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Great Canadian Birdathon 2017

I was looking forward all week to May 13, the day I was leading The Great Canadian Birdathon for Nature Saskatchewan. It strategically coincided with International Migratory Bird Day, and what better way to celebrate migratory birds than finding as many species as possible? The Great Canadian Birdathon is a fundraiser for Bird Studies Canada (a non-profit bird research and conservation organization), but a substantial portion of the funds raised remain local (in our case, they go towards Last Mountain Bird Observatory).

The morning of the birdathon, I woke up well before sunrise, made tolerable instant coffee, then joined up with my good friend, James Villeneuve, to try and catch the dawn chorus. The dawn chorus is when birds are most actively singing, and begins shortly before sunrise. There were still a few hours before we were planning to meet the main birding group, but who can resist the melody of the waking prairie? As I hopped into his SUV, I heard a Merlin calling – the first bird of the day! We drove to Regina’s A.E. Wilson Park and walked the trail around the park pond…and discovered it was frightfully windy. Birds tend to sing less when it’s windy, perhaps because they too know that the sound they produced does not travel as far as in calm conditions. It can be difficult to hear them in such conditions, but we managed to scrape 31 species from the park in two hours, including Barn Swallows foraging high in the sky and a pair of Spotted Sandpipers manoeuvring away from us with their quivery flight.

Next, we drove downtown to City Hall with hopes of glimpsing the Queen City’s resident pair of Peregrine Falcons, but they were nowhere to be seen. After a fruitless search, we moved on to Wascana Park, where we were meeting the rest of the group in front of the legislative building. There were 15 eager birders braving the wind and cool morning temperatures, binoculars at the ready. We almost immediately found a White-breasted Nuthatch that disappeared into a tree cavity, carrying nesting material. This observation was likely of breeding behaviour – exciting! Other than Canada Geese, Mallards, and some Tree Swallows, there were few birds on the lake so we continued further down the trail. Someone picked out snatches of an American Goldfinch singing, followed by a House Wren, but the wind was so strong it was difficult to hear anything but bits and pieces of these birds’ lovely songs.

The wind was also keeping the birds huddled deep in the trees, and it was difficult to see any birds – the group was turning into “bird-listeners” rather than bird-watchers. Our small army of binocular-laden troopers continued finding new species, despite the tough conditions. A Yellow Warbler singing, an American Wigeon tucked against the shore, a Belted Kingfisher calling. We slowly added to the species checklist. Then a highlight appeared when Phil Rose, a grassland songbird researcher at the University of Regina, found a singing Warbling Vireo tucked away in the canopy of a tree. We pointed the spotting scope at the vireo and were rewarded with excellent mid-song views.

We also heard Chipping Sparrows singing, and among them was a singing Orange-crowned Warbler! These two species can easily be confused with one another, especially if the individual warbler’s song finale lacks a pitch-change, as this one’s did. I pointed out the differences between the songs of the sparrows and the warbler to the group to help ensure everyone not only heard the songs but understood the differences as well. It was a great opportunity to have such a good comparison of the two songs. We searched for it, and once again Phil found the bird as it was singing…except it wasn’t an Orange-crowned Warbler. It was a Chipping Sparrow. Fantastic. Now my ‘good comparison’ was a good example of how much a single species song can vary, how easily the two species can be confused, and how you should never blindly trust your group’s leader.

After we finished chuckling about the sparrow/warbler mishap, we picked up a Cooper’s Hawk flying above the legislative building, a Baltimore Oriole flashing orange as it whizzed by us, and the newly-listed species-at-risk Harris’ Sparrow foraging under a shrub. The group then split up, some heading home and others continuing with me to Last Mountain Bird Observatory. As we were leaving a flock of American White Pelicans cruised into Wascana Lake, putting us one species below the half-century mark.

The high winds kept waterfowl and raptors out of view, so the drive north was largely uneventful. A quick stop at Valeport yielded little more than Yellow-headed Blackbirds and a Forster’s Tern. A flock of Pectoral Sandpipers buzzed the vehicle as we neared the observatory, showing off their abrupt breast line well. At the park, we reorganized the group, and added several more birders. A Krider’s Red-tailed Hawk, the palest subspecies, flew overhead, showing off its indistinct belly band and faintly red tail. Our group set off, and we soon stumbled into a foraging flock of several warblers. There were amazing views of a Palm Warbler singing, Yellow-rumped Warblers emerged regularly, an (actual) Orange-crowned Warbler made an appearance, and a surprise female American Redstart showed off her subtle yellow sides. Our species list grew slowly as we continued down the shrub-row, but we added Yellow-bellied Flycatcher and Western Kingbird while in the line-up for some delicious burgers provided by Sask Energy.

A second birdwalk near Last Mountain Lake added a Common Tern floating along the shoreline, a Le Conte’s Sparrow buzzing from somewhere within tall, wet grass, and the distinctive sound of a Sora bursting out from the cattails. All too soon though, it was time to head back to Regina. We picked up our last species of the day as we drove down the grid road leading to the observatory, a Canvasback floating in a roadside slough. This brought us up to a grand total of 84 species – a reasonable number of species for a windy day of birding, and a fine time enjoying the migrants!

Submitted by;
Gabriel Foley


Photo credit: Branimir Gjetvaj


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