I had left off where our intrepid birders (myself, Russell Cannings, and Ilya Povalyaev) had just twitched a Barred Owl, which apparently is a rare sight within Calgary limits, and indeed in many parts of Alberta.
To give a bit more background, we had ventured east in the hopes of tracking down the elusive and critically endangered Greater Sage-Grouse, once numerous in Canada and now limited to less than 100 individuals in Alberta and Saskatchewan. When Russ and I arrived in Alberta, we found out that our original plans to see this bird had fallen through, leaving us with two options - find our own, or head even further east to Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan. We opted for the first and, with Ilya behind the wheel, headed south towards Medicine Hat for the night (en route to which we picked up our Alberta Barred Owl tick).
After a brief nights sleep in Medicine Hat, we packed our gear and headed toward Manyberries, a collection of three buildings that passes for a town. Sage-Grouse have historically been found in the areas surrounding Manyberries, and we were committed (or should be committed, as the case may be) to searching the surrounding habitat for this big, dark chicken. We began driving the backroads, scanning any patches of sage, while enjoying flights of Snow Bunting, Lapland Longspur, and hundreds of Horned Larks, along with the occassional flock of Common Redpolls and American Tree Sparrows (yes, Virginia, flocks of Tree Sparrows!)
Somewhere in thousands of square miles.....
Before long, in an area I can`t recall, we found a promising expanse of grass and sage, and began scanning it in earnest, turning up Rough-legged Hawk, Nothern Harrier, and more Horned Larks. After what seemed an eternity, but was likely closer to 20 minutes, Russ called out "I have three gallinaceous birds, they may be partridge", followed closely by " sh*t, they have long tails, they're SAGE GROUSE!"
Indeed, Russ had located three foraging male Greater Sage-Grouse slowly working their way through the prairie about a kilometre away from us, stopping to occassionally eye each other up. We watched the birds for over an hour, savouring every look at these spectacular grouse in the cold morning air.
All of our targets neatly located before 9am, we headed north to Elkwater and Cypress Hills Park (an Inter-Provincial Park, or so the sign says). Along the way, we stopped to check our various flocks, and such lucked into a surprise bird. We had been scanning a large flock of Common Redpolls along a road, when Russ and I noticed a very pale bird among them, which stood out and then flew, giving even more looks. Not only was this my first Hoary Redpoll, it was only Russ's third, (having seen his first two only days previous) and a great bird for southern Alberta!
From Elkwater we worked our way north, finding three more Snowy Owls near Brooks, plus more Sharp-tailed Grouse, a small flock of Greater White-fronted Geese, and others. Back in Calgary, we checked a hotspot for Prairie Falcon, with no luck in the fading light and low cloud. After a celebratory dinner at Boston Pizza, we headed to Weaselhead Park, and Russ quickly called up a Northern Saw-whet Owl to end the day.
Lastly, a stop in Lake Lousie yielded Clark's Nutcracker and Boreal Chickadee, the former a trip bird and the latter a much wanted Canadian bird for me. To cap off the day, we found ourselves briefly stopping in Revelstoke at 10pm or so, where we enjoyed home-cooked chicken curry and some great company (thanks Kait!) before heading down the home stretch to Penticton.
To have such a great few days in Alberta, with great company and great birds, is unforgettable. We had the privilege of lucking into 3 of the perhaps 10 male Greater Sage-Grouse left in the wild in Alberta, finding what may be the 10th or 12th provincial record of Lesser Black-backed Gull, seeing the second provincial record of Red-bellied Woodpecker, and connecting with many other great birds. Russ and I ended the Alberta portion of our trip with a little over 80 species, and some great memories!
I still had two full days of birding ahead of me before bussing back to Victoria, but that is a story for tomorrow, and post number three.