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!

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Old calving barn

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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

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They were EVERYWHERE!  On metal artwork…

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On the ground…

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In the trees…

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And in their houses…

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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!

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Adult males have beautiful deep irridescent, 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.

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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!

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Adult females have purple on their head and back but 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!

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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:)

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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)!

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

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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

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Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park – Top 5 Birding Locations!

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!

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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!

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Cedar Waxwing

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!

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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.

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Osprey

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.

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American White Pelican

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 😉

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Caspian Tern

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.

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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!

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Northern Harrier

 

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.

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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!

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White-crowned Sparrow

 

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

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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!

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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!

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Bobolink

 

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!

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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..

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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!

Marcy & Ray Stader
StaderArtBirds