If you drive from Calgary to Drumheller, Horseshoe Canyon is the first major look you get into the mysterious Badlands. There is now a safe place to turn off the main road and drive to a large parking lot where you can stop and take a leisurely look at the land and some of its inhabitants. My family forgave me for getting them up on their first day of vacation and driving them away from their comfortable hotel in Calgary when we parked: Bluebirds waited to enchant them; Ground squirrels waited to amuse them; and the Badlands waited to intrigue them.
An Eastern Kingbird in the West
When we first emerged from our car, a Kingbird was busily trying to feed two juveniles. The Kingbird was flying out over the edge of the drop-off to catch insects, then flying back to some nearby bushes to meet its demanding young.
As I tried to unpack my camera and get the lens cap off, I realized it was an Eastern Kingbird with its bright white front, not a Western Kingbird which has a yellow front. That made it less frustrating when the birds had almost all left before I finally got a photo.
A Family of Mountain Bluebirds Lands at Our Feet
As soon as I stopped looking at the Kingbirds, I realized I was surrounded by a truly western bird family. Mountain Bluebirds were almost everywhere: perched on the fence, on the shrubs and even on the ground. Although they were primarily grey, they flashed a beautiful blue when the spread their wings and tails to fly and land.
According to my guides, female Mountain Bluebirds have this colouring. Given the large number of similar birds, I suspect many of them were juveniles as well.
I spent some time trying to capture a photo of a bluebird in flight. I didn’t particularly succeed but my eyes took lots of great memory shots.
The Bluebirds preferred to catch insects by perching and watching. They would move their heads to point their eyes in various directions. Finally they would spot something of interest and take off to try to catch it. They hunted from perches in various shrubs, on fence wire and posts, and even for long periods of time from the ground not far from our feet. They certainly were *not* shy of humans!
We never saw one of the all-over-blue male Mountain Bluebirds. I had seen some at this same spot almost 30 years ago, though, and I still remember how vivid the sky blue looked against the strange colours of the clays and shales of the Badlands.
Richardson’s Ground Squirrels Pop Up to Check Us Out
Another creature that was quite comfortable with being close to us was a group of Richardson’s Ground Squirrels. They would pop up out of their burrows and nibble on grasses and plants only a few metres away from us. If you approached gently and didn’t act threatening, they would let you get within a metre (3 feet) of where they fed.
Some had obviously also been hand fed. One, for example, ventured up onto the deck of the souvenir building and actually went inside the store, sniffing and looking around. We didn’t feed them, of course, but we did take photos from very close range.
Familiar Birds In an Unfamiliar Landscape
As we prowled around the look offs, watching the helicopter tour take-off, and admiring the Bluebirds, we also saw some other familiar birds.
A Grey Catbird popped up out of the shrubs to perch on a curb, then dove back in again. At the same time, this Sparrow flew up out of the same area. I’m not sure what kind it is. The reddish cap looks a bit like a Chipping Sparrow or a Tree Sparrow but the face doesn’t look right. I welcome opinions if you wish to leave a comment. (To see the Comment box you probably have to click on the title of this post to open it in its own window.)
A flash of yellow caught my eye zipping in and out of the conifers. I waited patiently and about five minutes later it came back to perch again. I’d be surprised if this isn’t a Yellow Warbler.
And of course there were several of these birds which always look more exotic away from the city lawns.
No Time For Plant-Watching
I noticed that the Fireweed was almost finished blooming, though. The red stalks still add a lot of colour even after the pink blossoms finish.
However, between the “gophers” and the bluebirds, I didn’t have much time to spend examining the rest of the plant life. We had only stopped to admire our first glimpse of the Alberta Badlands. We wanted to push on to see the Hoodoos and the Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller. I’m sure we missed some great plants but our visit was already off to a great start.
Have you visited Horseshoe Canyon in the Alberta Badlands? Did any Bluebirds sing or Ground Squirrels pop up to say Hello? Please share your memories with a comment.