The Birds of Edmonton

Boreal Chickadee

On September 18th I flew to Edmonton to visit my sister for a few days. Alberta is not a new province for me; my family had lived on an acreage outside of Ardrossan, which is east of Edmonton and Sherwood Park, for seven years from 1989 to 1996. As I was just teenager at the time, enduring all the drama and angst of high school, I had had no interest in nature back then – which is really too bad, as we’d lived on a small lot with a forest behind our house and a slough (a vegetated pond) across the road. When my parents and I moved back in 1996 – they to southern Ontario, via Tweed, and me and my fiancé to Ottawa – my sister remained behind, although it wasn’t until 2012 when I returned to attend her wedding.

My sister has since divorced and now lives in the north part of Edmonton, in a brand new development called Crystallina Nera. It is so new that there are no trees or gardens yet, several houses have not yet put down any sod, and houses are still being built nearby. This developments boasts a 4.8 hectare urban forest and a naturalized storm water pond, both of which I spent a lot of time exploring. My sister Erin was out when I arrived around 11:30, so after dropping my luggage off at her house, I went for a walk. My first stop was the storm water pond, called Lake Crystallina.

The pond was ringed by cattails and manicured lawns. There were a few trees here and there, and flower beds near the main entrance. It was not as wild and “naturalized” as the Eagleson storm water ponds back home, but there were enough ducks on the water to catch my attention.

The first was a pair of Redheads swimming in the middle of the pond, fairly close to where I was standing. The male wasn’t in breeding plumage, more closely resembling the female of its species, so at first I had to spend some time identifying it. Female Redheads look similar to female Ring-necked Ducks, though Ring-necked Ducks have a distinctly narrow head and a white ring around the bill. The two pale brown ducks lacked this ring and had rounded heads, eliminating Ring-necked Duck as a possibility. This left Redhead and Canvasback, two similar-looking ducks best distinguished by the shape of the bill – Canvasbacks have a sloping forehead that meets the slope of the bill, giving the head a wedge-shaped appearance. Redheads have a steep forehead that meets the base of the bill at an angle. The birds had steep foreheads giving their head a rather round shape, leaving Redhead as the only possibility.

Redhead (male)

Male Redheads have red heads, black chests, and gray backs. Their bill is gray with a black tip. They usually pass through Ottawa during migration, more often seen in the fall than in the spring as birds heading south tend to linger longer than birds moving north. They breed on lakes and ponds in the prairie provinces, the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming, and spend their winters on lakes and ponds across the lower half of the United States, with tens of thousands wintering along the Gulf of Mexico.

Redhead (female)

There were also about 30 Canada Geese, five mallards, several American Coots, and two female-type scaup on the pond. There weren’t any songbirds around as far as I could tell, so I continued my walk to the small woodlot I’d noticed on the drive in. I found a gravel path that runs alongside the forest and cuts between a paved walking path and a park just off of Crystallina Nera Drive. I started walking along the path, looking for a trail leading into the woods.

I did not find one. Indeed, on a later visit I walked all the way around the woodlot and discovered it had no trails leading into the forest. The trees and vegetation were quite dense, too, so that even entering the forest illicitly was impossible. I later discovered that this forest is protected from development, although it’s quite tiny and takes only 25 minutes to walk around its 1-kilometer perimeter. I heard birds calling from within, and spent some time trying to locate them. There were a couple of Black-billed Magpies and a large flock of robins just inside the forest; I could see some sort of apple tree laden with fruit about twenty feet inside the woods. I heard a Downy Woodpecker, and spotted two Yellow-rumped Warblers. These warblers breed here in central Alberta, although these particular individuals were probably migrants from further north given the time of year. I was also surprised to see a couple of Dark-eyed Juncos, although I later realized that these black and white sparrows – which I tend to think of as winter birds – breed in the northern half of Alberta not too far from Edmonton, and could possibly breed as close as Elk Island National Park.

Dark-eyed Junco

On Friday I returned to Lake Crystallina and the urban forest. It was a bit cooler and windier, with clouds rushing across the face of the sky. I was glad I had brought my ear covers as they are sensitive to the wind once the temperature falls below 10°C, and it was only about 7°C. I only saw one Redhead on the pond, but two Ruddy Ducks – both in female-type plumage – had arrived, and the usual Mallards and American Coots were present. Then I saw a small blackbird flying toward me, my attention drawn by its calls. It was a male Yellow-headed Blackbird, and it was flying in my direction! The white in its wings flashed as it dived into the reeds on the far side of the pond, and it was only then that I saw the Merlin chasing it. The small falcon landed on the roof of a house on the other side of the pond, and so I began walking in that direction. Unfortunately a magpie came along and started harassing it – it landed on the same roof, calling loudly, until the Merlin flew to the top of another roof. The magpie followed, and then the Merlin flew off for good.

I was still thrilled by the sight of the Yellow-headed Blackbird and continued walking along the grass to see if I could find it in the cattails. I pished and had a few sparrows answer, but there was no response from the blackbird.

I decided to continue my way around the ponds as there was a group of about seven magpies at the far end, and I was hoping to get some photos. I found one of the scaup resting at the edge of the water; very rarely do I see them on the shore. It wasn’t until I got home and checked my photos that I was able to ID it as a Greater Scaup, the species that I see far less than the Lesser Scaup. Lesser Scaup often feed in the small ponds at Andrew Haydon Park during migration where they are close enough to see the narrow, peaked shape of their heads. In contrast, the Greater Scaup flock together on the Ottawa River where they are often too far out to get a good look at the head shape. They have a much rounder head, as seen here.

Greater Scaup

When I got closer to the magpies I was able to see what the focus of their attention was – a feeder attached to the fence of one of the houses. This one had just flown down onto the ground with some food.

Black-billed Magpie

The others waited beneath the feeder and took turns flying up to it snatch some food. None of the magpies had feathers around their eyes, making me wonder if they were undergoing a molt.

Black-billed Magpies

From there I walked up the gravel path to the urban forest, where I encountered a large flock of juncos in the weedy yard of a newly built house. I also saw a White-breasted Nuthatch, a few more magpies, and a couple of robins. After that I returned to the house to find my sister awake and ready to drive over to Tim Horton’s for some coffee. We drove over to the Tim’s on 66 Street, and across the road I saw three hawks soaring over a large grassy hill. One of them hovered in place, wings flapping madly, a behaviour often seen in kestrels and Rough-legged Hawks, though this was definitely a buteo. I took a few pictures through the window, then, after finishing our drinks at her place, I drove through Schonsee – the development immediately south of Crystallina Nera – and found access to a large pond and the grassy hill behind it.

This pond was undeveloped and much more wild than Lake Crystallina. A good number of waterfowl were present, including an American Wigeon, a Common Goldeneye, two Ring-necked Ducks, three Redheads, and a flock of 15 Gadwall flying in, their white wing patches visible as they landed. Two Greater Yellowlegs also flew in and landed in the smaller pond near the bridge that led across the water to the weedy hill. I saw a Common Raven practicing flight maneuvers over the escarpment, and then – as I got closer – I saw the hawks. There were three altogether, and they were all Swainson’s Hawks!

Swainson’s Hawk (adult)

I had seen this species on each of my previous visits to Alberta, but always on top of streetlights overlooking the highway. It had been my goal to photograph this raptor since I first saw one on the Yellowhead Highway in 2012, and now I finally had the chance! The sun was still hiding among the fast-moving clouds, so the light wasn’t great, but I was able to get photos of both the adult and juvenile. This was my most exciting encounter so far on the trip!

Swainson’s Hawk (immature)

It was still cool and windy, so I didn’t stay very long. Fortunately the weather was much nicer the following day, so I walked around Crystallina Nera before Erin, her boyfriend Jesse and I headed out to the John E. Poole wetland (more on that to follow). I had another fantastic encounter at the urban forest, this time right in the park. I was walking along the edge when I heard the distinct slow, buzzy call of a Boreal Chickadee. They live year-round in northern and central Alberta, though I had never seen one on my previous trips in 2012 and 2018. I pished, and got visual confirmation as it darted into a tree at the edge of the park. Then to my surprise it flew into the small Spruce Tree I was standing next to and began to feed on the spruce cones! This is another species I had dearly wished to photograph, as none of my Algonquin photos do this chocolate-coloured chickadee justice. I was thrilled to get one worth posting:

Boreal Chickadee

Just then my camera battery died, and I had to go home and charge it for a few hours. When I returned later it was gone, but I found a few more interesting birds on my walk over. One was an American Tree Sparrow – another species I think of solely as a “winter bird” – on a weedy lot on my sister’s street. This was in fact a migrant, as they breed in the three territories and winter only in the southeast corner of Alberta. I also saw a Lincoln’s Sparrow along the edge of urban forest, along with five Yellow-rumped Warblers and an Orange-crowned Warbler! These plain gray and yellow birds are more common in western Canada than eastern Canada; it was a year bird for me.

Orange-crowned Warbler

There were plenty of ducks on the pond, and I finally got a nice photo of the Ruddy Duck.

Ruddy Duck

A couple of American Coots were in close, too….close enough to see the red eye and red “shield”.

American Coot

American Coot

The large flock of Canada Geese was back, and I took a few photos just so I could add them to my list of species photographed in Alberta in eBird. They all seemed to have some sort of duckweed stuck to their bellies.

Canada Goose

I noticed that the scaup was swimming in quite close to the shore. I hurried around to take some photos, as I hadn’t identified the scaup as Greater Scaup yet, and wanted a better view. This was the bird that made me realize that the scaup I’d been seeing up close were in fact Greater Scaup. It was a molting male, with the black feathers starting to come in on the face and herringbone pattern coming in on the back. This was the closest I’ve been to one of these birds in the wild, and it was thrilling to see it close enough to actually note that the shape of the head was really quite different. I think if I was able to see these ducks in as close as the Lesser Scaup at Andrew Haydon Park, and as frequently (they show up there every spring and fall), I probably wouldn’t have such trouble telling them apart!

Greater Scaup

Although I had my doubts about the time of year I’d chosen to visit – I would have liked to have gone a little earlier when all the different warblers were still present – the weather was still nice, and there were enough birds around to make it worthwhile. There were even some dragonflies still around – although those photos will follow in another post!

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4 thoughts on “The Birds of Edmonton

  1. Sounds like a good trip! I’ve tried and tried to photograph magpies up close when I’ve seen them overseas, but they always seem to know when a camera is pointed towards them, or when I have the long lens attached.

    That is a very nice photo you posted of the chickadee! I haven’t seen boreal chickadees much in a long, long while, although I remember them well from about 55 years ago in the woods around the Petawawa Forestry Station where we lived then. We always called them brown-capped chickadees, which I gather is an old name for them. It wasn’t until I looked them up many years later that I saw them called boreal chickadees.

    My latest best birds are seeing dozens of vultures circling just beside the St Lawrence River at Ogdensburg, NY on Friday, plus a mature bald eagle flying to the south just before that, and also a couple of ravens. Must be migration time.

    Last weekend, I also had the pleasure of seeing some big flickers enjoying the rowan berries off our backyard tree (along with heaps of robins and the local cardinals, of course).

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