Wednesday, May 17, 2017


I hit a milestone after work this evening with the sighting of my 100th bird in Fort McMurray.  As I closed in on 100 I found myself playing a mental game imagining just what it might be.  I secretly hope for something unique but I figured it would likely end up being something I had seen before but just not locally.  As it turned out, it was a completely new species to me and one that isn't all that common here.  They don't breed here as far as I know and usually just pass through the area, hence their infrequency.

This Harris's Sparrow turned up shortly after I returned home from work.  I glanced out the kitchen window and had one of those "what the hell is THAT?" moments.  Initially I thought it was just a White-throated Sparrow (though it did seem a tad larger) until it turned around and I saw the black face.  I made a mad dash upstairs for my camera and my field guide (my very understanding tenants have by now gotten used to seeing me do this).  I didn't have to worry about it flying away on though as this little guy stuck around the yard for a good 15 minutes and fortunately at 9pm we still have sufficient light allowing me to get a half-decent photo.  

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Banff....The Adventure Continues

After a bit of a delay I've finally managed to get around to my next post about my recent trip to Banff. I had hoped to get this done much sooner but a long trip, many photos to go through, work and a stretch of nice weather which had me pining to be outdoors all conspired against me.  Anyhow, without further ado.....

I was up early my second day and full of energy as I planned to check out more of the trail along the Bow as well as the Cave and Basin National Historic Site.  Fears of throngs of tourists were overblown and with the exception of the odd jogger or cyclist it was fairly deserted.  I was amused to see an elk lounging on a front lawn.

I stopped once I got to the canoe launch, a place I was to stop at each of the three mornings I was in Banff.  A tranquil place, I could have spent the entire morning there just taking in the mountain and the views  were it not for a few places I wanted to visit.

I actually didn't see much bird life that morning although I could certainly hear it, mostly robins and juncos and the odd magpie.  I managed to get at least one half-decent shot of an Oregon species which I don't get to see in Fort McMurray.  The one bird I did see in droves during my visit was Juncos.  Without exception, I'm pretty sure they were on every bird list I made while I was there.

A male common merganser swimming in the Bow.

I crossed over the bridge for the first time and continued toward the falls.  It was encouraging to see the sky starting to clear up after the highly variable weather of the day before.

It was pretty dark along the trail due the time of day and tall trees.  I walked about halfway to the falls without seeing much in the way of people or birds, other than this robin.

Approaching the falls (again) with much better light conditions.

Bow Falls.  I actually ended up spending much more time at the base of the falls then I thought I would.  There were few people and even fewer birds so I just soaked in the views and snapped a few quick photos.

Ending up at the Fairmont wasn't originally on my agenda.  I ended up here because I didn't want to do any backtracking and also because I REALLY needed to find a bathroom (which I eventually did.) It was only around mid-morning so there were no big crowds and it was great to see this iconic landmark.

Heading back in to town I bumped in to yet another elk near the bridge.

I crossed over to the other side and managed to get a decent photo as he came up out of the river bed.

Random photo of Cascade Mountain.  The weather was clearing but not enough to get the shot I wanted.

My plan for the afternoon was to head over to the Cave and Basin National Historic Site, essentially the birthplace of Canada's national park system.  I was to return there the following day as well and I  have a few photos that will be in my next post.  Before heading there though I stopped by a wooded area behind a building that I THINK was the original parks administration building.  I was under renovation so I couldn't access the park itself and had to content myself with the wooded area behind.  

This little area wasn't even on my agenda but rather one of those "hey I think I'll check this place out just for the hell of it" kind of places.  And in terms of variety of tree birds, it ended up being a gold mine.   While its a bit difficult to see, I spotted this white-breasted nuthatch right away.  

Juncos, chickadees, more nuthatches, yellow-dumped warblers and this three-toed woodpecker soon followed.

At one point I recall thinking that here I was pretty much standing in one spot for just over 20 minutes and I had already noted 10 species.  At this time of year back home if I had that many listed over a span of a couple hours I would consider that a very good day.

Another shot of Mount Rundle on my way to the hot springs.

Once at the springs, I took a short trail of about 2km which more or less followed the Bow River.  It was a muddy trail this time of year...a very muddy trail, and I spent more time trying to keep my feet dry and performing a hiker's version of a "grand jeter" than taking photos.  I did have solitude though.  More sensible people were on the drier, hard-parked trails.  Will mention here too, in case anyone was wondering, that I WAS carrying bear spray.  There were other people here and there but I didn't want to let that lull me in to thinking that a bear couldn't pass by.  I LOVE being outdoors, doing a trail and watching for new bird species and I love to head off into secluded areas for solace.  I just don't want to die doing doing it.  

I saw buffleheads (pictured below), loons and a couple common mergansers and also I believe a harrier though it was quite a distance away.

Once I got out of the mess I took a boardwalk down to the march which is fed by the hot springs slowly trickling down Sulphur Mountain.   I spent several minutes watching a Great Blue Heron as it fished and then was chased by a couple of Canada Geese before settling back down again in the grasses.

Buffleheads, ring-necked ducks, coots, pied-billed grebes, the odd merganser and loon.  You'll just have to take my word for it.  My binoculars and camera just didn't have the range, unfortunately.

Common Merganser.

I'm not really sure off the top of my head how many species I saw that day though I must have noted at least 30 by then.  Originally, I was shooting for 20-25 and I figured if I got to 30 I'd be over the moon.  But I had surely surpassed that number at this point....and I still had one more full day ahead of me. 

Another mountain peak.

At this point I'm sure my legs had logged at least 15km over some pretty crummy conditions at times.  I wanted to push on and do one more trail in particular but decided to call it a day at this point.  I still had another full day to enjoy this place and there was no point in carrying on and exhausting myself.  I headed back to my hotel to review my field notes, some photos and watch a little playoff hockey.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Birchwood Birds

One of Fort McMurray's gems definitely has to be the Birchwood Trail system.  Tucked away in a valley between Thickwood and Timberlea, it is a large area that fortunately escaped the destruction that other areas suffered from last year's wildfire.  I recall hearing rumours during the evacuation that the fire had entered this area, (which likely would have led to even more devastation to the west side of the river) and also a profound sense of relief when I found out definitively that the area had been saved.  I remain forever grateful to those who fought to keep the Beast out of this treasured area.  The area is used by the local ski club during the winter months as well as by walkers, joggers, bicyclists and the odd birder like myself.  It is part of the fabric that makes up Fort McMurray.

Because it emerged pretty much unscathed, it seems to have become a magnet for birds, or at least it seems so very much to me.  I'm not sure if it's solely due to the fire or my improving identification skills and familiarity with the area (perhaps its a bit of both) but I have been noticing a lot more bird life here than in past years.  I've certainly been spending more time here so far this year.  And my new camera is light year's ahead of what I used to use.

Here is just a small peak of what I saw on a recent outing a couple days ago.  I noted 17 species in total over the course of a couple hours.  By way of comparison, 17 species is also the highest number I saw at any single birding location during my recent trip to Banff.

White-throated Sparrow.  My first sighting here was actually in my backyard the year I bought the house.....and then I didn't see them again for three or four years.  Needless to say, I'm delighted to have them back on my year list.  And I am seeing a lot of them and not just in the Birchwood Trails.  On the rare occasion when they did make a bird list it was just one or two specimens but recently that figure has been more like five of six.  They tend to stay well-hidden on the forest floor and move fast but I finally got lucky with this little guy.

Like the white-throat, the Gray Jay is another one don't see as often as I'd like.  I saw a grand total of one all of last year and that was outside of Fort McMurray but so far this year luck seems to be on my side.  I literally rounded a bend in the trail and this fellow was right in front of my eyes.  I was really paranoid that he might take off on me before I was ready but I managed to get within about a dozen feet and he didn't seem to mind my presence at all......much to my benefit.

Northern Flicker.  Admittedly, this isn't the greatest shot but I had to move quickly.  I saw a LOT of them when I was down in Lethbridge this spring.  They were on almost every bird list I did and I've become quite adept at identifying them by their call.

Blue Jay.  Normally I get one or two in my backyard over the course of the winter.  Many a morning coffee was interrupted due to "arguments" between a Jay and a squirrel.  It was nice to see a handful of Blue Jays on this particular morning in a location other than just my backyard.

Thursday, May 11, 2017


I spent a large chunk of yesterday bird-watching but today I thought I'd stick a bit closer to home.  There's a trail that parallels the river that I hadn't been to in some time so today seemed as good as any to go exploring.  While the Birchwood Trail system (where I was yesterday) took a bit of damage, the destruction here is abundantly evident.  The picture below is but a 10 minute walk from my neighbourhood in Thickwood.

While I've walked the area countless times, I had a hard time even recognizing where I was at times.  I wasn't lost (the trail essentially parallels the top of the river valley) but it was difficult to square what my eyes were seeing with how my mind remembered it.  It was rather surreal.

The one constant was the river view.

This is what it looks like behind Abasand in the general area where last May's fire began.   The forest didn't look as bad when it was covered with snow all winter but now with the spring weather I find myself starting to notice it much more.

I recall reading somewhere that it will take 7 to 10 years for the surrounding forest to look "normal" again and up to 30 years for the forest to completely heal itself.  I should add too that the entire area doesn't look like this.  This area seems pretty stark due to the fact that this is the area where the fire more or less started.  The photo above isn't all that far from where the "Beast" jumped the Athabasca and began its advance on Thickwood and Timberlea.  But as I mentioned above, there are other areas that look just like any other piece of healthy boreal forest.  

This might be the new normal for this particular area and I'll certainly miss the trail as I first knew it but I know it will come back.  All it takes is time.

Friday, May 5, 2017

So I Finally Made It To Banff

Heading to Banff was something that had been on my radar for well over a year.  I had concrete plans to visit last May but then we had the wildfire here and any plans I had went right out the window.  This only left me more determined to get there.  Just like last year, I made all my travel arrangements well in advance.....and they finally came to fruition this time.  

Due the sheer amount of ground I covered and the amount of photos I took, I've decided to do a separate post for each of the three days i was there to really give the place its due.

I had no idea what to expect once I got there.  Banff really needs no introduction and I had visions of a pleasant 3-day sojourn being overrun by hoards of tourists.  This actually wasn't the case and for the most part, other than a few hikers and bird watchers, I felt I had the place to myself.   The weather was a bit sketchy on my first day.  When I arrived the night before it was actually snowing rather heavily a certain points, but I came dressed for the weather and anyway, I wasn't going to let a little snow get in the way.  I really had to wait until the following day to get any decent photos of the mountain scenery due to the overcast conditions but at any rate, my main goal was to see some birds.

I was up and out the door by 8am and headed over to the Fenland Trail not far from the historical train station.   It was quite and pleasant and good place to take in that mountain air.  If I'm not mistaken, this photo is of Echo Creek along the trail.

It was a bit darker than I would have liked and spotting anything in the pines was a challenge but persistence paid off.  It's a little hard to see but there really is a downy woodpecker in there.

Mountain Chickadee.  It was nice to be able to add this to my life list and I did see quite a few of them during the course of my stay.

Not far from the Fenland Trail are the Vermilion Lakes.  It really is a birding hotspot and very accessible so I was very determined to get there and spent a large chunk of the day here.  The weather still wasn't cooperating and it was a challenge to make out some of the species at the far side of the lake due to the distance but the 4 hours i spent out there really proved what a goldmine for birds the place is.  For the most part I saw lots of mallards, buffleheads, Canada Geese and a few ring-necked ducks though there were a few nice surprises that morning.

Elk taking a morning drink.  I was to see plenty of them during my stay as you can probably imagine.

The ground squirrels were quite vocal.

Other than the ground squirrels and this morning train rumbling through, it was eerily quiet at times.

It doesn't get much more Canadian than this...a crisp spring morning in a national park and a loon swimming by.  Surprisingly, this was my first sighting of this iconic bird.

...and of course there were plenty of Canada Geese to be seen.

Female Mallard.

By early afternoon, the sky finally began to clear up a little.  The colour of the vegetation really made for a nice contrast with the grey of the mountains and the (sort of) clear skies.

Red-necked grebe.

Majestic Mount Rundle.  It's easy to see why it's been the subject of many a photo or painting throughout the park's history and I was able to get some pretty nice photos of it during my stay.

Overall, a very good outing at Vermilion Lakes.  I noted 17 species altogether which is the most I think I've recorded at a single location.  At this point i decided to head back in to town to rest my legs and catch a late lunch but I was to return to this spot a couple of days later.

Not far from my hotel I came across this guy.  It wasn't the first time I was to see one up close.  He (or perhaps she) was no doubt used to seeing humans and didn't seem to really care much about my presence though of course I was careful to keep distance so it wouldn't feel cornered up against some trees just off-camera.

After a bite to eat, I head back out.  There is a very walkable set of trails on both banks of the Bow River so I did a little exploring there.  Again, it was pretty dark with the big pine and spruce trees so I didn't bother taking many photos though I did spot a couple more loons swimming in the Bow.

This is further downstream just above Bow Falls.  I was on the wrong side of the river to be able to get to the viewing area for the falls themselves but (spoiler alert) I managed to see them the following day.

And of course, no trip to Banff would be complete without seeing or mentioning the historic hotel .  I ventured over to the hotel grounds later in the trip.  Some of the views really are second to none and I can see why someone would want to stay here.  I've stayed at a couple other hotels in this chain but this one was a tad too pricey for me considering how little time I even stayed in the hotel I was actually staying at.

So all in all, an amazing first day.  If was definitely worth waiting and extra 11 months to finally get there.  The following day I was off to check out birding opportunities at a couple of national historic sites.