With social distancing and self-isolation the new reality of our lives at the moment, it feels very nostalgic to look back on this tour, and think wistfully of the freedom we had to travel, eat in restaurants, and not have to worry about keeping 6 feet apart from each other at all times. It was all just a little over 5 weeks ago, and yet it feels like a completely different world now. But we can look back and remember what it was like before the threat of the virus encompassed the world, and maybe even appreciate that freedom we had even more.
We started things off in the provincial capital of Edmonton, and dived right in to looking for owls, which, of course, were the main reason we were there. Our initial morning in the Opal region was decidedly owl-less, but was livened up by a bunch of other great winter specialties. Northern Shrike was one of the first northern targets to be seen, and we enjoyed great scope views of our first one perched up on the edge of a farmyard along the road. Later that morning, some other key winter birds brought some cheer to the group at the feeders at Halfmoon Lake. Lovely Evening and Pine grosbeaks feeding side by side were a real treat to see, as was our first Boreal Chickadee. The afternoon found us a little further to the east of Edmonton, where we notched our first owls of the tour- a distant Snowy, a close, glaring Great Horned, and our primary target, Short-eared Owl. One of the three Short-eared Owls we saw put on a wonderful show as it coursed low over a marshy pasture, winging its way closer and closer to our position until it was right next to the road, yellow eyes fixing us in an icy glare. A superb end to our first day afield!
Next day found us braving a bone-chilling wind to make the walk into Grey Nun's Park, where a female American Three-toed Woodpecker foraged meticulously on the trunk of a dying spruce tree, a young Northern Goshawk sat stoically in the open while we snapped pictures and admired its powerful build, and another Great Horned Owl dozed peacefully on an exposed perch near the trail. Then it was off to Calgary, with another Snowy Owl along the main highway coming as something of a surprise. A late afternoon vigil at a site that had been hosting many Mallards and the odd hungry Gyrfalcon did not pay off, though a brief view of a Gray Partridge was some consolation.
The following morning began at Shannon Terrace in the wooded valley along Fish Creek, where our two main targets eluded us, but a flock of Bohemian Waxwings landed nearby and gave us long scope views, making our efforts there worthwhile despite the setbacks. From there we hightailed it to High River, where we soon found ourselves in the company of one of 3 Northern Hawk-Owls known to be in the Calgary region this winter. Though the owl started off quite distant, we waited it out, and eventually had the kind of looks we were hoping for, as it perched right next to the road, allowing us all the time we wanted to admire and photograph this wonderful bird. After a welcome, delicious hot lunch at the delightful Chuckwagon Cafe, we headed up the scenic Grand Valley Road, Great Gray Owls in our sights. And after some driving and searching, suddenly our quarry was in our grasp, and we enjoyed a long session of watching this magnificent creature make a series of pounces into the snow in search of a meal, though it came up empty each time.
We switched things up a bit the next day, focusing on overwintering waterfowl in the fast-flowing waters of the Bow River at Carburn Park. Here we had textbook studies of male Greater and Lesser Scaup side by side, along with lovely Redheads, Buffleheads, and Common Goldeneye, and we picked out a small group of stubby-billed Cackling Geese from amidst the throngs of Canadas. We also enjoyed the hybrid swarm of Northern Flickers at the park, with some birds clearly showing traits of both Yellow-shafted and Red-shafted varieties. Next up was a return to Shannon Terrace, where the Black-backed Woodpecker continued to elude us, but we finally tracked down the long-staying Northern Pygmy-Owl. Watching its transformation from round and fluffy to sleek and slim, complete with ear tufts, was one of the most amazing moments of the tour! With the pygmy-owl in the bag, we turned our attentions back to Snowy Owls, as to that point our observations had all been fleeting or distant. We soon changed that with some stellar close views of several birds, including one brilliant, white mature male.
Our final day was pretty relaxed, as all our main owl targets had been achieved, so we headed up to Waiparous Village and some incredible feeders, where Blue, Canada, and Steller's jays fed side by side with several Clark's Nutcrackers, and all three chickadee species put in appearances, as did a Brown Creeper, the first I'd ever seen using a feeder! Another run up Grand Valley Road failed to produce any more Great Grays, but a pair of Golden Eagles perched on a rocky outcrop were a nice reward for our efforts. On our way back into Cochrane for lunch, half the group got lucky with brief, but decent looks at a gray morph Gyrfalcon perched on a roadside power pole, though unfortunately it took off before we could safely pull off for a better look. A return visit to Carburn Park that afternoon allowed us to catch everyone up with a stunning pair of Harlequin Ducks, and a bonus Merlin, and a final foray east of the city produced our final owls, another couple of Snowies, and a distant Northern Hawk-Owl.
All in all, this was a fun five days of winter birding, and I'm so glad you all chose to join us for the trip. It was a real pleasure getting to know each of you, and when all this Covid-19 mess is finally over, I look forward to meeting you all again on another tour somewhere. Special thanks to my co-leader Dan for all of his insider knowledge and local contacts, which aide so much in the successfulness of this tour, as well as to Wayne and Lynn at Halfmoon Lake, and Rick and Maureen at Waiparous Village, for their hospitality in allowing us to descend onto their properties and enjoy their wonderful feeders. Till we meet again, keep your hands clean, and keep your distance!
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: 53 bird taxa and 7 mammal taxa