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Author: Debbie Olsen

Debbie is a writer, researcher, traveller, mom, wife, foodie, gardener, housekeeper, photographer, and occasional hormone-crazed maniac. She has contributed to eight Fodor’s guide books about Alberta and writes regular columns for the Calgary Herald and the Red Deer Advocate.

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There are moments I wish I’d splurged on a better cellphone. As I stood in the butterfly gardens at Ellis Bird Farm, this was one of them. A Rufous hummingbird was whizzing around the flowers and my friend Elizabeth and I were attempting to photograph it with our cellphone cameras. Even though the tiny bird was moving so quickly, she was able to capture a couple of good images but all I had were blurry blobs. After multiple attempts, I settled for a selfie with a butterfly and headed to the tea house to drown my sorrows in herbal tea and homemade pie.

North of Red Deer and about 16 km (10 mi) southeast of Lacombe, Ellis Bird Farm is a working farm, a non-profit organization, a conservation site and a birding attraction all in one. The site focusses its conservation efforts on mountain bluebirds, tree swallows and other native cavity-nesting birds. It’s a wonderful place to learn more about the backyard birds of central Alberta.

Tea for Two

It was a sunny afternoon and we sat on the outdoor patio of the onsite teahouse under a shady tree for lunch. The food is always excellent at the teahouse. Elizabeth enjoyed a spinach salad with goat cheese, walnuts and fresh seasonal berries while I had the beef carpaccio salad with thinly sliced Alberta beef, arugula and locally grown beets. We finished off lunch with a slice of heavenly homemade pie, baked fresh onsite every day.

Afterward, we wandered around the gardens and enjoyed a stroll along the Bluebird Trail to see the world’s largest collection of bluebird nest boxes. Making our way inside the visitor’s centre, we discovered video-linked cameras where we watched the goings on inside a bluebird nest and a beaver lodge and then browsed through the educational displays.

On our way out, we couldn’t resist stopping by the butterfly garden to see if there were any more hummingbirds. As we made our way back to our car, I promised myself that I would return sometime soon – with a better camera.

Cool Research and Conservation Efforts

Ellis Bird Farm is partnering with university researchers and using cutting edge geolocator technology to research the migration patterns of purple martins and mountain bluebirds. They have also been using radio frequency identification technology to research the nesting and socialization habits of birds – research that is the first of its kind in the world.

On a spring afternoon, I popped out to watch scientists and bird farm staff place geolocators on mountain bluebirds at another farm near Ellis Bird Farm. After carefully examining each little bird and attaching a coded leg band, they place a geolocator that looks like a miniature backpack on the bird’s back. The birds are then released with plans to recapture them the following year, remove the geolocators, and see where they’ve been.

Using this technology, scientists discovered that one of the farm’s purple martins travelled more than 22,000 km (13,670 mi) over the course of the year and roosted in three different sites in Para, Brazil. During her spring migration, the little bird they call Amelia travelled an average of 600 km (372 mi) per day, rocketing back to Ellis Bird Farm in just 21 days.

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