Birding Southern Alberta

June 4 – After two busy, but much enjoyed days at home, I flew from Kelowna to Calgary on the morning of June 3. In the afternoon, a group of 7 Limosa participants arrived at the airport from the U.K. eager for some prairie birding. On the morning of June 4 we headed south of Calgary to the fantastic birding location of Frank Lake. As we made our way towards Frank Lake, various pools and ponds diverted our attention as they were full of waterfowl such as Cinnamon and Blue-winged teal, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, Lesser Scaup, and much more.

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Pair of Blue-winged Teal, amongst many other ducks at Frank Lake, near Calgary, AB. June 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

Once at Frank Lake, we bumped along the gravel road towards the hide at the N.E. corner of the lake. Along the way we had great views of Tree Swallows sitting on fenceposts next to their next boxes. Savannah and Clay-colored sparrows, two very common grassland sparrow species, were noted first along this drive. Red-winged and the fabulous Yellow-headed blackbird were everywhere.

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Red-winged Blackbirds are ultra common throughout southern Alberta. This nice male was at Frank Lake, AB. June 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

Thousands of Franklin’s Gulls flew over marshes, many of them carrying nesting material which they took down into the reedbeds. White-faced Ibis, a very scarce and local bird in Canada, can be found at only a few reliable locations, and one is Frank Lake. I estimated there were about 75 White-faced Ibis present today. Black-crowned Night-Herons were present, and one even sat on a post not far away from us. From the hide we watched dozens of Eared Grebes, Ruddy Ducks, Redheads, Bufflehead, Lesser Scaup, and much more out on the water. There were a few Western Grebes around, but I could spot no Clark’s today. Distant views of Double-crested Cormorants were obtained, though we could do with a closer look at this species, which is not found in the U.K. We enjoyed great views of two wetland specialists this morning, the first being a Marsh Wren that sat atop the reeds and chattered away at us. The second was a Sora that was just out walking around at the edge of the reeds in full view! Shorebirds we tallied here included Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Spotted Sandpiper, Wilson’s Phalarope and Willet.

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Many Eared Grebes were noted at Frank Lake, AB. today. Jun 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

We made our way back into High River for lunch, then returned to Frank Lake in the afternoon. At the south end of the lake there were many birds present, including dozens of Black Terns that were foraging low over the water, picking insects or something right off the surface of the lake. There were 7 Red-necked Phalaropes here too, a bit of a surprise, as I thought they would have already migrated through. Two Marbled Godwits chased one another about in the skies above the lake, calling all the while. Our first Canvasback and Green-winged Teal added to our already bulging waterfowl list. Even though it was sunny and warm, there was a breeze which must have kept most of the butterflies away. We did see a Common Ringlet in the grass however, and some unidentified ‘sulphur’ sp. Mammals were a bit thin on the ground, though we did tally a couple of Muskrats.

June 5 -It was a chilly morning as we made our way west of Calgary towards Cochrane. But that was soon forgotten once we laid eyes on a pair of Mountain Bluebirds along Horse Creek Road. The marshes of Horse Creek Road were alive with activity. We had good looks at an Alder Flycatcher here. Also seen very well were both Nelson’s and Le conte’s sparrows. Wilson’s Snipe seemed to be everywhere, but one of our very best birds here was a Prairie Falcon that soared right overhead. I heard a Yellow Rail ‘tic tic tic’ ing away in the distant marsh. Yellow Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, and Lincoln’s Sparrow were also all seen, while a little farther down the road we located an Eastern Phoebe, a Blue Jay and Tennessee Warblers. Thanks to Thor Manson who was also in the area and directed me to a couple of interesting species!

After lunch in Cochrane, we made our way over to Bear Hill, where amongst the mixed coniferous forest we tracked down Mountain Chickadees, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, several Gray Jays and a Red-breasted Nuthatch, as well as ouf first Swainson’s Thrush. White-throated Sparrow popped up right in front of us at one point. A Northern Flicker gave us fleeting glimpses, and I’m always intrigued by how excited foreigners get when they see their first flicker. We returned to Calgary for one last evening.

June 6 – We left Calgary this morning and headed N.E. towards Drumheller, a lovely little city situated in the ‘badlands’ along the Red Deer River. Along the way we paused at one of the many ponds where we saw a gorgeous Red-necked Grebe in breeding plumage. The ‘Brits’ were over the moon, since they only see this bird back home in winter plumage.

After we picked up our lunch and grabbed some coffee at Tim Horton’s in Drumheller we made our way to Handhills Lake. Along the way we spotted our first Vesper Sparrow of the trip, as well as a fluffy Great Horned Owl chick sitting atop a brush pile alongside the road. We got out of the van and the baby hopped down and out of sight, but we then found the adult Great Horned watching from nearby.

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Pale adult ‘prairie’ race Great Horned Owl near Handhills Lake, AB. Youngster was nearby. June 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

Once we reached the lake we took a walk along the shore hoping for Piping Plover. Unfortunately high water levels had covered the prime habitat for the plovers and virtually no shorebirds, other than a couple of Spotted Sandpipers were noted this morning. Still, we had some good birds. On the lake were many ducks and grebes, with two new additions for our trip list; American Wigeon and Horned Grebe. In aspen groves along the edge of the lake we caught glimpses of Least Flycatcher and saw well an ‘Eastern’ Warbling Vireo, a Red-eyed Vireo, two Cedar Waxwings and a pair of Yellow Warblers. We found a Clay-colored Sparrow nest containing four little blue eggs in the grass. We were careful, of course, not to trod on the nest. A brilliant male Baltimore Oriole popped up and sang for us as we enjoyed his colors through the scope. It was interesting to find the shed antlers of a huge moose out in the grasslands here as well. We picked up the antler and couldn’t imagine having to carry two of these things on our heads for a whole season! We had a picnic lunch before turning around and heading back towards Drumheller. On the way back we saw again the Great Horned Owls. Also nice to see was this Loggerhead Shrike!

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Loggerhead Shrike near Handhills Lake, AB. June 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

The afternoon was spent at the Royal Tyrell Museum looking at dinosaur fossils. Few birds were noted here, though we did have good scope views of a Rock Wren singing from an exposed rock at the top of a hill.

June 7 -This morning left Drumheller, heading east through the lovely Red Deer River Valley, where we passed through the little settlement of Dorothy. There was an old grain elevator standing tall here, which made for a rather scenic early morning photo with the rolling hills of the badlands in the background.

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The scene in Dorothy, Alberta. June 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

We explored a number of roads today, most of which were accessed from Hwy 36, south of Hanna. A few of the highlight species we managed to track down included singing Sprague’s Pipit, several Loggerhead Shrikes, and perhaps the most exciting of all, a gorgeous adult Ferruginous Hawk carrying off a recently killed Richardson’s Ground-Squirrel. Several Pronghorn were spotted today and we were all quite energized by seeing North America’s fastest mammal.

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Pronghorn near Hanna, Alberta. June 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

The afternoon, at Dinosaur Provincial Park, was great. We had a lovely picnic lunch near the campground, where as we ate our sandwiches, several Common Nighthawks flew overhead. Also interrupting lunch break were House Wren, Western Wood-Pewee, Swainson’s Thrush, Least Flycatcher, Baltimore Oriole and Yellow Warbler. After a short drive around the ‘Badlands’ loop, during which time we saw Lark Sparrows and a singing Rock Wren, we then strolled along the Cottonwood Trail.

Lark Sparrow
Lark Sparrow at Dinosaur Provincial Park, AB. June 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

Along the Cottonwood Trail we tracked down several very secretive Brown Thrashers until we finally saw one well. Warbling Vireos, of the ‘Eastern’ race were singing along the trail, along with Gray Catbirds, Western Wood-Pewees, and Yellow Warblers. We had our first of two ‘hirundines’ here, Violet-green and N. Rough-winged swallows. Before we left the park we stopped for one last scenic view from the viewpoint at the park entry gates. It was a breathtaking scene!

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Dinosaur Provincial Park, AB. June 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

Chris Charlesworth

 

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