Alberta 2012: Arrival in Sherwood Park

Black-billed Magpie

On Friday, July 13th my fiancé and I flew to Alberta for our summer vacation. My family had lived there when I was younger, and my sister lives there still; she was getting married the following weekend in Jasper National Park which was the main reason for our trip. Our plan was to spend our first weekend in Sherwood Park (a large hamlet just east of Edmonton) to visit old friends before heading to Jasper on Monday.

It was the first time I had been to Alberta since my best friend’s wedding in 2000. I was excited to be back, for nature hadn’t interested me at all while I was living there and I was hoping to see some “new” birds, mammals and insects. My mom has told me stories about owls on our property (we had lived on a wooded 2.5-acre lot east of the city), Black Terns breeding in the slough near our house, and a jack rabbit that we had rescued from under our deck, but I don’t remember them at all. I don’t even remember the Black-billed Magpies that are everywhere out west….although I’m sure I must have seen one, I couldn’t in good conscience add it to my life list! I do recall the large, noisy flocks of Sandhill Cranes flying south high over our house in the autumn and the Blue Jays that lived in the woods behind our house. They were so used to my mom feeding them peanuts that whenever she tapped the peanuts on the deck railing they would fly in to get some. I was 14 when we moved there from Ontario, and 21 when we left.

As soon as we got off the plane in Edmonton I could smell the acrid scent of smoke. The sky was hazy, too, and we were told this was because of forest fires up north. We picked up our rental car at the airport – an Impala – and missed a few turns trying to get to our motel in Sherwood Park. Time hadn’t stood still while we were gone, and there was a new ring road around Edmonton called Anthony Hendy Drive which was confusing to navigate and a series of plazas and shopping centers on Broadmoor Blvd. where once there had been only fields. We checked into the hotel – the Ramada – then took a walk along Broadmoor to see what was around. To my delight we found a flock of Black-billed Magpies foraging in the grass right next to the road!

Black-billed Magpie

Magpies are corvids, closely related to jays and crows. Like the other members of the corvid family, magpies are social birds, and gather together in numbers where food is plentiful. They are also very vocal and call frequently. I listened to them as they moved across the lawn, charmed by their voice; they have a chattering scolding call as well as an inquisitive, higher-pitched call that is similar to a Blue Jay’s, though not as harsh. I hadn’t realized how big magpies were, either. I had expected them to be jay-sized, but they were closer to crow-sized.

The magpies didn’t like me approaching with my camera and soon flew off. By that time, however, my fiancé and I had discovered a large field across the road and set about exploring the edges. A large, open waste space between the refineries and Broadmoor Blvd., it was filled with weeds and wildflowers waist-high in some places. A couple of Savannah Sparrows were singing, and I found some damselflies flying in the grass.

Sherwood Park refineries

Doran discovered this dragonfly sitting on the ground and brought it to my attention. I knew it was one I hadn’t seen before; I managed to snap one photo before it flew off. My first guess is Variegated Meadowhawk based on the odd markings on the abdomen; this seems to be substantiated by the black dorsal stripes on segments 8 and 9 near the tip of the abdomen, the white lateral spots visible along the bottom of the first couple of segments, the reddish-orange wing veins, and the yellow stripes visible on three of its legs.

Probable Variegated Meadowhawk

The next morning I awoke at 5:30 a.m., not yet accustomed to the time change. The sun had barely risen when I peeked out the window and discovered a lone gull investigating the litter at the edges of the parking lot. I knew that two different white-headed gulls were possible in Alberta – Ring-billed and California – so I grabbed my binoculars to see if I could identify it.

It was a California Gull. The red mark on its lower mandible was enough to convince me that it wasn’t a Ring-billed Gull, even though I couldn’t discern the black mark that should also have been there. However, its eyes were dark instead of yellow, and its legs were distinctly greenish. Adult Ring-billed Gulls have yellow legs; Herring Gulls (which are only seen in Alberta during migration) have pink legs. I took one photo through the window, hoping it would stick around long enough for me to get dressed and go outside. It didn’t, so I’ll have to make do with this photo.

California Gull

After eating breakfast I decided to head over to the field across the road as I had some time to kill before meeting my friend April for brunch. I noticed four or five darners flying about the hotel just outside the doors; I figured the sun must have heated the brick walls and parking lot up first and the dragonflies were responding to the warmth. Only one landed within camera range, and based on the thin stripe on its thorax, the alternating small and large pairs of spots along the abdomen, and the fact that all the other darners I identified in the Sherwood Park area were Variable Darners, I am guessing that this is a Variable Darner.

Variable Darner

I crossed the road and took a walk along the edge of the field first. I noticed a large rabbit bounding through the field; even from a distance I could tell that it was quite large. The backs of its ears were noticeably white, which makes me think it was a White-tailed Jack Rabbit. Then I noticed a large hawk circling above the field. It landed on top of a tall structure where I was able to get a good look at it. Although I was hoping it was a Swainson’s Hawk or a Prairie Falcon, it was a Red-tailed Hawk. A second one was perched on the same structure lower down.

Red-tailed Hawk

I heard a Northern Flicker calling from a nearby telephone pole, but wasn’t able to get close enough to tell whether it was a yellow-shafted flicker or a red-shafted flicker. We only have yellow-shafted flickers in the east, while both occur in the west. I heard three Clay-coloured Sparrows singing in the field, and managed to spot one; I also heard a Song Sparrow singing across the road and two Savannah Sparrows in the field. A Killdeer took flight, calling its name as it flew away. I saw more darners flying around, as well as a few damselflies and white butterflies amongst the flowers, but wasn’t able to identify any of them (oh, to have had my net!).

Walking back to the hotel I came across a couple of magpies. One was walking along the ground across the road; the other flew up onto this sign and started calling.

Black-billed Magpie

I love the magpies’ long tail; it gives them a distinct look while flying, and with their black and white colouring it is hard to mistake them for anything else.

Black-billed Magpie

I also came across a rather reddish dragonfly resting on the ground. This time I knew it was a meadowhawk; the reddish face, amber-tinted wings, and thin black dashes along the side of its abdomen confirmed it as a Saffron-winged Meadowhawk, a species also found in Ottawa although it is not very common or widespread.

Saffron-winged Meadowhawk

Satisfied with those pictures, I returned to the hotel to wait for my friend April. We planned to go out for brunch, then drive to Elk Island National Park for an afternoon of birding. I couldn’t wait!

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3 thoughts on “Alberta 2012: Arrival in Sherwood Park

  1. Magpies are awesome. To me, in flight with their long tails, they look like giant avian dragonflies!

    I know the feeling of going back to a place you’d been before you were a birder…you can’t wait to see all the birds you missed the first time around! It’s why I’m dying to go back to Costa Rica someday. My husband and I honeymooned there.

    • I never thought of the magpies as looking like dragonflies! I was too awed by their size….I really expected them to be smaller. As for Costa Rica, yes, that is definitely a place you should return to as a birder! I hope to go, someday. I missed out on going with my mom and sister two years ago because I was busy saving up for my own wedding.

      • I have just two retroactive lifers from Costa Rica. One is Magnificent Frigatebird. They were ubiquitous in flight over the ocean, impossible to miss, and rather fierce-looking (I thought of them as “sea hawks”.) A local told us what they were. The other is Green Heron, which I’ve since seen plenty of in North America.

        Now I think back to that horseback ride through the rainforest, and canoeing in the mangroves, and how I was all “ooh, monkeys!” and “look at the beautiful waterfall” when there were literally hundreds of species of birds in the woods all around me…and I kick myself. The regrets of a born-again birder 🙂

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