“Everything is exciting” for self-taught expert naturalist and bird watcher
Gus Yaki makes me at home among his birders right away – by putting me in charge of counting chickadees.
I’m nervous as I think to myself – do I know all the songs and calls that chickadees make? Will I mess up this month’s count in a survey that has run for more than two decades?
I almost wish he’d picked me to watch for the obvious magpies.
Yaki has led birding walks along the Elbow River in Calgary, from Stanley Park to the Glenmore Dam, on the first day of each month since 1993, when he settled in Calgary after a career leading nature tours around the world.
Yaki says he learned to recognize birds and plants on his three-mile walks to school near North Battleford. His knowledge grew with borrowed guidebooks, nature clubs and eventually other experts he met through his own tours.
Now, at 83 years old, he doesn’t hear chickadees and nuthatches as well as he used to, so he assigns people with younger ears to listen for them.
We are a recognizable group, in our toques, hoods, warm jackets, gloves and sturdy boots, as we assemble early on March 1 at the parking area in Stanley Park. Several people wear ice-gripping cleats, and on every chest hangs a pair of binoculars – every chest but mine. Instead, I clutch a notebook and pen.
Once everyone has signed the waiver sheet, we trail off between the ball diamond and the wooded bank to the east. Yaki explains that this park, with 85 woody species (trees and shrubs), is “the closest thing we have to an arboretum in Calgary.”
After pointing out a black walnut and a butternut, he touches the rough bark of a young tree that manages to look both straight and ragged at the same time. “Do you know this tree?” he asks, looking straight at me.
I am impressed. The bur oak isn’t native to Calgary, but knowing I’m from eastern Saskatchewan, Yaki has correctly guessed that I would have seen it there.
The bank beyond is an impenetrable mass of shrubs. Back in November, Yaki says, after all the other leaves had fallen, these invasive European buckthorns – at least a million shrubs, by his estimate – were still green.
Suddenly I remember my chickadees. I listen hard, wondering if I missed any while I was taking notes.
We reach the paved bike path on the riverbank and follow it downstream at first, just far enough to see around the bend and count the geese and mallard ducks. A smaller bird flying out of a tree brings several of us to a halt, binoculars raised to scan the shrubby bank above, while others leave the path for a closer look.
As we wait for the expert verdict, Yaki’s wife Aileen Pelzer and I step out of the way of a bike rider whose gear suggests a commuter. “I’m sure clumps of birders get lots of cusses from cyclists,” she quips.
Pelzer has lived nearby in Elboya since 1965. As we walk back upstream through Stanley Park, I ask how things have changed. The pavement and the yellow line on the path are new, she tells me.
Looking ahead to the houses backing onto the river, she says the homes in this area were almost all bungalows back then, with only a few two-story houses. “Now every time a bungalow sells, they put up a monster.”
I ask Yaki about the origins of the bird survey walks. He says in the early years, while he was still running his tour company, he sometimes had to find someone else to lead walks while he was away.
“We’ve got data going back to 1993,” says Yaki. “And in that period we’ve got at least 15 species that have disappeared.” He lists some formerly abundant species that no longer show up in his surveys: Baltimore orioles, kingbirds, Eastern wood peewees, ruby-crowned kinglets and song sparrows.
West of Stanley Park, the bike path curves up to join the Riverdale Avenue sidewalk, but we step off and file along outside the black steel bars of a backyard fence, crunching through a carpet of poplar leaves to the riverbank.
Yaki points out a white house across the river, whose former residents used to feed waterfowl. At that time he had counts of up to 39 wood ducks here, but on this day there are only mallards and Canada geese.
Or are there?
I see Yaki gesturing along his cheek, sharing his assessment of the shape of the white mark on the side of a goose’s head. Apparently out of the dozens of geese out there on the open water, two appear to be another species, the cackling goose.
On the bank beside me, leafless branches hold dangling grey-brown shreds of debris, marking the height of the 2013 floodwaters. Yaki remembers a wooden wall around the adjacent backyard. The 2005 flood washed it away, and the 2013 flood took out its replacement, before the present steel fence went in.
Back on Riverdale Avenue, we follow the sidewalk in front of two-story homes with broad steps, stone facings and arched doorways. Some of the most expensive homes in the city are here.
But occasionally, always on the side toward the river, we pass a house with a blue sign on the door and a lock box on the handle. A patch of peeling paint, a garage door partly open and a little bit crooked, frost in the windows – the clues are here, showing that not every home has survived the high waters.
“Chickadees are attracted to binoculars, because with binoculars come sunflower seeds.” – Dave ReidAs I twist my head to follow the sound of a chickadee, Dave Reid falls into step beside me. “Chickadees are attracted to binoculars,” he says, “because with binoculars come sunflower seeds.” No wonder the same few birds seem to be keeping up with us, flitting between the thicker shrubs and the dense cover of mature blue spruces.
At the Riverdale Avenue footbridge, a woman walking a dog greets Yaki and asks, “Any more eagle sightings?”
We count Canada geese from the bridge, and then return to Riverdale Avenue to continue westward, upstream. “Look at that,” Yaki says, pointing to a house as we pass. “Mountain bluebird in the window.” And there it is, bright blue, and rather life like, except that it’s perched on the inside of the glass.
Joining in the fun, Reid says, “Saw a new subspecies of great horned owl the other day – fiberglass.”
To keep consistent with 20 years of surveys, the group turns up a side street to visit a house where a friend of Pelzer used to live and feed birds. Seeing a Sonata backing out of a garage, Yaki stops and waits. The driver gets out and they shake hands while exchanging bird sightings. “No great-horned owls?” he asks. “No,” says Yaki, “haven’t seen any owls at all.”
Back on Riverdale Avenue, we watch a red squirrel dashing across a brown lawn in pursuit of a grey squirrel twice its size.
The last house on the west end of the avenue seems in good repair, but there is the blue sign again, and the lock box hanging from a curved handle on the double door.
Then I see the mud splatters on the face of the door, and in the lower corner, a triangular patch of grime that seems to show where a wave of floodwater curled – or had there been a pile of silt there?
I turn from these grim imaginings to catch up with the others. Britannia Slopes Park opens to the south, with a broad sun-filled parking lot and grass beyond.
A dog overtakes us, and when the accompanying humans draw even with Yaki the woman asks, “Seen anything exciting? See the eagle yet?” Yaki replies, “Everything is exciting.”
I wonder how many of these friendly passersby know Yaki, and how many simply notice the binoculars.
The sidewalk becomes a bike path again, tracing the border between grass on the east and forest along the riverbank. Under a skiff of fresh snow, the footpaths through the balsam poplar forest are packed with ice. Our group splits up, as some choose to keep to the bare pavement on the bike path.
Between glances at our footing, we scan the bare branches around and above us. I hear a couple of chickadees. Jim St. Laurent, another birder, thinks he sees a robin, but then decides it must be something else.
Amid all the grey-brown branches, a small spruce tree stretches green needles over the path. Bright red and white and gold globes and snowflakes dangle from it, interspersed with a string of blue beads and a bit of ribbon. Yaki points out a birdfeeder cut from a Tropicana juice carton. He says decorations appear on this tree every Christmas.
While I examine the Christmas tree, St. Laurent gets out ahead of us. A little farther, Yaki calls him back to see the robin he had expected. Then we find several more, feeding on Eurasian buckthorn berries. Yaki tells me some robins stay through the winter, and when they don’t have buckthorn berries, they find cotoneaster (another invasive shrub). Once he points out the cotoneaster, I start noticing it at other points along the trail.
At the far edge of the water, a concrete-walled storm drain opens out of the bank. Yaki tells me they used to see American dippers swimming next to the drains. I have seen a dipper only once before, at Waterton Lakes National Park. They make their homes along fast-flowing streams, and we had nothing like that back home in Saskatchewan.
Our group reunites at the new Sandy Beach pedestrian bridge built after the 2013 flood. I ask Yaki later whether the flood affected birds. “Not directly,” he says, and explains that ground nests fail here anyway, because off-leash dogs gobble up the nestlings before the dogs’ owners notice anything.
While waiting for us at the bridge, the others have seen a common merganser. A patter on the water brings our heads around and there it is, running on the surface and flashing white wing patches as it gains the speed to fly away downstream.
A man approaches us and asks the now-familiar question, “Seen anything interesting?” As usual, Yaki replies, “Everything is interesting.” But this man stops to talk about a bird he has seen, and takes a pamphlet about Yaki’s spring birding course.
Beyond the Sandy Beach picnic site, we climb the gravel road up the west bank of the valley and then turn south along the valley rim toward the Glenmore Dam.
Dawn Hall, another birder with young ears, has been listening for nuthatches. At the river bend overlooking the Calgary Golf and Country Club, where the slope is nearly a cliff, she thinks she hears dippers singing more than 30 metres below us. “We’ve had dippers singing from underneath an ice shelf,” Yaki tells her.
The group clusters along the edge of the path, binoculars trained on the water. Yaki spots a dark shape on a rock, but in spite of intense watching, no one sees it moving, let alone dipping.
Reid asks if they nest here, but Yaki says they nest in the mountains, behind waterfalls. “They’ll fly right through a waterfall to get out of their nest.”
Twenty yards farther, taking one more look at the river below, someone spots a flicker of movement, and all the binoculars are trained again. Those who can see the bird tell others where to look – just upstream of the white riffles. “Oh, and he dipped,” says Reid. One American dipper goes on the survey count.
As we move toward the dam, I hear chickadees again. There are at least two, but I can’t decide if there are more. I turn to Ostrander for advice. “Are you counting chickadees?” he asks. “How many have you got?”
I flip the notebook pages back to check my tally, 29. Ostrander has 65.
When we give our final numbers to Yaki at the dam, he is quick to reassure me about my lower count, saying, “You were concentrating, taking notes.” But Ostrander explains that while we were walking the forest trail, he counted 30 chickadees in a single flock out beside the bike path.
Maybe they were drawn to his binoculars.
Thumbnail photo by Laura Stewart
The editor responsible for this article, Melanie Walsh firstname.lastname@example.org