Siege at Spruce Meadows!

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Acreage life near Spruce Meadows (Calgary, AB, Canada)

When one thinks about the rolling foothills around Spruce Meadows just southwest of Calgary, Alberta, thoughts of tranquility, beautiful horses, aspen forests, and lovely sunsets usually come to mind.

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Horses and riding competitions – the quintessential image of Spruce Meadows

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A Mule Deer lazes around the quiet acreage

We moved out to an acreage a few minutes from Spruce Meadows in February of this year.  Life at the acreage has been phenomenal: wide open spaces, peace and quiet, clean fresh air, and plenty of awesome birds (to be fair, there are two things we do not like about the acreage: too much grass to mow and slow internet).

We had a nesting pair of Great Horned Owls, hundreds of Redpolls, Chickadees, Red and White Breasted nuthatches, Red Crossbills, nearly the full gamut of raptors, Bluebirds, Blue Jays, Mourning Doves, Red-winged Blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbirds, House Finches, American Goldfinch, Tennessee Warblers, all kinds of Woodpeckers, Sparrows and much more.

We have been particularly blessed with a pair of nesting Blue Jays that reside in some trees very close to the acreage.  We put up a number of bird feeders when we moved to the acreage in the winter and immediately the Blue Jays discovered the feeders.  They have been entertaining us all year and they have been enjoying the peanuts immensely.  We have really come to appreciate how smart these birds are.

We started in winter with three Blue Jays.  A definite Blue Jay pair and a third one who doesn’t always stay with the pair, but we do see it quite often.

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A Blue Jay surveys the environment from atop a Mugo Pine

Life was good at the acreage and we were enjoying our little piece of paradise.  Until one day it began… the Siege at Spruce Meadows.

“It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s… a tiny hawk that appears in a blur of motion—and often disappears in a flurry of feathers.” Source: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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Sharp-shinned Hawk hunting in flight – a tough shot to get

One day, this Sharp-shinned Hawk showed up and turned everything upside down!  This raptor is so fast and stealthy we didn’t even know what exactly we saw the first few times.   It swept in low (2-3 ft off the ground) in a disorientating blur of speed.  After many attempts to capture this daring acrobatic flier in flight, we finally did it!

For those that don’t know, Sharp-shinned Hawks are the smallest hawk in North America that eat other birds.  Their job in the ecosystem is to cull weak or sick birds, keeping the rest of the population strong and healthy.

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Juuveniles have different plumage.  The eyes of sharpshins darken from yellow (in first-year birds) to orange, and then to red in older adults.  In comparison to adults, juvenile hawks have brown upperparts, and cream-colored underparts that often are heavily streaked with reddish brown on the breast and belly.”  Source: Hawk Mountain

“Songbirds make up about 90 percent of the Sharp-shinned Hawk’s diet. Birds the size of American Robins or smaller (especially warblers, sparrows, and thrushes) are the most frequent prey; bigger birds are at less risk, though they’re not completely safe. Studies report quail, shorebirds, doves, swifts, woodpeckers, and even falcons as prey. Sharp-shins also eat small rodents, such as mice and voles, and an occasional moth or grasshopper.”  Source: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

This juvenile attacked any birds on our feeders without discrimination, scattering birds in all directions.  At first, the feeders would remain abandoned for hours, but as more time went on, we noticed the song birds would return fairly quickly.  It’s almost as if they were getting a knack for the attack!  Usually this bird would show up for a couple of days and then disappear, but this time it decided to stay for a couple of weeks!

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It was hard for us to watch even though it is part of the natural food chain.  We have several Downey and Hairy Woodpeckers that visit our feeders regularly and we’ve grown somewhat attached to them.  Our stomachs would turn when we saw the Sharp-shinned Hawk come near them.  On one occasion, the hawk landed in a Mayday tree where a Downey Woodpecker had been feeding on a feeder directly below.  We are not sure if the hawk saw the Downey because the Downey absolutely froze and it didn’t move a feather until the hawk left 20 minutes later!

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One of our favourite male down woodpeckers

We are not sure what happened, but as the days wore on the Sharp-shinned Hawk started attacking anything and everything that moved!  Was this juvenile desperately hungry???

It took pot shots at Magpies.  It took pot shots at Crows.

It even terrorized our squirrels, including this one:

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This squirrel withstood repeated attacks from the hawk!

However, the hawk didn’t seem genuinely interested in the squirrels and the squirrels somehow knew they were not really on the hawk’s menu.  Perhaps the hawk was just using the squirrels as practice?

The hawk was relentless…

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It showed up every morning at 7:00 am is if on schedule and stayed until the late afternoon.  Watching, waiting… and attacking!

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The real gut wrenching stuff was when this little hawk started attacking our resident Blue Jays.  Our Blue Jay pair had two offspring and we had been watching them learn to feed and protect themselves all summer long.  Were they experienced enough to survive an attack from the hawk?

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The first few attacks on the Blue Jays were almost impossible to watch.  The Blue Jays would fly for cover making the loudest squawking calls.  The hawk would get within inches of the Jay and sometimes they would do acrobatics in the air until the Jay reached cover.  What we learned is that Blue Jays are very, very smart birds and they seem to know their capabilities and limitations.  They would receive an attack and fly for cover.  The hawk would land in a tree, often the same tree, and a few minutes later the Jay would have the confidence to fly to the feeder for another peanut…or two!  And then the cycle would repeat itself.

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As time went on, we started to relax a little about the Sharp-shinned Hawk attacks on the Blue Jays.  We would do an “inventory” count of our Jays and as long as we still had five jays, we knew none had been lost.

Not all birds were so lucky, however,  We had two pair of Mourning Doves that frequented the acreage all year but one day we found a heap of feathers.  At first we thought perhaps the hawk caught a Downey or Hairy Woodpecker, but we took a few feathers and identified them as a Mourning Dove on the internet.  We also read that this raptor likes to “pluck” their prey before eating… and the feathers just happened to be piled up under a favourite perch.

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This mourning dove wasn’t as agile or lucky as the blue jays

Then suddenly one morning it all stopped as quickly as it began… the acreage was eerily silent… no high-pitched calls from the hawk, no blue jays or other birds…

Autumn Jay

After looking through binoculars all morning we suddenly noticed a long, lean shadow soaring 8 ft off the ground…  A new predator had come into the neighbourhood–a beautiful female Norther Harrier Hawk!

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Female Northern Harrier Hawk perched on our fence

She only stayed for the day, but her presence was like the calvary coming to the rescue and breaking the Siege at Spruce Meadows, restoring calm after the storm!

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We hope you enjoyed the Siege of Spruce Meadows, thanks for reading and happy birding!

Ray & Marcy Stader

Birding South Africa–Oudtshoorn!

The first time we cracked open our brand new “Newman’s Birds of South Africa” book, our moderate knowledge about birds went out the window.  We hardly recognized a bird in the book – talk about starting over!

One of our favourite birding locations in South Africa was Oudtshoorn, a town in the Western Cape province along the Garden Route drive (a week-long drive we were doing from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth).  Although this area is most widely known for being the “Ostrich capital of the world,” it also offers some pretty good birding.

This was a particularly memorable day in South Africa because we had a one-on-one encounter with Meerkats at the crack of dawn, immediately followed by birding with a local guide. We were extremely fortunate to see the landscape in full colour because we were in South Africa during spring.  When walking around, you wouldn’t think there are many birds, but patience and knowledge reveals an abundance of life.

It all started when our guide stopped dead in his tracks, listening intently because he thought he heard a particular bird call–a Double-banded Courser.  We know that when a bird guide (who birds every day) gets excited, you need to pay attention!  It is a very elusive bird and difficult to spot in tall vegetation so we stood still, held our breath, and eventually captured this image of the courser among the flowering desert landscape.  It is one of our favourite avian “captures” in the area!

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Double-banded Courser

The Southern Fiscal is also named the jackie hangman or butcher bird due to its habit of impaling its prey on acacia thorns to store the food for later consumption.  They hunt small rodents, insects and small birds.  Evidence of its latest meal (yes–a small bird) still on its beak…

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Southern Fiscal

Ah, the Cape Weaver… we feel sorry for the male Cape Weaver because he spends seven days constructing an intricate nest to impress a potential mate and will then spend several more days attempting to attract a female with calls and displays of prowess (like the one seen below). Once he succeeds he repeats the process and attempts to attract yet another mate (up to seven).  He is a very busy bird!!!  No wonder he usually does not participate in care of the young!

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Cape Weaver

During the breeding season, the male Southern Red Bishop sings his heart out in hopes of attracting a mate.  Similar to the Red-Winged Blackbird of North America, this gregarious male perches on a reed with his chest and flight feathers puffed out competing with the other males in area for attention.  Similar to the Cape Weaver, the Southern Red Bishop builds several nests which are then thoroughly scrutinized by the females.

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Southern Red Bishop

Given that Oudtshoorn is the Ostrich capital of the world, this blog post would not be complete without at least one photo of an Ostrich!  We took in the full Ostrich experience while in Oudtshoorn – an Ostrich lunch, an Ostrich farm tour, and an Ostrich ride, saddle and all (which is somewhat scary after you finish laughing at the thought as they are the fastest land bird at 70 km per hour)!

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Ostrich

 Marcy & Ray Stader

StaderArt Birds

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

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

This is a new dedicated blog about birds!

For those of you who have been reading the StaderArt Blog, you know there is a variety of subject matter from people and places, to wildlife and birds.   We’ve decided to spin off a new blog specifically dedicated to birds called StaderArt Birds – just for the bird lovers!

We hope you enjoy StaderArt Birds as much as we enjoy discovering and photographing them!

Marcy & Ray Stader

StaderArt Birds

The Birds of Bow Valley Provincial Park

Psssst!  Wanna hear a little secret?  Bow Valley Provincial Park is a hidden gem in Alberta.

The park is only 33 sq. km but it is packed with a dense variety of habitat, wildlife and birds.   We go there early in the morning from time-to-time (while the masses visit Lake Louise and Banff) and we never seem to be disappointed!

This Lincoln Sparrow stayed hidden most of the time but every once in a while he popped up onto branch and posed for a second or two (with a yummy breakfast in its beak).

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Lincoln Sparrow

Willow Flycatchers are often overlooked and/or confused with other species.  There are several that look the same and it’s difficult to tell them apart from one another, but this little guy gave himself away by repeating his song over and over!  He was very cooperative and posed several times for the camera, often approaching us at close range.

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Willow Flycatcher

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Willow Flycatcher (close-up)

Who doesn’t like a Yellow Warbler?  This boisterous male was hanging out in the same willow thicket as the Willow Flycatcher.  Yellow Warblers are pretty common but they have this knack for dashing in and out of bushes a few seconds before you can click the shutter button on the camera.  Patience won the battle for us today, however.  Gotcha!

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Yellow Warbler

Over 220 species have been recorded in Bow Valley Provincial Park according to ebird.  Check here for a complete list of recent sightings:  ebird.org/ebird/hotspot/L430045

 Marcy & Ray Stader

StaderArt Birds

Sometimes misfortune is a Blessing in Disguise – Discovery of Birding

Panama Professional Bird Guide

16C_1032-1-2(Beny Wilson, Panama Bird Guide:  507-6112-2082,  veniciowilson@gmail.com)

When we first met Beny 2 years ago we were not avid birders… Ray had suffered a back injury that required us to change our usual activities to something more “tame.” A friend suggested we might like birding because of our interest in wildlife–we were skeptical but decided to give it a try and Panama seemed like the perfect place.

After our first 8-hour day on the famous Pipeline Road, dripping with sweat and swatting bugs that had no respect for bug spray, we weren’t sure what to think… until we downloaded our memory card and started looking at the pictures we took.  Suddenly those small, twitchy creatures jumped out of the screen in amazing detail, allowing us a small glimpse into the avian world – we were hooked!

Location: Summit Ponds

16A_3227 1-1-2.jpg(Blue-crowned Motmot.  Sometimes birds surprise you and come so close, they are almost out of the focal range of the lens, but the detail you can capture is mind-blowing!)

16A_3837 1-1.jpg(Male Crimson-backed Tanager.  These birds are quite common in Panama, but the colour is so vibrant we never tire of watching them.)

Location: Ammo Pond

IMG_5824-2.jpg(Ammo Pond)

Beny has the eyes of a hawk and a guide of his caliber can make such a difference.  When he starts acting like a kid at Christmas, you know you have been gifted something special, like when he spotted a Yellow-breasted Crake at Ammo Pond.  These birds are extremely rare–the last time Beny saw one was three years ago!

16A_3591 2(Yellow-breasted Crake.  We would normally not include such a “bad” photo in our blog but the rarity of this bird made it an exception.  Due to the dense vegetation of its habitat it is very difficult to see, much less photograph.  Just getting this “head shot” was a challenge.)

Location: La Laguna Sendero

Sometimes you get lucky and lightening strikes twice on the same day.  While hiking the Laguna Trail, Beny spotted a bird he wasn’t sure about (needless to say we were shocked).  It turned out to be a dark-phase juvenile Gray-headed Kite.  The dark phase was a “life bird” for Beny (which undoubtedly means it is also one for us)–score two!

16A_4038 1-1.jpg(Dark phase juvenile Gray-headed Kite)

16A_4130-1.jpg(Black-bellied Whistling Ducks)

As we finished the Laguna Trail we ended up by the Canal and saw several waterfowl wading about in a picturesque setting.  It was the perfect end to the perfect day.

Thinking back to the circumstances under which we first met Beny we can’t believe how our misfortune turned into such a blessing.  One that we can appreciate for many years to come!

Marcy & Ray Stader

StaderArt Birds

Unexpected Dinner Guest – Black-crowned Night-Heron

Panama has an amazing restaurant scene, everything is made from scratch and there is a broad range of cuisine available to suit every palette.  It is also a great way to people watch –you never know who might drop in!

One evening we were enjoying dinner outside on the Bay of Panama and we noticed a heron sitting on the roof line of the restaurant.  Of course we didn’t have a camera with us but this Black-crowned Night-Heron was incredibly patient and waited 10 minutes for us to grab the camera and come back to the restaurant.  It continued to pose for about half an hour because it was waiting for an opportunity to grab one of the fish swimming below.  We were very lucky he sat in one of the restaurant’s spot lights otherwise we would never have captured this shot because we don’t use flash on wildlife.
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(Black-crowned Night Heron – unexpected dinner guest)

Marcy & Ray Stader

StaderArt Birds

Panama Rainforest – A bird’s eye view!

How do you see what’s going on at the top of the rainforest canopy in Panama?  You climb a 130 foot tower with 174 steps, of course!  Many of you know we visit Panama frequently and the rainforest along the Panama Canal is one of our favourite day trips from Panama City.

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(Top of the 130 foot observation tower)

Being the early birds that we are, we were on the road around 5:30am bound for the Panama Rainforest Discovery Centre on the world renowned Pipeline Road.  While driving the 40 minutes to reach the observation tower we were wondering if the day was going to be a bust.  It was dark and raining – one of the first rains in five months  (Panama is starting to transition from the dry season to the wet season), but just as we arrived the rain stopped and it turned out to be a beautiful morning – not too hot…that was until we had to climb the 174 steps lugging heavy camera gear!

The results were worth it!

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(Chestnut-Mandibled Toucan)

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(Purpled-throated Fruitcrow – male)

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(White-necked Jacobin – male)

We have been to the tower several times before, but this was the best bird viewing day we’ve had so far.  We saw between 60-70 different species (thanks in large part to Carlos Bethancourt who was guiding a group from the USA and saved us hours of time trying to ID the birds we photographed.)

Some of the birds we saw included the following:

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Gray-headed Kite, Band-rumped Swift, White-necked Puffbird, Pied Puffbird, Keel-billed Toucan, Chestnut-Mandibled Toucan, Lineated Woodpecker, Blue-headed Parrot, Red-lored Parrot, Mealy Parrot, Dusky Antbird, Paltry Tyrannulet, Southern Bentbill, Great Kiskadee, Eastern Kingbird, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Blue Cotinga, Red-eyed Vireo, Lesser Greenbelt, Southern Rough-winged Swallow, Barn Swallow, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Yellow Warbler, White-shouldered Tanager, Palm Tanager, Blue Dacnis, Shining Honeycreeper, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, Yellow-rumped Cacique, Moustached Antwren, Dot-winged Antwren, Fasciated Antshrike, Scaled Pigeon, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, White-necked Jacobin, Slaty-tailed Trogan, Violet-bellied Hummingbird, White-vented Plumeleteer.

More to come from Panama…stay tuned!

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!

16A_6012 3-1(male courtship dance at first light)

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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