The birds are back in town
Birding kicks into high gear this time of year
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.
THE FOLLOWING WEBSITES FOR MORE
Tundra Swans gather on the fields in April just outside of High River on their way to their spring breeding grounds in the Arctic.