Friday, April 27, 2012

A Rough-legged Day

April can be a strange month in Alberta. Temperatures and precipitation fluctuate wildly, and it's not uncommon to have a blizzard one day, followed by sun and high double digit temperatures the next.

And the birds! Snowy owls, rough-legged hawks, redpolls, crossbills and grosbeaks are still down here on their winter break from the Arctic. Mountain bluebirds, yellow-rumped warblers, tree swallows, meadowlarks and many more small songbirds have returned from their sojourn in the south, as have the ducks, hawks and herons. Seeing a snowy owl and a Swainson's hawk on the same day is a very cool birding experience!

Demands of everyday life have sadly curtailed our birding time lately, which is doubly painful when I read the local bird reports and can't get out to have a look. One weekend in mid-month however, we decided to give ourselves a break, and took a quick bird drive on one of my favorite routes.

I like this particular drive because of the contrasts. Driving through the foothills where crocuses were popping up, we were accompanied for the first part of the trip by the snow-covered Rocky Mountains on our left.

Turning north, ranch fields predominate and we attracted the attention of the local wildlife.

Another sharp left turn, and wham, you're in the boreal forest.

As a birder, this drive requires a constant resetting of the bird-mode sensor in the brain, jumping from foothills species to grassland species to forest birds. And then you have to reverse the whole process on the way back.

As we turned off the main highway, we began to notice the hawks. Soon we started saying there's another one, and another one, and one over there...

Rough-legged hawks were everywhere. They were sitting on fence posts.

Perched on top of trees.

Flying overhead.

Stealing the shot from a robin - I only took one photo of the non-raptor bird before I dropped the camera to pick up the binos and ID the hawk.

We were out there almost three hours, and counted 31 Rough-legged Hawks. I suspect we managed to hit a day when large numbers of them were migrating north. We also identified 8 Red-tailed hawks, and I could still see airborn hawks when I closed my eyes that night.

As well as the hawks, this is owl country. Down this path, across the flat space, nestled in the trees on the other side, I’m told there is a Northern Hawk Owl nest.

We hadn't gotten very far when I began to wonder if we were walking on frozen muskeg, as there were ice cracking sounds coming from beneath our feet. Having grown up in the boreal forest, I have a very healthy respect for these soggy water bodies that have a layer of soil on top. People and animals can get trapped and die in muskeg. I mentally weighed my options of seeing a hawk owl again vs walking across semi-frozen muskeg. The owl lost.

How a local birder found that nest earlier in the month is a mystery, but you can see his wonderful photos on the Birds Calgary blog.

As we were hawk-counting our way back home, we came across this totally unconcerned fellow sitting on a pole right beside the road. He was far more interested in the dead rabbit in the ditch than the mere human taking his (her?) picture, and was still there when we left, resuming our counting.

Yep, this is still one of my favourite bird drives!


  1. So much space up there! It does look like perfect raptor country, from Hawk Owls to Eagles.

    Cool post Pat. It's really neat to get a feel for birding in such a different environment.

  2. Rough-legged Hawks and Snowy Owls in the same day? I would think I fell down the rabbit hole and ended up in paradise! What an awesome day Pat!

  3. Lovely mountain shots and I love the bird!!

  4. Thank you all for your great comments. We certainly do have a lot of open spaces up here, which makes it hard to find teeny tiny birds...

  5. You live in a beautiful place Pat! Love all the photos--the mountains, the horses, the cows, the birds and especially the eagle! Wonderful post!!

  6. Wow, what a gorgeous area to visit ... and raptors galore! Beautiful scenic images and wonderful bird captures! That gorgeous eagle shot just takes my breath away. Sounds like you had a terrific day of birding. Fantastic post!