The birds are back in town

Bird­ing kicks into high gear this time of year

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Outside - ANDREW PEN­NER

Some­where be­tween High River and Nan­ton — on a rut­ted, sel­dom-used farm road slic­ing through the stub­ble fields — I stopped my car to have a look around. A warm western wind ripped across the pools of melt­wa­ter gath­er­ing in the fields, their sur­faces surg­ing with the gusts. To the west, the still-white moun­tains loomed. Then I heard them. At first I thought they sounded like a lit­ter of pup­pies, yelp­ing, bark­ing, and call­ing out for a play­mate. But these were not fly­ing dogs. These were birds. Beau­ti­ful white Tun­dra Swans, honk­ing over the home­steads, mark­ing the re­turn of spring.

Un­ques­tion­ably, the re­turn of the swans is, for bird­watch­ers es­pe­cially, a happy oc­ca­sion. Each spring in early to mid April, be­fore the snow has re­ceded, they mi­grate through the prov­ince in huge num­bers, en route to their spring breed­ing grounds in the Arc­tic. And, if you take a back roads trip out­side of town in April, you’re vir­tu­ally guar­an­teed to spot them. Pos­si­bly hun­dreds of them.

“This time of year bird­ing re­ally switches into high gear,” says Gus Yaki, a life­long naturalist who con­ducts and or­ga­nizes guided trips with the Friends of Fish Creek. (The Friends of Fish Creek is a vol­un­teer-driven, non­profit so­ci­ety, es­tab­lished in 1992, with a mis­sion of con­serv­ing and pro­tect­ing one of the largest and most unique ur­ban parks in the world.)

While many dif­fer­ent species mi­grate through the re­gion each spring — in­clud­ing the Tun­dra Swans and their kin, the Trum­peter Swans — we live in a part of the world that is an aerial free­way for bird life. And it’s non-stop. “Mi­gra­tions are go­ing on twelve months of the year,” says Yaki, who is 82 years old and of­ten guides bird­ing groups seven days a week. “By the time the north­ern mi­gra­tions are com­plete in June, some species are al­ready mak­ing their way south.”

Be­fore the swans swoop down on the fields in mass num­bers (they love the left­over grain on cul­ti­vated fields but can also be seen in­side city lim­its, es­pe­cially in Fish Creek) a num­ber of other species have come and gone. Snow Geese, for ex­am­ple, which also of­ten ap­pear by the thou­sands, ar­rive in late win­ter near the still­frozen ponds, lakes, and reser­voirs in south­ern Al­berta. This March it was es­ti­mated that 100,000 birds waited for the ice to melt at Stir­ling Lake, just south of Leth­bridge.

While that num­ber seems in­cred­i­bly high, it paints a mis­lead­ing pic­ture of where the over­all bird­ing sit­u­a­tion stands. All over the world, on ev­ery con­ti­nent, birds are in de­cline. “Twelve per cent of the world’s bird species are at risk of go­ing ex­tinct,” says Yaki. “For the most part, this is due to loss of habi­tat. We’re still cut­ting down forests, plow­ing na­tive grass­lands, and de­stroy­ing habi­tat at alarm­ing rates. People don’t re­al­ize that life is all con­nected. As birds start dis­ap­pear­ing, other species will fol­low. It’s a domino ef­fect.”

Thank­fully, through the bird­ing pro­grams of­fered by the Friends of Fish Creek, which have grown by leaps and bounds in the past few years, hun­dreds of people in Cal­gary are dis­cov­er­ing the im­por­tance of birds, their var­i­ous habi­tats within Fish Creek Provin­cial Park and be­yond, and the joys of bird watch­ing in gen­eral. Not to men­tion the so­cial ben­e­fits of shar­ing that joy with oth­ers.

“We cur­rently have 19 dif­fer­ent bird watch­ing groups that go out at var­i­ous times dur­ing the week,” says Yaki. “Many of the 240 people, or so, who par­tic­i­pate also share a love of pho­tograph­ing the birds and other wildlife that we see, but you don’t need to be a pho­tog­ra­pher.” (To par­tic­i­pate in the bird­ing groups you will need to reg­is­ter at www.friend­soff­ishcreek.org. Cost is $60 for mem­bers and $100 for non-mem­bers. An in­di­vid­ual mem­ber­ship in the Friends of Fish Creek is just $35.)

A typ­i­cal three-hour trip with a group will in­volve nu­mer­ous sight­ings.

Last week, for ex­am­ple, at Car­burn Park in the city’s south­east, a group went out in the morn­ing and iden­ti­fied 30 dif­fer­ent species. Great horned owls, sharp- shinned hawks, golden-crowned kinglets, Downy Wood­peck­ers, North­ern Flick­ers, Black-Necked Stilts and Amer­i­can Avo­cets were just a few of the high­lights. A group check­list is kept dur­ing the out­ing and it’s com­mon prac­tice for in­di­vid­u­als to also up­date and main­tain their own per­sonal check­list.

For most bird­ers, it all starts by mak­ing a de­lib­er­ate choice to gain a greater un­der­stand­ing and ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the nat­u­ral world. The pas­sion grows as the knowl­edge ex­pands and the sight­ings start ac­cu­mu­lat­ing.

How­ever, iden­ti­fy­ing birds, even for sea­soned vets, can be chal­leng­ing. Un­der­stand­ing their plumages, their be­hav­iour, their voices, their iden­ti­fi­able mark­ings, their nest­ing pat­terns, can take a life­time. The learn­ing is on­go­ing and few people ever mas­ter it. Af­ter all, Al­berta is home to over 400 bird species!

But bird­ing can be en­joyed by ev­ery­one.

Other than a pair of binoc­u­lars, a good ref­er­ence book (bird apps can also do the trick), and, if you’re so in­clined, a cam­era with a tele­photo lens, you don’t need much to be­gin.

En­try into the “sport” is easy and you can start to­day. Who knows? One trip into Fish Creek Provin­cial Park — or per­haps a quick jaunt out of the city to wit­ness the Tun­dra Swans hum­ming over the heart­land — and you could be hooked.

IS A WRITER AND PHO- TOG­RA­PHER BASED IN CAN VISIT HIM AT WWW.ANDREWPENN­ER.COM.

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Tun­dra Swans gather on the fields in April just out­side of High River on their way to their spring breed­ing grounds in the Arc­tic.

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