First Captive Born Greater Sage-Grouse

Calgary, AB – One of Canada’s most critically endangered birds is one step closer to being saved from extinction. Eleven greater sage-grouse eggs, collected from the wild, have hatched successfully and are being reared at the Calgary Zoo, marking a conservation first in Canada.

Chick 5_wm

“We are extremely pleased to have developed a process with the Alberta Government of safely finding, moving, and hatching sage grouse eggs that have been collected in the wild,” says Dr. Axel Moehrenschlager, Head of Conservation & Research at the Calgary Zoo. “We are demonstrating immediate action to respond to the species’ imminent risk of extinction in Canada. This is the first step towards founding a captive population that can serve to recover the species in the future.”

The eggs were gathered in southeastern Alberta where it is known that greater sage- grouse nest. A single egg was collected on May 9, 2014 and 12 eggs were collected from a single nest on May 15, 2014. Of the 13 total eggs, unfortunately two chicks did not survive following their hatching.

The chicks will be housed at the Calgary Zoo’s Animal Health Centre where they are receiving exceptional care. Soon they will be transferred to the zoo’s Devonian Wildlife Conservation Centre where captive breeding, rearing, and conservation research will be initiated.

The decision to start a captive breeding program at the Calgary Zoo was one of five recommendations from a January 2014 symposium that discussed how to prevent the species’ extinction from Canada. More than 40 national and international experts attended including biologists, wildlife modellers, government representatives, local ranchers and the energy industry.

The Calgary Zoo’s Centre for Conservation & Research has been working with Alberta Environment & Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD) since then to coordinate both monitoring and egg retrieval in the wild. Simultaneously, facilities and animal care expertise have been refined at the Calgary Zoo in order to prepare for the hatching and raising of greater sage-grouse chicks.

Populations of the greater sage-grouse have been declining by 98 per cent over the past 25 to 45 years with fewer than 138 birds remaining in Canada split between two isolated populations in 2013 – southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan. Earlier this year the federal government issued an emergency order under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA) to prevent the extinction of the species.

Posted in Bird Canada, Conservation, Grasslands Birds | Tagged | 2 Comments

My 2014 Baillie Birdathon

Cross-post from my blog Prairie Birder:

Thursday, May 29th was my “green” Baillie Birdathon which was not only the wettest but also possibly my best Birdathon so far. I decided that I’d do a “green” birdathon because I wanted to focus more on the birds around our area and also I wanted to reduce my carbon footprint even by just a little bit, since I live in an area where vehicles are essential for every day life.

In the very wet rainy morning, at around 7:40 am, I started walking to the slough across from our house where I was able to find many species of waterbirds, including Black Terns, Yellow-headed and Red-winged Blackbirds, Blue-winged Teals, American Avocets, a Sora, and American Coots. However, the large flocks of shorebirds that I had seen days before were nowhere to be seen. From where I was standing, I could hear Baltimore Orioles, Yellow Warblers, and House Wrens singing in the trees that grow along the slough on the south side. By this point, the rain was coming down quite heavily making it very difficult for me to use my camera and binoculars, so I wasn’t able able to take many photos at the beginning of my day.

I walked over to the woods where I added Tennessee Warbler, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Ruffed Grouse, Red-eyed Vireo, Least Flycatcher, Song Sparrow, and White-throated Sparrow, just to name a few. As I was walking further into the woods, I was very excited to find three Magnolia Warblers and two American Redstarts (Alberta firsts for me!) along with a very secretive Common Yellowthroat making its “wichty-witchy” song, Clay-colored Sparrows, a Swainson’s Thrush, Alder Flycatchers, Black-billed Magpies, and European Starlings. When I came out of the woods I set up my scope again to look at the slough, and saw two Ring-necked Ducks feeding in the reeds with a pair of Northern Pintails, Ruddy Ducks, Redheads, and Green-winged Teals. After scanning through all the ducks, I moved my attention to another spot that shorebirds favor — all I could see were American Avocets, and then, as I was about to put the lens cap on my scope, a Black-bellied Plover (first of season) came into view. So far, the first hour of my Birdathon, though very wet, was very productive!

An immature male American Redstart,


After the slough I headed for home — I needed dry clothes and a hot breakfast. I sat in our window seat and tallied Barn Swallow, Bank Swallow, American Goldfinch, Savannah Sparrow, House Sparrow, Sprague’s Pipit, Wilson’s Snipe, Western Meadowlark, and a Common Raven all while eating breakfast.

Indian Lake (west of our house) was the next stop on my list, and there I spotted very co-operative Le Conte’s Sparrows, a dozen Eared Grebes, and two dozen Common Goldeneyes with the males displaying. I also heard another Common Yellowthroat, but this time I was able to see the Common Yellowthroat quite clearly.

One of the Le Conte’s Sparrows,


From the lake I walked to what we call our One Hundred Acre Wood, although it’s actually only 18 acres. The woods were alive with Baltimore Orioles, Least Flycatchers, two White-breasted Nuthatches, Yellow Warblers, House Wrens, Eastern Kingbirds, a single Yellow-rumped Warbler, and mosquitoes. As I was looking at an American Redstart, I heard a bird that sounded different from the others. I was trying to find out where the singing was coming from, and although the bird was singing in the tree above me, I couldn’t see it. My binoculars weren’t helping either — they were fogging up and the lenses were smeared from the rain. I could hear that the bird sounded like a vireo, but it didn’t sound quite right for a Warbling or Red-eyed Vireo. Finally, after trying to locate the bird for 10 minutes, I could see through my binoculars the bold white spectacles and blue-gray head of my lifer, Blue-headed Vireo! After seeing the Blue-headed Vireo I thought my day couldn’t get any better, but shortly afterwards first of season Blackpoll Warbler and Philadelphia Vireo added to my excitement.

My lifer Blue-headed Vireo,


Our woods,


I left the woods and started walking over to our farmyard where I picked up Rock Pigeons, Red-tailed Hawk, Swainson’s Hawk, Brown-headed Cowbirds, and Vesper Sparrows. At our farmyard, I checked on our two-day old chicks and turkeys, and fed the dog and laying hens. After I fed everyone, I continued searching for more birds. I walked past our shelterbelt trees, but didn’t find anything new. I continued on, hoping to find Canvasbacks on our neighbor’s slough and Chipping Sparrows in the spruce trees. As I was nearing the slough, I heard Chipping Sparrows “trilling” in the trees, but then saw two birds gleaning insects from the spruce tree — they were Western Kingbirds. Western Kingbirds are a common sight to see in southern Alberta, but not so much in my area. I watched the kingbirds for a while then scoped out the slough, finding a Red-necked Grebe, Canvasbacks, and a Pied-billed Grebe.

One of the two Western Kingbirds,



A female Brown-headed Cowbird,


The last slough I visited is the one just North of our house, in a neighbor’s pasture. On the slough, I found a male and female Cinnamon Teal and a pair of Horned Grebes.

Horned Grebes,


I finished my Birdathon at home with my last two species, a Cliff Swallow and a Ruby-throated Hummingbird at our feeders. Altogether my Birdathon was terrific and I tallied 82 species.


So far I’ve raised $920 of my $1,000 goal for the Birdathon, with half of the funds earmarked for the Edmonton Nature Club. Thank you to everyone who has supported my Birdathon this year, I greatly appreciate all of the encouragement. If you would like to help me reach the rest of my goal, you can visit my team page. Your support will be greatly appreciated, not just by me but by both of the groups receiving my funds — Bird Studies Canada and theEdmonton Nature Club. Thank you and happy birding.

A list of all the species I saw on my Birdathon:

Pied-billed Grebe, Horned Grebe, Eared Grebe, Red-necked Grebe, Canada Goose, American Widgeon, Mallard, Blue-winged Teal, Cinnamon Teal, Green-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler Northern Pintail, Gadwall, Canvasback, Redhead, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Ruddy Duck, Swainson’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Ruffed Grouse, Sora, American Coot, Black-belled Plover, Killdeer, American Avocet, Willet, Short-billed Dowitcher, Franklin’s Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Black Tern, Rock Pigeon, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Alder Flycatcher, Least Flycatcher, Western Kingbird, Eastern Kingbird, Blue-headed Vireo, Warbling Vireo, Philadelphia Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Black-billed Magpie, American Crow, Common Raven, Horned Lark, Tree Swallow, Bank Swallow, Barn Swallow, Cliff Swallow, Black-capped Chickadee, White-breasted Nuthatch, House Wren, Swainson’s Thrush, American Robin, Sprague’s Pipit, Tennessee Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, American Redstart, Common Yellowthroat, Chipping Sparrow, Clay-colored Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Le Conte’s Sparrow, Song Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Western Meadowlark, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Common Grackle, Brown-headed Cowbird, Baltimore Oriole, American Goldfinch, and House Sparrow.

* * * * * * * * * *

If you participated in your own Baillie Birdathon this year, please let me know in the comments below and I’ll add a link to your page in this post!

Posted in Bird Canada, Bird Conservation Canada, Birding Trips, Canadian Birds, Citizen Science, Conservation, Corvids, Grasslands Birds, Hummingbirds, Migration, Raptors, Shorebirds, Songbirds, Waterfowl, Wood Warblers | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Guest post from a Saskatchewan birder

Hello, my name is Shannon Gilmour and I live on a small acreage near Swan Plain, Saskatchewan. My family and I moved here seven years ago from small town Alberta, and have affectionately claimed Saskatchewan as home. The winters I do not think we will ever get used to, but that’s a small price to pay when you have a wilderness for your backyard! There is something to see all year round. With the cold stiff air of winter’s chill, a crow is often heard in the distance, with a blue jay in swift reply. However, with the lure of the spring, and the thawing creek just a short walk past my window welcoming geese, and ducks that I never knew existed let alone had a direct flight path through the province.

The Canada goose is a mainstay everywhere, but there is something different about seeing them paired up in a natural habitat wading through icy water instead of watching them waddle their way through the grounds at a park or zoo.


The scaup, although not a frequent flyer to central Saskatchewan, found its way to our creek bed and stayed for two weeks, making friends with a pair of Teal ducks, who would rarely leave the lone duck on his own for very long.



This year, it’s a Mallard pair and it seems that since they have taken up residence on our property, Mallards are what I see everywhere. They seem to like the flooded ditches along the highways, and back roads but as the heat of the summer arrives drying up the ditches, I imagine seeing these birds will be less frequent as they seclude themselves to the many natural marshes and preserved wetland habitats.


Spring seems to have arrived in our neck of the woods, as our property is only a few miles from the forestry, and that enables us to see an eclectic array of birds such as the long-eared owl. The mother owl was kind enough to allow us to get close enough to take a few pictures. I need to add a word of warning, that a mother with newly hatched owlets or fledglings is a very protective and a dangerous bird. Had I known that owls do attack, I would not have approached as close as I did. She clacked her beak at me from above as she perched in the tree. The talons in the picture do not give this lovely lady justice as seeing those claws with my eyes, gave me great respect and our family gave her and her family the space they needed. This family took up residence near the greenhouse and needless to say, the greenhouse was not used that year. We noticed that three owlets were significantly bigger than two and it turns out that if a clutch is lost, the mother will lay another clutch three weeks later. Although this double brooding is rare, it isn’t uncommon.




One thing I found really hard to get used to living out in the country was not the silence, or the undulating croaking of the frogs, or the chirps of the crickets; it was the obsessive cawing of the crow calls. It seemed every where I went, a crow was sure to follow. Any quiet time in the garden was soon carried away by a distant and then not so distant call of a crow. I was convinced that one call was to bring in a whole murder of them! That was one call I could not get used to, the clicking, the warbling and that caw-caw- caw nature in a laugh like tone. It was if they knew they were irking me to no end. It was my mission to beat the crows, to finish my work in the yard before they came ‘a- calling’. That never happened, because even with the window closed when I was nestled in the house, I could still hear them. They would perch themselves on the tallest tree and look in the direction of the living room window and squawk. My obsessive listening to their calls drowned out the squeaky trill of the sap sucker, and the loud playful banter of the blue jay. All my attention was given to the crow, and in retrospect, I think that is what they wanted.

It wasn’t until the day I had the opportunity to care for a fledgling did I begin to look at the crow differently. Seeing this helpless little black bird in a tree, helpless unable to move for some reason, my heart just flew into instinct mode to help. It only took a week and this little creature was back with its parents, as I was extremely careful not to impose myself on him. During that time, I got to know his species a bit better, they call just like any other bird; to mate, to feed, to warn, to calm, to direct. They really have an extensive system of calls but I’m still convinced they are smart enough to know when their calls are bugging you and milk that baby for all its worth. But I found out that if you just treat them as with any other bird, respect and admiration and ignore their silliness, they will fly off to let someone else listen to their voice, as I am also convinced, they caw just to hear themselves talk But I say this affectionately of course.

The crows it turns out, are respectful of other birds, and with that said, I am able to sit in silence while listening to the other bird songs, well in truth, I think after seven years, I just became good at tuning the crows out!

Posted in Bird Canada | 1 Comment

Big babies, little mamas

Last summer I watched an exhausted-looking Chestnut-backed Chickadee valiantly feed a demanding Brown-headed Cowbird chick about four times its size. Here’s the cowbird, waiting (impatiently) while the harrowed chickadee gathers food to bring back to him.

Brown-headed Cowbird waiting (impatiently?) for the chickadee to return (again!) with more food.

Brown-headed Cowbird waiting (impatiently?) for the chickadee to return (again!) with more food.

The year before I’d watched a female Song Sparrow in our back yard feeding a “baby” much bigger than herself.

Brown-headed Cowbird being fed by Song Sparrow.

Brown-headed Cowbird being fed by Song Sparrow.

This behaviour, called ‘brood parasitism’, is practiced by about ten bird species around the world, including the Brown-headed Cowbird and the Cuckoo.

Reed warbler feeding cuckoo, another "brood parasite". (CC license. Image by Harald Olsen.)

Reed warbler feeding cuckoo, another “brood parasite”. (CC license. Image by Harald Olsen.)

Brood parasites lay their eggs in the nests of other birds rather than make their own nests and raise their own young. Typically, a cowbird locates a nest during its construction phase and waits until the host lays an egg or two. Then, when the host bird has left the nest for a while, the cowbird removes (and occasionally eats) one of the eggs – but only if there are two or more. If there’s only one egg in the host nest, the cowbird might not remove it for fear the host bird will abandon the nest. In a retribution scenario that scientists call the ‘Mafia hypothesis’, if the host bird recognizes and removes the cowbird egg, there’s a chance the cowbird will return and kill all the host’s eggs. How’s that for intimidation?

Eastern Phoebe nest with Brown-headed-Cowbird-egg. (CC license. Image by Gala Webdesign.)

Eastern Phoebe nest with Brown-headed-Cowbird-egg. (CC license. Image by Gala Webdesign.)

When circumstances are right, the cowbird usually lays one egg in the host’s nest. When that egg hatches, the nestling is generally much larger and grows much faster than the host’s young. It ends up with more than its fair share of the food because of its loud and persistent calling. The host bird’s young often die from malnourishment.

Shiny Cowbird being fed by Rufous-collared Sparrow. (CC license. Image by Dario Sanches.)

Shiny Cowbird being fed by Rufous-collared Sparrow. (CC license. Image by Dario Sanches.)

The Brown-headed Cowbird is known to have successfully parasitized 144 of 220 bird species. But not all bird species are cooperative hosts. Some reject and destroy cowbird eggs. Others accept the egg but never successfully rear cowbird chicks. As a result, only about 3% of cowbird eggs are successfully hatched and raised. In spite of this, the Brown-headed Cowbird continues to expand its range and population numbers. Curious about that seeming paradox, I went digging.

It turns out that the breeding behavior and physiology of the species is unique. Basically, the Brown-headed Cowbird is almost always fertile and busy engaging in ‘breeding behaviour’. The female has a long reproductive period with a short interval between clutches. In fact, she is the only wild passerine (perching songbird) whose breeding organs don’t change much after laying eggs. Because of the unclear physiological demarcation between clutches, ornithologists sometimes refer to female cowbirds as passerine chickens. Each female’s laying cycle appears adapted to take advantage of a continuous supply of host nests for a two-month period. An average female cowbird lays about 80 eggs, 40 per year for two years, and about 3% of those 80 eggs end up as adults. Such high productivity more than compensates for the excessive loss of eggs and young in the nests of inappropriate hosts. Each pair of cowbirds replaces itself with an average of 1.2 pairs which will double a cowbird population in eight years. It doesn’t hurt that Brown-headed Cowbirds are remarkably flexible when it comes to mating. Let’s just say they’re not fussy who they make babies with.

What’s going on here? Did the maker of all things have a bad day? Is this a glitch in an otherwise remarkable natural system? Probably not. It turns out that a century ago the Brown-headed Cowbird, sometimes called a Buffalo Bird, was confined to the open grasslands of middle North America, where it ate weed seeds and followed herds of buffalo, eating the insects stirred up by their feet. In return, the buffalo allowed the cowbirds to sit and rest on their backs, eating the bugs and insects that were attracted to the buffalo. It was a win-win.

Today, of course, most of the tall grasslands of central North America have been turned into farms, and we are unlikely to see herds of buffalo roaming around. The Brown-headed Cowbird is found all over the continent now, parasitizing more and more birds, and threatening the continuation of certain species in “an evolutionary arms race between parasite and host.” (Wikipedia) But don’t blame the cowbird! It didn’t kill the buffalo or raze the grasslands to make way for agribusiness – human beings did that.

Posted in Bird Behaviour, Grasslands Birds | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The Excitement of May

Until I started birding, I always thought of Ontario as a somewhat dull place and couldn’t ever imagine wanting to travel the province. I fled at every opportunity. To think of what I had been missing all these years!

As a birder, there’s nothing more exciting than being in Southern Ontario during the month of May, when the spectacularly colourful migrant songbirds grace the shores of Lake Erie and early days alight with warbling song. I made my first trip out to Point Pelee National Park a few weeks ago and wasn’t disappointed! Right before we got to Pelee, we stopped near the fabled St. Clair Marsh and saw several Yellow-headed blackbirds. How such a stunning bird could have such a cacophonous croak of a song is one of the great avian injustices or perhaps just mysteries. Nevertheless, it was beautiful.

Photo from here.

Photo from here.

At Pelee, the warblers literally hung out at our feet — they must have been so exhausted from their night of travel. I saw Scarlet tanagers strolling along the beech, an Orchard oriole leisurely ambling at the base of a tree. At Pelee I saw close to 20 species of warblers without succumbing to the infamous “warbler neck”! I didn’t even have to look up! Highlights included Bay-breasted, Blackburnian, Black-throated green, and Chestnut-sided warblers and my first look at a Northern waterthrush. Glorious Indigo buntings paraded their brilliant colour for us, and Ovenbirds sang up a storm. From Pelee, we made our way over to the hamlet of Erieau, where we saw a Snowy Owl — an incredible, and somewhat frightening sight in the middle of May — hunkered down in a field, a bit confused as to his own whereabouts.

Next up was Rondeau Provincial park, where we saw most of the same songbirds, but at eye level. Rondeau has a number of beautiful trails through sloughs, which are prime Prothonotary warbler habitat. Though we narrowly missed the Prothonotary, circumstance treated me to fabulous looks at a Canada warbler (which I misidentified as a Hooded, and suddenly I found myself surrounded by a dozen eager Hooded-seekers only to have to announce that I’m a beginner and, alas, a good percentage of what I call out is wrong, to which they smiled; we’ve all been there, the smiles told me). The feeders at the Visitor’s Centre attracted a glorious Red-headed woodpecker, scores of Baltimore orioles, Rose-breasted grosbeaks, and other delightful specimens. The evening ended with an otherworldly American Woodcock aerial courtship display, where the male hurls himself into the ether, spins around wildly in wide circles two or three times, and then plummets to the ground with a yelp and then performs the acrobatic feet all over again. The last thing we heard on our way out of the park were Whip-poor-wills calling.

Oh Southern Ontario…there’s no other place I’d rather be in May!

Posted in Wood Warblers, Woodpeckers | Tagged | Leave a comment

Western grebe new conservation status


Two bird species were assessed at the most recent meeting of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), held in Halifax. Owing to population declines that have been taking place on its Pacific coast wintering grounds, COSEWIC assessed the Western Grebe as a species of Special Concern. Jon McCracken (Bird Studies Canada’s Director of National Programs), who co-chairs COSEWIC’s birds subcommittee, says that we don’t yet know the extent to which some of the decline may just represent a geographic shift in the grebe’s wintering distribution. Because the species congregates in large numbers, it is vulnerable to a variety of threats. 

COSEWIC also reconfirmed that the Prairie subspecies of Loggerhead Shrike is Threatened, and that its eastern counterpart in Ontario and Québec is Endangered. Like most other grassland birds, shrike populations continue to decline across North America. 

To learn more about these status assessments, and those for the other fauna and flora that were covered at the meeting, visit the COSEWIC website.

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Nova Scotia Barred Owl

We received an email from Tom in New Minas, Nova Scotia, which is in woods just north of the Gaspereau River. He was out walking his dogs when this barred owl flew up into a tree beside him. The owl just sat there looking at him as he took the photo, and didn’t seem to have a care in the world.

barred owl nova scotia

Do you have a bird picture you’re really proud of? Send it along to with a short note about where you took the shot and we’ll feature it on the blog. You don’t have to be a professional photographer – just someone who likes taking bird pictures. Let’s see how much Canadian cross-country representation we can get from reader submitted bird photos!

Posted in Bird Canada | Tagged | 1 Comment

Vancouver City Bird Competition and Bird Week

Black-capped Chickadee | Stanley Park, Vancouver, BC | March 2014

Black-capped Chickadee | Stanley Park, Vancouver, BC | March 2014

The past few weeks have been quite busy with respect to birds in the greater Vancouver area, but not simply because they are returning in droves. In order to draw more attention to the importance of birds, the City of Vancouver organized its first public City Bird competition and its second Bird Week. Both events culminated on May 10th with the International Migratory Bird Day.

Last year, the Northwestern Crow was chosen as Vancouver’s City Bird by a committee. This year, an actual “election” was held and featured six bird species running against each other for over four weeks, until the online “polls” closed at 7pm on May 10th. Six species vied for first place – the species that won the competition, with 277,924 votes, was the Black-capped Chickadee! If I’m not mistaken, that is more votes than the actual mayor of the city received in the last election (in all fairness, though, it seems certain people voted more than once than once in this particular election.

I have heard rumours that people in other cities in Canada are quite jealous of this competition… I would strongly urge you to encourage your municipal politicians to copy Vancouver, since this is a fun event that can also draw attention to the important role of birds and the environment in the overall health of a city.

And now, I will let the birds do the “talking” by showing you photos of the other five candidates (in alphabetical order):


Anna’s Hummingbird | UBC (Point Grey campus) | January 2014


Northern Flicker | Whytecliff Park, West Vancouver, BC | April 2014


Pacific Wren | UBC (Point Grey campus) | March 2014


Pileated Woodpecker (male) | Whytecliff Park, West Vancouver, BC | May 2012


Varied Thrush | UBC (Point Grey campus) | February 2014

Posted in Bird Canada, Birdwatching Events, Canadian Birds, Conservation, Corvids, Hummingbirds, Migration, Nature News, Songbirds, Woodpeckers | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Spring has sprung! – photographing birds in Calgary in April and May

Spring continues to roll on here in Calgary, and with it comes the usual unpredictable weather. The past three weekends has seen it be sunny, snowing and raining and various bits in between, however the birds continue to migrate northwards as best they can under the conditions. Likewise, I also endeavour to photograph these birds as best I can under the conditions!

Common Goldeneye drake

Common Goldeneye drake

Good places to check out migrating waterfowl are stormwater ponds and you never know what you might find. At this particular pond, there were a couple of paired up Common Goldeneyes as well as a pair of Buffleheads, with being quite wary and the latter particularly so.

A Common Goldeneye couple.

A Common Goldeneye couple.

Redhead male...on my belly for this shot.

Redhead male…on my belly for this shot.

For duck shots, I like generally like to shoot at ground level lying flat on my belly so as to get a ‘duck’s eye view’ of the world, as well as a nice out-of-focus background to isolate the subject bird in the picture. I try to pick a spot that has a wide field of view so I can pan with a moving subject without fear of tall grass blades or bulrushes getting in the way! I also take a garbage bag with me to use as a makeshift ground mat to keep me dry, that also easily folds away into my pocket. Then it’s just a matter of waiting for the birds to get back into their routine. The main downside of this shooting position is the strain on your neck, so be warned!

Bufflehead - female

Bufflehead – female

If there is little wind and the water is fairly still, I’m happy to shoot from a kneeling or standing position so as to get some nice water reflections.A25K9041d&b-final-contrast(crop)-fb

Wood Duck drake...a very photogenic bird.

Wood Duck drake…a very photogenic bird.

On a drive east of Calgary, I ran into a bevy of Rough-legged Hawks migrating in groups to the far north. At one point, there were no less than six hawks in one tree, and at least a dozen in my field of view! I typically find these raptors to much more flighty than the more common Swainson’s and Red-tailed Hawks, so I was pretty happy when one RLH kindly alighted next to the road and let me take some nice close-up portraits from my driver’s side window. Given I was so close, it was important to remember to stop-down on my f-stop (I went from f5.6 to f9) to increase the depth-of-field so that the whole head remained sharp.

Rough-legged Hawk - probably one of my favourite raptor portraits I've taken.

Rough-legged Hawk – probably one of my favourite raptor portraits I’ve taken.

As you can see, the light had been fairly decent those weekends but that all changed the following weekend when it snowed all weekend! Following reports of a potential migrant fall-out I headed out to some local parks to see what was about and treated to a number of birds that seemed way-laid by the weather. While the light was poor, you have to make the best of it & I thought it would make for somewhat interesting images to get some ‘summer’ birds in unusually wintry/snowy conditions: A25K7097d&b-final-mask-fb

Say's Phoebe - looking unimpressed by the snowfall.

Say’s Phoebe – looking unimpressed by the snowfall.

A Warbling Vireo in a snow-laden tree...not something I've seen before!

A Warbling Vireo in a snow-laden tree…not something I’ve seen before!

Along the Bow River there were also hundreds of swallows (Tree, Rough-winged, Violet-Green) flying up & down the river. They appeared to be drinking from the water occasionally, but I didn’t see any that seemed to be catching any insects or other prey.

Tree Swallow - I like the way he is looking at the viewer.

Tree Swallow – I like the way he is looking at the viewer.

Every now & then a bird would fly within shooting distance of the bank where I was, so not one to miss an opportunity I decided to practice some swallow flight shots. This was quite an effort with my 600mm lens and I had to take periodic rest breaks. My only tips here would be:  take lots of shots, and aim for the birds flying upwind…they are going slightly slower & give you ever-so-slightly more time to acquire the subject, focus & fire!A25K6428d&b A25K6390d&b-finalv2-fbViolet-green Swallow...those whit smudge spots on the wing are falling snow flakes!

Violet-green Swallow (above)…those white smudge spots on the wing are falling snow flakes!

Thankfully the weather was good again this past weekend & I checked out a park just 10 minutes from my house & was very happy to get up close & personal with the swarms of Yellow-rumped Warblers that have been passing through. I find these birds generally work in flocks and when I saw a group working their way down the creek bank about 30 meters away, I positioned myself in the path I expected them to head, ensured the sun was at my back for best lighting, & waited. Sure enough, a minute or two later I was surrounded by YRWs and got pleasing nice shots as they foraged around me before moving on.

Yellow-rumped Warbler hanging out.

Yellow-rumped Warbler hanging out.

And to complete my morning, out of seemingly nowhere a small flock of Western Tanagers popped up into the shrubs just across me. I have really only seen these tanagers in their duller post-breeding plumage, so I was delighted to shoot these tropical beauties in their full breeding plumage best. I hope you find them as much a feast for the eyes as I do!

Western Tanager - a real splash of tropical colour on a spring day.

Western Tanager – a real splash of tropical colour on a spring day.


(All shots taken with Canon 1Dx DSLR with Canon 600mm f4L ISII lens, most often with a 1.4X teleconverter attached. For long-range duck shots I have just started (last 6 weeks) using the 2x teleconverter and have been so happy with the results that I now consider it a vital part of my gear).

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Help Birds in Thunder Bay

I am wondering if you could get your readers to help. Here in Thunder Bay, the new Mckellar Island Bird Observatory is just starting out. The managers have entered the Observatory in the TBayTel For Good Contest whereby the regional Telecom company offers grants to worthy initiatives doing good in the community. However, it needs votes and the online voting runs until mid-June. A person can vote by entering an email address and then can vote everyday. If you could mention this to your readers, it would be greatly appreciated and this money could really help in developing and supporting the new Bird Observatory. Vote for the Mckellar Island Bird Observatory



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