Monday, February 28, 2011


The Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) is a world traveler!  It can be spotted in every continent except Australia and Antarctica. Indeed, it is one of the most widely distributed owls on the planet.  It breeds in every province and territory in Canada.  

A medium-sized owl, about the size of a crow, this species likes vast stretches of fairly open habitat, particularly marshland and deep grass fields.  Prairies, grassy plains and tundra are some of its preferred summer haunts.  Large-scale destruction of native prairie grasslands, wetland drainage, urban expansion and increasingly intensive agricultural practices are contributing to the decline of the Short-eared Owl. It is on the “blue list” (species at risk) in Alberta and British Columbia.

I spent a most delightful few hours with this female “shortie” in Boundary Bay in south Delta, BC. Much of the bay is surrounded by marshland and grass fields and it’s proximate to the Fraser River delta, which is Shortie’s prime wintering area in BC.

The scientific name is from the Latin words asio, used by Pliny to specify a horned owl, and flammeus, meaning flaming or fiery and refers to the appearance of the bird’s plumage. The common name indicates the short feather tufts on its head that are difficult to see except when the owl is excited. This bird has also been called a Bog Owl, Flat-faced Owl, Grass Owl, and Marsh Owl.

Short-eared Owls actively hunt during the day (diurnal), at night (nocturnal), and at dusk and dawn (crepuscular). By using a low slow flight over the ground, they hunt small mammals such as voles (by far its preferred diet), moles and occasionally other birds.

The owls fly close to the ground and are noted for their erratic, bounding, hovering flight reminiscent of a butterfly. A hovering bird that sees prey dives toward the ground and carries its catch away in its talons. Short-eared owls often hunt while standing on the ground as well, or perching on a fence post in a characteristically horizontal position (unlike other owls that sit very upright). 

The Shortie in these photographs is a female. The male is a bit smaller and paler on the chest, with less streaking, and paler in its facial disk.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Steel cold and blue

An usually cold late February day, - 28C when I left the house with camera, binoculars and coffee. The aim was to meander the range roads of Strathcona County, checking to see if the Hawk Owl was still around (it was) and looking for the Snowie Owls that have been seen there (none found). I did see a Goshawk, and the other usuals, Magpies, Chickadees, Ravens, Snow Buntings, and a few Redpolls. When I stopped in a layabout near an aspen stand I was almost immediately approached by 4 Bluejays. Although quite approachable in the city, they tend to be shy in the country. But these guys were both curious and evidently hungry and must have had some memory of humans as sugar daddies. Fortunately I had a handful of peanuts in my pocket and fed them to the jays one by one, enjoying their noisy fight over each peanut I threw at them. In return they sat around for a while, puffed up against the cold.

The Blue Jay, which occurs from southern Canada south to Texas and Florida, breeds in the mixed-wood forests of central Alberta, Saskatchewan, and southern Manitoba, and from there east through central and southern Ontario to southern Quebec, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia. It is rarely found on the western side of the Rocky Mountains.

The Blue Jay’s scientific name (Cyanocitta cristata) is derived from Greek and Latin words and means, "crested, blue chattering bird," an apt designation. The Blue Jay belongs to the crow family, or Corvidae, a group of 100 related species including ravens, rooks, jackdaws, crows, magpies, and jays. Some of these species are the largest members of the order Passeriformes, or perching songbirds. These birds are ancient in evolutionary terms; fossil remains of corvids have been identified from Miocene deposits 25 million years old. Perhaps no wonder that Corvids are the most intelligent birds.

This Jay is a truly noisy creature; cries to warn other birds and mammals of an approaching predator, to announce a find of food, and often, for no apparent reason. The 19th-century writer Henry David Thoreau described the Blue Jay’s most characteristic sound as an "unrelenting steel-cold scream,” that is particularly grating on a steel-cold day. Actually, they do have a wide variety of other calls, particularly a mellow whistle, kloo-loo-loo, quite musical in form, and also a softly delivered courtship song, a continuous sweet warbling heard in spring.

The most attractive visual feature of the Blue Jay is its vivid cobalt or azure-blue tail and wing feathers that make an exotic contrast against brown leaves or green grass or white snow. However, these feathers are not truly blue. Blue pigment is unknown in birds. The Blue Jay’s feather colour results from refraction, or distortion, of light by a peculiar inner structure of the feather substance. If the feather is crushed, the blue colour disappears. A cool fact!

On the way home a coyote, hunting for rodents in the stubble fields, warily stopped to give me a dirty look!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Snow Buntings

Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis) are one of the two most northerly-breeding passerines in North America.  (The other being the Hoary Redpoll.) They breed on arctic and far northern alpine tundra. In Alberta we see them only as migrants and winter residents, often in flocks numbering anywhere from a few dozen birds to a few hundred.  Typical locations are roadsides, stubble fields and shortgrass prairie.

Though commonly seen (any trip along the farm roads east and north of Edmonton is bound to scare up flocks of them) they are shy and difficult to approach for photography.

A long lens helps. Sometimes the car can serve as a hide. For these pictures I set up my truck as a blind, put up my 500mm lens on a tripod, pulled a chair from the truck and sat down to wait for where I had first seen them and scared them away. An oilfield installation near a railway track. The oilfield facility is regularly plowed to allow service vehicles to approach. The windrows contain clumps of dirt and straw that attract these birds.A thermos full of coffee, a book, and a sunny +5C temperature made the wait comfortable. I knew they would return. They did. Clearly they knew I was there but eventually they came close enough for a reasonably decent set of pictures. These are from a flock of about 200.

Larks announce spring

Yesterday we went to Elk Island National Park along the backroads north of Highway 16. We'd hoped to have a look at the Northern Hawk Owl that has set up hunting territory near Ft. Saskatchewan. We saw the owl.

More exciting, though, was coming across a pair of Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris). These are Alberta's earliest spring migrants, arriving in February, finding food on wind-swept farm fields or on the bare plowed edge range roads and township roads. Once the Horned Larks arrive I allow myself to get just a touch of spring fever.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Redpolls: Hoary and Common

Hoary Redpolls and Common Redpolls are among my favourite winter finches. The Hoary's breeding and summer region is the high arctic. They and are not known to breed anywhere in Alberta, but do come down from the far north in winter in small numbers. The Hoary's most southerly breeding area is in the Churchill region of northern Manitoba. The Common Redpoll wanders down in the winter in much greater numbers. It too breeds in the arctic regions, though their range includes extreme north-eastern Alberta.

On their breeding grounds Hoary Redpolls, like Common Redpolls, hang out in patches of scrubby birch and willow. In winter, Hoary Redpolls are occasionally seen with flocks of Common Redpolls and I always scan flocks to look for the scarcer Hoary. The two Redpolls look very similar to each other. The Hoary Redpoll is paler overall, whiter on the chest and displaying little or no streaking on flanks. Hoarys appear bulkier, probably due to greater feather mass and fluffier plumage. Their bill is shorter and stubbier and surrounded by denser feathering at base so that it appears even smaller.

This winter the Hoarys have been reported more frequently than in recent past winters. I was lucky to have one pose for me yesterday just for a second. Below is the Hoary and the Common, both females. You can see the difference when they are side by side.

Hoary Redpoll (Acanthis hornemanni)

Common Redpoll (Acanthis flammea)

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Partridges in a stubble field

Today I had a few hours to ride the range roads east of Edmonton. The sun was out, the recent cold snap receded. A lovely day for partridges, though they were not an intentional target bird. I was lucky enough to run into several coveys ranging from a group to six to one that numbered about 20.


The Gray Partridge (Perdix perdix) is a grayish-brownish partridge, a bit larger than a quail. It has a rusty face and chestnut bars on the sides. Both sexes are nearly identical, but the adult male has a distinct horseshoe-shaped, chestnut patch on its breast.  When flushed, it displays a short rufous tail.

A native of the bush plains of Europe and western Asia, the species was introduced to central and southern Alberta in 1908 for hunting purposes. Perhaps it came from Hungary; its alternate name is Hungarian Partridge, often abbreviated to Hun – as in a covey of huns. It is now well-established in the prairies and parklands of Alberta. 



The gray partridge is well-suited to prairie winters, using windbreaks and straw piles for shelter, and foraging on stubble fields of grain especially during the winter months. They feed also insects during the summer months, as well as green leaves, shoots, and buds.