Thursday, 23 August 2012

Across the Prairies

Sunday August 19 – Off to Bat in The Hat


It has been six weeks since we returned from the Atlantic Provinces and our Fur and Feathers activities have been limited to day trips from Calgary.  During that time we’ve added three species of birds and three mammals to bring our total to 464 species. The next few weeks we’ll be on the road quite a bit, going after the 36 species we need to reach our goal of 500.

At the outset we had established that we would look for birds and mammals in all of Canada’s ten provinces and territories. The current trip will allow us to achieve that ambition, and hopefully bring us closer to the magic 500 number. We are visiting Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and then flying up to Nunavut for four days on the Arctic Circle.

We leave Calgary on Sunday afternoon, Mike and Phil in Mike’s van and Ray and Brian in Ray’s SUV, bound for Medicine Hat where we will hook up with our birding friend Milt Spitzer and hopefully locate a Big Brown Bat colony.  We had been put on to this colony by Joanna Chapman who has researched bats at the University of Calgary. Meeting Milt an hour before dusk we visited the two locations – Connaught School and Elm Street School -- where the bats roost; a lady living across the road from Connaught School confirms that the bats can be seen regularly. Soon after dusk we enjoy the sight of perhaps 40-50 bats flying away from the building and at times right over our heads. Taking photos proves rather challenging however. Mike and Phil appreciate the hospitality of Milt and Elaine for the night while Ray and Brian stay in a nearby motel.

 Monday August 20 – Sashaying across Saskatchewan

Our goal today is to drive most of the way across Saskatchewan, stopping at some well-known sloughs along the way. After a couple of hours driving along the Trans-Canada Highway we pull up at Reed Lake where we encounter large numbers of gulls, ducks and shorebirds.  Amongst a flock of Semipalmated and Baird’s Sandpipers, Brian spots a juvenile Western Sandpiper, a new year bird which unfortunately is not seen by all before the flock takes off. However, this species should be common on the west coast next month.

As the day progresses we add to our Saskatchewan bird list while driving steadily eastwards, through places such as Rouleau, made famous as “Dog River” in the TV show Corner Gas. Other small farm communities boast their lesser claim to fame as the birthplace of NHL players. By the time we reach the south-east corner of the province, the temperature has risen to 34 degrees and we take in the sight of oil pump jacks rocking away in the middle of golden wheat fields. In contrast to poor yields in much of the US Midwest due to the drought, Canadian farmers will harvest bumper crops this year, and enjoy high prices as well.

Brian’s diligent study of recent postings on Saskbirds has indicated that Hwy 705 could prove productive, and we are delighted to see a flock of 40 Cattle Egrets – our second new year bird today -- appropriately accompanying a herd of cows. Great Egrets are also in evidence, as well as a noisy rookery of herons and cormorants.

Cattle with accompanying Cattle Egrets
Great Egret
After twelve hours on the road, we arrive in Carlyle, SK, to discover that the town’s hotels are fully-booked. The receptionist at the Ramada kindly helps us find rooms at the Bear Claw Resort and Casino, 10 km away, and we spend the night there. Purple Martins twittering above as we arrive at the resort provide a fine conclusion to the day.

Tuesday August 21 -- Moseying through Manitoba

Today we work our way to the south-east corner of Manitoba, the tenth and final province we’ve visited. In less than an hour we make a stop at the border to take a ceremonial picture.

Eight months into the year, we reach our tenth province

Birds are actively flying around the marsh there, and get our Manitoba list off to a great start. A half hour spent in the small community of Reston is also very productive as we run across 20 bird species including a Common Nighthawk and a flock of Red Crossbills.

As it did yesterday, it heats up rapidly as we make our way through some prairie habitat and much farmland towards Whitewater Lake. Wetlands near the lake afford close looks at American Bittern and White-faced Ibis, and more Cattle and Great Egrets as well as a variety of shorebirds and ducks.

American Bittern

White-faced Ibis

Insects, amhibians and reptiles also provide some interesting photo opportunities.

The curious grasshopper
The lake itself proves difficult to access and on occasion we encounter some gigantic farm equipment on narrow gravel roads. We finally find a good road to the south side of the lake, with an observation lookout at the end. From here we see a good variety of birds including many Western Grebes among which Brian skillfully picked out a Clark’s Grebe.
In the heat of the afternoon we make our way eastwards, eventually reaching Morris, MB where we spend the night in a motel next to the Stampede Grounds. The countryside around here is unremittingly flat, but there’s a bountiful harvest of wheat, corn and canola being brought to the many granaries. Morris must be a really exciting place to be when the rodeo’s in town during four days in July; this evening, not so much. We enjoy a pleasant dinner washed down with local Fort Garry Ale – continuing our tradition of sampling beers from across the country at the end of each birding day.

The perfect antidote to dusty roads

Wednesday August 22 -- Winding our way to Winnipeg

Up at dawn as usual, and our first target is the Plains Pocket Gopher. Sadly we see no signs of this dirt-throwing critter as we drive along some rural roads in SE Manitoba. But in the early-morning hours we see the first of many pairs of Sandhill Cranes. Excellent looks at Red-headed and Pileated Woodpeckers, Merlin and American Kestrel give us heart that this will be a fine day’s birding, and indeed it proves to be so. Stops on Mattern Road (a birding hotspot for Winnipeg birders) and elsewhere net us seven species of warbler including Connecticut, Nashville, Black-and-White and Chestnut-sided, along with several other good birds such as Eastern Bluebird and Sedge Wren, a “catch-up” bird for Phil.

An unexpected bonus is a Northern Goshawk cruising over the tree tops. Although there have been sightings during the year by individual members of the team, it is a new team bird, seen by all. A Blue-headed Vireo perches quietly allowing for super views, but our target Golden-winged Warbler is elusive.
Blue-headed Vireo
For lunch we repair to the golf course at Steinbach, not only for sustenance but also for another of our targets, Green Heron. A stroll by a pond right next to the course allows us to finally catch up with this species which we have sought in various places during the year.

Green Heron
It is now time to head to famed Oak Hammock Marsh, just north of Winnipeg. After checking into a motel at Stonewall, MB we drive to the marsh and tour the surrounding area in search of Buff-breatsed Sandpiper and Short-eared Owl. Nearby sod farms have recently been visited by the sandpipers, but today they are not in evidence, and we content ourselves with picking out three American Golden-Plovers in a flock of 40 Black-bellied Plovers. We spend a couple of hours visiting different parts of the huge marsh complex. Along the way, Brian and Ray in the lead vehicle encounter two foxes with black tips to their tails – Grey Fox, a new mammal for us. We all get good looks at a Striped Skunk from a safe distance.

Striped Skunk
It is almost dusk before a Short-eared Owl lifts off from the long-grass prairie and we are happy to get our third new bird species of the day. Fifteen hours since we set out this morning we make our way back to Stonewall for a delicious pizza and a couple of glasses of Fort Garry. In the morning we say goodbye to Mike and Milt who will head home to Alberta while Brian, Ray and Phil fly up to Nunavut. Thanks to Milt for sharing this part of the Fur and Feathers adventure with us!


1 comment:

  1. Fantastic tale and excellent photos ( I especially like the grasshopper one!) keep it up and good luck in Nunavut!