If you read the trip list from last year's inaugural tour, you'll have seen that I was a bit stressed out prior to the trip, wondering if things would all work out, if we would find the owls we were targeting. You would think that this year would be different, that I would be feeling more relaxed and confident about things. But as the tour date approached, and word from my local contacts kept suggesting that it was a tough year for owls, I was probably feeling just as stressed out as a year ago. So I was more than a little pleased that things got off to a much better start than they did last year, and we began things off with one of our big targets on the very first morning.
From then on, everything just kind of fell into place, and we ended the tour with very similar totals to last year. Once again we had at least one owl every day, with 15 owls of 6 different species being seen on the trip, while our overall bird list was up by 3 species. I like consistency and that's pretty darned close to last year's results! Ultimately, I think everyone had a good time, and came away from the tour with the birds they had hoped to see, and that is the most important thing in my view.
Starting off in Edmonton, we headed straight out to a spot where we'd seen a Northern Hawk Owl the day before, and found it right in the same area, though it was a bit distant. Before we'd moved on, though, the bird had moved much closer thanks in part to the efforts of an angry raven that chased it from one of its more distant perches. With that key species securely on the list, we turned our efforts towards the next big target, Great Gray Owl. Things didn't look so rosy after the first afternoon's attempts to find one, when despite considerable ground covered through excellent habitat at the perfect time of day, we came up empty. The next morning continued with more of the same, but just when it looked like we'd be heading to Calgary without one, we stumbled across an incredibly cooperative bird on a roadside fence post and spent some quality time with it before leaving it to carry on hunting in peace. The rest of our time around Edmonton gave us a healthy dose of other sought-after northern targets in the form of multiple Northern Shrikes, a small flock of Bohemian Waxwings, a lone Hoary Redpoll among a bunch of Common Redpolls and Pine Grosbeaks at some feeders, a hard-working Black-backed Woodpecker busily hammering at a dead tree, and a very tame Boreal Chickadee. And a trip to the grain terminals just before heading south rewarded us with an unforgettable sighting of a couple of Prairie Falcons in an epic aerial battle with a crystal clear blue sky as a backdrop! Our 6 moose day in the Opal region was pretty memorable here, too.
Down in Calgary, with our two main owl targets already secured, we turned our attention to the windswept prairies to the east of the city, with Snowy Owl on our minds. The deeper than usual snow cover was making it tough for Snowies, not only for their hunting, but also ours, as they just don't stand out against the snow like they do when the ground is bare. Still, we fared well with them, and by the morning's end we'd had super views of 3 different birds. The following day found us tracking Northern Pygmy-Owls in the beautiful foothill forests to the southwest of the city, and Short-eared Owls along the scenic Grand Valley Road. And on the final morning, a stoic pair of Great Horned Owls roosting above a well-used trail in the south of the city rounded out our owls. Interspersed with these sightings were a number of other great birds, from handsome waterfowl like Barrow's Goldeneye, male Hooded Merganser, and a young male Harlequin Duck, to superb views of perched Merlin and Northern Goshawk, to Gray Jays, Mountain Chickadees, and American Three-toed Woodpeckers in the hushed stillness of the snow-covered conifers at Brown Lowery Provincial Park.
With daily temperatures in the single digits (Fahrenheit, that is) this may go on record as the coldest tour ever run by Field Guides, but I've got to say, you all handled the cold temperatures superbly and without complaint. The clear, sunny days really brought out the stark beauty of Alberta's varied landscapes, and I'll take that any day, but it certainly kept the temperatures on the brisk side of things! Still, I was pleased and surprised to hear all the positive comments about that walk in the forest at Brown-Lowery on what was arguably the coldest morning of the tour. It was a wonderful experience, wasn't it? John and I had a great time sharing this, and all the rest of the province's gorgeous winter landscapes with you, and we'd love to see you all on another tour sometime soon. Somewhere warmer next time, perhaps?
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
Totals for the tour: 54 bird taxa and 9 mammal taxa