I am honoured to have one of my images grace the cover of the winter 2021 issue of Nature Alberta. This image highlights an article about one of Alberta's iconic birds - the Eastern Kingbird. Here is a link to the Nature Alberta website (https://naturealberta.ca/) and a link to the magazine (https://naturealberta.ca/magazine/). Nature Alberta is an organization that is a voice and active champion for the appreciation and conservation of Alberta's natural environment. A life-time membership is only $10.00(!) and an annual subscription for the magazine (four issues per year) is only $30.00. I encourage everyone who cares about nature to join this great organization.
Let a chickadee cheer you up this winter! Bird watching is a hobby that has taken off during COVID-19
Myrna quoted in this article.
By Gary Poignant in Alberta Prime Times
Enjoy this article here
When I was invited to speak at the North American Bluebird Society conference in Kearney, Nebraska, last week, we were lucky to have a generous friend arrange to take us out to see a Greater Prairie-Chicken lek. Prairie Chickens have been on my bucket list for many years.
Greater Prairie-Chickens once inhabited the sweeping grasslands of North America, including the prairie regions of Alberta and Saskatchewan. However, their range has been greatly reduced, thanks to habitat loss, hunting and competition from the introduced Ring-necked Pheasant. They are now found only in a few American states.
We arrived at the lek, located on a small hilltop in a large native pasture, just before dawn. We sat quietly in the inky cold, awaiting the arrival of the males. We were first alerted that the show was about to begin by a sound - the ethereal cooing call of the first arriving male. He was joined by another dozen or so other males and we were soon surrounded by mournful-sounding balladeers.
The birds materialized as the darkness slowly faded and we were, for the next couple of hours, treated to an amazing sight. Our guide explained that the females would not likely put in an appearance for another couple of weeks, so it was a treat to have one show up, just before the sun's first rays kissed the hill. Her presence threw the males into paroxysms of dance but she, apparently finding no suitors to her liking, soon scurried away over the far hill.
As the sun came up on this perfect Nebraska spring morning, we enjoyed a spectacle of colour, activity and sound. I was quite amazed at how different their dance moves are from Sharp-tailed Grouse (which are still found, albeit in declining numbers, in Alberta) and it was apparent that these birds inspired the famed Indigenous chicken dances.
Like all lek species, male Prairie-Chickens defend a small territory on the dancing ground. To demonstrate their prowess, they extend their orange eye combs, lower their heads, raise their neck feather tufts (called pinnae) to reveal bright orange air sacs that create a booming sound, stamp their feet, click their tails and shake their wings. They divide their time between looking around and fighting with each other. Their sparring alternates between stand offs, chasing each other and - on occasion - leaping into the air to do battle with wings, feet and bills, They also perform flutter jumps, leaping into the air while flapping their wings and issuing loud vocalizations. It was a challenge to photograph them performing these spontaneous jumps!
Our guide advised us that it is usually only one male that mates with all the visiting females - he with the most experience, the most impressive eye combs, longest legs, and best territories (nearest the center of the lek). As with all grouse species, no pair bond is formed and the males play no further role with the family.
We left the blind - hearts filled with joy - after the warm morning sun melted the frost and the males had wandered off to feed for the day. What a privilege it was to bear witness to this marvel of nature.
It has been far too long since I'd updated this website and updated my blog. If you want to follow me, I do update my Facebook page on a regular basis. We made a trip to Edmonton last week - to check the 3rd (!) printing of Backyard Bird Feeding: An Alberta Guide. While there, we slipped up to St. Albert to try to catch a glimpse of the Ash-throated Flycatcher that has been seen at Lois Hole Provincial Park. Well, the bird was a no show (it hasn't been seen for a couple days) but we were greatly entertained by the local chickadees!
I have always had a soft spot in my heart for porcupines. I remember my parents being upset when a porcupine decided to chew on the outhouse seats, and I have had the occasional nasty task of pulling quills from the muzzle of our family dog. But it is always a treat to encounter this prickly rodents, and it is always a treat to be able to get some photos.
Last week, while hiking on a natural area near Endiang, we encountered this young porcupine ambling down the trail towards us. My friend circled around to encourage it to continue walking my way so I could take some photos. The tall grass made it difficult to get a clear shot, but I was happy with this image. I will post more images later.
Over the years, I’ve had several encounters with Ruffed Grouse, the most common and widespread grouse species in Alberta. On winter rambles, I’ve come upon the plunge holes where they have spent a cold winter’s night snug under the snow. Last winter, we were delighted to have two resident grouse feed on the scattered seeds beneath the bird feeders and dine on the willow tree buds. In the spring, I’ve spent many an hour watching the males drum and, in early summer, have seen grouse families. Encountering a mother and her chicks is always a thrill. At first, a defensive mother tries to be intimidating (she raises her crest feathers, fluffs out her neck ruff, spreads her tail, makes threatening sounds and charges) but if that doesn’t work, she drops to the ground and freezes in place. A couple summers ago, I got my first-ever glimpse of newly hatched chicks (called cheepers). It is my opinion that they are the most adorable of all baby birds!
My most recent encounter with a grouse was in early September, when a friend and I had the good fortune to spend a few days in the Nordegg area. While ambling through a mixed-wood forest area, we heard a grouse drumming. Male grouse will sometimes drum in the fall because the hours of daylight match those of spring, reactivating their hormones. It is thought that fall drumming may also serve as a territorial notice; a message to other males that the log/area has already been claimed and will be used again in the spring.
This male was extremely tame, so we spent some interesting hours watching and photographing him. After about 10 minutes of drumming on a high log, he seemed to lose interest and wandered off. Just when we thought he had disappeared, he ambled across the path in front of us, nibbling away at small buds. It was remarkable how well camouflaged he was, his plumage perfectly matching that of the underbrush. He melted again into the trees, but just as we were about to leave the area, we heard him drumming again, this time from atop a steep ridge. We quietly made our way to this new spot and sat in awe a mere five metres away as he drummed every few minutes for the next half hour or so. He was obviously aware of our presence, as he would occasionally cast a glance our way. However, he must have considered us non-threatening because he continued to display. After snapping some images, we left him alone to boom his prowess to the other grouse in the valley.
We hope to return in the spring to see if this very cooperative male survived the winter and is back on his log.
I hope you enjoy a few grouse images that I've been able to collect over the years.
I am always thrilled to be afforded the rare treat of encountering a weasel, especially if I have my camera with me. Encounters with weasels are infrequent, and— because these hyper-active, frenetic little mammals have large territories and bound around erratically—fleeting.
Several years ago, I was privileged be able to observe a female Long-tailed Weasel transfer her babies across the yard at Ellis Bird Farm, moving them from some unknown (but obviously undesirable) location to a more upscale condo under the floor boards in the Grain Elevator. It was a warm early evening and the site was quiet; it was just the Ma weasel and me. I grabbed my camera, placed myself at a respectful distance, and proceeded to witness her make three journeys with her precious cargo gently but firmly clenched between her teeth. After she had them tucked in safely, she zipped around among the flower beds, peeking out occasionally to cast me a nasty stare. Alas, my camera system was and antiquated one, so I didn’t get many focused shots. But the experience was a memorable one.
We also had a male Long-tailed Weasel make a brief appearance a couple years ago. I was only able to photograph him bounding away, which meant for a lousy photograph but enough of a view of his anatomy to confirm his gender.
During the past weeks, we’ve been privileged to have another Long-tailed Weasel visit us at Ellis Bird Farm, appearing for brief moments at random spots around the site. I’ve been able to get a good look at this individual, confirming that it is not a male. I have named her Wilma. August is their breeding season, so I hope that Wilma sticks around and will bless us next year with some young ones.
Early last Sunday morning, I was unloading my van when Wilma suddenly appeared out of the grass, an apparition of energy and stealth. The lighting was perfect and my camera was handy, so I spent a heart-stopping couple of minutes trying to capture her frenzied movements. It wasn’t easy. She would leap down a ground squirrel hole, reappear, disappear, then reappear and bound off to the next hole. Luckily for me, she stood up on her hind legs a couple of times to survey the landscape, a pose that gave me a second or two to try to focus on her. I was disappointed with all of the out-of-focus images, but was grateful to get at least a few clear shots of her.
I will hopefully have more updates on Wilma over the next weeks!
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