Working in central Alberta, east of Calgary, in May 2017. It is tough to spot a Boreal Chorus Frog, despite how easy it is to hear them, because they are small and tend to hide when potential predators are near. This brave little frog made eye contact with Cam Nordell a few feet away and continued to sing.
Beaver dams make excellent bridges. Here is Gabe Schepens carefully crossing an impressive beaver dam in Kluane, Yukon, on the way to retrieve a trail camera from the other side. We often see bear, wolf, coyote, and lynx tracks on top of dams as well. Nobody wants to go all the way around.
This is a Critically Endangered species whose entire worldwide population was reduced to 21 wild and 2 captive birds in 1941. Since then, Whooping Cranes have made a slow steady recovery both in Alberta’s wild breeding population in Wood Buffalo National Park, and in a few reintroduced populations breeding in the United States. As of 2015 there were 603 whoopers worldwide, including 279 that migrate between northern Alberta and wintering grounds in Texas.
Masters student Sean Konkolics uses a stake and string to form a circular sampling plot at the beautiful Ya Ha Tinda Ranch in western Alberta. Sean is counting fecal pellet groups to estimate habitat use by ungulate species such as elk, whitetail deer, mule deer and horses. Biannual long-term sampling such as this helps scientists track the changes in space use and relative densities of animals over time. Sean described this as a “turdtastic” day!
Two Canada lynx kittens from a family of five captured on a remote camera in Kluane, Yukon Territory last summer. When food is abundant, lynx have big families, like this one. When food is not abundant, females have fewer kittens or may forego having kittens altogether. Kittens stay in their mother’s den for several weeks after birth in May. In the peak of the summer, they begin to explore the world outside their den. This camera captured images of the family on one of its first trips out of the den.
Females will soon be establishing new dens and having new litters of kittens in Kluane. Food is abundant for lynx in the study area, and researchers expect big families again this year.
This is the time of year to get outdoors and listen for owls calling. From mid-March to early May is owl breeding season in northern Alberta, so they’re actively calling to defend their territories. In previous years, I would be out right now doing owl surveys for my PhD research, but this year I’m stuck in my office trying to finish writing my thesis. You may not have seen very many owls, but they are out there, and you’re far more likely to hear them than you are to see them. Owl species have easily recognized calls, and learning them is pretty easy because they are so distinctive. So for all of you that are interested in learning owl calls or heard one recently and want to find out what species it is, here is an easy guide to owl calls! Below are details for species found in northern Alberta with clips from recordings I’ve collected during my PhD research over the past few spring seasons.
For best listening of these clips use headphones and increase the volume if need be, some clips are more faint than others.
Great horned owl
You all know this one! This is probably the most typical sounding owl call. It consists of 4-5 hoots in a distinct pattern. Both the female and male will call in duets, and they’re relatively easy to tell apart, the female call is a bit higher in frequency (i.e. pitch) than the male. Great horned owls are very common, so you’ve got a good chance of hearing one. They are Alberta’s official bird, a great choice considering they are found everywhere in Alberta and in almost every kind of habitat. In the first clip you can here a female Great horned owl calling very close, and in the second clip you can hear a male and female duet:
Great horned owl female:
Great horned owl male and female calling in a duet:
Barred owls will also call in duets, though it’s harder to distinguish the male and female calls of this species. Their typical territorial call is the two-phrased hoot, commonly referred to by its mnemonic: “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all?”
Have a listen to this clip and see if you recognize this call:
Barred owl two-phrased hoot:
Another call that can be often by heard is the ascending hoot, this call has a similar ending as the two-phrased hoot. Here is a clip of what that sounds like:
Barred owl ascending hoot:
Great gray owl
This species of owl has the lowest frequency call of all the owls found in northern Alberta. It consists of several low hoots in fairly rapid succession. Take a listen to this clip of a great gray owl male calling:
Great gray owl male calling (with a boreal owl calling in the background):
The female great gray owl will also give a ‘whoop’ call, this isn’t very commonly heard, but it sounds pretty neat. Here’s a clip of the ‘whoop’ call:
Great gray owl female ‘whoop’ call:
This species tends to call quite consistently. They are generally found in coniferous forest and are relatively common in the boreal forest of northern Alberta. Its call sounds like a trill:
Boreal owl call:
Northern saw-whet owl
The sound of this species call sounds like the backup beep of a truck reversing:
Northern saw-whet owl call:
Northern pygmy owl
This species is more commonly found in the western part of the province in the foothills and mountains, however I have heard them in northeastern Alberta as well. This is Alberta’s smallest owl species. They are active and hunt during the day and can be heard calling during the day as well. This species call is quite similar to the Northern saw-whet owl but with greater spacing between the hoots:
Northern pygmy owl call:
This species’ call is probably the most boring owl call, but it’s exciting to hear them because they are not too common. It gives a series of simple hoots that are fairly widely spaced out:
Julia Shonfield is a PhD student in Erin Bayne’s lab researching the impacts of industrial disturbance on owl habitat use and distribution in relation to oil and gas infrastructure in northeastern Alberta. For her research she conducts owl acoustic surveys and has focused on three of the species mentioned above: great horned owls, barred owls, and boreal owls.
What do -38°C, a spacesuit and a wooden post have to do with songbird research?
I could only hold the camera for a couple seconds before my fingers froze. My field partner, Logan, and I had just snowmobiled a half an hour from our truck parked on an ice road ~80 km south of the Nunavut border, in the tundra of the NWT. We were not actually wearing spacesuits, but our big onesies, snowmobile helmets and steel-toed winter boots made it look like we were. Our task was to collect acoustic recording units (ARUs) deployed by Environment & Climate Change Canada (ECCC). The ARUs were deployed last year when the ice road was open, but started recording in the spring, after birds had arrived. Winter is the only time this northern boreal/tundra transition area is accessible. 100 ARUs, mounted on trees and wooden posts (when there are no trees), span a 400 km south-north transect along the ice road. After retrieval, recordings will be analyzed to identify bird species. This marks the start of a long-term monitoring project to identify and track the northern limits of songbird ranges, a topic of great importance in the face of a changing climate. Students from Dr. Erin Bayne’s lab collaborate with ECCC on songbird research using ARUs.
Collaborators: Samuel Haché (Environment and Climate Change Canada)
Location: Tibbitt to Contwoyto winter road, Northwest Territories
Round-leaved Sundew near Lac La Biche, Alberta for all the carnivore lovers. Bright red color and sugary secretions attract insects to the sundew, where they become trapped and are digested by the plant. Photo: Scott Wilson.