Birding the Alberta Grasslands – a photo essay

The Burrowing Owl - one of the most endangered birds in the grassland region.

The Burrowing Owl – one of the most endangered birds in the grassland region.

Living in Calgary in the south of Alberta, I have the great fortune to be able to spend the summer camping season in a number of very enjoyable, and very different, regions only a few short hours way: from the mountains to the west, the parkland to the north and the grasslands to the south and east. Unfortunately, the grasslands have rapidly become one of the most threatened regions in North America. As the Alberta Wilderness Association informs on their website:

‘The North American grasslands, or Great Plains, extend from Mexico, across the U.S., and into the three Canadian prairie provinces. The northern portion of this vast ecoregion is referred to as the Northern Great Plains and covers more than 720,000 km2, sweeping across five states and two provinces: Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Because temperate grasslands are particularly suitable for agriculture, an estimated 99 percent of the non-urban grassland landscape is either under cultivation or livestock grazing. Only about 1.5 percent of the Northern Great Plains is located in protected areas such as parks and reserves.

Although it is facing enormous threats, Alberta’s prairie region contains some of the world’s best and most important remaining grassland, but today less than 1 percent of Alberta’s Grassland Natural Region is protected.

The grasslands region is now considered one of the most threatened ecosystems in North America. Most of the non-urban landscape of this region is either farmed or grazed by domestic cattle, with the additional threat of oil and gas development and its concomitant infrastructure of roads, well sites, and pipelines. Extensive fragmentation, invasion of non-native species, and loss of habitat is reflected in the number of endangered and at-risk grassland species in the southeastern corner of Alberta.’

In the hopes of raising awareness of this issue I would therefore like to highlight some of the 30 or so grassland bird species that inhabit the region, a disproportionate number of which are endangered:

Western Meadowlark - a nice splash of colour in the grasslands

Western Meadowlark – a nice splash of colour in the grasslands

Western Meadowlarks are ubiquitous in summer and their song is literally music to my ears on early mornings.

Horned Larks - very common in SE Alberta grasslands

Horned Larks – very common in SE Alberta grasslands

Equally common is the Horned Lark, which must be a pretty hardy bird as it chooses to over-winter in Alberta.

Along with Ferruginous and Red-tailed Hawks, the Northern Harrier is also one of the key raptors of the region. The shots below were one of those moments where opportunity meets preparation…I’d gotten into a good shoting position with the sun at my back and was waiting for shorebirds at a marsh when I spied this Harrier starting it’s low altitude hunting circuit of the marsh, so knowing how wary the Harrier is, I crouched down behind some reeds and waited. As the Harrier came within range I popped up and grabbed this close-up:

Northern Harrier - getting this nice close-up was another highlight of the summer.

Northern Harrier – getting this nice close-up was another highlight of the summer.

A more common, yet equally-impressive raptor is the Swainson’s Hawk:

Swainson's Hawk - portrait of a raptor

Swainson’s Hawk – portrait of a raptor

That said, I have seen a Swainson’s take the bird below, a Long-billed Curlew, as prey. Indeed, it was quite a sad sight to see the dead Curlew’s mate trying in vain to rescue it’s partner and not something I’ll soon forget…

Long-billed Curlews that I've come across are quite territorial and not shy of coming into the middle of the road and challenging me & my vehicle!

Long-billed Curlews that I’ve come across are quite territorial and not shy of coming into the middle of the road and challenging me & my vehicle!

A Long-billed Curlew patrols a field

A Long-billed Curlew patrols a field

Other species of shorebirds also take up residence in the sloughs and ponds that dot the grasslands, from the Marbled Godwit:

Marbled Godwit fly-by

Marbled Godwit fly-by

Marbled Godwit

Marbled Godwit

through to the Willet:

Willet - sounding a warning call

Willet – sounding a warning call

Willet on a morning flight

Willet on a morning flight

and even the Spotted Sandpiper:

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper

And of course, the hardy and adaptable Killdeer, has also found a home in the grassland:

Killdeers usually see me before I see them and they let me know it with alarm calls, and sometimes a fly-by like this.

Killdeers usually see me before I see them and they let me know it with alarm calls, and sometimes a fly-by like this.

However, a ‘shorebird’ that is truly a grassland specialty is the Upland Sandpiper – quite a sizeable ‘peep’ that has a penchant for fence posts:

Upland Sandpiper - I have yet see one NOT on a fencepost!

Upland Sandpiper – I have yet see one NOT on a fencepost!

It would be remiss of me to not mention the multiple species of sparrow that also inhabit the region, from the numerous Savannah Sparrows:

Savannah Sparrows - a very welcome sight in spring, but seemingly everywhere by summer!

Savannah Sparrows – a very welcome sight in spring, but seemingly everywhere by summer!

Savannah Sparrow - singing away in early spring

Savannah Sparrow – singing away in early spring

to the equally-abundant Vesper Sparrow:

Vesper Sparrows battle with Savannah Sparrows to be the dominant sparrow of the grasslands.

Vesper Sparrows battle with Savannah Sparrows to be the dominant sparrow of the grasslands.

and also the handsome Lark Sparrow:

Lark Sparrow

Lark Sparrow

However one of my ‘target’ sparrow species this year were the longspurs of the grasslands. So it was personal highlight to see & photograph BOTH Albertan grassland longspurs this summer, and I must express my great thanks to fellow Albertan bird photographers George and Alan for very kindly helping me find these elusive birds:Chestnut-collared Longspur

Chestnut-collared Longspur

Chestnut-collared Longspur

I have to say that the Longspur is a skittish bird indeed, and it took me a LOT of waiting and patience to capture all of these images!:

McCown's Longspur with a nagging Brown Cowbird fledgling in tow

McCown’s Longspur with a nagging Brown Cowbird fledgling in tow

McCown's Longspur - a highlight of this summer for me!

McCown’s Longspur – a highlight of this summer for me!

Again, thanks to some fellow birders (George again!, and Ron) I was also able to get some terrific views of resting Common Nighthawks. While they may be ‘hawks of the night’, I have seen them regularly hunting (presumably insects) over Little Bow Provincial Park in the middle of the day:

The Common Nighthawk at its daytime roost - blending in quite well with this fence post.

The Common Nighthawk at its daytime roost – blending in quite well with this fence post.

A Common Nighthawk up close & personal

A Common Nighthawk up close & personal


But amidst what was genuinely a summer of birding highlights, perhaps the pinnacle was the rare and privileged opportunity to observe and enjoy one of the jewels of the grassland: the Burrowing Owl…

Burrowing Owls - with one just visible from the burrow entrance.

Burrowing Owls – with one just visible from the burrow entrance.

Burrowing Owl

A big thank you to fellow photog Ron for graciously allowing me to also enjoy this fantastic experience. As I’m sure most readers know, this owl is endangered and its numbers are dwindling in Alberta and elsewhere.

So, I hope you enjoyed this post, but I hope it also raised your awareness of the precarious position the Alberta grassland region is currently in.



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Early Autumn on the Prairies

While it’s still summer in Alberta, many areas in the province experienced snow yesterday (Monday). In our area, it snowed for just a short while, but then the melted away as the temperature reached a high of 5 degrees C.

Here are some photos from the past few weeks, of early autumn on the prairies. In this part of the country, we don’t go by the calendar, so just because the autumn equinox is several weeks away doesn’t mean it’s still summer. Day length is dramatically shorter already, nights are cooler, leaves are turning, and the sky is filled with the sounds and sight of migrating birds. As I write this, I can hear the Snow Buntings, Canada Geese, Sandhill Cranes, and American Pipits flying overhead.

Here’s a photo of a Swainson’s Hawk sitting on some of the small square alfalfa hay bales we made earlier this month,


Watching for mice,


Sandhill Cranes,


A bit closer,


A Yellow-rumped Warbler,


A Black-capped Chickadee,


Posted in Bird Canada, Canadian Birds, Grasslands Birds, Migration, Raptors | Tagged , | 4 Comments

What Hawk Is This? Or Is It a Hawk?

How are your raptor identification skills? These photos were taken in Calgary, AB in late August and those are all the clues you get. Can you identify this beautiful bird? Leave your best guess and reasons for it in the comments. Bonus points if you can identify what this bird is eating, because I can’t. Thank you Krista Beavis for sharing these stunning photos!

raptor1 raptor2 raptor3 raptor4 raptor5 raptor6 raptor7 raptor8 raptor9

Posted in Bird Canada, Raptors | Tagged | 7 Comments

September Birds on PEI

September is generally a fine month for birding on PEI. Shorebirds are on the move and fortunately some of us were able to take advantage of a Shorebird ID Workshop and Field Trip hosted by Island Nature Trust and led by well-known Island birder Dwaine Oakley. The afternoon at the beach in Borden, the Bedeque Bay Important Bird Area, offered the opportunity to see a number of birds now in our area.


Island birders participating in Island Nature Trust Shorebird ID Field Trip near Confederation Bridge

This has been great in preparation to participate in World Shorebirds’ Day. Our event on the Island is planned to take place, in that same area, on Sunday, September 7. Even though we are planning to count in this area, if one cannot join us, they can count shorebirds on the 6 or 7 anywhere.





Least Sandpipers

Least Sandpiper

Meanwhile, across the Island, all the other birds are on the move. Recently fledged birds are in the midst of migration, or preparing to go. Even those who do not move on are exploring the woods and finding food sources.

Juvenile Blue-headed Vireo

Juvenile Blue-headed Vireo

American Goldfinch and Scotch Thistle

American Goldfinch and Scotch Thistle

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper

And as we get closer to months’ end, we will be getting our teams together for the Bennett Fall Birding Classic. The count is a fundraiser for the Island Nature Trust. Participants gather pledges and plan to cover the Island. Teams will get together in the early hours of September 27 and find as many species as possible over a twenty-four hour period. Funds raised go to Island Nature Trust’s land acquisition program.

All in all, it looks like it’s going to be a busy month for birders in September!

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A Visit from a Vulture

Recently a young Turkey Vulture (cathartes aura) has become a frequent visitor in the yard of a Gabriola Island couple. Not knowing the sex, they call it Vic the Vulture – for either Victor or Victoria. Vic usually comes around every other day and spends up to an hour in the couple’s yard, drinking from their pond, sitting on a roof or railing, or enjoying the sun, like this:

Vulture sunning itself in the garden. Photo by Carol Baird-Krul.

Vulture sunning itself in the garden. Photo by Carol Baird-Krul.

Vulture drinking from pond in back yard. Photo by Carol Baird-Krul.

Vulture drinking from pond in back yard. Photo by Carol Baird-Krul.

Sitting on the fence. Photo by Carol Baird-Krul.

Sitting on the fence. Photo by Carol Baird-Krul.

Vic’s not-yet-red head and not-yet-fully-formed beak tell us he is a juvenile. In contrast, the Turkey Vulture (TV) below, spied sitting in a tree in the Gabriola Island “tunnel of trees” a few years ago, has the adult’s red head and sharp beak, perfect for tearing apart carcasses. Note also (if you can zoom in and enlarge the photo) the see-through nostrils! How cool is that?

Turkey Vulture in a tree. Photo by Brie McInnes.

Turkey Vulture in a tree. Photo by Brie McInnes.

Here on Gabriola we look forward to the arrival of the vultures, foolproof harbingers of spring. Though not the prettiest of birds (well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder), Turkey Vultures have important redeeming qualities including a highly-developed sense of smell that allows them to locate carcasses on the ground from high in the air. Garbage-eaters extraordinaire, with a natural immunity to the toxins of dead meat, they clean the forest floor of even the most putrid of meat without contracting botulism.  It seems only fitting that the Latin species name for them, cathartes, means ‘purifier’.

Turkey Vultures have also played a valuable role in locating leaks in gas pipelines in the United States, at least in years gone by. Engineers added a small amount of a gas that smells like slightly-rotten meat to natural gas pipelines (pure natural gas in unscented) and then monitored the line for gatherings of vultures. Where there were TVs, there was a leak.

Yet these amazing birds do have some unseemly habits. After a meal, for example, Turkey Vultures defecate on their legs. Apparently this helps them cool off. It also protects their feet and legs from the bacteria of the prey they’ve just devoured: their droppings contain an antiseptic coating. Although they can’t protect their vulnerable heads with this maneuver (!)  the sun takes care of any bacteria on their bald little heads. And if this isn’t uncouth enough, they’ll regurgitate and throw up their food for a variety of reasons, including to startle predators (that should do it!) and to lighten up.

Despite knowing these less-than-tantalizing things about Turkey Vultures, I love sitting on the back deck, feet up, watching them soar on the thermals, rarely flapping their long wings. Do you know how to recognize a TV (versus an eagle) in flight? It’s easy to tell them apart when you know what to look for. Here are the giveaways:

  • TVs hold their wings tilted up just a little, forming a slight V-shape or dihedral angle
  • TVs teeter slightly from side to side when flying at low altitudes
  • TVs have light-coloured outer underwings that can look white, grey, or even silver in the sunlight

If you see a young TV riding the wind currents of Gabriola it just might be Vic. Be sure to wave and wish him/her well. And let’s hope that when autumn comes, Vic joins a flock and heads south for the winter!




Posted in Bird Canada, Bird Identification | Tagged | 2 Comments

First post from New Brunswick! Carolina Wren

In my current stage of life, I am somewhere between a casual and avid birder. My wife and I have three boys under the age of four so I typically don’t drop everything to chase after a rare bird. Someday that will probably be me, but for now I am content to find as many birds as possible in the county where I live.

Carleton County is relatively “unbirded”. There aren’t a lot of reports from this part of New Brunswick as you can see here;

There shouldn’t be just one primary birder in a county and hopefully that will eventually change. It appears I go birding all the time, but that isn’t the case at all. There are a few other birders around and they use some of the other mediums I am about to describe. is what I use the most out of the different birding sites for New Brunswick. It keeps track of my life list for every province/state/country etc. where I go birding and I can see each checklist submitted by other users. Hopefully anyone who reads this posts already uses ebird, but if you don’t, go sign up!

Here are the other main birding sites/e-mail lists that I use in NB; – click on subscribe and you receive e-mails about sightings related to nature from all over the province. This has been running since 1996 and you can search the entire archives. – nearly 900 members! Scroll down and see a map where different members live. Lots of different forums here such as ID Requests and NB Birding Hotspots. – over 700 members. Full of recent sightings & photos as well as an excellent spot to get advice from experienced birders.

Each site or e-mail list is quite different. Some birders, like me, use them all while others might only use one. I keep trying to persuade more birders to use ebird. I will frequently mention this excellent tool because of its many features such as keep tracking of your life list for every province/state and country.

Just last night, a CAROLINA WREN made an appearance in my backyard. This was a new species for my yard and for any of my life lists. I checked all the different sites I highlighted above and it appears this is a first for the county.

Thank you for taking the time to read my first post and I look forward to doing so again on the 23rd of next month!


Nathan Staples





Posted in Bird Canada | 2 Comments

It’s still summer, but…


Taken by the author with a Nikon D5200 / AF-S 70-300mm

It’s still summer, so my post will be short once again, but I thought I could at least share a couple of Osprey pictures with you that illustrate a great success story here in British Columbia. Both of these photos were taken a few days ago in the Okanagan: The top photo of a solo Osprey was taken on the outskirts of Oliver and the one below of a watchful pair, right in the town of Osoyoos. They both show Ospreys on their nests, as they tend to their eggs or newly hatched chicks — some birds seemed far more advanced than others (perhaps some were taking care of a second clutch?).

In both cases, the birds were profiting from a program that provides these impressive birds with safe nesting options. These nests seem to have been installed everywhere in the valley, from the north (Vernon) to the south (Osoyoos), a 300 km stretch! I will try to find out more about this program over the next few weeks and months — if I succeed, perhaps I will write more about it here or on my personal blog.

In the meantime, I hope you are still enjoying the summer!


Taken by the author with a Nikon D5200 / AF-S 70-300mm

Posted in Bird Canada, Canadian Birds, Conservation, Raptors | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Happy Summer Holidays – extended!

Apologies for 2 months in a row of very short posts, but I’m camping most weekends which has not left a lot of time to sift through all my images. The good news is I’ve taken quite a lot of new shots, including several of personal ‘life’ birds :).

The shorebird fall migration is well underway here in southern Alberta and I’m doing my best to catch what I can. As a taster, here’s a shot of a Least Sandpiper (enjoying a little stretch) from the past weekend taken at a slough just around the corner from our campground near Bashaw.


Tim.Least Sandpiper

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Welcome to Prince Edward Island Birding!

Welcome new Bird Canada author Ron Arvidson from Prince Edward Island who will be posting the 5th of each month. It’s wonderful to have the Atlantic birds now represented on the blog! 

Ron was born and raised in Manitoba, and growing up had ranged freely through the wood and eastern slope of Riding Mountain National Park. In doing so, he always had an interest of the flora and fauna of the area. Since graduating University of Regina, he has lived and visited across Canada from Horsefly Lake, BC to Cape St. Mary’s, NL. Today, he lives in rural PEI, where as an Artist and Educator, he chases birds on PEI. He is Co-administrator of the Birding on PEI Faceboook page  and also contributes to the Blog

Ron with Kathleen and Fiep

Ron with fellow birders Kathleen MacAulay and Fiep De Bie. Photo by Sharon Clark

Shorebirds on the Move

At this time in Prince Edward Island, our focus begins to change from our warblers and breeding birds to the birds of the shore. For the past few weeks shorebirds have been appearing in numbers on our beaches. One of the areas I am most familiar with is along the south shore.

Bedeque Bay IBA

One of the areas that I frequently visit is that of the Bedeque Bay Important Bird Area. Recently, I have visited and have been able to find Semipalmated Plover and Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstones, Short-billed Dowitchers and both Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs. A Ruff was sighted in the area earlier this year and Godwits are also frequently seen. One can also see Black-bellied Plover and Dunlin later in the season.

Lesser and greater yellowlegs

Lesser and greater yellowlegs

As well as shorebirds, numerous other species take advantage of the area and one can find assorted gulls, marsh birds, ducks, geese and raptors. This is a great area to visit on Prince Edward Island throughout the seasons.

bald eagle

Bald eagle

shorebirds and gulls

Shorebirds and gulls

Posted in Bird Canada, Canadian Birds, Shorebirds | Tagged | 3 Comments

Those Incredible Cormorants

I was on vacation in Mexico years many ago when I noticed the tall black seabirds standing on the rocks, their wings held out from their sleek bodies like ballerinas. At the time, I wondered if the pose was unique to some crazy Mexican birds. Years later, waiting in Nanaimo for the ferry to Gabriola, I saw a row of the same birds standing along the pier, although not with their wings extended.

Cormorants at Nanaimo Harbour. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Cormorants at Nanaimo Harbour. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

By this time, though, I’d begun paying attention, and knew they were cormorants. I still wasn’t sure, though, why they sometimes held out their wings open.

Double-crested Cormorant drying its wings. Photo by Dave Stephens.

Double-crested Cormorant drying its wings. Photo by Dave Stephens.

Now I know that cormorants hold their wings out to dry because their feathers aren’t waterproof. There’s a good reason for this, of course: their wettable feathers, which don’t repel water (they have less preen oil than other birds), allow them to dive down deep for food. This video by the Wildlife Conservation Society shows an Imperial Cormorant in Mexico diving down 150 feet to the ocean floor to hunt for fish, amphibians, and crustaceans.

The cormorant’s unusual wing-drying pose has been a source of fascination for millennia. In medieval times, it decorated vases and shields. Later, it came to symbolize the Christian cross. In Paradise Lost, Milton created a Satan that, in an attempt to deceive and tempt Eve, disguised himself as a cormorant sitting atop The Tree of Life. Even Charlotte Bronté called on the symbolic power of this prehistoric-looking bird when she did a painting depicting the socialite fortune-hunter, Blanche Ingram, of Jane Eyre fame, as a cormorant. But I think Bronté was unfair to the cormorant.

The Double-crested Cormorant (phalacrocorax auritus), relative of frigate birds and boobies, is the most widespread cormorant in North America. British Columbia has two subspecies: the phalacrocorax auritus albociliatus, which breeds in the Strait of Georgia and Juan de Fuca Strait and is resident year round, and the phalacrocorax auritus cincinatus, which breeds in the Alaska and winters along the coast as far south as BC. Here on the Pacific coast the Double-crested Cormorant breeds in colonies of three to a few hundred nests made of sticks, seaweed, twigs and other marine debris. It is this cormorant’s double crest of stringy black or white feathers, which appears only during breeding season, that gives the bird its name.

The cormorant is easy to identify. Although adults of both sexes appear black from a distance, if you get up close enough you’ll see an orange-yellow face and throat, a hooked bill, and bright blue eyes.

Cormorant Comes Up for Air. Photo by Dave Stephens.

Cormorant Comes Up for Air. Photo by Dave Stephens.

If you’re lucky you might even catch a glimpse of the bright blue mouth interior. In flight, the crooked looking neck gives away the bird’s identity. Along the Pacific Coast, Brandt’s and Pelagic Cormorants overlap with the Double-crested. Brandt’s are a little larger and have a shorter tail. The adults have bluish (rather than orange or yellow) facial skin. Pelagic Cormorants are smaller, and have very thin necks and a tiny head.

Once prolific throughout the continent, cormorant populations in North America fell dramatically leading up to the 1960’s, probably due to the use DDT and other pesticides. When pesticides were banned, populations began to recover. By 1987, numbers were way up. Today, in most of North America, Double-crested Cormorant population levels have increased so much that these remarkable seabirds are now considered by some to be nuisance birds that compete with the fishing industry and kill vegetation. In many places, including Ontario, Double-crested Comorant populations have been “managed” by oiling eggs, destroying nests, and killing adult birds.

The situation is different in BC, where cormorant numbers have fallen precipitously since the early 1980s.  In 1983, for example, Mandarte Island was home to 1100 active nests. By 2000, that number had fallen to 215. In 2001 the Double-crested Cormorant was ‘red-listed’ (considered threatened) by the provincial government and deemed ‘a species of concern’ by the federal Committee on the Status of Endangered Species in Canada. Scientists suspect the decline is largely due to ongoing disturbance by ever-growing populations of Bald Eagles and egg depredation by gulls and crows. Cormorants also face, of course, the pervasive problems of all seabirds: oil spills, gill-net entanglement and toxic contamination.

Thanks to David Stephens for the use of his gorgeous photographs. To see more of his photos, go to:

Posted in Bird Identification, Nature Photography, Shorebirds | Tagged , , | 5 Comments