds, due to the urban location, and late May timing.  But then something magical happened….
    Another student and parent at work – take a look in the upper right, just above the horizon!
    At first just one pair of Tree Swallows appeared in agitated flight overhead.  I thought that we had disturbed a nest somehow but couldn’t see any possible nest site.   Then two more pairs arrived circling and swooping along the fence as we made our way down the line putting up the boxes.  Finally the penny dropped as one pair landed on the box, the female inspecting inside while the male kept watch from the wire.
    Tree Swallows, Tachycineta bicolor, at nest box
    Can there be any better way to connect with birds than putting up a nest box that you have made and then watching as, seconds later, it is occupied by a mated pair?  Of course teens will be teens and there was a little feigned indifference but I’m certain that those tree swallows connected with some students that afternoon and made them appreciate the natural world just a little bit more.
    Photo by Prairie Birder, Charlotte Wasylik, used by permission
    Hopefully the above sight will greet any students that (carefully, quietly, and briefly!) check on their boxes in a few weeks time.  That photo was taken by “Prairie Birder”, barely out of Junior High herself and with a huge passion for birds.  You can find more information and examples of nest boxes on her website here, here, and here.

  • A Cross-Province Conundrum 27 May 2013 Where’s one of the easiest spots to find this subspecies in Canada?

    Find out in my monthly Bird Canada post – click on the picture to link through.

  • Counting in the Rain 26 May 2013 Let’s start with a typical spring bird count scene – identify these four duck species, click to enlarge if needed….
    Answers at the bottom of this post!

    Having missed last year’s spring bird count I was excited to get out again this year.  I spent about six hours exploring my fairly nondescript section of prairie north of the town of Strathmore.  It’s marked as  area 32 on the image below…

    The wet and windy weather made finding songbirds somewhat challenging, although a surprise Rose-breasted Grosbeak showed up in a little clump of woodland.  The wetland birds were easy to find though, with the highlight being a slough with eight Double-crested Cormorants and seven Hooded Mergansers on the water along with an amazing eight Great Blue Herons and three Black-crowned Night-herons all lined up in less than a hundred yards of shoreline – I guess someone is keeping the fish stocked up!

    Here are a few more photos from the day’s count:

    Black Tern, Chlidonias niger, not actually all that black but agrees that the weather is pretty crappy 😉
    Wilson’s Snipe, Gallinago delicata, more proof that Mother Nature has a sense of humour
    Three Bank Swallows, Riparia riparia, arguing over personal space
    Black-bellied Plover, Pluvialis squatarola, something of a spy shot of one of the day’s rarer finds
    I didn’t see any Black-necked Stilts, Himantopus mexicanus, in the count area but this beauty was feeding by the road on the way home.

     Duck Quiz Answers (left to right): Gadwall, Canvasback, Blue-winged Teal, Lesser Scaup

  • Where in the World is Calgary Birder? – Clue #2 21 May 2013

    I’m heading off on an exciting trip this summer: a family vacation with lots of opportunities to see many new birds, as well as other cool wildlife.  Rather than just telling you where I’m headed, I figured it might be fun to post a few clues in the form of photos of birds that could/should turn up on this trip.

    Our second bird is likely a real identification challenge but will pinpoint one of our stops with great accuracy as it is endemic to a mere 500 square kilometres of the planet!  Feel free to post your ID’s and destination guesses in the comments.

    All of the images used in this series of posts are from the Internet Bird Collection, links will be posted to the original image and species pages when the big reveal is made.

  • Mega-Rarity Purple Sandpiper at Inglewood Bird Sanctuary 11 May 2013 On Thursday, May 9th, local birder and photographer Eddy Matuod found and photographed an unusual sandpiper at Inglewood Bird Sanctuary here in Calgary.  Uncertain if it was a Rock or Purple Sandpiper, or possibly a weird looking Least Sandpiper, he posted his find to Albertabird.  After some discussion online, opinion seemed to crystallize around this being a Purple Sandpiper, Calidris maritima.  The bird was present on Friday morning and observed by many birders, who all seemed to agree on the Purple identification.  If accepted, this would be a first Alberta record for this species.
    After work on Friday, I popped over to Inglewood to have a look for myself and snapped these photos as well as some video.  The video is not great (tricky to shoot video handholding at 400mm!) but may be useful for identification.  The starlings in the second half of the clip were behaving very aggressively towards the little peep, as was a magpie.  This may have contributed to the birds apparent departure, as of Saturday morning.

    For best results with this video, go to full screen and select 1080p HD for the quality…
  • Amazing In-Flight Video 7 May 2013 While there are a variety of views on falconry in the birding community, there is no denying that this is stunning footage.  This video captures a female peregrine hunting, then taking a freaking duck out of mid-air in a triple digit km/h stoop dive (starting at around 2:45)…..  (note: “freaking duck” is neither a new species nor a poorly pronounced Chinese menu item, but simply a reflection of how cool this video is)

    ….and for an even faster version, minus the carnage, check out this video for the full >300km/h potential.  (note: >300km/h is not a typo, if you were flat out in a Porsche 911, this bird would overtake you)

    This video was found on kottke.org, a recommended repository of random cool things.
  • Where in the World is Calgary Birder? – Clue #1 30 April 2013 I’m heading off on an exciting trip this summer: a family vacation with lots of opportunities to see many new birds, as well as other cool wildlife.  Rather than just telling you where I’m headed, I figured it might be fun to post a few clues in the form of photos of birds that could/should turn up on this trip.

    The first one should narrow down the hemisphere and continent, assuming that Alberta readers realize that this is not the bird they likely first think it is!  Feel free to post your ID’s and destination guesses in the comments.

    All of the images used in this series of posts are from the Internet Bird Collection, links will be posted to the original image and species pages when the big reveal is made.

  • Waterways of Calgary 22 April 2013 Today’s post was to have been a detailed exploration of the new Ralph Klein Park, on the south-east edge of Calgary.  My plan to spend a morning exploring this manufactured wetland was pleasantly thwarted by a call to help out with the early morning birding course at Inglewood Bird Sanctuary.  After a chilly, windy walk along the Bow River at Inglewood, I stopped by Elliston Park, Calgary’s second largest body of water. Finally, with a little time to spare before meeting up with the family for a trip to the model train show, I stopped briefly at the new wetland.

    The following little photo essay takes you through my morning jaunt through river, lake, and wetland.  Click on any image to view as a slideshow….

    Spot the pipits!  Flocks of American Pipits, Anthus rubescens, migrate through Calgary every spring.  They are often found on gravel bars along the river and are extraordinarily well camouflaged, as these two birds show. 
    In contrast to 2012, it is still cold and snowy in Calgary and many winter residents are abundant.  This Bohemian Waxwing, Bombycilla garrulus, was part of a flock that briefly flew down to the river for a drink.  This one flashed the rusty orange under its tail that helps tell it apart from its Cedar Waxwing summer cousins.
    The next stop was Elliston Park where Lesser Scaup, Aythya affinis, were the most abundant species.  Here one female at centre and five males.
    The males have only one thing on their minds at this time of year…
    …and she is fed up with all the attention…
    …but unfortunately there’s no escape, even in the air – that’s six males trying to box her in!
    There were songbirds present at Elliston as well, including this stunning Red Crossbill, Loxia curvirostra.
    The last stop I made was Ralph Klein Park, where I snapped this heavily-cropped, long-range shot of a Red-breasted Merganser, Mergus serrator, (bottom left) a regular but rare migrant through the Calgary area.  By the way, that’s a pink-legged Herring Gull showing off above the two Common Goldeneyes, likely trying to mind their own business.
    The Red-breasted Merganser didn’t stick around for long as this Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, flew in, flushing dozens of waterfowl and hundreds of gulls into a tower of circling noise.
    Two more new birds for the year, feeding in another part of the park, were Black-necked Stilt, Himantopus mexicanus, and Greater Yellowlegs, Tringa melanoleuca.  A lovely way to end the morning’s birding.

    Update: Our intrepid leader for the morning, Dan Arndt of Birds Calgary, posted his images from the Inglewood outing here.  He’s been playing around with a loaner Swarovski scope and digiscoping setup

  • Exciting Changes to the Blog! 19 April 2013 I’ve changed the look of this blog, returning it to closer to its original format for entirely selfish reasons that may nevertheless be of use to local birders….
    1) On the right side of the window you’ll see “BirdTrax”, an amazing little application that pulls all of the sightings for a given time and region from eBird and throws them up in a handy little window.  I’ve set it up to do a 50km circle around Calgary for the last 14 days, although I may tweak these settings depending on how it performs (feedback appreciated as always).  If you click on the “+” sign it will link out to the eBird checklist.  Similarly under the checklists tab you can directly access individual checklists by person and location. This application doesn’t currently work with Internet Explorer (but why are you using Internet Explorer?)
    Still with me? …here is a picture of a bird to maintain your interest 😉
    2) Underneath the Birdtrax window is a blog list with the most recent entries to all the Alberta bird blogs that I know about, including the Albertabird listserv.  This should provide me, err, I mean, my readers with more convenient access to these key blogs, especially with Google Reader going the way of the Dodo (Passenger Pigeon, Eskimo Curlew, Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Carolina Parakeet, Labrador Duck, crap that’s depressing…)
    3) I’ve widened the blog to accommodate the BirdTrax window alongside extra-large photos.  Most people are using relatively high-resolution monitors now but let me know if you find this really irritating.
    4) I’m finally going to use my Twitter account.  You can follow me @CalgaryBirder 
    Congratulations on making it to the bottom of this grippingly exciting post!  Here is another picture of a bird…
  • Swans in the Air(waves) 16 April 2013 Yesterday I posted photos from my weekend Frank/Namaka Lake excursion, including both Alberta species of swan (Trumpeter and Tundra).  The same day, I heard Brian Keating of the Calgary Zoo talking about swans on the radio!  It’s a great little piece discussing the history of swans in Alberta, current threats to their population, and their ecology.  You can listen to the piece on the CBC website here: http://www.cbc.ca/homestretch/columnists/wildlife/2013/04/15/swans/
    Tundra Swans, Cygnus columbianus, in a slough near Frank Lake
  • The Last Duck 15 April 2013
    On Saturday morning, I headed out of town hoping to get some sunshine birding before the forecast storm.  At first I beat the weather, then ran straight into it, but managed to find thirteen new species for the year, including a lifer!  I’ll let the pictures tell the tale….
    My first stop was the blind at Frank Lake, east of High River.  There were many American Coots, Fulica americana, calling to each other in the reeds.  This is one of a few that came into clear view.
    A Horned Grebe, Podiceps auritus, was diving for food in front of the blind, along with many ducks including Common Goldeneye, Lesser Scaup, Mallard, Canvasback, and more. 
    As I walked away from Frank Lake, this family of Trumpeter Swans, Cygnus buccinator, were also continuing their northward journey.
    Heading north and east from Frank Lake the prairie is dotted with little marshes and sloughs.  Some were still frozen but, with no discernible pattern, others were completely open and each one had its own little birding treasures such as these Northern Pintail, Anas acuta, surely the most dapper of ducks.
    It was in these prairie potholes that I completed my set of swans for the day with this pair of Tundra Swans, Cygnus columbianus.
    Just north of Blackie I drove into a wall of fog and snow as the forecast storm arrived – welcome to April, Calgarians!  Pushing on to my next destination, Namaka Lake, this young Snowy Owl, Bubo scandiacus, sat forlorn in the middle of a field opposite the lake.  I’m used to seeing these owls on poles but this bird sat for the whole time I was there – I hope it is not “out of gas” on its return journey north.
    The main body of Namaka Lake was completely frozen over but the south wetland was open and filled with ducks. Standing on the shore were these four Wigeon and the second from the right is a male Eurasian Wigeon, Anas penelope, the last of Alberta’s 33 regularly occuring species of waterfowl for me to find!  As you can see in this image, the bird was aggressively chasing the two male American Wigeon, away from the female at right.  What’s odd about this is that the female appears to be an American Wigeon as well.
    When these same four birds flew off for a few laps of the lake, the female continued, to paraphrase Tammy Wynette, to “Stand By Your Interspecific Hybridizing Man”.  Of course it could just be that I’m wrong about the ID on the female but after some reading it really seems like an American to me – more on Wigeon ID in a pdf article from the ABA magazine if you’re so inclined.

    All in all a lovely day out on the prairie, in spite of the weather.  I’m looking forward to my next wetland outing on the 21st, this time to Ralph Klein Park.

  • Taxidermy and Taxonomy at the Canadian Museum of Nature 27 March 2013 I’ve been invited to contribute to the Bird Canada multi-author blog and will be writing on the 27th of each month.  My first post is up and you can read it by clicking on the image below.
    Click it!  (You know you want to!)
    By the way, I’ll have a little more on my Ontario trip in the next little while – I’m still searching for that American Black Duck!
  • Weekend at Bluetail’s 19 March 2013

    This past weekend Calgary Birder, Mrs. Calgary Birder and our two nestlings flew to Vancouver.  We were taking their 98 year old great-grandmother to attend her big sister’s 100th birthday party!  It was a wonderful celebration and we all enjoyed the time visiting with family.  
    As many as twenty Steller’s Jays, Cyanocitta stelleri, at a time in our host’s front yard – but these aren’t the blue tails I was looking for…

    Of course, I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to chase the Vancouver area’s current “mega” – a Red-flanked Bluetail, showing in a park in New Westminster since being discovered by Colin McKenzie on January 13th.  For the non-birding followers of this blog (or birders who have been living under a rock for the past two months) this little Eurasian flycatcher, which should be spending the winter in Indochina, is the second ever mainland North American record of this species.

    I slipped out of a dark house in North Vancouver shortly before dawn and headed for Queen’s Park in New Westminster.  The only birds I saw on the half hour drive were members of a huge flock of Northwestern Crows leaving their roost in Burnaby but even in the predawn light the park was jumping with activity.  American Robins and Dark-eyed Juncos were busy feeding on the ground along with, to my delight, several Varied Thrushes – a life bird before the sun had risen.

    Varied Thrush, Ixoreus naevius.  Not bad views for a shy resident of the damp, dark understory.   The patterning on the feathers gives a textured quality to the plumage.

    I spent about thirty minutes exploring the area around the playground, enjoying the melodic but frantic trills and buzzes of Pacific Wrens high above, before seeing a little brownish bird flicking its tail in a low shrub.  It flew a short distance, landed on a tree stump and flicked its tail again.  I brought my binoculars up and, in the dim lit of the understory, made out a faint eye-ring and what looked like reddish sides.  Almost certainly the bird but far from definitive views.  I wandered a little further north in the park and eventually relocated the bird, getting a good look and a passable identification photo.

    Red-flanked Bluetail, Tarsiger cyanurus, a long way from home.
    Uncropped, 420mm lens!

    By this time there were a couple of other birders in the area and we chatted for a little while, enjoying the cedar trees which maybe reminded the little wanderer of the Northern Russian forests where it should be heading to breed at this time of year.  With limited views of the Bluetail and a deadline to be back in North Vancouver, I decided to head back through Vancouver and try to find a Brambling reported in the Fairview neighbourhood.  Thanks to a great set of directions from Dave Ingram over at Island Nature, I had no problem finding the right alley and backyard where another birder was quietly peering through the brambles.  

    “Brambling was here until 10 minutes ago”  


    “Apparently it’s often only seen before 9 or 10 in the morning”


    I stuck around in the rain for as long as possible – about forty-five minutes – but no sign of the Brambling.  What we did enjoy was a great selection of west coast songbirds: Song Sparrow, Pine Siskin, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, House Finch, Black-capped Chickadee, House Sparrow, and both the Slate-coloured and Oregon subspecies of Dark-eyed Junco.  To wrap things up, here are a few shots of those birds….

    “Sooty” Fox Sparrow, Passerella iliaca unalaschcensis
    “Oregon” Dark-eyed Junco, Junco hyemalis
    Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia

  • Year of the Woodpecker? 11 March 2013 Regular followers of this blog may remember that my nemesis bird in Alberta was the Pileated Woodpecker.  I finally tracked one down early last year and finally had some decent views in the fall.  This year seems to be off to a different start on the woodpecker front!

    To begin with, a Pileated Woodpecker was the very first bird I saw for the entire year. Arriving at dawn in the Shannon Terrace parking lot of Fish Creek Provincial Park for our January 1st bird count, one of these crow-sized woodpeckers flew across the valley calling as it went.  There have been more sightings since then, notably a pair of birds feeding at ground level by the bike path in Bebo Grove a short distance from our bird course group.

    Above: Pileated Woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus, Bebo Grove, Fish Creek Provincial Park
    Below: Example of flight call from xeno-canto.org
    On that January 1st bird count, even the Pileated wasn’t the woodpecker highlight of the day, as we found a Black-backed Woodpecker later in the morning.  There had been some sightings earlier in the winter and we soon found tell-tale signs of the feeding activity of a three-toed woodpecker species.  The three species in this group are specialist woodpeckers, needing mature coniferous forests with dead and dying trees, from which they meticulously peel the bark, searching for insect larvae.  The resulting pile of fine bark shavings in the snow around the base of these trees is distinctive but sometimes finding the responsible bird is a little trickier.  Eventually one of our group members spotted this beauty feeding high up on spruce trunk and we were able to watch it at work.
    Black-backed Woodpecker, Picoides arcticus, Marshall Springs, Fish Creek Provincial Park

    In the same genus (for now?) as the three-toed woodpeckers are the Calgary area’s more common species – the Hairy Woodpecker and the ubiquitous Downy Woodpecker – both of which we also saw on that woodpecker-filled New Year’s Day.  Although common, these two species can play tricks on birders, as they can be confused with each other.  Here’s the Hairy Woodpecker, in South Glenmore Park last year.

    Hairy Woodpecker, Picoides villosus, South Glenmore Park, Calgary.
    The red spot indicates that this is a male bird.

    There are a few physical characteristics that help to separate the two species.  The Hairy is larger than the Downy, although there is a tiny bit of overlap between the smallest and largest of the two species.  The outer tail feathers on a Hairy are pure white – although this can be hard to see and is not universally true.  Less ambiguously, the bill is always proportionately larger in the Hairy – as long as the head.  However, the easiest way to tell the two species apart is their calls.  The Hairy is fairly flat in pitch while the Downy’s call is distinctly descending (“Downy goes down”).  Here’s the Downy Woodpecker, this one at Inglewood Bird Sanctuary.  If you look closely you can see the black spots on the outer tail feathers and the bill is clearly shorter than the bird above, but it’s that call that makes it clear, as you can hear below.

    Above: Downy Woodpecker, Picoides pubescens, Inglewood Bird Sanctuary, Calgary.
    No red spot on the head means this is a female.
    Below: Example of call from xeno-canto.org
    Four of Calgary’s woodpecker species on January 1st is a pretty good start to any birding year.  I’ve seen Northern Flicker since then which leaves three more common Southern Alberta woodpeckers – American Three-toed, Red-naped Sapsucker, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – to turn up for the remainder of the year.  Here’s to the year of the woodpecker!

  • The End of Winter? 5 March 2013
    The Winter List is traditionally kept between December 1stand February 28th and records all the species seen between those dates in the designated area.   The Alberta Provincial list is usually about 120-150 species, with traditional winter residents such as Bohemian Waxwings, American Tree Sparrows, and of course Snowy Owls keeping company on the list with more rare winter hangers-on like the Northern Shoveler at Weed Lake and a vagrant Northern Mockingbird in Vulcan.
    Snowy Owl, Bubo scandiacus, near Mossleigh, Alberta
    What have I been up to over the last couple of months?  Not much blogging and only a little bit of birding with the Friends of Fish Creek winter birding course.  Nevertheless, as of the end of the winter listing period, I was up to fifty species for the year so far.  The big question today is: why does the list end on February 28th?  To illustrate my point, here are the conditions in front of our house yesterday (March 3rd)…
    Snowy weather in Calgary
    Even in these kind of harsh conditions, evidence of birds is everywhere.  Judging from the noise, the nicely sculpted tree pictured below was sheltering a dozen or more House Sparrows and a few Black-capped Chickadees in front of a neighbour’s house.  Between the dense foliage and the layer of snow, I suspect they were cozier than I was! (I should probably mention that two of the birders over at Birds Calgary were actually out birding in this and turned up a dozen species)
    Winter is clearly not yet done here in Alberta but signs of spring are all around.  On this past Saturday’s bird group outing we had Mallards and Common Goldeneye vigourously courting and copulating in the river, we saw our first starlings of the year, and several of the magpies we saw were carrying nesting material. 
    A winter Black-billed Magpie, Pica hudsonia
    I’ll be taking a break from the course for the spring session.  This change should leave a little more time for photography and blogging, as well as home life.  I’m also interested to see how early morning starts and smaller groups impact the birds I see, although I’ll certainly miss the group birding and learning experience.  Whatever birds I see, there’ll certainly be more time to share with you!
    A highlight of the winter session – a digiscoped Barrow’s Goldeneye, Bucephala islandica, at Carburn Park showing two of it’s most obvious identification traits: a steeper peaked head with shorter bill than Common Goldeneye and the crescent shaped white patch in front of the eye. 

  • Season’s Greetings from A Calgary Birder 25 December 2012 Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to everyone!  I hope you’ve had a great year of birding, as I have.  The next one is just around the corner….


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