Saturday, December 31, 2011

Big Year

This year, I will be attempting my own mini Big Year. As I am not quite old enough to drive, I won't be able to do anything spectacular and I have a tight schedule to fit this in. It's going to be tough but I hope to at least get close ( my drafts so far show about 460). I'll also try to add 50 or so mammals.

It's going to be difficult, but it should be fun!

Matthew Sim

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Winter Killdeer

Last weekend on the Christmas Bird Count, I came across a very photogenic Killdeer. These abundant shorebirds, usually only stay the summer in Calgary, several birds, however, also stay the winter.

Despite our frigid winters, these hardy Killdeer seem to manage all right, we see them throughout the winter which must mean that they are surviving. They are definitely finding food, as can be seen in the photo below.
This Killdeer seemed to be finding enough food
At one point, I even saw this particular bird with a small morsel of food clenched in its beak.

This Killdeer was fearless and approached me; which is quite a nice change as a photographer! It also engaged in the species peculiar method of moving; they run for a few feet, stop, look around, flick their tail up, bob their head up and down a couple times, and then repeat this cycle over again.
Just finished a short run, the Killdeer stops, looks around and...
Bob it's head out of the photo, leaving the photographer with an unusual result but a good story!

Each year, Killdeer are seen wintering in Calgary, somewhere on the Bow River. Though it may seem like a daft idea to many of us, this species obviously are doing just fine!

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

This year, I also did the Christmas Bird Count; I was assigned the S1 route, encompassing both Carburn and Southland Park. We started the morning birding from the Eric Harvie bridge in Southland, right beside the dog park, before splitting up, 2 groups going south along the river (one on each side) and 2 groups going north along the river. The day was off to a good start as we observed 2 adult eagles and 2 immature eagles flying low overhead; the rising sun was beautiful, adding to the good beginning and silhouetting the many ducks and geese on the Bow River.

We observed thousands of Mallards, Common Goldeneyes and Canada Geese throughout the day with several hundred Buffleheads as well. There were also several Barrow's Goldeneyes in these waterfowl flocks.

The Common Goldeneyes weren't quite as numerous as the Mallards however they were still present in large numbers.
We continued to walk further down the river, spotting Redpolls, plenty of waterfowl, Killdeer, magpies and... RUSTY BLACKBIRD!!! As we were hiking along the river, we flushed up a brownish-black bird about the size of a Robin from the bank. It landed nearby at the top of a poplar where we all got good looks at it. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for my photographs of this species! This blackbird, is an unusual bird in Calgary, explaining, perhaps, my excitement at the sighting (also, this was only my second time seeing this species).
We headed back to the meeting spot, the Eric Harvie Bridge, where we saw a Sharp-shinned Hawk and discovered that another group had found an American Wigeon. We then headed to our next stop, Tim Hortons! After warming up and getting refreshments at Tim Hortons, we headed out near the Glenmore bridge, where at a pullout, we walked out and did some more birding, turning up a Killdeer and a Hairy Woodpecker.

The next and final stop for our group was Carburn Park. Our goal at Carburn, was to find an American Pipit  that had been reported here a little while earlier. Though we couldn't agree to the location where this bird had been seen, we did manage to find it. This happens to be the first pipit recorded on the Calgary CBC since its beginning, 59 years ago.
Also in Carburn, we found a pair of Great Horned Owls, that were extremely well camouflaged against the tree branches they were perched on, several more Barrow's Goldeneyes and another juvenile eagle. I decided to head home early and only found out later that the rest of the group had also found a Northern Pintail and a Wood Duck in Carburn. I birded around my neighborhood, which was inside our count circle, and managed to add both species of crossbills, a robin and a Merlin to our list, among other species.
The pipit and the Rusty Blackbird were definitely the highlights of the day for me, however they were only two of the 33 species and 7924 individuals recorded by 10 counters in this particular area. Here are the complete results:

Canada Goose, 1500; Wood Duck, 1; American Wigeon, 1; Mallard, 3000; Northern Pintail, 1; Bufflehead, 150; Common Goldeneye, 2800; Barrow's Goldeneye, 20; Common Merganser, 20; Bald Eagle, 5; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 1; Merlin, 1; Killdeer, 5; Rock Pigeon, 25; Great Horned Owl, 2; Downy Woodpecker, 5; Hairy Woodpecker, 2; Northern Flicker, 3; Black-billed Magpie, 125; American Crow, 3; Common Raven, 12; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 3; White-breasted Nuthatch, 3; American Robin, 1; Dark-eyed Junco, 1; Rusty Blackbird, 1; House Finch, 4; Red Crossbill, 12; White-winged Crossbill, 26; Common Redpoll, 25; House Sparrow, 110; American Pipit, 1;

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

It's good to be back...

I flew in to Calgary from Houston last Friday night and was greeted by snow on the ground! That's  something that I haven't seen since April. Never thought I would be so excited to see this cold, white, powdery substance! My first day back, Saturday, I took a walk around my neighborhood and was fortunate enough to see many locals; no, not the neighbors, the birds.

First thing in the morning, I woke to see several Black-billed Magpies jumping and hollering about in the willow. Several Common Ravens flew overhead and 2 pairs of Chickadees visited the feeders. I was very happy to see the Black-capped Chickadees, nothing can compare with this species' friendliness!

I have been following the reports from Albertabird still and I have seen all the reports of winter finches; I knew what a good year it was for these birds. I just didn't know how good! In my hour or so walk, I saw more Crossbills then I did all last winter. I must have seen more than 100 crossbills!
Most of the crossbills were White-winged however there were a few Red Crossbills in the mix ( see photo above). I also observed many Pine Siskins that were flocking with the crossbills and feeding on the abundant cones.

Most of the crossbills were White-winged however there were a few Red Crossbills in the mix ( see photo above). I also observed many Pine Siskins that were flocking with the crossbills and feeding on the abundant cones.

My neighborhood, for some reason, never seems to be popular with Common Redpolls, however this year, within my first 24 hours of being back in Calgary, I had already seen 2 in my community. Also, we hosted a Pine Grosbeak, which is unusual for us. At one point, I was privileged to see several crossbills, a redpoll and many siskins on the ground just feet in front of me, licking up some sort of salt or rock from the ground.

Then, later on in the day, I discovered why my feeders were so empty. Three Sharp-shinned Hawks were all together in a tree. When 3 raptors start calling your neighborhood home, there are definitely going to be some songbird declines

All in all, it's good to be back!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Red-eared Sliders

Just to switch it up a little, here is another species of wildlife that lives in my neighborhood.

    The Red-eared Sliders of my community are very shy, and, therefore, very difficult to photograph as they are always hopping off their rocks and into the water at the slightest disturbance. This apprehension can aid the turtles though as they (though being very abundant in Texas), still face population challenges from human activities and predation.

Best distinguished, as their name suggests, by the broad red band just behind their eye, Red-eared Sliders  are the most widespread of aquatic turtles in Texas, thanks to, perhaps, their ability to live in a very wide range of habitats, including lakes, ponds, rivers, swamps and bayous. Adult turtles of this species consume mainly aquatic plants, making them a key factor for aquatic ecology; due to their eating habits, they help clear excess and invasive plants.

Red-eared Sliders, I have found, go largely unnoticed by the vast majority of people, but are influential in many ecosystems. Maybe a little credit for preserving these ecological communities are due their way.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Tips on Better Bird Photography

I think it is safe to say that most of us here have an interest in birdwatching. Some of us are also interested in photographing birds, documenting what we see and also enabling others to enjoy these sightings . Bird photography can be very tricky though and doesn't always come out the way we want it to. Through trial and error as well as tips from other nature photographers, I have slowly learned different tricks of the trade and am still learning. Here is one trick that I have found helps me a lot.
Take a look at the picture above. Probably doesn't do much for you, right? Just a killdeer photograph, nothing exciting about the shot itself. What could have been done to make this a better photograph? I have found that getting low can often drastically improve the photo. Get down at eye level with the bird, you can often create better eye contact with the bird, bringing the viewer into a connection with the photo. The Killdeer will then seem more interesting, not only because of the lower angle, but because of the  change in the depth of field of the shot.
Depth of field (also known as DOF), is the term for the amount of distance between the closest and farthest objects that appear sharp in the photograph. In the second picture above, a shallower depth of field (meaning a blurry background) makes the photo less distracting and more pleasing to the eye. In the photo pictured below, I took it one step further, instead of simply kneeling, I lay on my stomach, creating a very shallow depth of field and therefore, a picture that is more likely to catch your eye than the first photo.
Changing the depth of field is a remarkably simple technique but incredibly powerful in the way a photo comes out. By getting low, chances are you can improve your bird photography.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Mountain scenery

A selection of mountain sceneries from the Canadian Rockies in Alberta.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Christmas Scenery

Each and every Christmas season, Spruce Meadows, a world-renown horse-jumping stadium in Alberta, Canada, puts up Christmas lights. Lots and lots of Christmas lights.

Last year, I went to see these Christmas lights right around sunset one chilly December day. Let me tell you; Spruce Meadows does an outstanding job on their lights! They had all their trees decked out in holiday livery and if you are in the area this holiday season, is definitely worth seeing!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sunday Showcase: A Collection of Corvids

Corvids, which are crows and jays, are classified by their harsh voices and their aggressive manner, both of which draw attention to themselves; large and often very gregarious birds. Most corvids have bristles on their nostrils, located on very powerful, all-purpose beaks built specially for handling their varied diet ( berries, fruits, seeds, invertebrates, small mammals and carrion).

American Crow

Blue Jay

Gray Jay

Clark's Nutcracker

Common Ravens

Black-billed Magpie

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Famous birders: Phoebe Snetsinger

There are many famous birders, some renowned for their birding accomplishments, others simply because of their non-birding accomplishments. Todays famous birder is Phoebe Snetsinger, a birder who had a remarkable story; and a strong will.

Phoebe Snetsinger was born June 9, 1931 in Lake Zurich, Illinois. One of three children of Naomi Geddes and the powerful advertising baron, Leo Burnett, she inherited a small fortune, thanks to her father. Upon seeing a Blackburnian Warbler in 1965 at her home in Webster Groves, Missouri, Phoebe was inspired to start birding. Birding remained a hobby for Phoebe until the moment in 1981 that would reshape her life; a doctor diagnosed her with terminal melanoma and told her she didn't have long to live.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia

This news motivated Phoebe to observe birds; as many species as she could. It all started with one trip to Alaska. Phoebe returned home after the trip to Alaska and from then on, traveled the world seeing as many species as she could. Phoebe lived much longer than doctors thought she would and, in 1999, 18 years after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Phoebe was still going strong. Unfortunately, Phoebe's travels were brought to an abrupt end. While in Madagascar looking for a Red-shouldered Vanga, a species discovered by science only two years earlier, the van Phoebe and her group were traveling in, overturned on the decrepit roads, killing Phoebe instantly.
This remarkable woman was very dedicated and persevering in her travels and still has one of the biggest life lists ever recorded. Phoebe's last lifer on a list that totaled more than 8,400 species of birds, was the Red-shouldered Vanga.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thousands of Blackbirds

Last week while we were heading for Brazos Bend, we came across a stunning sight in a farmer's fields near George Ranch. In the fields there were literally thousands of blackbirds with a total of over 10,000 very probable. These blackbirds are wintering here in Texas and have found plenty of food in the form of grain in these fields.

The species in the largest numbers were Red-winged Blackbirds, numbering an estimated 7,000 and were followed by Brown-headed Cowbird at about 3,000. There were also many starlings along with some Common and Great-tailed Grackles thrown into the mix.

Unfortunately for the blackbirds, many raptors had found this feeding bonanza as well and had shown up, not to feed on the grain but to feed on the blackbirds. There were more than 20 raptors in a space of about 500 sq. yards

About 10 Caracaras, 1 Harrier, many Red-tailed Hawks, several White-tailed Hawks and some Turkey Vultures were hanging around, waiting for the right moment to attack. The blackbirds were very wary and anytime a raptor entered their midst, thousands of the blackbirds would rise up and fly off all at the same time, whirling and twirling in an attempt to avoid capture.

We saw evidence that the raptors were eating well as one of the White-tailed Hawks, an immature, had a very full crop, meaning that it has had a lot to eat. Unfortunately, I didn't get a decent shot of the White-tailed.

Below is a typical winter grassland scene in Texas; a Harrier, blackbirds, hay bales and caracaras.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Brazos Bend

Last week, my family and I took a trip out to Brazos Bend SP, about an hour's drive south into the heart of gator country. Brazos Bend is well known for it's big gators and we soon found out why.

Any explanation needed??? When you have big ole' gators like this lazing about, you are grateful for all the fences and railings you can get. This guy is relatively large for alligators in the area and is probably about 16 feet. We saw close to 30 gators in the 3 hours that we were at the park and were very impressed by their size, teeth and laziness; I don't think we saw one move much more than 2 feet!

We had a very nice trip with some rain pounding down for all of about 20 minutes. Some of the highlights were a pair of Fulvous-Whistling Ducks, a male Wood Duck, a male Vermilion Flycatcher, some Stilt Sandpipers, a lone Roseate Spoonbill and, obviously, the gators.

Stay tuned, I will have a post about the amazing sight we witnessed on our way to the park coming up shortly!!!