A Field Guides Birding Tours Report

Owlberta: Alberta's Owls & More 2024

February 17-23, 2024 with Jay VanderGaast & Dan Arndt guiding

Field Guides Birding Tours
We had a great encounter with this Northern Hawk Owl on the first day of the tour. It flew towards us, pounced on something, and came to rest on a powerline with a vole in its talons! Guide Dan Arndt got this shot of the owl looking rather askance at us. No, it was not going to share!

The weather is always something of a crapshoot on a winter tour like this, but it seemed like 7th time was the charm, as we finally had ideal conditions for pretty much the entire tour! Sunny skies, very light winds, and temperatures that climbed above freezing each and every day (as opposed to the -25°C to -30°C we've experienced on the last couple of tours) made the whole trip a lot more pleasant than it can be.

Another plus of this year's trip was the ease with which we found two of the key, and often difficult, owls we target. For the first time, we had both Great Gray and Northern Hawk owls before we stopped for lunch on our first day! This certainly took a lot of pressure off the guides and allowed us a fair bit of flexibility for the remainder of the tour, which is always a good thing. All in all, this was one of the best overall runs for this tour, and having such a compatible, albeit small, group of participants made it all that much more fun.

Of course there were things that were difficult, or missed altogether. It was a poor year for Snowy Owls, but we did find a couple as always. Short-eared Owls appeared to vanish from the province entirely just prior to the tour, and still don't seem to have returned to the parts of Alberta that we visit. And we just couldn't track down a Northern Pygmy-Owl this year. But I would think that our long sessions with several Great Gray Owls (5 different birds!) and wonderful encounters with a couple of different Northern Hawk-Owls more than made up for the ones we missed.

Owls aside, we had a wonderful assortment of wintering birds on this tour. Waterfowl were plentiful, with lots of open water thanks in part to the mild winter, and we added a bunch of species we don't usually see on this tour, including both Trumpeter and Tundra Swans, lovely Canvasbacks, Hooded Merganser, and Wood Duck, plus several funky hybrids, most notably that cool looking Brewer's Duck, a Mallard X Gadwall cross. We did better than ever on upland game birds, with nice looks at both the introduced species--Gray Partridge and Ring-necked Pheasant, plus a roadside Ruffed Grouse, and a covey of Sharp-tailed Grouse for the first time on this tour.

A magnificent Golden Eagle soaring in a crystal clear blue prairie sky and a pair of Prairie Falcons surveying their territory from prominent perches on a clifftop were highlights among the diurnal raptors. A drumming male American Three-toed Woodpecker along with his mate was the star of the woodpecker show. Beautiful Steller's Jays gave us a clean sweep of the regularly-occurring Corvids. And though it wasn't an especially great winter for finches, we did enjoy many great views of colorful Evening and Pine grosbeaks, a few Hoary Redpolls mixed in with the swarms of Common Redpolls, and a small group of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches, including a locally rare Hepburn's type!

Thanks for joining us on this winter's tour! Dan and I had a great time with all of you, and look forward to crossing paths again!


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)

At least 3 birds were tucked amongst the hundreds of Canada Geese on the Bow River at Carburn Park.

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A Golden Eagle soaring in front of the moon made for a beautiful sight! Photo by guide Dan Arndt.

CANADA GOOSE (Branta canadensis)

Hundreds at both Genesee Lake and Carburn Park, with others noted in flight from the river to feeding areas in stubble fields around the city of Calgary.

TRUMPETER SWAN (Cygnus buccinator)

Once a rare bird in the province, this species has made a significant comeback, and is now doing quite well. That said, it isn’t something we expect to see in winter, though this is the second year in a row we’ve had them. Genesee Lake accounted for most of them, as there were around 20 there, but our best views were along the Bow River at Carburn Park, where 5 birds were spending the winter.

TUNDRA SWAN (Cygnus columbianus)

Among the many Trumpeters at Genesee Lake, there were at least 4 of these smaller swans.

WOOD DUCK (Aix sponsa)

Formerly a rare, occasional breeder in the province, but now can be seen fairly regularly in Calgary, at least, after a small number of birds were released at the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary some years ago. Still, we don’t usually see them in winter, so it was nice to see a quartet of them roosting on the shoreline at Carburn Park.

MALLARD (Anas platyrhynchos)

By far the most numerous duck of the trip with several hundred at Genesee Lake, and a couple of hundred at Carburn Park, where we also had a handsome drake Brewer's Duck, a hybrid between Mallard and Gadwall.


A handsome drake on the lake at Genesee was an unexpected treat.

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Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch took a little while to show, but we eventually got nice looks at this pretty little bird. Photo by guide Dan Arndt.

CANVASBACK (Aythya valisineria)

Fair numbers were overwintering on Genesee Lake, where we saw ~10, though I’d counted 27 a couple days earlier! There were also a half dozen on the river at Carburn Park.

REDHEAD (Aythya americana)

These ducks have become pretty regular over-winterers, and we had a bunch of them at the two waterfowl areas, with about a dozen on Genesee Lake and roughly 25 on the river at Carburn Park.

RING-NECKED DUCK (Aythya collaris)

Half a dozen distant birds on Genesee Lake, and about twice that many on the river at Carburn Park.

LESSER SCAUP (Aythya affinis)

Just 4 or 5 birds both on Genesee and at Carburn, where we also saw the well-known hybrid drake Redhead X Lesser Scaup that has been here for a few winters at least.

BUFFLEHEAD (Bucephala albeola)

These handsome little ducks were pretty numerous at Carburn Park, with about 60 of them on the river there. Genesee Lake also had a few birds.

COMMON GOLDENEYE (Bucephala clangula)

Numerous at Carburn Park, where there were about 75-80 of them, the males already calling and displaying quite vigorously to the females. Smaller numbers were on Genesee Lake.

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A White-breasted Nuthatch posed nicely for guide Dan Arndt.

BARROW'S GOLDENEYE (Bucephala islandica)

A couple of subadult males on the river at Carburn Park, plus a hybrid male Common X Barrow's Goldeneye that's been there all winter.

HOODED MERGANSER (Lophodytes cucullatus)

I’d found a pair on Genesee Lake when I scouted there on my way up to Edmonton, and we managed to relocate them on our visit on the way down south.

COMMON MERGANSER (Mergus merganser)

Small numbers both at Genesee and Carburn, with the males in beautiful, fresh plumage.

Phasianidae (Pheasants, Grouse, and Allies)

RUFFED GROUSE (Bonasa umbellus)

We spotted one crouched beside a gravel road northeast of Edmonton, and got some super looks as it remained in place right beside the vehicle. It moved off when another vehicle came up from behind, but the folks in Dan's vehicle also managed to spot it in the shrubs a bit further off the road.

SHARP-TAILED GROUSE (Tympanuchus phasianellus)

There had been several recent sightings of these near the rosy-finch spot at St. Henry’s Church, so I was hopeful that we might be able to find some there, as I hadn’t seen this species in many years. We had some initial, barely adequate views of a couple that we flushed as we approached the feeders, then greatly improved looks as we drove away. As we exited the driveway, we spotted a small group scurrying along behind the shrubs lining the road. We stopped just before the final shrub, and one of the birds cautiously walked out from behind cover, and froze in the open for a good long period before winging off across the road.

GRAY PARTRIDGE (Perdix perdix) [I]

"Huns" or Hungarian Partridge, as they are known locally, were introduced into the province for hunting back in the early 1900's, and they seem to have found the windswept prairies to their liking, as they are a common species here nowadays. We saw good numbers east of Calgary as we searched for Snowy Owls, and again at St. Henry's Church, with a final tally of about 50 birds.

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We saw a number of hybrid ducks, including this "Brewer's" Duck, a cross between Gadwall and Mallard. Photo by guide Dan Arndt.

RING-NECKED PHEASANT (Phasianus colchicus) [I]

These birds were introduced in Alberta around the same time as the Gray Partridges, but took a couple of decades to really establish a breeding population. Though they have done that, pheasant releases for hunting still occur in the province annually. We saw just a single one, a handsome cock, well-spotted by Claire behind numerous roadside dirt mounds, as we searched for Snowy Owls.

Podicipedidae (Grebes)

HORNED GREBE (Podiceps auritus)

We don’t expect any grebes at all on this tour, but I’d found singles of both this and the next species during my scouting at Genesee Lake, and we were able to relocate both of them on the tour.

RED-NECKED GREBE (Podiceps grisegena)

Both of the grebes were in their rather dull winter plumage, but the large bill of this species made it easy to tell apart from the much smaller, shorter-billed Horned Grebe.

Columbidae (Pigeons and Doves)

ROCK PIGEON (Columba livia) [I]

Primarily in the cities.

Accipitridae (Hawks, Eagles, and Kites)

GOLDEN EAGLE (Aquila chrysaetos)

A subadult had been fairly reliable at Genesee Lake all winter, and I had seen it there on my way up to Edmonton a couple of days earlier, so we had our eyes peeled as we approached the lake, and it didn't take long for us to be rewarded. We first spotted the bird as it flew into a small copse of trees along the lakeshore. After initial scope views, we drove closer for a better angle. Though the bird flew shortly after we'd repositioned ourselves, it started to circle overhead, giving us spectacular looks against the brilliant blue Alberta sky! What a sight!

BALD EAGLE (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)

Seen mainly at the two waterfowl sites, but we had a few other sightings of these beautiful birds as we drove around the province.

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This was not the best year for Snowy Owls, but we did manage to find a couple. This one perched nicely on a power pole near the road. Photo by guide Dan Arndt.

ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK (Buteo lagopus)

We didn't run into these hawks until our final day south of the city, where we made a stop along the highway near St. Henry's Church for a good view of one on a roadside power pole. We had at least one more on the drive back up to Calgary.

Strigidae (Owls)

SNOWY OWL (Bubo scandiacus)

It was a bit of a down year for Snowies in the province this winter, but Dan had some reliable areas to check east of Calgary, and they came through nicely. Jim actually spotted our first perched on a fencepost across a large field, and we were able to get out of the vehicles and get some decent scope views, which improved immensely when I realized that the heat waves that were blurring the image were coming from the engine of my vehicle! Moving the scope a few feet further from the car made a huge difference! Our only other one was seen fairly nearby, on a power pole next to a fairly busy highway.

GREAT HORNED OWL (Bubo virginianus)

One half of a resident pair was found in the Sikome Lake sector of Fish Creek Provincial Park, once again thanks to Dan's local knowledge. But even with him leading us right to the bird, it was still tricky to spot as it was so well camouflaged. Dan also pointed out the nest hollow the birds had been using for several years, and it's very likely the female of the pair was already incubating eggs down inside and out of view.

NORTHERN HAWK OWL (Surnia ulula)

We were just about finished up at Wayne and Lynn's feeders on our first morning, when we got word from a contact that he'd found one of these not far up the road, so we bid farewell and headed over to find the bird sitting teed up near a farmhouse. Though it was in full view, it wasn't especially close, but a short while later, we saw it fly and angle towards the road, but it went low and we lost sight. But we realized it must be close when we saw the fellow who'd alerted us pointing his camera at a low angle, so we hurried up to where he was, just in time to see the owl fly across the road, pounce into the grass, then land on the far side of a copse of trees. Then, as we moved to try to get a better angle on it, the bird flew once again, coming straight at us, then straight over our heads before landing on the power line nearby! The next morning we were able to relocate the owl for Betsy, but not replicate the close encounter, so we also made a swing past the winter territory of another one northwest of Calgary, which we found perched atop a spruce tree quite close to the road.

GREAT GRAY OWL (Strix nebulosa)

Last winter's trip had been the best ever for this highly sought-after species, but this winter easily equalled or even surpassed last year's experience. Mainly due to the fact that we expended very little effort to find them this year. We have spent some tours driving the back roads in the Opal region for hours without finding any owls, which is probably hard to believe given this year's success. We had our first in view by 9:00 am the first morning, and enjoyed a nice long viewing session as it surveyed the surrounding meadow, changing perches from time to time, and making one unsuccessful pounce into the snow. We had two more that first morning, with one bird sat up nice and close, though only for a couple of minutes. Going back to try to catch Betsy up the next day, we not only relocated our initial bird practically on the very same perch, but also had another amazing close encounter with one on a fencepost right along the main highway! It was quite a treat to feel no pressure to find these owls again around Calgary, but that didn't stop us from trying, and just after stopping in at the hawk-owl, we got word of a Great Gray nearby, and we drove up to where a large group of Italian photographers were enjoying a close encounter with a very serene-looking Great Gray perched on the edge of the treeline. Unsurprisingly, this was the unanimous choice as bird of the trip.

Picidae (Woodpeckers)


After several years of icy cold conditions for our excursion to Brown-Lowery PP, it was nice to have such mild temperatures for this year's visit. So nice, in fact, that the woodpeckers were already establishing winter territories, and we had fantastic looks at a drumming male and his mate near the end of our loop through these lovely woods.

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Our last new bird for the trip was a pair of Prairie Falcons. Guide Jay VanderGaast snapped this image of one of them perched near a potential nest site.

DOWNY WOODPECKER (Dryobates pubescens)

By far the most numerous species of woodpecker on the trip, and we had this familiar bird in small numbers daily.

HAIRY WOODPECKER (Dryobates villosus)

Far more common in the province than our 2 records would suggest. We had singles in Carburn Park and at the Castle Mountain Resort near the feeders.

PILEATED WOODPECKER (Dryocopus pileatus)

It's always a thrill to see this impressive woodpecker, and we had fine views of one on both mornings at Wayne and Lynn's feeders in the Opal region. We also heard one at Carburn Park, and folks in my vehicle saw one flying alongside us as we departed Brown-Lowery PP.

NORTHERN FLICKER (Colaptes auratus)

Very common in the river valley parks in Calgary, particularly so at Carburn Park, where they were nearly a dozen of them. As usual, most of the birds appeared to be hybrids showing a mix of characters of both Red-shafted and Yellow-shafted subspecies.

Falconidae (Falcons and Caracaras)

PRAIRIE FALCON (Falco mexicanus)

Our final new species of the trip was a pair of these lovely falcons sitting atop a rocky cliff on a side road south of Calgary. A rather rare wintering species in the province, but this pair might have been early returnees calling dibs on a favored nesting spot.

Laniidae (Shrikes)

NORTHERN SHRIKE (Lanius borealis)

Few this year, but we had one that was singing near Manawan Lake on our unsuccessful hunt for Short-eared Owls the first afternoon. Our only other one was teed up next to the road as we left the Castle Mountain Resort, allowing Betsy to catch up on this species, too.

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Common Mergansers showed nicely; here is a pair in flight, caught by guide Dan Arndt.
Corvidae (Crows, Jays, and Magpies)

CANADA JAY (Perisoreus canadensis)

Apart from a pair seen in the Opal region on our first morning in the field, all of our subsequent sightings came on the same day. We started off with a quartet at close range at Maureen and Rick's feeders, then saw one at Elbow Falls, and finally, several birds at Brown-Lowery PP.

STELLER'S JAY (Cyanocitta stelleri)

Though we failed to find the reported Chestnut-backed Chickadees at Castle Mountain Resort, which would have given us a clean sweep of Alberta’s chickadees, we did get beautiful looks at these gorgeous jays there, giving us a clean sweep of the province’s regularly-occurring Corvids instead.

BLUE JAY (Cyanocitta cristata)

Perhaps not as ubiquitous as in the east, but this is still quite a common bird here, especially around the Opal region, though we also saw a few in Calgary as well as at Maureen and Rick's feeders.


Our Ebird totals of 34 don't give an accurate picture of how many of these familiar birds we actually saw, as the numbers of magpies seen during the drives far surpassed the number we recorded when we were actually doing a list.

CLARK'S NUTCRACKER (Nucifraga columbiana)

We usually only get this at Rick and Maureen's feeders, though they voiced some concern that we might be out of luck, as the nutcracker numbers had dwindled recently, the mild winter perhaps inciting them to begin nesting earlier than usual. But luck was with us, as a single bird popped in for some peanuts, making a few forays to the feeders before disappearing.

AMERICAN CROW (Corvus brachyrhynchos)

Most crows leave the province for the winter, but there are a few roosting congregations around the province, including in Calgary. We often miss this species, but this year we had a group of about 10 at Carburn Park.

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Pileated Woodpeckers are such impressive birds! We saw several, including this handsome male. Photo by guide Dan Arndt.

COMMON RAVEN (Corvus corax)

Numerous throughout, and seen regularly pretty much everywhere.

Paridae (Tits, Chickadees, and Titmice)

BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEE (Poecile atricapillus)

The familiar chickadee of the east is also the most familiar one through much of the province, and we tallied these hardy little birds almost daily, missing them only on our final day when we ventured southward.

MOUNTAIN CHICKADEE (Poecile gambeli)

The name rings true, as this lovely chickadee rarely ventures far from the mountains. We had excellent looks at a couple of birds at Rick and Maureen's feeders, and then found several around the Castle Mountain Resort as we searched, and hoped, for a couple of rare Chestnut-backed Chickadees which had been around for the winter.

BOREAL CHICKADEE (Poecile hudsonicus)

This handsome and highly sought-after species is closely tied to spruce and fir forests in the north and along the foot of the Rockies. We enjoyed a pair each at the feeders in the Opal area and northwest of Calgary, and also had a more natural encounter with a couple in Brown-Lowery PP.

Alaudidae (Larks)

HORNED LARK (Eremophila alpestris)

With the mild winter temperatures, it was a bit surprising that we didn't find more of these birds, as they are often one of the earliest returning migrants (and some do overwinter). But for all the driving we did on back roads through the prairies, we only managed to muster up a couple of pairs that flushed ahead of the vehicles and winged across the open fields.

Sittidae (Nuthatches)

WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCH (Sitta carolinensis)

A familiar feeder bird, and most of ours were at feeders, though we also had a few in the cottonwood flats along the Bow River in Carburn Park.

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Another duck we saw well was the handsome Common Goldeneye. Guide Dan Arndt got a nice flight shot of one of the many males we saw.

RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH (Sitta canadensis)

Much more closely associated with areas of coniferous forest than the above species. We had a couple of birds each at Maureen and Rick's feeders and the feeders at Castle Mountain Resort.

Certhiidae (Treecreepers)

BROWN CREEPER (Certhia americana)

Maureen and Rick's place is the only site where I have ever actually seen this species visit a feeder. Unfortunately, though we heard one calling there, it did not come in during our visit, but we did get some excellent looks at one tootling up a nearby tree trunk at Brown-Lowery PP.

Cinclidae (Dippers)

AMERICAN DIPPER (Cinclus mexicanus)

With so much open water available this winter, most dippers had remained closer to the mountains, so we had to look for them outside of Calgary this year. Luckily we had the time to fit in a quick side trip to Elbow Falls, where we had smashing looks at a pair plunging into the icy glacial-fed waters at the falls.

Bombycillidae (Waxwings)

BOHEMIAN WAXWING (Bombycilla garrulus)

On both mornings during our gas stop in the town of Gibbons, we heard flocks of these flying over, so on our second morning, we searched the residential parts of town for them, but despite seeing them in flight a couple of times, we were unable to nail them down, and we never ran into anymore for the remainder of the tour.

Passeridae (Old World Sparrows)

HOUSE SPARROW (Passer domesticus) [I]

Numerous in the towns and cities we passed through.

Fringillidae (Finches, Euphonias, and Allies)

EVENING GROSBEAK (Coccothraustes vespertinus)

Happily, this was a good winter for them in the Opal region, and we enjoyed some beautiful close looks at these handsome grosbeaks on both mornings at Wayne and Lynn's feeders.

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This lovely Pine Grosbeak posed nicely at a feeding station. Photo by guide Dan Arndt.

PINE GROSBEAK (Pinicola enucleator)

All of the winter finches can be pretty unpredictable, this one included. After missing them completely last year, it was great to catch up with them in decent numbers this year. Both the feeders in the Opal area and northwest of Calgary had about a dozen of these cheerful birds, giving us ample opportunity to enjoy their presence.

GRAY-CROWNED ROSY-FINCH (Leucosticte tephrocotis)

Anywhere from 1 to 100+ of the had been reported from feeders at St. Henry’s Church near the town of Pincher Creek, so with our key owls under our belts, we decided to make the long trip south to have a look. Though it was a bit of a wait, eventually some of these lovely birds dropped in for some seed. Our initial count was 7 birds, all of the expected, nominate subspecies, which breeds in the province. And finally, an 8th bird, the one we’d been hoping for, a male of the much rarer coastal subspecies littoralis, aka Hepburn’s Rosy-Finch, appeared on the feeders, making this a very successful foray!

HOUSE FINCH (Haemorhous mexicanus) [*]

Since expanding its range into Alberta over the last couple of decades, this species has become a familiar sight in the province, though mainly in cities and towns. Though I don't think anyone saw one this trip we certainly heard them singing at Carburn Park.

COMMON REDPOLL (Acanthis flammea)

Redpoll numbers vary greatly from year to year, depending on the availability of natural food sources in the boreal forest regions. This winter was a good year for them on the tour, especially in the Opal region where we enjoyed good numbers of them at Wayne and Lynn's feeders as well as a flock of some 250+ birds in a weedy field along a back road in the Thorhild area. Much smaller numbers were present in and around the Calgary region.

HOARY REDPOLL (Acanthis hornemanni)

The odds of finding this species certainly increase in winters with lots of Common Redpolls, so I wasn't surprised to note a few birds at Wayne and Lynn's feeders that looked good for Hoaries. But, they seldom stayed still for long enough to make me 100% confident in their identification. Luckily, Dan snapped a few photos of the birds in question and was able to determine that at least 3 of them were indeed Hoary Redpolls. For now, at least, as there is some talk of lumping all the redpolls into a single species.

Calcariidae (Longspurs and Snow Buntings)

SNOW BUNTING (Plectrophenax nivalis)

A very gregarious species, often occurring in huge flocks, so it was surprising that our only record was of a single bird feeding on a gravel road near Redwater on our first morning!

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We saw this sleepy North American Porcupine snoozing in a tree in Carburn Park. Photo by guide Dan Arndt.
Passerellidae (New World Sparrows)

DARK-EYED JUNCO (Junco hyemalis)

About 8 birds were moving through the low shrubs in the parking lot at Carburn Park, with a couple more at Maureen and Rick's. Though several types of junco occur in the province, all the ones we had were of the familiar, "Slate-colored" form.



Though they are regular around our Calgary hotel, we kept missing these until on our way to dinner the final night, when one hopped out of the parking lot. We then saw 3 or 4 more in an open lot right next to the restaurant!

RICHARDSON'S GROUND SQUIRREL (Spermophilus richardsonii)

Though this is an abundant species in the southern prairies, it’s not one we expect on this tour as they should be hibernating for at least a few more weeks beyond the tour dates. But the incredibly mild weather got them stirring, and we saw a handful along Grand Valley Road, then good numbers sitting out on the snow in the prairies near St. Henry’s Church.

EASTERN GRAY SQUIRREL (Sciurus carolinensis) [I]

An introduced species in the province, mainly confined to the Calgary region, and seemingly consisting only of black morphs. We saw a few around the Calgary parks.

RED SQUIRREL (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus)

The default arboreal squirrel here, and we had them almost daily, including that cheeky one at Maureen and Rick's that started climbing Betsy's leg as if she were a tree!


Dan led us to one at a tree it regularly frequents in Carburn Park, and we found a second one not long after near the Great Horned Owl at Sikome Lake.

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This tour is all about the owls, and the Great Gray Owls did not disappoint us this year. We had multiple good views of this imposing creature at a number of locations. This species was voted Bird of the Trip, and for good reason! Photo by guide Dan Arndt.

RED FOX (Vulpes vulpes)

Folks in Dan's vehicle saw what was most likely one of these on our way up to Opal the first morning.

COYOTE (Canis latrans)

A common animal throughout the province, and we saw about a dozen of them, with at least one each day.

ELK (Cervus canadensis)

One nice big herd had been spending the winter in ranch land along Grand Valley Road, where we managed to spot them grazing near an equal number of cattle.

MULE DEER (Odocoileus hemionus)

Both deer species were seen pretty regularly, though this one was only recorded in the Calgary region.

WHITE-TAILED DEER (Odocoileus virginianus)

Much more common than I remember from back when I lived in the province.

MOOSE (Alces alces)

Singles on both of our mornings in the Opal region.

Totals for the tour: 62 bird taxa and 11 mammal taxa