I took a very brief trip (5 days) to see the winter birds of Calgary Canada at the end of January and beginning of February. My primary reason for traveling to this area was to look for Snowy and Hawk Owls since these two owls are not overly common in the continental U.S. even though small numbers usually show up most years in the northern states. Hawk Owl would be the most uncommon of these two species and the one I had most wanted to find. Along with the owls, the mammals and winter birding this far north promised to offer other species that I would not find in Southern California and some that may not be very common in the lower 48 states at all. New to me, I was pleased to run into several coveys of Grey Partridges while in the area. They are fairly common this far north but I had never seen one. Since I have been singing 🎼 “and a partridge in a pear tree” ♫ every Christmas since I was a kid it was a pleasure to actually have a picture in my mind of how they really act and what they look like. They seemed quite similar to our quail being in groups running around on the ground (missed any in pear trees!). I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity bring a pair of Zeiss Victory SF 10×42 Binoculars with me for review. For now all I will say is “WOW, The views through these binoculars are incredible”.
With a smile at the thought, the cold was a wake up reminder of what winter really is away from my home near Optics4Birding. At -10°C (14°F) in the day it could have been much worse but it was still a real change from the warm weather I’m used to in Southern California. In birding terms, I froze my tail off. As usual, the trip was primarily planned for the birds in Calgary but I am always busy enjoying and looking at all the wildlife (bars excluded), interacting with the people of the area and seeing new places.
Scheduled to leave out of Los Angeles early Saturday morning 1/30/2016, I missed my flight and didn’t manage to get to Calgary until late Saturday afternoon. For a quick trip, this took essential time away from the 5-day exploration of the area. My stress was mitigated by the wonderfully friendly people of the region. Looking west, heading towards the mountains promised to be a beautiful drive and experience.
After getting a car and meeting up with a friend we headed west to spend a couple nights in Cochrane about 45 minutes from of the airport. This was a good place to make home for the next two nights while we explored the area along Grand Valley Road. This road heads north from just west of Cochrane. Hawk Owls are often spotted along this stretch and it was an area where there had been recent reports. Historically Hawk Owls seem to frequent a belt along this road in the winter. There had also been sporadic reports of Great Gray Owl in some of the more wooded areas along the road that we had hoped for too. We did some preliminary scouting on Saturday but with minimal time didn’t manage to see much for wildlife other than the prevalent Black-billed Magpies.
Our second day was much more productive as we searched further along Grand Valley Road. About 45 minutes north-west along this road we came upon a group of birders who were looking at a nice Hawk Owl along the roadside. The area hosted a very large meadow that our owl was hunting. He certainly didn’t seem disturbed by the onlookers and kept a sharp eye on the adjacent meadow for potential prey from his perch atop a small pine tree. I had to wonder why he chose this location right along the roadside amongst several onlookers who had come to see the reported owl. Maybe he had hoped that some considerate onlooker might bring him a mouse to supplement his hunting. Sadly, a high percentage of the owls who have traveled out of their boreal habitats and come this far south in search of food will die of starvation.
After about an hour of watching the obliging Hawk Owl we spent the remainder of this day with another couple, who were also there from California, searching for Great Gray Owl and hoping we might find another unreported Hawk Owl. Although we were unsuccessful in our owl searches it was a pleasure to have made new friends and to explored the beautiful wintery countryside. Late in the afternoon the couple with us went back to their hotel and we decided to stay into the early evening to try some night searches for Great Gray Owl. Our evening searches revealed a large heard of elk but no owls.
My brief time had come to an end on the west side of Calgary. After a very little bit of sleep I was to leave my friend and head towards the east side of Calgary to search for Snowy Owls. Spending a few hours before and after daylight to give one last try in the area for Great Gray Owl I then slowly headed towards the plains to the east of Calgary to search for Snowy Owls.
I had figured that Strathmore, about 45 minutes east of the Calgary airport, would be a good place to make a home base for my last two nights. There had also been several reports of Short-eared Owls in this area so I had hopes of finding both owl species. With days very short at this time of year, by the time I had made it to Strathmore and got a room there was only a few hours of sunlight left before it would be dark. There is a nice grid of roads east of Calgary in what is mostly very flat farmland habitat. I certainly know now where the name Canada Geese comes from. There were incredible numbers of geese in the fields.
The agricultural areas to the east of Calgary offer a new set of life that were not along the base of the mountains where I had been to the west of Calgary. Although here primarily to see Snowy Owl, the differences in habitat and wildlife made for an enjoyable change. There were of course some of the same birds and animals I had seen before but like all changes in habitat a new set of life was here. Since this article is about the winter birds of Calgary I don’t want to immediately stray from that topic. One of the birds I had hoped to see was the Hoary Redpoll. This is one that we can’t find in the lower 48 states (or would be very unusual) and was one that I was pleased to find amongst several groups of redpolls that I had run across. Current rumors are that Hoary and Common Redpolls may be merged but none the less it was nice to find this distinctively light bird in a flock of redpolls.
The open habitat of this area also meant several raptors that I had not seen to the west. I was pleased to see several Rough-legged Hawks in my forays which are certainly not common where I live. This seemed to be the most prevalent of the raptors although I did also see a few Red-tailed Hawks. With days very short, this first afternoon gave me just enough time to get a feel for the grid of roads that crisscross the area. In general, there are small country roads running north/south at about one mile apart and small country roads running east/west about every two miles apart.
In this first afternoon I did not manage to find any Snowy Owls although did run across a beautiful coyote in a field with a nice thick winter coat. It may seem unusual to mention this but as the picture here shows he appeared to be in good health and well fed. Other things of interest included partridge, Redpoll and Snow Buntings. Tomorrow I would hopefully find some of the many reported Snowy Owls in the area.
As a note here I must also mention the people. I had contacted some of the people who had made reports in their rare bird alerts along with other birders who I could find contact info for. Early in this post I had mentioned the wonderfully friendly people. This is not to be undervalued in travel. All contacts I had made and all of the Canadians I came in contact with were extremely helpful. Coming back to my room on my first day I had a conversation with the girl at the desk who I think may have known more about our upcoming presidential candidates and election than I did. The people are extremely friendly, helpful, and very knowledgeable about what is happening here in the US. With favorable exchange rates between the US and Canadian dollar this is a prime area for current travel.
Getting up on the morning before I would head back home I had great hopes of finding a bunch of Snowy Owls. There had been many reports and I had a whole day to look around. I did spot a few owls in the farm fields but not what I had hoped for. Most of the owls were not close enough to get nice photos of and although I kept hearing of a Short-eared Owl invasion I had yet to see even one. I did find one nice female Snowy Owl in a field fairly close to the road that is pictured here. This is typical nature observation. There seems to be no rhyme or reason as to when, where, or what you may find.
Getting up on my final morning I knew I had most of the day to hopefully find what I had missed the previous day relative to Snowy Owls and maybe a Short-eared Owl. To my surprise while eating breakfast, in walked the couple who had been out with us when we were looking for Hawk Owls to the west of Calgary. Joining me for breakfast they shared their adventures since I had last seen them and about the Short-eared Owls they had seen up very close just a few miles away the previous afternoon. We agreed to go look together. This species was obviously not meant for me to find since what they had seen the previous day was nowhere to be found.
After spending some time together and finding a few scattered Snowy Owls we parted ways and I gently spent a few final hours generally heading towards the airport while looking for additional Snowy Owls. It was a nice but brief trip. I did find both Hawk and several Snowy Owls which was the reason for me to travel this far north. This is a place that I look forward to returning to. The winter birds of Calgary were very enjoyable, the people were wonderful and the place very diverse in terrain with great potentials for wildlife. This should be in the top list of places to visit for wildlife observation and general countryside beauty.