Endangered Burrowing Owls Given a Head Start

Endangered species come in all shapes and sizes, and the Calgary Zoo is launching an innovative conservation project to save one of the most unique owls in the country — the burrowing owl.

burrowing owl

Working in partnership with Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC)’s Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) and Alberta Environment and Parks, this head-starting project will be the first of its kind in Canada. The process involves raising young burrowing owls from the wild into captivity for nine months to increase their overall survival.

“Our team worked side-by-side with federal and provincial field staff to gather 15 of the youngest owlets that may not otherwise survive,” says Dr. Axel Moehrenschlager, Director Conservation & Science. “Following an extremely successful first field season, we are very pleased with our progress to date and will continue to prepare for the next phase of the project. I am delighted that our team at the Calgary Zoo is able to lend our expertise to collaborate on such an exciting and ground-breaking project to help provincial wildlife resource managers keep burrowing owls in Alberta.”

After being collected in the wild, the owlets — who will grow to be no taller than a pigeon — are being cared for at the zoo’s Animal Health Centre before moving to their winter home at the zoo’s offsite Conservation Centre. In the spring of 2017, the young owls will be released back into the wild to breed, with their movements tracked using satellite transmitters.

“There is no doubt that Canada’s burrowing owls are in trouble. Their main challenge appears to be when they migrate south of our border each year. We believe this innovative idea is the best current option for protecting the owl,” stated Dr. Troy Wellicome, Species at Risk Biologist with the CWS.

The youngest owls from each nest seldom survive, especially in years with poor weather and little food. Few of those that survive return to Canada after migrating through the United States to and from their winter habitat in Mexico. This low return rate – whether because the owls die or simply decide not to return to their breeding grounds – appears to be the main problem for the species in Canada. This new head-starting project aims to address this key issue of low return rates for first-year owls.

“The Alberta Government is very excited to be a part of this unique conservation project to potentially save such a vital species in our province. The expertise that all partners share as a team is remarkable and paves the way for success with this important species,” says Brandy Downey, Senior Species At Risk Biologist, Alberta Environment And Parks.
Wild populations declined by a staggering 90 per cent in the 1990’s and continues to deteriorate. Burrowing owls are listed as Endangered under the federal Species At Risk Act (SARA) due to significant declines across their range in Canada’s southern prairies.

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Notes From a NW Ontario Backyard – August 2016

Hello again!

It has most definitely been ‘juvenile bird’ season around here.  My yard has been full of an assortment of juveniles:  Hummingbirds, Purple Finches, Chickadees, Red Breasted Nuthatches, Grackles, Starlings, Crows, a few Sparrow types, Eastern Bluebirds, Downy Woodpeckers ……

The Downies surprised me, actually.  I had only been seeing the adult female …… alone … no partner that I knew of.  Suddenly in late July, she shows up with a daughter!  The juvenile female was with her for quite a few weeks.  Still, I never saw the adult male.  One day, a juvenile male shows up but still, to this day, no adult male Downy to be seen.  She certainly had a boyfriend somewhere nearby but I still haven’t seen him.

Juvenile Purple Finch2

Juvenile Purple Finch … could be male or female; at this stage, they look the same.

Juvenile Male Downy

Juvenile male Downy Woodpecker in a sweet pose on my platform feeder

Juvenile Purple Finch 1

Juvenile Purple Finch in an adorable pose … curious about me.

I have to wonder if the juvenile male Downy had different parents ….. I never saw this adult female feeding him at all.

Downy Feeding

Adult female Downy Woodpecker (right) feeding her juvenile daughter in my crabapple tree.

One evening when I was outside, a juvenile Purple Finch was begging ….. and begging ….. and begging some more at an adult female, following her from tree to tree and only getting louder when the adult would give her/him a seed.  That juvie was the cutest thing to watch tho’.  🙂

Adult & Juvie Purple Finch

Adult female Purple Finch (left) not so patiently listening to the juvenile’s constant begging calls.

Possilve Juvie Savannah

Juvenile Savannah Sparrow? I stand to be corrected!

It has been a spectacular summer for Ruby Throated Hummingbirds in my area!  I’ve never had more than 2, maybe 3 Hummers in my yard at once before but this season, it’s common to have 4 and a few times, even 6!  They are in constant motion with juveniles and adults battling over the abundance of flowers in the yard and the 2 feeders.  It’s been an exceptional season for gardening for me so my yard is loaded with things in bloom:  lilies, daylilies, monarda, hosta, heliopsis, maltese cross, rudbeckia, mountain bluet, colmbine, gladiola, purple liatris, dahlias and others …. plus potted plants.  The number #1 favourite flower for the hummers, once again, is the monarda (bee balm).  They go NUTS for this flower!

Hummer 3

Female Ruby Throated Hummingbird at the lily patch

Hummer 2

Juvenile male Hummingbird at Impatiens

Hummer 1

Juvenile male Hummingbird in Monarda patch


A portion of the blooms in the yard: heliopsis (front), monarda (red), rudbeckia and more heliopsis in background

I was lucky enough to have an entire family of Eastern Bluebirds in my neighbourhood for most of the summer.  They didn’t nest in my yard but they were coming here daily to catch insects.  They are still around but not coming to my yard so much now.  They successfully raised at least 3 young that I’m sure of.  🙂

Male Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird on light post at the end of my driveway.

Grackles are returning in fair numbers once again.  They are looking pretty rough tho’!  Some, like this fellow, are molting their head feathers so they a.) look partially bald … b.) have a mix of blue & brown on the head … or c.) they are partially leucistic on the head with some white thrown in.  Also, some have dropped their tail feathers during the molt so they have the new short stubs coming in but still have 1 or 2 old tail feathers left.  Messed up!

Molting Grackle

Nearly bald Grackle during its molt.

I haven’t seen too many Common Nighthawks yet this summer.  Last night was the most so far for this summer, with a flock of 35 or so flying about the neighbourhood.

Nighthawk 1

1 of about 35 Common Nighthawks soaring over my neighbourhood.

Common Nighthawk 2

Common Nighthawk

The Hummingbirds aren’t the only ones enjoying then nectar-rich flowers.  My yard has been loaded with bees all summer too.  This one is looking a little beat up with tattered wing tips.

Bee on Monarda

One of hundreds of bees enjoying a Monarda blossom in my backyard

That’s about it from my yard for this month.  Hope you’re all enjoying your summer!  Thanks for reading ….. ‘see’ you next month!

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Okanagan Birding – a quick postcard from BC

My summer has been both busy and relaxing, which normally don’t go together in my world! I had a week’s vacation out in South Okanagan in July where I picked up a couple of ‘life birds’, one of which included the striking California Quail which are quite abundant in the area:

A male California Quail in early morning light on another warm Okanagan day.

A male California Quail in early morning light on another warm Okanagan day.

I plan to have a more comprehensive post in September once I have time to go through my images, including those from my trip to Vancouver Island way back in April!



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T.O. Backyard – Splish Splash


A Blue Jay enjoys a cool bath on a hot summer day.

Rob and I do not consider ourselves birding experts, but are always willing to share any knowledge we’ve gained over the last ten plus years of feeding the birds in our backyard. And when people ask my advice about attracting more birds to their backyard, I’m more than likely to respond with “Get a bird bath!” than anything else.

We were feeding the birds for a couple years before we added a bird bath. We didn’t see much change with the first one we bought, and after doing a little more research we found out why, it was too deep. After we invested in a better quality and shallow one from our local Wild Birds Unlimited, the bath action in the backyard was immediate and noticeable.

Finding water can be harder than food sometimes for birds, so providing fresh water is good for the birds, and it can add loads of entertainment to your backyard bird watching. We’ve gone from 1 bird bath to 3 or 4 in the summer. It can get very hot and humid in Toronto during the summer months, and the birds appreciate a cool drink and a place to bath. The baths are changed often throughout the day to keep the water fresh and clean. We provide fresh water in the winter as well, and have purchased a heated bird bath. We offer a variety of sizes and one of our larger baths sits on the ground. We often joke about the backyard being a “bird spa” as the popularity of the baths tends to grow as the temperature climbs.


Red-breasted Nuthatch


A young Grackle takes a peanut to the bath to soften before eating.


A female Baltimore Oriole


A White-crowned Sparrow enjoys the smaller bath I set up.


Pine Siskin


Water cooler talk between a Grackle and a Red-winged Blackbird. Maybe discussing their migratory route?


The bird bath is a popular spot on a hot day!


The ground bath is popular with the Pigeons but other birds enjoy it too.

And from the pictures below, you can see it’s not only the birds that make use of the bird baths.



Even the butterflies need  a place to get a drink. Red Admiral pictured here.

I found this article online from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology regarding bird baths and thought it may be of interest.

As with bird feeders, clean your bird baths regularly and change water at least once a day.

Til next time, and enjoy the rest of your summer!

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Ellis Bird Farm: Make your next birding trip A SURE THING!

Hey, we’ve all been there.  You’ve got an amazing birding trip planned:  you’ve picked the perfect location, the time of year is ideal and the weather couldn’t be better.  You eagerly arrive at your location with checklist in hand, ready to tick off one bird after another, but as you start looking for birds, something isn’t right.  It’s dead quiet…not a bird to be heard, not a bird to be seen.  You walk around for a couple of hours like a zombie in disbelief and eventually convince yourself a bird of prey must have swept through the area only minutes before you arrived ruining everything, and so you shuffle back to your vehicle with your feathers ruffled.  It happens…

Welcome to the Ellis Bird Farm where you can make your next birding trip a SURE THING!

Ellis Bird Farm

Old calving barn



Showcasing a variety of nest box designs, some of which are occupied!


When we first arrived at the Ellis Bird farm the morning of June 14th there was a little nervous anticipation…would this be another one of those trips where you go out in search of a particular species and are faced with utter disappointment?  It was a two hour drive from Calgary to Lacombe in Central Alberta and we wanted to see a purple martin BADLY!  As we made our way around the picturesque walking path we felt a surge of joy as we found what we were seeking–The Colour Purple–in abundance!!!

Purple Martins

They were EVERYWHERE! On metal artwork…


On the ground…


In the trees…


Purple Martin (male)

And in their houses…


Purple Martins

Purple Martins (female on the left and male on the right)


Purple martins are the largest North American swallow.  Every spring they begin a staggering 7000+ km journey from their wintering grounds in Brazil to Central Alberta (as well as other areas in Canada and the USA), sometimes covering up to 600 km in a single day, to breed in colonies — usually man-made apartment houses specifically designed for these birds. The original colony residing at Ellis was completely wiped out in 1982 after a severe storm (tree encroachment also played role), but fortunately in 1999, under the mentorship of Del and Debra McKinnon with Purple Martin Conservancy, efforts were made to re-establish their foothold.  Ellis now boasts a population of approximately 104 nesting pairs that is slowly increasing every year despite the fact that these birds are in in over-all decline. Fingers crossed they can max-out their 113 available compartments next year!


Adult males have beautiful deep iridescent, purple feathers covering their entire body.


The species suffered a severe population crash in the 20th century widely linked to the spread of European starlings in North America. Starlings and house sparrows compete with martins for nest sites and often push them out of an area, destroy eggs and kill nestlings.

Since 2012 Ellis Bird Farm has been participating in ground-breaking research using RFID (radio frequency identification) and geo-locator technology lead by scientist Dr. Kevin Fraser from the University of Manitoba. Their findings have profoundly helped our understanding of migration patterns and the challenges birds face–more information about this fascinating research and the story of Amelia, the first northern nesting martin to be tracked on her annual journey encompassing  21,000 km, from Ellis to Brazil and back, are available here.


Sub-adult males are often the hardest to identify, but will have at least one solid-purple feather either on their chins, throats, bellies, or undertails. They do not get their full plumage until the 3rd calendar year.


The average life span of a purple martin is 1 – 5 years, with the oldest martin on record being a whopping 13 years and 9 months old!  The first adult martins (male and female) usually begin arriving at Ellis the third week of April.  Male and female pairs build the nest together using straw, twigs, pine needles, leaves, mud and feathers.  They typically lay one clutch consisting of two to seven dull white eggs on which the female will spend seventy five percent of her daylight hours incubating for 15 – 18 days.  Only females can incubate eggs because only they have a brood patch– a featherless area rich in blood vessels that transfers heat to the eggs.

Young martins remain in the nest for 26 to 35 days and can be fed up to 60 times per day by both parents.  After fledging they continue to return to the nest for the night until they begin their migration back to Brazil in August.  According to RFID and geo data, most purple martins leave Ellis Bird Farm by Aug 20th–so you still have time to plan a trip and catch the action!

Purple Martin (female)

Adult females have purple on their head and back and do not have any purple feathers on their chest, belly, or undertail.


Other Birds

The Ellis Bird Farm is not only about purple martins.  There are plenty of other bird species that are so tame you can get a full-frame picture with your camera!

Tree Swallow


There are a large number of nesting swallows on the grounds and we couldn’t believe how calm they were. We began slowly creeping up on this tree swallow (trying to be stealthy) until we saw another guest walk right up and snap a pic 3 feet away…  Needless to stay we are not used to this approach, but it was rather liberating from the usual “tip toe through the tulips” strategy we usually employ.  Heck, it is one of the only places we know of where you could almost do “bird macro” photography:)


Tree Swallow Close-up


We were so focused on the purple martins and tree swallows it took a couple of minutes for us to realize a house wren was literally sitting on a bush a couple feet from our heads.  No wonder it sounded so loud!


House Wren


The farm has a large population of cedar waxwings and this one literally landed in front of us.  Sure it wanted berries, but hey, we are opportunistic birders!

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing

The Ellis Bird Farm has a long history with mountain bluebirds.  The founders of the farm, Charlie and Winnie Ellis, established bluebird trails along their property back in the 1950s.  By the 1990s, their farm supported the highest density of mountain bluebirds ever recorded at 105 paris! Unfortunately a horrendous snowstorm in 2008 devastated the population, reducing it to a mere 26 pairs, but Myrna Pearman (renowned author and operations manager at Ellis) said they are slowly making a come-back.  This year they had approximately 50 pairs and 2016 seems to be a banner year in most of Alberta.

There are some nature trails that you can walk that go beyond the central hub of activity near the visitor centre.  Some of the 350 nest boxes for mountain bluebirds are setup along these trails and we were fortunate to see a nesting pair.


Female Bluebird

Activities the Entire Family Can Enjoy

It is not only the abundance of purple martins and other birds that makes the Ellis Bird Farm a “sure thing,” it is a unique venue that combines local history, nature and a wide variety of activates the entire family can enjoy from toddlers to grandma and grumps (yes, even the grumpy ones seem to like it)!

There is a petting zoo that appeals to kids of all ages, baby goats, chicks as well as a very popular dipping pier for hot summer days!  Ellis is special in that it tries to concentrate on “educational experiences for visitors as opposed to mere entertainment.”


Dipping Pier


For those seeking more solitude there there are walking paths, ponds, benches, flowers, butterflies and beautiful gardens developed by Cynthia Pohl.  The gardens are an amazing example of “NatureScape” gardens mentioned in Myrna’s NatureScape Alberta book and are probably one of the only public organic gardens in western Canada.

NatureScape Garden


One of our favourite attractions that is sure to be a home-run hit with visitors is the Ellis Café.  This little gem features an open-air patio nestled in a garden amongst birds feeders, flowers and trees. It not only offers a cozy and intimate setting, but delicious food and drink under the master hand of chef Matt Burton–like the iced-chocolate mint green tea latte!  Move over Starbucks because this was so decadent we had two each–in fact, we have considered driving the 2 hours for lunch on more than one occasion (as if we need another excuse–but the food IS that good)!  It’s also fun to watch squirrels scamper about and hummers buzz nearby (they are not shy either and provide plenty of table-side entertainment)!

The Ellis Café uses locally sourced produce and makes everything from scratch!


Flower near the cafe

Flower near the cafe


The Ellis Bird Farm is a hidden oasis in the prairies and the perfect place to enjoy 2-8 hours of fun in the outdoors! It is a non-profit organization that runs solely on donations with a mandate based on conservation, education and scientific study. For bird lovers, if you have not picked up a copy of Myrna Pearman’s book on Backyard Bird Feeding, check it out–it is an outstanding resource and all the profits go to the Ellis Bird Farm–it’s a sure a thing!

For more information about the Ellis Bird Farm you can visit their website: www.ellisbirdfarm.ca.

A special thanks to Myrna Pearman for all the information she provided for this article.

Thanks for reading!

Marcy & Ray Stader
StaderArt Bird Blog

Posted in Bird Canada, Birding Trips, Canadian Birds, Conservation, Migration, Nature Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Notes From a NW Ontario Backyard – July 2016

Hello again!  Hope you are all enjoying your summer.

Around here, it’s juvenile bird time in the yard!  I’ve been having great fun watching & listening to families of birds at my few summer feeders & in my trees.  I’ve been watching juvenile Red Breasted Nuthatches, Black Capped Chickadees, Crows, Starlings, Grackles, Bluebirds, Chipping Sparrows & Purple Finches.  I’m expecting the arrival of juvenile Evening Grosbeaks any day now ….. the highlight of my summer!

Juvie Nuttie1

Juvenile Red Breasted Nuthatch

Juvie Chipping Sparrow

Juvenile Chipping Sparrow

Juvenile Crow (left) with adult

Juvenile Crow (left) with its parent

I’m beyond thrilled this summer to have a small family of Eastern Bluebirds nearby!  They didn’t nest in my yard but somewhere nearby in my neighbourhood and now, I’m lucky enough to watch them flitting around catching bugs.  The adult female likes to perch on the corner of my back neighbour’s eavestrough and hunt from there.  The adult male and one of the juveniles like to perch on the street light post at the end of my driveway.  One day last week, the adult male came down and landed on my back fence for a nice pose.  🙂  Every year, I’m so hopeful they’ll choose my birdhouse for nesting.  Fingers crossed!

Male Eastern Bluebird2

Male Eastern Bluebird on a line above my backyard.

Male Eastern Bluebird1

Male Eastern Bluebird on the street light at the end of my driveway.

Female Eastern Bluebird

Female Eastern Bluebird perched on my neighbour’s eaves trough.

I usually have Tree Swallows nesting in my birdhouse but this year, I messed up:  we forgot to clean out the house last fall so no one used it this year.  I’m so sad!!  First time in 10 years no one nested in my birdhouse.  Interestingly tho’, during the neighbourhood fledge week, I had over a dozen Tree Swallows going into & seriously squabbling over (at least, it looked like squabbling to me!) the bird house.  I’ve never seen them do this before since normally Tree Swallows completely vanish until the following year right after fledging.  And it wasn’t just my birdhouse either:  people reported the same activity all over town.  I have no explanation for it.

Tree Swallows2

Some of the Tree Swallows that lined up watching the birdhouse after fledging season.

Tree Swallows

Some of the Tree Swallows squabbling over the bird house the week after fledging season ended.

Tree Swallows3

A SERIOUS squabble over the birdhouse the week after fledging! I thought maybe they might try to have a second clutch but no.

Here are some photos of other feathered visitors to the yard in recent weeks:

Singing male Purple Finch

A lovely adult male Purple Finch, singing away

Pine Siskin

Pine Siskin – just starting to see them again after nesting.

Female Purple

Female Purple Finch drinking from the birdbath

Female Downy

Female Downy Woodpecker: she looked right at me just as I snapped her photo!

Cedar Waxwing

Lovely Cedar Waxwing in my Honeysuckle shrub – a half dozen of them have been around the yard much of the summer

Adult Chipping Sparrow

Adult Chipping Sparrow – they nest in my neighbour’s shrubs & come here to get more food.


Adorable Red Breasted Nuthatch that found a tasty morsel in my pine trees.

I found this adult male White Throated Sparrow in my flowerbed last week …. he was completely missing all of his tail feathers.  I don’t know what happened to him but he was fine at the time.

Tailless WT

Adult male White Throated Sparrow missing all of his tail feathers.

And this is my little pal, Chip.  He’s one of at least 5 Eastern Chipmunks that adopted my backyard this summer.  Chip will come and sit on my feet or run around me until I give him a snack.  He’s adorable and thankfully, he’s not doing any damage to my flowerbeds this year!  Last year, the Chipmunks dug up and destroyed all of my tulip & lily bulbs.  Next to none of either left in my beds!  Cute little terrorists ……


And that’s about it for this month.  Enjoy your summer and I’ll ‘see’ you in August!

Posted in Bird Canada | 6 Comments

TO Backyard – Keeping Birds and Cats Safe

Hello and welcome back to our Toronto backyard… and sometimes slightly beyond!

We have just started to see a couple Ruby-throated Hummingbirds coming around, usually at dawn and dusk.  FINALLY!

hummer hummer1

There has been no shortage of Cedar Waxwings high up in the trees as well. Seldom do they come down low except when the holly berries are ripe for picking later in the fall as the weather starts to turn.  We hear them more than we can see them.  But it’s still nice.


Of course we have a lot of the usual birds coming to visit our feeders and baths (Cardinals, Blue Jays, RWBBs, Grackles, Starlings, Gold Finches and House Sparrows) but I’ve not been in pursuit of taking photos as I try to just sit back and enjoy what is with us than try for pictures. Away from the yard, it has been very busy with all sorts of wildlife activity to share another time.

For this blog I want to share about enjoying the yard, and not just for us, but for our cats too. Free roaming felines can be a hot topic with some people. Some say there is nothing wrong with them doing this. Others loathe the cats wandering about. We have to agree with the later, while we love cats, but not when they are given absolute freedom to hunt and kill birds and other wildlife.

Our cats, Merry and Molly, just turned one year old recently.


We’ve been wanting to have them outside with us but know right now it would be too much to handle with the two of them on leash and harness. Our last cat Meadow loved being on the leash and she was great with all the backyard activity. In all her years, never did she ever harm another creature.

This is how she loved to spend summer afternoons with us out back. Just take in the warm sun and relax.


It was through a friend of ours that we learned about the KittyWalk products. She has one for her cat that lays across the deck. We thought about this for a number of days before deciding on the 10 ft long lawn piece.


The walk is a huge hit with Molly!


Merry, it can be hit or miss, as she’s a bit high strung and skittish. But we work with her and we are having more better days with longer outside periods with her.


Sure they aren’t as inexpensive as a leash and harness but they really do help keep the cats under control and the birds safe. Peterborough Ontario just passed a bylaw banning free roaming cats and hopefully other cities and towns will soon follow suit.

It’s an ongoing debate with some people. No matter how much you tell them about the bird kills, or even the dangers to their wandering cats, they still have their backs up about any sort of containment. They somehow think their cats are invincible to disease, cars and larger predators that may be in their neighbourhood.

This is a Great Horned Owl I found near our house a couple weeks ago. What cat could stand a chance if she silently came down on it?


Or how about momma Raccoon if someone’s cat got too close to her young?


Those who disagree might have a change of opinion if their cat ever brought home an Indigo Bunting in it’s teeth. This is one of the males nesting in a park near us. Photo’d July 2, 2016.


Some stats…


Even if you aren’t seeing your cat bringing home birds does not mean it’s not done harm to them in it’s travels. Not all cats bring them home as presents. Not all birds are killed right then and there. Some birds do escape, often flying off and dropping dead, being literally scared to death. Cat saliva is full of bacteria and a tooth puncture will also eventually be the death of a bird. Believe me, I know about cat bites, I received one and it put me out of work for almost 2 weeks. I was unable to move my fingers for 6 days due to the swelling. I was on intravenous antibiotics for 4 hours in emergency the first night. They wanted to admit me but they had no available beds. If one single cat bite can do that to a full grown man, just imagine what such a bite would do to a bird.

We love our cats and we love the birds that visit us. We work hard to enjoy both with us outside. I hope you do too, if you have a cat or two.

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Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park – Top 5 Birding Locations!

A Brief Introduction to StaderArtBirds (Marcy & Ray Stader)

As new contributing authors to Bird Canada, we are honoured to share our stories, images and videos of birds across this great country.  We live on an acreage just south of Calgary, Alberta and enjoy spending as much time as we can in nature.

Our discovery and appreciation of birds can be attributed largely to the lens of a camera. Photography provides us a glimpse into the elusive world of birds by enabling us to capture incredible detail that we would otherwise never have been able to see with the naked eye.  A beautiful bird in an amazing setting may only last a second or two, but with photography and video, we can permanently capture and appreciate that moment long after it has passed.

For us, it’s about Moments in time when time stands still…

We will be contributing a blog post to Bird Canada once a month (on the 5th of every month).  You can also follow us at StaderArtBirds where we regularly post images and stories about birds from Canada, and many other places around the world where we travel.


Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, an Oasis in the Prairie!

Spared from the glaciers that flattened everything in the Canadian prairies 25,000 years ago, the Cypress Hills are an anomaly in the landscape of southeast Alberta and southwest Saskatchewan.  More importantly, what it means to birders is that there are over 239 recorded bird species, and counting in this very unique and special place!

Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park

Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park

Over 30 years had passed since we last visited the Cypress Hills – long before either of us was an avid birder – so we embarked on the trip with much enthusiasm and anticipation!  We spent 5 days in the park and started birding at 5:30 am every single day.  It was epic, so much so that we need a vacation to recover from the vacation 😉


These are the top five birding hotspots we discovered in Cypress Hills:

Hotspot #1 – Elkwater Lake Shoreline Trail & Boardwalk

One of the best places for birding is the Elkwater Lake shoreline trail and boardwalk.  It’s a well constructed 3.4 km trail (one way) along the south shore weaving in and out of the marshes and willow thickets–a great habitat for birds! It’s also easy walking and very accessible for 2 legged creatures!

The boardwalk along Elkwater Lake


It seems Cypress Hills wanted to make a very good first impression with us.  Not more than 5 minutes into our first birding excursion on the very first day, we encountered a Red-naped Sapsucker!  This was pretty exciting for us as we don’t see many of this particular species.  After observing this bird for a little while, we realized that he and his significant other had a nest in a bush not more than 30 feet from us.   They were making pretty regular “air express” meal deliveries to the nest while keeping a wary eye on “invasive” species like us humans.

Red-naped Sapsucker

Red-naped Sapsucker


Common Yellowthroat Mania – Wow!  We have never seen an abundance of Common Yellowthroats quite like this before.  These little birds were everywhere, but nowhere.  We had to be extremely patient to get this photo.  We stood nearly motionless on the boardwalk for over half an hour and finally this little guy “came out of the closet” and revealed its striking beauty, but it was well worth the wait!

Common Yellowthroat


While totally focused on photographing the Common Yellowthroats, we almost missed the fact there was a Wilson’s Snipe perched on the boardwalk!  We think he was feeling a little bit left out over all the attention the yellow birds were receiving.

Wilson’s Snipe


Sometimes you get lucky…  or perhaps you create your own luck when you spend hours and hours in the early morning looking for birds.  After a few mornings along the Elkwater Lake shoreline trail, we had a very nice surprise when a Baltimore Oriole appeared out of thin air.  It only stayed about 10 seconds, just enough to steal this image.

Baltimore Oriole


If you lookup the definition of “random” in the dictionary, surely you’ll find “Song of a Gray Catbird.”  Most birds have a pretty repetitious song, but not the Gray Catbird.  At first it’s a difficult song to recognize, but with experience it becomes one of the easiest to identify because of its randomness.  Like the Common Yellowthroat, this Gray Catibird required A LOT of patience.  Most of the time it was buried deep in the vegetation and only on one occasion did it “show its quality.”

Gray Catbird


Cedar Waxwings also make themselves at home along the shoreline trail.  We usually found them in small groups of 3 or 4 birds foraging for berries along the trail.  We never tire of seeing Waxwings!



The shoreline trail ends where the road crosses over the lake and there are some fantastic wetland areas on both sides.  We watched Black Terns flying at high velocity picking up insects over the water.  It was extremely difficult to photograph them in flight (especially when they don’t face the right way) but eventually one of them felt sorry for us and perched on a post!  Thank you!

Black Tern

Black Tern


Species sighted: common yellowthroat, yellow warbler, red-winged black bird, red-naped sapsucker, white-crowned sparrow, tree swallow, black tern, gray catbird, baltimore oriole, cedar waxwing, red-necked grebe, canada goose, mallard, blue-winged teal, green-winged teal, northern pintail, lesser scaup, white-winged scoter, wilson’s snipe, ring-billed gull, caspian tern, belted kingfisher, mourning dove, northern flicker, american robin, eastern kingbird, red-eyed vireo, black-billed magpie, american crow, bank swallow, black-capped chickadee, song sparrow, brown-headed cowbird, turkey vulture, red-breasted nuthatch, veery, western wood-pewee, american white pelican, least flycatcher.


Hotspot #2 – Reesor Lake 

Although the shoreline trail along Elkwater Lake could keep a birder busy for weeks, there are some equally fantastic locations in other areas of the park.  Reesor Lake is one such destination worth visiting and it’s only 20 minutes from Elkwater townsite.

A few minutes before we arrived at Reesor Lake, something caught our eye high up in a tree.  We were looking into the sun so all we could see was a dark blob — a silhouette against the sky – but we knew it was something worth checking out.  We had to drive about 5 minutes further down the road to find a turnaround spot and come back toward the bird with the sun shining in the right direction, hoping the bird would still be there.  Yawza!  It was a beautiful Osprey!  We watched him for about 15 minutes before he eventually flew off, probably thinking about his next meal.




Reesor Lake has a nice concentration of American White Pelicans.  They seem to have no fear of people at all and lazily float by the fishermen on shore.  However, as docile as these big birds may appear, they have a sneaky side too!  We were watching Caspian Terns catch fish in Reesor Lake and the Pelicans would immediately chase after the Tern!  Quite often the Tern would drop the fish while escaping, providing yet another unearned meal for the Pelican.

American White Pelican in flight



There is nothing like watching a Caspian Tern soar above a lake and then tuck its wings in and dive like a missile into the water!  They rarely miss either.  It seems like the only ones coming up empty handed at Reesor Lake were the line of fishermen along the shore 😉

Caspian Tern in flight


While enjoying the views of Reesor Lake and the antics of the terns and pelicans, we heard the loud raucous call of two Belted Kingfishers. The male was flying around, making a racket around the lake, while the female was up on hill calling back.  We think they probably had a nest and the boy was bringing back “lunch,” like the fish he caught in the image below.

Belted Kingfisher


Species sighted: common yellowthroat, yellow warbler, red-winged black bird, white-crowned sparrow, tree swallow, bank swallow, gray catbird, cedar waxwing, canada goose, caspian tern, belted kingfisher, american robin, black-billed magpie, american crow, brown-headed cowbird, american white pelican, osprey, mallard, double-crested cormorant

Hotspot #3Horseshoe Canyon / Beaver Creek Hiking Trails

This was an experience we will NEVER forget.  While out for a day hike we came across a pair of Northern Harriers.  It was a windy afternoon and they were playing in the updrafts while making their laughing “kekekekeke” calls.  We stood there watching for almost an hour and every once in a while one of them would line us up and dive-bomb toward us, pulling up just before they got within reach of our heads!  They were messing with us and they knew it – the “kekekeke” calls got even more animated.  They were laughing at us, we were laughing at them, it was an amazing encounter!

Northern Harrier (male)

Northern Harrier (male)


While hiking the trail we could hear a house wren singing in the trees.  After surveying the forest for a few minutes, we found our little friend going to and from his nest in a tree cavity.  We could hear the wren babies inside the nest incessantly begging for food and it seemed like the parents were just barely able to keep up with the demand.

House Wren


As populous as the Common Yellowthroats were along the shoreline trail, White-crowned sparrows were just as populous along the Horseshoe Canyon / Beaver Creek hiking trails.  These guys never stop singing all day long, and we love it!

White-crowned Sparrow


Yellow Warblers were pretty frequent in most places in the park.  This one struck a nice pose for us.

Yellow Warbler


Species sighted: common yellowthroat, yellow warbler, red-winged black bird, red-naped sapsucker, hairy woodpecker, downy woodpecker, white-crowned sparrow, tree swallow, gray catbird, cedar waxwing, mourning dove, northern flicker, american robin, eastern kingbird, black-billed magpie, american crow, black-capped chickadee, song sparrow, brown-headed cowbird, red-breasted nuthatch, veery, western wood-pewee, least flycatcher, northern harrier hawk, red-tailed hawk, turkey vulture, house wren, chipping sparrow, dark-eyed junco.


Hotspot #4 – Ferguson Hill Road and Campground

Wild Turkeys were introduced to the Cypress Hills in the 1960’s and we were determined to find at least one of these bizarre looking creatures.  We skulked around Ferguson Hill Road and campground at 5:30am in the morning while everyone was sleeping in their tents and trailers.  Yeah it was a bit creepy, but once again, Cypress did not let us down! We saw a family of about five Wild Turkeys waddling around one of the campgrounds. They were scavenging around picnic tables, beside tents, and under trailers.  Nobody saw this happening except us.  One time we surprised the Turkeys when they were right beside someone’s tent and the male let out a bellowing “gobble, gobble gobble” call – now that’s an alarm clock you won’t forget anytime soon!  Oops – sorry camper!

Wild Turkey


Hotspot #5Spruce Coulee Road

Spruce Coulee Road is a quiet gravel road that takes you out to Spruce Coulee Reservoir.  We really liked birding along this road because we could stop the car and watch a bird for an hour before another vehicle would drive by.  Oh, and another reason we like it is we saw some pretty cool birds there!

While driving down Spruce Coulee Road we nearly got whiplash when we saw an unexpected bird along the fence – a Bobolink!  This was our first sighting of a Bobolink so we were pretty excited, to say the least.  The male was singing his unusual song all morning and every so often the female would fly in beside him for a few minutes.  A super memorable experience!

Bobolink (male)



Savannah Sparrows are common and widespread across Canada, so capturing an interesting image of one of these doing something different is always the objective.  The wind was blowing one afternoon and this guy was struggling to keep his balance on a bush causing him to flap his wings every once in a while.  We were pretty happy with how this image turned out!

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow


American Robins are so common everywhere that we often do not pay enough attention to them.  Cypress had no shortage of Robins either, but this one stands out as one of the nicer Robin images we’ve captured because the light was absolutely perfect in that moment and the colour of his plumage was amazing..

American Robin


Species sighted: common yellowthroat, mountain bluebirds, american goldfinch, white-crowned sparrow, tree swallow, mourning dove, american robin, eastern kingbird, black-billed magpie, american crow, brown-headed cowbird, song sparrow, savannah sparrow, clay-coloured sparrow, vesper sparrow, bobolink, western meadowlark, swainson’s hawk, european starling.


As you can see, this was an action packed birding trip to Cypress Hills and there was so much more we could have included but this blog post was getting pretty long already!  We also captured some fantastic images of birds on some excursions just outside Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park. If you like Hawks, Horned Larks, Western Kingbirds, Eastern Kingbirds and Sharp-tailed Grouse, you can find these images and stories over at StaderArtBirds.wordpress.com

Thanks for reading!


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The Gabriola Commons: habitat extraordinaire

It’s a remarkable place both physically and in terms of how it came to be. A twenty-six acre  parcel of land, The Gabriola Commons is owned by the people of Gabriola Island under a unique “Commons Covenant.”

The Cobb Wall.

The Cobb Wall.


The Commons was once a privately-owned goat farm. When it was listed for sale in 2005, a Gabriola non-profit society, the Amazing Grace Ecological Society, bought it. They donated a substantial down-payment to cover the mortgage until the community could come up with a plan for realizing the long-held dream of owning the property collectively. And over the last ten years, that’s exactly what happened. For more on The Commons today and its history, click here: http://www.gabriolacommons.ca/index.html

I was thrilled when this photo of the Commons property was a winner in the EcoJustice Photo Contest this spring. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

I was thrilled when this photo of part of the Commons property was a winner in the Ecojustice Photo Contest this spring. Photo by me, Sharon McInnes. 🙂


Today The Commons is home to organically farmed orchards, allotment gardens, a pond and wetland area, open vistas and meadows, cedar groves and forests, a labyrinth, a Community Kitchen, a workshop, and the main Commons building which houses People for a Healthy Community and meeting and performance spaces.

One of the many allotment gardens with a not-very-scary scarecrow lady.

One of the many allotment gardens with a not-very-scary scarecrow lady.


Very close to the village core, The Commons is a tranquil place to walk, work, reflect, and observe wildlife, including a plethora of birds!

The Commons labyrinth, a place to walk softly, reflect, breathe.

The Commons labyrinth, a place to walk softly, reflect, breathe.


The man-made pond is habitat for water birds, beavers, and frogs, including the endangered Red-legged Frog. Some of us are thinking about creating a blind near the edge of the pond where people can observe the wildlife up close without disturbing them, especially during nesting season. Lots of water birds nest along the shores.

The pond from a distance.

The pond from a distance.


Beavers have built a formidable dam at the exit, complete with its own slide made from a salvaged piece of plywood!

The beavers are most visible at dawn and dusk. Photo by Patrick Roux.

The beavers are most visible at dawn and dusk. Photo by Patrick Roux.


For the past few years islanders have been creating an “Ecosystem Baseline Inventory” of all the flora and fauna species on Commons land. Participants have discovered 20 ‘polygons’, or intact micro-habitats, some of which are repeated in various parts of the Commons lands, and at least 25 people have adopted a polygon to steward and report on annually. Unfortunately, we don’t yet know all the birds that live on or migrate through the Commons land but I hope to identify and record all of them (including the warblers and flycatchers that drop by during migration) in the next year or two. Today, though, I’ll give you a taste of just a few of the birds that we know call this little piece of paradise home. Or at least a favourite breeding spot.

Probably the most popular bird on the Commons this time of year is the Red-winged Blackbird with its unmistakable song. Conk-a-ree!

Male Red-winged Blackbird. Photo by Patrick Roux.

Male Red-winged Blackbird. Photo by Patrick Roux.


The arrival of these colourful blackbirds, one of the most-studied wild bird species in the world, mark the beginning of spring for us.

Female Red-winged Blackbird. Her drabber colour is designed not to attract attention to herself as she sits on the nest.

Female Red-winged Blackbird whose drab colour does not attract attention as she sits on the nest.


Of course we do appreciate the more traditional harbinger of spring, the American Robin which often arrives in flocks in early spring then disperses to set up a breeding territory. Some, though, live here year-round.

American Robin. Photo by Patrick Roux.

American Robin. Photo by Patrick Roux.


Brewer’s Blackbirds, with their bright yellow eyes, are also prolific in spring and summer. The Commons hedge is woven with their nests and, like the famous Vancouver crows, they are not averse to dive-bombing anyone who ventures near.

One of many Brewer's Blackbirds with nests hidden in the big hedge.

One of many Brewer’s Blackbirds with nests hidden in the big hedge.


One of the more exciting sightings recently was this secretive Virginia Rail nesting along the edge of the pond.

Virginia Rail at the edge of the pond. Photo by Patrick Roux.

Virginia Rail at the edge of the pond. Photo by Patrick Roux.


Gabriola is the adopted home of many families of California Quails. This family lived at the Commons a few years ago.

California Quail family. Photo by Patrick Roux.

California Quail family. Photo by Patrick Roux.


In spring and summer Barn Swallows and Violet-green Swallows breed under the eaves and in nest boxes, spending their days swooping overhead for mosquitoes and other flying insects.

VGS at box

The land is also home to many species of sparrows, including the Dark-eyed Junco, Song Sparrow, Spotted Towhee, Golden-crowned Sparrow, and the handsome White-crowned Sparrow.

Spotted Towhee. Photo by Patrick Roux.

Spotted Towhee. Photo by Patrick Roux.


The song of the White-crowned Sparrow is one of the most-studied sounds in all of animal behavior.

White-crowned Sparrow on fence post.

White-crowned Sparrow on fence post.


Various species of geese and ducks including Buffleheads, Mallards, and Canada Geese either pass  through or nest here.

Canada Goose nesting. Photo by Patrick Roux.

Canada Goose nesting. Photo by Patrick Roux.


And a recent initiative is the installation of several bat boxes around the property.

Bat box, recently installed and waiting for bat babies.

Bat box, recently installed and waiting for bat babies.


Other bird species known to inhabit the Commons include: Common Ravens, Brown-headed Cowbirds, European Starlings, Steller’s Jays, House Finches, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Wrens, Barred Owls, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Rufous Hummingbirds, House Finches, House Wrens, Cedar Waxwings, many species of woodpecker (Northern Flickers are probably the most numerous), and Great Blue Herons. Sometimes Trumpeter Swans drop by too. Overhead, Turkey Vultures are a common sight riding the thermals this time of year. Bald Eagles live here year round.

So do many flocks of feral turkeys who pretty much do as they please on Gabriola, whenever and wherever, including on the roads, at our new “mall,” and at the Commons.

Turkeys Christmas shopping last year.

Christmas shopping at the new mall last year.


If you’re ever in our neighbourhood (just a twenty-minute ferry ride from Nanaimo on Vancouver Island) and would like to drop by for a visit, wander The Commons for a while, you’re more than welcome. If I’m here, I’ll gladly show you around. But not at dawn. I’m not that kind of birder.  🙂

Many thanks to Patrick Roux for sharing his photos. All other photos are by yours truly, Sharon McInnes. 



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Notes From a NW Ontario Backyard – June 2016

Hello again and welcome to Summer!  It was so cold in May, we were really beginning to wonder if warmer temperatures would ever actually hit.  Well …….. they have:  it’s 27C today.  🙂

Most of the photos in this post were taken earlier in the month.  It’s much quieter in the yard now than it was a month ago.  The birds are off nesting now and the ones that aren’t nesting have youngsters chasing after them for food!  This post will be more photos than anything else but these are all visitors to the yard (aside from a small handful).

Black Capped Chickadee

Black Capped Chickadee

Red Breasted Nuthatch

Red Breasted Nuthatch

Pine Siskins

A tiny portion of the Pine Siskin flock that took over the yard for a month or so!

Blue Jay

Blue Jays usually disappear for the summer but in recent weeks, I’ve had a couple coming around.

Female Downy Woodpecker

I normally have a half dozen Woodpeckers around in summer, between Hairies & Downies but so far this season, only this female Downy has been around … & sporadically at that.

Female Evening Grosbeak

Female Evening Grosbeak on the birdbath rim.

Male American Goldfinch

Male American Goldfinch. Haven’t seen many of them but at least a couple little Flying Lemons are here!

Male Eastern Bluebird

This male Eastern Bluebird was here for a few weeks in late May. Have not seen him since. 🙁

Male Evening Grosbeak

Evening Grosbeaks are nesting nearby so with any luck, I’ll get to host the young ones in the yard later this summer.

White Throated Sparrow

White Throated Sparrows are also nesting in the area.

Chipping Sparrow

Chipping Sparrows nest in my next door neighbour’s shrubs every year & use my yard for hawking insects to feed the young. 🙂

Cedar Waxwing in blooming Crabapple Tree

Beautiful Cedar Waxwings were around for a few weeks as fruiting trees & shrubs were in full bloom. This one was in my Crabapple tree.

Juvenile Starlings

Juvenile Starlings are throughout the neighbourhood now, loudly squawking to be fed!

Male Ruby Throated Hummingbird

Hummingbirds were very late to my yard this year. I didn’t have my first sighting until the end of May instead of the middle of the month.

When I sit out on my back deck now, I regularly hear Red Eyed Vireos & Ovenbirds calling from the woods outside my back fence.  If I actually went out in the evening, I’d probably hear Hermit Thrushes too.  One even last week, we had our patio doors open about 10:00pm when one of my (indoor only) cats freaked out & bolted for the screen.  A bird had gotten into our gazebo!  My husband & I went out to rescue it.  I was able to scoop it up off the screen wall & look just quickly enough to discover that it was a type of Thrush but it was too dark to see clearly … plus the bird was panicked so we just let it go.  No idea how it suddenly ended up in the gazebo!

Soaring Bald Eagle

Out in my backyard one day last week, I watched this majestic Bald Eagle soaring over my neighbourhood. It caught a thermal & quickly disappeared.

Another Swan was discovered on my local Manitouwadge Lake this week.  I’m hearing now that they are expanding their range into this area & may even nest here in coming years.

Trumpeter Swan

Trumpeter Swan

While traveling to the Dorion’s Canyon Country Birding Festival at the end of May, my husband & I took a drive through the little town of Rossport where we’ll be catching a charter boat in July for a day on Lake Superior.  As we were leaving town, we spotted this Turkey Vulture standing atop a power pole.  It just stood there staring at us and then slowly flew away.  Almost frightening looking things when you see them up close but still a majestic creature!

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

We always visit the Nipigon Marina in Nipigon, On., on our way to the Festival because we almost always find Pelicans there.  This trip did not disappoint but we only saw the one this time.

Pelican with Gulls

Pelican with Gulls at the Nipigon Marina

Ending with an interesting tidbit this month:  I just learned yesterday that we actually have Whip-poor-wills up here.  This is definitely a new one for me, having never heard them before.  A friend even sent me a call that she recorded last night from her driveway … no mistaking it!  I’ll be listening more closely for them from now on.

Thanks for reading/looking …. Happy Summer …. ‘see’ you in July!

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