Category: Birds


Sharp-tailed Grouse

A male sharp-tailed grouse proudly displays his dominance around a lek in rural Saskatchewan.

Sharp tailed grouse throat display WM

While they aren’t the biggest or flashiest grouse species, their stomping dances are some of the most entertaining to watch.

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Cliffhanger

Don’t try this at home. Suspended upside down, this cliff swallow latches onto its superbly engineered nest before entering the small opening by doing a pull-up with its legs!

Cliff swallow wings WM

Cliff swallows build elaborate, gourd shaped nests with downward facing entrances to shield their young against predators and the elements. Historically they would build these nests on cliffs, but with so many bridges and houses providing perfect 90 degree angles, they are now found in many towns and cities. Each nest typically requires between 900-1400 round trips to bring back enough mud pellets to complete their designs.

Cliff swallow mothstache WM

These colony nesters are considered by some to be pests due to the noise and mess they can produce. However, they more than make up for these slight annoyances by keeping the local insect populations in check. Each swallow can consume between 800-1000 mosquitoes per day, which not only keeps the pesky insects from biting us, but it also limits the transmission of West Nile virus and other mosquito transmitted, blood borne pathogens. Two very good reasons to find ways to co-exist with these birds and other insectivorous species.

I took these photos during the summer. By now these birds will have made it down to their wintering grounds in South America, not unlike many Canadians during this time of year.

This wild, male burrowing owl which was was not baited, called or otherwise enticed to come perched right next to me, gave me several opportunities to get some unique images. The owl decided I was nothing to worry about and picked up one leg as it gazed in my direction. Soon after, it relaxed its head and neck creating a crease of feathers under its beak, giving the otherwise grumpy looking character the appearance of having a smile.

Burrowing owl art WMOften the deciding factor of whether the public and governments give money for wildlife conservation comes down to looks. Charismatic wildlife like bears, rhinos and big cats get a disproportionate amount of resources while birds, reptiles and amphibians, fish and the bottom of the barrel invertebrates struggle to even be noticed.

Here’s hoping that the burrowing owl, with all of its personality and character can get a federal recovery strategy to go along with its listing under the Species At Risk Act (SARA).

Like many, owls are one of my favourite groups of birds to photograph. Early this summer I had an awesome week with 3 different species ranging in size from tiny to tall, endangered to numerous, with all of them having the common theme of putting on a great display of flight for me.

It started off in Grasslands, with the charismatic, endangered burrowing owl that came to hunt insects right next to where I had set up my gear.

Burrowing owl flight forward WMNext stop was Banff and my good owl luck continued with the first animal I came across being an impressive great grey owl. It was conveniently perched right next to a roadside pullout, and didn’t seem bothered at all by the traffic. Despite being so visible, most people didn’t even see it as they drove past! He’s an image as it hunted for a vole in the grass.

GGO flight motion feathers eye WMLater that same day I got a tip about a northern pygmy owl hanging around the area. Sure enough, after a bit of waiting I spotted this tiny little owl. It flew directly into a tree cavity before I could get a picture, so I waited for its exit. I barely had time to prepare. It seemed to almost shoot out of the cavity, and as I held the shutter release button I wasn’t sure if I was quick enough. It wasn’t until I got home and downloaded the images that I found this one.

Northern Pygmy owl flight cropped WMNeedless to say, it was a great week of owl photography and one I won’t soon forget!

Frisky Grebes

Spring is in full swing in Alberta and the migratory birds have returned to their breeding grounds.  This includes the eared grebes, which are well known for their elaborate courtship dances.  Once paired up, it doesn’t take long to get down to the business at hand.

The first task is for the pair to build a small floating platform of vegetation and mud anchored to underwater plants. This platform needs to be large enough to allow the female to rest on it and sturdy enough to hold the weight of both birds.

Eared grebe female mating platform WM The female then crouches down onto the platform and tries to catch the attention of the male. This particular male seemed to be a bit slow and needed a few hints before he clued in.

Eared Grebe presenting to male WMAfter figuring out the not so subtle clues from the female, he quickly swam over, leaped up onto her back and precariously balanced while copulation happened.

Eared Grebes mating WMNo more than a few seconds later, the male used his large, lobed feet to paddle his way forward over the head of the female and back into the lake. Not the most graceful technique but given that they are the most abundant grebe in the world, it seems they have things figured out!

Eared Grebe pair WM

Great grey owls are the tallest owls in North America, and yet they weigh about half as much as snowy or great horned owls. They are in essence giant fluff balls and need to always be on the lookout for potential predators. I found this great grey owl on a recent trip through the Rockies. Surprisingly, it was out hunting during the middle of the day, when many of its potential predators were out and about. It was on high alert for large raptors and when it spotted a circling red-tailed hawk, it immediately went into defensive mode. It locked its eyes on the hawk, fluffed itself up and tried to appear as intimidating as possible.

GGO high alert WMDeciding that the intimidation factor wasn’t having the desired results, it made a quick retreat!

GGO launching into flight WM

Heading to the ground allowed the owl to both hide under the bushes and provided camouflage. Any attack from the hawk would allow the owl to roll over on its back and use its talons to fend off the raptor. If you’ve ever come across an injured owl or hawk on the ground, you’ve probably experienced this same strategy first hand.

GGO on ground WMAfter several minutes the hawk soared over to another meadow and the owl relaxed. With the coast clear, it flew off low to the ground.

GGO flight exit WMThis process was repeated a few more times, but with the spring rodent supply being so plentiful the easy prey must have outweighed the hassle of putting up with the pesky hawk.

There are two things that are pretty common in Yellowstone during the spring. Almost everywhere we went we saw herds of bison and large flocks of mountain bluebirds, all of them searching out areas in the park where the snow had either completely disappeared or was just about to. The spring thaw and green-up was in full swing which made for prime feeding grounds. The bison were chomping down on tiny stems of green grass wherever they could find it and when that wasn’t available or was covered over in fresh snow, they resorted to winter-killed, high roughage stalks of grass. Bison have lots of character and this one seemed to want to go for a hillbilly look and I must say, pulled it off better than anyone else I have seen try.

Bison Hillbilly WM

It wasn’t until watching the bluebirds for some time that it became clear they were relying on by-products of bison to help them survive the first few months of spring. In March and early April there aren’t as many insects to feed on. But as it turns out, buried within and under old bison patties are lots of overwintering insect larvae. With their keen eyesight, the bluebirds snatched these insects up as they emerged from the dried-up dung. Other times they would use the piles as perches to get a better vantage point to spot their next meal.

Bluebird on bison patty WM

As the saying goes, one person’s trash is a another person’s treasure!  To some, this might diminish the image of these beautiful birds, but without them we would suffer even more from the torture of biting flies, mosquitoes, ticks and other pesky insects.  So for me it adds another level of appreciation since doing all of this dirty work and still looking good can’t be easy. With that I will end on a high note with one last photo that showcases just how spectacular and stunning these birds really are.

Bluebird flight and perched WM

Spring has sprung in the mountains!  Several of the frozen lakes are starting to thaw and within the past week Canada Geese have returned and the Tundra swans have stopped in on their long migration north.  Tundra swan and Canada goose WM

With only limited options for food and open water, this swan made sure the goose gave way when it came over to investigate the open shoreline.

Tundra swan icebreaker WMAfter gobbling up all the available food the swans went searching for other options. Unable to break through the ice, the smaller of the two birds waited for the other one to lead the way. The larger bird would heave itself up onto the thin ice and use its body weight to break through. Occasionally the smaller of the two would nudge the bigger bird forward until they eventually reached the next feeding area.

Tundra swans take flight WMAfter about 40 minutes of feeding and preening they started nodding their heads and making soft calls to each other.  Their heading nodding increased and the chatter grew louder as they built up their motivation to take flight. Between now and May they will fly 6000km to their breeding and summer feeding grounds in northern Canada and Alaska. It’s always great to see them when they pass through Banff.

Drunk Bohemians

It’s the weekend and the holiday season is in full swing!  For many that means having a few drinks and while we may think we are unique in the animal world for liking to consume alcoholic products, sometimes overindulging and getting ourselves intoxicated, there are many other species that do the same thing. Sometimes on purpose, sometimes by accident!

Waxwing morning frost WM

Take these Bohemian waxwings for example. Recently we treated several of these birds that came into the wildlife hospital with various injuries related to trauma. In early winter and spring it is common to come across large numbers of these birds on the ground, unable to fly and appearing drunk. They are in fact drunk!  Many berries ferment on trees and in Alberta a good example is mountain ash, a favourite of bohemian waxwings. If they don’t overindulged they are usually fine, but if they get a little carried away, they consume enough alcohol that they start falling out of trees!

Waxwing Frozen Berry WM

Some get picked off my cats and other predators, some recover soon enough to fly away and some try to fly but end up hitting windows, cars, buildings, etc. That’s the most likely reason why we had a handful come into us earlier this fall. We put them through our recovery program, which consisted of fluids, pain killers, rest, and a diet of non-fermented berries. They quickly sobered up and after several days, any lingering sore muscles, aches and pains were gone and they were ready to rejoin their flocks. Not too different from many people during the holiday season I would say!

Waxwings feeding WM

Fire Chicken

Sharp tailed grouse profile WM

Rarely do wildlife and great lighting come together, but we got lucky over several days in Grasslands National Park. On one of our early morning drives in the park we were rewarded when this female sharp-tailed grouse or fire grouse walked out into the gorgeous morning light and seemed to pose for her photo. If only wildlife photography was always this easy!

Pileated woodpecker 2 WM

 

Have you ever wondered how a woodpecker can repeatedly bash its beak against a tree and never become concussed or even just a little bit disorientated?

New research shows that woodpeckers like this pileated woodpecker I photographed in Banff National Park earlier this summer experience forces of 1500 g’s while pecking bark off trees to get to the tasty insects.  To put that in perspective, the highest g force roller coasters are rated at only 5 g’s. Fighter jet pilots experience a maximum of 12 g’s and the highest short-term g force a person has every survived was just over 200 g’s. Nowhere near what a woodpecker experiences repeatedly throughout the day and never seems to suffer any harmful effects.

Pileated woodpecker motion WM

So what makes this possible? A few of the adaptations woodpeckers have include an elongated upper beak and beak internal structure that diverts the impact energy away from the brain or absorbs any excess in the spongy bone sitting in front of the skull. The energy diverted by the beak travels to the hyoid bone that wraps around the entire skull of woodpeckers and serves as a seat belt for the brain.  Lastly, to prevent the brain from sloshing around, woodpecker brains are tightly packed against the skull with reduced cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) to prevent any movement.

To figure out how these adaptations help the woodpecker keep pecking at upwards of 20 pecks/second, researchers used CT scans to determine that they are able to deflect almost all (99.7%) of the impact to their heads through the rest of the body. What little remains is dissipated as heat in the beak and skull so that it never reaches the brain. This also explains why woodpeckers take frequent breaks from pecking on trees to let their heads cool down before their brains overheat! Pretty remarkable stuff with potential applications for helmet design to prevent concussions in people!

Certainly a group of birds with impressive adaptations. One day these birds might help save a lot of people from suffering brain damage and while we shouldn’t just care about nature for its benefits to us, it does provide one more reason to appreciate, preserve and learn more about the natural world.

 

GGO release WM WP 640

For some time now I have been meaning to posts stories and photos of a few of the wildlife patients I get the privileged of helping.  What better way to start than with a beautiful great grey owl?

This owl was hit by a car near Bragg Creek, Alberta and was found dazed and unable to fly by a concerned member of the public.  They were able to safely catch and bring it into us at the wildlife hospital.  A physical examination, blood work and x-rays confirmed that it did not have any fractured bones, so treatments were geared towards treating for the muscle trauma, dehydration and thin body condition.  The owl soon recovered from the trauma, but needed to regain some weight and its flight muscles so it was transferred to a larger, outdoor flight pen where it spent the next several weeks gaining its strength back. Last week it was strong enough for release.

On the release day, as with all raptors at the center, we placed a metal band on the left leg so that if the owl ever gets handled or spotted in the wild we can get an idea of how successful our efforts at rehabilitation are.

Happy Independence Day

Bald eagle flight side black and white WM

Keeping with the national animal theme, Happy Independence Day to our neighbours and friends to the south (or north if you live in Alaska)!

Angry Birds

Osprey aerial fighting WM

Well not really, more like hungry birds! These two osprey are siblings that successfully fledged this year. They took to the skies to practice their maneuvers and to compete with one another for the best waiting spot. It takes a few more weeks after fledgling before they are proficient at hunting on their own so the parents would return with fresh fish to give to them. It was always first come, first serve and once one had a fish there was no way they were going to share it!

 

Bald eagle black frontal WMA bald eagle cries out as it effortlessly soars through the air near Prince Rupert, B.C. Once back home, with the help of Photoshop I created this image by keeping the eagle in colour while making the rest of the image black and white. I love the eye-catching effect is has and it turns the image into something more like art than traditional wildlife photography. Sometimes it’s nice to do things a bit differently! Please click on the image for the full size and let me know what you think!