March 6 – When arrived in Calgary, we immediately kick off the tour with some relaxed city birding. Calgary is a refuge for many species during the harsh Albertan winter, and some of the city’s parks can be teeming with life even when the temperatures hit far below zero. We aim for wintering waterfowl but keep an eye out for lingering rarities which often spend the winter at local feeders. Among the Goldeneyes and Common Mergansers, we look for scarcities such as Barrow’s Goldeneye, Trumpeter Swan and Harlequin Duck. Night in Calgary.
March 7 – Our first full day in Alberta is spent in the foothills, and after waking up we enjoy a short drive west where we visit a large feeding station. Numerous finches are found here and can be encountered at close range. Photographic opportunities are plentiful as hungry finches descend on the feeding tables. Species to expect here include Evening Grosbeak, Pine Grosbeak and – depending on the year – Common Redpolls. Among these we look for rarities such as Hoary Redpoll, a species that often enjoys the company of its more common relatives this far south. The supporting cast includes Blue Jays, Ruffed Grouse and Mountain Chickadees, as well as more common yard birds such as Downy and Hairy woodpecker. Bohemian Waxwings may be about in numbers, depending on the year, and on the berry crop.
In the afternoon, we aim for some more boreal birds when we explore a nearby spruce grove which hosts some excellent species. While walking among the old spruce stands, we listen carefully for species such as Boreal Chickadee, Mountain Chickadee and Canada Jay. The woodpeckers here can be tricky, but we have some good spots for American Three-toed Woodpecker which we are excited to check out. Occasionally, Black-backed Woodpecker roams the forest here as well, but as always, this species is hard to predict. Ruffed Grouse can be expected on the trails as well.
We spend the late afternoon driving to our next destination, Brooks.
March 8 – We wake up early and plan to be in the field by sunrise. A visit to Dinosaur Provincial Park and its surrounding areas often produces a variety of quality birds in winter, but they require some searching. Our first target here will be the wintering flocks of Sharp-tailed Grouse. This species is increasingly difficult in many parts of its range, but the wintertime makes for excellent circumstances to find them.
While driving through the prairies, large raptors are plentiful and Rough-legged Hawks will be easily found. We keep our eyes open for Golden Eagles as well as Snowy Owls, which have been seen here in the past. The local Great Horned Owls tend to be of the pale prairie morph and could be seen here as well. Night in Brooks.
March 9 – Our second day of prairie birding will be fully devoted to the white ghost: Snowy Owl. Alberta is lucky to have these beautiful birds visit its prairies each winter. They manage to maintain large territories, even during winter. Finding them requires some effort, hence why we have the whole day to look for them. We will try to provide good photo opportunities, while maintaining a safe distance from these birds.
Besides the owls, this area is particularly interesting for wintering Prairie Falcons, as well as Snow Buntings, the latter which occur in large flocks each winter. We might run into some Gray Partridges too, a Eurasian species that – once introduced – adapted quickly to the cold temperatures it gets to endure here. We will keep our fingers crossed for a wintering Gyrfalcon along our route. This powerful arctic predator hunts waterfowl and pigeons during winter on the prairies.
Towards the late afternoon, we will begin the drive towards the foothills, and the city of Cochrane, where we will spend the night.
March 10 – Another day, another owl, and that means we wake up early as it’s another ghost that requires our full focus: the Great Gray Owl. Where the Snowy Owl was relatively conspicuous, even in a wintery landscape, the Great Gray Owl is more challenging to find. After the breeding season, they quietly spend most of the year by themselves, searching for rodents under the snow cover.
We have multiple locations for this species in mind, and we will be covering a lot of ground for them. Once found, we devote enough time to study and photograph them, from a distance, before we head north.
We will head north to Edmonton for the night.
March 11 – Our last day will be devoted to the last one of the ‘big three’: the Northern Hawk-owl. Edmonton is located on the edge of the boreal forest, and provides excellent opportunities for this species, as well as Snowy Owls and Great Gray Owls. Our focus will be the main target however, and so we will allocate a lot of time exploring the frozen fields and pastures north of the city, where these birds are often found. Fingers crossed for a smooth search!