Alberta Birding June 2014

August 10, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Yellow-bellied SapsuckerYellow-bellied SapsuckerElk Island National Park, Alberta, Canada I used to live in Alberta and go back to visit family almost every year. Since becoming a birder a few years ago, however, I've had very little chance to go birding during my visits. With more than a few life bird opportunities in the province, this year I was determined to make that change, and scheduled a longer trip than usual in order to fit in some quality birding and bird photography time. With the help of eBird, I could also make birding in Alberta more interesting by starting a province list.

The first few days, however, were still dedicated to family. My son, Least FlycatcherLeast FlycatcherWhitemud Creek Trail, Edmonton, Alberta various family members, and assorted friends participated in the Kananaskis 100 mile relay race (each member of a relay team runs roughly 10 miles). The race starts in Longview and proceeds west and north along highway 40 over the Highwood Pass. I went along to see what the race was like, and was somewhat frustrated by not being able to spend time birding as we had to keep moving along with the runners. I'm mentioning this because one of the highlights of the trip occurred at Highwood Pass summit - I heard several Varied Thrushes "singing" in the forest. We have Varied Thrushes at home in the winter, but hardly ever hear them sing. It's such a unique song it seemed special to hear several of them in one location, especially such a beautiful location.

Great Crested FlycatcherGreat Crested FlycatcherElk Island National Park, Alberta, Canada After my son left to go back to where he lives in Idaho, I went on to Edmonton where I had arranged, through BirdingPal, to go out birding with John Bell. John, a retired university professor, vaguely remembers having my sister in one of his classes many years ago, so it's a small world. He took me out to the Beaverhill Lake area and  Elk Island National Park. There are

many advantages to birding with a local birder - obviously, they'll be familiar with the local hotspots. But less obvious - they can tell you what's common. Back at home the most common empid, grosbeak, and oriole would be Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Bullock's Oriole. Red-necked GrebeRed-necked GrebeElk Island National Park, Alberta, Canada Around Edmonton, it's Least Flycatcher, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Baltimore Oriole. Also, they can help with the unfamiliar songs, which can be really frustrating if you're still learning to bird by ear (do you ever stop learning?). There's nothing like being in a forest listening to unfamiliar bird songs to make you feel like a beginner all over again. A few highlights from that day were Western Meadowlark, Black Tern, Clay-coloured Sparrow, Hairy Woodpecker, Baltimore Oriole Canvasback mother with ducklingsCanvasback mother with ducklingsElk Island National Park, Alberta, Canada (no photo, though :-( ), a Canvasback with babies, a gorgeous Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a Red-necked Grebe in alternate plumage, a Boreal Chickadee, and the best bird of the day was a life bird - the Great Crested Flycatcher. We heard Alder Flycatcher, which was one of my target birds, but it was deep in the woods and impossible to find. We also saw a chestnut-coloured robin-sized bird fly across a path in front of us at one point - John said it was a Brown Thrasher, another one of my targets. It settled some distance away and sang, but wouldn't come closer so I didn't check it off because the brief glimpse really wasn't an identifiable view of it.

Clay-colored SparrowClay-colored SparrowClifford E. Lee Nature Sanctuary, Edmonton, Alberta I spent one morning walking by myself along Whitemud Creek Trail. Well, not really by myself, because I arrived at the same time as several school buses loaded with children out to explore nature - they divided up into small groups and headed off down the trail. While this could have been very annoying, it was actually refreshing to see their enthusiasm for reading the nature trail signs and chasing down the items they needed to check off their lists. You couldn't help but smile. This trail could be re-named the Yellow Warbler Trail. I counted 16 of them in about one kilometer. A couple of other highlights were a Pileated Woodpecker, and a Spotted Sandpiper on the creek bank. I also got close views of Least Flycatchers and a Red-eyed Vireo.

Rose-breasted GrosbeakRose-breasted GrosbeakClifford E. Lee Nature Sanctuary, Edmonton, Alberta I went out with John a second time, this time to the Clifford E. Lee Nature Sanctuary west of the city. On the way we almost ran over two Grey Partridges - another life bird! In the park we saw more Baltimore Orioles (still no photo), heard a Swainson's Thrush singing, saw a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and got close views of Red-eyed Vireos and Clay-coloured Sparrows. By this time, Least Flycatcher was becoming a junk bird. On our way out, a Ruffed Grouse in the road was almost run over by a passing truck. It's nice of them to hang out on the roads in full view like that, but one wonders how they survive.

Next I went to Canmore. On the way I stopped at the Horse Creek Road marshes, northwest of Cochrane. I did not have much information about this location other Wilson's SnipeWilson's SnipePriddis Valley Rd and Plummers Rd, Priddis, AB than what I found on eBird - there didn't seem to be any convenient spots to pull off the road without risk of going into the marsh, and trucks were driving down the road at high speed. It was late afternoon, a strong wind was blowing, and there didn't seem to be much bird activity, so I left. Maybe that's a better place to visit in the morning on a weekend.

I had hoped to meet up with another Birding Pal from Calgary, but Canmore is a bit out of the way and it didn't work out. However, a Nature Calgary trip took place at Lesueur Ridge - I went to the meeting place and felt very welcome to join the group. It was a wonderful outing - great scenery, fantastic views, and lots of wildflowers and butterflies as well as birds. It was a thrill to hear an Ovenbird, even if we didn't get a good look at it. The singing Lazuli Bunting we found a bit later was much more cooperative. We heard a Hermit Thrush, and the song seemed even more mystical for not being able to spot the singer.

LeConte's SparrowLeConte's SparrowPriddis Valley Rd and Plummers Rd, Priddis, AB From Canmore I went on various days to the marshes southwest of Calgary, to Brown-Lowery Provincial Park, and to Vermilion Lakes and the Cave and Basin marshes near Banff. A prime target was Alder Flycatcher, but it remained elusive. I stopped at one marshy area south of Priddis by accident, attracted by the Wilson's Snipes sitting on fence posts, and ended up finding a Le Conte's Sparrow. From there I went to Brown-Lowery PP, specifically to look for American Three-toed Woodpeckers, and was lucky to find one right at the entrance to the park. Although that was my target, I decided to explore further, and was rewarded with Cape May Warblers - I just wish they would come down lower in the trees! If Whitemud Creek in Edmonton was the land of the Yellow Warbler, Brown-Lowery park was the Cape May WarblerCape May WarblerBrown-Lowery Provincial Park, AB land of the Tennessee Warbler - I counted 21 of them in three km.

I had high hopes for finding Alder Flycatcher in the marshes around Banff. Several had been reported in eBird. I went to the far end of Vermilion Lakes Rd and worked my way back, then walked the fenland trail off Mt. Norquay Rd, and finally went to the Cave and Basin marsh and walked that loop too. Five Willow Flycatchers, but no Alder. However, there was lots to make up for not finding the flycatcher. I took a photo of what I thought were Pine Siskins at the top of a spruce tree - when I looked at the photo on the computer later, I realized they were White-winged American RedstartAmerican RedstartCave and Basin, Banff, Alberta, Canada Crossbills, a life bird! Duh. There were Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets, lots of Warbling Vireos, many kinds of warbler like Yellow, Yellow-rumped, Townsend's, Tennessee, Orange-crowned, Blackpoll, and the best surprise of all - an American Redstart that sat still long enough for a decent photograph.

When I left Canmore for the drive home, I figured I would go to look for the Bobolinks that had been reported on Plummers Rd - it wasn't a life bird but I'd like a better photo. I couldn't find Bobolinks at the reported location, but instead found an Alder Flycatcher, which I had given up on. Yay! From there I went to check out the blind at the northwest corner of Frank Lake. It's a wonderful location! I've never seen back-brooded grebe chicks before, and it was not too late in the year to see them. There were several Eared Grebes with chicks on their backs, and one Western Grebe pair. It's great to be able to get so close to the birds as you can from the blind.

Passing through Lethbridge I stopped at the Elizabeth Hall Wetlands, and walked the very buggy trail around the lake. The reward for putting up with all the mosquitos was finding Common Grackles (a life bird), and getting a better view of a Brown Thrasher (but no photo). Eared Grebe mother and chickEared Grebe mother and chickFrank Lake, Alberta House Wrens and Grey Catbirds were abundant here.

I stopped that night at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park and camped. The bugs were really bad, even by Alberta standards, but where the bugs are thick, so are the birds. I felt a bit awkward walking around the campground with a pair of binoculars in hand, but there were many birds to check out. A somewhat familiar sound led me to a Spotted Towhee - singing a different dialect from what I'm used to. Checking out some robins I found amongst them another Brown Thrasher, one that sat still long enough for photo. Common Nighthawks chirped from overhead. A Rock Wren popped up on a rock at Ruddy DuckRuddy DuckFrank Lake, Alberta one point, very close. There were House Wrens, Cedar Waxwings, Grey Catbirds, Vesper Sparrows, and Western Meadowlarks. Overall a very worthwhile stop.

It was a good trip - in 12 days I tallied 126 species, of which eight were lifers. I put together a gallery of photos from the trip, which includes some from Montana. A smaller collection of the better photos is in the "Latest" gallery, from Brown Thrasher down to Grey Catbird.


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