After a day that started with snowfall, the clouds cleared in the evening. Desiree and I headed south to Frank Lake to see what birds were staging around the shoreline. With the unusual dip in temperature, I was unsure which birds may have jumpstarted their migrations and which would still be there. We were treated to a large squadron of white pelicans which were the main focus of our bird watching and photography. The sun fell under the clouds an hour before dusk and the light was incredible right through to sunset. Aside from the pelicans, we had several species of seagulls, great blue herons, cormorants, hawks, coots, ducks and shorebirds that came by. And, a number of Black-crowned Night-Herons too. Surprisingly to me, most of those were juveniles. Which Desiree was able to identify as Night-Herons. Which was great as I thought they were an egret or another type of heron. The young look very different from the adults in this species of heron! This photo caught the heron flying into the warm sunlight and I was lucky to have it catch the eye.
I love Canada jays. They go by a couple of names (well I guess we like to call them by a few names) – I like Whiskey Jack and Canada jay more than gray jay but those are just my own preferences. Some people see them as mischievous camp robbers. I don’t. For me, they exemplify companionship as I always flitting around in pairs. I found this one in a tree and waited until it flew off towards the call of its partner.
On a solo outing to some remote roads, I found a gorgeous great gray owl perched on a telephone pole in warm afternoon sunshine.
A short wait ended with the bird gliding into the forest. It found a perch there and moved to two other ones before flying to a knot of trees close by.
She scanned the sky occasionally, watched the ground steadily but did not find a target on or under the snow. One launch had the owl drop onto a pile of deadfall. I caught a nice launch off of a tree trunk and followed the bird up to her next perch.
Soon she flew across the nearby meadow and landed in a lone evergreen. She flew along a frozen creek to a slender tee – a winter’s skeleton – that bowed under her weight.
And then she flew west, further afield, and well beyond my shooting range with the gear I have.
I found this great horned owl on December 20th. She was perched a couple of meters off the ground in a stand of trees along the edge of a farm east of Langdon on Alberta’s prairie. It was just before noon and the day was cool but not frigid. The warm sun was lovely as I walked from the range road to a position with a better view of the owl. I was excited to photograph the bird – especially once I had the sunlight at my back and I could catch the glow of the golden eyes.
She watched the ground intently at times and tracked any ravens that flew overhead. I settled in on a mound and waited for the bird to launch. Despite a couple of shakes and repositions early on, the bird didn’t fly then and soon the eyes were shutting for increasingly long intervals.
For four hours I waited before the owl jumped into the air. I was in a great position but was chagrined when she flew away from me. Hope returned when she alighted on a branch 20 meters away and turned back towards me. A few minutes along and the excitement returned. This time the flight path was towards me and she flew beside me on her way to another line of trees towering over a snow-covered field. This time afforded me a great angle on the owl.
It was a great spring to spend lot of time with these majestic owls. For many years there have been several pairs of great gray owls that I’ve been able to photograph hunting and resting on perches in and around forests near my home. I’ve never taken it for granted. Happily the great spring has continued into summer. Here are a few of my favorites from July so far.
‘This great gray owl was sheltering in the branch of a leafy tree when I first found him east of Kananaskis. The rain was pouring and he was smart to avoid the brunt of it. I was less so and got soaked. Eventually the sun came out and the forest brightened. The owl began hunting and grabbed two field mice over a half an hour. In this image he had alighted from a fencepost and was heading back into the forest.
Watching from the branches, the owl dove after the sunlight had slipped away. It had already been a great day of owls (long-eared, short-eared, snowy and great grays). There was enough light for one more encounter.
The bird missed on the first plunge into the snow. Then heard or saw something and shot upwards. He flew away from me and quickly dove back to the ground.
With the second strike successful, he swallowed the prey and then returned to the trees.
Flying to a new perch after several minutes. From there it alternated between watching the field across the road and the fence line directly below.
The light faded quickly and my fingers were happy when I returned to the vehicle.
Flying on from the beam, this great gray owl continued moving from one perch to the next. Eventually it flew over my head and landed on the top of a tree still in the sunshine.
A couple of minutes, the portrait below and then it flew to a higher point overlooking another field. That seemed a good point to leave her to her own purposes.
Almost immediately afterwards, we saw a second owl. This one gliding between branches. These trees were still in the sunlight and its warm tone wrapped around the bird as it flew.
The sun fell quickly. The light and shadow drawing lines and space across the forest’s west-facing edge. The owl weaved between those and the tree branches a couple of times before the daylight slipped away. His eyes catching the light at some angles and hiding in the shadow at others.
There was a third owl that made a couple of sorties into a nearby field. That was too far away to photograph. And I was happy to stay with the owl in front of me. That led soon to a pair of dives into the snow.
By the time we found this great gray owl in the late afternoon, it had already been a wonderful day of owls. This grey was the first of three that flew and hunted on the edge of the forest through into night. The waning sunshine offered a little warmth against cold and perhaps encouraged the owls to come out of the trees to hunt. Sometimes an owl is found only by slowly studying woods or fields. This one was much easier – perched on a sign post.
A truck drove by and the owl took flight. The bird crossed over a fence and drifted over the field beyond. Angling up on an instant, she quickly down towards the snow.
I missed catching a sharp shot of her crashing into the field. She, however, did not miss. He talons pinned a field mouse of some type under the snow. She transferred that to her beak after a few shuffles and disturbances. And then flew up to finish off the meal on a fence post.
From there the owl flew over the field again. This time alighting on the metal beam of a piece of farm machinery. From sign to beam was only six minutes. Luckily there was a bit more with this owl and then more through sunset with two other owls.
Crows, like ravens, are known as clever birds but I think their beauty is under appreciated. The iridescent purples and blues that can shimmer out of their black feathers are wonderful. A couple of weeks ago, I watched a few crows flush off a fence near Cochrane. I tracked this one and got lucky with this shot. I loved the shape of the silhouette and how a tiny bit of that iridescence can be seen on one wing.
I had a beautiful encounter with a snowy owl on a barren hilltop near Namaka on Family Day. That was preceded by a mutual fascination that this juvenile prairie falcon and I shared for a long-abandoned house on the prairies.
I was driving the backroads after sunrise primarily to look for snowies. I like these drives on the winter prairie as the views are expansive and I always hope to see something unexpected. I had not visited this worn out farmstead before and I stopped to have a look. It was -27°C so I was content to take a couple of pictures out of the rolled down window – until I spied the falcon perched on the peak of the roof. Then I got out and walked slowly closer.
After 15 minutes, I was set up beside one of the sheds a little ways off from the main house. The falcon watched me approach but was more interested in scanning the field to the east. I kept my lens trained on the roof for a few more minutes until the bird launched.
It flew over the field and out of my view. I trudged back – it always seems farther and colder when returning from an encounter than it was getting there. My hands were happy to get out of the wind and I was happy to have some nice images of this beautiful, hardy bird.
A hawk launches out over the prairies. Photographed in late August last summer.
Not bad behavior, just one that I don’t pretend to understand. When I was last at Elbow Falls, I photographed two American dippers as they flew, dove and splashed around the fast-moving water. Along the way, one of the birds flew to an overhang beside the edge of the waterfall, and then slid on the ice before finding purchase in the snow.
It paused for a moment and then flew at the waterfall!
The bird flapped its wings to hover for several seconds only a few inches from the water where it fell over the edge. I don’t know if it was looking for insects behind the water – surely not in the water itself! Likely it was something else, maybe even simple curiosity or just because it could do it. It was unusual and really fantastic to watch.
This August, I’ve taken a couple of afternoon drives along Grand Valley Road north of Cochrane. The rolling hills and farmland is beautiful and is home to a variety of birds and other wildlife. I have been missing great gray owls so that was my specific draw to the area. I was fortunate on both occasions to find them; three on the first trip and one on the second outing.
This one I watched in the forest from a gravel road. She perched on a few different branches over a half an hour before diving down into the grass. She caught and quickly swallowed something – my view obscured by the grass and the trees but likely a vole or some type of field mouse.
The solitary owl from my most recent drive was perched in a more open area. I was able to string together a nice flight sequence when he launched after a few minutes of watching him.
I spent Sunday morning watching a great blue heron hunting for fish in the shallows of a small lake near Bragg Creek. Early on it was just above freezing which led to mist rising off, and swirling across, the water. The heron was on the far side when I first spotted him so I took turns watching the weather and the fishing.
The day slowly warmed up a little as did the heron to me. I stayed put in my lawn chair and around 10:30, he crossed the lake landing about 60 meters away from me.
Herons are excellent hunters and this fellow caught fish steadily while walking in the shallows.
One more flight a little while later put him back on the far side but still quite close.
He continued hunting along the shoreline there for another 45 minutes.
Towards noon, I wanted to get home and when he flew back towards the first location I’d found him, I thought that was a sign that our encounter was completed for the day.
Almost two months ago, I came across a great gray owl that was surveying a bog from the top of a weathered fence post. I watched him for a few minutes as he looked around. Then the big, yellow eyes watched me for a few seconds before the wings stretched out and he flew up the hill towards me. These owls move quickly when they choose to so I was reacting not thinking when he took to the air. I was happy to have a few shots of that approach.
I thought he would fly by, but another post a couple of meters away from me was his destination. He looked around for half a minute, then stared at me while launching into the air again. This time he passed close by, crossed the path and then flew to a broken tree branch in the forest.
It was early evening and seemed to be supper time as he dove into the tall grass a couple of minutes later. That yielded a vole or some kind of field mouse. I couldn’t tell as he swallowed it while on the ground and mostly out of sight.
Reappearing after a short while, he ascended to another branch briefly and then flew deeper into the forest.
A great gray owl was hunting across a meadow near Kananaskis Country earlier in the week. I watched her across the field for a while before she flew to the forest edge and landed in a tree branch a couple of meters off the ground. Eventually she launched and dove after something in the tall grass.
That proved to be unsuccessful. And the owl flew across the hillside into a stand of trees to the north. I was able to watch her work between a couple of different perches until she found one in the sunlight.
The warmth in the sun may have been part of the reason she stayed there for a few minutes.
When she moved on, she flew low over the wet grass, then climbed into the trees and disappeared.
I found a Swainson’s hawk south of Cochrane last week. When the bird eventually pushed off from this tangle of branches I took a couple of photographs with the wings at full extension.
This blackbird’s flight from earlier this morning was an interesting one. He crouched low on the branch for a few seconds, longer than I was expecting, before it launched. When he did, there were a couple of quick wing beats before diving out of sight into the brambles.