Southern Alberta with Avocet Tours, May 2017

Day 1, May 20 – Myself and a group of 7 tours from British Columbia, Alberta, Switzerland and Massachusetts gathered this evening and we went out for dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant in the vicinity of the Calgary Airport, before heading to bed.

Day 2, May 21 – Chomping at the bit to get some prairie birding in, we made our way south through Calgary via the Deerfoot Trail to High River. We then headed east towards Frank Lake, pausing along the way to check out various pools and puddles which held a

Female Wilson’s Phalarope. Frank Lake, Alberta. May 2017. Photo: Chris Charlesworth.

number of different ducks; Blue-winged Teal, Cinnamon Teal, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Mallard, Gadwall and more. Our first Wilson’s Phalaropes were tallied on these pools, as were American Avocets, Killdeer and Spotted Sandpiper. We turned off towards Frank Lake and sparrows kept interrupting our progress as we made our way to the bird blind. Most were Clay-colored Sparrows, with Savannah Sparrows mixed in for good measure. Brown-headed Cowbirds and Yellow-headed Blackbirds were common along the approach to the blind. Franklin’s Gulls, White-faced Ibis and Forster’s Terns flew about, while swarms of Tree Swallows with a few Barn Swallows caught bugs on the wing. Two or three Gray Partridge burst into flight from the grass, one landing nice and close to us, a lifer for Lin. In the marsh were chattering Marsh Wrens, and whinnying Soras, as well as singing Common Yellowthroats. By now the wind had picked up so we happily took shelter in the blind for a while, as we scanned the lake. Ruddy

Yellow-headed Blackbird singing its lovely song. Frank Lake, AB. May 2017. Photo: Chris Charlesworth.

Ducks were seen not far away, as were both Western and Eared grebes. A few Black Terns were seen feeding in a distant corner of the lake, barely visible through the scope. Bird of the day, in my books, was a Prairie Falcon that passed by our van quite closely, as it flew along with some large prey, which, unfortunately, it dropped.

After lunch in High River, we chased down a Lincoln’s Sparrow behind the parking lot, and then we headed back out towards Frank Lake. Along a range road north of the lake we searched for raptors, having some luck, as we found several nesting Swainson’s Hawks. Also, Red-tailed Hawks were noted flying overhead and I spotted a nest with an adult and two fluffy young Great Horned Owls. Vesper Sparrows and Western Kingbirds were new trip birds as well. Janet suggested we try an area out toward Brant, so off we

Great Horned Owls. Frank Lk, AB. May 2017. Photo: Chris Charlesworth.

went. We didn’t make it far, however, since I nearly ran over an Upland Sandpiper, so I stopped, backed up, and low and behold, there were 5 of the little suckers out in a field. Great scope views were had by all. Down the road towards Brant, spotting our first Northern Harriers of the tour. Later, a Coyote dashed across the road far in front of us, and Monica spotted a pair of lovely baby Great Horned Owls roosting in the trees not far from the road. Back to Calgary we headed, and as we had dinner, we tallied up our species list for the day. We had seen just under 70 species, a formidable total.

Day 3, May 22 – From ‘Cowtown’ we headed west towards the towering Rocky Mountains to the city of Cochrane. We picked up lunch and drove north on the Horse Creek Road to wetlands, excellent for birding. These wetlands are rich in birds, especially sparrows, and we had half a dozen or so species of sparrows here including Le Conte’s, Swamp and White-throated sparrows. Yellow Rails were ticking from various points in the marsh, but of course, we didn’t see any. Soras were also calling intermittently, while Wilson’s Snipe seemed to be everywhere. Cinnamon Teal and Blue-winged Teal both showed off well, with the male Blue-winged in perfect lighting, showing a lovely purplish sheen to its head. Other species noted included Yellow

Cape May Warbler. Cochrane, AB. May 2017. Photo: Chris Charlesworth.

Warbler, Least Flycatcher, Western Wood-Pewee and a nice adult Peregrine Falcon perched in a nearby aspen. We carried on down the road, and I spotted a large cow Moose trotting across a field. Mule Deer were also new for the trip mammal list. We stopped near a community center to look for Eastern Phoebe and as soon as we got out of the vehicle we heard one singing. We got side-tracked by other things like Tennessee Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Mountain Chickadee, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and a stunning male Cape May Warbler. By the time we refocused on finding the phoebe it was not to be seen again. Down at a little boggy area we stopped again and were treated to nice views of White-throated Sparrow, and a distant male Purple Finch. We had lunch and then made our way west towards Grand Valley.

White-throated Sparrow. Photo: Chris Charlesworth.

Along Grand Valley Road our main objective was to find a Great Gray Owl. Despite a good effort, we did not find one today. We did, however get a number of other nice species such as Townsend’s Solitaire, a male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and a lifer for Josh, a Boreal Chickadee. I caught a glimpse of a Snowshoe Hare dashing across an open lane in the forest. A couple of Solitary Sandpipers flew over the treetops, calling, our first and only for the tour. Before we left the area we tried one more time for the phoebe, but it was nowhere to be found. We took a walk through an aspen forest and got three new additions to the trip list, Warbling Vireo, Hermit Thrush and ‘Red-shafted’ Northern Flicker.

Day 4, May 23 – This morning we left Calgary behind us and followed the Trans Canada Hwy east to the prairie farm town of Brooks. As we stood in the restaurant picking up

Sprague’s Pipit. Brooks, AB. May 2017. Photo: Chris Charlesworth.

our lunch, a group of 13 American White Pelicans sailed by outside. We headed south of Brooks and explored some prairie range roads where the birding was very good. Our first Ferruginous Hawk, otherwise coined a Ferengi, by other members of the group, was a nice surprise as it circled above. Clay-colored, Savannah and Vesper sparrows, sang loudly, along with Western Meadowlarks from all directions. Overhead I could hear the jingling song of a Sprague’s Pipit and after a little searching we spotted it doing a flight song high overhead. Just after I finished saying ‘that’s about the best look you’ll get at a Sprague’s Pipit’, the bird dropped like a stone from the sky and landed about 30 feet from us in plain view, while foraging for about 5 minutes.

The marsh at the entrance to Kinbrook Island Provincial Park was teeming with activity this morning. Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Marsh Wrens, Song Sparrow and Common Yellowthroat all sang loudly from the reeds. The first Red-necked Grebes we’ve seen thus far were here this morning, and the usual variety of ducks with Mallard, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Redhead, Canvasback, and Lesser Scaup were observed. In the campground we had lunch and then went for a stroll through the cottonwoods where we found several smashing Baltimore Orioles. Both Eastern and Western kingbirds were common and as Art commented, it was nice to see

Baltimore Oriole. Alberta. Photo: Chris Charlesworth.

them side by side. Yellow Warblers, House Wrens, Common Grackles and a few Swainson’s Thrushes were spotted by our group members, and Art found the first White-crowned Sparrow of the tour.

Following the Trans Canada east to Tilley, we checked a range road, excellent for prairie birds, and we were not disappointed. We must have seen and heard about 15 Chestnut-collared Longspurs here this afternoon. Just as we arrived a handsome Ferruginous Hawk flew by, showing off all its regal features. We walked down towards a wetland and upon arrival noted another Sprague’s Pipit, this one drinking from the edge of the pond. Also drinking from the pond were Chestnut-collared Longspurs. Shorebirds were the real highlight here, with 20+ Wilson’s Phalaropes and close to a dozen Red-necked Phalaropes being the real treats, along with a breeding

Chestnut-collared Longspur. Tilley, AB. Photo: Chris Charlesworth.

plumage adult Black-bellied Plover. Semipalmated Sandpipers numbered close to 2 dozen, as did Marbled Godwits. There were several American Avocets about, and Spotted Sandpipers were calling. Two Pronghorn, North America’s fastest land mammal, somewhere in between an antelope and a deer, lazed about in the grasses, while Richardson’s Ground-Squirrels popped in and out of their burrows.

Our last stop of the day was at Tillebrook Provincial Park. It was a lovely afternoon with sunshine and temperatures in the upper 30 degrees Celsius. We hoped to find a Brown Thrasher here, and after a short walk, we did just that! I heard, and shortly thereafter spotted, a singing male Blackpoll Warbler in the trees, a nice late migrant. American Goldfinches eventually showed themselves, and we had a lovely pure male ‘Yellow-shafted’ Northern Flicker here. We headed to Brooks, checked in to our hotel and had a tasty dinner at Boston Pizza.

Day 5, May 24 – Our first birding destination this morning was Dinosaur Provincial Park, north of Brooks. Along the way we had our first Loggerhead Shrike of the tour, and our first Say’s Phoebe. When approaching Dinosaur Park from the south over the prairie, one would never know there was an area of stunning badlands tucked away down along the

Loggerhead Shrike. Alberta. Photo: Chris Charlesworth.

Red Deer River. We stopped first at the top of the park to drink in the scenery from a viewpoint. Our first Rock Wren of the tour sang from the peak of a rock, and both Vesper and Lark sparrows hopped about on the path next to us. Ominous weather finally caught up with us and we birded from the car for a bit as we drove through the badlands, spotting Mountain Bluebirds, Western Meadowlarks, Violet-green Swallows, and Lark Sparrows. The rain let up a bit so we ventured out along the Cottonwood Flats Trail. A few sprinkles, and a steady wind, made finding birds a little difficult, but we did see our first Spotted Towhees of the tour here, along with Yellow Warbler, Least Flycatcher and Brown Thrasher. Before we left the area we had one last little stroll along a creek where we enjoyed lovely views of a male Common Yellowthroat.

We had lunch in the van, during another shower, at the rest stop along Hwy 1, just E. of Tilley. After we were done munching, the rain had mostly stopped so we walked over to the edge of the fence to scan Tilley ‘O’ Marsh. There were quite a few birds here

Common Yellowthroat. Photo: Chris Charlesworth.

including Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Black-bellied Plover, Killdeer, Wilson’s and Red-necked phalarope, Willet, Marbled Godwit, and best of all, a group of 40 or so Red Knots in stunning breeding plumage! Nice sighting Josh.

We made the drive east to Medicine Hat and then turned south towards our next destination, Cypress Hills Provincial Park. Along the way, two Long-billed Curlews vlew over the van and up a hill, new for the trip list. Upon arrival in Elkwater we stopped to check out a little pond and there were 6 species of swallows foraging here, including Barn, Bank, N. Rough-winged, Cliff, Violet-green and Tree swallows! A pair of Bufflehead were seen each time we passed by this pond as well. We explored the Spruce Coulee area this afternoon, and it was decidedly quiet out there, perhaps because of the wind. Nonetheless we did find some interesting birds, including Dusky Flycatchers, a species that reaches it’s easternmost Canadian range in Cypress Hills. A male American Redstart played hide and seek with us, eventually being seen by most of the group. While up on a trail I found several group members a Red Crossbill, and down by the reservoir Josh, Art and Monica had some White-winged Crossbills. A Ruffed Grouse was heard drumming in the woods along a small creek, and Monica caught a glimpse of the bird as it flew across the road. This evening we had a lovely dinner at the Camp Cook House restaurant.

Day 6, May 25 – Planned pre-breakfast birding at 5:30 AM did not go ahead this morning due to high winds and rain. We had breakfast and then started off towards the S.E.

Ferruginous Hawk. Alberta. Photo: Chris Charlesworth.

corner of Alberta and the Wild Horse area. The rain let up as we drove south, and we spotted several Ferruginous Hawks, as well as Swainson’s Hawks and Red-tailed Hawks, along the way. Pronghorn were also very common today and we probably saw 20-30 of these mammals out on their native habitat, the plains. As we turned off the highway onto a gravel range road, we began seeing interesting birds; Horned Larks, several Chestnut-collared Longspurs and eventually Monica spotted a McCown’s Longspur at the edge of a pond. Soon thereafter a male came and sat on the road right in front of the van. We carried on down the road, ‘kicking sparrows out from our boots’ as we went along, with Clay-colored, Savannah and Vesper sparrows everywhere, as well as Western Meadowlarks. We braved the strong winds and walked through the grasses in search of more sparrows and after a little searching we were rewarded with great views of both

Red-naped Sapsucker. Photo: Chris Charlesworth.

Baird’s Sparrow and Brewer’s Sparrows. Lark Buntings seemed to be everywhere today, on fence lines, on bushes, foraging on the ground and doing flight displays over the fields. A single Bobolink was the one and only one we had on the tour this year. In a wetland area there were great numbers of waterfowl and shorebirds. At the end of the day today we had tallied close to 100 species of birds!

Day 7, May 26 – At 5:30 AM several of us gathered for some early morning birding in the Cypress Hills area. We began with a trip out to the Fire Rock Campground where after a little searching we found our target, a Wild Turkey. The male strutted and gobbled away as he retreated into the woods. White-winged Crossbills again appeared in the spruce forests here, and we saw several Red-naped Sapsuckers noisily arguing with one another. On our way back towards town, we spotted a Belted Kingfisher along the lake, and we heard a Lazuli Bunting, but it wouldn’t show itself. Bird of the morning was a local rarity, a Sedge Wren, singing in the marsh next to Elkwater Lake. We had incredible views of this usually elusive species as it sang from the bushes next to the boardwalk. In

Sedge Wren. Elkwater Lake, Cypress Hills, AB. May 2017. Photo: Chris Charlesworth.

talking to local birders, this could be just the third record for the Cypress Hills area. As we were about to head to our next stop, a Caspian Tern flew high over the lake, new for our trip list. To finish off our morning we headed out towards Reesor Lake, spotting several Mountain Bluebirds along the way. Once there we had a few more new species such as a Veery and a very nice Alder Flycatcher.

After breakfast we returned briefly to the edge of Elkwater Lake, so the rest of the crew could see the Sedge Wren, and they all did. We left the Cypress Hills, and took gravel roads west through the rolling hills towards the towns of Manyberries and Etzikom. We stopped in at the north end of Pakowki Lake where there was quite a bit of action. Waterfowl were abundant, with Ring-necked Duck, Canvasback and Cinnamon Teal being highlights. Shorebirds were numerous, and we tallied our first Sanderlings of the

Lark Bunting. Alberta. Photo: Chris Charlesworth.

tour, though they were a bit distant. We had lunch at Pakowki before continuing on towards Writing on Stone Provincial Park. The scenery here, with the Milk River and magnificently eroded banks, was stunning on this sunny afternoon. The Sweetgrass Hills in Montana added a fine backdrop to the scene. There were not a load of birds here, and all of them we had already seen, but nonetheless there were Rock Wren, House Wren, Least Flycatcher, Yellow Warbler, American Goldfinch, Gray Catbird and several Northern Harriers sailing over the grasslands. Several Ring-necked Pheasants could be heard calling in the distance, and on our way out of the park, a male was spotting trotting along the fence beside the van. Also in the same area were two Gray Partridge. On our way to Lethbridge we stopped at a little side of the road pond where there were shorebirds, including 3 Dunlin, locally uncommon, and the only ones we got on our entire tour. We had dinner at the Casino in Lethbridge tonight, always an experience.

Day 8, May 27 – Our first stop this lovely morning was at Stirling Lake, south of Lethbridge. We stood on the viewing platform and amassed quite a nice list of birds. One species, new for the trip list, was Snow Goose. Three of them hid in the reeds at the edge of the lake. Other waterfowl were abundant here and we found a Blue-winged Teal nest with 5 eggs right beside the path. Shorebirds were scoped in a distant corner of the lake, and included Black-bellied Plover, American Avocet, Black-necked Stilt, Sanderling, Wilson’s Phalarope and an unidentified dowitcher. Quite a few White-faced Ibis were noted here, and Soras, again, could be heard whinnying from the marsh nearby, but remained elusive.

As we drove towards Waterton Park, the majestic Rocky Mountains got larger and larger as we neared them. A stop in Mountain View was entertaining, not only because we got our first House Finch of the tour, but also because a cattle drive came parading down the main street of town. Once at Waterton Park, we headed for a viewpoint overlooking

American Dipper. Waterton Park, AB. Photo: Chris Charlesworth.

Maskinonge Lake. Here, we had our first Common Loons, a pair in gorgeous breeding plumage, as well as distant Sandhill Crane and Black Tern. A drive through the bison paddock provided views of about  8 American Bison of pure stock. Lakes and ponds here had a few Barrow’s Goldeneye, and fence lines had Mountain Bluebirds. In the town of Waterton we visited Cameron Falls where a pair of American Dippers tended to a nest. Also here were our only Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels of the tour. Driving through town we encountered several groups of ‘Rocky Mountain’ Bighorn Sheep during our stay. We had lunch and then explored the bottom half of the Cameron Lake Road, since the top portion was closed, most likely due to lingering snow. We found four Black Bears on our drive, a rather large brown colored individual that was traveling along the side of the road as it grazed grass and dandelions, and a sow with two cubs. In the avian department, we enjoyed our first views of Townsend’s Warbler,

black bear
Black Bear. Waterton, AB. May 2017. Photo Chris Charlesworth.

Cassin’s Finch and Northern Waterthrush, and then our visit was interrupted by the appearance of a Black Bear that came quite close to us. Our final stop was at the Fire Rock Campground where, after a little patience, we finally got a nice view of a male MacGillivray’s Warbler. Also new here was Wilson’s Warbler, and we got repeat views of Mountain Chickadee, Warbling Vireo, Pine Siskin and Red-breasted Nuthatch. Our last full day in Alberta was topped off with a nice dinner before heading off for some well deserved rest.

cattle drive
Cattle drive in Mountain View, AB. May 2017. Photo: Chris Charlesworth

Day 9, May 28 – Our morning began early as we revisited Cameron Lake Road, targeting a few high elevation species. Our efforts were paid off with the likes of White-winged Crossbill, Pine Grosbeak, Boreal Chickadee, ‘Slate-co’ Fox Sparrow and some nice Varied Thrushes. We then headed for the Red Rocks Parkway, where a number of excellent bird species were noted including a male Calliope Hummingbird and a gorgeous male Lazuli

Lazuli Bunting. Chris Charlesworth.

Bunting. We got back into the van and began our return trip to town for breakfast. A brown colored Black Bear dashed across the road in front of us, exactly where we had walked 3 minutes before!

After breakfast we gathered our luggage and returned to Red Rocks, however we found the road was closed for a cycling event. Plan b took us to the Hay Barn area, a nice old growth patch of cottonwood bottomland forest. Veeries sang and one appeared for us, while a lovely male Black-headed Grosbeak sang from a high perch in a cottonwood, illuminate by the sun. Least Flycatchers were singing everywhere, as were Yellow Warblers and American Redstarts. It was really quite active with birds so we were well entertained for an hour while we waited for the parkway to open up. Once the cycling was done we headed up towards Red Rocks Canyon. On the way we paused so everyone, including any who didn’t come along for the pre-breakfast session, got to see the male Calliope Hummingbird,

American Redstart. Chris Charlesworth.

since he was still sitting on the same perch. A little farther up the road we found a stunning male Rufous Hummingbird sitting high on a cottonwood, watching over his patch of territory. High overhead, a Golden Eagle sailed by. We walked up the path at Red Rocks Canyon, admiring the inspiring scenery. A few last species, such as Western Tanager and a Pacific Wren were tallied here before we left the Rockies and made our way back to Calgary. We had seen close to 190 species on the trip and I think all of us would agree the trip was unforgettable.

Chris Charlesworth, Avocet Tours


One thought on “Southern Alberta with Avocet Tours, May 2017”

  1. Looks like a fantastic trip with great shots especially of hard to photograph birds like the sedge wren and sprague’s pipit
    great report Chris.

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