Thursday, March 29, 2012

Eastward Bound......

A single trip report would be a little on the long side, so I am going to post my recent trip in three pieces, this being the first.

I will skip over the boredom of the overnight bus trip from Victoria to Penticton, the ferry company of a Londoner who drank an entire bottle of wine on the deck of the boat while regaling me with tales of a vagabond life, and the sleep deprivation that followed, and get right to the story.

I met Russ Cannings at the Pentiction bus station at 6:00am on March 22, having travelled through the night, and we immediately headed north and east, with a particular set of targets. Throughout the Okanagan Valley, we saw good numbers of gulls, mostly Ring-billed Gulls, but didn't start seriously birding until we hit the mountains near the Alberta border, as we were both looking to make the most of our time, as well as add to our Alberta lists. The snow picked up with elevation, and we ended up making few stops until we hit Banff, home of our first target for the trip.

Russ had tracked down a couple of "hotspots" along Icefield Parkway, which runs through Banff National Park from Lake Louise up to Jasper, and we spent an hour and a bit checking these spots, hoping to make out a white shape among the white snow. Having no luck, we turned back, intent on heading for Calgary. Partway back down the Icefield Parkway, and ten kilometers or so from any of the hotspots, a hillside caught our attention and we pulled over to look. It wasn't long before I heard a call, and spotted a perfectly winter plumaged White-tailed Ptarmigan against the snow. The bird was one of a group of three that we saw, and there were two more calling from up the hill.

We enjoyed great views of the ptarmigan and then, mindful of the time, continued on our way, opting for Highway 1a, which passed though an array of incredible habitat, seemingly devoid of birds. We lost light by the time we reached Ilya Povalyaev's house in Calgary, and planned out our approach for the next few days.

The next morning found Russ and I at Inglewood Bird Sanctuary in SE Calgary, where we had a number of birds in mind, most notably ducks, gulls and geese, and the resident Northern Goshawks. The river through the sanctuary had a large number of birds, mostly Canada Geese, California Gulls, Herring Gulls, etc. We were both scanning the birds when Russ called out that he had found a bird neither of us had thought to expect. Careful looks confirmed a Lesser Black-backed Gull in amongst the others, and standing out by virtue of its much darker back.

After hearing of the sighting, Ilya and Yousif Attia joined us in admiring the bird, though none of us did any better than a record shot of the bird, seen here just behind the rear end of the Canada Goose. A couple of other Calgary birders also came running when they heard about the bird, and we stayed to point it out before heading on to our next destination.

We headed south to the town of High River next, hoping to catch up with Alberta's long-staying second record of Red-bellied Woodpecker. Despite meeting a gentleman at Inglewood who let us know that a group of birders had missed the bird the previous day, our spirits remained bouyed by the gull sighting. We both fully expected to search for the woodpecker, and were a little surprised when it began calling almost as soon as we had gotten out of the car. The female Red-bellied Woodpecker had not even given me time to get my boots laced, and provided crippling looks! This great bird was joined in the park and neighbourhood by several Common Redpolls, Bohemian Waxwings, a Blue Jay, and others, though Russ couldn't locate his much sought-after Alberta Eurasian Collared-Dove.

From High River and a quick Taco Time lunch, Frank Lake called out to us. With a fair amount of thawed surface area, Frank Lake is a ducks spring-time paradise, and we quickly located numbers of Redhead, Canvasback, Lesser Scaup, Canada Geese, and the other expected ducks, plus a couple of Killdeer hanging out on the ice. A thorough search of the surrounding fields failed to turn up my much wanted Gray Partridge.

A quick drive up towards Blackie also held a target bird for us in the form of a single young Snowy Owl on a fencepost.

Next, in the spirit of adding Alberta birds and generally just enjoying rarities, we headed for the fields in the area of 51st St and 68th Ave in SE Calgary, looking for a Harris's Sparrow that had been present all winter. We had no luck with the sparrow, but we both managed to get looks at Gray Partridge that flushed up from the brushy areas to the side of the road and along the train tracks.

The last bird of the day saw Ilya, Russ, and myself twitching a Barred Owl. Yes, twitching a Barred Owl. Not a sentence I ever thought I would use, but there were a total of seven birders admiring the owl, perched in a residential front yard, and a lifer for a couple of the observers!

Stay tuned for the next post, and our journey south!

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