Thursday, November 28, 2013

Northern Goshawk drops in

A juvenile Northern Goshawk has been a fairly irregular visitor to our yard in recent weeks. Today it perched and preened for more than an hour as the usual throng of HAWOs, DOWOs, BLJAs, BBMAs, BCCHs, WBNUs & EVGRs attended our feeders below. There was no drama.

A few days ago this accipter took a shot at a Pileated Woodpecker, and missed. The week before we found a scattering of Mallard feathers just beyond our yard. C'est la guerre!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

American Black Duck at Elk Island National Park

Once again I offer some sketchy video of an uncommon migrant in Central Alberta! The American Black Duck, whose range in Canada is primarily east of Saskatchewan, has been seen less frequently in Alberta in recent decades, mirroring a widespread decline. Only two Alberta occurrences, both from the Calgary area, are documented in eBird.

This individual showed up yesterday, October 21st. While American Black Duck x Mallard intergrades are not unusual, this individual showed no influence of Mallard genes. Note the pure purple speculum (no white border) and similarly a uniformly dark tail.

Helpfully, for comparative purposes, there are much paler female Mallards swimming in and out of frame.

For those birders less familiar with the American Black Duck, here are some distinguishing features:
  • size and structure very similar to the Mallard (distinguishing it from the smaller or less robust Gadwall and American Pintail
  • general colour pattern similar to female Mallard
In contrast to a female Mallard the American Black Duck:
  • has wings and body about four shades darker and shows marked contrast between lighter head/neck and darker body 
  • lacks white border to blue/violet speculum 
  • lacks any white on tail 
  • has a uniformly green or greenish yellow coloured bill.
Here's a typical male Black Duck.
American Black Duck (male), image shared generously under a Creative Commons license by Dick Daniels (

Update: Oct 23.

For the third consecutive morning the ABDU was present in the usual spot at 08:30 am. I tried paddling a canoe closer to get some better photos; however; the waterfowl assemblage was skittish. Here's the only capture I got, showing, at left, the spread wing of departing ABDU.

Update: Oct 25.

Still present at 8:40 am. Some skim ice formed overnight. With colder weather in the forecast, I suspect all waterfowl will leave Astotin Lake in the next few days.

Update: Oct 27.  Present at 11:30 am in the usual spot.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Pacific Loon at Elk Island?

I came upon this interesting loon at Astotin Lake in Elk Island National Park a few days ago. It was pretty far away but I was able to watch it in the scope for 20 minutes or so. I made note of its smallish bill and sharply bi-coloured neck. It was distinctly smaller than a nearby Common Loon and at the time I was pretty sure I was seeing my first-in-Canada Pacific Loon (eBird says I saw one off Monterey, CA decades ago).

PALO is not an Alberta mega-rarity by any means. Several Pacific Loons have been found elsewhere in Alberta this week.

I wasn't able to get any decent still photos - the light wasn't great and it was windy. I did get a minute of pretty lousy video.

What do you think? Am I dreaming? Pacific Loon? Common Loon? And what about the duck that swims through the frame near the end?

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

October Grousing - plumage variation in the Ruffed Grouse.

The Ruffed Grouse is a well established, year-round resident of the Prairie Parkland region. I haven't found them to be particularly noticeable or abundant at Elk Island National Park - typically I might see or hear two or three birds in any given week.

In recent weeks they've been more conspicuous. With very large broods, numbers of grouse can fluctuate considerably between years - perhaps the 2013 nesting season was more successful than average.  Last Sunday we flushed eight from a hiking trail and spotted another six crouched along the roadside.

This is a typical view through the car window.

Less typical are autumn encounters with strutting males. I was fortunate last week to cross paths with this fine fellow. I knew that across their range, the plumage varies and red or gray morphs may predominate, but I'd never before seen a bird with a rich rufous ruff. Wow!

Here's a typical black ruffed, gray morph bird from northern Ontario. Notice how different the tail colouration is.

If you haven't ever seen a Ruffed Grouse in full hormone-crazed strut, check out this short video of the same bird, taken on March 17, 2010 in Pukaskwa National Park.

Related material:

Here are some excellent photos, among very few I could find on-line, showing a red-ruffed RUGR in Minnesota.

Evolutionary biologists consider grouse and their avian kin to be the original twerkers.

Friday, August 30, 2013

A brief taste of Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan.

Certainly one of the highlights of the summer was my August 11th overnight stopover in Grasslands National Park, in southernmost Saskatchewan. It was my first stop on an Edmonton-to-Kingston (and back) road adventure.

Butted up against the Saskatchewan-Montana border, Grasslands is comprised of two separate blocks (East and West) which protect significantly large remnant tracts of mixed-grass prairie, a once vast North American ecotope. The park hosts a high number of species at risk, among them Greater Short-horned Lizard, Yellow-bellied RacerGreater Sage Grouse, Black-tailed Prairie Dog and re-introduced populations of Swift Fox and Black-footed Ferret.

My stay was short and sweet. I accessed the west block through the small town of Val Marie where the friendly and knowledgable Parks Canada interpretive staff got me oriented to the area. The tiny town site is quaint and quiet. In the middle of the day, Common Nighthawks were hawking for insects at eye level along the main street.

In the late afternoon I drove from Val Marie along the Ecotour Route to the Frenchman Valley campground. Along the way I encountered scads of songbirds. Particularly numerous were flocks of Vesper Sparrows, Chestnut-collared Longspurs and Lark Buntings. A dark phased Swainson's Hawk didn't mind me stopping to snap a photo.

The thinly populated Frenchman Valley campground perfectly suited our needs. Our dog, Molly, found a playmate in an adjacent site - just what she needed after ten or so hours on the road. The limitless prairie landscape and a quiet punctuated only now-and-then by meadowlark song were just fine by me. We slept well.

We awoke to a brief and rich pre-dawn chorus of birds, perhaps surprising given the lateness of the breeding season. Just outside the tent, recently fledged Western Meadowlarks and Lark Buntings begged food from their parents.

I packed up the car and then backtracked along the Ecotour Route through several Black-tailed Prairie Dog towns, where many of the park's more charismatic birds and mammals can be easily seen from the roadway. The Prairie Dogs are particularly noteworthy as Grasslands is home to the only wild population of the species in Canada.

There was much activity in the area. High overhead, male Sprague's Pipits serenaded the prairie with their otherworldly cascade of descending notes. Earthbound songsters included many male Baird's Sparrows which seemed more numerous and more easily observed than I found them to be in Alberta.

Also notable in the dogtown area were an overflying Ferruginous Hawk, at least seven Burrowing Owls, and active pair of American Badgers.

I was sorry to leave dog town after such a short visit but I had to push on.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

What's flying at Elk Island? July 4, 2013 Edition.

This week the evening skies are swarming with Variable Darners (Aeshna interrupta), large dragonflies whose mass emergence was triggered by the recent hot spell. 

What's to like about them? Lots! Not only is this one of the largest and most charismatic insects in the park, it also puts in long hours gobbling up many of the flies (mosquitoes, horse flies and deer flies) that bother some human visitors to the park.

In turn, these abundant dragons may themselves become food for insectivorous birds - Merlin, American Kestrel, Franklin's Gull, Black Tern, Eastern Kingbird, Purple Martin and others - that forage in Elk Island National Park's mosaic of natural habitats.

When they're not looking for food, these dragonflies are relentlessly working to secure a future generation of Variable Darners. Watch for mated pairs flying in tandem near the shores of Astotin Lake or for females laying eggs on emergent aquatic plants, just below the waterline.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Notes on the charismatic falcons visiting an Alberta grain terminal

I've recently become acquainted with a remarkable drama that plays out, perhaps daily, at the Alberta Grain Terminal (Alberta Terminals Ltd.) in Edmonton, against the backdrop of the harsh prairie winter.
Feb. 8, 2013, Courtesy of Charles McDonald
The life-and-death stakes for the actors couldn't be higher but on a given day the outcome for individuals - prey, predator, and observer - is uncertain. Many, many hours may pass while several thousand Rock Pigeons peacefully pursue their interests. Over a span of several days there are some more inevitable results: Rock Pigeons will be killed, falcons will eat and the attending humans will witness multiple spectacular encounters, the kind most of us would consider ourselves fortunate to behold just once, ever.

Often in attendance are some excellent photographers, but I'm not one of them. My skills and gear are better suited to setting the scene. If it's eye-popping photos you're after, you may want to skip down to the end of this post where you'll find samples and links to photo collections of Edmonton's finest falcon photographers.

The Scene: The Alberta Grain Terminal (53.584336, -113.547914) towers 43 m. over a low-lying industrial area beside the Yellowhead Highway and the C.N. Rail line. Grain and canola seed are spilled during the transfer between the rail cars and storage facility and this attracts a lot of Rock Pigeons which in turn draw in a variety of predators. The best vantage point lies to the south in a parking area outside the chain link fence securing the Edmonton Police impound lot.

Renowned Alberta naturalist Jim Lange, then an employee of the Canadian Nation Railroad, was the first to note the presence of hunting falcons at the terminal a decade ago. He has generously provided some historical perspective.

Jim notes:

The falcons have appeared every winter since 1993. I do not believe that the falcons were in Edmonton prior to that time as the job I had with CN in the Walker Yard was in the flight path of the falcons traveling towards the 97th St. area and I would certainly have noticed them. We saw Merlin and Snowy Owls frequently but no large falcons.

Jim coauthored, with Dick Dekker, a paper characterizing the hunting behaviour of Prairie Falcons and Gyrfalcons at the AGT:
Dekker, D. and J. Lange. 2001. Hunting habits and success rates of Gyrfalcons (Falco rusticolus) and Prairie Falcons (Falco mexicanus) preying on feral pigeons (Rock Doves, Columba livia) in Edmonton, Alberta. Canadian Field-Naturalist 115:395-401.
The Players: (a) Rock Pigeon: These get top billing. They're impossible to count but at a given moment several thousand birds may be present at the terminal taking advantage of the abundant food and relative warmth of the building's south face. Thousands more may use the site: loose flocks of birds continuously arrive and depart. The arrival of a falcon typically results in the sudden flight of multiple, characteristically compact flocks of pigeons from the roost. The sky overhead seems filled with birds.

During my time at the terminal I've been reminded that Rock Pigeons are exceptionally good fliers. They're not just strong and fast. Most often a pigeon will respond precisely to an attacking falcon with a life-saving change in speed and direction.

Rock Pigeons and falcons have been evolutionary dance partners for a very, very long time.

The Players: (b) Gyrfalcon: With an average weight of 1,450 g., a Gyrfalcon has no trouble carrying and possessing a Rock Pigeon (up to 380 g.). At least three different gray-phased birds, two adults and an immature, have been seen at the terminal this winter. Their appearance can be very fleeting: a Gyrfalcon will sometimes pick off an unwary pigeon and fly off into the distance before the flock and the photographers can react. Other attacks may last several minutes. I recently watched a large (female?) Gyrfalcon capture a pigeon and carry it to a perch on east face, out of sight. Twenty-or-so minutes later, she flew into view, this time with an obviously full crop, and coursed back and forth through the frantic blizzard of Rock Pigeons, before disappearing to the south.

The Players: (c) Prairie Falcon: On average, they weigh 550 g, not much more than their intended prey, and this has very significant consequences. I was lucky enough to view multiple attacks at mid-day last Friday. My friends Don and Charles stayed longer and saw four kills by the Prairie Falcon, each preceded by multiple ascents, pivots and stoops countered by wheeling evasions by tight flocks of pigeons.

Why would Prairie Falcon have to kill three or four times its weight in prey in a single afternoon? Meet the rest of the cast.

The Players: (d) Common Raven:  Several Common Ravens are always present, often roosting on the building only metres from a row of pigeons. Usually even a close fly-by doesn't cause panic but occasionally a raven will try to snatch a healthy pigeon.

Jim Lange:

On two occasions I had fellow workers there describe Ravens actively hunting down and killing pigeons while in flight. I watched them finish off one on the ground that they had already wounded and were searching for.
Courtesy of Don Delaney.
At the top of the food chain a successful predator or scavenger must also defend its meal from rival guild members. Alas, the Prairie Falcon we observed, perhaps a smaller male,  could at best descend to the ground or a low rooftop with its kill where it was soon forced to surrender its meal to the ravens. Sometimes a pitched falcon-on-raven chase would follow but inevitably the Prairie Falcon would have to rest and hunt again.

It was evident that the presence of Common Ravens at the grain terminal makes life much more difficult for Prairie Falcons, perhaps disproportionately so for males, which are significantly smaller. It doesn't appear that ravens and Gyrfalcons take much notice of each other although Jim Lange observed:

As for the Ravens stealing the prey, both the Prairie and Gyrfalcons were regularly carrying their pigeons all the way the centre of the City Centre Airport to avoid conflict.  

The Players: (e) the photographers: I've met a couple of the local photographers who have put in the time and practice to capture some remarkable images. I'm in awe of their work. The action unfolds so quickly - it's got to be one of the fastest pursuits in nature - usually hundreds of metres away. The falcon is but one of thousands of fast-moving dots overhead. It's not easy to put a streaking falcon in the view finder behind a hand-held 500 mm lens. I've tried.

Don Delaney, who introduced me to this spectacle, is also a very keen student of falcon behaviour.  Please visit his galleries on Flick'r to see his growing collection of extraordinary actions shots of GyrfalconPrairie Falcon, evasive Rock Pigeons and other wildlife. Note that each of Don's photos posted to Flick'r is accompanied, in the comment stream, by additional (amazing) photos from the sequence. He has generously shared some of his shots and comments below.

I'll let Don take it from here:

The Gyrfalcons and Prairie Falcons deliver a killing bite to the head moments after the strike. It was exciting to catch that action.
Feb. 10, 2012, courtesy of Don Delaney.
Prairie Falcon delivering a killing bite.
Feb. 8, 2013. courtesy of Don Delaney.
I was very fortunate to capture two Gyrfalcons in one frame.
Feb. 9, 2013, courtesy of Don Delaney
I think these are two female Gyrfalcons. The males are considerably smaller, and males are rarely reported here.
Feb. 9, 2013, courtesy of Don Delaney
Feb 11, 2013, courtesy of Don Delaney.
Charles McDonald, another Edmonton resident, has also taken stellar photos of Gyrfalcon, Prairie Falcon and Northern Goshawk in recent weeks.

Like Don, Charles offers some samples and commentary. Thanks Charles:

To me photographing the Falcons hunting at the grain terminal is one of the most challenging aspects of bird photography I've encountered so far. These birds can be extremely fast as they make a kill which can be quite a challenge to track and follow them with the camera as it enters the flock. The tremendous action is a sight to behold and it's most rewarding to capture a beautiful image from the spectacle.

This was my first ever encounter with this Northern Goshawk. I was very glad just to a couple of shots of as it came out of nowhere and snatched a Rock Pigeon and quickly left the area. A very fast and skillful hunter!
Feb. 3, 2013, courtesy of Charles McDonald
Another favorite of mine from the grain terminal for the context of the image. After numerous attempts the Prairie Falcon makes off with it's kill while the rest of the Rock Pigeons continue to panic in the background.
Feb. 8, 2013, courtesy of Charles McDonald
This is one of my favorite images from the grain terminal. I was fortunate enough to have this one fly almost over head just after it caught a Rock Pigeon. This image clearly shows the death bite from the Gyrfalcon.
Feb. 10, 2013, courtesy of Charles McDonald
Raymond Lee of Edmonton has also captured some outstanding images at the Alberta Grain Terminal. You can view more of his fine work here.

Raymond writes:

What kept me from traveling hundreds of kilometers looking for owls during my free time was the hunting action of the falcons at the Alberta Grain Terminal. It is so addictive to watch and photograph. With a decent camera and a telephoto lens, one can bring home some nice falcon in flight photos if the raptor is flying at a reasonable distance. A capture of the falcon catching its prey or flying off with a prey in its talons is a huge bonus.

This photo is my favourite capture! The action happened directly above my head. The trail of feathers resembles an aircraft falling apart in an aerial combat. Every time I look at this photo, I can feel as if the collision had just happened a second or two ago.
Courtesy of Raymond Lee.
Prairie Falcon hunting.
Courtesy of Raymond Lee.
Prairie Falcon hunting.
Courtesy of Raymond Lee.
Adult Gyrfalcon.
Courtesy of Raymond Lee.
Juvenile Gyrfalcon.
Courtesy of Raymond Lee.
  • Many thanks to Jim Lange who discovered these on-goings and has shared his observations with the local naturalist community.
  • Again I'd like to thank Don DelaneyCharles McDonald and Raymond Lee for sharing their experiences and photos.

  • Dekker, D. and J. Lange. 2001. Hunting habits and success rates of Gyrfalcons (Falco rusticolus) and Prairie Falcons (Falco mexicanus) preying on feral pigeons (Rock Doves, Columba livia) in Edmonton, Alberta. Canadian Field-Naturalist 115:395-401. Accessible here.

Spectacular photos by some strangers:

Some interesting pigeon and falcon video from the BBC:

Monday, January 28, 2013

Awesome Evening Grosbeaks!

Evening Grosbeaks are ongoing, welcome visitors to our backyard feeders. The first photo in the series was taken a few years ago by Martha near Burleigh Falls, ON. I snapped the last four shots yesterday morning. The current flock size varies from day-to-day. Sometimes there may be only three or four, on other days there may be more than forty. What a sight!

Check out this ongoing research into five "types" of Evening Grosbeak - we thought that Alberta EVGRs sounded different from those in the east.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Owls near Fort Saskatchewan

Since arriving in Alberta a few months ago we've seen more owls than we'd seen outside of province in the previous five years. It's been great! On Dec 1st we participated in a day-long owl prowl with about 20 cold-hardy members of the Edmonton Nature Club though the farmland around Fort Saskatchewan. Our sharp-eyed leader Gerald Romanchuk guided us to eight Snowy Owls. Most appeared to be hatch year birds.

I bravely snapped the first photo through our windshield while the Edmonton owl warriors were pummelled by howling north winds and snow pellets. Go warriors!

Since then, we've randomly encountered more than a dozen Snowies in the same area.

The plot of Snowy Owl sightings submitted to eBird this month reveals a widespread movement of birds into settled regions of southern Canada and the northern United States.
The winter owl highlight for us (so far) occurred at dusk on December 12th. While I was driving along a township road I caught a glimpse, barely, of something small and owl-like beside the road (see road view in the following photo). I wasn't especially excited because his happens to me so often. Sometimes I stop to investigate and it invariably turns out to be a snagged plastic bag, an old wasp nest, gall, burl or bunion - never an owl. Most often I just keep driving, because I'm already late for something. This time I was early (!) so I turned the vehicle around, parked and found myself gobsmacked to be looking into the disapproving eyes of a Boreal Owl. Very cool! I think I was very fortunate to find one sitting on such an exposed perch. The bird remained in that spot for the next hour, long enough for me to return with Martha. We haven't seen it since.
More reliable is a Great Horned owl that frequents our back yard.

There will be more owl content in the coming months as we've adopted a couple of Nocturnal Owl Survey routes near our home. Woo whoooOOO!