Dan and I had high hopes for the weather on this tour. In the weeks leading up to the trip, daily temperatures were above freezing in the province, and the warm trend looked to be continuing right on through our tour. Then, just days before kick-off, an arctic cold front appeared on the forecast, and our hopes were dashed. And the timing could hardly have been worse: the cold front descended on the province on our first afternoon in the field, and then eased off on our final afternoon, with temperatures going back up above freezing in the days immediately following our departure. This left us birding in temperatures as low as -31C or -24F, setting a new record for the coldest FG tour ever. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that no one seemed inclined to join me on my impromptu polar bear plunge!
While the cold no doubt had an impact on bird activity, we had little choice but to persevere, the icy temperatures making it easy to maintain a stiff upper lip! Our first days in the field around Edmonton failed to produce any owls despite considerable time looking in superb habitat, but a number of other key winter species kept us entertained along the way. A Northern Goshawk was seen briefly scoping out a farm with a fair number of pigeons in search of a meal. A couple of Northern Shrikes teed up surveying the surrounds for an unwary bird or vole to attack. Good numbers of Canada Jays perched atop tall spruces, regarding us with curiosity. Gorgeous Pine and Evening grosbeaks visited the feeders at a farmhouse on a quiet back road, and a lone Hoary Redpoll was a nice find among the numerous Common Redpolls at another set of feeders at the home of our hospitable friends Wayne and Lynn.
Moving south to Calgary, an accident that was tying up traffic forced us to make a detour onto some backroads, which paid off with our only flocks of Snow Buntings (about 400 birds in total) as well as our first of several Snowy Owls, a nearly immaculate white adult perched on a hydro pole along the road. A small roadside marsh also produced several Short-eared Owls perched on fenceposts and floating moth-like over the scrubby vegetation, a good find as it was a fairly poor winter for these birds in the province! Sadly it was also not the best winter for the main target, Great Gray Owl, and though we spent much time patrolling the most regular hangouts for these birds, we never managed to connect with one. But a spectacular roadside Northern Hawk-Owl helped to ease the pain a little, aided by sightings of Golden Eagle, Rough-legged Hawk, a close female Merlin devouring a Common Redpoll, Clark's Nutcrackers, and Boreal and Mountain chickadees at the feeders of another welcoming couple of friends.
As the weather finally warmed on our final afternoon, we finished up with a walk along the Bow River, with a wonderful selection of waterfowl to enjoy at close range. A lone Tundra Swan with a half dozen Trumpeter Swans gave us a wonderful opportunity to compare the two species, male Common Goldeneyes displayed energetically for potential mates, and a trio of beautiful male Harlequin Ducks steamed along in the fast-flowing section of the river. And a bonus American Dipper foraging just across a small channel, repeatedly plunging into the water before returning to the ice to subdue its prey items was a lovely addition to our lists.
While this tour presented some challenging conditions, I was just so grateful to be back out in the field after a nearly 2-year layoff due to the pandemic. Thank you to all of you for joining us. It was a true pleasure getting to know you and sharing the magic of an Alberta winter with all of you. Now that travel is becoming a little easier once again, I look forward to getting back out on tour a bit more regularly, and hope to see you all on another trip 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
CANADA GOOSE (Branta canadensis)
Can be abundant in winter on open rivers in the province, and we saw that at Carburn, where we estimated roughly 800-1000 of them were hanging about. We tried to pick out a Cackling Goose amongst them, as some have been reported recently, but though there were at least a couple of smaller birds in the throngs of geese, they appeared to belong to one of the smaller subspecies of Canada Goose.
TRUMPETER SWAN (Cygnus buccinator)
Most waterfowl leave Alberta in the winter, but with parts of the Bow River remaining open throughout the year in Calgary, there are always a few interesting things that hang around places such as Carburn Park in winter. This year, this included swans, with both species being present. There were 6 of these magnificent birds lounging on the river at Carburn, which seems wonderful to me in a way. This was a scarce species when I was growing up in Alberta, and I had been birding in the province for 16 years before I finally saw my very first one in 1990!
TUNDRA SWAN (Cygnus columbianus)
A lone one of these smaller swans was in with the Trumpeters, giving us a fantastic opportunity to compare the two species directly. In fact this was my first time seeing both species together and it was a perfect chance to check out the shape of the top edge of the bill as a useful feature for separating the two. The u-shaped top edge of this species was noticeably different to the pointed, v-shape of the Trumpeters, and was easily seen in our scope studies of the birds. We also noted the yellow spot developing at the base of the bill, a feature that Dan says was not present when he'd seen the bird earlier in the winter.
MALLARD (Anas platyrhynchos)
Generally the only regularly wintering dabbling duck in the province, though small numbers of most other species have overwintered on occasion. This year we tallied around 50-75 at Carburn Park, which seemed rather low compared to some years.
REDHEAD (Aythya americana)
This seems to have become a regular wintering species in recent years, and we had fine studies of 10 of these handsome ducks at Carburn this time around.
RING-NECKED DUCK (Aythya collaris)
A few of these were known to be overwintering at Carburn Park, though we only managed to tally one female amongst the other waterfowl this year.
GREATER SCAUP (Aythya marila)
In general this is the less common of the two scaup in the province, though it seems they might be equally likely to overwinter here. We had some good studies of 3 birds at Carburn, noting the clean white flanks and rounded head that help separate this one from Lesser Scaup.
LESSER SCAUP (Aythya affinis)
If this continuing male at Carburn Park hadn't been previously identified as a Lesser Scaup/Redhead hybrid, I very likely would have passed it off as a Lesser Scaup, as it is very similar at a glance. Probably the most obviously different feature (gleaned from studying numerous photos on Ebird as I didn't get a good enough look in the field) is this bird's very wide black nail on the bill, which is a feature of Redhead and not Lesser Scaup. Did anyone get a photo of this bird?
HARLEQUIN DUCK (Histrionicus histrionicus)
Perhaps my favorite duck of all, and I am always happy to see these beauties. This year we had three gorgeous males steaming along together in a fast-flowing section of the Bow River.
BUFFLEHEAD (Bucephala albeola)
Along with the next species, this was the most numerous duck seen. We saw about 100-150 of these dapper little divers with all the other waterfowl at Carburn Park.
COMMON GOLDENEYE (Bucephala clangula)
Similar numbers to the Bufflehead. Despite the frigid temperatures we experienced this tour, the goldeneyes were obviously sensing the arrival of spring, as males were actively pursuing females and performing their quirky, thrown-back head displays and calls.
COMMON MERGANSER (Mergus merganser)
Though all three merganser species have been present along the Bow River this winter, this is the only one that is a regular overwintering species, seemingly at home on the ice and in the bone-chilling waters of the river. We saw about a dozen of these, with the males looking especially handsome in their newly acquired plumage (apparently they molt in December).
RED-BREASTED MERGANSER (Mergus serrator)
This species is a bit of a rarity in winter here, and the least likely of the mergansers to be found on this tour. Kudos to Judi for picking out the female that's been spending this winter in Calgary. Pretty sure that's a first for this tour!
GRAY PARTRIDGE (Perdix perdix) [I]
A group of a dozen or so were playing hide and seek amongst the trees and shrubs in a shelter-belt (remember that term?) around a farmyard east of Calgary. Locally known as Hungarian Partridge, or Huns, as the original introductions were imported from Hungary-- 70 pairs in 1908, and another 95 pairs in 1909. From those birds, Huns have built up their numbers to become the most abundant upland game bird across the agricultural regions of southern Alberta.
ROCK PIGEON (Columba livia) [I]
Small numbers were noted each day around farmyards and in the cities.
GOLDEN EAGLE (Aquila chrysaetos)
We spotted our only one of these magnificent birds perched along Grand Valley Road with a sweeping vista westward to the Rockies. It took off shortly after we stopped for a look, but gave some pretty incredible views as it winged its way off across a ridge and out of sight.
NORTHERN GOSHAWK (Accipiter gentilis)
Most everyone (except me, perhaps?) got at least a brief view of this bird that was initially perched in a roadside tree but took off at our approach and vanished behind some grain storage bins on a nearby farm and was never seen again.
BALD EAGLE (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
Several in the Calgary area, including a pair perched in the trees along the Bow River at Carburn Park, where they have nested in the past. And probably will again this year, as they seemed to be exhibiting some courtship behavior and were vocalizing regularly during our time there.
ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK (Buteo lagopus)
Several of these lovely winter visitors were found in the regions west of Calgary, with perhaps the most memorable views being of one soaring overhead along Grand Valley Road against the brilliant blue sky.
GREAT HORNED OWL (Bubo virginianus)
Initially seen as a large shadow flying over the road at dusk as we returned to Calgary one evening. We improved on that with super looks at one perched fully in the open along the creek at Queen's Park Cemetery, where we thought it would be flushed by what appeared to be another birder on the other side of the creek who seemed to be about to walk right under the owl without having noticed it. Luckily, that person turned back and the owl settled down, allowing us to enjoy a few more minutes with it before we left it to rest.
SNOWY OWL (Bubo scandiacus)
This was not an especially bumper year for Snowies in the province, but there are some around every winter, and Dan had some reliable ones staked out for us in the Calgary region and we made a couple of visits out to see them, primarily as the lighting on our first day left something to be desired. We saw at least 3 different birds (maybe 4) including one nearly pure white adult perched on a roadside power pole. They don't come much more immaculate than that one!
NORTHERN HAWK OWL (Surnia ulula)
I must admit I was a bit concerned when we failed to turn up what had been a reliable hawk-owl within the city of Calgary on our first morning there. But later that day, we found another one on a winter territory outside of the city, and had some amazing, long views of this one as it perched near the road, surveying the surrounds for a hapless vole to pounce on. Apparently we were very lucky with this one, as Dan had seen it several times previously this winter, and this was by far the closest it had ever been to the road!
SHORT-EARED OWL (Asio flammeus)
This species was also quite scarce in Alberta this winter, but once again, Dan's pre-trip scouting paid off and he knew right where to find these birds in the Calgary region. Our first attempt got us great views of 3 birds, including the first one that was perched right next to the road when we pulled up, though it flew off when we pulled the vans to a stop. On our second visit, we had incredible views of one perched low in a roadside tree, right out in the open, and that one sat tight and allowed folks to snap some pictures from the vehicles before it eventually winged its way out across the fields to a more distant perch.
DOWNY WOODPECKER (Dryobates pubescens)
Probably the most common, familiar woodpecker in the province, and we had small numbers of these daily.
HAIRY WOODPECKER (Dryobates villosus)
As always outnumbered by the smaller Downy Woodpecker, but even so they seemed less numerous than usual and the only sighting was of a couple of birds at Fish Creek PP.
PILEATED WOODPECKER (Dryocopus pileatus)
Folks in my van saw one fly across the road (and over Dan's van) during our first morning out north of Edmonton. Apart from that one, our only sighting was of a female that posed nicely on a bare tree trunk at Fish Creek PP.
NORTHERN FLICKER (Colaptes auratus)
Fairly common in winter, primarily around Calgary, where we saw as many as half a dozen at Carburn Park and others at several other sites. The predominate form here is "Red-shafted", and all the ones I looked at appeared to be that form, but "Yellow-shafted" flickers also occur here, and hybrids with a great variety of characteristics are not uncommon, making it fun to study flickers in this region.
MERLIN (Falco columbarius)
Wow! Fantastic close studies of a female perched on a roadside fencepost with a Common Redpoll in its talons in the Calgary region.
NORTHERN SHRIKE (Lanius borealis)
One on each of our first three days in the field, with good scope views of a couple of them, one north of Edmonton, the other in a wooded ravine in Calgary.
CANADA JAY (Perisoreus canadensis)
Our first morning north of Edmonton was quite productive for these birds, as we tallied at least 10 of them. The following morning in the very same area we saw none! But we ran into several more in the Calgary area, including a couple visiting the feeders at Rick and Maureen's home, allowing Vito to catch up with the rest of us after missing the first day due to numerous flight delays.
BLUE JAY (Cyanocitta cristata)
I don't think it's just my imagination that Blue Jay's have gotten a lot more common here in the province from when I was growing up here. We only missed seeing this familiar bird on our first day in Calgary.
BLACK-BILLED MAGPIE (Pica hudsonia)
As much as local folks dislike these birds, I personally never tire of seeing them. Sure, they can be loud and somewhat obnoxious, but I'm always happy to see these again after a long absence from Alberta. Common and ubiquitous, and you'd have to try very hard to go a day without seeing one on this tour.
CLARK'S NUTCRACKER (Nucifraga columbiana)
Not a species we really expect on the tour, unless some have wandered away from the mountains to visit feeders in the foothill region. And lucky for us, that's just what happened at Maureen and Rick's fantastic feeders, where a trio of birds were hanging around on the top of the tall spruce trees over their house, awaiting a chance to swoop in and nab some unsuspecting peanuts.
AMERICAN CROW (Corvus brachyrhynchos)
Most crows leave the province for the winter, though often a small number of birds remain, primarily in the cities of Calgary and Edmonton. This trip we had just one group of 3 crows in Calgary.
COMMON RAVEN (Corvus corax)
My 1976 "The Birds of Alberta" book states that ravens are resident in the mountains and the north of the province, but occasionally turn up in winter as far south Edmonton and Calgary. I think it's safe to say they've increased in number in these areas since then, as this was one of the most numerous species seen each day of the trip.
BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEE (Poecile atricapillus)
The default chickadee in the province, this is the one you don't have to look for, as they'll no doubt find you. We had them daily, with very close encounters at a couple of sites in Calgary, where they were often at arm's length, i.e., perched on our hands!
MOUNTAIN CHICKADEE (Poecile gambeli)
As the name suggests, this is mainly a bird of the mountains here, but in recent years they have been regular wintering birds in Calgary. We first encountered this species at Fish Creek PP in Calgary, but our best views were arguably at Maureen and Rick's feeders where we got to see all three chickadee species coming in to feed!
BOREAL CHICKADEE (Poecile hudsonicus)
A pair was with a flock of Black-capped Chickadees at Fish Creek PP, but they kept their distance and were not seen well by all. So getting such nice views of them at the above mentioned feeders was a nice treat.
HORNED LARK (Eremophila alpestris)
Some Horned Larks remain in the prairies of southern Alberta throughout the winter, and driving the gravel roads east of Calgary is a tried and true way to find them. This method worked well for us on a couple of days, and resulted in our best looks of several feeding on the edge of the road late one afternoon.
RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH (Sitta canadensis)
Surprisingly few, with singles noted at three or four sites in Calgary only.
WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCH (Sitta carolinensis)
Ever so slightly more numerous than the Red-breasted, and we recorded a couple of these each day of the trip.
BROWN CREEPER (Certhia americana) [*]
Though we heard the high-pitched calls of this species at several sites around Calgary, we never managed to spot one.
AMERICAN DIPPER (Cinclus mexicanus)
Mainly a bird of the mountains, though many winters find one or two of these unique birds hanging around an area of open water in Calgary. We found one such bird at Carburn Park, where we had point blank views of one foraging just across a small channel from where we stood. It was great to watch it repeatedly plunge into the rapid, icy water, returning to the ice time and time again with a juicy morsel from the riverbed and subduing it with a few whacks on the ice before gulping it down.
EUROPEAN STARLING (Sturnus vulgaris) [I]
Another species that mostly leaves the province for the winter, though small numbers do hang around through the coldest months, mainly in the cities or around feed lots and farms. This trip only one was seen by some in Calgary.
BOHEMIAN WAXWING (Bombycilla garrulus)
A couple of flocks on our first day around Calgary, but they could have been a bit more cooperative!
HOUSE SPARROW (Passer domesticus) [I]
The majority of the ones we saw were around Dan's house in Calgary.
EVENING GROSBEAK (Coccothraustes vespertinus)
Not an especially good winter for these in the province, but we stumbled upon a flock of roughly 15-20 birds attending some feeders at a farmhouse north of Edmonton on our first day in the field.
PINE GROSBEAK (Pinicola enucleator)
Those same feeders also had a bunch of these lovely birds (the $1000 birds!) and we also had them at a number of other sites around Edmonton, including Wayne and Lynn's feeders. In Calgary we had just one record of 3 females perched along the road at the entrance to Fish Creek PP.
HOUSE FINCH (Haemorhous mexicanus)
When I left Alberta in 1993, there were only a handful of records of this species in the province, and I had yet to see one. Since then, it has invaded the province in a big way, and is now a familiar species in many areas. Apparently the birds found here have expanded into the province from two sources: the naturally occurring population of the southwestern US and the birds introduced into the New York region back in the 1940's. Our only sighting was of about 10 birds at Dan's house.
COMMON REDPOLL (Acanthis flammea)
It was quite a good redpoll winter in the province, and we had good numbers of these every day. The best thing about a good redpoll winter--it makes it much more likely that you'll find one of the next species!
HOARY REDPOLL (Acanthis hornemanni)
We didn't search carefully through every redpoll flock we came across, but we still managed to find a couple of these much rarer birds on the trip. First we had some nice views of one that came in to the feeders at Wayne and Lynn's home north of Edmonton. That one posed nicely a few times allowing several folks to snap pictures. Later in the trip, we spotted another one among a flock of Commons along Grand Valley Road.
SNOW BUNTING (Plectrophenax nivalis)
Detouring onto the backroads to avoid a big accident that had traffic tied up on the main highway between Edmonton and Calgary paid off for us with a couple of sightings of these winter visitors. The two flocks we came across, the first with about 60 birds, the second with 300-400, were the only ones we saw on the entire trip.
WHITE-TAILED JACKRABBIT (Lepus townsendi)
Some folks saw one of these large, white hares near our hotel in Calgary (a regular site for them) and another was spotted loping across the Queen's Park Cemetery.
EASTERN GRAY SQUIRREL (Sciurus carolinensis) [I]
These squirrels were introduced into Calgary (whether deliberately or by accident is unclear) as early as the late 1930's and have not expanded too much beyond the city's boundaries in the 80+ years since. The ones here are predominately of the black variety, a couple of which we saw at Queen's Park Cemetery.
RED SQUIRREL (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus)
The common tree squirrel in the province. We saw these at a few sites, including a cheeky individual that was helping itself to the seeds in the storage bin at Rick and Maureen's home.
NORTH AMERICAN PORCUPINE (Erethizon dorsatum)
Dan and I had a located a smallish porcupine on our day of scouting north of Edmonton, so we made a pass by the same area the next day and managed to relocate it in a nearby tree right next to the road. Porcupines here in Alberta can look distinctly yellowish, and this one was very yellow.
COYOTE (Canis latrans)
Coyotes look magnificent at this time of year with their thick, full winter coats. They're a common animal in the province, and we saw at least 10 of them this year, which is about average for this tour.
MULE DEER (Odocoileus hemionus)
We saw both species of deer daily, and generally in pretty fair numbers. These ones are easily told by their larger ears, larger, more visible white rump patch, and black-tipped tail. Interestingly, males in one group in the Calgary region still had their antlers, likely due to the warm weather Alberta had been experiencing prior to our arrival.
WHITE-TAILED DEER (Odocoileus virginianus)
These deer once had a much more limited distribution in the province, pretty much restricted to the Cypress Hills (in the SE corner) and a few spots in the foothills. Now they are quite widespread, and I think we actually saw more of these than Mulies this trip.
MOOSE (Alces alces)
A couple of Moose were seen on our first day north of Edmonton, and then a single one NW of Calgary on our final day. This is somewhat lower than our usual tally.
Totals for the tour: 52 bird taxa and 8 mammal taxa