I have written so much this week that America Online will only allow the text for the first six days of the week, in a single email. For anyone who is still wondering or missed it, a lifer, or life bird, is a bird we are seeing or hearing for the first time in our life (since we started birding in May 1995) and is indicated like this: LIFEBIRD*. A tripper, or trip bird, is one we are seeing for the first time on this trip, and is indicated like this: TRIPBIRD, without the asterisk. All lifers are trippers. Not all trippers are lifers.
Week 8 Day 1. Friday July 10, 1998. 50th day. Birding around Jasper - Maligne Canyon, Cottonwood Slough.
I get up, go down to the entrance, get in line for assignment to one of the newly-vacated electric hookup sites, as they become available. We get our new assignment and move camp.
Our highest desired bird to see in the Canadian Rockies is the Gray-capped Rosy Finch. His habitat is above the treeline, in alpine tundra. We will look for him in the alpine meadows above the upper station of the Jasper Tram.
We drive up to get a tram ticket on this clear, blue sky day, but it looks like a convention. The parking lot is full, we turn around and head back. We'll be first in line tomorrow morning.
Instead we go to another good birding place, Cottonwood Slough, near Pyramid Lake. We start off on the trail, and for some unexplained reason, there aren't any mosquitoes today. Awww.toobad.com.
While looking across the water, we see a brown and yellow bird, and finally isolate a female, then a male COMMON YELLOWTHROAT, with his black bandit mask. Our target here, though, is the Willow Flycatcher. We play his tape, and get flycatcher movement across the water. We're both on him in an instant, and to our surprise, we see white outer tail feathers. It's not the flycatcher we're after, but it is a life bird, the DUSKY FLYCATCHER*.
There is a group of flycatchers that are virtually identical in the fall. But in the breeding season, they sing their different, recognizable, territorial songs, and in the case of the Dusky, develop their slightly different appearances. They are the Empidonax Flycatchers, or Empi's. We have cleverly used voice, habitat and appearance to separate them. Plus range (in this case, driving to Alaska and Canada).
We see Cedar and Bohemian Waxwings, mostly Cedar. We see a Yellow-rumped Warbler, and it's the yellow-throated Audubon's race again, rather than the white-throated Myrtle's we've been seeing for the last several weeks. Sharon spots a beaver swimming around an island.
There are three fuzzy ducklings, yellow with a few black stripes. They are diving, and don't seem to be attached to any of the adults here. On their own already. We continue on, and pick up a LINCOLN'S SPARROW, also a trip bird. There are lots of sparrow species, and they are very hard for us. Streaked chest vs. clear chest. Central spot vs. no central chest spot. Long tail vs. short tail. Clean tail vs. ragged tail. Yellow markings vs. plain. On and on they seem to go. Range is our main weapon for the sparrows.
I remember as a kid how simple life was. There were 1) sparrows, and 2) other birds. The sparrows were house sparrows, or English sparrows. They were my arch enemies in the BB-gun wars.
We finish our birdwalk here, head for Maligne (muh-LEEN) Canyon, home of the very tough-to-see Black Swift (if you're new in town). The canyon is a rapidly-descending ribbon cut out of the forest-surrounded rock, by the Athabasca River, I think. I could be wrong about the river. Canada has added safety fences and a viewing trail, which goes all the way down, several kilometers. We start at the top, and walk down to the third bridge, on the trail. It's fairly steep going, downhill, and I remember the return trip, in 1991. Very invigorating. If the Grand Canyon has entered your mind, cut it out. Maligne Canyon is only about twenty or twenty-five feet across, often less. It seems like you could spit across it, and with a good tail wind, I bet you could. The water itself has carved the canyon deep into the rocks. It's as much as forty or fifty feet deep, and with its narrow width, seems much more.
There are six bridges built across the narrow canyon, the sixth being the farthest from the top. The interpretive signs, parking lot, restaurant and gift store are at the top, near the first bridge. There is a narrow, heart-poundingly powerful waterfall here near the beginning, and Black Swifts often nest behind waterfalls. The connection is mine - nobody has said that they nest under THIS waterfall. On the west coast of California, they like to nest on the damp Pacific cliffs. We can't find anybody who knows exactly where their nests are.
It is very hot, and we reject walking down to the fourth bridge, because it's so hot, and it's (well, duh, as daughters Tara and Shandra would say) uphill to get back. We finally make the climbing return, and eat our Sharon-prepared sandwiches and chips on a breezy, shady rock wall near the restaurant. Very refreshing after the hot return walk.
We hit the highway in the direction of Edmunton, northward. We clear Jasper Park, and finally arrive at the Pocahontas Ponds, supposedly good for flycatchers. We learn that five consecutive days of heavy afternoon rains have raised the water level and it is almost totally inaccessible.
Jumping on the 'almost', we go into the region anyway, and verify for ourselves the ponds are high in water, low in birds. We head back.
On the way, we encounter four huge elk stags. There are eight vehicles stopped, on both sides of the road. Cameras are snapping. Everybody wants the big bucks. We get our fill, and Sharon video tapes the biggest (rack), capturing him walking within six inches of her side of the pickup. He stops, looks in Sharon's open window. Sharon said she thought he was going to stick his head right in. Up to the antlers, anyway.
We continue home, do some reading after dinner, and hit the rack, (bed not elk). I daydream of seeing the Rosy Finches tomorrow. There are three types of Rosy Finches - Gray-capped, Brown and Black. We saw the Brown Rosy Finch on the alpine tundra around the top of Mount Evans, near daughter Shandra and husband Jeff's Idaho Springs rental home a couple of years ago. We want the Gray-capped here. It is the farthest from California, and is thus very valuable to us. Plus they are absolutely gorgeous, in their pictures and paintings.
Day's Best Birds: Dusky Flycatcher*, Common Yellowthroat
Life Birds: 1 today (Dusky Flycatcher), 62 total.
Trip Birds: 3 today (flycatcher, Common Yellowthroat, Lincoln's Sparrow), 193 total.
Week 8 Day 2. Saturday July 11, 1998. 51st day out. More birding around Jasper: alpine meadows near the top of Whistler's Mountain; Maligne Canyon again.
At 835am, we are first in line, for the first tram of the day. We're just waiting for the second of two test runs to be over. We got here about 800am, and bought the first tickets. We inquire about birding, and are introduced to a local interpretive guide. Don. He looks like he could be Santa Claus in the winter, if he put on a hundred pounds or so. He has that special excitement about his field that you love to encounter.
We ask him where we can find Rosy Finches. He maps us from the top of the tram, head straight up the peak climb, take a left at the first "easy" sign, then follow that around to the back of the mountain. Not so many people. Then sit and wait. Be patient. Enjoy everything else there - the wildflowers, butterflies, scenery, air. Yeah, yeah, yeah, but could you tell us a little more about the Rosy Finches? We probe his knowledge, and feel that we have a good shot at the little finches.
Now the Rosy Finches aren't very afraid of people, but they do a lot of flying over a large area, so the chances of seeing them in a given spot depend directly on how much time you spend there. And luck. And we are usually lucky, so I'm feeling good.
We enter the tram with about twenty Japanese tourists, very orderly, very neat, enjoying themselves. Chris will be our tram operator. If we have any questions, please feel free to ask Chris. We are about halfway up when ...
WHAM! The power is lost, and the safety brakes take over, locking the tram's grip on the main cable instantly. We swing forward, then backward, through about a 40 degree arc. Up and back, in slowly lessening arcs. What a great ride. My eyes are locked on Chris's face, and he smiles through the whole thing. I relax when I see that he is not afraid. Sharon is scared to death. Chris says that he knew they were doing some electrical tests, and this might happen. We ask how often it happens, and he says well, this is actually the first time. But he wasn't surprised that it happened anyway.
We resume our trip up, electrical test over (and failed, we understand).
At the top, we exit the tram, and head straight up. We want to get to the alpine meadows first, before anybody else scares off any Rosy Finches that are there. We reach the key junction, and turn left at the EASY sign. Sharon takes a break to rest, and I stop too. I hear a cluck, cluck, cluck. What's that?
I scan the mountain below us, above the upper tram station, with my binoculars, and spot a gray-brown chicken-like bird, exactly the same splotchy color as the rocks and dirt all around her. When she walks is different from when she's still. Like those 3-D puzzle pictures a couple of years ago where you had to stare at it just right (slightly cross-eyed for me) for the object to suddenly pop into recognizability. When she's still, if you didn't know where she was, she was like that.
Careful examination reveals that her base color appears to be black, with gray and brown splotches all over. A little bit of white under her body and under her tail.
We know it's a WHITE-TAILED PTARMIGAN, and we soon see that she has two or three chicks. Also in the same camouflage colors. We watch with delight for about five minutes. She walks every so slowly across the face of the mountain below us, staying more or less in the middle of her chicks. Trip bird, and a breeding plumage upgrade. The winter colors are much more spectacular, white like the snow they're in. But it's fun to see her disappearing-act breeding colors.
We have our breaths back, so we continue on our quest. We go across a very, very scary piece of the trail. The trail is not level here, it tilts downhill. The footing is loose shale-like gravel. There appears to be nothing to stop you from zooming right down the mountain if you fall. It's like jumping out of an airplane with only a main chute. No backup.
Sharon has a rush of feelings back to when she fell off of a big rock, mountain-climbing. Caused her terrible trouble, and nearly cost her her life. That was in about 1975 or 76. She's not paralyzed (so to speak) at the moment, but is very, very shaky. It looks like it's going to be like this as far as we can see, perhaps 50 yards.
I tell her to wait here, and I'll go ahead and see if it improves. I step carefully, being part mountain goat. Great climber as a kid. Just out of sight, it gets back to normal. I go back, and she holds on to the back of my parka as we make our careful way over the scary part, onto the back-to-normal part. We're not sure we are in the right place. Would Don have sent us over this stuff? Does EASY mean SAFE?
Sharon says in mountain climbing, there are two aspects: ease, and exposure. You can have a climb that's easy, but has high exposure. That means it doesn't take a lot of strength or skill, but a mistake would cost you dearly, maybe the maximum.
This is a pretty good description of that 50-yard section. Anyway, we're over it, and Sharon is back to normal. Except for continuing to say, "Wow. I haven't had those feelings for years and years." That took some courage on her part. The trail gets steeper, but the exposure is low.
We can see the alpine meadow, opening up to a spectacular sweeping view. A European couple (German we think) pass us. They are young, strong, and are soon out of sight above us. We sit down and wait for about thirty minutes, hoping. Nothing. We resume our climb, and make our way up near the top, see more meadows. We wait there another thirty minutes.
Suddenly, we see movement above us and to the left. It's two fantastic male White-tailed Ptarmigan, doing the strangest exercise. I'll focus on one. He stands in one spot, but eats the flowers off the tops of some pale yellow, alpine wildflowers right near him. Then he does what I would best describe as the Summer Olympic Fast Walk (do they have that any more?). He doesn't run, but covers a lot of ground in a short time. Then stops and eats some more. The other one is doing the same thing, but on his own schedule.
They are colored in a similar manner as the female, but they have much more white underneath, and they have white tails. That is the mark of the male of this species. White tail in all plumages. We see one fly down the slope a little. Fantastic. They finally let go of us.
We decide to head back down the same way we came, even across the dangerous part. Sharon was ok when she was holding onto my parka. We are going to go down to the upper tram station, have lunch, and walk partway back up for another try at the Rosy Finch. We have seen two birds fly over just about head high, but they went so fast, we had no chance at an ID. I thought I heard a harsh note from one. But you know how you often project what's not there to be something you want to be there. Was it? Can we see it again?
We pass the exposed part, and it seems a lot less stressful going this way. Maybe it's because we know the EXTENT now. We go into the restaurant, have a bite, then head back up. It's tough going, and we run into mama ptarmigan again, but this time we see she has five chicks. An interpreter later tells us there are six. I see one of the chicks "fly." I would characterize it more as a jump off a rock, and an eight-foot glide downmountain, where he sort of bumps into a clump of grass. Hey, it's a start.
We decide to wait about fifteen minutes. A little Columbian Ground Squirrel comes out of his home, and approaches Sharon. She doesn't have anything for him. "Why don't you go out and get your own kind of food instead of begging from me?" This as she's frantically searching her gear for a snack to give him. What he hears, of course, is "blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah your kind of food." He runs over, climbs up on Sharon's walking boot, stands up on his hind legs, then runs around to her back, climbs up on her coat. He tries to bite a button. Sniff sniff, run back over to his rock. I slap my blue jeans a couple of times. He runs over, jumps up on my knee, stands up on his hind legs, smells my binoculars, then off he goes. Nothing here.
He disappears over the rock, then comes back up, holding the button of a mushroom. He proceeds to eat it piece by piece. We watch each other.
We wait about fifteen minutes, get one unidentified flyover. Then a rapidly-moving-this-way wall of gray rain clouds tells us it's time to head for the tram. We make our way down, seeing two Townsend's Solitaires on the way, and get in the tram line, snaking around the gift shop. Everybody else had the same idea. There is a tram car every ten minutes, and I calculate we'll be on the third one down. Time for some postcard shopping. Sharon loads up with some great ones.
Finally, it's our turn. We get into our car, and Chris is our operator again, same as the trip up. It's raining pretty good and blowing even better. There are thirty people on board, and neither we nor Chris gives any signal of recognition. "My name is Chris, and if you have any questions, feel free to ask." A few questions from some of the riders, then a peaceful ride. The front window of the tram is down, and the rain is spritzing the people in front. They try to close the window, can't. It's not raining very hard, but the wind is shaking us around a little.
I want to time this just right so as not to scare anyone, and as we are lowering into the loading/unloading car station at the bottom, I ask Chris the following, so everybody can hear: "Say Chris, you asked if anyone had questions. I have one. Does the maintenance crew ever do electrical tests while passengers are riding, jamming the tram to a sudden stop so that it swings through a 40 degree arc, back and forth, slowly decreasing, till it finally coming to rest?" I get it out straight, loud and clear. Everybody hears, and from the faces, the average rider is asking what the heck would I ask a question like that for. They all swing around and look at Chris for an answer.
He is sort of stunned for an instant, can't think of anything to say. Then he grins and says to us, in a sort of quiet voice but so everybody could hear, "I thought I recognized you two." We crack up, and he does too. Then he continues, "You guys had the most exciting ride of the day." I'd hope so. "Bye, ay?"
The Jasper Whistler's Mountain mammals we saw today were the chunky Hoary Marmot, the Columbian Ground Squirrel, the Golden-mantle Ground Squirrel (stripes on his back and rather small, like a chipmunk), and the Pica, who looks like a little high-altitude mouse.
We're the-good-kind-of-tired from our two trips up the peak, so we head back to the trailer and take a nap.
At 738pm, we head out again, trying for our second longshot of the day. The Rosy Finch didn't connect, so we're now after the Black Swift. There are only two known places in Alberta where they nest, and one of them is in Maligne Canyon, only we can't find anybody who knows exactly where in the canyon that is.
And the book we have says "Watch from the Maligne Canyon lookout on the north side, about dusk." We can't figure out whether that means down on the path, three feet from the canyon rim, on the north side; or at the lookout we stopped at the other day, which overlooks the very lowest part of the canyon. Plus we don't know exactly what dusk means, with all the big mountains around.
We argue about where to go, especially since this is our last swift shot at Maligne Canyon. I argue for the big overlook. Advantage: you can see all the open sky, maximizing our chances of seeing them come in from whatever angle. Disadvantage: we still aren't exactly sure this is the spot referenced. And they may appear tiny. Sharon argues for being down at the 4th bridge, where a source of unknown quality said he heard they nested, and the same source said he 'thought' there is a waterfall there.
I finally convince her, (with the help of the idea of making that walk down AND back up again). Pack a lunch-like dinner, I say. We'll take our chairs, go to the overlook and eat. If nothing else, we'll watch the sundown.
We're looking for the exact opposite of what we saw in Carlsbad, New Mexico in 1991. There we waited for dusk, for the millions of bats to fly out of the cave. It took them 45 minutes as I recall. Over a million freetail bats. Here, we're waiting for dusk, for an unknown number of swifts to fly in. From an unknown angle, at an unknown level. Odds don't sound great, now that I think about it.
I recall that the bats flew high into the sky before turning and heading off in any particular direction, and it seems to me the swifts should reverse that, coming in very high till they're over the nest site, then drop. I can't seeing them dodging the forest treetops in their in-bound path. But of course, it's all a calculated guess to try and figure out their incoming behavior.
The Black Swift's nesting habits are fascinating. The female lays exactly one egg in a nest on a cold, wet cliff. When it hatches, both parents are gone most of the day gathering food to give it upon their return. No brothers and sisters to huddle against for warmth. Sometimes, if there's a big storm, all the swift parents of the colony will fly hundreds of miles, searching for food, and won't come back for two or three days.
When this happens, the chick's body temperature drops significantly, and it goes into a state of torpor, so that it can make it through the cold. I learn what torpor means. Finally the parents return, and the chick wakes up. We don't know how, we assume the parents huddle against it, warming it back to non-torpor. Then they feed it. And near as we can tell, every Black Swift in the world has gone through this. Seems like a steep rite of passage.
So we're sitting there, and the sun is dropping pretty low. It's about 840pm, we're eating sandwiches, sitting in lawn chairs, enjoying the view immensely. Now if those darn swifts would just show up.
As some clouds move, we can begin to see the Jasper Tram upper station, across the canyon, and the peak. "I see a Rosy Finch, sitting just below the peak," Sharon says. "I can see his toes, but the rest of him is blocked by a hoary marmot, " I say, swinging back.
Then in sandwich-inserted-in-the-mouth position, my teeth refuse to bite down. I retract. "I've got a black bird, maybe a swift," I say to Sharon. "Where?" she asks. I try to direct her, but he's flying away, above a long thin cloud, and I lose him before I can connect her to him. But just as I lose the bird, she gets him, our BLACK SWIFTS*, at last. She watches a while, then as he climbs higher, I get him again. Then I get him with the scope. There's nothing like having the 15X scope on a moving bird, as he sweeps along the horizon or through the sky. It's like you're riding right with him.
Suddenly an identical bird appears in the scope's circle. They do a sort of upward spiral around each other, for about 1 1/2 rotations. Then split apart again, like fireworks. "Wow, did you see that?" Sharon says. I can't answer, it's too cool and I have to keep my 'watching' concentration. Then we see another pair come in, but none of them repeat the first pair's maneuvers. I'd say altogether, we see about eight pairs, maybe ten. Their behavior fits their flying description perfectly and they have the long pointed wings of the swift. They are masters of the sky. Each pair spends about twenty seconds to a minute performing, then disappear to the right, beyond some pine trees.
We decide to make a dash for the first bridge, and see if we can watch any of them flying into nests under the waterfall. We collect our gear, load it into the pickup and head over. It's not too far. We zoom over to the parking lot, and race (in our partially disabled style) to the waterfall, but see no more swifts, neither low nor high. But we don't care. We got 'em good. Life bird, great experience.
We go back to the trailer, and rig it for travel tonight (hitch, water off, fill fresh water tank, etc.). I type in today's transcription, work a little on the Week 7 report.
I drop off to sleep, picturing those Black Swifts flying, then gliding with their wings held below their bodies. All black. Way cool. And wondering if we are going to have to leave the Rockies without the Rosy Finch.
Day's Best Bird: White-tailed Ptarmigan, Black Swift*
Breeding Plumage Bird: White-tailed Ptarmigan
Life Birds: 1 today (Swift), 63 total.
Trip Birds: 2 today (Swift, Ptarmigan), 195 total.
Week 8 Day 3. Sunday July 12, 1998. 52nd day out. Jasper, Alberta to Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada
I shut the alarm off at 415am. We get up, take note of the darkness, set the alarm for an hour later. Then we wake up to rain, rig for travel in the rain and take off in the rain. But it's the good kind of rain. Light, steady, no big wind.
We drive by turquoise Horseshoe Lake, past Mt. Hardesty, with its concentric ridges of snow, as they step their way up to the peak. We pass a mineral lick and I remember the mountain goat kids on this exact corner from our 1991 trip. Lots of rain, no salt takers.
We see a family of Chipping Sparrows by the Athabasca River, then Sharon spots a little black bear. It gets foggy as the altitude increases, then we emerge from the summit cloud into the clear. A dozen Canada Geese next to the river.
We stop at Beauty Creek, as recommended by Don, the Jasper Tram area guide. Interesting things are happening on the sand bars of the river, but we can't identify any birds at all. We see an immature Townsend's Solitaire, with his scalloped feather effect. A shorebird bobs his tail, and it's probably a Spotted Sandpiper, but he disappears before we can be sure. We hear a Snipe. All this birding is with umbrellas, but about halfway through, it stops raining.
We chase a little sparrow around, and later ID it as an immature White-Crowned Sparrow. We continue down the Icefields Parkway and see several glaciers. They are overflow from the vast Columbia Icefield, the largest piece of ice south of the Arctic Circle. 325 square kilometers. I quickly figure 100 square miles in my head.
Now we're climbing steeply at 22 miles an hour. We get three Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, rams. We can hear an unidentified woodpecker making a great racket. We come to the new Icefields Parkway Glacier Centre, and I have to go in with the mobs of people. I need a camera battery. No photos without it. Mission accomplished.
We are both sleepy, so we stop and take a nap of 45 minutes or so, then are back on the road. On our left, very steep, are mountains similar to those in the Grand Canyon. On our right is a river, beyond that are mountains, with glaciers tucked into seemingly every other one. Hanging glaciers, the best kind. They look like they are going to let go in about fifteen seconds. If you just stand there. For about two hundred years.
On our right for about a mile is Waterfowl Lake. It is light turquoise. Then we pass Snowbird Glacier. We can see two wings, a head and even the beak. I should have taken a snapshot, but I don't. We start climbing to Bow Summit, crest it and drop down to Bow Lake, which is the color of a huge public swimming pool. We remember Num-Ti-Jah (num-TEE-juh) Lodge as we pass by it and catch a glimpse of Bow Glacier. Then we pass Crowfoot Glacier, and again I take no photo. I reason that we got great snaps of these in 1991, so why take more?
There is Indian Paintbrush all over the side of the field on our left, and along both sides of the road. We pass beautiful, turquoise Hector Lake, then come to the end of Icefields Parkway. We merge onto Trans-Canada Highway 1, and head east toward Lake Louise. We are there early enough in the day, that we get a hookup site (electricity hookups are all they have, but that's all we need today). Later arrivals get dry sites (no hookups at all), and hope to upgrade tomorrow. Actually, there are lots of people who don't care for electricity or any other hookup. They just want to "dry" camp, as many camp owners call it. And they don't usually come to 'hookup' parks anyway.
As we are setting up in Site 37, Lake Louise Campground, we begin to see lots of CLARK'S NUTCRACKERS, very attractive gray, black and white jay-type birds. That is, they aren't afraid of people, and love to eat stuff from campers' tables. They are a little noisy, but I love having them around.
Sharon puts up our bird spinner. This is sort of like a windsock, and you attach it directly to something on your trailer, or on a tree. When the wind comes up, it not only poofs the spinner out, but it spins the spinner. It has a colorful American Goldfinch on it, and identifies us as birders, or so we think.
Sharon makes us lunch, and we eat outside on the picnic table that comes with the site. I have collected the trash, to be thrown away, but we eat first. I put the trash at the far end of the picnic table, so in case Mr. Bear wants to join us, he'll have something to munch besides us.
It's been raining most of the day, but we can see the beginnings of blue sky overhead. We finish lunch, head for the visitor center, and collect available birding information. It doesn't seem very extensive - not many birds. I'm a little disappointed, because I've had this picture in my mind of birds all around Lake Louise for the last three years. There are almost none. A few White-crowns, Clark's Nutcrackers and Ravens.
We head back to the trailer and unwind from the day, watching France beat Brazil 3-0 in the world cup. I remember how Italy slowed to a stop anytime the World Cup was on TV when I was there in 1978, on temporary assignment for GE. The city of Piacenza. I went into shops and restaurants, where not one soul was visible. Absolutely no customers, and all the employees were in the back, watching the games. Especially when Italy played, of course. I daydream of birding Italy.
As I head for bed, I try to figure out how we can get better birding information. We just bought a new Alberta bird book, co-authored by a fellow with the last name of Acorn. He has a TV show we enjoy on public television, called the Nature Nut. He is also an amateur songwriter, and is always making up songs about nature. He's corny, but fun. And we learn that he's Canadian, and from Alberta. In the front of his book, Sharon has found a telephone birders' hot line for Calgary. That's quite a ways off, but maybe they'll have other numbers, more applicable to Lake Louise. Having a plan for tomorrow, I can finally go to sleep.
Day's Best Bird: Clark's Nutcracker
No life birds today.
Trip Birds: 1 today (nutcracker), 196 total.
Lake Louise Campground. Rating: A. Electrical only, but surroundings are spectacular.
Week 8 Day 4. Monday July 13, 1998. 53rd day out. Birding the Lake Louise area: alpine meadows above Peyto Lake; Vermillion Lakes at Banff
As we wake up, we can tell it's pretty cold outside. Because it's pretty cold inside. I turn on the trailer (propane) heater. Love the heater. There's a vent under the refrigerator that is directable, and I have it aimed directly at one side of the dining table. I like that side. I get toasty, have my breakfast as Sharon gets up. Then I get up and turn that side over to Sharon.
There's a similar heater vent in the bathroom, and it warms your toes. Ahhh. I review our plan of the day with Sharon, and as usual, she's down for it. First we stop at a telephone, and I make the Calgary birder hotline call. The hotline gives me a "live person" number, and I call it. I get Maury, I'm only guessing at the spelling. I ask her which of two possibilities for Rosy Finch she would favor (above Peyto Lake/Bow Summit or above Sunshine Meadows - a Lake Louise ski area). She says both require lots of luck, but perhaps her choice would be Sunshine Meadows, above the Lake Louise ski area. It feels like to me she favors it about 52-to-48, not very strong. I ask her about finding several other birds, and she recommends locations for some of them, but recommends that we drop our plans for some others. All tremendously valuable information, for a couple of aging birders who need to spend their energy wisely [Sharon adds that it's her sobriety birthday so she calls friends in San Jose who can wish her a happy birthday, since she is a long way from a meeting].
We go up to the visitor center, where we buy Sharon a neat bear puzzle. His eyes are made from a piece of wood like a toothpick (slides through his head so that only the two tips show), only thicker, smoother and made from hardwood. If you pull out the key eye piece, you can take him completely apart. Happy Birthday, Sharon. We ask the information people more questions about birds, and one of the rangers tells us about a fire road above Peyto Lake that rises toward the peak. Did somebody say 'alpine?'
It's cloudy and parka cold - excellent mountain climbing weather. It must be, because we're headed for the high-mountain alpine tundra meadows in search of Rosy Finches. In spite of Maury's choice. If we don't get them today, we will take one last shot tomorrow, above the Sunshine Meadows ski area.
But today, we're headed back to Bow Summit. The Peyto Lake overlook. The interpretive trail near the overlook. And a little-known fire-fighting road that takes off from near there, heading up, up, up. To the sky, or the above-treeline meadows.
I estimate there's about a 20-30% chance of seeing a Rosy Finch each day. That combines to about a 30-50% chance of seeing one in the next two days. That's not too bad. Not too good either.
We drive to the parking lot of Peyto Lake, but there are two parking lots. And we can't figure out which is the correct one. We go to the lower one, and poke around near a radio tower of some sort. Sharon finds a trail that takes off, and tells me this must be it. The information person at the Lake Louise visitor center said that a trail near the parking lot would go up to the fire road.
But I reason that if we drive up to the upper parking lot, about three-eighths of a mile and 500 feet higher, we will save a ton of energy. We argue a little, but I win Sharon over to the energy-minimizing plan. We park at the upper lot, and the Ravens try to fly off with our pickup as we are loading our bird stuff. These guys are enormous. And not afraid of us.
We snap a Raven photo, then take off up the interpretive trail, hoping for some sort of minor path heading up the mountain from it. From the trail maps, we can see that there are no official trails that climb the mountain. We come to a first takeoff trail, but it says this area is closed to allow for re-growth. We come to a second one, and it seems right because it goes straight up the mountain. Sounds like some tough climbing. A British couple we've been talking with take it. But at that point, we see another one taking off, further along the interpretive trail. We check it out. It is gentle, looks like it might be an old road, and it's going up.
We jump on it.
It quickly becomes evident that my plan, uh sorry, our plan has worked. This is clearly the fire road we have been trying to get to. It serpentines back and forth up the mountain - switchbacks. We are fully-supplied, ready for any kind of weather, and for staying on the mountain all day. We will maximize our chances, but still we need some luck. The Rosy Finches could be anywhere.
Suddenly we see a brilliant orange top of a GOLDEN-CROWNED KINGLET. We watch him flit around, calling and looking good.
There is a problem brewing, however. We can see an all-encompassing fog-cloud heading our way from the north. It has already covered every peak north of us, and has its sites set on our peak. Our belief now, having been here a few days, is that the weather changes by the minute. In other words, so what if it pours for half an hour. A half-hour later, the sun will probably be out, drying everything off nicely. I have to think very carefully, to see if we're taking any risks. I conclude we're ok.
We've been on the climb only about thirty minutes, when I can't believe my eyes. "IT'S SNOWING," I say, not really believing what I'm seeing [This event hardly inspire a yawn from locals, we later learn]. I'm talking into the tape recorder, Sharon grabs it, "What day is it?" she asks. "July 13th." And what's it doing? "Snowing!" Fantastic. "Happy Birthday," I yell.
It's really trying to rain, but it's too cold right here, right now.
As I begin scanning for shelter-type trees, the snow starts accumulating on my parka, Sharon says. The snow is like a dry sleet. Very small particles, and they don't melt. I'm in the lead, heading up the mountain. I stop for a rest, and wait for Sharon to catch up. She's not far behind. I see three sparrow-size birds fly in front of us, wheel around and perch in a tree, then drop into some alpine grass just ahead of us. The interesting part is that they have a harsh buzzy call. I seem to remember that one of the Rosy Finches' call has this characteristic. "Three birds just flew in, on the ground in front of us. And when they flew in, their song was buzzy. This might be them!"
We are frantically looking now. They might fly away any moment. Onto a path pops one of the little brown birds. It's all brown - no, it has some subtle pink on its sides. And a gray back of the head, black front of the head. Can't believe it. "GRAY-CROWNED ROSY FINCH*, GRAY-CROWNED ROSY FINCH!" I yell. Sharon claims that she yelled it to me at the same time. She was already on it when I yelled my yell.
We watch a family of a female adult with two fledglings. They are following her everywhere. Sometimes, they flutter their wings and she feeds them. Other times, they feed themselves on the ground. Sharon thinks she may have seen a male, or the light angle may have made the female appear more colorful than she actually is.
Now the cool thing about this is that I am 100% positive that the snowstorm drove them down the mountain. That is, they couldn't feed up there, in the snowstorm, so they simply flew lower on the mountain, below the storm. And resumed feeding. Right in front of us. We have been dipped in lucky-paint.
"Let's build a snowman," I yell to Sharon.
We watch the bird trio for perhaps four or five minutes. Then they're gone, as is the snowstorm. Well not gone (the clouds), but retreating from us, back up the mountain at a rapid pace. The sun is coming out. I take my parka off and admire the snowflakes on the back (in the hood). They are beginning to melt.
God brags a little to St. Petre [note Canadian spelling here], "Good one, ay?"
We head back down the mountain, picking up the bandit-masked MOUNTAIN CHICKADEE in a mixed flock of birds, then we head back toward Lake Louise. We are higher than a snowstorm. I stop at Crowfoot Glacier, and snap a photo. I have a new idea, and want to compare this 1998 photo with our 1991 photo and see if we can tell which direction the glacier's moving.
We go past Lake Louise and take the Bow Valley Parkway towards Banff. It is recommended for slower traffic. Traffic that wants to pull over and watch animals. And listen for birds. We pass some likely-looking woodpecker habitat. A burned forest area. We make a note, continue on to Banff.
At lunch, Sharon finds us a nice lake, and we eat lunch there, on our lawn chairs. Then head back out, to Banff.
Maury, the Calgary birder hotline naturalist, put us onto the Vermillion Lakes for the bird we're now trying to get. We try all three lakes, and at the third one, our tape pulls in our target bird, a little WILLOW FLYCATCHER*. His song is exactly like that the tape is playing. Actually, Sharon hears him first, and is waving and pointing, "That's him, that's him." I can't hear for her excitement. "Shhh," I say, forgetting that I'm NEVER supposed to shush her again. Oops, sorry. 27th time since I was never supposed to. The little flycatcher is very interested in where the singer is.
It's so much fun to play the tape, stop it, and listen to the exact same song come out of his mouth, as I watch through the 45X zoom setting of the spotting scope. "FTZ-bew," he calls, the 'bew' drawn out and descending.
We are doing so well - two life birds today. We decide to go for the three-bagger, for one of our target woodpeckers - either the Black-backed (rarer) or the Three-toed (more common). We move on to Marsh Lake Loop, recommended to us for these woodpeckers.
As we start off on the loop, the marshy lake is to our left, and heavy cover is to our right. We come upon an unexpected clearing on our right, exchange surprised looks with a nice stag elk, yellow tag number 92 in his ear.
We admire each other for a few seconds, then he resumes munching, we resume birding. We come to the great Bow River, beautiful turquoise just six feet in front of us, and follow the trail in a left turn. We immediately see two adult Canada Geese with six youngsters, all floating on the river. All of the young have acquired the white cheek patches of the adults except for the smallest. He has fuzz. Then we see another pair of adults, with five chicks, all younger than the youngest of the six-pack. The two families loosely join up and float across the river, as they drift downstream.
We meet a string of twenty horsemen and horsekids sauntering towards us on the trail. The leader points over our head and says, "Look." We turn around, and the big elk is following us. When he sees the horses, he makes a left turn into the marsh. We say howdy to some of the riders and they howdy us back. A couple of them salute with two fingers, off the brim of their hats, John Wayne-style.
We hear a strong, sharp chip, chip, chip, finally spot another heavily streaked Lincoln's Sparrow, objecting to our presence in his territory. I imagine what he did for the horse and rider string a few minutes ago. About twenty yards past the Lincoln's, we get another one. Or more likely the same one, making sure we are leaving. We disturb a Belted Kingfisher and he flies out over the Bow, rattling and chattering, ahead of us.
The Marsh Lake trail is nice, but no woodpeckers. We head back. Trip license plate (Manitoba) in the parking lot.
We have done so well today, that we stop at the Lake Louise entrance, and sell them back tomorrow night's site. We've "earned" back one of our bonus days, to be used soon, I'm sure.
Back in camp, Sharon fixes Mexican, then I hitch the trailer to the truck. We want to leave early tomorrow.
Days Best Bird: Gray-crowned Rosy Finch*, Willow Flycatcher*
Life bird: 2 today (rosy finch, flycatcher), 65 total
Trip bird: 4 today (two life birds + Golden-crowned Kinglet, Mountain Chickadee), 200 total
Week 8 Day 5. Tuesday July 14, 1998. 54th day out. Lake Louise, Alberta to Bow Valley Provincial Park, Alberta.
The alarm is off a little before five. We stop by the dump station, stuff our site stubs into the exit box on the way out, and are off. Well, almost. The sunlight is just beginning to hit the snowy peaks behind Lake Louise, and they are the most spectacular shade of pink, that I have to get some photos. Now we're off.
We enter the Bow Valley Parkway, Highway 1A, the slow, scenic, wildlife-rich road towards Banff. They have "naturalized" TransCanada 1 between Lake Louise and Banff. They fenced the entire highway on both sides. They converted all of the underpasses (e.g. creeks running under the highway) to elk (and any other animal that cares to use them) underpasses. But wolves, cougars and some other animals don't like to use these, so they built overpasses for them. Brand new overpasses. Just for the animals. The result, for humans, is a super-high speed TransCanada Highway 1 between Lake Louise and Banff, because animals never block traffic on this highway any more. If this is all confusing, what I'm trying to say is that vehicles cannot leave the freeway, and animals cannot get onto the freeway, through this section.
So if you want animals, you take 1A, the Bow Valley Parkway. We do, and we do.
We hit the parkway about 6am, but there are surprisingly few animals. We see a nice elk, but it's really birds we're after, of course. And not just any birds. We're after Three-toed Woodpeckers, the most likely we might see. When we took the parkway to Banff yesterday afternoon, we noticed several recently (about five years ago) burned areas and we marked it for checking this morning.
There are three likely spots, we stop at the first for about fifteen minutes. Cold outside, warm in the pickup, I realize I'm gonna fall straight to sleep if I stay. I get out and walk around. It helps me stay awake, but the woodpeckers don't take notice. We move to the next spot.
As we're sitting there listening, I suddenly get a flash. The woodpeckers I have listened to on my Bird Songs CD sounded pretty much alike to me, but what if woodpeckers can tell themselves apart? I recorded them onto tape in San Jose before we left, but haven't thought much about them. I tell Sharon, she says let's try it. Playing tapes has been very productive with other birds, and nothing is happening while we're just sitting here.
I play the 4-5 seconds of the Three-toed Woodpecker. It sounds like a cat mewing about six times, then the recording changes to rat-a-tat-tatting. I learned not too long ago that there are two kinds of tapping most woodpeckers do - one is of course blasting through bark and wood for food, the other is territorial tapping, known as drumming.
So the tape is six mews, then several seconds of drumming. I play the Black-backed Woodpecker tape, very similar to the Three-toed. I'm sitting in the driver's seat with the window down, and I see a black shape fly across the road about twenty feet above the ground. It might be a woodpecker. I watch it fly into the woods, lose it and tell Sharon, who was looking down at flight time. Then...
Rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat. Stop. Rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat. Stop. We play the tape again. The woodpecker flies back across the road, in the direction he came from, lands on the side of a tree and drums immediately. We're both on him immediately with binoculars. Mostly black, patchwork black-and-white down the center of his back. Can't see yellow on his head, but don't need it. "THREE-TOED WOODPECKER*," I say. We have several cycles of the Three-toed moving, me playing his sounds, him returning the sounds.
We finally locate him with the scope after one tree-landing. He's stationary for a little while. He drums, stops and we can actually see him positioning his head, listening for us. We hold off. He repeats the drum/look/listen cycle a couple of times. We play his tape again, he flies back near us.
We have discussed this, and both check very carefully. No yellow on the top of the head, but some raggedy white down the center of his back. It's a she not a he, and it's a Three-toed not a Black-backed. For sure.
We finally get the lifer we first started listening for in Oregon 54 days ago. It took so long, feels so good. And it's our opinion it was the drumming, not the mewing that called her in. A little closer to Banff, we stop and play it again, get another Three-toed.
We stop at a Bow River overlook and Sharon celebrates by fixing the last of our reindeer sausage with our last egg. French toast. Breakfast goes good with... well, you know.
Based on information we obtained, we decide to bird the Bow Valley Provincial Park. We go to the visitor center there, talk with a worker named Susan. She gives us a bird list, I review it quickly, and learn that there are lots of birds we might pick up here. We decide to camp here tonight. We continue talking with Susan, "Do you get hummingbirds here?" She answers with, "I have hummingbird feeders at my house, front and back. I have to fill them once a day." Sharon watches my mind hatching a plan, "You're gonna ask her what her address is," and laughs. Susan just says in that friendly Canadian manner, "I'll draw you a map. It's house 26," and sketches us a map to her house. She lives in Seebe (SEE-bee), Alberta, about two miles away.
"Do you get these at your house?" Sharon asks, pointing to the Calliope. Susan checks Sharon's bird book and says, "Yes, I get that one." I feel an upgrade in our future.
We go to camping headquarters, which are in a small store, and get a site, have to come back since it's taken. The young fellow says, "Just pick any open one, come back and tell me what you got." We hunt down a nice one, set up and plan the day. There are no hookups, but we don't care right now.
First order of business, find Susan's house. Her map is perfect, we find the loop road and park so we can watch her back yard. We can see hummers fighting each other for position, naked eye. Us, not them. Well, them too. Up binoculars. No obvious Calliopes. Then I get out the scope and zero it in on the back yard feeder. Three birds come in, two fight a little, then they settle down, leaving the third in the air. The throat markings and color are unmistakeable. There are purple spots on the throat, in a sort of streamline, swept-back formation. I'm looking at a male Calliope Hummingbird. I move over, Sharon gets on, must wait out a cycle of him leaving, then returning. But he does, and she gets him good too. Then I get him again.
When the sun is just right, you almost need shades to look at the sizzle of color coming from his throat. But you can see the pattern better, actually, when his throat isn't at that angle. The swept back pattern.
Calliope Hummingbird - very nice upgrade of the female we saw a couple of days ago. But to have seen that signature throat of the male. Mmm-mmm.
Seebe is a company town. All houses are very similar, many identical. It seems that every truck has TransAlta Utilities on it. Alberta's power company. Most of the town works for the utility company. As we drive past Seebe School, est 1918, we know from Susan that it closed last year. Up until then, it was the region's school.
This is Indian land. A hundred years ago, TransAlta bought this big chunk of land from the Indians, including rights to build a power dam on the river. The only stipulation is that if they ever want to sell it, they must sell it back to the local tribes. All the land we see, and most buildings, are owned by TransAlta.
Sharon learns this from the wife half of the Seebe General Store owners while I'm downloading email. I made a deal with the husband half to use their second phone line for $5 Canadian, having brought my laptop, just for this possibility. They only last year bought the store from the previous owner, and moved here permanently, from Calgary. The wife gives home schooling to their two children. You heard about their school closing.
We drive to Many Springs Trail, in the park, mentioned by Susan, start out on the trail. During the walk, we see a Spotted Sandpiper and identify a Dusky Flycatcher by its white outer tail feathers. A couple of White-crowns and a Warbling Vireo. No trip birds.
We go back to the camp, get our stuff and drive to the showers. Eight minutes for a looney. I don't use all of my time, but know that Sharon will use hers. So I take my time getting dressed. On the way back to our site, we see a White-tailed Deer, a trip mammal. There are mule deer here too, but we don't see any.
Then we drive out near the park entrance, to Flowing Waters Trail. We start out on the trail, hoping for Veery or Ovenbird. No luck, but about 75% of the way around, we come across fresh-cut aspen trees, felled by the local beaver. Then about 80% of the way around, a spring is pouring water over the trail, so that it is about four inches deep and impassable. Actually, I think the beaver dammed up one of the springs, and caused the backup, probably in the last few days. We have to go back. The mosquitoes are delighted that we're coming for another round. We're not wearing our netting. But I find a short cut up to the highway, and to the park front entrance, then through the park to the trailhead where we parked the pickup.
The mosquitoes can't believe their lousy luck. "We had 'em," I hear one of them bzzz.
On the way back to our site, we stop at Middle Lake, per Susan's suggestion. We walk to lakeside and play our Yellow Rail tape. Our birdbooks say to just click two small stones together to imitate the rail's call. But I play the tape. And guess what it sounds like? Anyway, no return clicks. Ah well, it was a really long shot.
Even though I keep saying we just used up the last of the reindeer sausage, this time I really mean it. Sharon had put some in spaghetti a while back, frozen it, and this is our dinner. Delicioso.
Mammals of the Day: White-tailed Deer.
Best Bird of the Day: Three-toed Woodpecker*, male Calliope Hummingbird
Upgrades: 1 today (hummingbird)
Life bird: 1 today (woodpecker), 66 total.
Trip Birds: 1 today (woodpecker), 201 total.
Bow Valley Provincial Park (river) Campground. Rating: A. In the trees, very quiet, great surrounding mountains. Peaceful, quiet, relatively unknown to us before yesterday or so.
Week 8 Day 6. Wednesday July 15, 1998. 55th day out. Bow Valley Provincial Park, Alberta to Okatoks (OH-kuh-tokes), Alberta, Canada.
Up leisurely today. Called Maury at the Calgary bird sanctuary again. She had more information on Yellow Rails, Ovenbirds and Common Terns. She points us to Big Hill Springs Provincial Park for the Yellow Rail, and another place for Common Terns, but didn't have any particulars on the Ovenbird. That's ok, I think, because Missouri has Ovenbirds, and I'd like to see my first one there sometime soon.
We take off on 1A, headed east for Cochrane. We turn north there, in the land of a tribe called the Stoney Indians. We are dropping out of the mountains, but are not yet to the prairies. We're in the foothills, and this is a good place for getting birds of both types of habitat.
We're travelling beside the Bow River again, and it's just as gorgeous as before, maybe more so. We come through Cochrane, in rolling hill ranchland. There are lots of cattle. Now that we're out of the big mountains, we have seen maybe a dozen hawks in the last ten miles or so. We are in the prairie, as far as they are concerned. I see some kind of bluebird, I think Mountain.
Then we see a sign that says: WARNING. TEXAS GATE. 90 METERS. We can't wait to see what this is... it turns out to be a cattle crossing. It's a small park, and we check out the perimeter, playing the tape for sparrows. But no takers. We see a couple of Great Blue Herons. We follow Maury's instructions, playing the Yellow Rail tape on the way out of t he park, back to the intersection. Can't find Yellow Rail habitat back at the referenced junction. We go to the park and play our tape of Le Conte's (luh-CONTZ or lay-CONTZ, as the announcer says it) and Sharptail Sparrows. We think we hear a Le Conte's once, but then nothing more.
We finally go back through the intersection, in the opposite direction from the park, checking for rail habitat, and we find a bird sanctuary with lots of reeds. I think this is it. As we slow to a stop in the gravel road, a sparrow pops onto the gravel, waits one second, then disappears into the grass at the side of the road again. Was that a Le Conte's? Sharptail? We try to persuade him to come back, but no luck.
We try the Yellow Rail tape, but again, no luck. Sharon reviews the Nature Nut's Alberta book, and we find that this very park (Big Hill Springs) is where he recommends to see Sharptail and Le Conte's Sparrows. More determined now, we drive back to Big Hill Springs Park again, and this time, we play the tape into the grasses and reeds along the creek on the way out, getting out of the pickup at each stop. We are stopped one time, Sharon is on the road, between the rig and the creek, and I'm sitting in the truck.
Sharon plays the tape and we both watch a sparrow fly up out of the reeds from ahead of us and to the right. He flies over the road, and makes a left turn. He flies straight at the windshield, then lifts up and skims over the rig. That was some response! Le Conte's?
Sharon has seen this too, and she continues to play the tape. By now, I'm outside the pickup, standing in front of it. Sharon suddenly says, "That's him, don't you hear him? Don't you hear him?" At that exact moment, two Ravens decide to squawk at each other for about twenty seconds. That's all I hear. Finally they leave, I hear the tape, then clearly hear the response. We want to see him, and hope he will pop up for a few seconds.
Sharon scans carefully with her binoculars, then the scope. She hears the Le Conte's song, exactly at the moment the sparrow in the scope is singing. Bullseye. She calls me over, and I see him too. LE CONTE'S SPARROW*. Over the next few minutes, we see perhaps three of them. Came for the Yellow Rail, got the Le Conte's. A nice trade.
We hit the road for Calgary, and the landscape continues to drop in altitude. There are rolling green meadows around now, farmland. We pass the Calaway Park Amusement Center and see the related RV Center up on the hill. One of the rides is a huge pirate ship, but it moves like a giant pendulum. Only it's hanging from two bars, not one. None of the rides is very big. The flume ride reminds me of hot sumer days spent at Marriott's Great America in Santa Clara, when Sharon's boys Pete and Matt, and later when daughters Tara and Shandra were little.
We pass a KOA and remember staying here, near Canada's Olympic Park, where the '88 Winter Olympics were held. We can see the luge, the big jump and small jump hills.
We have had Pine View RV Park picked for tonight, and pull in. Sorry, they're full. A group of seven Texans are all trying to get reservations for 44 campers for next year's Calgary Stampede. You'd think they'd elect one to do the talking.
The helpful lady refers us to Okotoks, down the road about 15 minutes. Sharon calls it Okey-doke's. We check in at the Okotoks Lions Club-run Sheep River Campground. The river looks peaceful and serene. There are flagged strings blocking the entrance road to the sites. After we get our site assignment, one of the four people lounging in chairs in front of the office runs over and drops the line. We drive over it.
We drive into town to do laundry, and I see the strangest thing: two freezers like those that contain packaged ice for about a buck. Only stamped on the side of each is "SAND BAGS." The river isn't always peaceful, we guess. But what good only two freezers full would do eludes me. Maybe for the eighth-inch-above-flood-stage type floods.
As we catch up with our maintenance chores, we decide to make a preliminary run to Frank Lake, only about thirty minutes away. We are looking for Common Terns. That way, if we see everything we want tonight, we can just hook up and go tomorrow morning.
When we had been birding only a few weeks, we went to Elkhorn Slough near Monterey, California one weekend. We saw many terns, and compared them with pictures in our early bird book, called Goldens (later pooh-poohed by a bird-bander at Point Reyes, prompting us to buy our NGS Field Guide). I had one pegged as a Common Tern. But it turns out that there are few if any of those in California, so I had to retract it. I've been wanting to see a real 'common' tern ever since then.
Later, as we approach Frank Lake, other small ponds begin to appear. We see Black Terns close up, as they have swung their flight patterns out over the fields, to take advantage of the insects there.
And we can hear Le Conte's Sparrows, now that we recognize their song. We hear the Yellow-headed Blackbird (appearance fairly obvious). These birds are among the most striking to look at, but are flat-out at the bottom of the scale, song-wise.
One time a non-birder had just learned that we are birders, and we were near a marsh. "What are those black birds with red wings?" she asked. "Red-winged Black-birds," Sharon answered.
The Yellow-headed Blackbird lands on a reed or cattail, rears back his head, opens his mouth, takes a big breath and sings... GRONK GROK GRAWKKKK. But because it's now part of their character, we actually kind of like to hear them.
We see what at first we assumed were Bonaparte's Gulls (I like the black-headed gulls, and their summer vs. winter plumages), then after reviewing the gull range maps, we see that they must be FRANKLIN'S GULLS, and confirm that with the key indicator - bill color. The Franklin's Gull we claimed at a water treatment plant outside of Stockton, California was a little weak. It was in winter plumage and the lighting was not very good. The group of gulls it was in flew away, and we never got a great look, but good enough to count it at the time. I'm just not sure we were very good counters then.
My cousin's husband, Bob Hall, said to me once that sometimes he felt that life was a series of years in which you say each year, how could I have been so naive, speaking of the previous year. So project that notion back three years and the compounding factor puts us way up on the naivety scale back then.
Anyway, these birds are definitely Franklin's Gulls and so are a nice upgrade. We get to the gate at 8:00pm, they are locked, will reopen at 930am tomorrow. We decide to walk, as it seems only a quarter to half a mile away. But as we step out of the pickup, the mosquitoes pay up at the mosquito smorg-as-bord "all you can eat" gala. They just didn't figure on our counter-plan.
We dressed, covering skin completely, except for face, neck and hands. I put on my mosquito cap, which has a net attached. You put the cap on like you're about to play first base, then you release the net from its rolled-up configuration above the bill. You unfold the net up over the cap, and it hangs down all around your head and face. There is an elastic cord through the bottom with a hole on opposite sides from each other. You put one arm through each, and you have a mosquito-proof setup. Snugly held down to prevent sneak attacks from underneath it. Put the gloves on, and you're mosquito-proof.
In a similar manner, Sharon has a mosquito shirt borrowed from her dad who used it when they lived in Wisconsin. She puts on a regular baseball type cap also, to hold the net away from her face. Then she pulls the entire shirt over her head, like you would put on a pullover sweater. There is a zipper around the neckline, if you want to have a snack or drink. I found, though, that you can drink a bottle of water straight through the netting without having to open up. Just don't spray any deet onto it first.
And of course, it's good for all the other types of bugs out for the evening, of which there are many. Of both type and quantity.
But back to our main objective. Using the scope, we can see two types of terns criss-crossing the lake and slough around it. We can see them catch small fish, some fly directly away from us, and some land in some type of brown weedy plant on our side of the lake. It's our best judgement that the close ones are FORSTER'S TERNS and the far ones are Common Terns. We watch their undersides, their tails, their wings - both above and below. And we conclude that one type is almost certainly Common Terns, but we hope to get a better look tomorrow. Life bird, we claim [however, when we go back to the trailer, and play the common tern's call, I retract my virtual certainty. I need to see them closer, and will try again tomorrow. I didn't hear any of these sounds at the lake].
As we are driving back, I decide that this was maybe the heaviest mosquito density I've ever seen. Sharon said at one time, she shooed away perhaps 50 of them off the back of my shirt. Buying the mosquito cap and borrowing Sharon's dad's mosquito shirt were solid moves. No way would we be out here without them.
There is the most incredible light on the landscape, as we are driving back to camp. The sky is almost entirely dark-cloud-covered, except where the sun is shining. No clouds between the setting sun and horizon in the west. So the sun is hitting the wheat and other crops at that super late afternoon angle, but the sky is dark. Great contrast, and my camera is back in the trailer. Dohp! Reminds me a little of green tornado skies.
As we near the entrance to the RV Park, we see five people sitting in lawn chairs by the office. We wonder which will drop the flag for us, as we roll in, but whether they will recognize us first. As soon as they see our pickup heading for the entrance, the blue-shirt guy waves, runs over and drops the flag.
In we go. We like the security at this park. I work on the computer, and get it ready to handle email when I can get to a phone line. I drift off thinking that we have a shot at three life birds tomorrow. Ahh. Gotta somehow clean up the Common Tern.
Best Birds of the Day: Le Conte's Sparrow*, Franklin's Gull
Upgrades: 1 today (Franklin's Gull), 7 total
Life bird: 1 today (Le Conte's Sparrow), 67 total.
Trip Birds: 3 today (sparrow, gull, Forster's Tern), 204 total.
Okatoks, Alberta, RV Park Rating: A. Lots of grass, lots of tall shady trees, next to river, no mosquitoes. Black squirrels. Electric and water hookups. Very friendly, security-conscious staff.
If you think it's hot where you are, you're right. It's hot just about everywhere. Keep cool.
Sharon & Bob
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