March 2002

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March is a time of change. Despite its reputation as the month with the highest snowfall, it also signals the return of some of our migratory birds. After coming in like a lion, the temperatures are now beginning to rise and the days are stretching out. During March, nature begins an annual process of renewal with new life beginning to arrive and the hardiest birds starting to nest.

Returning Eagles

Golden eagles have been passing high above the front ranges for millennia. Peter Sherrington, a naturalist from Calgary, discovered the true extent of this migration In1992. Each spring and fall, more than 6,000 (perhaps as many as 8,000) golden eagles pass overhead, but for many years they passed without anyone noticing. Golden eagles don't fly like geese in low elevation flocks which announce their presence with a loud honk. Eagles fly individually or in small groups at elevations in excess of 3,000 metres (10,000 feet). March is the peak month for the spring migration and a great time to scan the summit ridges along the Front Ranges, especially near Hay Meadows, Ptarmigan Cirque and Highwood Pass in Kananaskis Country, Cougar Creek and Mount Lady Macdonald in Canmore, and Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park.

Early Season Nesters

March is great for spotting some of the early season nesters, in particular gray jays, magpies, great-horned owls and even eagles. Itís also a great time for auditory birding as many previously quiet birds begin singing as part of their mating display. Many owls are already on the nest, and as a group are becoming more vocal. Alberta's provincial bird, the great-horned owl is one of the earliest nesters. Because there is little foliage to hide the nests in March, you may be able to see their ear tufts peaking out from the top of an abandoned raven's nest.  Other early nesters include ravens, gray jays and magpies, many of which are now beginning to lay eggs.

Owl's Hooting

March and April are the best months to hear, and sometimes spot owls. They begin to call early in March, signaling the start of their annual courtship. While most owls are nocturnal, the northern hawk owl is active during the daytime. Itís usually spotted adjacent to open fields where they hunt for small mammals. The northern saw-whet owl can also be seen occasionally during daylight hours. Owls have large sensitive eyes and ears that are slightly offset from one another, allowing them to accurately locate sounds and hunt in total darkness. The great horned owl, Albertaís provincial bird, is very vocal and often easily approached. Their low hooting call is easily recognized and adds an eerie calmness to a cold winterís night. The boreal owl is highly sought after by birders, but is more often heard than spotted. Their call is a high pitched, trilling hoo-oo-oo. I've enjoyed a few evenings in the Emerald Lake hot tub while listening to a distant boreal owl (ohh, birding at its finest). To hear owls, you must head out late at night.