Christmas Bird Counts in Alberta

This past weekend (December 14 and 15), I participated in two back-to-back Christmas Bird Counts in the Calgary area. On Saturday, December 14, I drove out to Canmore before sunrise to cover an area near Quarry Lake for the second year in a row, and on Sunday, December 15, I covered the Weaselhead Natural Area and South Glenmore Park for the third year in a row.

The two habitats are quite different, with Canmore being in the front ranges of the Rocky Mountains, and my particular area ascending the south valley wall. There was a fairly large herd of elk near the parking area, and these two really stood out from the rest.

Bull Elk Quarry Lake Area, Canmore December 14, 2013

Bull Elk
Quarry Lake Area, Canmore
December 14, 2013

Elk Calf Quarry Lake Area, Canmore December 14, 2013

Elk Calf
Quarry Lake Area, Canmore
December 14, 2013

While the Canmore Christmas Bird Count never has quite the number of species as we get in Calgary, it’s still got some surprises. For instance, this year there was a nearly complete reversal in the numbers of Mountain Chickadees compared to Boreal, though I’m not entirely sure of the reasons why!

Mountain Chickadee Quarry Lake Area, Canmore December 14, 2013

Mountain Chickadee
Quarry Lake Area, Canmore
December 14, 2013

Another big difference this year was that it seems there was a major increase (at least in my sector) in the number of Red Squirrels, and they’re always more than willing to pose for the camera.

Red Squirrel Quarry Lake Area, Canmore December 14, 2013

Red Squirrel
Quarry Lake Area, Canmore
December 14, 2013

Another of the great mountain species we get along the Rockies are the Clark’s Nutcracker. While these are a fairly common bird in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta, they’re never a guarantee, even in the best habitat in the best seasons, but both this year and last I was able to find a few in my count area. This particular bird was found raiding a feeder in the community adjacent to the lake.

Clark's Nutcracker Quarry Lake Area, Canmore December 14, 2013

Clark’s Nutcracker
Quarry Lake Area, Canmore
December 14, 2013

After I had compiled my list and bid my partner farewell, I decided, for superstition’s sake, to check a particular spot that last year had turned up a Townsend’s Solitaire at around the same time of the morning. As I rounded the corner, I could hear a distinct, high-pitched “tew… tew… tew”, and lo and behold, I found my quarry in the exact same tree, at the exact same time as the year before. Uncanny, no?

Townsend's Solitaire Quarry Lake Area, Canmore December 14, 2013

Townsend’s Solitaire
Quarry Lake Area, Canmore
December 14, 2013

Back in Calgary the next morning the word of the day was “waxwing”. From the time we started to the time we finished nearly seven hours later we were constantly hearing them above us, or seeing them fly low on the horizon in the distance. They were absolutely everywhere around us, and numbered in the thousands, decorating their perches like avian Christmas ornaments.

Bohemian Waxwings Weaselhead Natural Area December 15, 2013

Bohemian Waxwings
Weaselhead Natural Area
December 15, 2013

We also were treated to a few nice looks at a bird I’d only glimpsed the day before, a Northern Goshawk. These winter raptors are some of the most distinctly marked birds I can think of, with their heavy barring underneath, and their “Mask of Zorro” as one compatriot dubbed it, it’s makes it a challenge to misidentify the adults of this species!

Northern Goshawk Weaselhead Natural Area December 15, 2013

Northern Goshawk
Weaselhead Natural Area
December 15, 2013

Northern Goshawk in flight Weaselhead Natural Area December 15, 2013

Northern Goshawk in flight
Weaselhead Natural Area
December 15, 2013

The real highlight of the day though was just before we broke for lunch, when we stumbled across a mixed flock of White- and Red-breasted Nuthatches, along with both Black-capped and Boreal Chickadees, all of which were more than happy to feed right from the hand of one lucky birder.

Boreal Chickadee Weaselhead Natural Area December 15, 2013

Boreal Chickadee
Weaselhead Natural Area
December 15, 2013

As we neared the end of the day, and the end of a very productive weekend, we spotted what looked to be a real murmuration of Bohemian Waxwings on the horizon. This shot was taken at the short end of my lens, at 150mm, and only captured about a third of the whole flock. It was mesmerizing to watch them ebb and flow like a tide, condensing and spreading apart in their own sort of order and for seemingly no reason at all.

murmuration of Bohemian Waxwings Weaselhead Natural Area December 15, 2013

murmuration of Bohemian Waxwings
Weaselhead Natural Area
December 15, 2013

I hope you enjoy your Christmas Bird Count experiences as much as I have this year! Thanks again for reading, and good birding!

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4 Responses to Christmas Bird Counts in Alberta

  1. Dan Arndt says:

    Thanks Sharon! I love photographing them the most of all Chickadees. Still trying to figure out a good way to get the Chestnut-backed Chickadees to sit out in the open for more than half a second on my visits to Vancouver Island!

    – Dan

  2. Dan Arndt says:

    Thanks Charlotte! I had never been quite that close to such a large herd of Elk before. They were surprisingly docile around us!

    – Dan

  3. Charlotte says:

    Wonderful post Dan! I love the photos of the elk and squirrel!

  4. Sharon says:

    Love the photo of the Boreal Chickadee!