A couple of posts on the Hawk ID Facebook forum recently made me think about Merlins. While we are "fortunate" in our area to have the headache of separating out the various sub-species of Red-tailed Hawk that either breed in or migrate through our area (Eastern, Western, Harlan's, Krider's, northern - let alone intergrades - and not even mentioning polymorphism…), we also have another species of diurnal raptor with multiple sub-species breeding in our area: Merlin. Both the Taiga and Prairie sub-species breed here, with the Prairie showing a preference for, well, the prairies, and the Taiga more often seen in proximity with trees and human habitation (although this is certainly not a hard and fast rule). Here are four individuals photographed over the course of the last 2 years within 10 miles of one another east of Calgary. The first 3 are Taiga (a female and a juvenile, and then a family in our backyard) and the next 2 are Prairie (a male and a female), with the differences between the 2 subspecies fairly clear (coloration and the strength of the malar stripe being the 2 most obvious differences). Anyway, just something to think about (and I can't off the top of my head think of another diurnal raptor in our area with sub-species…).
A passage in John Lewis-Stempel's wonderful Meadowland: the Private Life of an English Field (Doubleday, 2014), recently caught my eye:
"Almost no birds today have vernacular names. Bird names have become standardized, homogenized, conscripted into what is considered proper by scientists for classification. A century ago a birder could have told what county, even what village, he was in by the folk name for a long-tailed tit. In his Treatise on the Birds of Gloucestershire, W. L. Mellersh collected no fewer than 10 local names for Aegithalos caudatus, the long-tailed tit, among them long Tom, oven-bird, poke-pudding, creak-mouse, barrel Tom, and in the south of the county, long farmer. For John Clare in Northamptonshire the long-tailed tit was, delightfully, the 'bumbarrel' (p. 97)."
Lewis-Stempel is referring, of course, to birds in an English context (his particular property is located in the west of Herefordshire bordering Wales). The relationship between farmers and the land in Britain stretches back millennia, from the first pre-Celtic and Celtic agriculturalists through the Anglo-Saxon period, the Norman invasion, and beyond. But the relationship between humans and the land in North America can be traced back equally as far. Even if we ignore for a minute (probably unwisely) aboriginal and non-English "common" names for birds, European colonization of North America has now entered its sixth century. It would therefore be appropriate to assume that vernacular bird names as diverse as those listed by Lewis-Stempel existed - or indeed continue in use. Can we, at least, look back a century to the names an English-speaking North American birder might have used in various locations?
Happily, this is possible - to a point. I asked a question about vernacular names on a Facebook birding group to which I belong. The group came up with several names (including "mud hen" for American Coot, "wild canaries" for Goldfinch and Yellow Warbler, "marsh hawk" for Northern Harrier, "blue bill" for Ruddy Duck, "butter butt" for Yellow-rumped Warbler, "Holstein/Saskatchewan pheasant" for Black-billed Magpie, and "chicken/sparrow/pigeon hawk" for Kestrel), but one poster (C. Prins) gave me the name of a book he picked up in Montana a while back called Birds Every Child Should Know by Neltje Blanchan, published in New York in 1907 (this book is made available in its entirety for free by Project Gutenberg here).
In addition to very poetic descriptions, Blanchan's book includes different vernacular names for about a third of the hundred or so birds that are included. These range from the sublime to the spectacular, from the perfectly descriptive (of morphology, song, or habitat) to the completely obscure. Here are a few of my favourites:
Blanchan (her full name was Neltje Blanchan De Graff Doubleday), a scientific historian and nature writer born in Chicago, was writing barely 20 years after the American Ornithologists Union first standardized North American bird names in the Checklist of North American Birds (1886 - earlier checklists had existed as far back as 1858 in different parts of the continent). The Checklist, and bird naming in general, is serious business; now in its seventh edition (with supplements published yearly), the hardback edition runs to some 829 pages! The subject is fascinating, and far too complex to get into in much depth here.
Regardless, Blanchan's book hints at the close relationship that undoubtedly developed between birds and English-speaking workers of the land in North America over the last half-millenium. She ends the introduction to her book with a happy paragraph:
"Interest in bird life exercises the sympathies. The child reflects something of the joy of the oriole whose ecstasy of song from the elm on the lawn tells the whereabouts of a dangling "cup of felt" with its deeply hidden treasures. He takes to heart the tragedy of a robin's mud-plastered nest in the apple tree that was washed apart by a storm, and experiences something akin to remorse when he takes a mother bird from the jaws of his pet cat. He listens for the return of the bluebirds to the starch-box home he made for them on top of the grape arbour and is strangely excited and happy that bleak day in March when they re-appear. It is nature sympathy, the growth of the heart, not nature study, the training of the brain, that does most for us."
The White-faced Ibis is now a well-established breeder in Alberta. The species' breeding range has spread beyond the initial breeding colonies established in the 1970s (Pakowki Lake, Frank Lake) to other colonies in other large bodies of water (such as Third Lake) and even in smaller sloughs (we observed a small colony this summer of at least 30 individuals in a small 15-acre slough east of Airdrie in 2015, and a flock of 65 in 2017). Ibis are becoming a regular sight in lakes and sloughs in southern Alberta during the breeding season; indeed, apart from avocet, yellowlegs, and dowitchers, we probably saw more ibis this year than any of the other large shore and wading birds, particularly after the young had dispersed from their nests.
The question remains, of course, why are they here, and what happened in the last 40 years or so to bring them here? Shaffer et al. (2007) in their paper discussing the range expansion of ibis into North Dakota suggested a number of possible factors, including fluctuations in southern ibis populations, habitat change and loss in other parts of the ibis' range (due in part to pesticide use), climate and precipitation patterns in northern portions of the range (specifically, an increase in precipitation), and human factors (for example, people moved out of rural areas of North Dakota following the droughts in the 1930s, and moved from livestock operations towards small grain production, thereby lessening pressures on wetlands). In short, the conditions in the northern prairie and parkland regions became more attractive to ibis than those in the southern ranges.
Similar push and pull factors may well have contributed to the introduction of breeding populations of other species, such as Black-necked Stilt, in Alberta. It is interesting to speculate what species may come next; Glossy Ibis have been reported in North Dakota, Idaho, and Manitoba - will they appear here soon? UPDATE: On May 29, 2017, Ken Orich identified a Glossy Ibis while participating in the Milk River/Writing-on-Stone Bird Count. I guess I nailed that one! (Thanks to Bob Parsons for reminding me to update this blog).
The problem with houses, from the point of view of birds, is windows. The figure that is often cited is that 1 billion birds a year are killed by collisions with windows in North America alone. We have a modest bungalow in the inner city, with a total of 10 main floor windows, none of which are particularly big, and yet it is rare for a day to go by in summer without hearing the sickening thud of a bird impacting one of them. In most cases, the bird has struck only a glancing blow, and is able to recover almost immediately. In some cases, the bird is killed outright, often with a badly broken bill and traces of blood. However, it is not uncommon to find a bird below the window that appears to be simply knocked out after a collision (the eyes are closed, the bill is intact, and there is no sign of blood).
In that case, it is appropriate to put the bird in a quiet and sheltered spot so that it can recover without being molested by other animals (magpies are the big problem in Calgary, although we also get the occasional cat). Some people advocate using a paper bag, but here is a more elegant solution.
This is simply a shoebox with a bird-sized hole cut in one end of the top. We used this particular shoebox to successfully recuperate a nuthatch. Simply ball up some toilet paper or paper towel, place the bird on top, close the lid, and put a rock or brick on the lid to prevent anything from being able to get inside. Place the box outside on a table or somewhere else elevated and out of the sun. When the bird has recovered sufficiently, it will be able to fly out through the hole. In this case, it took the nuthatch three or four hours to completely recover (we peeked every hour or so). The bird slowly started sitting up, fluttering its eyelids, and showing signs of improvement. We were elated when we checked one last time to find the bird gone.
Anyway, this is a simple approach to the problem. The nice thing is that you can keep the shoebox somewhere inside, in preparation for the unfortunately inevitable next time the same thing happens.
In 1995, we were driving along a forestry trunk road in Kananaskis Country when we stumbled upon a Great Gray Owl in a poplar staring intently at the verge of the road. He seemed completely unconcerned when I got out of the car, set up my tripod and camera, and took a grand total of four pictures: one carefully composed and exposure- bracketed setup, preceded by a single longer-range shot (remember, film was not cheap for a just-graduated university student!).
At the time, I mainly used Fujichrome 100 slide film, and had nothing much in terms of a long lens (I think I was using a 70-200 zoom lens with a 1.4x extender). So the shots would not have been exactly the crispest (because of the light, I was probably shooting at 1/30 or 1/60s), but we were still both very excited when we dropped the roll of film off at the lab (I was using the lab at the University of Calgary bookstore). We were not birders at the time, but this encounter seemed special.
Imagine our complete disappointment, then, when we went back to the lab the following week expecting to pick up a nice package of slides and were instead given a bundle of prints! The lab technician had mistakenly processed the film as C-41 (the print process) instead of using the E-6 slide film process. The resulting colours on the negatives, and the prints, were horribly wrong. Here is a scan of one of the prints, with no manipulation or cropping whatsoever (I couldn't find the negatives):
The colour distortions, increased contrast, and altered levels resulting from such cross-processing are essentially unrecoverable (some artists used to use the process in their work, to great effect). It is not possible to fully recover the original photo. The next picture is my attempt to do so, however, by greatly reducing the blue and red channels, adjusting the levels, slightly increasing the yellow channel, and sharpening the photo:
The image is not perfect, by any means (the owl looks less like a Great Gray and more like a cross between a Great Gray and a Great Horned Owl), but it is more representative of the original image. This owl remains the only Great Gray we've ever seen, so we are at least happy to have this!
Incidentally, we didn't pay for the processing fee (of course), and the technician gave us two rolls of film - along with his profuse apologies!
Because we use a super zoom, we have quite a few camera-holding-devices:
From left to right, there's our car window mount (a gift from a friend), an astronomy tripod (saved from the garbage by a family member), a DIY monopod for the car (no, not a fish bonker), and our $40 Slik (not pictured is our GorillaPod).
They all have their pros and cons. The window mount is great (all of our Snowy Owl photos were taken with it), but it is slow to set up and somewhat fiddly in use. The astronomy tripod is useful only when you have a fixed setup, like the House Wren videos here (in which case the fine adjustment knobs are great), but it can also double as an expedient monopod in a pinch. The fish bonker (a 1/4"-20 bolt epoxied into a 1.25" thick dowel and cut and filed to length, with a tape grip and a cork pad added for good measure) works perfectly in our car. And of course nothing beats a full tripod outdoors.
We take them all with us on every trip - you never know what situation will come up!
What's in our camera bag? Well, as you can see, not much - apart from the camera, just a charger, a spare battery, a spare memory card, and an electronic cable release (I just realized we don't even have a lens cleaning kit, quite a glaring omission!).
But the importance of the camera bag to us far exceeds the value of its contents.
I bought the bag a week before driving down to Chihuahua as a crew member of a University of Calgary archaeological field team in 1992 (the bag and its contents, a Pentax K1000 and a couple lenses, had been stolen from my apartment a week earlier). During the four-day drive to Chihuahua, I met my future wife. We moved in together a month or two after returning from the field, and have now been married for 23 years (we backdate our anniversary to our first night together in Mexico).
The bag has held varied contents since then, including various film cameras and a digital video camera. One thing remains, however: there is a sizable light brown stain in one of the corners from where I put it inadvertently against a cow patty sometime in that summer of 1992. I will, of course, never clean it off.
The bag is a symbol of our relationship, one of many. Whenever we use it, it reminds us of that wonderful, care-free summer, the spirit of which remains an aspirational goal whenever we set out on any trip.
UPDATE: (June 5, 2018) Calamity! After 26 years and 2 months, a buckle on the bag broke. We were heartbroken - until we fixed it with a $0.75 replacement from MEC... Phew!
Although we have had personal accounts on eBird for a couple of years, FrugalAlbertaBirder is now our new account name - so you can follow our trips!
It rained quite heavily yesterday (unusually so for Calgary) and we almost didn't make it out. But we persevered (coffee and doughnuts helped) and drove out to Bragg Creek to see what we could see. We saw little more in terms of wildlife than hawks along the TransCanada and swallows and robins along the creek-sides to the west of the town (which is still rebuilding after the devastating spring floods of 2013). We took a few pictures of mule deer, listened to various warblers (maybe one day we'll be able to identify warbler calls!), and drove slowly along the back roads looking for owls - you never know. We finally stopped at the side of the road in the middle of a small muskeg meadow, turned off the car, rolled the windows down, and immediately heard a slow version of this from the trees somewhere at the edge of the meadow (this is not our video, by the way):
The owl called for less than a minute. It was a haunting sound coming out of the still air. We scanned the trees and even relocated to another road on the other side of the meadow, but we never saw him. But it was a successful trip nonetheless!
We are two novice, but keen, birders and nature photographers with a frugal mindset based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Join us as we photographically investigate Alberta's birds - without breaking the bank to do so!