A fond farewell to Alberta’s Winter Birds

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.

immature male White-winted Crossbill April 2013

immature male White-winted Crossbill
April 2013

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.

male Pine Grosbeak November 2012

male Pine Grosbeak
November 2012

Pine Siskin February 2012

Pine Siskin
February 2012

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.

male Red-breasted Nuthatch February 2013

male Red-breasted Nuthatch
February 2013

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.

Hoary Redpoll February 2013

Hoary Redpoll
February 2013

Common Redpoll February 2013

Common Redpoll
February 2013

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.

Boreal Chickadee January 2013

Boreal Chickadee
January 2013

Barrow's Goldeneye January 2012

Barrow’s Goldeneye
January 2012

Snow Buntings February 2014

Snow Buntings
February 2014

Harris's Sparrow March 2012

Harris’s Sparrow
March 2012

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.

Snowy Owl January 2014

Snowy Owl
January 2014

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.

Northern Hawk Owl November 2012

Northern Hawk Owl
November 2012

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.

Gyrfalcon December 2011

December 2011

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.

dark morph Rough-legged Hawk January 2013

dark morph Rough-legged Hawk
January 2013

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!

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11 Responses to A fond farewell to Alberta’s Winter Birds

  1. Pat Bumstead says:

    Pine Siskins, Redpolls and other winter finches are birds of the boreal forest. In years of good seed cone production they rarely come this far south. Other years, when there is not such an abundance of food, they flock to bird feeders south of the forest. I have had neither species in my yard this year, but in past years I couldn’t keep the feeders full. They will be back at your feeders in a lean year!

  2. Gerrit Wyna says:

    I live on an acreage just north east of Sundre . Normally around this time of year need to fill my niger seed feeder daily because of the Pine Siskin, this spring ? not a one. I get lots of American Gold Finches but no pine Siskin or Red Pole. I understand Pine Siskin sometimes don’t micrate and stay around Texas. Could this one of those years?

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  5. Bernard Tremblay says:

    Dan, I particularly like the photo of the snow buntings in the branches. I usually see them on the ground. Bernard.

  6. Tim Hopwood says:

    Great post, Dan! I got into birding about 2 years ago and took the winter finches for granted…but after this winter I will be grateful when they return! At least some unusual owl sightings in Calgary this winter have helped fill the void.

  7. Beautiful photos, Dan! If only we had Barrow’s Goldeneyes and Boreal Chickadees here in the winter, then I would really enjoy winter!

  8. Lorrie says:

    Always enjoy your posts and photos. Thanks Dan!!!

  9. Kerri says:

    Great post Dan – I really missed seeing the redpolls, crossbill, grosbeaks this year – but I’m sure they’ll be back!

  10. Kerri says:

    Absolutely stunning captures of these beautiful birds!