Thursday, 26 April 2012

Prairie Birds and Prairie Dogs!

It will very soon be May already and our Fur and Feathers team will be booked almost continously on a series of cross Canada birding adventures for the next several months. This week however seemed like a good time to do some birding right here in the prairies. Phil and Mike are still away so just Brian and I set off on Monday morning for a three day trip, driving first to Val Marie, Saskatchewan and then returning at leisure through SW Saskatchewan and SE Alberta. The big attraction in Val Marie is the nearby Grasslands National Park, famous for its Black-tailed Prairie Dog colonies. This was our key mammal target for the trip but we were of course hoping for a variety of early season grassland bird species and maybe some other new mammals too. We were not disappointed!

Our first stop was in Medicine Hat where we met up with good birding friends, Milt and Elaine Spitzer, at Police Point.  Milt and Elaine had been exploring the area before we arrived and had found a porcupine up in a tree and in plain view. They took us straight to it and stirred up a couple of Nuttal's (Mountain) Cottontails along the trail. Two new mammals and an excellent start to our day!


We could only afford a 30 minute stop in Medicine Hat unfortunately because we were keen to arrive at Val Marie by early afternoon. We said our goodbyes to Milt and Elaine and by 10:30 a.m. were crossing the border into Saskatchewan under lovely sunny skies. By noon the temperature had risen to 26 deg C! Finally - some decent summer-like weather!

Welcome to Saskatchewan!

We didn't start birding seriously until we reached Grasslands Park but we paused at the occasional pothole slough and took note of the various raptors as we drove along. We picked up three new team birds along the way: Mabled Godwit, Chestnut-collard Longspur and Swainson's Hawk. We were surprised how long it took before that first Swainson's Hawk showed up. The first hawks we encountered were all Red-tailed and Rough-legged Hawks. Eventually a Ferruginous Hawk appeared and then, finally, a Swainson's Hawk. Over the next couple of days we came across numerous Ferruginous and Swainson's Hawks in both Saskatchewan and Alberta

Swainson's Hawk
 When we arrived at Val Marie we stopped at the Grasslands National Park Visitor Centre where we got some useful information about both the park and Val Marie and then we got started on the 8o km loop road that runs through the park and back to Val Marie. We soon came across two more new team birds: Savanah Sparrow and Loggerhead Shrike. (We were delighted to come across a second Loggerhead Shrike in Alberta two days later on our return trip.) 

Loggerhead Shrike

Almost immediately after entering the park one reaches the first Black-tailed Prairie Dog colony. It was worth the trip! These Prairie Dogs were abundant and their burrows were spread out over a large flat area bordering the gravel road. This park and the surrounding area is the only region in Canada where these Black-tailed Prairie Dogs can be seen in their natural habitat. We took lots of pictures!

Black-tailed Praire Dog
Prairie Dog Town

We had hoped to spot a burrowing owl amongst all these prairie dogs but alas, we did not! In fact, we circled through the park again later that evening and again the following morning but not once did we see a burrowing owl. We did however see several Long-billed Curlews scurrying around amongst the prairie dogs - another new bird species for the year! We also saw several bison in the park - still more pictures! The loop road exits the park to the south and swings back west and then north to Val Marie. We added McCown's Longspur and Red Fox to our team species list as we completed the loop.

McCown's Longspur

We enjoyed Val Marie! A classic rural community still with a grain elevator in place! We stayed at a place called "The Convent", a country inn and as the name implies, it's a converted convent. It was very comfortable and had a friendly proprietress who even gave us some good birding tips for the area. We gassed up at the only gas outlet in town and had supper at the Val Marie Hotel and Pub.

Val Marie, SK

We took away several good memories of Grasslands Park. On our evening drive along the loop road, we were struck by the increase in Mule and White-tailed Deer activity. We even had a close encounter with four Bison on this evening drive! They moved right out onto the loop road and blocked our exit and while three of them just stood on the road grazing on its grassy margins, the fourth one planted himself squarely in the middle of the road and stared us down as we tried to get him to move - from inside the car of course! Eventually they sauntered off to the side and gave us room to get by. This was a good thing because I was driving Brian's brand new vehicle at this point and didn't really want to be responsible for any buffalo horn puncture wounds so early in its life!
Would you tangle with this?

On Tuesday morning our dawn drive through the park was equally rewarding. A Cooper's Hawk, a Sharp-shinned Hawk and many Sharp-tailed Grouse which seemed to be everywhere and they were very active right along the roadside.  

Sharp-tailed Grouse displaying

Our early morning start was made even better by the very nice breakfast served up at the Convent upon our return! We left Val Marie behind at about 8:30 a.m. and began our drive back west, passing though small communities such as Orkney, Climax and Eastend, where we had lunch. 

Along the way we had great views of a second Red Fox......

Red Fox

Baird's Sandpiper

......... and we picked up several new team birds: Eared Grebe, Black-necked Stilt, Bairds Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Sprague's Pipit and Wilson's Phalorope.

Eared Grebe

The Wilson's Phalorope was our 221st bird species of the year but more importantly, on our combined mammals plus birds list it was our 250th species. Half way to our Fur and Feathers 500 target! There was no champagne handy to celebrate so we settled for a handful of chocolate-coated almonds!

From Eastend we continued west back into Alberta via Cypress Lake, Consul and Hwy 13, picking up Wilson's Snipe and Common Tern. Just moments before we crossed back into Alberta, we added Cinnamon Teal. We spent that night in Elkwater in the Cypress Hills.

Common Tern

Cinammon Teal

On Wednesday morning, we again set off before dawn heading straight south down to Wild Horse where we hoped to find Mountain Plover. We had two of them down here five years ago at the exact same time of year. Not this year however! With our time running out we didn't linger long, chosing instead to spend more time at Pakowki Lake south of Etzikom and then Crow Indian Lake, southwest of Foremost. We spotted a Ruddy Duck and an American Pipit en route and then added Western Grebe at Pakowki Lake and American Bittern at the west end of Crow Indian Lake. Three Lesser Yellowlegs northwest of Coaldale rounded out our list of new team species for the trip.

Gorgeous Praire Sunrise near Wild Horse

All in all we were well pleased with our results. There were some notable misses including, much to our surprise, not a single swallow, and we were disappointed not to see a Burrowing Owl or a Badger. We saw more than 90 species in all and it was nice to accumulate a good count of Saskatchewan birds. We will undoubtedly add to this later on in the summer!

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