Diane and I love birds. Making no attempt to disguise ourselves as amateur ornithologists or even casual bird people, we simply enjoy watching them and we’re often fascinated by their intelligence, perseverance and beauty. Because they’re found almost everywhere from rural farmlands to urban parks, almost anybody can enjoy them by simply stopping to look, listen and learn. Keeping a promise to two of our followers whose devote their blogs to the beauty of birds, Diane and I braved the -25 Celsius frigid cold in both Edmonton and Calgary on our recent holiday jaunt to Canada and searched for photographic opportunities of birds crazy enough to withstand Alberta winters.
Not surprisingly, only a few species developed characteristics hearty enough to allow year round residency in places north of the 49th parallel and we limited all pictures except the featured image to Diane’s camera so please don’t expect a National Geographic photo spread.
Understanding nature has a plan for everything, we used to feel sorry for the poor little creatures until and wondered how they do it until we realized they’re well suited for the challenge and might even enjoy owning the skies for six months. Unsure why we never simply Googled why the birds don’t freeze, we’ve included a few facts for the curious to help clarify their tolerance.
Without further ado, I’d like to endorse two of the best blogs I’ve found devoted to birds. Unique due to the age of the blog writers and the place they blog from, Bird Encounters of a Balcony Kind was recently created by two teenagers from Singapore. Spectacular pictures and informative text will surprise even the most seasoned apartment dwellers from any big city. Located in a the topics, Singapore is geographically perfect for both migratory and year round birds of all kinds. Amazed at how many birds are visible from a high-rise balcony, perhaps we’ll only consider dwelling on the highest floors of a condo when we arrive in Malaysia later this year.
The second birding blog we love is Avian101, written by H.J. Ruiz. Living in Georgia with his wife, Mr. Ruiz is an avid photographer and bird watcher and simply wants to share his talents with others like us that enjoy birds. Inspiring and filled with great photos and stories, we’re grateful for the learning opportunities given to us that can make early retirement a bit more interesting.
Obviously, we can never compete with the beautiful photography on their sites but we’re willing to bet that the bloggers may have never come across the birds we’ve profiled due to their geographic locations in tropical and temperate environments. Most commonly seen and thriving throughout Alberta winters are the black-capped chickadee, the black-billed magpie and of course, the common crow. We also saw a few sparrow-like birds that we couldn’t isolate down to a specific species, and a hairy woodpecker, one of six species found in Alberta during the winter (Sorry; we could only get one picture of him).
If you walk outside any time of winter in Alberta and listen, you’ll always hear the call of this adorable little bird. Distinctively unique, it actually sounds like “chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee”. Quite tolerant of humans and even friendly enough to feed simply by holding out your hand on the trails, Diane and I saw them all the time in the parks of Calgary when we lived there. Probably the most populous winter bird, the chickadee has to eat constantly during the winter to survive and they use food to keep their bodies warm.
With their little bodies, it’s hard to imagine that the chickadee’s feathers are a great layer of insulation and help keep it warm. The outer feathers have little hooks called barbs that connect much like Velcro does, making a windproof barrier. (Believe me, when the wind blows and the air temperature is well below zero, they really need this protection.) Underneath they have soft fluffy feathers made of the same down material found in winter parkas and during winter, the chickadee’s body produces more feathers for warmth. Amazingly, their feet have no feathers so they’re forced to cut down blood flow to their feet just enough to keep them from freezing, Basically they have learned to live with cold feet to conserve energy. That’s something I could never deal with !
When cold spells hit, chickadees nest together at night to keep warm. Sometimes as many as 20 huddle together in a tree and in extreme cold they don’t leave the roost at all. Having snapped these pictures on a day clocking in at -21 Celsius, (4 below zero Fahrenheit), the birds obviously didn’t consider this cold. Crazy. For more information on chickadees, here’s a great article written about chickadees in Vermont.
Anyone familiar with northwestern North America knows these birds well. Often considered pests by farmers due to their scavenging tendencies, magpies are one of the only animal species on earth known to recognize their own image in a mirror, making them among the most intelligent species. Northern California gets warmer every winter thanks in part to evil climate-change deniers like The Koch Brothers so we hadn’t seen any since we moved from Canada in 2007. We love them because unlike black crows, they’re tame, approachable and have great personalities.
Part of the corvid family that includes ravens and crows, magpies are bold, social birds that adapt very well living around humans. Possessing unusually long tails, magpies are resourceful opportunists, often flipping items and following predators in hopes of scavenging scraps. Eating fruits, nuts, berries and animal matter, there’s always something for them to eat even in the dead of winter. Easy to distinguish, their loud shrieks are often the only sound on an otherwise cold, snowy day in Alberta.
Some interesting facts about magpies: (courtesy: http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/magpies.html)
- Adult magpie pairs stay together year-round and for life unless one dies, in which case the remaining magpie finds another mate.
- The breeding season for magpies is from late March to early July.
- The female incubates six or seven eggs for 16 to 18 days. The male feeds the female throughout incubation.
- Young fly three to four weeks after hatching, feed with adults for about two months, and then fly off to join other juvenile magpies.
- Magpies form loose flocks throughout the year; winter congregations may include several hundred individuals.
Understanding that crows are common and seen everywhere almost all year, what differentiates Alberta’s winter crows is the apparent satisfaction they take in owning the skies. Unlike magpies, crows are graceful fliers and having the skies devoid of other large birds seems to elicit a sense of satisfaction to the common crow. Flying almost effortlessly, we spotted several pairs while walking in the Edmonton River Valley. Towering high above the trees and seeming to enjoy an otherwise bird-free sky, their graceful flights captivate a winter bird watcher starved for action.
Livening up an otherwise bleak and desolate tree, crows dominate the landscape during winter’s short days
Wondering how crows stay warm in winter, the simple answer is their metabolism allows their body temperature to hover at 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40 C) as opposed to humans (98.6 Fahrenheit, 37 C). They also have helpers like an incredible circulatory system to help their legs cope with cold, feathers coated in oil for waterproofing and snowproofing as well as a different kind of white fat, a high energy fuel used to power the birds warming process, shivering. For an excellent and complete explanation, visit this page.
Thinking chickadees are the only small birds crazy enough to stick around for an Alberta winter, Diane and I were all set to come in from the cold and have some warm cocoa when we heard faint little chirps different from the chickadees. Upon closer inspection, we spotted what appeared to be sparrows taking shelter in a neighbor’s bird feeder. Understanding there are about million breeds of sparrow, I spent some time trying to match the pictures to a specific sub-species but gave up after a while. Remembering that we are not seasoned bird-watchers (although we plan on learning a lot more once we live in Malaysia), please comment if you recognize the species seen below
While harder to spot than magpies, crows and chickadees, several types of woodpeckers live in Alberta and stay all year. We’ve only spotted them off trails in the city’s wooded parks so that’s where we searched. Listening diligently, we eventually heard the little knocking sound and was able to snap one decent photo, albeit from far away
Quoting from Allaboutbirds.org, the following is a quick summary of the hairy woodpecker.
The larger of two look alikes, the Hairy Woodpecker is a small but powerful bird that forages along trunks and main branches of large trees. It wields a much longer bill than the Downy Woodpecker’s almost thornlike bill. Hairy Woodpeckers have a somewhat soldierly look, with their erect, straight-backed posture on tree trunks and their cleanly striped heads. Look for them at backyard suet or sunflower feeders, and listen for them whinnying from woodlots, parks, and forests.
Unable to clarify which of the six types of woodpeckers was the little guy we photographed, I searched internet pictures and matched up the correct one. Because I feel bad we couldn’t show you a better picture, I’ll cheat once and offer the following close up photo (not taken by us).
Apologizing for the lack of spectacular, this completes our First (and last) expedition to the cold streets and parks of Northern and central Alberta during the frigid winter months. Needing an excuse to get some exercise anyway, we thoroughly enjoyed our mission but decided that the discomfort we experienced in the sweltering heat of Borneo’s rainforest was less annoying than frostbite. Also applying this theory to our Amazonian jungle trip in Ecuador, we respectfully leave the pleasure of cold weather bird watching to our friends residing in Canada.
Looking forward to the end of my days as a house husband, it’s time to devote much of the upcoming weeks to selling the rest of our crap, figuring out the finances of living without a salary for 40+ years and enjoying the second half of life. Intending to learn a lot more about birding, we hope you visit the blogs we mentioned if you love birds as much as we do and please feel free to recommend more sites with similar interests. But please don’t ask us to don the mittens, parkas and toques that we left in Canada. Oh yeah, cute white hares also seem content in the arctic chill. Better them than us.
Wanted: Great places in Malaysia to practice bird watching for newly retired amateur photographers with expat blogs; Please share any personal experiences
Coming next week:
** Strange Numerical Patterns: Seven years, seven addresses, 14 years of marriage
** Reiterating the power of the app to sell crap: OfferUp.com; An Update