Emily’s birdathon: “The day I became a birder”

Although I have worked in the “bird world” since 2013, I have been reluctant to call myself a “birder”. I’m a conservation biologist who happens to work in the system of avian ecology. I like reptiles and amphibians better anyways… but on June 3, 2018, the Godwit the Wind Birdathon day, that changed!

My past recreational birding trips have always been led by friends, with me being a passive follower. When I found out Birdathon weekend was the same weekend I was in Calgary for a bike trip (nowhere near my teammates), I had to tighten up my binocular straps and figure out how to lead a birding day by myself. My target was mountain species to add to the list of boreal and prairie species being checked off by the other Godwit the Wind-ers. I put a call out to any friends who may be interested in some mountain exploration on the Sunday and assembled a posse of 4 non-birders for a scrambling/birding excursion up Mount Yamnuska (Yichao Chen, an adventuring friend from Yellowknife, and her friends Tara Ersser, Patrick Blancher, Kyle Rentmeister).

We had a fabulous day birding. We left Calgary around 7:00 am and parked at the trailhead in Bow Valley Provincial Park, 45 minutes west of Calgary. The 6.5 km trail up and over Yamnuska summit took us up 545 m of elevation, leading us to first pass through subalpine forests filled with white-throated sparrows, Swainson’s thrushes and dark-eyed juncos. This first part of the walk was filled with lots of stopping and starting as I taught the crew about bird song identification and breeding behaviours in birds. As we approached the treeline, we mulled over a potential mountain chickadee call, and with Yichao’s help, we confirmed it with visual ID!

As we climbed above the treeline, the bird activity slowed down, and we hiked a bit faster. From the edge of the forest, I heard a Townsend’s solitaire singing, which was a nice surprise. As we reached the summit, we found flocks of violet-green swallows foraging around the cliff tops and ravens playing in the wind. At our lunch stop, our crew and all the other hikers lunching started pointing out birds to us, and Patrick from our group pointed to something that “looked like just a sparrow or something”. Well, if it’s on top of a mountain, its gotta be a cool one, and it ended up being a gray-crowned rosy finch! On the hike down, after some super fun skree-skiing, we ran into a pacific-slope flycatcher singing over a stream in a lush patch of higher elevation forest.

Yamnuska hiking/birding crew (left to right): Patrick Blancher, Tara Ersser, Kyle Rentmeister, Yichao Chen and Emily Upham-Mills.

The crew dropped me in Calgary after the hike and I headed to a birding hotspot in in the southwest of the city called Weaselhead Flats, recommended to me by Connor. This is where my new-found identity as a birder fully bloomed! I cycled around on my bike and birded hard in the late afternoon heat and found Calliope hummingbird, rufous hummingbird (lifer!), grey catbird and lots of veery singing (I haven’t heard those since my Ontario days). And I had so much fun even though I was solo! I chatted up some fellow birders en route to confirm some IDs and get the scoop on hummingbird hangouts. My phone had died by then, from excessive eBirding and Sibley App-ing, and it made the experience all that much better. No phone, no internet, no social media. Just the trails, the birds, the bike and me.

Although I had a blast birding and hiking a mountain, a huge highlight was the education part of my day. My hiking buddies were keen learners and a big help in IDing and locating birds. All new to birding, but I think they are hooked.

On the drive back to Edmonton that night I caught a few more species incidentally, which brought my total species count to 52.

Way to go Godwit the Winds!

Post and photos by: Emily Upham-Mills

Species Count
American Coot 16
American Crow 10
American Goldfinch 6
American Robin 25
American Wigeon 1
Bald Eagle 1
Black-billed Magpie 8
Black-capped Chickadee 2
Brown-headed Cowbird 10
Buteo sp. 2
Calliope Hummingbird 1
Canada Goose 10
Cedar Waxwing 4
chickadee sp. 1
Chipping Sparrow 7
Clark’s Nutcracker 1
Clay-colored Sparrow 2
Cliff Swallow 3
Common Raven 2
Dark-eyed Junco 3
Dusky Flycatcher 2
Franklin’s Gull 45
Gray Catbird 2
Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch 2
House Sparrow 10
House Wren 4
Killdeer 4
Least Flycatcher 5
Lesser Scaup 8
Mallard 2
Mountain Chickadee 3
Northern Flicker 1
Ovenbird 1
Pacific-slope Flycatcher 1
Red-breasted Nuthatch 1
Red-eyed Vireo 1
Red-winged Blackbird 3
Ring-billed Gull 4
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 5
Rufous Hummingbird 1
Sharp-shinned/Cooper’s Hawk 1
Swainson’s Thrush 2
Townsend’s Solitaire 1
Tree Swallow 7
Veery 6
Vesper Sparrow 2
Violet-green Swallow 10
Warbling Vireo 3
Western Tanager 1
White-throated Sparrow 6
Yellow Warbler 4
Yellow-headed Blackbird 1
Yellow-rumped Warbler 4





In Bog We Rust: How to catch blackbirds on a birdathon

For this year’s Great Canadian Birdathon we were, somewhat by design, in the field. Much like last year around the same time Jay Wright and I were on Rusty duty. For a week and a half, we were out attempting to catch rusty blackbirds at the McClelland Lake Study Site.

Pink Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium acaule)

Canadian Toad (Bufo hemiophrys) hiding in the moss

Background: As part of the Smithsonian’s Migratory Connectivity Project, members of the International Rusty Blackbird Working Group have been deploying archival GPS tags on Rusties since 2015 at sites in Alaska, Alberta, and New Hampshire.  These tags allow us to track migration routes and timing, and to locate wintering grounds for different breeding populations, but the birds must be recaptured the following year to retrieve the GPS data.  At the McClelland Lake breeding site in northern Alberta, we first deployed tags in 2015 and recovered two of these tags in 2016.  These tags showed similar flight paths and wintering ground sites, so we deployed another round of tags in 2017 to confirm the migratory connectivity of the Alberta population.  This year we returned to the site to attempt to find and recapture some of these tagged birds. This is where we were on June 3rd during the Great Canadian Birdathon!

Jeeves getting a PinPoint GPS tag in 2017

Cross-checking colour band combinations so we know who to catch again


We left our campsite early and headed off into the Treed Fen where the Rusty Blackbirds breed. On the way we passed through upland Jack Pine forest where we heard Western Tanager, Western Wood-Pewee and Olive-sided Flycatcher; Trembling Aspen copses, where we encountered Least flycatcher, Swainson’s Thrush and Red-eyed Vireos; and every type of burnt forest, where we saw Black-backed Woodpecker, Orange-crowned Warbler and Mountain Bluebird.  Once we reached the fen we suited up with waders and gear and headed to our nest searching locations. We already knew where two nest locations were. Jeeves and Arthur had both come back to nest within a square kilometer of their nests last year.  Wooster and Guinevere, however, had yet to be relocated.  

To catch the returning Rusty Blackbirds we first had to find their nests. At this time of year, they should mostly have been feeding chicks, so we thought that they’d be easier to both find and catch. We were right about at least the finding part. We found four nests that day, one of which was from a female who we had banded the year before. Unfortunately, she didn’t have a PinPoint GPS tag so we weren’t any closer to reaching our goal. While looking for nests we noticed some heavy swallow migration as large numbers of Bank, Tree, Cliff and Barns flew low over the black spruce. While they picked off uppity gnats the Cliffs sang their rattling and sputtery songs.

Jeeves’ nest with 5 chicks nearly ready to fledge

Wandering along a fresh seismic through our study site


As we weren’t finding any new colour banded birds we decided to head out to the edge of the fen where moss meets lake. Many of the Rusties come out to feed here on the large hatches of dragonflies that erupt in early June. Along the shore we saw a handful of ducks, shorebirds, gulls and terns. Exoskeletons from dragonflies first taking flight littered the reeds. In some patches you could easily count over a hundred skeletons in a single square meter of sedge. Blackbirds were coming out in small flocks to feed still, but we couldn’t spot any banded birds so we headed back to camp.

A small segment of the many dragonfly exoskeletons after an emergence along McClelland Lake

Burns featured prominently in our travel to and from the fen

Our new route back to the trailer was probably a mistake. From years of blowdown since the last fire, all of the trails that seemed open on satellite imagery were now covered in fallen pine. White-throated Sparrows seemed to be the only birds still singing in the hot afternoon sun, so our trip back was both slow and uneventful.

Back from the fen after a long day we sat down for a pasta dinner and rested up for another week of Rusty work. We didn’t know then, but over the next several days we would manage to capture both Jeeves and Arthur, who brought back two functional tags detailing their annual travels.

Jeeves returned in good health with a record of his year on the GPS tag

Arthur (center), Jay (left) and Jeremiah (right) were all excited after tag removal

Post and photos by: Jeremiah Kennedy and Jay Wright