Southern Alberta ~ Part 1

June 2 – Arriving on their flight about an hour later than scheduled, the eight Limosa / Travelling Naturalist participants emerged from the arrivals hall at the Calgary Airport. We loaded into the van and made the short transfer to our hotel where we relaxed and had a nice dinner together for turning in for some much needed post-travel rest.
June 3 – After a delicious breakfast we loaded into the van and began the drive south of Calgary to Frank Lake. A steady rain fell as we travelled, giving all an uneasy feeling about how the weather might continue for the rest of the day. We popped into a gas station in the town of High River before making our way out towards Frank Lake. Various pools and ponds along the road delayed our arrival at the lake, but this was no problem, as long as the stops were producing birds. This being our first morning of the tour, everything was new. Waterfowl included Redhead, Canvasback, Lesser Scaup, Greater Scaup, Blue-winged and Cinnamon teal, Ruddy Duck, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler and more. Wilson’s Phalaropes in stunning breeding plumage foraged in pools right beside the road.In the reeds along the edges of one particular pond, our first Yellow-headed Blackbird was spotted. The birders all scrambled to get in position to see it from the van, and I assured them not to worry as we would soon be surrounded by Yellow-headed Blackbirds. There’s always something very special about the first one though. As we got closer to Frank Lake we paused to look at a brilliant male Tree Swallow sitting on a fence post near his next box. Savannah Sparrows sat on fence posts and sang bravely against the chilly weather. A Western Meadowlark perched on a fence post showing us his bright yellow breast. We walked down toward the lake and set up our scopes, adding dozens of birds to our list. There were hundreds of Eared Grebes, along with a few elegant Western Grebes.

Eared Grebe at Frank Lake, AB. June 2015. Chris Charlesworth
Eared Grebe at Frank Lake, AB. June 2015. Chris Charlesworth

White-faced Ibis were estimated to be over 500, a large number for this location, though this species is experiencing a range expansion. New waterfowl included American Wigeon and Bufflehead. A Marsh Wren put on a spectacular show for us as he alternated between building a nest and singing from the reeds right in front of us.

Marsh Wren at Frank Lake, Alberta. June 2015. Chris Charlesworth.
Marsh Wren at Frank Lake, Alberta. June 2015. Chris Charlesworth.

Dazzling Red-winged Blackbirds were common, and as I said there were loads of Yellow-headeds here too. Black-necked Stilts came in to check us out, and more Wilson’s Phalaropes vied for our attention. We made our way over to the hide, checking out some Brown-headed Cowbirds along the way. From the hide we had great point blank views of Eared Grebe, Ruddy Duck, Franklin’s Gull, White-faced Ibis, Forster’s Tern and much more. Before we left we scoured through the marsh looking for a Sora that was calling and eventually we had a couple of good, but brief views of it.
After lunch at Smitty’s in High Island we returned to the Frank Lake area, exploring a side road good for raptors. It was good indeed and we found several Swainson’s Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks and a single Ferruginous Hawk here!

Ferruginous Hawk near Frank Lake, Alberta. June 2015. Chris Charlesworth.
Ferruginous Hawk near Frank Lake, Alberta. June 2015. Chris Charlesworth.

Sparrows were plentiful too and we added Clay-colored and Vesper sparrow to the trip list. A pair of Gray Partridge slowly meandered off into the grass at the edge of the road. We then made our way to the south end of Frank Lake where ponds had some nice waders including Marbled Godwits, Willet, Black-necked Stilts and American Avocets. A female Northern Harrier flew low over the marsh with an entourage of harassing blackbirds. A Merlin made a quick pass low over the grass and scattered hundreds of blackbirds and assorted swallows as it disappeared over the hill. A nice ending to our birding day, as we made our way west from Frank Lake on a farm road I spotted a Great Horned Owl roosting in a big cottonwood. We got out of the van and had excellent scope views of this rather pale race of Great Horned Owl.

Great Horned Owl near Frank Lake, Alberta. June 2015.
Great Horned Owl near Frank Lake, Alberta. June 2015. Chris Charlesworth

A male Baltimore Oriole was singing his heart out here and was seen briefly by one or two as well. Back in Calgary we had a nice dinner watching the sun set over the foothills in the distance.
June 4 – Bright eyed and bushy tailed, so to speak we left our hotel after breakfast and made our way west towards the Rocky Mountains. Today we explored the area just west of Cochrane, including Ovan’s Marsh and the Grand Valley. This area is in the foothills of the mountains and the extensive mixed forests attract a host of relatively ‘eastern’ North American species. As soon as we began exploring Horse Ck Rd we began encountering gorgeous Mountain Bluebirds. At Ovan’s Marsh it took a little work, but eventually we had fantastic views of several sparrow species including two particularly elusive ones, the Le Conte’s and the Nelson’s sparrows.

Le Conte's Sparrow near Cochrane, Alberta. June 2015. Chris Charlesworth.
Le Conte’s Sparrow near Cochrane, Alberta. June 2015. Chris Charlesworth.

In the distance we were taunted by Yellow Rails as they called their incessant ticking calls. We knew we wouldn’t see them so no point in even trying. An Alder Flycatcher sang its distinctive song from atop a dead tree. On fence posts several Wilson’s Snipe posed nicely for the group. Several Coyotes were seen well today in the fields and grasslands near Cochrane.
Farther up Horse Ck Rd we paused to see an Eastern Phoebe near a log house. The phoebe showed nicely, but the real excitement was yet to come. Rod pointed out a large bird that moved through the trees. I got my bins on it and was quite surprised to see it was a Great Gray Owl! We repositioned ourselves and got incredible views of this highly sought-after northern owl.

Great Gray Owl near Cochrane, Alberta. June 2015. Chris Charlesworth.
Great Gray Owl near Cochrane, Alberta. June 2015. Chris Charlesworth.

After 20 minutes of viewing the bird we got distracted by Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers drumming on telephone poles nearby. Blue Jays called in the distance but remained unseen. A male Rose-breasted Grosbeak was seen very well however, in a lovely green deciduous tree beside the road. One final stop produced some more very nice birds, the best of which was a stunning male Cape May Warbler. Also seen here were a pair of White-throated Sparrows. Grumbling stomachs announced it was time for lunch so we returned to Cochrane and had some lunch.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker near Cochrane, AB. June 2015. Chris Charlesworth
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker near Cochrane, AB. June 2015. Chris Charlesworth

We had seen so much during the morning I decided to try a road I had never explored before through the Grand Valley. This turned out to be quite a good idea as we saw some more nice birds including Blue-headed Vireo, ‘Myrtle’ Yellow-rumped Warblers, Mountain Chickadees, Gray Jay, Dark-eyed Junco and a few others. At a lake we saw a couple of male Hooded Mergansers which were a nice treat and Lee pointed out three Bonaparte’s Gulls as they landed on the water. Almost every time we looked into the sky today there were Red-tailed Hawks and Swainson’s Hawks as this is a fantastic area for raptors. A herd of a dozen American Elk watched us from the top of a hill, while a White-tailed Deer ran swiftly through the grass, waving its white tail in the air. We began the trip back to Calgary just in times as a thunderstorm rolled in. The drive to the hotel was quite a wet one as heavy rain and small hail fell on the van. After dinner we watched as the local White-tailed Jackrabbit hopped in to make an appearance.

June 5 – Blue sky and sunshine greeted us this morning as we made our way east through Calgary and north towards Drumheller. In a field alongside the road a Long-billed Curlew provided our first new trip sighting of the day, with a Marbled Godwit in the background. Along fence posts were the usual Vesper Sparrows and Western Meadowlarks. We screeched to a halt when a male and 4 female Pronghorn Antelope were spotted in fields right next to the road. Although the Pronghorn is North America’s fastest mammal these particular Pronghorn slowly sauntered alongside the road.

Pronghorn near Drumheller, Alberta. June 2015. Chris Charlesworth.
Pronghorn near Drumheller, Alberta. June 2015. Chris Charlesworth.

We found ourselves in Drumheller at the bottom of the Red Deer Valley, surrounded by the ‘badlands’. After we picked up our lunch we made our way out to Handhills Lake. Along the way an American Badger crossed the road and stared at us periodically while running away from the big silver van. Numerous Swainson’s and Red-tailed hawks seem to be present at nearly every stop. In a grove of aspens we had lovely views of a male Baltimore Oriole as well as scope views of Least Flycatcher and House Wren. An ‘Eastern’ Warbling Vireo came in close to investigate us as well.

Stunning male Baltimore Oriole near Handhills Lake, Alberta. June 2015.
Stunning male Baltimore Oriole near Handhills Lake, Alberta. June 2015.

Once at Handhills Lake we watched a group of 40 or so Cedar Waxwings feeding in trees nearby. A nice Loggerhead Shrike put in an appearance along the entrance road here as well. Out on the lake were numerous Eared Grebes, along with a few Gadwall, American Wigeon, Mallard, Blue-winged Teal and the like. California and Franklin’s gulls were noted in small numbers. It was somewhat quiet here indeed so we returned to Drumheller and on our return trip we saw a nice White-tailed Deer. Once back in Drumheller we checked into our hotel and then made our way out to the Royal Tyrell Museum of Paleontology where we spent a couple of hours exploring the excellent exhibits. In the parking area of the museum there were numerous Richardson’s Ground-Squirrels being chased about by school kids.

Chris Charlesworth


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