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Nature in it's glory

Nature in it's glory

Jul 28, 2011

Birds of Alberta: White Pelican

White Pelicans Flying over
I am never more delighted than when I discover a bird I didn't expect to see where I live.  I have made several such discoveries in the last couple of years.  One of these is the White Pelican.   When I took the photos, I was naturally already speculating about what species of bird I might have captured on camera.  The Pelicans were flying at a distance that was the very limit of my camera's telescopic range, and I was burning with curiosity to see them.  Although I was not very optimistic about the quality of those photos, because at that distance, these photos are rarely useful.

When I loaded the photos into my computer at the end of the day however, not only did my pictures turn out alright, I received an amazing shock.   After all, where do you expect to see Pelicans but in the tropics.  I was also very, very happy at the same time.  Especially when, after doing some immediate research, I discovered that these White Pelicans weren't just doing a fly over.  They nest in Alberta and only a short distance away.  Well for Pelicans with a nine foot wingspan anyway.

White Pelicans in the sky over Edmonton
So here is what I have learned about White Pelicans so far.  They are still listed as a "Sensitive" species.  Which means that they are recovering from near extinction, but are not out of the woods yet.  In order to protect the species, the Alberta government has declared it illegal to get within eight hundred meters of their nesting colonies.  There is a very good reason for that.  White Pelicans will abandon their nesting colonies, eggs, chicks and all, if disturbed by humans.

White Pelicans flying over tree tops
White Pelicans prefer fresh water lakes and rivers.  They nest in colonies on islands, away from large predators and humans.  Unlike the Brown Pelican, these birds do not dive into the water in order to catch fish, they scoop them up, along with about three gallons of water, with the pouch built into the underside of their incredibly large bill.  The water is then squeezed out before the Pelican tips back it's head to swallow.  They also eat salamander, crayfish and frogs.  They have been known to fly up to seventy miles from colonies to better feeding grounds.
Last White Pelican in my sights
Here in Alberta, some areas that the White Pelican can be seen are the Slave river region, the Bow River and Carseland.


Jul 21, 2011

The importance of learning about bird behavior

Northern Flicker
Blue Heron Cooling itself off

The only woodpecker that I have ever seen perched at the top of a tree is the Northern Flicker on the left.   More unusual still, is the behavior of the Blue Heron below, who is cooling himself in a very comical manner.  These two behaviors stand out in my memory, because they are not typical to all bird species.

These are just two examples to show that the behaviors a bird exhibits are of utmost importance to bird identification, since behavioral patterns are often exclusive to specific birds or bird species.   It is extremely useful therefore, to learn as much about the behavior of the various bird species as possible.  Keeping in mind that sometimes the behavior that a bird does not exhibit will help to rule out several birds, or bird species it might otherwise belong to.

American Robin
Some behaviors to watch for 

How and where does a bird perch?
Some birds, like the Robin, love to perch at the very top of a tree.  The Chippin Sparrow, on the other hand, prefers to perch low to the ground, unless he is courting in which case you will see the male at about mid-height of a tree when in song.  Some birds however rarely, if ever, perch out in the open.

Dark eyed Junco
How and where does a bird forage for food?
You are likely to see flycatchers flitting from branch to branch in bushes and at any level in a tree, but birds such as the Dark eyed Junco and the Baird's sparrow, are more comfortable foraging on the ground or in low bush.   The Cooper's hawk prefers to hunt in forest, while the Northern Harrier prefers to hunt just above the ground over the open field of a meadow, field or marsh.

Red winged blackbird harassing Crow
How does a bird react when threatened,  frightened or defending their young?
Unlike other ducks, the Golden eye Duck does not fly off when startled, instead it dives beneath the water.  Geese will hiss and so will Mallard ducks, especially if it is a female with ducklings.  The Red winged Blackbird however, shown above, will dive at and harass a crow or hawk, for example, to drive it off.

Swainson's Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
What is the typical flight pattern of the bird you are observing?
It is safe to say that Eagles and most Hawks ride the thermals in the sky in a distinct circular pattern.  However you are unlikely to see the Cooper's hawk and Goshawk doing so, except during migration.  They are not very comfortable in the open sky being forest hawks, and so, their flight pattern outside the forest consists of several quick flaps of their wings, followed by a glide. 

American Redstart flicking his wings
 Does the bird have a nervous habit ?
A Robin holds itself stiff winged and upright while foraging on the ground or any time it doesn't feel quite safe. The Yellow rumped warbler and American Redstart both flick their wings.  Ducks and Geese will bob their heads, by first stretching their neck as far as it will go and then pulling it  down again, as if they are trying to see over the top of something.

House Wren
White Breasted Nuthatch

Does the bird have a habitual posture or any other exclusive behavior?
A good example here, for habitual posture, is the wren, who holds it's tail straight up.  This is something all wren species do.  An exclusive behavior, that all nuthatches exhibit, is walking down a tree trunk head first, or along the underside of a branch, thus making a mockery of gravity.

Bohemian Waxwings just a small part of the flock
Is the bird typically a loner, or a social butterfly?
It is extremely rare that you will see an owl in company of other owls, unless of course the owl is paired.  The same cannot be said for the Bohemian waxwing, who is rarely seen alone.  In fact, you are most likely to see this waxwing in a flock of more than a dozen of it's kind. 

To find the answers to these questions, as well as others, the best and most enjoyable way to learn about bird behavior is by observing a bird species directly.  There is a lot you can learn about a bird given even a few minutes.  Just relax and watch the bird for as long as it stays in view.  Do this often, and you will soon connect certain behaviors with specific birds or bird species, and bird identification becomes much easier.



Jul 14, 2011

Tiny Chipping Sparrow

Chipping Sparrow
The Chipping Sparrow no doubt got it's name from it's most frequent vocalization.  A repetitive, soft chip, chip, chip.   Although they do also produce a beautiful song with a distinct trill, that can be heard everywhere quite clearly in early spring.

I see this little sparrow everywhere lately.  In fact I have a Pair nesting in the tree outside my front door.  There is the female in the photo below, perched on my roof with nesting material.  Since I've recently set up another bird feeder in this tree, it is quite possible that is why the pair has decided to nest there.
Female Chipping Sparrow
They seem to have no preference as to how and where they forage for food.  You will see them at the bird feeder as often as you will see them on the ground feeding on the seed that has fallen out.  They can be seen flitting amongst the low branches of a tree, or in a bush in pursuit of insects.  You will also notice them running along the fence in your yard.

Chipping sparrow male
Pair of Chipping Sparrows
 In the photo, directly below you can clearly see just how tiny this bird is, when you compare it to the flowers planted just below it's nesting tree.  You might also notice that it  has a relatively small bill for a sparrow.  In summer, the Chipping Sparrow is easily recognized by a rusty cap, a wide, white stripe above the eye, a black line through the eye, a gray cheek patch, and a plain, whitish gray belly and chest.

Foraging on the ground
The Chipping Sparrow male will defend it's mate and nest energetically from others of it's kind, but will tolerate the presence of other species of birds.  As long as they pose no threat to their nest and young that is.  It is the female that builds the nest with no help from the male.  She is rather picky about her choice of nest location, but not apparently it's construction, as the nest of a Chipping Sparrow is quite flimsy, even see through.

Once their brood has fledged, this sparrow moves away to molt and assume it's winter color.  It will develop a dull buff brown appearance, with a black eye stripe, streaked breast and redish, brown cap.  At this time, you will see this sparrow in constant company of a dozen or so of his own species.

For more information on this tiny bird just follow this link:


Jul 7, 2011

Boat - tailed Grackle

Peeking over the top
The Boat-tailed Grackle is a bird I came across on the docks, behind our hotel in Miami while on holiday.  The male of the species is quite large, just a bit smaller than a crow, and slimmer.  He is black with purple iridescence and green gloss on a long keeled tail. 

The female is somewhat smaller in size, and colored in various shades of brown and tan.  Her tail is somewhat shorter than the male's. The female featured here was quite bold, while the males tended to fly off if you got too close.  The males also seemed to cluster together in groups.

Boat-tailed Grackle male
The Boat Tailed Grackle is an exclusive resident of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coast.   This species is omnivorous.  It's diet consists of insects, minnows, frogs, eggs, berries, seed and grain.  It typically forages on the ground, in shallow water or in low shrubs.  Like some other bird species, such as Ravens and Crows, the Boat Tailed Grackle has embraced human communities and so can also be seen foraging in garbage bins, dumpsters and parking lots. 

The female of the species chooses her mate.  The pairing is temporary and it is the female that builds the nest, incubates the eggs and raises the young, all without the aid of the male.  However, it appears that the males do compete to protect the females and the nesting colony.

Female touches down

Female Boat-tailed Grackle
The males also compete for the notice of females with elaborate courtship displays, but once a female has chosen her mate, the rest of the males drop out of the competition.  I must say that I quite enjoyed watching these birds as they flew from the roof of one boat to the next, or one tree to another with their loud calls.  Their behavior was quite entertaining, the female's especially so. 

For more information on this species of bird just follow these links: