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

The Great Boreal Owl Adventure

In February 2018, the Bayne lab had several crews scattered over northern Alberta deploying autonomous recording units (ARUs) to detect owls, specifically Boreal Owls, for Jeremiah Kennedy’s MSc project. ARUs were deployed in a grid of 16, over a 2.4km2 area in places with historical Boreal Owl detections. Due to winter accessibility and logging activity, an ARU grid needed to be moved. The field crew in northwest Alberta (Connor Charchuk, Lauren Law, Ben Paulsen, and myself) decided to do evening playbacks for Boreal Owls to best locate a new place to deploy a grid. Connor highlighted a couple areas he thought we should check out and around 8pm, we set out to start our search.

The playback protocol consisted of three parts: (1) Listen for 2min, (2) Play the song of the Boreal Owl for 2min, (3) Listen for 2min. We tried not to get our expectations up for finding a Boreal Owl, as most owl playback attempts are not successful. We turned off Highway 88 north of Red Earth Creek and headed west down a side road. A kilometer in, we started our search. The plan was to try a playback at each kilometer. The first playback was unsuccessful, but we expected most to be. The second stop was silent for the first two phases, and in the final seconds of the post-playback listening, Connor and I looked at each other with wonderment in our eyes. “Did you hear that?” he asked. “Yeah, what was that?” I replied. We both heard a soft, single call in the far distance, not the typical sound an owl makes. Optimistically, we thought it could be the contact call of a Boreal Owl responding to our playback. “Let’s go check this out” I suggested, and so we walked down the road to where we thought the call had come from. “Alright, play the song again” Connor prompted. Connor played the call from his phone and Ben remarked, “Oh look! A bat just flew overhead!” (I can’t make this stuff up). Ben. This is northern Alberta in February. There are no bats. WAIT! THERE ARE NO BATS! WHAT COULD THAT HAVE BEEN?! Ben shone his flashlight on a group of trees on the other side of the road to where he thought the creature flew to. “THERE IT IS! OVER THERE! SHINE YOUR LIGHT OVER THERE!” Connor exclaimed. There it was. A Boreal Owl perched in a tree no more than 20 feet away!

Figure 1. Boreal Owl in aspen tree, inspecting the singing owl coming from our playback. Photo: Natasha Annich.

We jumped and celebrated in excitement! High-fives, hugs, and shouts of joy were abound. The Boreal Owl is one of the boreal forest’s most elusive critters. The bird has a characteristic staccato song that is heard far more frequently than the owl is ever seen, but even then, it can be a challenge to find. Boreal Owls are poorly understood, and most banding records are sparse and incidental. They may follow migratory patterns of Northern Saw-whet Owls, but no one knows for sure. Anyway, back to the story. We watched this owl for several minutes, and it even swooped back across the road nearly taking out my eye on the way – yes, I literally had to duck out of the way! Then it perched in a patch of black spruce and with four flashlights and my iPhone, we managed to snap a somewhat identifiable photo of it:

Figure 2. Boreal Owl in black spruce, inspecting the singing owl coming from our playback. Photo: Natasha Annich.

We decided we had pestered the bird long enough, and got back in the truck. Connor then realized he had forgotten to take a GPS point, so got back out of the truck to go mark the waypoint. He then came running back, “she’s calling! Come have a listen!” So, we all got back out to listen to her contact calls – something none of us had ever heard before. Connor managed to record the call the owl was making and while we were all listening attentively, we heard another owl singing off in the distance in response! We concluded that the bird we were watching must have been the female, and the male was off in the distance. It was the perfect spot to build a grid for Jeremiah’s MSc project! Stay tuned to find out what he found.


Smart system for detecting owls: Automated technology identifies calls of Barred Owls, Boreal Owls, and Great Horned Owls


An autonomous recording unit deployed in the field to record owl calls.

PhD student Julia Shonfield in Erin Bayne’s lab at the University of Alberta has developed an automated system for detecting owl calls, eliminating the need for researchers to spend nights in the field to survey owls. This new approach combines using audio recorders with a software program that can detect owl calls, called recognizers, and is similarly accurate and far more efficient than other, more traditional methods.

For more details of this work, see the university press release here:

To hear Julia Shonfield talk about owls and her research, check out a clip of a radio interview on the local CBC Edmonton station: http://www.cbc.ca/listen/shows/radio-active/segment/15537010

“Utility of automated species recognition for acoustic monitoring of owls” by Julia Shonfield, Sarah Heemskerk, and Erin M. Bayne was published in the March 2018 issue of the Journal of Raptor Research, available at https://doi.org/10.3356/JRR-17-52.1.

Field Fun Friday

With the spring breeding season right around the corner, here is a photo of three Ferruginous Hawk chicks during a routine nest check last summer. Nick Parayko is studying these amazing raptors, in southern Alberta, for his Master’s project under Dr. Erin Bayne. Looks like fun!

Photo by: Nick Parayko




Male red squirrels kill other squirrels’ offspring to increase their own chances of having kids

I was walking in the Yukon one evening when I heard a commotion in the forest. At the time, I was working on my PhD under the supervision of Stan Boutin at the University of Alberta as part of the Kluane Red Squirrel Project. This meant that I spent a lot of time hiking on my study area monitoring the red squirrels that I was working with. It is common to hear squirrels calling because they are pretty chatty, but this commotion was different: this squirrel was very upset.

I walked quickly towards the calls, arriving to find a female squirrel yelling at her male next-door neighbor, who had intruded onto her territory. This is unusual, as squirrels live solitary lives and are usually respectful of each other’s boundaries. However, as I watched the male’s intentions soon became clear because within seconds of my arrival the male killed one of the female’s pups. I realized that I had just witnessed infanticide.


Infanticide is when an adult kills the young of their own species. I later found a second dead pup from the same litter, whose wounds were consistent with the infanticide that I had watched. The whole litter eventually died and their mother, the female I had seen yelling at the male, later had a second litter that summer. I was able to show using genetics that the male who killed the pup was not the father of any of the pups in the first litter, but that he was the father of all of the pups in her second litter.

This is an example of sexually-selected infanticide: this is when a male kills another male’s offspring in order to increase the chances that he’ll be able to father kids of his own when the female breeds again. I was fascinated by this behaviour, so I decided to explore it in more detail in our paper that was published today in the journal Ecology. I found evidence that this behaviour is linked to fluctuations in white spruce cones, the main food that red squirrels eat.

My colleagues previously showed that red squirrels can predict the future cone availability. The cones mature in autumn and at that time they can be harvested by the squirrels to be stored in a cache on their territory called a midden. Squirrel pups strike out on their own in the fall and during a bumper crop, called a mast year, they have a really good chance of surviving the winter because there are lots of cones for them to harvest and cache. Very few pups are able to store enough food in non-mast years so few of them will survive. Having access to cones is really key for pups to survive.


Squirrels are strategic and they can predict the future cone availability. During a mast year, the females will have more than one litter because they know that their pups will have access to cones once the fall arrives, and thus the pups will have a good chance of surviving. The females respond to masts in this way even though they breed in the spring but the cones aren’t available until autumn. In contrast, during non-mast years they will typically have only one litter.

I showed that litters die more frequently during mast years, suggesting that infanticide is more common during mast years. When litters die, their mother is more likely to have a second litter and will breed again sooner than if her litter had survived. So male red squirrels commit infanticide in mast years because the females will have that second litter, giving the males a second chance at fatherhood.



Post and photos by: Jess Haines