Despite snow, May Species Count worth the outing

The May Species Count has come and gone. And what a weekend it was. This was the time when people across the province counted the birds, insects, flowers, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

The May Species Count has come and gone. And what a weekend it was.

This was the time when people across the province counted the birds, insects, flowers, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

Believe me, not too many flowers were counted. Many people claimed to be looking for snow buntings and thought it was the Christmas Bird Count instead of a spring count.

The weather certainly felt like we should be singing Jingle Bells.

But, I, for one, had an absolutely marvelous weekend of birding despite the fact that I was cold, wet, and muddy and, at times, couldn’t see through my binoculars because everything looked the same colour ­­— white.

Saturday started off with checking a couple of great horned owl nests, where I knew there were owlets. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see the first nest through the sheet of snow coming down. But the second nest had three babies perched up there, happy as clams.

In fact, I was even able to watch one baby eating something. I couldn’t see either the mother or the father owls; they probably had brought in breakfast for the youngsters and were off resting in peace and quiet for a while.

The next really neat bird I got that was totally unexpected was a western meadowlark! And not just one; I saw three of them during the course of the day.

It was a bit odd seeing them in the snow. This bird is very nondescript when seen from the back: just a “little brown job.” But their fronts are spectacular, being bright yellow with a dark black V on their chests.

I laughingly say there are two kinds of meadowlarks; the “stand up” ones and the “squished” ones. When they stand on the tops of fence posts, they either looked like they are crouched down and have been squashed or they are standing upright.

Things seemed to be coming in threes that day. Within the first half hour, I had seen three Wilson’s snipe. I always describe them as “long bill, no necked brown birds.” An apt description. The field guides describe this bird as having a streaked head and back.

It also mentions an orange tail noticeable when in flight. I must admit, I haven’t noticed that orange tail. I guess I’m going to have to look for it. A snipe’s tail is infamous. He uses his tail in his aerial displays. He will fly in high circles and make shallow dives. The dives causes vibrations in the outer tail feathers which produces a winnowing sound. That sound certainly gets my attention, so I’m assuming it works equally well with female snipe.

I could go on and on about this bird or that bird that I saw during the weekend, but I won’t. One thing that many participants mentioned about the count was that they had seen birds doing strange things because of the weather.

Yellowlegs, which are shorebirds, were spotted nowhere near a shoreline; they were out in a field foraging for food.

Usually they are probing the mud along the shore of a pond or slough for aquatic insects, crustaceans, snails, worms and small fish. I don’t think there are many small fish hanging out in a wheat field.

So what were they finding out there to eat?

The most bizarre behaviour I witnessed was exhibited by the eastern kingbird. This is a flycatcher which is sometimes found near water. But they aren’t found in water. I found two kingbirds in two different muddy puddles in the middle of two different roads. And they both didn’t seem to want to move. I stopped the car and waited for them to fly away. Both wouldn’t. I slowly rolled the car closer to them and they still didn’t fly. I finally had to beep the horn at them to make them get out of the way.

When all is said and done, I always find it more interesting to watch what the birds are doing rather than just counting the number of species that I see in a day or a weekend.

Although there is something to be said for the competitive spirit and trying to count more species or to find more “exotic “species than other counters.

However, we can always watch their behaviour while counting them.

Judy Boyd is a naturalist with the Red Deer River Naturalists.

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