Man, it was great to finally get this tour going again! After a long hiatus, we originally had the tour scheduled to return in 2020, but of course we all know what happened then. Now, two years later, the tour finally saw its long-awaited debut, and it was certainly worth the wait. We had a simply fantastic time as we birded the varied habitats of the province, from the aspen parklands of Elk Island NP and the Edmonton region to the glorious mountain parks from Jasper south to Waterton, then finally across the wide-open expanse of the southern prairies, and into the scenic badlands at Dinosaur Provincial Park. As I grew up birding in southern Alberta, this was a particularly special return for me, and I enjoyed every minute of it!
Kicking things off in the Edmonton region with a visit to Elk Island NP, we tallied local specialties like LeConte's Sparrow and Mourning Warbler in the park's mosaic of marshes, lakes, and aspen parklands. Later in the marshes to the east, we found an abundance of waterfowl, and enjoyed the sight of flocks of Franklin's Gulls and Black Terns foraging at eye level over a sedge marsh while a Sedge Wren sang from a nearby bush and a Yellow Rail ticked from the middle of the marsh. The following day on our way to Jasper, we made the most of a rainy day by tracking down an elusive Connecticut Warbler and then lucked into a spectacular Great Gray Owl perched stoically on a roadside fencepost!
Poor weather continued in Jasper with the rain changing to snow at higher elevations, but this may actually have benefitted us, as not only did we find White-tailed Ptarmigan more easily than usual, but the snow also likely forced a trio of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches to feed at lower elevations than usual for the time of year! Stunning Harlequin Ducks braving the rapids of the rushing Maligne River, a Varied Thrush singing its evocative, ringing song from the top of a tall spruce, and a pair of American Three-toed Woodpeckers ferrying food to some hungry nestlings were among the many highlights we dug out despite the un-summer-like conditions.
Further south, weather conditions improved, becoming far more seasonal, and the birding remained hot. The stunning scenery of the Kananaskis region provided a nice backdrop as we tracked down birds like Olive-sided Flycatcher, Townsend's Warbler, Townsend's Solitaire, and Evening Grosbeak among many others. A Northern Goshawk that showed well as it circled overhead was a fantastic surprise, and mammals from a middle-of-the-road Moose, to a charming little Pika kept things interesting between bouts of birding. Our final mountain destination, Waterton Lakes NP, was shocking in a way, as most of the coniferous forests that covered much of the park had been destroyed in the forest fire of 2017. But there were signs of life everywhere, with a blanket of bear grass and numerous wildflowers carpeting the forest floor. And while the birding had certainly changed since my last trip here, it wasn't all bad, as species like MacGillivray's Warbler and the brilliant Lazuli Bunting seem to be flourishing in the new habitat created by the fire.
After a final picnic breakfast in the mountains, during which we were serenaded by a pair of Common Loons on a nearby lake, we bid the mountains goodbye and ventured east into the vast, open prairies of the south. Here we scoped the prairie potholes for a great assortment of waterfowl and shorebirds. Cinnamon Teal, Canvasback, Western Grebe, and American Avocet were among the many species we found in the potholes, while the grasslands and coulees (river valleys) offered up tremendous views of nesting Ferruginous Hawks, a pair of Prairie Falcons surveying the Milk River from the clifftops, dapper Chestnut-collared Longspurs adorning the barbed wire fences, and some cryptic Common Nighthawks perched inconspicuously (not!) on roadside fenceposts. And capping off that first day in the prairies, we came across a massive, whirling flock of phalaropes at Pakowki Lake, primarily made up of the prairie-nesting Wilson's Phalarope, but with a bunch of Red-necked Phalaropes mixed in, a sure sign that fall migration was already underway!
Unlike previous iterations of this tour, we had a second day to continue our exploration of the prairie habitats, and we certainly made the most of it. We began the day with a visit to the spectacular Dinosaur Provincial Park, where we added a bunch of new birds like Lark Sparrow, Rock Wren, Spotted Towhee, and Say's Phoebe amidst the otherworldly beauty of the badlands. Continuing into the surrounding grasslands, we added Loggerhead Shrike, a furtive Sprague's Pipit, a massive Golden Eagle perched next to the road (with an American Badger nearby!) and some local grassland sparrows--Brewer's, Baird's, and Grasshopper, before we had to wend our way back to Calgary. It was an incredible finish to a fine tour!
Our bird of the trip voting reflected the great diversity of species we found. Twenty species figured in the 30 available "top 3" slots, meaning there was no runaway winner as bird of the trip, but the Great Gray Owl narrowly claimed top honors, with Ferruginous Hawk and Black-billed Magpie in a tie for 2nd place.
On behalf of Dan and myself, I want to thank you all for joining us for this trip, and for helping to make it such a smashing success. It felt so good to make this long-awaited return to Alberta, and that it was with such a compatible, convivial group of people made it all that much sweeter. I look forward to traveling with you all again sometime soon!
KEYS FOR THIS LIST
One of the following keys may be shown in brackets for individual species as appropriate: * = heard only, I = introduced, E = endemic, N = nesting, a = austral migrant, b = boreal migrant
SNOW GOOSE (Anser caerulescens)
Three lingering individuals among a throng of other waterfowl east of Edmonton were quite a surprise, as they are usually all much further north by this time.
CANADA GOOSE (Branta canadensis) [N]
Plenty most days, though we did somehow miss them on our full day in Jasper.
TRUMPETER SWAN (Cygnus buccinator)
A couple were seen in passing as we drove the highway from Edmonton to Jasper. We also had a pair fly over the Maskinonge Marsh at the entrance to Waterton Lakes NP, and saw what may have been the same pair distantly on the marsh just before we left the mountains.
BLUE-WINGED TEAL (Spatula discors)
Away from the mountains, this was a pretty commonly seen species.
CINNAMON TEAL (Spatula cyanoptera)
We had to wait until we got to the prairies for this one, and the fact that most of the prairie potholes along our route were completely dried up made it a little more difficult than it normally would be, but we finally did find a handsome pair of these ducks on one of the larger, deeper ponds along the drive to Milk River.
NORTHERN SHOVELER (Spatula clypeata)
Quite a few birds away from the mountains, most well on their way into eclipse plumage. Especially numerous at Pakowki Lake, where it accounted for the majority of the dabblers present.
GADWALL (Mareca strepera)
Small numbers in the main waterfowl sites east of Edmonton and in the southern prairies.
AMERICAN WIGEON (Mareca americana)
Just a few birds around Elk Island NP and in the southern prairie region.
MALLARD (Anas platyrhynchos)
Not a day passed that we didn't see this common species.
NORTHERN PINTAIL (Anas acuta)
A fair number in the same area as the Snow Geese east of Elk Island NP, and a lone pair on the prairies. Unlike many of the other dabblers, these were still in pretty good plumage.
GREEN-WINGED TEAL (Anas crecca)
A handful of birds at Elk Island and the marshes to the east, and a single bird on the Cinnamon Teal pond in the south.
CANVASBACK (Aythya valisineria)
Our only ones (15-20 birds) were all on the same pond in the south, along with a plethora of other waterfowl.
REDHEAD (Aythya americana)
We spotted a single drake in the duck-filled marshes east of Elk Island NP, then a handful of them in the south, including Pakowki Lake.
RING-NECKED DUCK (Aythya collaris)
Unlike most of the other waterfowl, this species was seen regularly in the mountains, where it was often found on quiet, beaver ponds in forested areas. Away from the mountains they were on similar ponds in the Edmonton region, but were missing on the prairies, where both beavers and forested areas are in short supply.
LESSER SCAUP (Aythya affinis)
Despite being a diving duck, this species is a pretty common sight in the prairies, and most any reasonably-sized body of water hosted a pair or several.
HARLEQUIN DUCK (Histrionicus histrionicus)
Fantastic looks at this stunning duck along the Maligne River in Jasper, where we had a fairly close pair putting on a great show for us.
BUFFLEHEAD (Bucephala albeola) [N]
Not uncommon away from the mountains. The only record during the mountain portion of the tour was of a female with 8 ducklings on a pond along the Sibbald Creek Trail in the Kananaskis.
COMMON GOLDENEYE (Bucephala clangula)
A few around Elk Island NP, and a single bird at Waterton's Maskinonge Marsh were all we had for the tour.
BARROW'S GOLDENEYE (Bucephala islandica) [N]
Generally replaces Common Goldeneye in the mountains, but we didn't see many, and no adult males. Best was a female with 2 ducklings on Jasper's Cottonwood Slough.
COMMON MERGANSER (Mergus merganser)
Several on Medicine Lake and the Maligne River at Jasper, and a couple of birds on Waterton's Maskinonge Marsh.
RUDDY DUCK (Oxyura jamaicensis)
As with most of the ducks, our sightings of this species bookended the tour, as we only saw them in the prairie/parkland areas. Best views were of some handsome drakes on the southern prairies.
WHITE-TAILED PTARMIGAN (Lagopus leucura)
The weather on the Whistlers may not have been great, and the views were certainly lacking due to the snow and low clouds, but this may have helped us in our quest for this target species, as we found a pair very close to the upper tram station. A testament to their incredible camouflage is that Dan very nearly stepped on them before we saw them! Ann picked the ptarmigan as her top birds of the trip, as did Dan, who knows how hard we sometimes need to work to see these wonderful birds!
GRAY PARTRIDGE (Perdix perdix) [I]
As we drove across the prairies in the south, I told people to keep an eye out for partridges. The words had barely escaped my lips when Kathy announced she had just spotted one standing in the ditch. I first thought she was joking, then maybe she'd been mistaken, but we turned around for a look, and sure enough, there was a lone partridge standing stock still on a little rise next to the fence! And it stayed long enough for both vans to get into position for a look! Sorry I ever doubted you, Kathy!
PIED-BILLED GREBE (Podilymbus podiceps)
Dan pointed out our only one of these grebes on a large pond in the south. I may have been the only one not to see it. Our only other record was of a calling bird heard at the Maskinonge Marsh.
HORNED GREBE (Podiceps auritus)
I was honestly very surprised how few of these we saw, as I recall them being a regular sight on the prairie potholes in the south, but our only record this trip was of a pair on the marshes east of Elk Island NP on our first day. It was great to see them alongside the similar Eared Grebes for a good comparison.
RED-NECKED GREBE (Podiceps grisegena) [N]
Quite numerous and noisy at Elk Island's Astotin Lake, where several pairs were nesting near the boardwalk, and seemed quite unbothered by all of us watching from a few yards away!
EARED GREBE (Podiceps nigricollis)
Though we had a few in the marshes east of Elk Island, the big numbers were in southern Alberta, where we had 100+ birds on one of the larger ponds on our way east to Milk River.
WESTERN GREBE (Aechmophorus occidentalis)
Our only sighting of this elegant grebe was of a couple of birds close to the road at the same large pond that had both our Pied-billed Grebe and the large mob of Eared Grebes.
ROCK PIGEON (Columba livia) [I]
I have a blind spot for these birds (along with Brewer's Blackbirds, apparently!) so didn't notice them much, but they were seen by some folks in various towns as well as at Dinosaur PP.
EURASIAN COLLARED-DOVE (Streptopelia decaocto) [I]
A fairly recent addition to the provincial avifauna. The town of Milk River is one of the strongholds of this exotic, and we saw a few there, as well as in the town of Foremost during our bathroom/ice cream stop.
MOURNING DOVE (Zenaida macroura)
The relative scarcity of this species compared to where I live reminded me that I once missed it altogether on a Southern Alberta Big Day I participated in! We saw a few birds in the prairie regions.
COMMON NIGHTHAWK (Chordeiles minor)
These birds surprised us a couple of times on the tour. First was during our evening excursion to Waterton's Cameron Lake, where we heard, then saw, a pair swooping over the lake. I did not expect to see them so high in the mountains (the lake is at about 5400') Then, on our drive through the prairies, Charlie spotted one perched on the rail of a fence along the road, in an area where there were no trees visible at all! Further along we came across another pair of birds perched on fenceposts in similar situations.
BLACK SWIFT (Cypseloides niger)
The poor weather at Jasper let up enough our first evening for us to make a post-dinner excursion to Maligne Canyon, the only realistic place for us to tally this scarce species. And our luck held, as shortly after we arrived, Dan spotted a quartet of relatively low-flying swifts coming by overhead. It was the only pass the birds made during our watch, so we really lucked out.
CALLIOPE HUMMINGBIRD (Selasphorus calliope)
Our go-to spot for this species at Waterton was under construction, and thus closed, so we turned to Ebird for recent sightings, and ended up going to the Lineham Creek Trail, where one had been seen a few days earlier. With no specific info on where it had been spotted, our expectations were pretty low, but once again, we lucked out when I spotted a shimmering male teed up on a tall spruce tree along the trail! It changed perches a few times, but stayed put in the area long enough for everyone to enjoy wonderful scope views of this beauty!
RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRD (Selasphorus rufus)
Super views of several males visiting the feeders at Highwood House, on our way out of Kananaskis, followed by another male in Waterton, right where Dan told me there would be one perched!
VIRGINIA RAIL (Rallus limicola)
Overall not a well-known species in Alberta, and even the bird books show the breeding range as only being in the east-central portion of the province, but the marsh near Waterton seems to be a fairly reliable place for this bird, which I first noted there back in 2009. We had great looks at a close pair, and heard a second pair calling from further back in the marsh.
SORA (Porzana carolina)
We heard the maniacal whinnying of several of these in the marshes east of Elk Island NP, and had nice views of one bird in a roadside ditch. Later in the trip, the folks that got up for the optional early morning walk in Canmore also got to see one dash below the boardwalk at Policeman's Creek.
AMERICAN COOT (Fulica americana)
Small numbers were in suitable wetlands in the Edmonton region, and a single was seen during our brief stop at Pakowki Lake, but overall there were far fewer than I was expecting.
YELLOW RAIL (Coturnicops noveboracensis) [*]
Though I've long known that the marshes to the east of Edmonton were a regular haunt for this elusive rail, I had never recoded them here on past visits (due in part to not visiting at night, when they are most active). So it was a real treat to finally catch up with Yellow Rail for my provincial list, even if it was just hearing the distinctive ticking call from a roadside marsh.
SANDHILL CRANE (Antigone canadensis)
The 1976 book "The Birds of Alberta" claims cranes were starting to expand their breeding range southward to reclaim former breeding areas across the southern Alberta prairies, and that they had recently been recorded breeding "as far south as Rocky Mountain House". The expansion has no doubt continued, as both of our records were well to the south of that town! We had wonderful views of a pair with a colt on the eastern end of the Sibbald Creek Trail in the Kananaskis region, then another pair (well-spotted by Randy!) along the road between Pincher Creek and Waterton.
BLACK-NECKED STILT (Himantopus mexicanus)
This species first started turning up in the province in the early 1970's, since when it has become more regular, and is now an annual breeding bird in the province. Still, seeing a pair east of Edmonton was a bit of a surprise for both guides as neither of us had seen them before so far north (though there are plenty of records now). Much less surprising were the dozen or so at Pakowki Lake, one of the early strongholds of this species in the province.
AMERICAN AVOCET (Recurvirostra americana)
There were far fewer of these elegant birds than I recall from past trips, with just 2 records this tour. First, most everyone saw a pair at the same place as the stilts east of Edmonton, though they disappeared shortly after being spotted. Then, in the south, a lone bird foraged along the edge of the large pond with all the grebes and ducks, and that one was far more cooperative and was seen by all.
KILLDEER (Charadrius vociferus) [N]
Widespread, and recorded in small numbers on most days of the tour. The most surprising sighting had to be at the Columbia Icefields, during our picnic lunch in the snow. I was surprised just to see a pair with 4 very young chicks at this high elevation (~6500') but even more-so to watch those chicks swimming across a small pond to catch up with their very vocal parents (they're not call vociferus for nothing!) on the other side. I had no idea Killdeer babies could swim!
MARBLED GODWIT (Limosa fedoa)
A few birds in the south, including a rather upset pair of birds in front of the vehicles on that country road near Rolling Hills.
WILSON'S SNIPE (Gallinago delicata)
Pretty common in marshes throughout, and seen most days of the tour. Most numerous along the Sibbald Creek Trail where every marsh seemed to have a couple, and we enjoyed several birds winnowing directly over the road.
WILSON'S PHALAROPE (Phalaropus tricolor)
A fairly common breeder across the prairies, and we encountered our first in the marshes east of Edmonton, but the big event came late in the trip, where we came across several hundred phalaropes swirling around on the waters of Pakowki Lake, with one group of roughly 100 birds feeding quite close to the road.
RED-NECKED PHALAROPE (Phalaropus lobatus)
One of the surprise species of the trip, as there are relatively few late June records in the province, but southbound migration (and these were almost certainly early southbound migrants) starts early here. Most of the birds appeared to be breeding-plumaged females, which might seem surprising, until you remember that male phalaropes are the ones that tend to the nests, so the females will leave their breeding grounds earlier, as their parental responsibilities end once they've laid their eggs. Ebird shows a record of a single female at the same spot 2 days earlier, so our 20+ birds (which really is only a partial count as I didn't even look at birds further away from the road than a few yards) represent a signifiant increase. It would have been interesting to see what happened there over the next few days! This phalarope show was my favorite bird event of the trip, though it was a pretty tough choice.
SPOTTED SANDPIPER (Actitis macularius)
Widespread in small numbers, both in the prairies and the mountains. Like with the phalaropes, it's the male Spotties that look after the eggs and young.
SOLITARY SANDPIPER (Tringa solitaria)
Not an easily found bird on the tour route, but the beaver ponds adjacent to wooded areas in the Kananaskis region are a fairly reliable place for them, and that is just where we found our only one, perched nicely on a stump in the middle of a pond.
GREATER YELLOWLEGS (Tringa melanoleuca)
Both yellowlegs species breed in the northern half of Alberta, so our records in the prairies are another sign that fall migration was underway. We had a couple of these in a wet pasture near Brooks, alongside several Lesser Yellowlegs for a nice size comparison.
WILLET (Tringa semipalmata)
A common breeder in the prairies and we saw quite a few during our southern swing.
LESSER YELLOWLEGS (Tringa flavipes)
A few birds in the Brooks area.
BONAPARTE'S GULL (Chroicocephalus philadelphia)
Three birds in non-breeding plumage were lounging in the middle of Astotin Lake at Elk Island NP, our only record for the tour.
FRANKLIN'S GULL (Leucophaeus pipixcan)
A common breeder through much of the province, except in the mountains. These lovely gulls were especially numerous in the marshes east of Edmonton. We had especially nice, close views, even seeing the pinkish hues on their underparts, of a large mixed group of these birds and Black Terns feeding low over the Yellow Rail marsh.
RING-BILLED GULL (Larus delawarensis)
Common and widespread away from the mountains.
CALIFORNIA GULL (Larus californicus)
Small numbers of these gulls were seen daily in the southern prairies.
BLACK TERN (Chlidonias niger)
Our only sightings of these gorgeous terns were on our first day east of Edmonton, but you couldn't beat the views we had, with several birds passing at eye level within a few yards of our position on the road at the Yellow Rail Marsh! This was Jean's pick for best bird of the tour.
FORSTER'S TERN (Sterna forsteri)
Terns were in short supply this trip and I was surprised that the only one of these birds we could muster up was a lone, fairly distant bird at Wabamun Lake.
COMMON LOON (Gavia immer)
One of the tour's most magical moments came on our final morning in the mountains. On our way out of Waterton, we stopped at the Maskinonge Marsh Picnic Area for a picnic breakfast before heading off into the prairies. Shortly after we'd set up, a nearby pair of loons suddenly began to call, their haunting cries ringing in the crisp morning air. As we stood there soaking in the experience, another pair of loons flew in and joined them, and they all swam around together with the early morning sun lighting the mountains in the background. This beautiful scene was a fitting end to our time in the mountains, and the loons were Marie's pick for bird of the trip.
DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT (Nannopterum auritum)
Though a common species at the right places, we didn't hit too many right places for cormorants this trip, and consequently only saw a handful in the Brooks region.
AMERICAN WHITE PELICAN (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos)
When my family moved to Alberta in 1976, I remember being blown away by the fact there were pelicans (which I'd always thought of as coastal birds) in the prairies, and I was thrilled to see them for the very first time. I'm still kind of blown away every time I see these things gliding incongruously high above the prairies, and was thrilled to see them several times around Edmonton and then again in the south.
GREAT BLUE HERON (Ardea herodias)
Herons were few and far between, and we saw only a couple of birds at Elk Island NP, then a few singles in the south.
WHITE-FACED IBIS (Plegadis chihi)
The expansion of this species into the province is quite similar to that of Black-necked Stilt. This species also started showing up in the1970's. Records of both remained somewhat sporadic until the late 1990's, when they started appearing annually, mainly at a couple of choice sites. My own personal first records of the stilt and the ibis in the province came a few weeks apart, both at Stirling Lake near Lethbridge in 1992. Ibis were a bit later to arrive in the Edmonton region, and prior to 2017, there were few records so far north. The pair we saw in the marshes east of Edmonton were the first in the region for both guides. And for me, personally, the 25+ birds south of Brooks were the largest number I'd seen together in the province.
OSPREY (Pandion haliaetus) [N]
A few records sprinkled across the mountain lakes, mainly seen while we were driving. Our first, though, was a bird on a nesting platform at Wabamun Lake.
GOLDEN EAGLE (Aquila chrysaetos)
We saw a total of 5 of these massive eagles, with 3 of them on the last day around the Brooks region. Our final one gave us the best views as it perched atop a roadside power pole at fairly close range. But perhaps the most memorable one was the one we spotted gliding over the foothills at Highwood House. It was constantly being dive-bombed by a much smaller bird and when I announced that the smaller bird was a Red-tailed Hawk, I'm not sure anyone believed me at first (including the hummingbird bander who was nearby!) as I don't think anyone really had a good sense of how much larger the eagle is than the hawk. The size difference was truly impressive and astounding!
NORTHERN HARRIER (Circus hudsonius)
We didn't catch up to these until we got to the south, where we saw about half a dozen birds over the last two days in the prairies.
SHARP-SHINNED HAWK (Accipiter striatus)
Though all three Accipiters are resident breeders along our tour route, sightings of any of them cannot be guaranteed, but this is the species most likely to be seen on this tour. We had two records, first of one passing overhead along the Sibbald Creek Road, then of a calling bird just outside the Waterton Townsite that some folks in Dan's van spotted.
NORTHERN GOSHAWK (Accipiter gentilis)
While the Sharpie is the most likely Accipiter on the tour, this is certainly the least likely to be encountered, so the bird that Dan spotted flying overhead along the Spray Lakes Road in the Kananaskis was a super find. That bird gave good views before it disappeared behind a distant treeline. Shortly afterwards, we heard another goshawk (perhaps even two!) calling from back near where we parked, but unfortunately we couldn't track down the bird, though it didn't seem to be too far into the forest.
BALD EAGLE (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) [N]
Seen in small numbers on several days in Jasper, Banff and the Kananaskis, including an active nest with a couple of large fledglings next to Medicine Lake in Jasper.
BROAD-WINGED HAWK (Buteo platypterus)
Elk Island NP is usually the only site where we find this species, and we did have fine views of three different birds soaring overhead there. We also had a perched subadult (well-spotted by Kathy and Jean, I believe) along the Sibbald Creek Trail. I'm not sure the local Ebird reviewer accepted this record as this species is quite scarce in the region outside of migration, so if any of you got a photo of this bird, no matter how poor, it'd be great if you could share it.
SWAINSON'S HAWK (Buteo swainsoni)
Many of you saw these birds right near the Calgary airport on arrival in the city. For those that didn't, there were plenty seen in the southern prairies where they are the most common Buteo.
RED-TAILED HAWK (Buteo jamaicensis)
This common hawk replaces Swainson's in more wooded regions, and in areas of overlap in the prairies, these birds primarily breed in the cottonwood floodplains along major rivers, leaving the open prairies to the Swainson's Hawks. We saw Red-tails around Edmonton and along the eastern foot of the mountains.
FERRUGINOUS HAWK (Buteo regalis) [N]
The largest of the Buteos, Ferruginous Hawks are also the least common, and are listed as Endangered in the province. So it was heartening to see them in fair numbers in the southern prairies, first at a long-used nest site along the Milk River, then regularly throughout the remainder of that day, with a final tally of over a dozen birds! Many of those were nestlings, as in addition to the first nest, which had 4 very large nestlings, there were also a couple of nesting platforms that were in use on ranches along the road. I have always found it interesting that fledgling Ferruginous Hawks have a very Swainson's-like breast pattern, and I wonder if there could be any adaptive significance to this feature. Rhys picked these regal birds as his top bird of the tour.
GREAT HORNED OWL (Bubo virginianus)
Alberta's provincial bird, and a common, widespread species in the province, occurring just about anywhere there are suitable nest sites. And since they regularly use old crow and magpie nests, that means pretty much everywhere! We were enjoying views of a nice variety of shorebirds and waterfowl at a large prairie slough when I glanced up at a picturesque old barn nearby and saw the distinctive shape of an owl perched sleepily on the window ledge. Excellent scope views ensued!
GREAT GRAY OWL (Strix nebulosa)
It was a dreary, rainy day as we headed west from Edmonton, but that was almost certainly to our advantage that morning as I imagine that this owl would not have been perched out in the open like it was on a warm, sunny day. Everyone in the lead van had been searching for cranes in a suitable field on the left side of the road when they passed by this bird, which was sitting on a fencepost low on the right (partially obscured by a bridge), so they failed to see it. And there were some anxious moments when our phones and radios failed as we tried to alert the other van, especially considering Kathy, who'd missed her most-wanted bird on the Owlberta tour earlier this year, was in that van, but eventually, we got our message through, and they all made it back for some fantastic looks at this magnificent owl! We needn't have been stressed at all, as the owl was still sitting there when we drove off nearly half an hour later! No surprise that this was Kathy's choice for bird of the trip!
BELTED KINGFISHER (Megaceryle alcyon)
Our lone record was of a female that joined us for our picnic breakfast at Waterton's Maskinonge Marsh.
YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKER (Sphyrapicus varius)
In the Kananaskis region, the two sapsucker species do hybridize to a certain extent, and a male we saw drumming on a roadside signpost appeared to have some features of both species. Fortunately, Red-naped Sapsucker is absent in the Edmonton region, so it was pretty easy call to identify the sapsucker we saw at Elk Island NP as this species!
RED-NAPED SAPSUCKER (Sphyrapicus nuchalis)
Great looks at a male drumming on trees and a nearby baseball backstop at Camp Columbus in Waterton Lakes NP.
AMERICAN THREE-TOED WOODPECKER (Picoides dorsalis) [N]
Our rainy picnic lunch stop near Edson produced a few quality birds, including a male of this highly sought-after species working over a spruce tree right next to the picnic shelter. For the few folks that missed this bird, we found another pair busily delivering food to an eye level nest hole at Maligne Lake.
BLACK-BACKED WOODPECKER (Picoides arcticus) [*]
We heard one calling in the burned area along the Lineham Creek Trail in Waterton, and a few of us did glimpse a distant woodpecker shape flying through the trees, but essentially this remained a heard-only species.
DOWNY WOODPECKER (Dryobates pubescens)
For such a common woodpecker, we saw very few, perhaps as nesting duties kept them quieter and more inconspicuous than usual. As it was we recorded these only at Elk Island NP (1 or 2) and had a single bird at Becker's Chalets just as we arrived.
HAIRY WOODPECKER (Dryobates villosus)
We fared about the same with this species as the last. One was seen by a few folks along the Sibbald Creek Trail, but the only good one for the whole group was at Camp Columbus, when one popped out in an aspen grove giving excellent views before heading back into the cover of the forest.
PILEATED WOODPECKER (Dryocopus pileatus)
We never got one up close and personal, but we had decent views of one that flew over a roadside marsh at Elk Island NP, then landed in a distant tree allowing scope views for at least a few folks. Our only other one was seen in the area where we searched for Connecticut Warblers en route to Jasper.
NORTHERN FLICKER (Colaptes auratus)
Just a handful of sightings over the 2nd half of the tour, including near Dinosaur Provincial Park. Both yellow and red-shafted forms occur widely in Alberta, with yellow being more widespread across the northern and eastern parts of the province, and red in the mountains and across the prairies, though there is considerable hybridization throughout.
AMERICAN KESTREL (Falco sparverius)
Only noted during a couple of our travel days, with one along a country road west of Edmonton, and a couple on the way south towards Waterton NP.
MERLIN (Falco columbarius)
Single birds were noted on three days, with a well-seen female hurtling by over the Yellow Rail marsh on our first day kicking things off. Another was seen by some on our full day at Waterton NP, and finally, one van saw one as we headed back to Calgary on the final day.
PRAIRIE FALCON (Falco mexicanus)
As it had been so many years since I'd last led this trip, and Ebird records for my former Prairie Falcon stakeout were lacking, I wasn't sure these birds would still be around, but sure enough, we found a pair perched on the top of the coulees along the Milk River, giving us decent scope views. A final bird was seen the following day, speeding over the prairie at the Dinosaur PP viewpoint.
OLIVE-SIDED FLYCATCHER (Contopus cooperi)
Super looks at one teed up along the road during a stop at one of the ponds along the Sibbald Creek Trail. Our only other record was of a calling bird heard the next morning at Yamnuska.
WESTERN WOOD-PEWEE (Contopus sordidulus)
We heard the burry calls of this species a few times, but the only visuals came in the aspen woodland around Camp Columbus.
YELLOW-BELLIED FLYCATCHER (Empidonax flaviventris)
Though it breeds throughout the boreal forest region of northern Alberta, this species is quite scarce and local on the tour route. But we did manage to track a couple down on a long-used territory in Jasper. Ther were a bit flighty and elusive, but I think everyone came away with a view in the end.
ALDER FLYCATCHER (Empidonax alnorum)
This and the next species were formerly lumped as Traill's Flycatcher, and are mainly only separable by voice. This is the more widespread of the two in the province, though we actually saw more Willows this trip. Our only visual was of a non-singing bird at Elk Island, but as Willow doesn't occur anywhere near there, it's pretty safe to say it was an Alder, especially as we heard others in the area.
WILLOW FLYCATCHER (Empidonax traillii)
Pretty much restricted to mountain and foothill marshes in the province, and all our records came from the montane regions. Our first were at Jasper's Cottonwood Slough, where we also heard Alder Flycatchers for a nice comparison of their songs.
LEAST FLYCATCHER (Empidonax minimus) [*]
Common and widespread and recorded more often than any other Empid, so it's kind of ironic that we never actually laid eyes on one. I think we just never really put in the effort to see this one.
DUSKY FLYCATCHER (Empidonax oberholseri)
We made a quick stop at Yamnuska before heading into the Kananaskis one morning, to try to track down a territorial Hammond's Flycatcher Dan had found earlier in the spring. The Hammond's was a no-show, but we did wind up with nice looks at one of these closely related flycatchers singing in the same area, our only one for the trip.
PACIFIC-SLOPE FLYCATCHER (Empidonax difficilis)
This and the Cordilleran Flycatcher form a species pair once lumped as Western Flycatcher. The two are very similar and best separated by call notes, but there's been a fair bit of confusion about whether just one or both occur in Alberta, and which is the regular species. The consensus now seems to be that this is the regular breeding species here (though the 1998 "Birds of Alberta" book treated Cordilleran as the breeding species and has this listed as an "Accidental"!). We saw "Western" type flycatchers at the foot of Whistlers, at Maligne Canyon, and along the Sibbald Creek Trail, and all of ours gave the typical calls of Pacific-slope.
EASTERN PHOEBE (Sayornis phoebe)
Only seen at Elk Island NP (though heard elsewhere) including one seen catching and devouring a tiger swallowtail butterfly of some sort.
SAY'S PHOEBE (Sayornis saya)
Ann spotted our first during a stop in the prairies on the way to Dinosaur PP, and we went on to see three others later the same day.
WESTERN KINGBIRD (Tyrannus verticalis)
First spotted by Marie in the treed yard of an abandoned farmhouse as we scoped a large pond for waterfowl in the Milk River region. We followed up with a bunch more over the next couple of days.
EASTERN KINGBIRD (Tyrannus tyrannus)
Though the two kingbirds overlap considerably, and can often be found together in the same areas, this is by far the more widespread species, with Western confined to the prairie regions in the southeastern section of the province. We had this species most days, with the exception of our 2 days in Jasper.
WARBLING VIREO (Vireo gilvus)
Pretty widespread, though heard far more often than seen, partly as once we'd seen a couple we didn't work too hard to see subsequent ones! Eastern and Western subspecies are a potential future split, and both occur in the province. Most of ours were almost certainly Western, as the Eastern subspecies mainly occurs well to the east of the mountains, though I think Dan may have pointed out a singing Eastern somewhere.
RED-EYED VIREO (Vireo olivaceus)
We heard and saw quite a number in Elk Island NP and elsewhere in the Edmonton region, then no more for the rest of the trip, which was something of a surprise.
LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE (Lanius ludovicianus)
Not uncommon on the southern prairies, and we saw upwards of half a dozen on our final day in the Brooks area. But the one we saw on the first day east of Elk island NP was somewhat unexpected, as this is at the northernmost limit of their range, and neither guide had ever seen one so far north before.
CANADA JAY (Perisoreus canadensis)
We saw these charming jays a couple of times in the mountains, including some dusky-looking youngsters. As they begin nesting as early as February, it is not at all uncommon for them to have fledglings already at this time of year.
BLUE JAY (Cyanocitta cristata)
We only saw a couple of birds in the Edmonton region, not surprising as these are still pretty rare in the mountains, where we spent most of our time.
BLACK-BILLED MAGPIE (Pica hudsonia)
One of only a handful of every day birds on the trip. While many Albertans aren't all that impressed with magpies, seeing them as noisy and obnoxious, but I've always liked them, so it was nice to see them get some love from Cindy and Charlie who picked these lovely birds as their favorite of the trip!
CLARK'S NUTCRACKER (Nucifraga columbiana)
Though they didn't harass us during our picnic lunch at the icefields, as has happened in the past, we did see a few scattered individuals over several days in Banff and the Kananaskis, including a handful at Lake Louise.
AMERICAN CROW (Corvus brachyrhynchos)
Another daily bird for the tour.
COMMON RAVEN (Corvus corax)
Though we missed ravens our first day near Edmonton, we had them every day after that, and for the most part they outnumbered crows, which is to be expected in the mountains.
BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEE (Poecile atricapillus)
On the winter Alberta tour, this is the commonly seen chickadee, occurring pretty much everywhere. Probably due to them being more secretive and quiet in the nesting season, we saw relatively few of them, primarily at Elk Island.
MOUNTAIN CHICKADEE (Poecile gambeli)
This aptly-named chickadee was seen numerous times around the Kananaskis region, as well as on our early morning walk in Canmore.
BOREAL CHICKADEE (Poecile hudsonicus) [*]
Frustratingly heard only across a small pond in along Sibbald Creek Trail. I'd hoped we could pick this up in Waterton, but the extensive fire damage to the forest there means there is little suitable habitat remaining.
HORNED LARK (Eremophila alpestris)
Quite numerous in the prairie regions, and we had several nice views of them in the open grasslands of the south.
NORTHERN ROUGH-WINGED SWALLOW (Stelgidopteryx serripennis)
Our only group sighting of this rather uncommon swallow was of a pair flying around and occasionally landing on the road edge (collecting nesting material?) at the large waterfowl pond we stopped at in the south.
TREE SWALLOW (Tachycineta bicolor) [N]
Seen most days in small numbers. Most numerous in areas like the Sibbald Creek Trail where bluebird nest boxes provide them with ready-made nesting sites.
VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOW (Tachycineta thalassina)
These pretty swallows gave tantalizing glimpses at Lake Louise, and showed reasonably well for the early-risers in Canmore, but were most numerous and best-seen at Dinosaur PP.
BANK SWALLOW (Riparia riparia)
Very few, with just one or two mixed in with a huge number of Cliff Swallows at the Del Bonita Community Campground, then a handful of birds over the grasslands near Dinosaur PP.
BARN SWALLOW (Hirundo rustica)
A pair or two were seen on most days, but overall there weren't really that many.
CLIFF SWALLOW (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) [N]
Easily the most numerous swallow of the tour, with some very large nesting colonies under some bridges, including an estimated 400-500 at the campground at Del Bonita! More interesting were the natural colonies on the cliffs along the Milk River, one of the few places I've seen this species nesting away from man-made structures!
RUBY-CROWNED KINGLET (Corthylio calendula)
A few singles and pairs were recorded at several sites in Jasper NP and the Kananaskis area.
GOLDEN-CROWNED KINGLET (Regulus satrapa) [*]
We heard the high-pitched calls of this species only once along the SIbbald Creek Trail.
RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH (Sitta canadensis)
Small numbers at various mountain sites, often attracted in to pygmy-owl imitations and pishing.
ROCK WREN (Salpinctes obsoletus)
Our scope views of a distant one singing along the Milk River were pretty lacking, so it was nice to get a few good, and much closer views, of this wren at Dinosaur PP.
HOUSE WREN (Troglodytes aedon)
Heard far more often than seen (most days) but we ultimately did get several looks at these around Waterton NP.
SEDGE WREN (Cistothorus stellaris)
Fairly scarce and local in the east-central portion of the province, and not a species I expect to get on any given trip, but this seemed to be a good year for them, as we heard half a dozen or more in the marshes east of Edmonton, and had fine looks at a close bird singing from atop one of the few shrubs emerging above the surrounding sedges.
MARSH WREN (Cistothorus palustris)
While we were angling for a view of the Virginia Rails at Waterton, one of these perky wrens popped right up beside us for some excellent close views!
AMERICAN DIPPER (Cinclus mexicanus)
Somewhat surprisingly we saw just one of these iconic mountain birds, but that one gave us an incredible show at Maligne Lake as it fed along the edge of the river, diving under the water numerous times before bobbing to the surface and swimming back to shore.
EUROPEAN STARLING (Sturnus vulgaris) [I]
Noted on most days, often as we drove through towns along the way.
GRAY CATBIRD (Dumetella carolinensis)
A few sightings in the aspen parkland along the eastern edge of Waterton NP, with a couple also seen by some at Dinosaur PP.
BROWN THRASHER (Toxostoma rufum) [N]
A pair were busily traveling back and forth between a fruiting Saskatoon berry tree and a well-hidden nest at Dinosaur PP, no doubt stuffing their hungry nestlings full of berries!
MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD (Sialia currucoides)
Quite a few along the Sibbald Creek Trail where there is a well-established bluebird nest box program, but overall we saw fewer than I would have liked.
TOWNSEND'S SOLITAIRE (Myadestes townsendi)
Dan and I, along with Cindy's Merlin app, all picked up the warbling song of this species at a lovely scenic overlook along the Sibbald Creek Trail, and soon enough we had the bird in view, teed up on a nearby spruce. It ended up being the only one we would see!
VARIED THRUSH (Ixoreus naevius)
We also saw just one of these gorgeous, elusive thrushes, which I managed to track down as it sang from the top of a tall spruce at Maligne Lake, and which stayed long enough for everyone to enjoy scope views! We did hear a few others at the Whistlers tram, but the fog hindered us from spotting them on their song perches.
VEERY (Catharus fuscescens) [*]
Heard both at Elk Island and Waterton, but both birds remained out of sight.
SWAINSON'S THRUSH (Catharus ustulatus)
Heard often in the coniferous montane forests, and this was the only species of brown thrush to actually grace us with a few sightings.
HERMIT THRUSH (Catharus guttatus) [*]
Heard several times, but never really close enough to do anything with.
AMERICAN ROBIN (Turdus migratorius)
Pretty common just about everywhere, and another bird we saw daily.
CEDAR WAXWING (Bombycilla cedrorum)
These lovely birds were recorded in small numbers almost daily.
HOUSE SPARROW (Passer domesticus) [I]
We managed to miss this species on our full day in Waterton NP. Our most amusing sighting was of a bird sitting on the "Betty and Bob Sparrow" bench at Wabamun Lake!
AMERICAN PIPIT (Anthus rubescens)
Mostly just seen in flight, with one at the top of Whistlers seen by some, and another couple flying around the picnic area at the Columbia Icefields.
SPRAGUE'S PIPIT (Anthus spragueii)
Our only one was a singing bird in the Brooks region which eventually flew past overhead and finally landed in a nearby field where it crept through the grass, giving occasional brief views.I think most of us managed pretty good views in the end.
EVENING GROSBEAK (Coccothraustes vespertinus)
Not easily found at this time of year, so stumbling across a group of 4 birds feeding on the catkins of some roadside alders along the Sibbald Creek Trail was a lucky break!
GRAY-CROWNED ROSY-FINCH (Leucosticte tephrocotis)
Another lucky break was finding a trio of these alpine finches foraging on the bare ground between snow patches near the upper tram station at Whistlers. Normally these birds would be even higher up, but the snow and poor weather likely forced them lower, lucky for us! I believe this was a new Canada tick for Lois who subsequently picked it as her top bird of the trip.
RED CROSSBILL (Loxia curvirostra)
Some folks saw a pair at the Edson picnic area while we were getting lunch sorted out, and a female was seen briefly at the Maligne Canyon overlook, but overall crossbills were not very evident this trip.
WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILL (Loxia leucoptera)
A little more numerous than Red Crossbill, but still only seen in small numbers, and we never had a good group sighting. Again, about half a dozen were seen at our Edson picnic area by some folks, there were another 6 or so at the Miette Campground, our first stop upon arriving in Jasper, and a single bird during our walk at Pyramid Lake.
PINE SISKIN (Spinus pinus)
Siskins were reasonably common and encountered throughout the trip, with small numbers daily in the mountains.
AMERICAN GOLDFINCH (Spinus tristis)
Not a bird of the mountains, so only encountered at places like Elk Island NP and Dinosaur PP. We did have some in Waterton NP, but they were in the large grassland adjacent to the alder forests in the Camp Columbus area.
CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPUR (Calcarius ornatus)
Fair numbers in the prairies of the south, with some smashing views of these dapper little birds perched on the barbed wire fences lining the road in the Milk River area. Scott was especially charmed by these birds, and they were his pick for bird of the trip.
THICK-BILLED LONGSPUR (Rhynchophanes mccownii)
Our ill-fated Swift Fox stakeout had one silver lining--while we sat quietly in the vans hoping for the foxes to emerge from their den, I kept hearing the tinkling song of this species, so once we gave up the vigil, we turned our attention to the longspur, and soon enough we had superb views of a male foraging amidst the prairie wildflowers and grasses. This saved us a fairly long detour to get us to one of the few regular sites for this species in the region.
GRASSHOPPER SPARROW (Ammodramus savannarum)
Our final new bird of the trip, and what a show! This gorgeous little sparrow sat out in the open just a few yards away, buoying everyone's spirits before we had to break away and head back to Calgary.
CHIPPING SPARROW (Spizella passerina)
Common and recorded daily until we left the mountains.
CLAY-COLORED SPARROW (Spizella pallida)
Wherever there is suitable grassland habitat in Alberta, there are bound to be Clay-colored Sparrows, and their insect-like buzz is a regular feature of the prairie soundtrack.
BREWER'S SPARROW (BREWERI) (Spizella breweri breweri)
Looking like a dull Clay-colored Sparrow (which is a feat, as that sparrow is certainly not flashy!) the Brewer's Sparrow could be easily overlooked... except for its exceptional song. These birds sound very much like domestic canaries, performing a series of musical trills, twitters, and riffs that no Clay-colored could ever manage! Not at all as common or widespread as Clay-colored, either, and we saw just one in the Brooks area on our final day.
LARK SPARROW (Chondestes grammacus)
Another fine songster, but with its harlequin head pattern, this sparrow is much more of a looker, too! We had some excellent looks at this one at Dinosaur PP.
FOX SPARROW (SLATE-COLORED) (Passerella iliaca schistacea)
Don't be surprised to see Fox Sparrows get split sometime in the near future. The one found in Alberta's mountains is this grayish form, and we had nice looks at a singing bird up around the Columbia Icefields, then heard a few others at Cameron Lake.
DARK-EYED JUNCO (SLATE-COLORED) (Junco hyemalis hyemalis)
This is the predominant type of junco in the province and we saw them pretty much throughout the mountains.
DARK-EYED JUNCO (OREGON) (Junco hyemalis oreganus)
A singing junco along the Lineham Creek Trail in Waterton looked to be of this subspecies.
WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW (ORIANTHA) (Zonotrichia leucophrys oriantha)
Two subspecies of White-crowned Sparrow are regular in the province, separated by the color of their lores. All of the many ones we saw appeared to be of this black-lored race.
WHITE-THROATED SPARROW (Zonotrichia albicollis)
Seen regularly around the Edmonton region, and down through the mountains from Jasper to Waterton. One bird struck me as funny as it had a long green caterpillar hanging from both sides of its bill in the shape of a green Fu Manchu mustache!
VESPER SPARROW (Pooecetes gramineus)
Seen and heard in small numbers from the eastern foot of the mountains in Waterton and east through the prairie regions. The best view came at Dinosaur PP where one perched on on of the interpretive signs at the overlook, giving us clear, close views.
LECONTE'S SPARROW (Ammospiza leconteii)
We only saw one of these lovely, inconspicuous sparrows at Elk Island NP, but as we'd had such a great, close view of it, we all but ignored the many others we heard in the region!
SAVANNAH SPARROW (Passerculus sandwichensis)
Unlike many of the other grassland sparrows, this common species does pretty well in marginal and disturbed grassy areas. Outside of the mountains, this was a commonly heard and seen species.
BAIRD'S SPARROW (Centronyx bairdii)
This grassland sparrow prefers quite tall, lush areas, so knowing the habitat to look for is key to finding it within its range in the prairies. Dan knew of one such area near Brooks that we could just manage to squeeze in before we needed to hightail it back to Calgary. We both heard the sparrow singing as we drove a rough dirt track, and shortly after we got out of the vans, the sparrow flew across the track and took up a song post on the other side, giving us all nice, clear views as it sang its lovely, tinkling song. No tape playback required!
SONG SPARROW (Melospiza melodia)
As this is easily the most abundant sparrow in the east, it always surprises me how few we see on this tour, but then again, there are a lot more sparrows here overall! We had small numbers of these around Edmonton and Elk Island, then a couple of individuals in the mountains, though I must admit I can't remember where!
LINCOLN'S SPARROW (Melospiza lincolnii)
I have the opposite reaction to this sparrow, which I'm always surprised to see is a very common, widespread breeding species here. We heard plenty, and had a bunch of nice views on several days at Elk Island and in the mountains.
SWAMP SPARROW (Melospiza georgiana)
The Edmonton region is right at the southern edge of this species' breeding range in Alberta, and so Elk island NP is generally the only place we see them, as was the case again this trip. We had some superb views of a singing bird in one of the park's many roadside marshes. We did hear Swamp Sparrows at a couple of other sites--Wabamun Lake and Jasper's Cottonwood Slough-- but I've rarely encountered this species further south in the province.
SPOTTED TOWHEE (Pipilo maculatus)
Dinosaur PP is an excellent place for this towhee, and we saw several there, including one showboat that sang lustily from atop a nearby shrub in full view.
YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT (Icteria virens) [*]
Regular in the riparian scrub at Dinosaur PP, but often skulky and elusive, and that was our experience, as a calling bird just refused to show itself.
YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus)
Though we saw a handful in the Edmonton region and then again in the south, most were quite distant and we never had a soul-satisfying close encounter with these gorgeous blackbirds.
BOBOLINK (Dolichonyx oryzivorus)
Not a common bird in the province, so seeing them in two different places was a real treat. First we had a male on a distant fence-line in the marshes east of Edmonton, then way to the south, we discovered another male singing from a roadside shrub when we stopped for the cranes south of Pincher Creek!
WESTERN MEADOWLARK (Sturnella neglecta)
It was so wonderful to see and hear so many of these in the southern prairies!
RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD (Agelaius phoeniceus)
Numerous throughout, though we did miss them in our full day in Jasper NP.
BROWN-HEADED COWBIRD (Molothrus ater)
Also pretty numerous throughout, and only missed on the same day as we missed Red-winged Blackbird.
BREWER'S BLACKBIRD (Euphagus cyanocephalus)
Were there Brewer's Blackbirds on this trip? I guess I'm so accustomed to filtering out Red-wings, cowbirds, and grackles that I was automatically glazing over these birds most days. And they were seen most days by some folks!
COMMON GRACKLE (Quiscalus quiscula)
It may be partly due to a faulty memory, but I'm sure grackles were far less common and widespread in the past. In fact, I seem to recall the Wabamun area being the only place we would be likely to see them, and on the only old triplist I've got handy, we missed them altogether! Not the case this year, as we saw them at a number of different sites in small numbers.
OVENBIRD (Seiurus aurocapilla) [*]
A few singing birds at Elk Island and the Wabamun Lake area but no visuals.
NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH (Parkesia noveboracensis)
Not numerous, but many suitable marshes in the mountains featured the loud song of a waterthrush. Seeing them was another story, though we did get looks at both Cottonwood Slough and along the Sibbald Creek Road.
BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLER (Mniotilta varia)
Only at Elk Island NP, where we had fine views of a couple at Tawayik Lake.
TENNESSEE WARBLER (Leiothlypis peregrina)
The distinctive song was a commonly heard sound at Elk Island and from Jasper to the Kananaskis, and we had a few nice looks at this rather plain warbler, starting with a singing bird we scoped while trying to track down a warbler from a different state (ie Connecticut!).
ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER (Leiothlypis celata)
Did we really only hear a single one of these warblers this trip!?! That's amazing, as this is a pretty common species here. Perhaps they were all too busy feeding young to spend any time singing. Luckily, the one we heard in the Kananaskis also showed well, so at least there's that!
CONNECTICUT WARBLER (Oporornis agilis)
A highly sought-after species here, but it can be tricky to time things right, as it seems that these warblers only sing for a brief period shortly after they arrive, then go silent and become invisible as soon as the females are on eggs. I thought we were a bit too late in June to nail this one, but thankfully we weren't. Thanks to a tip from a friend of Dan's we found a singing bird west of Edmonton, and ended up getting some pretty stellar, if somewhat brief, looks!
MACGILLIVRAY'S WARBLER (Geothlypis tolmiei)
One of a couple of species that seemed to have benefitted from the forest fires that ravaged Waterton NP. I've never seen and heard so many and so easily as we did this trip!
MOURNING WARBLER (Geothlypis philadelphia)
Like the Connecticut Warbler, this is a species we often struggle with on this tour, so I was surprised to hear so many singing at Elk Island and west of Edmonton. Seeing them was a bit trickier, but with some persistence, we finally managed to spot one male on his song perch for some fantastic scope views!
COMMON YELLOWTHROAT (Geothlypis trichas)
Pretty numerous in marshy areas throughout.
AMERICAN REDSTART (Setophaga ruticilla)
One was heard while we searched for Mourning Warblers at Elk Island, but the only one we saw was a fine male at Jasper's Cottonwood Slough.
CAPE MAY WARBLER (Setophaga tigrina)
We actually forgot to add this one to our checklists, and I nearly forgot to include it here! We saw a lone adult male as it joined a mob of birds responding to my pygmy-owl imitations along the Sibbald Creek Trail, very near the same spot I found one back in 2009! I'm not sure whether the recent spate of records from this region are due to the species expanding its range in the province, or if they were just previously overlooked here.
YELLOW WARBLER (Setophaga petechia)
Common pretty much anywhere there was suitable habitat.
BLACKPOLL WARBLER (Setophaga striata)
Dan and I had been discussing this species before the tour, and I was a bit surprised when he referred to the bird's song as a high-pitched trill. I was even more surprised when the male we found in Jasper started singing and actually did a trill! I'd only ever heard these birds singing a series of well-spaced notes, never a trill. For Dan's part, I think he was a bit surprised to learn Blackpolls breed in Jasper! This bird, our only one of the tour, gave us all an incredible show!
YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER (MYRTLE) (Setophaga coronata coronata)
The two subspecies come into contact in the Banff/Jasper region and readily hybridize, and we did see several birds that had hybrid traits. But we also saw a number of pure Myrtles at Elk island and Jasper.
YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER (AUDUBON'S) (Setophaga coronata auduboni)
From the Kananaskis south, this form seemed to be the dominate one, and we saw a few pure-looking Audubon's from Canmore south to Waterton.
TOWNSEND'S WARBLER (Setophaga townsendi)
Several were heard in the Kananaskis area, but we only had one good group sighting of a handsome singing male teed up on a treetop near the visitor center.
WILSON'S WARBLER (Cardellina pusilla)
A fairly common breeder right up to near treeline in the mountains. We saw a handful in Jasper and the Kananaskis.
WESTERN TANAGER (Piranga ludoviciana)
Our only sighting of this gorgeous bird came during our picnic lunch near Edson. If I remember correctly, I think it was Cindy (or Ann?) that first located the bird, but that everyone else did get to see it? If my memory is foggy, it's because I wasn't there, as I was inside the shelter prepping the picnic lunch at the time! Randy chose this stunner as his top bird of the tour.
ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK (Pheucticus ludovicianus)
A few birds on the first day at Elk Island NP, which is usually the only place to see them on the tour route. The Tawayik Lake area seemed to especially to their liking.
BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK (Pheucticus melanocephalus)
We hit the Camp Columbus area at Waterton primarily to track down this local species, as Dan had located one here a couple of weeks earlier. But after a fair bit of tromping around without success, we decided to pack up and leave. We were just about to hop into the vans when Dan picked out the song of a fairly distant bird, and a few minutes later we watched a couple of males chasing each other through the aspens, with one pausing long enough to sing a bit, giving us the chance to scope him. This and the next species were the two that I really wanted to see when I first moved to Alberta, but it was years before I saw either one!
LAZULI BUNTING (Passerina amoena)
In years past, this has always been a tricky bird to find on this tour, as the Waterton area seemed to hold just a few pairs, and strong winds often made finding them a real challenge. So it was amazing to discover that they were pretty much everywhere this year. If there's one positive after the forest fires that ravaged the park, it's that the habitat now seems to be perfect for buntings! At one stop along the road to Cameron Lake, in what was formerly thick, dark, coniferous forest, home to the likes of Golden-crowned Kinglet, Pacific Wren, and Pine Grosbeak, we stepped out of the vans to the sound of at least 4 different males singing nearby! Of course, we had no trouble getting good views this trip!
PIKA (Ochotona princeps)
Incredibly, much of the regular pika habitat at the Rock Glacier was still under snow, but there was enough bare ground for us to get some super looks at this charming little rock rabbit scurrying among the boulders.
NUTTALL'S (MOUNTAIN) COTTONTAIL (Sylvilagus nuttalli)
Our only definite one of these rabbits was seen around Dinosaur PP.
OLD WORLD RABBIT (Oryctolagus cuniculus) [I]
I remarked to Dan how surprised I was to see so many cottontails in Canmore, and he quickly corrected me, telling me that they are actually feral domestic rabbits and that Canmore has a problem with them. If you want to go down an internet rabbit hole, just Google "Canmore bunnies"!
WHITE-TAILED JACKRABBIT (Lepus townsendi)
Just one of these massive hares was seen by several folks near our Calgary hotel on the last day.
LEAST CHIPMUNK (Tamias minimus)
Alberta has 3 species of chipmunk. Two of them are quite local and rarely seen on this tour, while this species is widespread throughout the province except the southern prairies. All the ones we saw were this common species.
HOARY MARMOT (Marmota caligata)
After missing them on the Whistlers due to the snow and cold, we were counting on finding these in Kananaskis, and there were a couple of sightings. Ann saw one from the van our first day, and Charlie the next, but both times they had gone to ground by the time we stopped for a look.
COLUMBIAN GROUND SQUIRREL (Urocitellus columbiana)
The common ground squirrel in the mountains, though we didn't see them until we got near Canmore as the cold weather kept them underground in Jasper.
RICHARDSON'S GROUND SQUIRREL (Spermophilus richardsonii)
Numerous in the prairies, and a staple part of the diet of Swainson's Hawks, coyotes, badgers, and other prairie predators.
GOLDEN-MANTLED GROUND SQUIRREL (Spermophilus lateralis)
This chipmunk-like ground squirrel is fairly common in montane areas, and we saw a number of them, primarily in the Kananaskis, but also at Lake Louise, where we saw our first scurrying around amid the seething throng of tourists.
RED SQUIRREL (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus)
An abundant denizen of the coniferous forests and we recorded these daily until we left the mountains.
MUSKRAT (Ondatra zibethica)
Our lone one was in a roadside marsh at Elk Island on our first day.
RED FOX (Vulpes vulpes)
Nice spotting by Charlie to pick up a pair of these foxes lounging at the entrance to their den in the southern prairies. They seemed pretty undisturbed by all of us gawking at them, too.
SWIFT FOX (Vulpes velox)
We made a pretty long detour to have a shot at seeing this rare species at a den Dan had staked out the week before (which was his first time ever seeing these foxes). Unfortunately, the combination of extreme heat and the presence of some photographers out of their van and a little too close to the den site kept these foxes from emerging, though Dan and Cindy did see the head of one animal peering up from a burrow just as we drove up.
COYOTE (Canis latrans)
Surprisingly few, and I still can't believe we saw just one on our two days in the prairies, where they are usually common. Most of the ones seen were during the drives, and none were close to the road, so it's possible some of you left the province without seeing one at all! Unprecedented!
BLACK BEAR (Ursus americanus)
A total of 8 were seen, with some ranging from very black ones to a warm brown one that we initially thought might be a grizzly. A few of these bears gave nice close views as they fed along the roadside in both Jasper and Waterton.
BROWN (INCL. GRIZZLY) BEAR (Ursus arctos)
Only one this trip, and it was at a very safe distance, as I spotted it from the front of our cabin just after we arrived in Jasper, feeding on a distant hillside (which we calculated was about 2km away using Google Maps). Despite the distance, the scope views clearly showed that this was a grizzly.
AMERICAN BADGER (Taxidea taxus)
We had stopped to look at a close perched Golden Eagle near Brooks, and Dan had actually moved on already, when I saw a large furry shape ambling through a ground-squirrel colony. It disappeared into a burrow, but popped its head out a couple of times, including once after Dan had pulled his van back into viewing position. A tough mammal to find these days and Dan said it was his first badger in about 8 years!
STRIPED SKUNK (Mephitis mephitis)
Folks in Dan's van got to see one crossing the road at dusk as we came back from our evening excursion to Cameron Lake.
ELK (Cervus canadensis)
Plenty in Jasper, but after that we saw just a couple on the hillside above our picnic breakfast at Maskinonge Marsh.
MULE DEER (Odocoileus hemionus)
It used to be that these would far outnumber White-tailed Deer on this tour, but White-tails seem to be gaining ground on Mulies. Still, these are very common in the mountains, and we saw them daily once we arrived in Jasper.
WHITE-TAILED DEER (Odocoileus virginianus)
Seen most days, and in comparable numbers, to the Mule Deer. These deer are a more tawny brown, have shorter ears, and lack the black tip to the tail, making them relatively easy to tell apart.
MOOSE (Alces alces)
You couldn't miss our only moose, as it was standing right in the middle of the Spray Lakes Road when we drove up. The moose, a young bull, moved off to let us pass, but came back out onto the road after we drove off. Maybe it was just easier walking?
PRONGHORN (Antilocapra americana)
Fair numbers of these were in the southern prairies, including a female with a young calf in the Brooks region.
AMERICAN BISON (Bison bison)
The ones we saw at Elk Island are free ranging to an extent, as the park itself is fenced which keeps them from wandering out. Highway 16 divides the park in two, and the two subspecies of bison are confined to the two sections, Plains Bison to the north, the larger, darker Wood Bison to the south. We saw both forms.
MOUNTAIN GOAT (Oreamnos americanus)
A trio of these were on the rocky slope above the Spray Lakes Road, just a short way from Canmore.
BIGHORN SHEEP (Ovis canadensis)
Seen on several days in Jasper and Kananaskis. A pair of very young kids at the cold spring in Jasper were memorable as they seemed unwilling to leave the rock face to join their mother which was grazing on the roadside. A few nice rams with close to full curls were also seen.
Totals for the tour: 195 bird taxa and 26 mammal taxa