Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

5 unusual birds to watch for this fall around Edmonton (and how to help them migrate)

Cranes, owls, hawks and more

The pandemic is for the birds. It’s no good to us, but lockdowns have helped our avian friends. More of us have paused to appreciate them, as shown by seed and supply sales taking off and soaring numbers of participants in counts and identification seminars.

While we’ve been housebound, birds have been there for us. Or just been there, doing normal bird things – flying, eating, nesting, singing and so on. But it has fascinated and soothed us.

“Birdwatching benefits me in an online learning environment,” says Bianca Huget, a second-year Biological Sciences Technology – Conservation Biology student, and president of NAIT’s biological sciences student club. Previously, the club has participated in Project Feederwatch, a global citizen-science initiative to track the health of bird populations.

"Birdwatching inspired me to leave my house and explore new places."

“It was a chance for me to pull away from my computer for at least an hour and take a break,” adds Huget, who hopes to involve the club in Project Feederwatch again. “Furthermore, birdwatching inspired me to leave my house and explore new places in the Edmonton area.”

Fall is a particularly special time for watching, as birds make migratory stops in the Edmonton area on their way south, prepare for liftoff after spending the summer in the city, or even arrive to overwinter in Alberta.

Here, Huget and Biological Sciences Technology instructor Laurie Hunt share a few notable species to spot from the comfort of your own home or in the great outdoors. Both are great places to escape computers and pandemics alike, and share the benefits with the birds.

5 birds to watch for in Alberta in the fall

sandhill cranes flying

Sandhill crane – Huget calls this “an elegant bird” for its long legs and bill. They visit marshy areas across North America to breed and raise young before heading to the southern United States and northern Mexico for winter. They’re pleasantly noisy birds. “The sandhill cranes are one of my favourites,” says Hunt, “as their calls fill the evening skies at this time of year.”

Snowy owl – Not every bird leaves town come fall; some just arrive. Like NAIT's official mascot (a.k.a. ookpik)! “The snowy owls often make central Alberta their home for the winter months,” says Hunt. Compared to the Arctic, from which they came, Edmonton is a balmy alternative.

american tree sparrow

American tree sparrow – This is “a chatty bird with a lovely song,” says Huget. Males have reddish brown feathers on their heads and wings. Catch the sparrows passing through after breeding season in northern Canada and Alaska as they head to northern and central U.S. They tend to fly at night, en masse.

red tailed hawk flying

Red-tailed hawk – You’ll know this hawk by the circular path it flies while hunting, says Huget – that, and its distinctive white belly and red tail feathers. They breed in Canada and the northern U.S. before heading to the central states, northern Mexico and sometimes Cuba.

common yellowthroat bird

Common yellowthroat – These colourful birds come to central and northern Canada to breed before heading as far south as Central America for winter. They may not be as common as their name suggests, as not all members of the species make the journey; some never leave the  southern U.S. and Mexico. But if they do, their distinctive yellow feathers (males have a black mask, Huget points out) make them hard to miss.

How you can help migrating birds

robin in bird bath

For a glimpse of what it takes to make the long trip south, Hunt recommends watching local robin and warbler populations. “At this time of the year they are busy fuelling up on the remaining insects, seeds and berries, and getting ready for their fall marathons,” she says.

To return the favour of helping us through lonely pandemic days, we can help them. Here’s what Hunt recommends:

  • Leave seed heads on plants for birds to eat
  • Leave leaf and plant material on the ground to attract insects for them
  • Clean bird baths and provide fresh water 
  • Keep cats – keen bird hunters – indoors
  • Consider using bird deterrents on windows, such as CollidEscape Clear Bird Tape

Where to see migrating birds in the fall in the Edmonton area

Looking for a prime spot to walk and birdwatch? Here are a few of Biological Sciences Technology instructor, Laurie Hunt’s favourite haunts, many of them within the Beaver Hills Biosphere, a natural area located a short drive east of Edmonton:

  • Elk Island National Park – Bison aren’t the only attraction at Elk Island (or elk, of course). Keep an eye and ear out for roughly 250 bird species as you stroll any of roughly a dozen trails.
  • Beaverhill Lake Heritage Rangeland – As one of Alberta’s 43 Important Bird Areas, Beaverhill Lake offers refuge for threatened birds, large groups and more. Naturally, it also offers opportunities for watching them, including Snow Geese as they migrate.
  • Miquelon Lake Provincial Park – Referred to by some as a “birdwatcher’s paradise,” visitors can expect to see any of roughly 200 species, including swans, red-tailed hawks, great-horned owls and more.
  • Cooking Lake-Blackfoot Recreation Area – You’ll find 200 species of birds here as well, including a colony of great blue herons. If you happen across either of the two pairs of trumpeter swans, consider yourself lucky, as they are the rarest of all swans. Be careful not to disturb them.
  • Clifford E. Lee Nature Sanctuary – Don't forget this spot southwest of Edmonton, says Biological Sciences Technology student Bianca Huget. There's an impressive collection of birds that make their home here year round, as well as plenty of waterfowl during the summer.

Banner image by FotoRequest/

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