Cypress Hills – The Backroads!

We just spent five days of epic birding in Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park!

And…we were just accepted as new contributing authors to Bird Canada, a multi-author site for birding across Canada, so we’re pretty excited about that as well!  We did a full write-up with 21 great photos of our experience in Cypress Hills.  You can read our blog post over on Bird Canada here.

In addition to what we saw inside the official Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, we also made a few excursions outside the park which were equally amazing.  This blog post will focus on those experiences and images.

One evening we were driving the gravel backroads just SW of Cypress Hills and we found what must be “the eternal source” of raptors!  No kidding, we saw a hawk about every half kilometre one stretch of road.  It was a perfect evening with perfect light, and this first year juvenile Swainson’s hawk was just stunning. You could certainly tell she was not wise to people yet because she allowed us to get close and didn’t fly away.

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Red-tailed Hawk (likely a light-morph Harlan’s race)

While driving down a very lonely gravel road north of the park, we saw a flock of 15-18 birds on a grassy hill and a few on the road itself–we accidentally happened upon a small Sharp-tailed Grouse Lek!  We slowly crept closer until we captured a few shots and then left, not wanting to disturb the jousting rituals.  Seeing these grouse was a nice reminder of our outstanding experience at a Lek earlier this year (full story on that experience here).  This female was calling to her 3 chicks safely hidden in the grass.

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Sharp-tailed Grouse

Shortly after seeing the Sharp-tailed Grouse we came upon this little guy!   Aren’t these Horned Lark’s the coolest birds!  He was singing his heart out early in the morning with his devilish little “horns” sticking straight up!

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Horned Lark

Western Kingbirds are fairly common in open habitats but this was actually our first “close encounter.”  We stopped the car to turn around and he was sitting on a sign watching us.  It’s a pretty bird that reminds us of the Tropical Kingbird we often see in Panama!

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Western Kingbird

We were treated to both Kingbird species on our excursions – the Western Kingbird in the image above, and this Eastern Kingbird below.  These Eastern Kingbirds are really beautiful and we caught this moment when she was flapping her wings trying to get the black hair off the barbed wire fence while her mate looked on!

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Eastern Kingbird

Now these are some funny looking birds!   Actually, interesting fact, pronghorn are not actually antelope.  Their closest living relatives are giraffes and okapi!  We spotted this adult female pronghorn with a gaggle of young ones!  It seems she was stuck with babysitting duty while the other females grazed nearby.  In Alberta, they only live in the extreme SE corner of the province.  These animals are pretty spooky and even though we spotted them at a good distance, the second they became aware of us they ran pretty fast the other way.

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Pronghorn on the grasslands

Our trip to Cypress Hills was action-packed and not one we will soon forget.  The birds were cooperative, the encounters memorable, and even the thunderstorms while camping were out of this world!

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for our next blog post coming soon!  If you would like to receive our StaderArtBirds blog posts to your email, simply sign up using the form near the top left of the screen.

Marcy & Ray Stader

StaderArt Birds

Sharp-tailed Grouse – So you think you can dance?

Move over Calgary Stampede, there’s a rival to your claim of being the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth!

When we were offered a rare invitation to witness Sharp-tailed Grouse at a lek in southern Alberta, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity.  A lek is an open area where male birds carry on courtship behaviour each spring.

As this location is on private land we are not permitted to disclose the location of the lek to protect the species, but we can certainly share the experience!

Males arrive at the lek very early – around dawn.  As spectators, we had to get up at 4:15 am in order to arrive on location before sunrise so as not to disturb the birds once they start the courtship rituals.  We carefully made our way to the site and used a blind to remain hidden from the birds.

There were about 30-40 male Sharp-tailed Grouse at the lek and they were “dancing” all around the site.  Heads down, tails up, wings outstretched and stamping their feet rapidly – about 20 times per second !  We can see where all the native dancers at the Stampede got their moves from!  When you hear, and see, 30-40 grouse doing this simultaneously it is truly an amazing act of nature to witness.  Their feathers rattle, they inflate their purple neck sacks, and they make very interesting cooing and gulping sounds at the same time–much like festive Macarena dance!

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(head down, tail up, and gyrating!)

The males were competing for dominance, as only the dominant male (or two) out of the whole group, will be selected by the females to sire the next generation.  The males faced off in head to head battles (often striking one another) until the matter was settled.

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(males facing off for dominance)

Eventually about 3 females arrived and that’s when the males really ramped up the jigging and shaking!  The females walked around slowly perusing the wares on display, selected the male that had the best moves, made quick work of the business at hand, and carried on.

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(female arrives to evaluate the dancing – note the abnormal “crossbill-like” beak)

Our lek experience lasted about 3 hours and eventually, when it was evident no more females were coming, the males became quiet and still (probably exhausted from the effort).  Just a silently as they arrived, they all flew off.

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(closeup of a male – nice eyebrows!)

It was an awesome outdoor show, one we have never been privileged to witness before!  We never cease to be amazed at the variety of wildlife and birds right here in Alberta.  We think the Sharp-tailed Grouse know how to dance 🙂

Marcy & Ray Stader

StaderArt Birds