Saturday, July 2, 2011

Badlands, Ranchlands, Grasslands

In late June I had to travel to Regina for an assignment at the university there. Thought I'd drive, even take an extra day, to zig and zag my way through the badlands, ranchlands and grasslands of east-central and south-eastern Alberta and south-western Saskatchewan. Even take a swing through Grasslands National Park in SW Saskatchewan, if time allowed. It was too late for even straggling migrants, but the grassland birds are busy nesting and breeding and it would be fun to see as many as I could, mostly from my truck along off-the-beat dirt roads. Maybe I'd see a few birds I had not seen before or be able to photograph some I had seen but had not been able to "capture" yet. Both turned out to be true.

I had long wanted to see the Upland Sandpiper, not all that rare of course, but very localized. I must have seen about a dozen, both in SE Alberta and around Chaplin Lake along the Trans-Canada Highway a bit west of Moose Jaw. In Alberta, the Upland's breeding areas are restricted to the southern grasslands and the Peace River area.

Upland Sandpiper - Bartramia longicauda
Often called the "shorebird of the prairies," the Upland Sandpiper is not truly a bird of the shores, but a resident of upland prairie habitats. Typically the Upland is seen because of its preference to perch on a post or stump from which to watch over its nesting area.

At this time of year it is also common to see the Wilson's Snipe standing sentry over its nesting area. Normally they are easier to hear than to see because of their insistence to stay under cover in wetland grasses. I was pleased to come across a small colony of them in a wet sedge field in the SE Alberta.

Wilson's Snipe - Gallinago delicata

Continuing with birds on a post theme ... the Willets, breeding in high grass adjacent to wetlands, have hatched their young and watch over them vigilantly, often sitting on a post to oversee the brood and watch for predators.

Willet - Tringa semipalmata

If you stop nearby and step out of the vehicle they raise a righteous ruckus and buzz you. I could not resist trying to get some flight shots to show their remarkable wing plumage pattern that is not seen unless the bird flies.

I had half hoped to catch a burrowing owl since I went through parts of their shrinking breeding area, but no such luck. But, I was not unhappy to see several Short-eared Owls at the edge of an area in which an irruption of them has been reported this summer.

Short-eared Owl - Asio flammeus

 Many, many more species made the drive very entertaining: lots of the expected Red-tailed Hawks, Swainson's Hawks, Common Nighthawks, even a couple of Ferruginous Hawks, several variety of sparrows, Horned Larks and Western Meadowlarks galore, Western Bluebirds, Eastern and Western Kingbirds, Bobolinks, several Loggerhead Shrikes, countless Avocets with fledglings, many Marbled Godwits, and the usual ducks and teals.

Besides the Upland Sandpiper, a lifer, two other highlights. The first, a flock of Lark Buntings, also a lifer, which one can see only in the very southern prairie grassland regions.

Lark Bunting - Calamospiza melanocorys
The other, a good number of Chestnut-collared Longspurs. At this time of year they are easily spotted because the males do a high areal display before landing on a sage brush or a rock to sing their lovely song.

Chestnut-collared Longspur - Calcarius ornatus

Every birder should be lucky enough to spend some days on the open prairies during late spring!

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful pictures! The Lark Bunting is wonderful, I love the background.

    I saw from the Birding in BC Forum that you were wondering where to see Long-eared Owls and American Dippers. I don't follow that forum but decided to help you, even though I've never seen those species. :-)
    Long-eared Owls can be seen at Boundary Bay from 72nd street and then you walk the dyke down to 64th street. They are very well hidden in the bushes so you will probably need another birder to point them out for you.
    American Dippers can be seen at Lynn Canyon in North Vancouver and The Great Blue Heron Nature Reserve in Chilliwack (about a 45 min drive out of Vancouver). You could also try the Capilano Fish Hatchery(also on the North Shore) or by the Brunette River leading into Burnaby Lake. I think Dippers can be seen at all of those places regularly, but are hard to spot.
    Hope that all helps!