A Calgary Big Day

Six weeks, 6143 miles, 243 species of birds, 26 lifers…..and only ONE blog post! And, yes, I realize that it is now October…but I am not going to let any of that stop me from sharing some of the most memorable experiences from what was an epic summer trip. I think the ship has sailed on providing a retrospective chronological account of my travels. Instead, I am going highlight some of the most impressionable encounters and moments and, of course, favorite birds!

First up….a Calgary Big Day!

After crossing the border at Sweet Grass, Montana, I headed straight to Calgary to meet up with the Sveen’s.  I met Michael and Joan last year in South Africa, and I was very fortunate that they were willing to take the time to show me their favorite birds and birding spots in and around Calgary. And, it must be noted, Michael and his family were generous enough to welcome me into their home….a welcome break from the road and a much appreciated shower! Before I arrived, I provided Michael with a list of target species and he planned out a day designed around picking up some lifers for me.

We woke up quite early (4:00 am, if I remember correctly). We stopped at Tim Horton’s (of course) and managed to arrive at the Horse Creek Road Marshes before sunrise. It was crisp and cool and the light was beautiful. Sparrows were beginning to sing, but our ears were tuned for the sound of the elusive Yellow Rail. These small marsh birds make their way through wet meadows and dense marsh vegetation, foraging for seeds and invertebrates. Yellow Rails are considered one of the hardest to see in North America; Michael has conducted countless surveys through their habitats and has only ever heard them. Maybe to make up for their elusiveness, Yellow rails have a unmistakeable call. It took a bit of time and exploring, but we soon heard the morse-code rhythm of what sounds exactly like two rocks tapping together….a Yellow Rail! And, after a few more moments, a second Yellow Rail returning the call! This distinctive clicking call is given in the dark of night, hence the early wake-up call, but i’d get up again and again for this magical moment. They sounded quite close but proved impossible to see (I don’t know how to embed an audio file here, but if you are interested in hearing the call, click here for our eBird checklist).

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I had a tough time getting photos in the low light of sunrise, but this Wilson’s Snipe captures the mood. Horse Creek Road Marshes, 7 July 19.

The Yellow Rail was definitely a highlight, but not the only one. Michael prepared me to be ready to listen for two of my target Sparrows, the hissing buzz of LeConte’s Sparrow and the fading airy hiss of Nelson’s Sparrow (like the sound of sizzling bacon, according to Michael). Both were heard and seen, and the Nelson’s Sparrow was courteous enough to sing and pose at eye-level for a few moments. They were joined by both Lincoln’s Sparrows and Clay-colored Sparrows, Sora, and noisy Red-winged Blackbirds. It took my ears a little while to sort through the cacophony, but I was finally able to pick up on the “free beer” offered by the Alder Flycatcher.

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Lifer Nelson’s Sparrow

We left Horse Creek Road with plans to explore a nearby area where Great Gray Owl had been spotted (a species at the very top of fingers-crossed-to-see list). As we were driving , Michael unexpectedly spotted a Northern Pygmy-Owl, a ferocious little hunter with a preference for songbirds.  These tiny owls hunt during the day and their location is sometimes given away by mobbing birds. We hoped this was a good omen for owls to come…

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Northern Pygmy-Owl

I’ve been dreaming of seeing a Great Gray Owl for some time and although I knew this summer would be my best chance, I knew better than to get my hopes up. In my mind’s eye, I always pictured finding a Great Gray perched near the trunk of a spruce or fir dripping in lichen somewhere in a Boreal Forest. We drove and drove that morning, scanning more trees than I’d seen in some time, but we were running out of luck. We circled back to an area where some birders had seen one earlier in the day, but we seemed to be missing out. We had just made the call to move on to some different spots, as Michael had a long day planned, but as we slowly passed by a residence, I noticed a giant blob on some farm equipment. A Great Gray Owl! In the last place I expected to spot one! I am guessing he had just recently wrapped up his nightly hunt and was snoozing in the sun. These massive owls actually weigh less than Great Horned Owls but are taller and so appear larger. We were able to take a few photos along the fence line and I left feeling like one happy camper. This owl was quite a contrast to the diminutive Northern Pygmy-Owl we spied earlier in the morning.

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Great Gray Owl napping on farm equipment. A lifer for me and the one and only Great Gray Owl I saw on my travels through Canada.

Still buzzing with excitement, we headed southwest of Calgary to Brown-Lowery Provincial Park, a small but impressive oasis of wilderness nestled amongst farms and ranches. I was happy to get out and wander amongst a mix of coniferous and deciduous trees, all dripping with mosses and lichens above a dense green understory. The forest floor held signs of recent rain and every step felt like walking on a damp sponge. Just a few minutes down the trail, and a noisy burst of activity introduced a couple of the birds I was particularly excited to meet – Boreal Chickadee and Canada Jay. I had more “intimate” encounters with Canada Jay later in the trip that i’ll catch up on later and plenty of practicing distinguishing the harsh, raspy “tschick-a-dee-dee” of Boreals from Mountain and Black-capped Chickadees. The adorably plump Boreal Chickadees, my new favorite for sure, stand out with their warm brown cap and cinnamon flanks.

We had some other great encounters along this trail. High in tree canopy of flock of White-winged Crossbills foraged in cones before moving on and the haunting, ethereal song of the Swainson’s Thrush provided the perfect soundtrack. Pacific Wren joined the chorus, as well, with a song that is quite disproportionate to this tiny, but plump, bird. This bird’s charisma and attitude is also disproportionate to its size, as we learned while wandering through a male’s territory. This young Pacific Wren had yet to grow into its attitude, so was a bit more cooperative for photos.

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This juvenile Pacific Wren hasn’t gotten around to growing in its tail feathers yet. At Brown-Lowery Provincial Park, Alberta.

I have previously confessed my love of Woodpeckers, and so our close-up encounter with a cooperative American Three-toed Woodpecker was a definite highlight for me. Woodpeckers have a variety of adaptations that allow them to cling onto trees and hammer into their hard vertical surfaces. Most woodpeckers have zygodactyl feet, with two toes facing forward and two back. Both Black-backed and Three-toed Woodpeckers have only three toes; the inner rear toe is missing and the outer rear toe always points backward, instead of rotating as it does in other species. The American Three-toed Woodpecker breeds farther north than any other American woodpecker; its range extends south through the Rockies and, to the west, south to central Oregon…..but it almost never makes it way south into California (unlike Black-backed Woodpeckers whose range extends well to the south in the Sierra Nevada). The one and only California record of American Three-toed Woodpecker was in the Modoc Mountains in 1985. So, in other words, this summer was my big chance to see and appreciate this unique woodpecker!

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American Three-toed Woodpecker

After leaving Calgary, I spent the next few weeks in Canada. First exploring the southeastern prairies of Alberta, then heading north to the boreal forest. I lingered in that wonderful habitat before heading back west, eventually making my way south through Jasper and Banff National Parks. I drove across beautiful British Columbia, moving at a little bit of a faster pace than planned in order to arrive in Vancouver in time to pick up a friend at the airport. From there, we headed to Vancouver Island to meet up with more friends and relax and explore in Tofino. There were so many adventures along the way and, even though much time has passed, I am determined to share more about them here. So…up next: Mountaintops and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches; A Few Expensive Lifers; Black Swifts at Maligne Canyon; Campsite Encounters: Merlin food-drops and Canada Jay food-steals; A White-tailed Ptarmigan Miss; Sounds of the Wild ; A Tufted Puffin Adventure; Its Not All About Birds….; and finally, I am going, going, back, back, to Cali, Cali.

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I was welcomed to Jasper National Park by this breathtaking view….more to come on some of my favorite moments (and birds)!

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