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