Birding Through A Pandemic

Five days working inside alone, I needed some outdoor time. I set my ground rules the way a distance runner or weight lifter might. Eight hours, as many species of birds as I could spot and recognize from memory- no books or cell phone images. I arose an hour before sunrise, made coffee, jumped in the truck and headed out to the prairies east of Edmonton alone. Bird #1 was an American Robin singing in the backyard larch tree then sunrise on the prairie illuminated an American Coot.

Soon, five Tundra Swans were skylighted moving through the early grayness.

Even though many lakes are still ice-covered, southerly winds brought warm temperatures of +16 and rivers and shallow marshes opened up. The big migration was on in central Alberta! The abundant wetlands of the prairies are a magnet for hundreds of thousands of migrating birds each spring.

The Snow Geese and Ross’ Geese, Canada Geese and Pintails were racing out from the Ducks Unlimited and Alberta Conservation Association sites to feed in last year’s stubble. If you look closely at this photo you can see Pintail ducks, some Canada Geese, and Snow Geese in white and blue color phases.

There is safety in numbers. A single goose is toast against an eagle but that same goose is fairly safe in a flock of 3,000. Exactly the opposite of my social distancing but one can understand how avian influenza could spread.

Flocks are also information sharing opportunities because some of the adult geese have made this trip 15 times before and know the route, food sources, waterbodies. The orienteering and behaviors of experienced birds indicate their intentions to others. Flocks become “information centers” that make group decisions better than a single bird. In the photo below there are large local Canada Geese and some tiny arctic-nesting Cackler race of Canada Geese who benefit from local knowledge of grain, water and roosting.

Pushing the edge of the freeze line is important for geese that have to lay, incubate, and raise young quickly. Offspring grow from a 300 gram egg to a flying 2000-gram juvenile in about 100 days. Summer is short up North, requiring an early start to nesting! Local birds are on nests now, those arctic birds still have a couple thousand km to fly.

The very first waterfowl we see around Edmonton are large subspecies of regional Canada Geese that wintered from Calgary down to Colorado on open rivers and they are already nesting.

The big flocks include Snow and Ross’ Geese; White-fronted Geese AKA “specklebellies”; and Canadas are all pushing hard to reach their arctic nesting grounds.

One typically hears Sandhill Cranes over Alberta cities before seeing them. Their flute-like trill and circling flocks of legs-out, neck-out flight are distinctive. Here they look to be on track.

But here they seem to have lost uniformity, however, they are simply starting a vortex spiral to gain altitude. Unlike geese and ducks, cranes are not powerful straight ahead flyers, hence, they thermal up and let the southerly winds help propel them northward. Hawks, pelicans and vultures do likewise sometimes sharing thermals.

Like the geese, cranes need to refuel too. They eat waste grain but are not above snapping up mice, insects, crayfish, amphibians, or small snakes. This year is the first one there is a Sandhill Crane hunting season in Alberta, just like Saskatchewan, Montana, Texas and Wyoming.

Let’s talk about the color red. This handsome pair of Canvasback ducks- so named for the canvas-colored back of the drake (male) on the right — have full breeding plumage on display including russet head and glistening red eye on the drake. The hens seem to like the red eye.

There are two closely related species of diving ducks in the photo below. On the left is the Canvasback with the “horse head” profile. The others are Redhead ducks and their eyes are yellow and the males have a black bill tip.

There were about a half dozen Horned Grebes migrating through too. They are water birds but not “waterfowl”. Their toes are lobed but not webbed. This colorful male has . . . yep, a red eye just for breeding season! Are they all drunk?

Only one vulture species inhabits Alberta and that is the Turkey Vulture. It has a red featherless head and here, inspects an abandoned shed; a favorite nesting site for vultures.

Old buildings replace the cliffs and elevated caves they would have used originally. Human structures have extended the range of Turkey Vultures, as they have for pigeons, skunks and raccoons. Of course, Alberta’s four million cattle, some of which become carrion, and abundant wildlife roadkill are to a vultures liking too.

Sticking with the red theme now, I was admiring the view of this Ukranian Orthodox Church dome in the distance and noticed a hawk in the tree. Hawks, gulls and shorebirds are hard to identify to species and I wondered about this one.

Until he flew, then his name was apparent- Red-tailed Hawk, Doh!

Even the bird with the perfect name — Red-winged Blackbird- sees males relying on the size and depth of red color to indicate their vitality and fitness as they establish and defend choice territories to coax in the more drab females.

And the female ducks are DRA-AB! As you admire the drake Northern Pintail in the photo above, you may have overlooked the hen right in front of him because she is so cryptic. Camouflage is important for the hens that have to sit still on eggs in a grassland for 28 days while foxes and owls prowl around trying to find a meal. The males just stay on safe open water.

I got lost in the sheer numbers of geese spiraling around, swarming the fields, honking and squeaking like a thousand modern jazz saxophonists. Snow Geese numbers are 1000% higher than when I was born 60 years ago. A continent-long smorgasbord of rice, peas, wheat, corn, barley and oats keeps them well fed so they lay huge clutches of eggs, travel in massive swarms and live a long time.

This is a female Downy Woodpecker. If she had been a male there would have been a dot of red on the back of his head (yep, you guessed it — the appeal of red feathers!).

Why did the duck cross the road . . . hey, isn’t that a chicken joke?

Logic suggested a hen was nearby in the verge looking for a suitable nest site. Unsurprisingly, females select the nesting site. He was just sitting on this long black rock that we call a highway. No foxes or weasels out here! Just cars and trucks. The hen also flushed moments after this photo.

Just 20 years ago a sighting of an American Avocet in Alberta was a rarity, now they are fairly common, likely a climate change related range-expansion.

Stately birds with blue legs that sieve the water with their upturned beaks. The females are larger, more colorful and after laying eggs, leave them to the male to incubate; a reversal of most birds behavior.

It wasn’t just birds that were out. This muskrat was soaking up some sun. There were also beavers and a pair of white-tailed deer too but they were a little too quick for this photographer. I also missed a Western Bluebird examining a bluebird house.

My score for the day? Forty three species of birds seen and identified. I confused California and Ring-billed Gulls but batted 100% on the others while getting some sun and practicing social distancing. Pack a gourmet lunch sandwich and a cold beer for some sit at a field full of goose music? I think it might just be the ideal solo getaway!

27 April 2020

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Lee Foote

Southerner by birth, Northerner by choice, Casual person by nature.