With only 28 days until the first day of Spring, and given the record snowfall and deep, bitter cold that has gripped us here in Alberta this year, I don’t think it’s really that premature of me to wish our winter visitors a fond farewell.
Don’t get me wrong. I love winter, and I love the winter birds that grace southern Alberta on a (usually) annual basis. Unfortunately, this winter’s been a slow one, partly because of the notable absence of the “Winter Finches”, and partly because of the seemingly much more terrible weather, though that may be just a byproduct of me getting older.
As predicted by Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast, the Pine Grosbeaks, Red and White-winged Crossbills, Common and Hoary Redpolls, and Pine Siskins were notably absent this year, with little more than a few occasional reports of them within Calgary, and a few more in the foothills and Rocky Mountains to the west.
Another species that relies heavily upon pine and spruce cone production is the Red-breasted Nuthatch. While they’re far from absent this year, they’re certainly not in quite the numbers as they’ve been in the Calgary area the past two years.
While those species rely primarily on the spruce and pine cone crops, the Redpolls, both Common and Hoary, rely on birch, alder, and conifer seeds, which also had an abundant crop in the north, keeping the number of both of these species to a minimum around here as well.
Apart from the winter finches, there are the good old standbys. The occasional but reliable Harris’s Sparrows, the Boreal Chickadees, the Barrow’s Goldeneyes, and the Snow Buntings. Each and every one of these species is almost certainly in the Calgary area each winter, though their numbers are also known to fluctuate quite a bit.
And last but not least, how could anyone forget the various winter birds of prey that make their way into my area of Alberta on a regular basis. Even in non-irruption years, Snowy Owls are found in Southern Alberta in small numbers, though, as I wrote in my post for Birds Calgary, we seem to be benefiting from the irruption that has been well documented in the Eastern United States and Canada, if only slightly.
Another winter owl that seems to vary in number each year, depending on food supply, is the Northern Hawk Owl. There are at least four individuals that I know of in the Calgary area, and likely a dozen more that are simply hunting in places that either birders don’t get out to very often, or aren’t being reported.
Gyrfalcons are a favourite winter bird of mine, for the completely arbitrary reason of my having stumbed across one in a very unexpected area when I first really started my obsession with listing. I believe it was also one of my very first eBird submissions.
And of course no discussion of winter raptors would be complete without mentioning the Rough-legged Hawks, who come in color morphs as varied as the Swainson’s Hawks, with some incredibly pale, and some so dark as to potentially be mistaken for a Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk, much like this one I photographed earlier this year.
So long, winter birds. Not only because Spring is on the way, but because spring birds are on the horizon, and while you’ve kept us in good company over the coldest, and darkest months of the past year, we’re ready for the warblers, the gulls, the shorebirds and the swallows!