Birdwatching Canada

A voice for the northern birds

68 Owl Day

To many birdwatchers, owls are the ultimate challenge. Absolute masters at blending into their environment, combined with the fact that many species are nocturnal, owl sightings are always a treat.

Two experienced birdwatchers in northern Alberta may have just set a record for that treat.

Leaving Edmonton at 7:00 am, they headed through the boreal forest towards Slave Lake. At the end of the day, they had seen an incredible 46 northern hawk owls and 22 great greys.

Birders around the country can only dream of such a day.


Filed under: Owls

BC Bans Pet Bird

The provincial government of British Columbia recently announced a law prohibiting the ownership of exotic animals as pets. While their intent is to prevent injuries to people is laudable, their actual list of prohibited animals is laughable.

The list, not surprisingly, is heavily geared towards mammals (tigers, lions) and reptiles (venomous and constrictors). But there is apparently one bird species they feel is dangerous enough to make the list.

Yes, folks, I’m sorry to tell you but it is no longer legal to keep a pet cassowary in BC.

Southern Cassowary in New Guinea

Southern Cassowary in New Guinea

Cassowaries are shy, large, flightless birds from the deep forests of New Guinea and north eastern Australia. They are the third largest birds in the world, after ostriches and emus (that are not on the list). They stand up to 1.8 m (6 ft) tall, and weigh about 58.5 kg (129 lb).

All cassowaries have horn-like crests called casques on their heads, up to 18 cm (7″) long.  Could this be why they made the dreaded list? Danger to humans from head butting?

The one thing continually mentioned in literature about cassowaries is that their three-toed feet have sharp claws. The middle toe sports a dagger-like claw that is 125 millimetres (5″) long, which they use for defense.

Oh well then – reason enough to ban private ownership of these large birds. Never mind most people have no idea they exist. Or the fact that these endangered birds are found only in the jungles of southeast Asia.

So if you live in BC and have a hankering to keep a large, flightless bird as a pet, make sure you get the larger ostrich or emu instead. Wouldn’t want to bring the environmental police down on you.

If you really want to have a potentially dangerous pet though, don’t worry – it’s still legal to keep a pet grizzly bear. Go figure.

Filed under: Weird & Wonky

Whooper Alert

Growing up in northern Alberta, I distinctly remember flocks of whooping cranes passing over our house. It was a normal as the sun setting. Little did we know what the future held for these huge, whooping birds.

Whooping Crane

Whooping Crane

The whooping crane was designated as an Endangered Species in Canada in 1978. Low population numbers, loss of habitat, slow reproductive potential and questions about the stability of their winter range combined to drastically reduce the population. From a record low of less than 20 birds, protection and management programs have slowly increased the crane population.

At the end of March and early April, whooping cranes who have spent the winter in Texas begin migrating north to their breeding grounds in western Canada. Twice each year the birds make the 4,023 km (2,500 mi) journey up and down North America.

The only natural nesting habitat for these huge birds is Wood Buffalo National Park, a 16,895 km² wetland complex in the boreal forests of northern Alberta and southwestern Northwest Territories.

This past winter has been a particularly hard one for the whooping cranes at Aransas National Wildlife Reserve in Texas. Wildlife managers are worried that some of the cranes may be too weak and malnourished to successfully make their return to Canada this season.

Drought has affected the flock that spends each winter on the Texas Gulf Coast. The birds have had trouble finding food because low water levels have decreased the number of blue crabs, which make up 85 percent of their diet. Reserve staff have set up 13 deer feeders with corn, prohibited crab fishing in and around the refuge, and conducted controlled burns to produce new green plants.

Tom Stehn, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service whooping crane coordinator, said some of the birds, which are part of the only naturally occurring population of whooping cranes in the world, could die during the return trip to Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park because they are so weak and malnourished. Most of the birds will begin the trip in early April.

The flock had a record number of 270 when it arrived last fall. Six adults and 15 chicks had died as of March 15, leaving the flock at 249.

Returning whoopers have already been spotted on their way north in Nebraska this month, and bird watchers along the Central Flyway are on full alert for more sightings.

If you’re in their migration range keep an eye out for these huge white birds. North America’s largest wading bird, they stand up to  4.9 ft (1.5 m) tall, and weigh  13-15 lb (6-7 kg). In flight, their black wing tips are visible, the neck is extended and their long legs extend beyond their tail. Their wingspan measures 6.5 ft (2 m).

Whooping crane in flight

Whooping crane in flight

If you see a Whooping Crane, please report your sighting to the Whooping Crane Conservation Association

Photo credits: Brian Johns, Geoff Holroyd, Environment Canada


Filed under: Migration, Waterfowl, , ,

Animals We Need To Survive

Funny how the little things are often the most important. Have a look at this website from the National Wildlife Federation, listing 5 Animals Mankind Needs to Survive.


Filed under: Uncategorized

Goose Overload

What would you think is the most common bird in Canada? If you guessed Canada goose, you would at least be in the correct family!

According to Environment Canada, our snow goose population now stands at over 4.5 million breeding birds, and has tripled over the past 20 years. While it’s nice to see a large, healthy population of any wild creature, these birds are actually eating themselves out of a home.

Snow geese flock

Snow geese flock

The fragile sub-Arctic and Arctic ecosystem where they nest in the summer cannot sustain this many geese. Some coastal salt marsh habitats have been severely degraded already. The geese feed by pulling grasses up by the roots, stripping the ground bare. This leads to erosion, increased evaporation of soil moisture, and an increase in soil salinity that prevents re-growth of vegetation.

There is evidence the birds are now moving inland to feed, threatening other ecosystems such as fresh water wetlands. Due to intense competition for food, thousands of goslings starve to death or die from disease each year.

Several factors appear to have contributed to the huge snow geese population. On their twice-yearly migrations, they eat a rich and plentiful diet of agricultural crops like winter wheat, rice and corn. This readily available food has likely increased survival rates. Warmer temperatures due to climate change in the Arctic may have increased the survival rate of the young birds each spring.

Now authorities are faced with a unique conservation situation. In the past, the snow goose population was low, and hunting quotas were reduced. Management decisions aimed at protecting the geese worked  – maybe too well.

So yes, it is wonderful to read about a conservation success, in this case it may be more of a ‘be careful what you wish for’ scenario. Although I suspect Arctic foxes are happy about the way things are, as adult snow geese, eggs and young birds feature prominently on their menu.


The Edmonton Nature Club is promoting the Snow Goose Chase, a guided tour to pre-scouted birding locations to view snow geese, swans, cranes, eagles and many more species. The tour of central Alberta takes place April 25 & 26/09, and pre-registration is required. For more details, contact The Edmonton Nature Club, 19 Woodlake Road, Sherwood Park, AB. T8A 4B3 Phone (780) 464-5814.

For more details, contact them at


Filed under: Birdwatching Events, Waterfowl, ,

Finch Musings

Happy Spring! Today is officially the first day of spring, and in many parts of the country, it’s been a long time coming.

Just after dawn this morning, I was levitated out of my bed by a very loud bird noise in the back yard. At the very least it had to be a large hawk, or possibly even an eagle. I flew out of bed, grabbed the binos, and took a bleary-eyed look at the trees in the back. It was a bluejay.

I cannot count the number of times these blue jokers have done this to me. You’d think I’d learn after a while, but any birder will tell you there’s always a chance it isn’t one of these expert mimics, so I’ll no doubt continue to jump to their whims. I swear I could hear him laughing.

Male House Finch

Male House Finch

For the rest of the day, I’ve been serenaded by house finches. I’ve got bird feeders front and back, and hence house finches front and back. Lovely, cheerful sound on this sunny spring day!

These melodic crooners are relatively new to my yard here in southern Alberta. About five years ago I had one bird, the following year I had 5, then I had 13… I no longer bother to count as they’re everywhere.

Originally a resident of the southwestern USA, house finches were introduced to eastern North America in the 1940’s. Sold as Hollywood Finches, a great marketing gimic, they were eventually released and spread across the entire eastern USA and southern Canada in the next 50 years.

They have become naturalized throughout eastern North America, and are spreading westward. The western population is also spreading eastward, and the two populations of these adaptable birds are now meeting in the Great Plains.

In many areas, they have displaced the house sparrow, itself an immigrant from Europe. House finches are one of the few birds aggressive enough to evict house sparrows from their nests, and as my house finch population grew, the house sparrow population in my yard dropped.

Originally inhabitants of undisturbed habitats, they have adapted to areas altered by humans, and their rapid spread has been made easier by the large number of bird feeders put out by bird-loving humans.

Unfortunately, they have also displaced the native Purple Finch in some areas. The male House Finch can be told from Cassin’s and Purple Finches by its streaked belly, browner back and nape, longer unforked tail and different call notes. Female House Finches have much plainer faces than the other finches.

It’s a good thing I enjoy the cheerful melodies of the house finches, as I think they’re here to stay. Maybe the bluejay will start imitating them instead, and stop jolting me awake with his impersonation of a raptor in my backyard.


Filed under: Songbirds, , , ,

Gull Acrobatics

Well I’m a happy camper today. Bird watching yesterday gave me my first look at returning gulls. Granted, they were too high for me to make a species identification, but they were definitely gulls. And right on schedule. As I live next to the Bow River in Calgary, Alberta, I’ve been tracking their return dates for many years. With very little variation, they return every March between the 11th and the 15th.

Their numbers will gradually increase on the river, with much squawking and squabbling. If things proceed as they have the past few years, in a couple of weeks there will be hundreds of them, and then they partake of a strange ritual that has intrigued me every year.  Starting around dusk, huge groups will start circling over a particular area, calling all the while. Multiple circles rise, then drop down but continue to circle for hours. Their loud noise generally forces nearby home owners to grab their earplugs, as the birds keep this up until the wee hours of the morning.

Ring-billed gull

Ring-billed gull

I’ve been down there birdwatching at 3:00 am, watching circles and circles of hundreds of white birds going round and round in a black sky. I eventually decided it was far easier to just lay down on the ground and watch that way. Not to mention you don’t get dizzy when lying down.

These birds are noisy! More than once during my nocturnal birdwatching I’ve seen men in their housecoats & slippers walk over to see what the commotion was about.  And forget about sleeping with any open windows.

This gull ‘festival’ goes on for a couple of weeks, then as quickly as it started, it’s over and things are quiet again. I’ve checked with many experienced birders regarding this event, and most are as puzzled as I am. One hypothesis though, makes a lot of sense. It was suggested the returning birds are re-forming pair or group bonds after their long migration in the spring. Once the flock cohesion has been established, they then fly away to various breeding locations. This could also explain all the different circles, instead of there being just one big one.

It is most definitely an unusual birdwatching experience, but a sure sign of spring for me.


Filed under: Waterfowl, ,

Shifting Birds

A study carried out by the Audubon Society has discovered that climate change is pushing North American birds northward, with some finches and chickadees moving hundreds of miles into Canada.

As the temperatures across the US have gotten warmer, the birds are spending their winters farther north than they used to. The study found more than half of 305 bird species in North America are wintering about 35 miles further north than they did 40 years ago.

Some species, such as the purple finch and boreal chickadee, spend their summers in the forests of Canada and fly south into the US for the winter. Climate change could be playing a role in why they are not flying as far south as they used to, and are no longer as common as they were in states like Maine, Vermont and Wisconsin.

Pine Siskin

Pine Siskin

The purple finch, pine siskin and boreal chickadee moved deep into the Canadian boreal forest, shifting their ranges 313, 246 and 211 miles, respectively. Previous studies of breeding birds in Great Britain and the eastern US have detected similar trends, but the Audubon study covers a broader area and many more species.

“There’s a thousand things that cause birds to change their range, and so if you do a study of a whole bunch of birds, you’ll see some moving north, some moving south, some moving west,” report co-author Greg Butcher said. “What was real surprising about this study is to see the birds moving so uniformly in one direction.”

Scientists were able to relate this movement with temperature changes from 1966 through 2005.

All kinds of birds moved north, but more of the highly adaptable forest and feeder birds — upward of 70% — made the move, compared with only 38% of grassland species.

Only 10 of 26 grassland species made significant moves north. Birds including the eastern meadowlark, vesper sparrow and burrowing owl may have been unable to move despite more moderate northern temperatures because grassland habitats have been converted to human uses such as row crops, pasture and hayfields.

Unlike most global warming stories in the media, this is not something predicted to happen in the future. It’s been happening for over 40 years. And provides yet another reason why it is vital to save our boreal forests, natural grasslands and wetlands.


Filed under: Global Warming, , ,

Weather vs Migration

Disoriented by erratic weather, birds are changing migration habits and routes to adjust to warmer winters, disappearing feeding grounds and shrinking wetlands, a migration expert says.

Failure to adapt risks extinction. Birds face starvation when they arrive too early or too late to find their normal diet of insects, plankton or fish. In the north, some birds have stopped migrating altogether, leaving them at risk when the next cold winter strikes.

Climate change adds another threat to bird life already under pressure from human intrusions like coastline development and loss of habitat.

Greenhouse gases are predicted to raise the Earth’s average temperatures by at least 3.6 degrees. The warming is predicted to drive up to 30% of known animal species to extinction, and migrating birds are especially vulnerable.

Climate change can strike at each stage of their annual trek, from breeding ground to rest stops to their final destination.

Studies have found arctic permafrost and tundra where many species breed are melting. Even moderate rises in sea levels can swamp wetlands where birds stop to feed. Deserts are expanding, lengthening the distance between rests.

“Species that adapted to changes over millennia are now being asked to make those adaptations extremely quickly because of the swift rise in temperatures,” said Robert Hepworth, executive secretary of the Convention on Migratory Species.

“We don’t know how many will survive. We will lose species,” he said.


Filed under: Migration, , ,

Brant Goose Festival

Brant goose

Brant goose

After a cold, snowy, winter most of us are chomping at the bit to get out there and start birding in comfort again. If you’re thinking of a holiday, there’s no better place to be this month than on Vancouver Island, BC.

The Brant Wildlife Festival celebrates nature, particularly the return of Brant geese as they rest and feed on British Columbia shores before flying to their breeding grounds in the Arctic. The early part of the festival coincides with the dramatic herring spawn event, which attracts huge numbers of birds to parts of the east Vancouver Island shoreline. The festival’s many events, include wildlife viewing, marsh walks, nature photography, Big Day birding, eagle release, and Voices of Nature concert.

The 2009 festival runs from March 6 to April 26 in Parksville, Qualicum Beach and Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. More details at their website.


Filed under: Birdwatching Events, Waterfowl, , ,


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