Canada: Jasper NP

It felt good to leave the country. Even if it was just a 2-hour non-stop flight to our northern neighbor, Canada. I had to show someone my passport, so it counts. We flew into Calgary, picked up a Dodge Caravan (which would be our lodging for the week), then pretty much beelined it up to Jasper National Park.

The Rocky Mountains here are so close, so big, and so scenic. The scale is mind-blowing.

Even the Safeway parking lot is scenic.

Despite being surrounded by mountains, it never felt very remote. If I had to do it all over again I would probably fly in on a Sunday, because the first day was also the most stressful. The park was packed, and a normally reservable 800-site campground was closed this year for maintenance, which pushed excess campers into the first-come-first-served sites (the worst system).

Door buttons are magic

We ended up driving 2+ hours passing too many full campgrounds before finding an open site at Kerkeslin Campground. Farther from Jasper than I’d have liked, but it was such a relief to find something we signed up for two nights.

Ranger Raven on patrol

Driving back and forth turned out to be okay though because returning after dinner one evening we pulled over at Athabasca Pass Lookout where I saw my first life bird of the trip, Black Swifts!

Such an unexpected surprise (and the best stress-reliever).

As it turns out, Black Swifts love drama. Later on during the trip on a very crowded hike in Johnston Canyon just around the corner of this waterfall…

I found a nesting Black Swift! Insanity! I made sure to tell everyone on the trail around me how special this bird is.

Better than a bat.

Back in Jasper, Tomas tested his luck mountain biking with bears while I went birding. One of the birds that sparked the trip was a Northern Hawk Owl seen by my friend Kayla on her trip the year prior, but I wasn’t that lucky. I did find one of my other targets pretty easily at a picnic pullout near Medicine Lake, a Tennessee Warbler.

They look kind of like a grayer Orange-crowned Warbler and they have a sharp-trilly song. This area is also where I got my first good looks at Black Bears by the side of the road. Both big ones and little ones.

Other highlights here were nesting Bald Eagles, Clay-colored Sparrows, and multiple singing White-throated Sparrows. Still just as sneaky as when I see them in winter, but hearing them vocalize was pretty cool.

I focused on reports of Boreal Chickadees but I couldn’t find these or much else the rest of the day. It was challenging not knowing the area super well. But that’s part of the fun, right? One of the chickadee reports led me to the Valley of the Five Lakes Trail that was incredibly scenic.

The lake waters were so clear I could see a Common Goldeneye feeding on the bottom.

And she had the cutest little chicks.

Then that evening I went for a walk around the campground and found my first Boreal Chickadee! It was secretive and carrying food which explains why they were so hard to find if they’re nesting.

The next day was bright and beautiful. It was the perfect day to ride the Jasper Sky Tram up to Whistlers mountain top.

If there was a chance to find a White-tailed Ptarmigan in Canada, this was it. We were the first in the tram, and the first to the summit, but sadly there were no ptarmigan to greet us.

The stunning views and best poutine of the trip at the Summit Restaurant made up for any heartbreak.

Drowning my tears in gravy.

And since we’d taken the tram, we had energy for another 9.3 km hike at Wilcox Pass.

Here we saw singing Brewer’s Sparrows, Horned Lark, American Pipit, and a cooperative pair of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch.

And an amazing view of Athabasca Glacier and valley below from the hike summit.

Tweets and chirps, eh?

Audrey

A Better Pelagic

Scarier than Halloween is pelagic birding. Ever since my first traumatic experience I’ve wanted to try again. Crazy, I know but Albatross are that good. It had been too long since I’d seen them and I wanted a better boat experience. I remember saying “I’d do it again in a heartbeat” but those are the things you say when you’re safe on dry land.

I needed timing, weather, and my nerves all to align. When I saw my friend Eric’s post asking if anyone wanted to join him this October for “10 hours of waves and lifers,” I was so scared because I knew I was going to go for it.

I was better prepared this time. I obsessively checked the weather, bought new rain gear, cut out coffee and alcohol, ate bland food for a week, stocked up on saltines, and loaded up on medication. This time I remember my boots. And lucky for me at the last minute my friend Sarah joined for the trip (not the boat part) and she provided exceptional moral support. “Is it too late to back out?” “Yes, put your shoes on and go.” Damn.

Sarah dropped us off early morning and we set off. The real test began once the boat passed the jetty. No turning back now. I nervously held my breath as we spotted the first Sooty Shearwaters.



I gripped the seat as while we looked at tiny Marbled Murrelets.

And Rhinocerous Auklets that I didn’t get great photos of.

I sipped water and saltines as we saw Red-necked Phalarope, Common Murre, and our first Parasitic Jaeger. No photos of that one either sadly, but I did manage one of a Pomarine Jaeger at our first chum stop.

Here we also saw strikingly patterned Buller’s Shearwater.

And Pink-footed Shearwater.

Its best bits

Our first Northern Fulmar.

And as I glared at the dude eating veggi-chips next to me (food smells are tough), I managed to hold it together for Black-footed Albatross!

Yeah buddy, these are amazing birds. They soared gracefully up, over, and around us.

I loved watching them take off, running along the water’s surface.

So good.

The sea swells were 8ft this time (vs. 11ft the first time), still choppy, and not great for keeping composure. See a short video here. This was Eric’s first pelagic and he said he didn’t realize how hard it would be just to stand up. Let alone use binoculars, cameras, and look at birds. But we managed okay.

I appreciated the South Polar Skua coming in to score some food.

I was even able to enjoy the whale sighting this time. About 40 miles offshore we witnessed a humpback whale breaching over and over again and slapping its flippers on the water surface (pectoral fin slapping).


This sort of stuff doesn’t happen in real life. It was breathtaking. The guess on the boat was that this was a young whale making noise to locate its pod. Such a sweet whale. I second Jen’s recommendation to check out Sonic Sea on Vimeo (free with code SONICSEE) about how important sound is to these magnificent underwater creatures.

Other interesting highlights were the American Pipit that almost made landfall on the boat, apparently exhausted along its migration. And one Northern Fulmar that actually did land on the boat, then proceeded to projectile vomit on the deck. That’s the bird’s effective defense mechanism. I wish I’d gotten a photo of the ordeal, but I was concentrating on keeping myself from getting sick.

Stand back or I’ll puke on you

It almost worked. But at the last stop, while we watched for Short-tailed Shearwaters I finally succumbed to the sickness. Unlike last time though, I felt mostly better after and could still look at birds.

One of those might be Short-tailed

I picked up three lifers on the trip, Short-tailed Shearwater, Long-tailed Jaeger, and Leach’s Storm-Petrel. The petrels were tough to see, let alone photograph.

One of the petrels

On the return trip, unlike last time when I was freezing and pummeled by waves, this time it was smooth sailing. We’d avoided the roughest seas, saw albatross, a breaching whale, and I didn’t die? I call that a win.

So happy to see that bridge

This was a much better pelagic than last time.

I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Trick or tweets,

Audrey

Ptarmigan again again

When I see White-tailed Ptarmigan reports on eBird I get excited about the possibilities. I can’t help it. I’m a sucker. Someone, somewhere saw this bird. Reporters even provide tips: “Listen as you look. Increase your odds.” Noted. My ears are open.

I’ve done the math. Five attempts in two years equals zero ptarmigan. Simple as that. Math says they don’t exist. But this time would be different. I had three days off, the weather looked promising, and there was a sighting only a couple of days prior. Challenge accepted.

Hello again my friend

It makes sense to start where the last bird was reported so I started in Paradise and hiked the Skyline Trail. I saw lots of Golden-crowned Sparrows and Savannah Sparrows.

Pretty tree-toppers. And the occasional fly-by flock of Horned Lark.

When the winds picked up I noticed a pair of hawks circling above in the sky.

I originally thought Cooper’s based on size, but now I think  Sharp-shinned Hawk because of the shorter head projection beyond the wings at the bend in the wrists.

But I am open to suggestions. Either way they put on quite the show.

Then an unmistakable Prairie Falcon flew by.

Another cool sighting was a huge flock of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch.

So many that my report of at least 75 was flagged in eBird for a high number.

All this, but still no ptarmigan. Things weren’t different. No ptarm-ptarm, and too many tourists. Paradise had turned into my own personal hell and I needed a change of scenery.

A slight exaggeration

So the next day I drove an hour and a half farther north to Sunrise, the highest point in the park that can be reached by vehicle. This seemed promising. And just 20 minutes below Sunrise is White River Campground.

Risky, but worth it. Such a pretty place, and the white noise of the river next to the sites mostly drowned out noisy campers. Early morning I headed to the top.

I stopped in the visitor center to chat with a ranger about ptarmigan sightings and such, but it had been over a month since one was last reported here.

According to the trail log, I had as good a chance of seeing a ptarmigan as finding Nemo. That sounded about right. My best bet was the Fremont Lookout Trail.

I’d hate to hike this trail in the snow. So steep. I made it to the fire lookout to find a group of hikers had camped up there. So much for birds.

Mountain goats also camped nearby.

I found a Rock Wren near the top (that came up on eBird as rare for some reason).

And on the way back, pika! My favorite mammal.

Other birds I passed along the way included Yellow-rumped Warbler, Townsend’s Solitaire, Varied Thrush, American Pipit, Grey Jay, Common Raven.

And fat, happy squirrels were plentiful.

Golden-mantled Squirrel

On the return hike I took a detour along the Burroughs Mountain Trail where I saw a second herd of mountain goats and the most cooperative pika ever that made my day.

Though I hadn’t found ptarmigan, Sunrise felt new and refreshing.

A new perspective

Of course I was tired and sore from hiking two days, but I felt ready to tackle Paradise again. I returned to Cougar Rock Campground and hung out with Steller’s Jays until morning when it was time to give it another go. To save time I started in the dark with a headlamp. Honestly, I’ve done it so many times I could probably do it blind-folded. But then I would have smooshed the Daddy Long-legs.

I made it to Panorama Point before sunrise, and almost pooped my pants when I saw a chicken at the top. But it turned out to be a ptarmigan in a Sooty Grouse costume.

So close. I searched a little while longer before accepting my nemesis bird had gotten away again. After three days of looking, I felt I’d given it a solid effort. I’m left still excited for the possibilities.

Since returning I’ve crunched the numbers and unless I’m reading them wrong, in the past few years reports of White-tailed Ptarmigan at Mt. Rainier have gone way down. Does this mean there are fewer birds? Or fewer birders reporting them. Of course this isn’t enough data to draw any real conclusions. I’d love to see population census data from a controlled study on Mt Rainier.

Birds reported in 2013: 56 2014: 63 2015: 28 2016: 20 2017: 8

From 61 eBird reports: Most birds seen in August (80), the earliest sighting is April, latest is October, more reports from Sunrise than Paradise (36 vs 23), with a combined total of 175 birds. Best eBird photos here, here, and here. Funniest report here.

TLDR: The best bet is go to Sunrise on a Thursday in August at 10:00am, hike the Fremont Lookout trail for 5 hours and you’ll see 2.86 ptarmigan.

Brilliant. I’ll see you there.

Ptweets and chirps,

Audrey