Saturday, October 15, 2016

Brief visit to Alberta

I enjoyed a recent visit to Alberta to attend the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef and the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef and specifically to look at what these roundtables can do for the plight of declining grassland birds.  I also enjoyed a little birding on the weekend following the meetings from the foothills west of Calgary. In addition to my previous two posts on the Northern Pygmy-Owl and the Clark's Nutcracker, here are a few images from this area.

I start with two scenery shots of the foothill country, coated in a light dusting of snow and hoarfrost in early October to give you a sense of the landscape.

There were some thoroughly enjoyable mammal sightings in this beautiful landscape including  several elk. This magnificent male was rubbing his heard on a tree, seemingly with great relish:


There were lots of opportunities to observe Mule Deer, including this stotting pair. The stott of the Mule Deer (a jump with all four legs leaving the ground and landing at once), and some other deer and gazelles, is considered by many to be a form of "honest signalling", i.e. telling a predator "I am so fit you will never be able to catch me".

And this Red Fox posed for just long enough to allow a few photos:

There were some thoroughly enjoyable raptor sightings as well, not least of which were five Golden Eagles seen migrating along the foothills east of the Rocky Mountains within a few hours. This is a first year bird with more white in the underwing than adults. These huge and magnificent Aquila eagles are always a great pleasure to watch!  

There were many Rough-legged Hawks on the move and this female on a frosty perch was too striking not to take a habitat photo.

One of the highlights was  watching two Common Ravens mobbing an adult Northern Goshawk. Ravens are of course a large and audacious species but the Northern Goshawk is an apex predator that is not to be trifled with.  Unintimidated by those powerful talons, the ravens escorted the Accipiter "off the premises".
The handsome male American Kestrel also warranted a quick stop! The only other falcon seen was a flyby Peregrine Falcon.

I did not spend a lot of time looking for waterfowl but did record an impressive number of Hooded Mergansers. This male (not in breeding plumage) chasing a female Common Merganser was rather comical. The size difference was immediately apparent.

One of the first passerines I saw on this trip was the Mountain Chickadee. This species is endemic to the mountainous regions of western North America and I seldom get to see them so I especially enjoyed photographing this one with a caterpillar.

Although I am used to seeing the other two chickadee species that were present in the flocks here (Black-capped and Boreal), I couldn't resists a few photos of Boreal Chickadees of perches laden with snow and hoarfrost:

A first-year Northern Shrike also provided a thoroughly enjoyable photo opportunity, albeit distant.

And I photographed a few other familiar faces such as this American Tree Sparrow

 And this Rusty Blackbird on yet another frosty perch: 

A thoroughly enjoyable short trip with special thanks to Doug Collister and family!

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Portrait of a Nutcracker

The Clark's Nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana) has an exceptional spatial memory, being capable of hiding and refinding thousands of seeds and nuts. Another interesting fact about this species is that both sexes incubate the eggs and the male develops a brood patch (unusual in the Corvidae - crow family). There are only three species in the genus:
  Clark's Nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana) of western North America
  Spotted Nutcracker (Nucifraga caryocatactes) of Eurasia
  Large-spotted Nutcracker (Nucifraga multipunctata) of Kashmir

and their closest relatives are the ground-jays (Podoces) of Asia and the choughs (Pyrrhocorax) of Eurasia. In all three of thee genera the bill is rather long and slightly decurved.

On a recent brief visit to Banff National Park, Alberta Canada, I took a few minutes to get to know this magnificent denizen of montane coniferous forests a little better. The first photo shows a nutcracker in their habitat

And the second photo gives a closer look but still offers a typical view of one perched near the trunk of a conifer.

I finish with two portraits. First a vertical composition, showing the underparts and the undertail, and  which I think captures some of the bird's personality:

 And finally an upper body portrait  to show off their simple elegance and beauty:


Monday, October 10, 2016

Northern Pygmy-Owl

The Northern Pygmy-Owl (scientific name differs by taxonomy; IOC: Glaucidium californicum; AOU: G. gnoma) is Canada's smallest owl and the only pygmy-owl (Glaucidium) that occurs here. This tiny little resident is found mostly in the mountains of western North America (in Canada mostly in British Columbia but it does occur east of the Continental Divide in westernmost Alberta).

After a recent conference in Banff, I managed to photograph two Northern Pygmy-Owls. The first was along the Bow Valley in Banff National Park and the second in the foothills east of the park. The first five photos below show the first of these two owls. I was lucky to spot this bird atop a pine near dusk and, even better, watched it fly down to an aspen and then dive into a spruce to grab a small bird.

The first photo below (followed by a crop of the same photo) shows of the owl with the snow-covered mountains in the background:

This mountain shot also shows the owl's 180 degree head turn:

This is the point where the pygmy-owl dove into the spruce. Although I suspected it was hunting I wasn't sure at first...

until it emerged with a small bird (looking at the photos later I suspect the prey was a Dark-eyed Junco). As this was right at dusk, I suspect the junco has already settled in to roost for the night (I have watched Eastern Screech-Owls grab prey at the roost like this several times):

These next two photos show the second owl in the foothills east of the Rockies; the first perched high atop some hoarfrost laden needles and then in a leafless aspen.   

I hope you enjoy these photos as much as I enjoyed the thrill of seeing these tiny owls. Special thanks to Doug Collister and family for their exceptional hospitality!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Harlequin Duck, Delta Marsh IBA

This is short post to document the Harlequin Duck found by Matt Gasner on Sunday 28th as part of the Delta Important Bird Area blitz ( and seen yesterday by Bonnie Chartier and Liis Veelma and then found by Jo Swartz and myself early this morning.  I have also added two photos of the lingering second-cycle Lesser Black-backed Gull at PR 227 dump (as earlier identified by Amar Ayyash from photos submitted by Donna Martin) and a photo of the Red Knot found by Colin Blyth and team on the Delta IBA blitz on August 28th and photographed by me on August 29th. Another highlight of the blitz was a flock of at least 34 Buff-breasted Sandpipers. Can you see any of them them in the last photo below (I gave you help with 4 of them by pasting 4 cropped sections in the top row)?


Monday, August 22, 2016

Pledge to take Birds "Under Your Wing"

Our colleagues at Environment Canada have launched a brilliantly simple initiative - make a pledge to take birds under your wing in one of eight simple ways: 

This is a pledge well worth taking so here is my own personal pledge:

Friday, August 12, 2016

Manitoba Miracle

Some of you may have already heard or read about the Manitoba government's interview with the CBC late this afternoon:
so I can finally share the news that we have enjoyed a little bit of a Manitoba miracle this year. A pair of Piping Plover has nested successfully. This is the first Piping Plover nest in the province since 2012 and the first successful nesting attempt since 2010 here.

This was a lot of work and nerve-racking at times but thanks to a small dedicated team this pair fledged three chicks in a probable re-nesting situation.  Bird Studies Canada (  worked in partnership with the province's excellent stewardship to make this story a success.  I would especially like to thank ALL those involved for a truly outstanding piece of work! 

Another story based on an interview I did with The Wildlife Society was recently published at:

Friday, August 5, 2016

Bonaparte's Gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia)

Did you know that Bonaparte's Gulls nest in trees?

Bonus point if you can name another "unexpected" tree-nesting species!

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Importance of Important Bird Areas

On Sunday 24th July I photographed this Pectoral Sandpiper in a mixed species flock at Delta Marsh Important Bird Area (four photos below).  It turns out this bird, an adult male, was fitted with a satellite transmitter by the Max Planck Institutes ( on 28th May 2016 in Barrow, Alaska. On his fall migration, this male Pectoral Sandpiper went from Barrow to the southwestern area of Hudson Bay, where there are no less than nine Important Bird Areas, and from there flew to Delta Marsh IBA (MB001).  He arrived at Delta Marsh on the 23rd July or possibly the 22nd (the satellite tags have a 48-hour on and off schedule so it could have arrived one day before transmitting a signal from Delta) and stayed until the 26th July. He took flight in the early morning of 26th July and went to the Whitewater Lake Important Bird Area (MB015).

As we discover more and more about the incredible journeys of shorebirds, what I find most amazing about this particular story is the way this bird has used a series of Important Bird Areas during his southbound migration. The Important Bird Area program is designed to identify and work towards securing a network of key sites along migratory flyways (as well as other important habitats). This network recognises the importance of hemispheric connections and international collaboration for the conservation of migratory species. This movement of this Pectoral Sandpiper demonstrates nicely how this network of sites works for an individual. From the Hudson Bay IBAs to Delta Marsh and onto Whitewater Lake, this individual is connecting the dots in a very real way!(see to find details and a map of these IBAs)

As this bird moves south to South America, perhaps even as far south as Argentina, it is quite likely that other IBAs along the way will provide important stopover and refueling places. Without all of those, we would be unable to enjoy their magnificence up here in the north.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Mixed-winged Warblers?

OK, so you probably recognise the Golden-winged Warbler on the right and the Blue-winged Warbler on the left of the photo collage below. You may even recognise the bird in the middle as a hybrid:
A new article in Living Bird magazine discusses a paper in press on the small difference in the genomes of Golden-winged Warbler and Blue-winged Warbler. There are some interesting findings in dominant versus recessive plumage patterns but also the suggestion that perhaps these two should be considered a single species. I am waiting for the article to be published before I come to any conclusion on whether the claims made in the article are warranted but it certainly fodder for thought. Unfortunately this article does not mention the paper's co-authors, which is upsetting, but here is a scan to give you a sense of it:

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