Foam Lake Birding No. 183

No. 183
            The warm summerlike weather has cooled and to the chagrin of many the rains have come.  We had a late spring and now it looks like we are getting a late fall.  As of this writing we finally have had our first frosts but most of the leaves are still on the trees.  Moreover, the skies around here seem to have a constant flow of waterfowl. 
            Although most waterfowl breed locally Sandhill Cranes do not.  They nest further north in bogs and marshes.  Prior to the arrival of Europeans Sandhill Cranes and Whooping Cranes apparently nested throughout the prairies.  Perhaps they will do so again.  At present they are common here only in the spring and fall during their migration to and from their wintering grounds in the southern US and central Mexico. 
            Sand hill Cranes were somewhat scarce until the 1950s when their numbers started to expand.  By the late 1960s a short hunting season (from September 1 to the second Saturday in September) was opened.  Even with new hunting pressure the population has continued to grow and presently the hunting season is open from September 1 to December 31 annually.  In addition, Sandhill Cranes are hunted during the winter in places like Arizona and New Mexico. 
            There are all kinds of derogatory stories out there about the palatability of the Sandhill Crane.  Having eaten a variety of species of goose, duck and grouse and even coots I found that the Sandhill Cranes are the most palatable of the bunch.  However, perception is a powerful force and prejudices die hard. 
            The Sandhill Crane is one of our tallest birds with a mature male standing over four feet high.  Colour varies from a whitish-grey to a dark grey with juveniles being quite brown.  Adults have white chin straps much like Canada Geese and naked red foreheads which has resulted in them being incorrectly called  "wild turkeys" by some people.  In flight the neck is stretched straight out like a goose or duck but much longer.  When flying it flaps its wings with a quick smart distinctive upstroke which could be described as flipped or snapped upwards. 
            There are two subspecies of Sandhill Cranes in Canada, the Lesser and Greater.  The Lesser nests on the Tundra while the Greater nests in bogs and marshes south of the Boreal Forest.  Except for size, the three foot Lesser and four foot Greater are very similar in all respects.  Both are territorial when breeding but band together in large flocks for migration unlike their close relative the Whooping Crane that is territorial all year round. 
            I took this week's photo several weeks ago just north of Foam Lake.  On the way home while driving on highway 310 we had to stop for a doe refusing to move off the road.  While waiting for her to move we noticed some movement in the ditch near the car and saw three fawns standing there looking at us.  Cute.  I tried to get a picture but they were skittish and bounded away into the bush on stiff legs the way only a Mule Deer does.  I tried to get a picture of the doe but all I got was her behind as she disappeared into the bush after her young.  So, this week's photo also includes a Mule Deer's backside.  Enjoy.

Foam Lake Birding No. 182

No. 182
            Several days ago we got a call from a local birder who reported seeing a Great Egret along the Yellowhead Highway just north of Dafoe.  Now my wife and I have seen many Great Egrets over the years that we have traveled the USA but have never seen one in Saskatchewan.  One has a better chance of seeing a Whopping Crane here than a Great Egret even though the egret is common and the crane is endangered.  Anyway we decided to check it out.  Sure enough as we approached the Quill Lake overflow there were actually two Great Egrets in the ditch right along the road.  Unfortunately, we were not able to get any pictures as the road was very busy and stopping along the shoulder would have been unwise.  We did find an approach nearby but the egrets flew to the far side of the slough so we observed them for several minutes with binoculars and then went home. 
            In Canada the Great Egret is common only in the extreme southern tip of Ontario elsewhere it is a straggler.  In the USA and Mexico it is common in coastal and marshy areas. 
            Identifying the Great Egret can be a bit of a problem especially in the southern USA.  There are two other white egrets, the Snowy and Cattle, as well as a white race of the Great Blue Heron and the all white juveniles of the Little Blue Heron and Reddish Egret.  One then has to look at other field marks such as the colour and size of the bill, colour of the legs and feet and size of the bird itself.  In Saskatchewan things are a little easier as there are only two other white herons, the Cattle Egret and Snowy Egret and like the Great Egret both are rare.  Standing over three feet high the Great Egret is the largest with  a massive yellow bill and black legs and feet; the two foot high Snowy has a more delicate and slender all black bill and black legs with bright yellow feet; the Cattle Egret is the smallest of the three with a stubby pinkish bill and light coloured legs and feet.  As with all herons the males and females are the same. 
            The terms "egret and heron" have no scientific rationale and are used in much the same way that the terms "dove and pigeon" are used.  Herons that had feathers suitable for the millinery industry were called egrets after the French word for  feathers "aigrettes".  The rest were simply called herons.  Presently, with a few exceptions, the term "egrets" applies to the white herons and the rest are simply "herons". 
            Over the years there has been confusion as to whether a long necked bird is a crane or heron because they look so much the same.  The easiest way to tell them apart is when they are in flight.  A heron/egret flies with its neck folded back so that the head is tucked into the shoulders while a crane flies with its neck stretched straight out.  Another difference is that herons nest in trees (usually in colonies) while cranes nest in marshes on beds of marsh grasses and cattails. 
            This week's photo of a Great Egret was taken several years ago at the San Elijo Lagoon just north of San Diego, CA.