Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Bobolinks: Songbirds From Saskatchewan to Paraguay

Bobolink on a stalk of dock... 
How much farther away could it be? © SB
I've been looking for Bobolinks for a couple of years — clear, up-close, well-lit, easy-to-photograph-with-feather-detail Bobolinks, not just checklist Saskatchewan grasslands birds.

But so far, they've eluded me, and I see them only when I'm a passenger in a fast car, or they are far off in twilight marshes or deep into atmospherically distorted distant reeds.

A recent trip to Grasslands National Park continued that pattern: When Bobolinks landed, they landed far from me.

I become more interested in Bobolinks on that trip when I learned that these songbirds are among those that migrate annually between North and South America... (Yes, the same population, the exact same birds, share the ribbons of grasses that stretch along our hemisphere.)

And while we see them in Saskatchewan as fairly solitary birds in dramatic black, white and yellow breeding plumage, in Paraguay, Bobolinks appear in massive flocks of brown-sparrow-striped birds in drab winter camouflage.

Crop of the Bobolink picture   © SB

"The Bobolink is amazing because of the colour — it is completely different here," says Dr. Alberto Yanosky, the biologist who heads Guyra Paraguay, that country’s leading organization for biodiversity research and conservation. (It's also a Birdlife International affiliate.) "You may very easily say that they are different species, but they are the same."

Yanosky, recently named the 2013 Latin American winner of the National Geographic Society/Buffett Award for Leadership in Conservation, was in Saskatchewan for the June Prairie Passages Tour of our publicly owned grasslands. 

"We say that they decided to breed here, but they are our birds, that we lend them to you," he says. "And you think that it is on the other side, that they are your birds, and they go south to avoid winter here."  

I'm happy to share the Bobolinks and our other grassland birds including Swainson's HawksUpland Sandpipers, Common Nighthawks and Wilson's Phalaropes ... I only wish they would land closer to my camera! 

What is this bird? A male Bobolink, in breeding plumage.
Location: Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan, Canada Prairie Passages Tour
Photo date: June 25, 2013. 


Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Mount Carmel, Saskatchewan: High land, with a wide, wide view

Our Lady of Mount Carmel: Mary at the shrine 
near Humboldt, Saskatchewan © SB
I was recently in the Humboldt, Saskatchewan, area and visited Mount Carmel, the site of a Roman Catholic shrine to Mary, Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

Even living on the Prairies, I think of the land as flat. But much of it is mildly — or even at time, wildly — rolling.

And the closer you drive to this hill, the higher it looms... and the further you climb, the more you see...

From its heights, wide vistas open.

This lovely place was originally called spathanaw watchi, or "hill of the far view" in Cree.

And patches of native plants remain on the hill, with Dotted Blazingstar, Fleabane, Purple Prairie Clover, Ascending Milk Vetch, Wild Flax, and Silverleaf Psoralea.

In 1921, the land was donated for a shrine and annual pilgrimages up the slopes of Mount Carmel began in 1923.

The statue of Mary, made of white Italian marble, is framed by lightening rods to draw the sky fire of our prairie summers away from her and her baby.

She stands calmly, holding up the child and looking down at the field-stone chapel.

I stand quietly, looking up at her, and then down across fields of yellow-blooming canola and the faraway lakes strung along the horizon.

Looking west down the hill from the statue towards the chapel, and off into the distance beyond. © SB

The view looking east, down from Mount Carmel across fields and lakes. © SB

What is this? The shrine, statue and surrounding views of our Lady of Mount Carmel. 
Location: North of the settlement of Mount Carmel, near Humboldt, Saskatchewan, Canada
Photo date: July 24, 2013. 


Monday, July 29, 2013

American Coots in Saskatchewan Sloughs

Bright orange baby coot, in not-camo...   © SB
The first time I saw a very young American Coot swimming in a slough, I was astonished by its colour.

The bright yellow, orange and red feathers, beak and skin of this water bird are exactly the opposite of camouflage...

And I wondered: Does its discreet black and white parent need these vibrant colours to find it?

Even at a slightly older age, these young birds look bizarrely speckled and tufted.

(The tufts are perhaps because its feathers are ever-so-slightly matted by the algae and other stuff typically found in slough water...)

The adults, in contrast, are sedately attired... although their behaviour is somewhat less that sedate. (Hence the term, silly old coot.)

Beautiful birds, all the same.

Adult and young American Coot  © SB
Grumpy-looking baby Coot  © SB
Slightly older, still young, Coot. © SB
Is this adult American Coot (could it be?) smiling at me? © SB

What are these birds? American Coots — Foulque d'Amérique — adult and young.
Location: Various sloughs and wetlands in Saskatchewan, Canada
Photo date:  Summer 2012 and 2013.


Monday, July 22, 2013

Loggerhead Shrike on Teepee Pole, Saskatchewan

High on a teepee pole, a Loggerhead Shrike.

At first, this small bird was on a fence post beside the road. And then (as soon as cars stopped and camera came out), it flew to the far side of the new campground in Grasslands National Park. Finally, it landed on the top of a pole, and sang.

Loggerhead Shrike on a teepee pole in Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan, Canada

What is this bird? A Loggerhead Shrike 
Location: Grasslands National Park, near Val Marie, Saskatchewan. Prairie Passages Tour
Photo date:  July 26, 2013.


Monday, July 15, 2013

Lark Bunting in breeding plumage

One of my favourite Saskatchewan grassland birds is the Lark Bunting — perhaps because the males look so formally attired in their crisp black and white breeding plumage.

The female Lark Buntings are also lovely, with an intricate brown feather pattern.

These small songbirds were fairly common in the Val Marie, Saskatchewan, area during our recent Prairie Passages Tour of pastures and grasslands. Especially lovely to see, knowing that come winter, they'll change from this bright plumage to more drab brown feathers again. (And leave Saskatchewan to fly south to Mexico for the winter.)

Male Lark Bunting in breeding plumage Photo  © Shelley Banks, all rights reserved.
Male Lark Bunting in breeding plumage   © SB

What are these birds? Lark Buntings  —  male in breeding plumage.
Location: Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan. 
Photo date:  June 26, 2013.


Friday, July 12, 2013

Burrowing Owls: Sentries in Fields and Prairie Dog Towns

Study the eyes of this Burrowing Owl. So watchful and attentive. © SB
Okay, maybe I do have a true favourite among grasslands birds: The Burrowing Owl.

We saw at least three pairs of Burrowing Owls — two nesting in Grasslands National Park, and one not far from the park on the Prairie Passages Tour of Saskatchewan pastures and grasslands earlier this summer.

I love the way they stand guard over the area around their burrows, whether in the middle of a Black-tailed Prairie Dog town, or on fence posts in the park and along nearby roads.

So small. So serious. And, in Saskatchewan, so endangered.

Once again, the habitat they need is being lost, along with vital companion species, including the gophers and prairie dogs that dig the burrows they use.

(I recently finished Rock Creek, a beautiful memoir based in Southern Saskatchewan. In it, poet Thelma Poirier says: "Burrowing owls. A misnomer. More fittingly they could be called borrowing owls'. They borrow the burrows of ground squirrels." Indeed.)

Close-up of a Burrowing Owl,
standing guard over its nearby burrow. 
© SB

As an example of their declining numbers, the website for the Burrowing Owl Interpretive Centre in Moose Jaw, SK, says that the population trend for Burrowing Owls around Regina, SK, in the last ten years "points straight down." The site continues:
Agricultural crops don't provide the habitat that burrowing owls require, so the owls are restricted to the small fragments of prairie that remain as cattle pastures. In much of southern Saskatchewan, these small cattle pastures are the last remaining refuge for burrowing owls. The horses and cattle are beneficial to the owls, as they keep the grass short by grazing and provide nest-lining material (manure!) for the owls.
So what a treat, to see these owls near Val Marie!

Wider shot:  Burrowing Owls are another Prairie Dog town resident.
The nesting burrow must have been nearby, 

as we saw a pair of owls here. © SB

What are these birds? Burrowing Owls.
Location: In and near Grasslands National Park, Val Marie, Saskatchewan. 
Photo date:  July 25, 2013.


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Long-billed Curlews: A Species of Concern in Saskatchewan

Long-billed Curlew, Saskatchewan, Canada  Photograph © Shelley Banks, all rights reserved.
Long-billed Curlew.   © SB
Early morning, and a Long-billed Curlew landed right behind our van on the EcoTour Road through Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan.

This graceful bird with the long, down-curving bill was lovely to see, especially as Long-billed Curlews — Canada's largest shorebird — are a Species of Special Concern in Canada, and their global population is also in decline.

The reasons for the decline of Long-billed Curlews are linked to land-use, and the increasing presence of agriculture; pesticides may also play a role.

Here's what Environment Canada has to say about Long-billed Curlews:
Habitat loss, both on the breeding and the wintering grounds, remains the largest current threat to the species' populations as native grasslands in Canada are lost to agriculture, development, and invasive species, and the wetlands and grasslands used by wintering birds face similar threats.  
These birds, which breed in short-grass prairie and other grasslands, have already been extirpated from Manitoba, our neighbouring province to the east.

On this early summer day, the first of the Prairie Passages Tour of grasslands and pastures around Val Marie, Saskatchewan, we saw three Long-billed Curlews — the one on the road, and two others that made forays through the park's Black-tailed Prairie Dog towns, foraging for food.

Grace in action: A post-sunrise treat to see their heads gracefully bobbing across their small island of protected grass.

Long-billed Curlew, Saskatchewan, Canada  Photograph © Shelley Banks, all rights reserved.
Long-billed Curlew forages in the Prairie Dog town. © SB

What are these? Long-billed Curlews 
Location: Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan.
Photo date: June 25, 2013


Saturday, July 6, 2013

Common Nighthawks: Birds Disguised as Bark

Common Nighthawk: photograph  © Shelley Banks, all rights reserved.
Common Nighthawk: Feathers mimic bark  © SB
Now this bird is amazing: The Common Nighthawk has such intricate camouflage feather markings that once it lands, it almost disappears.

(We first saw it — but almost didn't — perched and sleeping on a fence post in Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan.)

The camouflage works so well that All About Birds says that the insect-eating Nighthawks make no nest; with these markings, even the young are hard to find.

On our recent Prairie Passages Tour of grasslands and pastures in SW Saskatchewan, several people commented that it seemed the Val Marie, Saskatchewan, area was like a Common Nighthawk sanctuary.

They talked about seeing large groups resting on trees (which I missed...), and we saw several buzzing the early morning skies for bugs.

I was so happy when this Nighthawk was found roosting in plain view at the new GNP campground!

Common Nighthawk: photograph  © Shelley Banks, all rights reserved.
Easy to see in a close-up shot... Trickier in person, at a distance.   © SB

What is this? A Common Nighthawk
Location: Campground, Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan.
Photo date: June 26, 2013.


Thursday, July 4, 2013

Chestnut-collared Longspurs on Pasture Rocks in Saskatchewan

Chestnut-collared Longspur. Photo © Shelley Banks, all rights reserved.
Chestnut-collared Longspur, singing in early morning. © SB
Early morning, and Chestnut-collared Longspurs are singing from rocks and sagebrush in a pasture near Grasslands National Park, in southern Saskatchewan.

These small songbirds seem to like a very specific habitat... I only saw them in this one small area, with sagebrush and these rocks.

Their limited habitat — and land-use competition for it — may explain why Chestnut-collared Longspurs are now entered as "threatened" on the Canadian federal government's Species At Risk lists.

In general, they prefer native pastures, followed by other grazed grasses and hayland, and in Saskatchewan, Chestnut-collared Longspurs are more often found on pastures than on hay or cropland.

That's significant, as their breeding territory and distribution is very limited, from southern Alberta to southern Manitoba, south to westcentral Colorado, and east through North Dakota and South Dakota to western Minnesota. (Effects of management practices on grassland birds: Chestnut-collared Longspur, Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center.)

From a distance or in flight, these prairie birds look, well, brown. Just like so many other little birds. But in breeding season, the males sport crisp black vests and vibrant chestnut collars. And start the morning, singing.

Chestnut-collared Longspur. Photo © Shelley Banks, all rights reserved.
Chestnut-collared Longspur, displaying its chestnut collar.  © SB
Chestnut-collared Longspur. Photo © Shelley Banks, all rights reserved.
Sagebrush: Another singing spot for Chestnut-collared Longspurs. © SB
Chestnut-collared Longspur. Photo © Shelley Banks, all rights reserved.
Closer view of the Chestnut-collared Longspur on sage.© SB 

Seen on the Public Pastures-Public Interest 2013 grasslands/pastures Prairie Passages Tour with Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson. For more on the tour and updates on the work of PPPI and the future of the PFRA pastures, see Trevor Herriot's Grass Notes, and Pasture Posts.

What are these? Chestnut-collared Longspurs.
Location: Near Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan.
Photo date: June 25, 2013.


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Bison in Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan

Bison at Grasslands National Park. 
Grazing is important to this fragile grassland ecosytem, 
whether done by bison or cattle, as the animals contribute
nutrients and create varied bird habitats. © SB
I saw dozens of bison in Grasslands National Park, Southwest Saskatchewan, on a recent visit to the area.

While some herds were only distant hillside specks, several bison bulls loitered on the native prairie along the park's main Ecotour Road, watching — or ignoring us — from a distance.

(Bison are powerful, fast and agile, and can quickly change directions, so best to keep your distance. Cute as some of these photos may be, bison are neither tame nor cuddly animals. And yes, I had a long lens for these photographs.)

Also wonderful:

A chance to hear bison expert Wes Olson talk about the herds and animals he has managed in the park for many years.

(Not so wonderful: On Wes's retirement, his position apparently is not to be filled, thus leading to a significant loss of knowledge. Seriously — Wes is an amazing guy; check out his website.)

Bison, on a distant hill.
At this time of year, most groups near the Ecotour Road
through Grasslands park are comprised of bulls, mainly young ones. 
© SB 

Experts says to stay clear of bison if their tails are elevated
- they are ready to charge, or discharge. -
This bison had the latter in progress;
I was some distance away, in a truck.  
© SB

One Bison bison bison, three cowbirds. © SB

Bison expert Wes Olson described birds' nests made of strands
 - and shed clumps - of bison hair.
It's great insulation and the smell repels predators. 
© SB

Bison with Brown-headed Cowbird (formerly Buffalo Bird) on its back.
Bison expert Wes Olson explained that the bison's weight is evenly balanced,
front to back, with the centre at the point of its hump/front legs.
Hence its ability to quickly pivot and change directions. 
© SB

Bison expert Wes Olson telling stories
to our group about the bison he knows so well. 
© SB

Seen on the Prairie Passages tour of PFRA and other publicly owned grasslands, with conservationists, authors, and photographers, including Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson, Alberto Yanosky (Executive Director of BirdLife affiliate Guyra Paraguay), and Ian Davidson (Exec. Dir., Nature Canada). Organized by Public Pastures - Public Interest. For more on the tour, see Pasture Posts and Trevor Herriot's Grass Notes.

What are these? Bison and a bison expert.
Location: Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan.
Photo date: June 25, 2013.


Monday, July 1, 2013

Spotted Towhees in Grasslands: I have a message for you

To all Spotted Towhees in Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan:

There is no need for you, or any other birds, to hide behind bare shrubby branches when I drive by.

This is the only picture I have of you large sparrows, and it barely captures your brilliant rust, white and black colouring.

Spotted Towhee beside the Frenchman River. Photograph  © Shelley Banks, all rights reserved.
Spotted Towhee beside the Frenchman River   © SB

That said, my thanks for waiting on this bush, beside a bridge over the Frenchman River, until I was able to take this single shot.

And yes, I love your bright red eyes.

Seen on the Prairie Passages tour of PFRA and other publicly owned grasslands, with conservationists, authors, and photographers, including Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson, Alberto Yanosky (Executive Director of BirdLife affiliate Guyra Paraguay), and  Ian Davidson (Exec. Dir., Nature Canada). Organized by Public Pastures - Public Interest. For more on the tour, see Pasture Posts and Trevor Herriot's Grass Notes.

What is this? A Spotted Towhee.
Location: Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan.
Photo date: June 25, 2013.


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