I must admit I lost more than a little sleep in the days leading up to the start of this tour. Doing the first run of any new tour certainly plays on a guide's nerves, but when that tour is named for a group of iconic, highly sought-after, and often difficult-to-find birds, there's an added dose of nervousness involved. My concerns were that perhaps naming the tour "Owlberta" was a bad idea, too optimistic and foolish, and I might just regret that decision by the time the tour got going. I'll also admit that on that first morning, with both the weather and the birds making things difficult on us, I was really second-guessing my decision to run a winter tour in Alberta. Fortunately, with the weather clearing in the afternoon, our fortunes changed, and by the end of that first day, we'd had enjoyable encounters with our first two owl species, and a weight had lifted from my shoulders! From then on, things progressed a lot more smoothly, and I think this turned out to be a pretty successful first run of this trip.
When it was all said and done, we had tallied 15 owls of 6 different species, a respectable total, especially when you factor in the "Big Three" of Great Gray, Snowy, and Northern Hawk owls. These are generally the three most sought-after northern owls on a trip like this, and we did very well with all of them. The Northern Hawk Owl was the icebreaker that first afternoon, and our views of it perched nearby in plain sight, then flying, hawk-like, across the road, raised our spirits after our trying morning. Spirits were lifted even higher when we tallied a gorgeous flock of Pine Grosbeaks and several Common Redpolls at some local feeders, then higher still when we ended the day with the sight of three Short-eared Owls coursing over a fallow field in search of prey. The next morning, a return visit to the NE netted us a handsome flock of Evening Grosbeaks, scarce in the province this winter, and our lone Northern Shrike, before we headed to the west of Edmonton, where we found our first Great Gray Owl perched on the sign marking the exact intersection where we'd been told to look for it! Cameras got some action as the bird peered intently around for several long minutes before finally plunging into the ditch below, then the bird flew off with the catch dangling from its beak.
The next day found us in the city of Calgary, where a trip into the foothills to the southwest kicked things off nicely. An icy walk at Brown-Lowery Provincial Park let us tally a pair of American Three-toed Woodpeckers working over a stand of old pines in search of grubs. Gray Jays and Boreal and Mountain chickadees were among the other nice finds in the area, but a couple of Northern Pygmy-Owls that we spotted from the vans were one of the day's best finds, as this is not always a common species here in winter. When we headed east into the prairies the next morning, Snowy Owls were on the menu, and we easily found three birds, including a sparkling white adult male. We also found several Great Horned Owls roosting in the shelter belts of isolated farms, while introduced Ring-necked Pheasants and Gray Partridge were spotted scuttling along in stubble fields. Back in the city a stop along the Bow RIver produced few waterfowl including many Common Goldeneyes and Buffleheads, along with a Pied-billed Grebe that had successfully wintered on this open stretch of river. A lone Brown Creeper and a distant flock of Bohemian Waxwings were our other additions here.
On our final morning we were down to just a few gettable targets, and we picked one up early, with a busy flock of White-winged Crossbills feeding on a healthy crop of cones at a local cemetery, joined by an equal number of Pine Siskins. A hoped for Black-backed Woodpecker failed to show in Fish Creek Park, so we ventured north and west, first for a visit with the long-staying Northern Hawk Owl in the city's southwest, with the bird posing nicely for the photographers. We then finished up along the scenic Grand Valley Road, where birds weren't particularly abundant, but another close encounter with a gorgeous Great Gray Owl made the drive worthwhile and was a fitting end to our inaugural Owlberta tour.
I want to thank all of you for choosing to join Chris and me on this Alberta adventure. It was fun showing you around what I still consider to be my home province, even if I haven't lived there in a while. Thanks especially for your patience when the tour didn't quite get off on a solid footing that first morning. I appreciate that you all maintained good spirits and that the only pressure I got was what I put on myself. In the end, this was a good first run of what I hope will become a successful annual offering. Keep well, everyone, and I look forward to seeing you on another trip soon. Somewhere warmer, perhaps?
KEYS FOR THIS LIST
One of the following keys may be shown in brackets for individual species as appropriate: * = heard only, I = introduced, E = endemic, N = nesting, a = austral migrant, b = boreal migrant
Totals for the tour: 51 bird taxa and 10 mammal taxa