A Field Guides Birding Tours Report


February 17-23, 2023 with Jay VanderGaast guiding

Field Guides Birding Tours
A beautiful scene for one of our Snowy Owls, by participant James Coyne

It was pretty amazing to arrive in Alberta to find the Calgary region almost completely brown and devoid of snow. Then, a few days later, to find that same area completely covered with the white stuff! This year's tour coincided with the first major snowfall of the winter, which brought about some challenging driving conditions but also transformed the scenery into a beautiful, magical winter wonderland.

Of course, our clients don't measure a tour's success by the temperatures or road conditions but by the birds, and specifically the owls on this trip. So I was very pleased that on that front, this trip was a great success. The usual main targets for many folks are the triumvirate of winter owls--Great Gray, Snowy, and Northern Hawk Owl, and this winter all three delivered. This was easily our best tour yet for Great Gray Owl, as not only did we see a tour high of four individuals, we also enjoyed some of our longest encounters yet with these photogenic creatures. Northern Hawk Owl, too, delivered a stellar performance, and our three different birds were also a tour high, I believe. Conversely, Snowies were down in number by a bit, though the two birds we did see were brilliant and cooperative. Those three species alone made this trip a success in my eyes at least!

The supporting cast of winter specialties was, as always, a mixed bag. Numbers of these winter visitors vary greatly from year to year, and they can range from plentiful, as was the case with Snow Buntings and the lovely Bohemian Waxwings this year, to scarce, illustrated by just a single Rough-legged Hawk , or the one small group of White-winged Crossbills that flew over one day, to so thin on the ground that you'd have to be extremely fortunate to find one (which was the case for things like Short-eared Owl and Pine Grosbeak this winter). A Pileated Woodpecker feeding at the base of a roadside tree, a quartet of Clark's Nutcrackers poaching peanuts from some backyard feeders (the same feeders that were attracting all three chickadee species!), a Northern Shrike pouncing on an unsuspecting vole, and some lovely Evening Grosbeaks teed up above some unseen feeders southwest of Calgary were among the other birds that made this trip such a delight.

Thanks so much for joining Dan and me on this winter escape. It was fun getting to know all of you, and I truly hope to see you all in the field again some day soon!


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

Anatidae (Ducks, Geese, and Waterfowl)

CACKLING GOOSE (Branta hutchinsii)

It can be a bit tricky picking this small goose out from the very similar Canada Geese that generally outnumber it, especially as there are several forms of Canada Goose that occur in Alberta, including some fairly small ones. But by carefully checking through the geese along the Bow River at Carburn Park, we eventually managed to pick out at least two or three Cacklers.

CANADA GOOSE (Branta canadensis)

A relatively warm winter meant that there was much more open water than usual, and thus the waterfowl were more spread out this year. The result was that numbers of geese at Carburn Park were far below what we sometimes see. Still there were about 150 of these present, with others seen flying over in various areas around Calgary.

TRUMPETER SWAN (Cygnus buccinator)

The open water on Genesee Lake held about 8 of these swans, including a few dusky first-year birds.

WOOD DUCK (Aix sponsa)

A pair were roosting on the shore of the river at Carburn Park, amidst a group of Mallards. this species has been on the increase in Alberta, though outside of Calgary it's a pretty rare winter bird.

MALLARD (Anas platyrhynchos)

One of the more numerous ducks at Carburn, with a couple also at Genesee Lake. Folks in my van also saw a large number huddled around a small amount of open water below an exit ramp on the first really cold day of the trip. The pond had apparently frozen up overnight after being open for some time, and the Mallards, along with a lone Common Merganser, were still hanging around,

CANVASBACK (Aythya valisineria)

A pretty rare wintering species here, but we saw a continuing pair on the Bow River at Carburn Park. Unlike most of the other ducks, the drake Canvasback was still in an eclipse plumage.

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Great Gray Owl is always the grand prize on this Owlberta tour, and we had fine views this year. Photo by participant James Coyne.

REDHEAD (Aythya americana)

Good numbers on Genesee Lake, where we estimated about 40 birds. Another 5 or 6 were on the river at Carburn Park.

RING-NECKED DUCK (Aythya collaris)

About 15-20 birds on Genesee Lake, and 5 on the river at Carburn Park.

LESSER SCAUP (Aythya affinis)

A female on the river at Carburn Park was the lone scaup this year, though there was also a hybrid male Redhead X Lesser Scaup, which is almost certainly the same one we saw here on last year's tour.

BUFFLEHEAD (Bucephala albeola)

There were about 30 of these pretty little ducks on the river at Carburn Park, with a handful also on Genesee Lake.

COMMON GOLDENEYE (Bucephala clangula)

With a total of about 75-80, this was the most numerous duck at Carburn Park. There were also between 20 and 30 on Genesee Lake. If the weather had been a bit more springlike, we probably would have seen more displaying, but there were just a couple on the river that were feeling frisky enough to display.

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Northern Hawk Owl on the hunt, by guide Dan Arndt

BARROW'S GOLDENEYE (Bucephala islandica)

Always far scarcer than the above species, but we managed to pick out a lone male amidst a group of Common Goldeneye at Carburn.

COMMON MERGANSER (Mergus merganser)

Not many, with only 3 at Carburn, and the one with the Mallards at the mostly frozen-over pond below the exit ramp.

Phasianidae (Pheasants, Grouse, and Allies)

GRAY PARTRIDGE (Perdix perdix) [I]

Not always an easy bird to find, but there were good numbers this year, and we tallied 30+ of them as we drove backroads northeast of Calgary in search of Snowy Owls.

RING-NECKED PHEASANT (Phasianus colchicus) [I]

In addition to all the Gray Partridge, a group of 5 of pheasants was seen by the folks in the lead van, though they were out of site by the time the second van rolled up.

Columbidae (Pigeons and Doves)

ROCK PIGEON (Columba livia) [I]

A common city bird.

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A non-avian highlight was seeing this Moose along the way. Photo by participant James Coyne.

EURASIAN COLLARED-DOVE (Streptopelia decaocto) [I]

First documented in the province in the summer of 2002, this species has greatly increased in number and is now a fairly common species,, though somewhat local. We found half a dozen along some residential streets in the town of Longview.

Accipitridae (Hawks, Eagles, and Kites)

SHARP-SHINNED HAWK (Accipiter striatus)

One flew across the river at Carburn Park, and appeared to have landed somewhere on our side, though we were unable to locate it again.

BALD EAGLE (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)

Nice views of 3 birds perched along the river at Carburn Park.

ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK (Buteo lagopus)

While never really numerous, it was surprising that we only found a single one of these winter visitors. Fortunately we stopped and got some nice views of it perched near the road in the Water Valley area.

Strigidae (Owls)

GREAT HORNED OWL (Bubo virginianus) [N]

Though this is a common species here (and the provincial bird!) our usual stakeout bird at the Queen's Park Cemetery had been missing recently, and other normally reliable birds around the city were also not being reported, so we were relying on luck a bit to track one down. Luck was with us as we drove backroads south of Calgary, as I managed to spot the head of one peering out of a nest in a large grove of trees. It wasn't the greatest of views, but not long afterward, James spotted another bird perched right next to the road, and surprisingly, it remained stoically in place as we pulled up alongside for some photographs.

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Birding in the snowy wonderland of Carburn Park, by guide Jay VanderGaast

SNOWY OWL (Bubo scandiacus)

It was a bit of a down year for this species, which just meant we had to put in a little more effort to find them than usual. We only ended finding two during our foray east of Calgary, but we had fantastic studies of them. In general these owls are less approachable than many of the other species, but by keeping our distance, we were able to get some scope looks, though they did end up moving as we drove by. Laura chose these fantastic owls as her favorite trip bird.

NORTHERN HAWK OWL (Surnia ulula)

Dan and I had found three of these big targets on our day of scouting prior to the tour. The first near the historic church was MIA on tour day, but a pair we'd located near a cattle yard were right where we left the, They were a bit far away on our first pass, but a second visit later that day got us much closer views, as one bird sat on the fence of the yard, then flew closer and perched on a nearby outbuilding as we viewed from the vans. While that experience was satisfying enough, we had an even better encounter a few days later in Calgary, when we swung by an area where one had been spending the winter next to a school. It was right at the start of the school day, with lots of students walking around and a stream of parents driving up to drop off their kids, but the owl was perched right out front of the school, nonplussed by all the comings and goings. We spent a good long time with it, and even did our good deed for the day by pushing a parent's car out of the snow, all with the owl glaring down at us. Decky was especially impressed, and placed this species at the top of her list.

NORTHERN PYGMY-OWL (Glaucidium gnoma)

There'd only been one fairly reliable pygmy-owl in the Calgary area this winter, but, given that it's a tiny bird and there is a lot of good habitat in the area it had been frequenting, I wasn't too high on our chances. We'd driven through the area a few times, and were down to our last chance, and lo and behold, there it was, perched atop a roadside spruce! The wind chill kept us from spending too much time with it, but it was a fine final species to add to our tour lists!

GREAT GRAY OWL (Strix nebulosa)

After disappointingly missing this major target species on last winter's tour, we were hoping for a better showing this year, and word was it was a good winter for them. Even so, our initial day north of Edmonton failed to turn up any, though there'd been plenty of them seen in the region. Our fortunes changed as we got closer to Calgary though, as shortly after arriving in the hotbed area for them, we came across one perched on a fencepost next to the road. We enjoyed a nice long encounter with that bird, highlighted by it flying up to the peak of a scenic, weathered old barn. Upon leaving the bird to its hunting, we found a second bird right outside the saloon before hightailing it to Calgary. A few days later, we revisited the area, and found 2 more birds, the first one remarkably tame as it sat quietly, and cryptically, on the edge of the forest. This was arguably our best trip yet for these magnificent birds, and they were unsurprisingly voted as bird of the trip, with Vito, Jose, Valerie and James all placing it at #1.

Picidae (Woodpeckers)

DOWNY WOODPECKER (Dryobates pubescens)

Easily the most often seen woodpecker of the trip, with small numbers each day.

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A wonderful all-detail portrait of Bohemian Waxwing by participant James Coyne

HAIRY WOODPECKER (Dryobates villosus)

Not an uncommon species here, but they were far less evident than usual, and we had just a couple of sightings, one in the Opal region, the other at Rick and Maureen's feeders.

PILEATED WOODPECKER (Dryocopus pileatus)

We only saw one of these impressive woodpeckers, but as it was feeding at the base of some roadside trees and allowed us to pull up alongside it, we really didn't need another.

NORTHERN FLICKER (Colaptes auratus)

Especially common at Carburn Park, where we saw close to a dozen. Calgary is within the hybridization zone between the western, red-shafted type and the eastern yellow-shafted, and at least a few of the ones we saw showed characteristics of both subspecies, which is pretty normal to see here.

Laniidae (Shrikes)

NORTHERN SHRIKE (Lanius borealis)

Great Gray Owls may have eluded us on our first day north of Edmonton, but at least there were a decent number of these in the region to spice up the day's birding. We saw 5 on that first day, including one that pounced on, and successfully caught, an unlucky vole. We had a single bird the following day at Genesee Lake, but none at all in the Calgary region.

Corvidae (Crows, Jays, and Magpies)

CANADA JAY (Perisoreus canadensis)

I think we were pretty unlucky to not come across these northern jays over the first 4 days, but thankfully there was a trio of them coming into the feeder's at Rick and Maureen's home in the foothills.

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Northern Shrike, by guide Dan Arndt

BLUE JAY (Cyanocitta cristata)

These familiar jays seem to have increased since I was a kid growing up in Alberta, and we saw them on 4/5 days, including a bunch alongside the Canada Jays at the feeders.


Albertans don't really hold these birds in high esteem, but I've always loved them, and their bold demeanor. We saw plenty of these birds every day.

CLARK'S NUTCRACKER (Nucifraga columbiana)

Rick and Maureen's feeders are pretty much the only place we're likely to encounter these awesome birds on the tour route, and that's just where we saw our only ones, a quartet that joined their cousins for the peanut buffet.

COMMON RAVEN (Corvus corax)

It seems your never far from these birds on this tour, and we saw them in good numbers daily.

Paridae (Tits, Chickadees, and Titmice)

BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEE (Poecile atricapillus)

By far the most numerous and ubiquitous of the chickadees. Those cheeky ones at Carburn Park were especially endearing.

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Northern Pygmy-Owl, by participant James Coyne

MOUNTAIN CHICKADEE (Poecile gambeli)

Another species that we only encountered at Rick and Maureen's feeders, where about half a dozen joined the other 2 chickadee species giving us a chickadee hat trick that morning!

BOREAL CHICKADEE (Poecile hudsonicus)

A couple of pairs showed quite well at the feeders at Wayne and Lynn's place at Halfmoon Lake, though a few folks were hoping for better. Better came during an almost birdless (but beautiful) walk at Brown-Lowery, as the lone bird we saw was an incredibly close, and unusually stationary Boreal Chickadee. And of course there was a lovely pair at the feeders the following day, too.

Alaudidae (Larks)

HORNED LARK (Eremophila alpestris)

Though the bulk of the population of these prairie birds spend the winter to the south of the province, small numbers regularly winter in Alberta, with the area we searched for Snowy Owls being a good area to find them. We found a group of about 20 feeding on a gravel road near some railroad tracks, possibly feeding on spilled grain from passing trains.

Sittidae (Nuthatches)

RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH (Sitta canadensis)

We saw both species of nuthatches in pretty equal numbers and at most of the same sites (mainly at feeders) though this conifer-loving species was also seen at the spruce-filled Queen's Park Cemetery where we missed White-breasted.

WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCH (Sitta carolinensis)

Carburn Park was the only place we saw this species without Red-breasted also being present.

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Mountain Chickadee was one of three chickadee species we saw on the tour. Photo by participant James Coyne.
Certhiidae (Treecreepers)

BROWN CREEPER (Certhia americana)

A couple of birds foraged up a trailside tree during our lovely walk through the woods at Heritage Grove Park, with another seen at the forest feeders at Rick and Maureen's place, which is the only place I've ever seen this species actually visiting a feeder!

Sturnidae (Starlings)

EUROPEAN STARLING (Sturnus vulgaris) [I]

Most of these leave the province in the winter, though there are always a few around. We saw a single bird northeast of Calgary during the Snowy Owl search, then a fairly large number at the stockyards/abattoir with all the ravens and magpies south of Calgary.

Bombycillidae (Waxwings)

BOHEMIAN WAXWING (Bombycilla garrulus)

It's not often that a Passerine beats out owls in the bird of the trip voting, but these lovely birds did just that, taking 2nd place ahead of both Snowy Owl and Northern Hawk-Owl (tied for 3rd) despite nobody placing it at #1 overall. We started off with an impressive flock of about 150 birds perched atop several spruces at Heritage Grove Park, then followed up with several hundred birds in several flocks flying over Queen's Park Cemetery. But our best looks were of a much smaller group of 9 birds feeding just above the roadside in the town of Longview, completely unperturbed by our presence.

Passeridae (Old World Sparrows)

HOUSE SPARROW (Passer domesticus) [I]

Recorded on a couple of days in Calgary. I had them marked on my list as heard-only, but surely someone must have seen one!

Fringillidae (Finches, Euphonias, and Allies)

EVENING GROSBEAK (Coccothraustes vespertinus)

As we watched the feeders at Halfmoon Lake, a large flock (~60 birds) of these handsome grosbeaks flew over a couple of times, but unfortunately failed to come in. We did manage some good views in the Calgary region, where we scoped out a road near to a home that was getting them regularly at the feeders, and we managed to get some nice scope views of them perched above the house. I was really struck by how different these sounded from the ones I'm used to back east.

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Northern Hawk Owl, by participant James Coyne

HOUSE FINCH (Haemorhous mexicanus)

Once a rarity in the province, this finch has invaded from the southwest and is now a regular part of the provincial avifauna, though it seems to be primarily around towns and cities. We saw a small number at Heritage Grove Park.


While we did see these, the timing and situation weren't the greatest, so we certainly would have liked better looks. Though several birds flew over, including a male singing his heart out, we were a bit distracted by our first Great Gray Owl so we didn't really follow up on them, and despite visiting another great area for them, we failed to conjure up any more.

Calcariidae (Longspurs and Snow Buntings)

SNOW BUNTING (Plectrophenax nivalis)

We probably tallied 500-600 in total, in just 3 flocks. These birds were flighty, as usual, but we did manage to get some good looks at them. First up was a flock of about 150 in the Water Valley region, followed up by a big flock of 250 or so as we searched for Snowy Owls the following day. Finally, the folks in my van saw another good-sized group in the open fields along the road to Rick and Maureen's home on our last day.

Passerellidae (New World Sparrows)

DARK-EYED JUNCO (Junco hyemalis)

Seen at a few sites around Calgary, with the largest number (40+) found foraging under the thick spruce trees lining the Queen's Park Cemetery. Everything we saw appeared to be of the Slate-colored form, though Oregon type juncos also are regular in the province.

WHITE-THROATED SPARROW (Zonotrichia albicollis)

Rick and Maureen had been hosting one of these through the winter, but only Jose managed to see it as it foraged with a little group of juncos at the far end of the porch.



A possible one (also possibly Snowshoe Hare) was seen at Heritage Grove Park by a few folks. But we had a definite one just outside the Thai restaurant in Calgary, and some of you may have also seen them in the hotel parking lot, where they can often be spotted hunkering down between vehicles.

EASTERN GRAY SQUIRREL (Sciurus carolinensis) [I]

A single black individual was at Queen's Park Cemetery. Apparently the ones here in Calgary originated from escapees from the zoo.

RED SQUIRREL (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus)

The common squirrel in the province, and we saw these almost daily.

MUSKRAT (Ondatra zibethica)

A couple of these were taking advantage of the fine weather and open water at Carburn Park.

COYOTE (Canis latrans)

We saw about a dozen altogether, missing them only on the final day. Aren't they beautiful beasts in their thick winter coats?

MULE DEER (Odocoileus hemionus)

We saw a few of these large-eared deer in the Calgary region.

WHITE-TAILED DEER (Odocoileus virginianus)

The commonly seen deer, seen daily, and with some pretty large groups encountered.

MOOSE (Alces alces)

The area northeast of Edmonton always seems to be good for Moose, and this year was no exception, as we saw 5 of these enormous ungulates on our first day. Our only other ones were a mother and yearling calf below one of the bridges we crossed in the Bragg Creek area west of Calgary.

Totals for the tour: 51 bird taxa and 8 mammal taxa