Tips for Summer Bird Watching in Alberta

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A graduate and his daughter share their insights as owners of nature’s boutique, Backyard Birds

Three factors convinced John Tollenaar (Biological Sciences Technology – Environmental Sciences ’87) that it was a good idea to open Backyard Birds, a nature boutique in Spruce Grove, Alberta, in May 2021.

First, birdwatching has grown in popularity during the pandemic, when social distancing has caused people to flock to outdoor activities, as evidenced by increased birding data from crowds. Second, a count of streetside nesting boxes revealed high interest in birds in the town of 34,000. And, three, there wasn’t another store within a 25 kilometer radius dedicated to birding.

There was perhaps a fourth factor. Tollenaar, now semi-retired, had spent more than a third of his 28 years working at the Edmonton Valley Zoo in the raptor program. So he knew a lot about what could help his daughter, Alana, who spearheaded the launch of the store.

Its success exceeded the family’s expectations. “Opening day was amazing,” says Tollenaar. “We had queues for hours. My daughter’s screenings nearly doubled… for the first year. Part of the reason could be their approach.

“We don’t just sell feeders, seed and birdbaths,” he says. In addition to supplies, Backyard Birds freely shares its knowledge of area species and how to spot them, nurturing a burgeoning community of birdwatchers who show no signs of heading south. Here are the best tips from daughter and father to help your own interest in birding take off.

You don’t need to spend a lot of money on fancy hardware

You could spend a few hundred dollars on binoculars and cameras and who knows what else, but neither could you.

“I can get you started for five bucks,” Alana says. “I’ll give you a bird feeder wreath [of gelatin and birdseed] that we made by hand in Edmonton. And that’s all you need to start attracting birds, whether you’re in town or in the country.

Staying in town is good

Robin flying to the feeder on a window

You’ll see more if you leave this backyard feeder, but that doesn’t mean you have to venture far. A wooded area within the city limits will do. In the Spruce Grove trail system, note the Tollenaars, some 60 species were spotted in a single week in June.

Best time of day for bird watching

woman walking on a forest path in the morning

Turns out the early bird catches the bird. Jan uses the swallows in their Parkland County acreage as an example. The birds are active in the morning when they catch insects to feed their chicks – “until the time you start to feel that sun, probably around 10 or 11 am. Then the activity begins to decline. They don’t want to expend energy in the heat.

It’s OK to feed in the summer

fill a bird feeder with black sunflower seeds

It’s a myth that birds will become dependent on your feeders, says Alana. They won’t die without you. “Even in the middle of winter, tits only rely on bird feeders for 15% of their diet,” she adds. A year-round diet won’t hurt. “It will just bring you more pleasure.”

What to feed the birds

titmouse eating sunflower seeds

You can get specific species, if you want, says Jan: Hummingbirds prefer a sugar-based nectar solution while a slice of orange hanging from a tree will attract orioles. But “if you’re only growing one seed, grow black oil sunflower seeds and you’ll get a pretty good cross-section: everything from American goldfinches to chickadees to nuthatches.”

Clean the feeders from time to time

empty wooden bird feeder

Between fillings, Jan recommends cleaning the feeders – a job that has become even more important with the recent bird flu. Fill a bucket with a mixture of one gallon of water and half a cup of bleach and use it to scrub wherever the birds land. Rinse with clear water. Plastic tube feeders can be taken apart and washed in the kitchen sink with soap or even in the dishwasher, says Jan.

Best Resources for Bird Watchers

girls using smartphone to identify birds

You may be able to spot a bird, but can you identify it? To help, Alana’s top recommendation is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “They are the number one center for bird research, information, conservation, identification, everything.” The lab is also responsible for Merlin, a free identification application. Alana also loves Birds Canada, a national bird conservation organization.

“I’m old school,” says Jan. “Former students rely on textbooks, the most important being Alberta Birdsby Chris Fisher and John Acorn.

Share your discoveries

binoculars, small notebook and pencil

Researchers are interested in what you see and can use this information to track the health of bird populations around the world. Ebird, another Cornell app, is a casual and convenient way to report your sightings, says Alana. “At the store, my staff and I use eBird every time we go out for a walk.”

If you’re “old school,” you can keep notes and submit them online. “I’ve seen people bring in their birding books and they’re just stuffed with post-its,” says Alana.

There’s also no shortage of citizen science events, she adds, where birders can collect, observe and count species and contribute to a better understanding of bird populations.

Find your own satisfaction

Ruby-throated Hummingbird at Feeder

The joy of bird watching varies from person to person. In some cases, Alana suggests, this will appeal to those who collect species sightings like trinkets, always on the lookout for a missing piece. For others, the satisfaction will be the surprise of what’s happening in their garden, or perhaps the comforting familiarity, when bluebirds return to a reliably filled feeder.

Whichever approach you take, the beauty of the hobby is more than profound. “You can sit on your porch or on your patio and lose track of time, just watching the birds,” says Jan. “I believe it’s the easiest way to connect with nature. And to connect with nature is to connect with your soul.

Five fun birds to spot

baltimore oriole eating a piece of orange

There are over 400 birds known to inhabit Alberta. Here, Jan and Alana pick out some favorites for birders to try and spot in the Edmonton area.

Nuthatch – “They always walk upside down on the tree”, said Alana. “You see them everywhere, but you might not think anything of them until you really notice their behaviors”

Baltimore Oriole – With the Edmonton area being in its northernmost breeding grounds, orioles can be rare, but they are notable for their unique orange color.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird – Be patient with this one, because he is picky. “It’s a seasonal feeder,” says Jan. Get the nectar out around the beginning of May – later, and the hummingbirds might not notice it, and you’ll miss those amazing wings, which beat 53 times per second. “You have to know your timing for some of these birds.”

Rose-breasted Grosbeak – These beautiful birds frequent the Tollenaar acreage in Parkland County. Identify them by the vibrant splash of red on their facades. They are easily attracted to the seeds.

North twinkle – Most of the challenge questions Alana receives are about this type of spike. “I call them the spotted woodpecker,” she says, because of their spotted bellies. Watch for them plucking ants from the ground rather than pecking trees.

Photo by lightstalker/istockphoto.com

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