A Winter of Content – Birding Calgary Nov 2016 to Jan 2017

Sunrise at Carburn on a late autumn morning.

The city of Calgary had somewhat extended autumnal weather (i.e. above zero temps, no snow) lasting until late November, which meant that waterfowl migrating south were able to enjoy open ponds for longer than normal. Taking advantage of this, I made a number of visits to Carburn Park on the banks of the Bow River to photograph the ducks as they passed through. First off were half a dozen Ring-necked Ducks, a species which I have only seen very few of in YYC:

Three particular highlights (which I’ve found difficult to separate) of my visits were:

#1: A lone young Tundra Swan…this bird always seemed to be way out in the middle of the main pond…except on one day where it came very close to the shoreline and I was able to get some close-ups. There’s just something about swans that conveys a majestic feeling in my mind:

#2: One completely unexpected surprise…walking back to my car to head home after shooting the ducks, I heard several nuthatches making a real racket and chirping incessantly…so, with bated breath, I went to investigate the source of their annoyance…and was greeted with the two huge eyes of a Northern Saw-whet Owl looking back at me! So, a big thank you to the nuthatches as I can’t really claim credit for ‘finding’ this pint-sized beauty:).
(If you look at the bottom right you might be able to make out the deer mouse the owl appears to have caught and saved for later!):

#3: Finally, on my last visit before the ponds froze over, a last-minute decision late in the day to pop by Carburn and see what was there…to be welcomed by the main pond literally teeming with hundreds of ducks, all in glorious late-afternoon sunshine! As half the pond had iced up already, the ducks were all concentrated in a relatively small area and fairly close to the shore where I was, so I sat down and clicked away…I spent a good chunk of time on a pair of Barrow’s Goldeneyes, birds I very rarely see, and it was fantastic to see the drake’s indigo colours in all their splendour thanks to the great light:

Not to be missed as well were the rafts of diminutive Buffleheads coursing through the hundreds of much larger Canada Geese.

Buffleheads are a real treat to see up close, not just because the drakes’ head plumage colours light up spectacularly in good light, but also because I’ve found them such a skittish bird that close-up opportunities are extremely few and far between…but today, with all the other birds around, they seemed relatively comfortable to cruise past me…

  Later in the month, heading in the opposite direction and out west into the foothills, I enjoyed the company of a Great Grey Owl for over an hour as it went about its morning hunt…(please note: I never bait owls…patience and knowledge of their habits are all you really need to get pleasing shots)

December brought with it winter in all its might, with some sizable snow dumps in combination with week-long stretches of sub -20C temperatures. With time off over the festive season I was able to go on a few jaunts in search of a few winter specialties, such as the Snowy Owl (down from the Arctic for a few months), of which I was able to spy no less than 9 individuals in 3 hours:

And it would be remiss of me not to include this beauty…

A lovely Merlin I came across while out looking for Snowy Owls.

I was also fortunate to see the Snowy Owl’s smaller cousin, the Short-eared Owl, which seems to be being seen in good numbers this year:

A different angle on a Shortie….note the freshly-caught vole in the left talon.

Despite the extreme cold giving my exposed trigger fingers a beating, I find watching Shorties sweep and float across the fields to be a relaxing and magical spectacles, especially when the low winter sun shines through their long, translucent wings.

A beautiful prairie sunset…

Closer to home, I continue to be grateful to be only 15 minutes’ drive from yet another great city park – the Weaselhead Nature Area.

Chickadees…always keep you entertained.

All sorts of great wildlife show up here during the year from moose, to bobcats, multiple owls, and even hummingbirds. But in winter, I love to go and see the winter finches that gratefully come to feed on the seed that, year-in year-out, tireless locals put out for them on their own dime. This welcome source of sustenance draws in not only the resident chickadees and House Finches but also the pink and yellow-hued Pine Grosbeaks and the ever-popular Redpolls – their warming shades a comforting spectacle during the depths of a cold, blue winter:

A female Pine Grosbeak

A male Pine Grosbeak in rich scarlet


I just love the pink on Common Redpolls

Until next blog, good birding!

You can follow me here: https://www.facebook.com/timjhopwood/

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T.O. Backyard – Screech Owls

Good day!  Is it too late to wish you all a “Happy New Year”?

Here we are in January 2017.  The backyard so far for this year has been average, but let me tell you about how it ended in 2016.  I guess the title gives it away though.  Yes, we had a visiting Eastern Screech Owl to our little piece of land in Toronto.  But let me rewind a bit…

39 months prior to his visit, I had bought a hand made Wood Duck box which could also be shelter to Great Crested Flycatchers, American Kestrels and Eastern Screech Owls.  I wasted no time getting it set up down back where I thought would be a great spot.  3 years passed and nothing other than the occasional Squirrel taking refuge from a storm.


One day a juvi European Starling a couple hours in it.  Some how he found the box, went in, and just sat there watching the big new world around him.  It was comical to witness.  I guess he felt safe in it?  But then he left, joining all the other young Starlings with their parents and that was it.

September 2016 I decided to move the box.  I picked one of the few trees actually on our lot to use.  Unfortunately it would have the box face north/west which is supposed to be the worst direction to face a box due to winds and storms.  But that’s where I could put it.  I thought about all the Owls I’ve seen out there in the wild, not every cavity faces that recommended south/east direction.  So why not take the chance?

The box went unnoticed until December 19th when I happened to be looking out our kitchen window while I was getting ready for work.  I saw a grayish lump at the entry hole.  First glance I thought a Squirrel must have found it.  But my brain said “open the shutters and get the bins”.  I did just that and to my joy and surprise it was an Owl!


I can’t share my exact words of excitement on this blog. It was a colorful spree, repeated over and over again, in a positively excited manner. I also made a quick call to my wife, informing her of our visitor, so she got the news first hand before discovering it on social media.

For the photo, I made my way out the front of the house, slinking up the side, and then hopping up on our back deck. I was well away from the box and did not want to disturb the Owl. Unfortunately others took notice to our new visitor, who did not like him nearly as much, and gave him some serious hell. A couple Squirrels just went crazy on him. They were running up the tree, which made the Owl retreat into the box. Then they would shove their head in the box, then quickly back out. Why the fuss? What’s a Screech Owl going to do to a Squirrel?

Then I had to go to work. I wished the Owl luck in my absence and hoped the Squirrels would back off.

The next morning I was at Rona (similar to a Home Depot or Lowes store for any non-Canadian readers). I bought stove piping to wrap around the tree, hoping to help deter the Squirrels. I figured 16″ worth would be good to keep the Squirrels from running up the tree. And that worked.

We watched the house over the next few days and saw nothing. We had high hopes but as the days passed, they did fade.

Then I noticed a gray Squirrel in the box. *sigh* The Squirrel was using the next tree over, climbing high up in it, going to over hanging branches, then taking a big leap to this tree, and then coming down into the box. Gotta give it kudos for some clever thinking on how to get into that box.

I will admit it did frustrate me but what’s done, is done. It now had the box, and was quickly filling it full of leaves and even some insulation it gathered from who knows where. I don’t have the heart to evict the Squirrel now.

Here it is on this snowy morning, snapped this through our window just now.


In no time though, I had gotten a new Screech Owl box, and set it up in another spot about the yard. The box is more suited for Screech Owls with a 3″ entry hole. It’s actually got some ventilation with small slots just under the roof. It’s got drainage underneath in case water ever got inside. And it’s also got slight grooves along the inner wall to help young Owls find their way out of the box, if we were ever blessed with such a thing as nesting Owls. The Wood Duck box is missing a couple of these things. The new box is well away from trees no matter how things look in the below image. I’ve used the stove piping underneath it. It faces south/west, which is better than north/west. And it’s got a large grove of tall cedars on the north side for added shelter, blocking those winds.

Wish us luck!


What’s funny is that a few weeks prior to this encounter, I was doing nocturnal Screech Owl searching in some spots not too far from our home. I went out after dark, visiting some old wood lots, playing a Screech Owl call, and over a 2 night period I had 6 individual Screech Owls through 4 different areas!

It’s quite an experience for someone who enjoys the birds. The Owls will call back, sometimes even flying in to see who is in their territory. It is at this point, once you have an Owl responding to your calls, that you should stop playing them. I don’t move. I just listen and try to view the bird if it’s near by. I may also try for photos even though it’s quite difficult. I won’t use flash. I do try and use natural lighting, if there is any with the moon, or if street lights aren’t too far off. I have to tweak my camera settings, cranking up the ISO as high as I can go (which isn’t that high on my old Canon Rebel T1i), using manual focus and if I get anything, I still have to manipulate it quite a bit once I have it on the computer. The pics aren’t for anything more than record shots, sharing with friends about the experience. People are more apt to pay attention with an image attached than reading one of my long scribes. Speaking of long scribes, is anyone still here reading this?



About a week and a half after this night Owl adventure, I chanced upon a roosting Screech Owl in another area. Total surprise, almost missing this bird in a line of cedars along the path. #7! I use a 500 mm lens so trust me when I say that I was not in the Owl’s face so to speak.


Then of course ours 10 days later, making #8.

Screech Owls really are in abundance about the Toronto area!

Here are some daytime finds throughout what I see is all from 2012 (I had quite a good year for them).  Now, is it me or have these Owls chosen trees with color matching to their plumage?





People often say they never see Owls. Sometimes they are there, right in front of you, and you just don’t realize it. Here is a link to a video I took a couple winters ago. The other birds told me where a Screech Owl was roosting. You can’t see the Owl in this video but this may help you in future outings. Just listen to the birds around you.

Screech Owls are a nocturnal species of Owl. So if you do ever find one during the day, please be quiet, keep your distance, and don’t linger. It’s a blessing to see any Owl in the wild. Please respect them.

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This morning Rob and I took part in our first ever Christmas Bird Count for Bird Studies Canada. It was taking place at an area we have been birding for over a decade, The Humber Areboretum, and the organizers there, as well as from Bird Studies Canada were happy to have our assistance.

The count was actually for kids, but the adults and teenagers enjoyed it as well. Who doesn’t enjoy hand feeding Chickadees. It was actually the first time the Humber Areboretum hosted a bird count, but it won’t be the last time, the event was full.

Over all we saw 21 species which I have listed below. Sorry we don’t have many pictures to share, we were too busy enjoying the birds and the socializing.


Instructions before heading out.


Away we go!


A pair of Northern Cardinals stand out on an over-cast day.


The star of the day.


Someone is Geocaching here as well. 


Always fun to witness people hand-feed Chickadees for the first time.


How many Cardinals do you see?

Our 21 species:

1. Mourning Doves
2. Chickadees
3. Mallard Ducks
4. Crow
5. Northern Cardinals
6. Goldfinches
7. Northern Harrier
8. House Finches
9. White-breasted Nuthatches
10. Red-breasted Nuthatches
11. Juncos
12. Ring-billed Gulls
13. European Starlings
14. White-throated Sparrows
15. Downy Woodpeckers
16. Hairy Woodpecker
17. Red-bellied Woodpecker
18. Canada Geese
19. House Sparrows
20. Rock Pigeon
21. And we accidentally flushed a Long-eared Owl

All in all it was a great morning and we look forward to taking part again.

From our house to yours, we hope you have a wonderful holiday season, and a great 2017.

Merry Christmas, Angie & Rob


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The Birds of Bow Valley Provincial Park

We are away for the winter in Panama enjoying a warmer climate, as well as some spectacular birding, so this month’s post takes us back to one of our favourite summertime destinations in Alberta!

Psssst!  Wanna hear a little secret?  Bow Valley Provincial Park is a hidden gem in Alberta.

The park is only 33 sq. km but it is packed with a dense variety of habitat, wildlife and birds.   We go there early in the morning from time-to-time (while the masses visit Lake Louise and Banff) and we never seem to be disappointed!

This Lincoln Sparrow stayed hidden most of the time but every once in a while he popped up onto branch and posed for a second or two (with a yummy breakfast in its beak).

Lincoln Sparrow


Willow Flycatchers are often overlooked and/or confused with other species.  There are several that look the same and it’s difficult to tell them apart from one another, but this little guy gave himself away by repeating his song over and over!  He was very cooperative and posed several times for the camera, often approaching us at close range.

Willow Flycatcher

Willow Flycatcher (Close-up)

Who doesn’t like a Yellow Warbler?  This boisterous male was hanging out in the same willow thicket as the Willow Flycatcher.  Yellow Warblers are pretty common but they have this knack for dashing in and out of bushes a few seconds before you can click the shutter button on the camera.  Patience won the battle for us today, however.  Gotcha!

Yellow Warbler

Over 220 species have been recorded in Bow Valley Provincial Park according to ebird.  Check here for a complete list of recent sightings:  ebird.org/ebird/hotspot/L430045

Marcy & Ray Stader

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Notes From a NW Ontario Backyard – November 2016

Someone Flipped The Winter Switch!

Hello again!  It is most definitely winter up here in NW Ontario.  In the past 3 days, we’ve gone from heavy rain to heavy freezing rain (about a 1/2 inch worth!) and now to blowing snow and about -15C wind chills.  I had to bring all my birds feeders in to thaw the ice off of them and put fresh ones out to get through the rest of the storm.  I guess I can safely say it’s cold outside enough now to put the suet feeder out.

For the first time, I finally managed to catch 4 of my 6 Blue Jays at once on the platform feeder.  You can see that one got hit with a gust of wind that really messed up its ‘do.  They seldom tolerate each other.


4 Blue Jays on the platform feeder in the freezing rain


Handsome Blue Jay standing on the webcam in the freezing rain, awaiting his turn at the trough

The Ruffed Grouse have been coming around, mostly morning and evening.  This one is a female and she tolerates the Blue Jay for a minute or two.  The male Grouse will not tolerate the Jays at ALL and will instantly show aggression with wide open tail feathers and a fully displayed ruff (fluffed out neck feathers).


Female Ruffed Grouse barely tolerating the Blue Jay on the platform feeder


Female Ruffed Grouse preparing to leave the feeder for the night.

A small flock of Purple Finches was hanging around the yard for a few weeks.  The Dark Eyed Juncos have migrated for the season but the Purples are still here, as are a small number of Goldfinches.


2 male Purple Finches with a male Dark Eyed Junco

It’s funny:  my neighbourhood is absolutely polluted with Red Breasted Nuthatches but they seldom come into the yard.  This one was here off and on for a few days, hauling away and hiding small chunks of peanut.  Hopefully, a couple will stay around for the winter.


Red Breasted Nuthatch getting ready to hide a peanut morsel in the bark of my pine tree

Black Capped Chickadees come to the feeders regularly.  I see anywhere from 3 to 6 of them daily.  This little cutie is in my crab apple tree, enjoying a snack.


Black Capped Chickadee working on a seed

I normally have 3 Crows that visit the feeders daily but this week, a glorious Raven showed up.  It visited the feeders for 2 days, about 20 minutes straight on each day.  A very striking bird!


A Raven that was delicately eating peanuts

I was thrilled to see the season’s first Common Redpolls last week!  Three of them showed up and they were about three weeks earlier than normal.  A fourth one has joined them now and I expect many more to showed up in the coming weeks.


Male Common Redpoll


Female Common Redpoll

Evening Grosbeak numbers have picked up in recent weeks.  I can see anywhere from 10 to nearly 40 on the feeders or below at any given time.


Male & female Evening Grosbeaks on the platform feeder


This female Evening Grosbeak had just been nibbling at the pine cone


2 female Evening Grosbeaks on the winter birdbath for a drink of water


This handsome male Evening Grosbeak had also been working over the pine cones

Pine Grosbeak numbers continue to increase as more migrants move in for the winter season.  This handsome male was sitting on a branch in my crab apple tree.  The female was posing beautifully for me in my Pine tree.


Male Pine Grosbeak


Female Pine Grosbeak

An exceptional treat in the yard this week was a visit from a pair of Bohemian Waxwings.  I had seen them visiting my neighbour’s fruit shrubs but got lucky one day and saw them in my ornamental crab apple tree.


Bohemian Waxwings

Aside from birds, I had a couple of other nice sightings this week.  I have been going out walking most days with a friend and we walk to a bridge about a mile from here.  We’ve seen a few ducks there recently including a pair of Common Goldeneye, a lone Bufflehead Duck and an absolutely lovely lone female Long Tailed Duck … a species I’m lucky to see once, maybe twice per year as they pass through.

Up at the other end of our local Manitouwadge Lake, I came upon a brand new, under-construction beaver house with 2 beavers outside of it.  They both appeared quite small so they may be the teenagers of the family.


The first beaver outside of the new house. It quickly dove when I first approached.


This second, and smaller, beaver was more curious and actually swam up to look at me.  It’s body (without the tail) was no more than a foot long.

And to end this month, did everyone get a chance to see the stunning Super Moon last week?  I finally have a camera worthy of taking photos of the moon!


Thanks so much for reading.  You’ll hear from me again just before Christmas.  🙂

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Four Seasons in Four Weeks – Birding Calgary in Fall 2016

th7d3990-v2-fbBirding this past month in the Calgary area has – due to a variety of weather patterns – presented a lot of opportunities to photograph many species under different conditions. A particular favorite of mine is the always striking Wood Duck:th7d3490th7d4288 th7d3645

An increasing number of Wood Ducks have taken up seasonal residence at the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary and, being only 15 minutes’ drive from where I live, I have made a number of trips to photograph these beauties…th7d4176 th121709db-crop th121911 th122136-v

On sunny days I try to go either early in the morning, or late in the afternoon when the sun is slow in the sky. On fall mornings the Sanctuary is particularly beautiful:img_1454enh img_1452enh th7d3545As their name suggests, the Wood Ducks spend a lot of time perched on fallen dead trees in the lagoon and they seem just as happy there as in the water:th7d3462-v th122248v-fb

Although there does definitely seem to be some competition for the ‘best’ spots:th7d3439merge th7d4061

A goal of mine this year was to try and capture some in-flight shots of Wood Ducks and I’ve been lucky enough to get a number of opportunities to try my hand at this, and the results have been personally pleasing:th122330crop-mask-v th121994 th121906-v th121888-v th121876 th121835db-mask-fb th121704 th121713-mask2-v-fb2

Some Woodies appear to have paired up…th122924 th7d3800

…while others seem to be chasing each other around:th122950 th122944

Watching them preen and clean can also be an action-packed sight:th122998

And if the Wood Ducks aren’t enough for you, often times you can get a rowdy Belted Kingfisher flying up and down the lagoon making its harsh rattling call. th7d3318 th7d3306

A very skittish bird, I managed to get some of best shots yet of one that decided to perch unexpectedly close for a good minute:th7d3243db-mask-flickr

Some mornings can be quite foggy, which presents its own beauty…img_1451enh img_1449enh

th7d4127 th7d3602-vth122318But fall being fall, the weather can change quite dramatically and snowfall is not unexpected…img_1463enh img_1461enh

Although this didn’t seem to faze the Wood Ducks at all:th122572 th122520

th122910crop th122849cropHowever, some late-staying Great Blue Herons didn’t seem quite so enamored: th122597

th122609ext2-flcikrAs I was leaving on this wintry morning, I caught a shape in the treeline out of the corner of my eye…th122688

Which upon closer inspection turned out to be a juvenile Bald Eagle, but it didn’t stick around long…th122694

…although it was obliging enough to do a nice fly-by past me:th122730 th122715 th122708crop-fb

Some other species present included some American Wigeon: th121918

The ubiquitous Mallard: th123136 th123124crop th123120

And a Northern Flicker: th7d3627v2-flickr

Despite some brief snowfall in early October, it has been relatively warm (into the teens in celsius)  and so I took advantage of the good driving conditions and made a trip out to the foothills west of Calgary where I came across a couple dozen southward-bound majestic Trumpeter Swans in some ponds by the highway:th123081

th123084-fbBut alas I didn’t see too many birds in the foothills themselves save for this American Pipit:th123049

I also made the effort to check out several other ponds used by migrating waterfowl and came across some of the ‘usual suspects’ such as Northern Shoveller:th7d4406

th7d4446-fbAnd last, but not least, some water-walking Common Goldeneye that may decide to over-winter:th7d4486v

For more of my wildlife photography, you can follow me here:



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T.O. Backyard – Giving Back

Hello! And welcome back to the T.O. Backyard here in the Bird Canada Blog.

This month I’d like to share something a little different, stepping entirely away from our backyard. I call this blog “Giving Back” because that is what it is about… giving back to the birds.

My wife and I volunteer where we can with a number of organizations. Toronto Wildlife Centre (TWC), The Owl Foundation (TOF), Ontario Eastern Bluebird Society (OEBS), Canadian Peregrine Foundation (CPF) and also participate in various citizen scientist projects with Bird Studies Canada (BSC).

Depending on the season, we may contribute more to one place than others. Like the winter months we can be driving injured Owls from the greater Toronto area to The Owl Foundation in Vineland. The Owls fly down to our region from the north in search of food and sometimes get into trouble. We participate in “Project Feeder Watch” with BSC through this time as well, counting birds and species visiting our backyard feeders, entering the data for research. The Spring and Summer months have our attention on the OEBS and CPF. While we don’t see many Bluebirds in Toronto, we do help with nest box monitoring of Tree Swallows near our home, always hoping for Bluebirds to show up. We assist in Peregrine Falcon fledge watches through late May and much of June. A whole blog could easily be done on a fledge watch. All I can say is that it is not for the faint of heart.

But year round, we are always ready, willing and able for TWC. A busy centre it is, open 365 days a year. It’s more me than my wife since I drive and we work opposite shifts, but she will help out if there is a need on a weekend. Volunteer driving is what I signed up for just over 2 years ago. I am on a list to help when I am able to, when the actual rescue team cannot. I can be driving injured, sick or orphaned wildlife into the centre or helping get rehabbed animals back into the wild. We also assist with grocery drives, picking up needed items, all of which is reimbursed.

The Autumn season can get pretty busy with migratory birds. FLAP brings TWC a lot of birds in through fall migration. It’s mind blowing how many songbirds collide with windows during this time. The numbers are too much to take in. And sadly I learned that FLAP had a really busy fall migration this year, picking up 33% more birds than average. Picking up does not necessarily mean rescuing either. Too often it’s just recovery of the bird bodies. Not every bird that makes it to Toronto Wildlife survives either. It’s heart breaking.

FLAP display at the Royal Ontario Museum



So when the “shout out” comes for a driver to help get some rehabbed birds back on their migratory path, I am more than happy to give up the time and fuel for the birds.

The birds must go west of Toronto, and be released somewhere along the shores of Lake Ontario at one of the numerous lake parks. This is the direction they take on their journey to their over wintering homes through the southern USA, Mexico, and South America. The birds will cross over Lake Ontario at one of the narrowest points like Point Pelee, and head south.

On average, the drive for me is 45 km. That is from leaving our home, getting up to TWC and then down to a preferred lake park. I can have 1 bird, 3 birds, and once a whopping 21 in total. I never ask how many birds, or the species, I just do it if I am able to.

With so much death in fall migration, being able to help the survivors is amazing. Of course I am not the only one doing these drives.

Most of the birds travel in no wax paper bags, one bird per bag. The tops of the bags are folded over and held with a paper clip. Larger birds travel in boxes. Some birds flutter through the travel, trying to get out of their confines. Some sit quietly. Some actually sing their song lightly (Golden-crowned Kinglets are good for that).

When it’s time to let them go, we open the bag(s) facing trees and shrubs, approximately 10 ft away. In most cases, as soon as the birds see the light of day, away they go. And in most cases they go right for the trees and shrubs. Some land quickly, stopping for a moment to take in their surroundings and gather their bearings. Some fly deeper in, taking cover. Some fly through and beyond, getting away from us as quickly as possible.

It’s great when they do land nearby, giving us the opportunity to watch them, and if I have my camera with me, to take photos.  I won’t chase any of the birds, I just stay where I am and snap away (the birds have been through enough already).  It’s amazing how quickly they shake off all these strange and stressful things they’ve endured, and go right back to business, back to being a wild and free bird.

There are so many people to thank, doing something to help these birds. The people at FLAP, so many volunteers walking the streets of Toronto, picking up the birds. The people who drive the birds who need extended care up to Toronto Wildlife. The staff and volunteers at TWC who do everything they can to help them get back to good health, and back to the wild world.

I would like to share a few images of some of the birds that did make it back “home” again. Let’s hope they all made it to their destinations safe and sound.

Golden-crowned Kinglet


Black-throated Green Warbler


2 male Black-throated Blue Warblers


Dark-eyed Junco


Yellow-bellied Sapsucker


White-throated Sparrow


November 8th was probably my last fall release for 2016 and it ended quite different than any release I’ve done before. This Hermit Thrush decided my hand was a good place to stop and take in his new found freedom. The bird sat there for maybe one minute before flying off to join other Hermit Thrushes nearby. It was great that I had my phone in my jacket pocket to capture this memorable moment.


The birds give us so much day after day. The beauty of their song is a gift to our ears, their colorful plumage a gift to our eyes. Being surrounded by them is good for overall well being since we appreciate them so much. Driving them to rehabilitation centres for help, and those who make it back to freedom, it is the least we can do.

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Vermillion Lakes — Beyond the Iconic Landscape


View towards the third lake


When most people think of Vermillion Lakes near Banff, an image of Mount Rundle (one of Banff’s most recognizable mountains), usually comes to mind.  But there is a hidden side to this magical place–a wild side that can be revealed if you just have the patience to listen and look beyond the beauty of the iconic landscape to the avian world.

This is one of our favourite places to bird because the species seen are very consistent and easy to find if you know where to look.

Canada Geese can be seen everywhere and usually hang out around the first and second lakes.  During mating season they can be particularly loud and the males can be very aggressive.  Interestingly, birds of both sexes tend to choose mates of a similar size in a pattern scientists call “assortative mating.”


Canada Geese


Common Loons, distinguished by their red eyes and haunting calls also frequent the first and second lakes.  The red in the loon’s eye actually helps it see underwater as they are visual predators, locating fish by sight and diving as deep as 200 ft to catch a meal (most of which it consumes underwater).  Many scientist believe Common Loons have been around for twenty million years, making them the oldest living bird today!


Common Loon


Great Blue Herons like to fish here but often go unnoticed without a trained eye and a pair of binoculars as they stand motionless scanning for prey. These majestic birds have an impressive wingspan of 6 feet!  According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology,

“Great Blue Herons have specialized feathers on their chest that continually grow and fray.  The herons comb this “powder down” with a fringed caw on their middle toes, using the down like a washcloth to remove fish, slime and other oils from their fathers as they preen.  Applying the powder to their underparts protects their feathers against the slime and oil of swamps.”


Great Blue Heron


Soras may be the most common rail in North America, but they are extremely secretive birds and are seldom seen.  Vermillion Lakes is one of the BEST places to view them!  Between the second and third lakes is a small patch of cattails and reeds where this little marsh walker lives.  If you are quiet and can sit motionless for about 20 minutes, it will often come out and start to forage (within 10 feet of you)!  If you are really lucky, it will even bring its chicks within view!




Yellow Warblers are often hiding in the willows right next to the road.  Their song is one of the prettier ones, so it is not surprising that a group of yellow warblers is collectively know as a “sweetness” of warblers.


Yellow Warbler – Male


Common Yellowthroats also live in the cattails, but you have a better chance of seeing a male as the females will often run under vegetation for some distance when leaving the nest in attempt to make it difficult to locate.


Common Yellowthroat – Male


Song Sparrows can be heard throughout the area and are one of the most persistent singers throughout spring and summer.

According to Brandeis University, “Studies have shown that male Song Sparrows are more likely to attract females if their songs display a more advanced ability to learn.  Those males that have more learned components of their song, and whose song more resembles their tutors (the adult birds from whom they learned the song) are preferred over other males.”


Song Sparrow


Pine Siskins can often be seen and heard on the tops trees around Vermillion Lakes.

The name Siskin is derived from its sound or chirp; thus, the birds common same is really “pine chirper.” (WhatBird.com)


Pine Siskin


Least Flycatchers are really a joy to photograph as they often wait on an open perch low or in the middle of a tree and fly out to catch insects in flight (know as hawking).  This individual is usually in the area around the beginning of the third lake.


Least Flycatcher


Red-Winged Blackbirds are probably on of the most abundant birds in the area (especially in the cattails close to the third lake).  Male red-winged Blackbirds like to play the field with some having up to 15 different females nesting in his territory.


Red-winged Blackbird – Male



Red-Winged Blackbird – Female


Buffleheads are extremely beautiful birds that are, like most ducks, extremely difficult to photograph…this individual was no exception. He is almost always on the third lake but you will need to sit patiently in your car (using it as a blind) for a very, very long time!

“Buffleheads nest almost exclusively in holes excavated by Northern Flickers and, on occasion by Pleated Woodpeckers.  Unlike many ducks, they are mostly monogamous, often remaining with the same mate for several years.” Cornell Lab of Ornithology


Bufflehead – Male


These are some of the most common birds found at Vermillion Lakes, but there are many others that can be discovered if you are willing to look beyond the iconic landscape.  We hope you enjoyed the blog–thanks for reading and happy birding!


Marcy & Ray Stader

More stories and photos at staderartbirds.wordpress.com



Posted in Bird Canada, Canadian Birds, Nature Photography, Rocky Mountains of Alberta, Songbirds, Waterfowl, Wood Warblers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Vermillion Lakes — Beyond the Iconic Landscape

Birds & Tailings Ponds – a deadly combination

Imagine you’re a bird in flight, high in the sky, heading from your wintering grounds in South America to the Boreal Forest, along with a dozen other birds.

Canada Goose in flight. Photo by and courtesy of Alan D. Wilson. (CC license.)

Canada Goose in flight. Photo by and courtesy of Alan D. Wilson. (CC license.)

You make the journey every year because that forest is your breeding ground. Migration, built into your genes like the colour of your eyes, is physically exhausting and hazardous. Along the way you’re exposed to storms and predators and hunters. You can’t take a bag lunch with you or stop at a restaurant to eat or at a roadside inn for shelter or sleep. You scan the earth below for stopovers where you can rest and be safe, eat, and gear up for the next leg of your journey.

Now you’re flying over the Peace-Athabasca Delta. You’re tired.

Now you’re almost at the southern edge of the Boreal Forest.

The Borea Forest. Photo by and courtesy of Olga Oslina. (CC license.)

The Borea Forest. Photo by and courtesy of Olga Oslina. (CC license.)

You’ve been in the air for many hours since your last stopover and you’re longing to rest, to have some water, some food, to gain strength for the final leg of the journey. In the distance you see a huge pond of water, and you and your fellow birds head down together.

Athabasca River tar sands mining operation. 2011 NASA Earth Observatory (Public domain photo.)

Athabasca River tar sands mining operation. 2011 NASA Earth Observatory (Public domain photo.)

But what you’ve seen is a pond in name only. Soon you are
waterlogged in a toxic chemical soup that clings to your feathers and weighs you down. You can’t fly off. You struggle, tire. Eventually you suffocate and drown.

According to some estimates, as many as 5,000 birds a year die in tar sands tailings ponds in northern Alberta.  https://www.e-activist.com/ea-campaign/action.handleViewInBrowser.do?ea.campaigner.email=tXMXz1XVY%2FpximSuzDkrjVESkN1MQhKC&broadcastId=135017&templateId=111899

A few facts:

Whooping Crane in flight. USDA Public Domain image.

Whooping Crane in flight. USDA Public Domain image.

Even after massive conservation efforts for decades there are estimated to be only about 440 individual Whooping Cranes in the wild now. (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Whooping_Crane/lifehistory)

It’s not that there aren’t regulations protecting migratory birds. Under the Migratory Birds Convention Act, the federal government has the power to ensure these birds are protected from death in tar sands tailings ponds. What it needs is the political will to do so.  https://ec.gc.ca/nature/default.asp?lang=En&n=496E2702-1

Big oil companies do make some efforts to keep the birds away from the ‘ponds’. (They are required to do so by law.) They install scarecrows and use noise cannons, for example. But according to Colleen Cassady St. Clair, a biologist at the University of Alberta, these deterrents aren’t working well enough. In 2014 she researched other methods that might be more effective, including using laser technology to create a kind of light show she hoped would work better.  http://www.audubon.org/magazine/july-august-2014/how-keep-birds-poisonous-ponds It seems that at least one oil company did begin to use laser as a deterrent. Did it work? Decide for yourself: http://onerivernews.ca/the-oil-sands-bird-deterrent-system-works-perfectly-doesnt-work/

Andrea Johancsik, conservation specialist at Alberta Wilderness Association, sums up the situation: “Bird-deterrent systems are failing, with unacceptably high bird landings even in good conditions.” Birds get used to our human noises. And who knows what they think of the scarecrows?

The sad reality is that the Canadian government is not taking its responsibility to protect migrating birds seriously. As a bird-lover, I am grateful that Ecojustice, a Canadian law firm specializing in environmental justice, is trying to convince the government to step up to the plate. They have crafted a letter to Julie Gelfand, Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, asking her to investigate why nothing is being done as thousands of birds are killed on tailings ponds every year. I signed the Ecojustice petition and letter – and I hope you will too!

Click here to participate:   https://www.support.ecojustice.ca/ea-action/action?ea.client.id=1943&ea.campaign.id=56056&ea.tracking.id=BirdCanada

Thank you!

To see the growth of the oil sands and tailings ponds around the Athabasca River from 1984 to 2011, click here: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/WorldOfChange/athabasca.php

For more information about the issue:





Posted in Bird Canada, Bird Conservation Canada, Boreal Forest Birds, Migration | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Notes From a NW Ontario Backyard – October 2016

Hello again!

I sure hope everyone has been enjoying this wonderful autumn season.  I dearly love autumn …. I just wish it would last a little longer.  Like spring, it seems to be gone in a flash.  Our tree colors are pretty much finished already and at least half of the leaves have now fallen.  We’ve had flurries twice so far but snow is nowhere near staying yet, thankfully.

Since I missed a September posting (my busiest season and time got away from me, sorry!), I’ll go back to my final summer sightings.  The photo below was one of my last Hummingbird sightings of the season.  I saw another little female the day after I took this photo and that was it … they disappeared for the year.  I had a great season for the Monarda (Bee Balm) so the Hummers were VERY happy with my flowerbeds this summer.  In fact, I saw the birds in the flowerbeds way more than I saw them at my two feeders.  It was my best summer ever for Hummingbirds.  At one point, I had 6 at a time in the gardens with me!


Female Ruby Throated Hummingbird at Monarda blossom

I also had quite a few Northern Flickers in my neighbourhood throughout the summer.  An adult male (like the one below) would come and land on the hydro pole just outside of my back gate and from there, he would call and call and call.  Toward the end of the summer, I started hearing a juvenile answering his calls from further down the street.  I never did see the young ones but this fellow came back in September for what seemed like a final farewell.


Male Northern Flicker on a hydro pole outside my back gate.

After the bulk of the summer visitors left, Grackles showed up.  For a while, I had 50+ at a time in the backyard.  They make all kinds of mess and noise but I really don’t mind them.  I like blackbirds of all kinds.

One day, I glanced out of my patio doors and saw ……….. footprints …… on the glass!  No body imprint; in fact: no body!  No other sign of collision, just footprints.  Judging by the size, they are Grackle footprints.  This tickled my funny bone for some reason!


Grackle footprints on my patio door


A portion of the Grackles that were visiting my feeders & birdbaths in September.

My resident family of Crows has been visiting the yard regularly since spring.  At one point in September, I had 7 of them in the yard:  3 on the platform feeder, 2 in the trees behind (where this fellow below is) and 2 more on the ground underneath.  For such big birds, they are jumpier than any other birds in the yard but so entertaining to watch!


Crow taking flight out of my pine tree

After being absent almost all summer long, Blue Jays have returned to my feeders.  Their visits started out with just one or two, now there are at least six.  I remember one day last winter, I had a high count of ten Blue Jays for just one day.  Curious to see if that will happen again.  I’ll be putting peanuts out on the platform feeder soon so we stand a chance.  🙂


Two of the six Blue Jays that have returned to my feeders for the winter

As the typical sign of Autumn, I watched flock after flock of Canada Geese fly over my yard while I was busy out there putting the gardens to bed for the season.  We have a golf course nearby and I can always hear the Geese and Sandhill Cranes take off from there.


Some of the Canada Geese flying over my neighbourhood, heading south

In the photo below is the golf course resident family of Sandhill Cranes.  Every year, they fly across town to the ‘old high school track’ (the school has been torn down but the track is still there).  The center of the track (for track & field) is full of clover and the Cranes apparently love it at the end of summer.  This year, I managed to catch an immature Crane imitating its parent.  The family consisted of two adults and two young.  Sadly, within a week of taking this photo, one of the youngsters flew up into a power line and was electrocuted.  🙁


Immature Sandhill Crane imitating its parent

I was thrilled a few weeks ago when my husband came home from work and told me that he had just seen a Swan on a lake on the edge of town.  He took me out there to see and at first, all I could see was what looked like a piece of styrofoam floating around.  But then two ducks flew by and the ‘foam’ lifted its head up:  the lovely Trumpeter Swan had been having a nap!


One of at least 5 Trumpeter Swans I saw here this year.

American Pipits came through the area this fall.  I only saw a small handful of them in my yard but we saw quite a few along the highways in the region.  I only ever see them during fall migration, never in the spring.  Not sure why that is.



Two American Pipits in my backyard.

With Project FeederWatch just around the corner, I was thrilled last week to find two Ruffed Grouse in the backyard once again.  I get such a kick out of how they leave the yard each year in April and return every October.  The most we’ve ever had is five at once but our average is two.


First Ruffed Grouse of the season to return to the yard. 🙂


Ruffed Grouse with Black Capped Chickadee on the platform feeder.

Another returnee is my favourite:  the Gray Jay.  Two of them showed up in the yard last week, just after the Grouse.  The fellow below was caught in some heavy rain and spent some time in my pine tree preening and drying off.


Gray Jay preening after heavy rain

I have only seen a couple of Warblers so far this fall but a few Sparrow varieties have been around.


Dark Eyed Junco – they nest here.


American Tree Sparrow


Song Sparrow – they nest here


White Throated Sparrow – they nest here.


Female White Crowned Sparrow


Male White Crowned Sparrow

As I mentioned above, Project FeederWatch is beginning soon.  This year, the season runs from November 12’16 to April 7’17.  I am working with Cornell Lab of Ornithology right now to get their webcam in my yard up and running for the season.  I’ll have the link to that for you in my November posting.

Until then, thanks for reading!

Posted in Bird Canada | 9 Comments