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Alberta Big Year


By Ethan Denton

For those amongst us who have yet to see the famed movie, The Big Year, my 2021 would likely make little sense. I spent countless hours driving, waking well before dawn, and hiking many kilometres through varied terrain. I rushed out of family gatherings, paused my work, and skipped a few too many classes, chasing recklessly across the province after whatever avian vagrant materialized. Efforts which – even amongst the hardcore birding community – are fairly intense. Sure, the end goal was to beat the provincial Big Year record of 324 species, but a Big Year is about more than just the numbers, it’s about the memories, the places, the people, and, of course, the birds. Though there are so many great days to pick from, a few moments stand out above the rest. Lying in the sand on the shores of Lake Newell, with Red Knots, Black-bellied Plovers, and Ruddy Turnstones foraging mere metres away was the earliest of these moments. The Knots were particularly interesting to me, their russet undersides and immaculately scalloped backs doing little to belie the fact that these arctic breeders were midway through a harrowing 9,000 kilometre spring migration. Two weeks later, the enthralling performances put forth by boreal breeding warblers entranced myself and my friends, as we tallied over 120 species in two days in the birding mecca of Cold Lake. By the end of May I was cruising at 282 birds, and when I became the fastest person to ever hit 300 Albertan species in a year with my sighting of Black Swifts on June 16th, I was convinced I had a shot at the record.

Apart from painfully missing a Sagebrush Sparrow in my home county, the summer passed relatively quietly until the 26th of July, when reports came in of a pair of Sage Thrashers in the far southeast. As I was without a car at that point, I spent the night in a mall parking lot, waiting to be picked up in the morning by someone equally dedicated. Departing Calgary at 3am, moods were high, albeit a bit sleepy on my part. An hour out from our destination, however, a small flock of grouse burst out from the ditch and our car screeched to a halt. We exchanged looks, each confident that one of the grouse had been different. Sure enough, when we tracked down the flock once more, one stood taller than it’s companions – a female Greater Sage-Grouse! This species is struggling in Canada, and their sparse population makes them very hard to track down. The day didn’t end there. After successfully locating the Thrashers, we met up with another friend in Calgary, and by pure chance the three of us happened upon one of the rarest birds of the year, an adult Least Tern! Only the second occurrence of this tiny tern in Albertan history, and the bird was very accommodating, granting people great views all day.

Hard work through the fall was largely unsuccessful, as I added only a few species. Most of these were clean up species I had missed when they passed through in the Spring, such as Greater White-fronted Goose, or uncommon migrants like Brant and Red-throated Loon. With two months left to go, and the weather turning sour, the total sat at 322 and prospects for findable additions weren’t looking good. Fortunately for me, the birding deities dropped two big rarities close to home within a week of each other, and the additions of Pine Warbler and Eastern Towhee to my list meant I was now tied with the all-time record. The only reasonable thing to do now is sit back and be happy, right? No. Instead, I decided to drive my beat up Nissan down Northern logging roads through driving snow in search of the last possible species, a secretive gamebird of the north called the Willow Ptarmigan. Eventually I found myself following a tip down some logging roads near Grande Prairie, and after following tracks for a few hours, a dart of movement alerted myself and my companion to the presence of three snow white ptarmigan! For a few minutes, freezing fingers and empty stomachs were forgotten as we watched the charismatic little guys, before a passing truck flushed them into the forest. With this final addition to the list, I edged past the previous record of 324, and pushed my all-time Alberta number to 347. Success! Nonetheless, there is little doubt in my mind that as the years wear on and my memory weakens, it will be the sun-kissed hours spent simply observing, photographing, and interacting with the birds that will remain, not the numbers.