The Hummingbirds of Alberta

The Hummingbirds of Alberta

Alberta is in the Canadian sweet spot for hummingbird species, with three regularly occurring species. Rarer species often show up at feeders through the year, so it pays to keep your eyes open.

Ruby-throated, Calliope, and Rufous Hummingbirds are the common species in Alberta. Anna’s, Black-chinned, and Costa’s Hummingbirds have also been documented in the province with a few records of confirmed sightings.

Hummingbirds start arriving in Alberta around the beginning to middle of May (depending on where you live), so put your feeders up at the beginning of the month. One of the largest bird-feeding myths surrounding the feeding of hummingbirds is that leaving a feeder out too late in the season will delay their migration. This is just not true. The urge to migrate far outweighs a feeder full of sugar water. But leaving feeders up in the fall and getting them up early in spring may help early or late migrants passing through the area.

Take, for example, this wayward Costa’s Hummingbird that showed up in Sherwood Park last October and was seen at the same feeder for over a month and a half. Costa’s Hummingbirds rarely make it outside of Arizona and southern California, so it was very odd to have one show up in Alberta.

The Costa's Hummingbird that showed up at a feeder in Sherwood Park last fall. Photograph by Janice Hurlburt, used with permission.

The Costa’s Hummingbird that showed up at a feeder in Sherwood Park last fall. Photograph by Janice Hurlburt, used with permission.

Many people get excited to have a hummingbird visit their feeders, so here are some tips for attracting and keeping hummingbirds in your yard, as well as the “recipe” for sugar water.

Below, I’ve listed the three most common hummingbird species found in Alberta:

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have been documented in all regions of the province except the Canadian Shield, and have the largest breeding range of any North American hummingbird. Adult males are metallic green on the upperparts, iridescent ruby red on the throat, white on the underparts, and green along the sides. Adult females look similar to males but with a finely streaked throat, greyish belly, and buff along the sides of the belly. Immature males look similar to females but with red streaks down the throat.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are long-distance migrants, flying non-stop over the Gulf of Mexico to southern Mexico and Central America to spend the winter.

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A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird at one of my feeders

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Left, a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding on petunias. Right, a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird at one of my feeders.

Calliope Hummingbirds are the smallest birds in North America, often misidentified as large bees. Calliope Hummingbirds frequent the foothills, mountains, and the Peace River area in Alberta. Calliopes can be identified by their overall small size, green upper parts and pink streaks on the male’s throat that form a V-shaped gorget. Females have dull white throat, a buff chest, and belly.

While Calliopes might be small, they are extremely territorial and can chase away birds as big as Red-tailed Hawks from their breeding territory. The hummingbird gets its name from Calliope, the muse of eloquence and epic poetry in ancient Greek mythology.

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A male Calliope Hummingbird. Photograph by Daniel Arndt, used with permission.

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A male Calliope Hummingbird. Photograph by Daniel Arndt, used with permission.

Rufous Hummingbirds are known for being very feisty and extremely territorial. Look for them in the Rocky Mountains, foothills, and the boreal forest. In bright lighting, male Rufous Hummingbirds are bright orange on the back and belly, with an iridescent red throat. Females are green with rufous flanks, rufous on the base of the rounded tail, and a few orange spots on the throat.

Rufous Hummingbirds have the longest migration of any hummingbird species, travelling more than 3,500 miles from their breeding grounds to their Mexico wintering grounds. They travel north up the Pacific Coast in spring and return by the Rocky Mountains in the late summer and fall.

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A male Rufous Hummingbird. Photograph by Daniel Arndt, used with permission.

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A male Rufous Hummingbird. Photograph by Daniel Arndt, used with permission.

I’d like to thank Janice Hurlburt and Daniel Arndt for letting me use their hummingbird photos. You can find more of Daniel’s great hummingbird photographs on his Flickr page.

I’ll leave you with a few facts about hummingbirds:

— Hummingbirds are native species of the New World and are not found outside of the Western Hemisphere. A majority of the species are found in South America.

— A group of hummingbirds has many collective nouns, including a bouquet, glittering, hover, tune, and shimmer of hummingbirds.

— A hummingbird’s bright throat colour (gorget) is not caused by feather pigmentation, but by iridescence in the arrangement of the feathers and the influence of light level and moisture.

— An average hummingbird’s heart rate is more than 1,200 beats per minute.

— A hummingbird’s maximum forward flight speed is 48 km, or 30 miles, per hour, though the birds can reach up to 96 km, or 60 miles, per hour in a dive.

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A male Rufous Hummingbird. Photograph by Daniel Arndt, used with permission.

Book Review: “Offshore Sea Life ID Guide: East Coast”

Ever since I learned about pelagic trips, I’ve had them on my wish list. And until I get the chance to see petrels, guillemots, and shearwaters in person, I’ll happily read through my new copy of the Offshore Sea Life ID Guide: East Coast by Steve N.G. Howell, a seabird expert, and Brian L. Sullivan, an eBird project leader.

Offshore-Sea-Life-East-Coast-cover-197x300This new guide, along with the Offshore Sea Life ID Guide: West Coast, was recently published by Princeton University Press. The eastern guide covers 39 bird and 21 mammal species, and the western guide covers 43 birds and 22 mammals. Because the guides is geared toward offshore species, it doesn’t include animals such as loons, Harbour Seals, and sea ducks that you can see just off shore. The Offshore Sea Life ID Guides cover the sealife to be found farther out in the pelagic zone, more than a mile from the shoreline.

I have many ID guides for birds, but none for whales, dolphins, or flying fish, so the new volume gives me extra incentive to study up on the species I don’t know as well. The guide is meant to be a handy resource for on- and off-shore pelagic trips; it’s very thin so it can fit in a larger jacket pocket or take up little space in a backpack.

One of my favourite parts of the book is the Quick Page Finder on the inside cover. The book begins with an introduction of the oceanic environment, followed by an explanation of location abbreviations and a glossary. The species accounts for Marine Mammals come first, followed by Seabirds, Sea Turtles, Flying Fish & Squid, Billfish, Sharks, Seaweeds, and other sea life. The last page includes species codes, scientific names, and the index. The back cover has a map of the east coast, south of Canada to the tip of Florida and as far east as Bermuda.

Here’s the species account for Jellyfish:jellyfish640h

Because views of marine mammals in the wild tend to be brief and limited to tails, dorsal fins, and flippers, the book’s focus is on those key features to help identify whales and dolphins. Of course, you have a better chance with seabirds to see the entire bird, but between a rocking ship and similar plumages, identification can still present challenges. Seabirds are shown in both immature and adult plumages, different colouration morphs, in flight (toward and away), paddling on the surface, and sitting on the water.

There are 120 colour photos in the book and are arranged in Crossley-style composite photos. The photos are digitally compiled to appear as if you are viewing each species from aboard ship.

The species accounts are concise with very large, easy to read font. Common name, banding code, and the time of year the animals are most likely to be seen make up most of the accounts. Flight patterns and wing molt are heavily covered for seabirds. The volume includes page numbers when citing other species in the species account.

The species accounts for Northern Fulmar, Great Shearwater, Cory’s Shearwater, Sooty Shearwater:

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I really like this guide and definitely will bring it with me on my first Atlantic voyage. The Offshore Sea Life ID Guide is a well-designed and highly informative book that would benefit both beginning and advanced birders who want a convenient and affordable guide to eastern sealife.

Thank you very much to Princeton University Press for providing me with a review copy.

An Autographed Peterson and “The Birds of Alberta”

My Facebook friend Michael sent me a message last May to offer me his copies of Birds of Alberta by W. Ray Salt and Jim R. Salt and an autographed second edition of Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds (1961).

Since Michael lives in Edmonton, he dropped the books off at the Wild Bird General Store from where I picked them up a few days later. I’ve recently had the chance to spend more time reading through them. It’s wonderful to have them in my collection. Thank you very much for such a generous gift, Michael, and for thinking of me.

Michael told me that the autographed Peterson Field Guide was previously owned by the late Dr. Otto Hohn of the University of Alberta, an avid birder and international expert on avian endocrinology. My mother just got me a copy of one of Dr. Hohn’s books, A Northern Naturalist, which I’m also looking forward to reading. Thank you, too, Michael, for the introduction to Dr. Hohn.

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The autographed page,

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It’s facinating reading through Dr. Hohn’s checklist in the guide,

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A little bit of Germany

I arrived in Germay this past Tuesday to wind, rain, and cloudy skies. The conditions haven’t been ideal for photography, and the birds are staying quite high up in the trees, so I haven’t taken many photos with my Nikon DSLR. I’ve done a bit more with my iPhone and am posting on my Instagram account.

The photos below were taken with my Nikon with the exception of the Eurasian Nuthatch, which was taken through my binoculars with my Phone Skope adapter with a binocular ring.

The weather vane on my aunt and uncle’s dairy barn,

 

There are hundreds of Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) growing in my aunt’s garden,

 

One of the many old fruit trees growing in the yard; there are apple trees as well as cherry, pear, and hazelnut trees on the property,

 

A Eurasian Nuthatch in the garden the other morning,

 

A very out-of-focus photo of a Common Blackbird, which is closely related to the American Robin,

 

Many old farmyards had a bakehouse with a big oven inside. This one is no longer in use, but still possesses a lot of charm,

Book Review: “Peterson Reference Guide to Owls of North America and the Caribbean”

Guide to OwlsThe Peterson Reference Guide to Owls by Scott Weidensaul is my first owl-specific guide and my first volume in their “reference guide” series, and what a wonderful introduction to both.

The book covers all 39 species of owls found in North America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. This is a very comprehensive, authoritative, and beautifully illustrated book which has everything you need to know about owls. Because it’s hardcover, it would also be a great coffee-table book.

Scott Weidensaul is a co-founder of Project Snowstormthe research project that bands and tracks the movements of owls that appeared in the recent irruptive years; he is a co-director of Project Owlnet, a project with almost 125 banding and research stations across North America studying owl migration; and for nearly 20 years he has directed major studies on Northern Saw-Whet Owls.

The first part of the guide is the “How to use this book” section which covers a longevity, alpha codes, how to read the range maps, the topography, and explanations for such terms as reversed sexual dimorphism (where “females may be 20 or 30 percent larger than males”).

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The next and largest section is the Species Accounts. The accounts range in length from three to 17 pages, representing the knowledge and research available on that species.

Each Species Account includes both English and scientific names, and the banding (alpha) code. Measurements, longevity, and a general description of the species follow. There are more detailed sections on Systematics, Taxonomy & Etymology, Distribution, Description & Identification, Vocalizations, Habitat & Niche, Nesting & Breeding, Behavior, and Status. At the end of each species accounts, there are Notes and Bibliography for further reading and research.

Each account contains a up-to-date range map and there are also subspecies distribution maps for Spotted Owls, Great Horned Owls, and Eastern and Western Screech-Owls.

One of the best parts of the book is the photos — there are 340 color photos included in the guide. I have an awful time getting photos of owls, so I take my hat off to the many photographers who spent time capturing the behaviour of theses secretive and hard to photograph birds. The easier owl species to find are represented with lots of great photos while lesser-know owls such as the Tamaulipas Pygmy-Owl have only one photo.

As owls are generally heard more than seen, much emphasis has been put on the vocal descriptions which are very detailed and descriptive. However, I find the best way to learn the calls is to actually listen to recordings. The author and publishers have put together a list for anyone interested in audio with 86 owl vocalizations which you can download for free from the Cornell’s Macaulay Library of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology — a wonderful bonus!

The Acknowledgments section includes a list of all the researchers, photographers, and even citizen scientists who helped with the book. Next is the Glossary where you can find all the owl terms mentioned in the book.

There are five pages of General Bibliography listing published papers, ornithological articles, and citations; these are primarily paper versions but there are some links to online sources too. The index includes species and subspecies names, both English and scientific. Pages for photographs, maps, and captions can be found in a bold font.

Even though much of the information is technical, Mr. Weidensaul’s style is very engaging and easy to read. One of my favourite sentences is from the Northern Pygmy-Owl: “Northern Pygmy-Owls rather famously lack a sense of proportion when it come to picking their prey.” And the back of the book is as helpful and comprehensive as the front.

For anyone interested in owls and their ecology and behaviour, the Peterson Reference Guide to Owls of North America and the Caribbean is a must-have. It’s incredibly well-written and well-designed, with informative text, and the photos bring each species to life. This book deserves a special place on the shelf or coffee table. This is a really wonderful book, and I’m hoping it will help me change my bad luck with owls.

I’d like to thank my good friend Ray of Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds for sending me a copy of this guide.

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Birding in the Winter

Winter got off to a pretty mild start all around North America, but seems to have arrived now, everywhere just in time for the new year.

Finding birds in the winter can sometimes be very challenging. Birds are mainly concentrated wherever food is plentiful and there is good shelter. Some species such as finches are most active early in the day, but you should be able to find some species at any time of day.

If there is any open water in the area, that’s a prime place to start looking for ducks, raptors, gulls, herons, shorebirds, and even kingfishers can be found around open patches of water or sewage treatment plants.

When driving around the countryside or near airports, watch the open fields for Rough-legged Hawks, Northern Hawk Owls, or even a Snowy Owl. These species will often perch in trees, on telephone poles and also hay and straw bales. Snow Buntings and Horned Larks gather in large flocks which fly close to the ground in fields. Northern Shrikes are often found perched on the uppermost point of a tree in small clumps of bushes.

IMG_0837Winter finches are usually heard before they are seen — Crossbills, Pine Siskins, and Pine Grosbeaks are very vocal in the winter which makes them easy to locate — often feeding on pinecones at the top of spruce trees.

The best way to locate certain species is to ask local birders about the best locations for wintering species in your area. eBird is also a fantastic resource for finding birds in your area. You can submit your own sightings to eBird — adding to the ever growing eBird database of checklists which helps other birders and scientists track bird distribution and abundance.

When I have time in the winter, even in the bitter temperatures from around -20 to -40 degrees Celsius, I trudge through the snow in search of owls, woodpeckers, and winter finches. Staying warm in the frigid temperatures can be a challenge, but being comfortable makes birding much more enjoyable. Sometimes the coldest days can produce the most spectacular birds, but nothing is more frustrating than watching a Snowy Owl and not being able to feel your toes!

Using a camera can be a challenge on very cold days, because changing the dials with mittens or even gloves can be difficult. I try to have my settings ready before I leave the house to minimize fiddling around in the cold. Also, batteries lose a lot of power when exposed to low temperatures, so I keep spare ones warm in an inner pocket, close to the body.

A Snowy Owl I saw last year,IMG_6782

Layers upon layers are the key to staying warm outside. I like to wear warm sweaters and leggings. And on the outside — my snow boots (Baffin), waterproof snow pants, a waterproof winter jacket, my Punk Rock Apparel Snowy Owl winter hat, and a scarf or gaiter. Keeping your extremities warm is essential for winter birding. I like wool socks, and I dry my boot liners overnight. This way there’s no excess moisture in the liners. I wear leather mittens with finger liners since they are incredibly warm and easy to use with binoculars. Hand warmers can be useful since you can stick them in your mittens, pockets, and boots. Constantly moving also helps to keep you warm.

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Birding in Germany was a little different for me because the climate is so much more humid and damp than the prairies. The cold went straight through me, so I made sure to dress very warmly even through the winter temperature wasn’t much below zero.

Birding by vehicle can make the weather a little more bearable. Dress as warmly as if you’re going for a walk, because any number of things could happen — a bird might be sitting in a spot where you have to go outside to get a good view, the heater in your vehicle quits working or have some other breakdown (my truck started leaking coolant and overheated far from home on the day of the Christmas Bird Count), or you get stuck in the snow and have to walk.

If you can’t brave the cold, sit by your window with a book and something warm to drink and watch the birds at your feeders. Feeding birds in the winter gives you a chance to watch birds without having to go outside and provides extra sustenance for birds dealing with the winter weather. Many rare birds often show up at feeding stations, so keep an eye out for unusual birds at your feeders. Even if nothing rare shows up, watching the Black-capped Chickadees, Downy Woodpeckers, and winter finches at close range is always enjoyable. For more bird feeding tips, I highly recommend Myrna Pearman’s new book, Backyard Bird Feeding: An Alberta Guide

There are a number of citizen science programs that take place in the winter, including Project FeederWatch, Christmas Bird Counts, and the Great Backyard Bird Count. You can provide important information about the winter bird population in your area by counting birds at your feeders and reporting the results.

Whether you’re walking, driving, or window-watching this winter, have fun and stay warm!

A male Pine Grosbeak,

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2015 Christmas Bird Count and CBC4Kids

The 26th annual Vermilion Christmas Bird Count was held on December 19th. I’m the president for our local Naturalist Society this year, so I organized the count, made sure we had field counters for each of the quadrants, and also tried to publicize the count in the local papers to encourage more feeder counters and let the community know to expect birders walking around. We had a total of 29 field counters and nine feederwatchers.

My friend Sharon picked me up at 9 am and we drove around our part of the NW Quadrant, stopping at farmyards along the way, checking to see if there were any birds at feeders or in the mature spruce trees surrounding the yards. Black-capped Chickadees, Black-billed Magpies, and Common Ravens were our most seen species, but the Common Redpolls were the most abundant — we saw over 400 in just under two hours.

At 11:30 am we headed to my grandmother’s acreage to see what was at her feeders. We enjoyed mugs of hot chocolate and ate Christmas baking while looking out her kitchen windows. We added two Hairy Woodpeckers and Downy Woodpeckers to our list. Three Blue Jays fed from the peanut ring that my grandmother put out.

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One of the Blue Jays checking out the peanut feeder,IMG_9982 IMG_9983

A male Hairy Woodpecker,IMG_9988

A White-breasted Nuthatch also made a brief appearance,IMG_9997

This year, I organized the second annual Vermilion CBC4Kids in the Vermilion Provincial Park. Sharon dropped me off at home and I drove to town for the CBC4Kids starting at 1 pm. We had seven kids, six parents, and one novice adult birder come out for birding in the park. I talked about the possible species we could see and explained more about the Christmas Bird Count, then we started walking the trails.

A reporter from the one of the local newspapers joined us to cover the CBC4Kids just before we started our walk. Thanks for coming out, Shannon, and for the great article, which I hope encourages other families and young birders to come out. 

Two junior birders, photo courtesty of Shannon O’Connor, The Vermilion Voice.

Two junior birders (photo courtesty of Shannon O’Connor, The Vermilion Voice)

We looked for the large flocks of finches that had been previously reported in the spruce trees, but all we saw for winter finches were two Common Redpolls. Black-capped Chickadees were the most abundant on the walk and one particular bird came very close to the group, so everyone got a good look.

Other than birds, we found snowshoe hare tracks, various bird nests, a willow where a porcupine had stripped the bark off the top branches, and a bunch of trembling aspens that beavers chopped down in the summer or fall and left behind.

Searching for woodpeckers to no avail,IMG_1452

After a climb up a fairly steep hill, we caught our breath and got a group photo,IMG_1450

We finished the walk having traveled over two kilometres and seen six species. Even though the kids were a little tired after the long walk, they all had a good time. I’m looking forward to next year’s CBC4Kids, and think I might lead a walk for beginning adult birders who can’t commit to a whole/half day of counting, but would like to learn more about the wintering birds in Vermilion.

Here’s our list of species from the CBC4Kids walk:

Blue Jay — 1

Black-billed Magpie — 2

Common Raven — 2

Black-capped Chickadee — 38

Bohemian Waxwing  — 35

Common Redpoll — 2

There’s always a CBC potluck supper in town where everyone shares stories from the day, and our compiler tallies the count numbers. From the regular count and the CBC4Kids, counters saw a total of 4,340 individual birds of 41 species, a new record on both counts. Two of the species — a Cooper’s Hawk and a Northern Saw-Whet Owl — were new additions for the count and were both seen in the NE Quadrant.

Christmas Bird Counts around North America run up until January 5th — CBCs are excellent ways to meet other birders in your area as well as to add some new winter species to your list.

:: Find more CBC4Kids events here

:: Find CBC events across Canada here

:: Find CBC events across the U.S here