Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

Tips for summer birdwatching in Alberta

Grad and daughter share insight as owners of nature shop, Backyard Birds

There were three factors that convinced Jan Tollenaar (Biological Sciences Technology – Environmental Sciences ’87) that it was a good idea to open Backyard Birds, a nature shop in Spruce Grove, Alberta, in May 2021.

One, birdwatching soared in popularity during the pandemic, when social distancing had people flocking toward outdoor activities, evidenced by the spike in crowdsourced bird observation data. Two, a count of streetside birdhouses revealed much avian interest in the city of 34,000. And, three, there wasn’t another shop within 25 kilometres that was dedicated to birding.

Maybe there was 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 plenty that might help his daughter, Alana, who led the launch of the shop.

backyard birds storefront, spruce grove

Its success has exceeded the family’s expectations. “Opening day was incredible,” says Tollenaar. “We had lineups for hours. My daughter’s projections were basically doubled … for the first year.” Part of the reason might be their approach.

“We’re not just selling feeders and seed and birdbaths,” he says. In addition to supplies, Backyard Birds freely shares knowledge about species in the area and how to spot them, nurturing a fledgling community of birders that shows no signs of going south. Here are daughter and father’s top tips on helping your own interest in birdwatching take flight.

You don’t need to spend a lot on fancy equipment

three canadian dollar coins, loonies

You could spend a few hundred dollars on binoculars and cameras and who knows what else, but you could also not.

“I can get you started for five bucks,” says Alana. “I would give you a bird feeder wreath [of gelatin and birdseed] that we have handmade in Edmonton. And that's all you need to start attracting birds, whether you're in the city or the country.”

Staying in town is fine

american goldfinches on a feeder

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

Best time of day for birding

woman walking forest path in the morning

The early bird, it turns out, catches the bird. Jan uses the swallows at their Parkland County acreage as an example. The birds are active in the mornings when they catch insects to feed their chicks – “right until about the time you start to feel that sun, probably about 10 or 11 o'clock. Then the activity starts to die down. They don't want to expend energy in the heat.”

It’s OK to feed in the summer

filling a bird feeder with black sunflower seeds

It’s a myth that birds will become reliant on your feeders, says Alana. They won’t die without you. “Even in the dead of winter, chickadees only rely on bird feeders for 15% of their diet,” she adds. Year-round feeding, then, won’t do harm. “It's just going to bring more pleasure to you.”

What to feed birds

chickadee eating sunflower seeds

You can get species specific, if you like, says Jan: hummingbirds prefer a sugar-based nectar solution while an orange slice hung in a tree will attract orioles. But “if you’re only going to put out one seed, put out black oil sunflower seed and you’ll get a pretty good cross-section: everything from American goldfinches to chickadees to nuthatches.”

Clean the feeders now and then

empty wooden bird feeder

Between refillings, Jan recommends cleaning feeders – a job that became even more important with the recent avian flu. Fill a bucket with a mix of gallon of water and half-a-cup of bleach and use it to scrub wherever birds land. Rinse with clean 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 birders

girls using smartphone to ID birds

You might 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 app for identification. Alana also likes Birds Canada, a national organization dedicated to bird conservation.

“I'm old school,” says Jan. “Old schoolers rely on handbooks, the biggest one being Birds of Alberta,” by Chris Fisher and John Acorn.

Share your findings

binoculars, small notebook and pencil

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

If you’re “old school,” you can keep notes and submit them online. “I've seen some people bring in their birdwatching books and they're just absolutely riddled with sticky notes,” says Alana.

There is also no shortage of citizen science events, she adds, where birders can gather, observe and count species, and contribute to a greater understanding of avian populations.

Find your own satisfaction in it

ruby throated hummingbird at feeder

The joy of birdwatching will vary from person to person. In some cases, suggests Alana, it will entice those who collect species sightings like curios, always on the lookout for a missing piece. For others, satisfaction will be the surprise at what turns up in one’s yard, or perhaps comforting familiarity, when bluebirds return to a reliably filled feeder.

Whatever approach you take, the beauty of the hobby is more than feathers deep. “You can sit on your porch or on your deck and lose track of time, just watching the birds,” says Jan. “I believe it's the simplest way to connect with nature. And connecting with nature is connecting with your soul.”

Five fun birds to spot

baltimore oriole eating a piece of orange

There are more than 400 birds known to call Alberta home. Here, Jan and Alana pick a few favourites for birders to try to spot in the Edmonton area.

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

Baltimore oriole – With the Edmonton region being within its northernmost breeding grounds, orioles can be rare, but they’re unmistakable for their unique orange colour.

Ruby-throated hummingbird – Be patient with this one, as it's picky. “It's a seasonal feeder,” says Jan. Put nectar out around the beginning of May – any later, and hummingbirds may not notice it, and you’ll miss those incredible wings, beating 53 times a 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 fronts. They’re easily attracted with seed.

Northern flicker – Most of the identification questions Alana gets are about this type of woodpecker. “I call them the woodpecker with the polka-dot dress,” she says, because of their spotted bellies. Watch for them plucking ants from the ground rather than pecking at trees.

Photo by lightstalker/istockphoto.com


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