Foam Lake Birding No. 57

No. 57
Even though fall does not officially arrive until September 22 and in spite of the green trees and the many green crops in the field, the first signs of fall are definitely here. Some crops are ready for harvesting and the first fall birds (Boreal and Arcticnesters) are starting to arrive and can be found in the countryside and in our backyards. In rural areas, I have seen small scattered flocks of Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese. All of these appear to be family groups. The Snow Geese were a complete surprise as I have seen only large flocks in the past. Perhaps these were local nesters. If they were, this would be a highly unusual event as Snow Geese are known to nest only in the high Arctic. In our backyard, I have seen Tennessee Warblers, Redstarts, Water Thrushes, Blue Headed Vireos and Rose Breasted Grosbeaks to date. Finally, our colony of Purple Martins has been absent for over a week now, even though there are other colonies still present in town.
Identifying fall birds is an entirely different experience from that of identifying them in the spring. Most spring birds, males especially, are uniquely coloured in their bright and fresh spring plumages. In the fall, many males molt to drab colours like the females making identification more difficult. Added to that are the juveniles from the current year’s hatch, some of which look like entirely different species altogether. For example, the Boreal Forest has large numbers of Grey Jays (Whisky Jacks) that are Robin sized fluffy grayish white birds that look like over blown Chickadees. The juveniles, however, are all black giving the impression that there are two species of Grey Jays. The point is that identification of fall birds is a real challenge and takes quite a bit of effort. It is a bit like putting together a 2000 piece jig saw puzzle – difficult, but worth it.
As this article will go to print over the Labour Day Weekend, which is the unofficial end of summer and the beginning of fall around here, I felt that one more article about a summer resident was in order. The bird I chose is a spectacular wader found in the plains area of south western Saskatchewan. The Long Billed Curlew is a chicken sized wader that nests far from water in partially grazed grasslands, formerly provided by bison, now by cattle. Within hours of being hatched, the young and mom head out for the nearest body of water. The buff coloured adults have no outstanding field marks, so must be identified by more subtle characteristics. The back and wings are a mottled buff and brown; when the bird raises its wings, the linings are cinnamon colour; the bill is up to nine inches in length (it does vary) and down curved. It definitely is an impressive bird.
Because of intensive agriculture and hunting pressure the Long Billed Curlew more or less disappeared from Saskatchewan, but appears to be making a comeback. Bird surveys show a marked increase in numbers. The first one I saw was in 1995 just off the Trans Canada Highway near Maple Creek. Since then, I have seen them elsewhere in Mexico and the USA. This week’s picture was taken on its wintering grounds in the Batiquitos Lagoon near Carlsbad, CA. This is one bird that just might be spotted by people who spend some time in the Saskatchewan grasslands.