June 6 – This morning we travelled from Drumheller to Dinosaur Provincial Park, stopping at some excellent wetland areas along the way. We pulled off to view some American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts, several Black Terns and an array of different waterfowl. Just as we were about to leave Gill said she had seen some small waders on the far side of the pond. I got out the scope and was very pleased to find they were White-rumped Sandpipers. There were six of them in fact, all in breeding plumage. In with them was a single Semipalmated Sandpiper, and our first Lesser Yellowlegs of the trip appeared. Two Horned Grebe nests were a treat to see, the attending adults decked out in the breeding plumage.
Once we arrived at Dinosaur Park we made our way directly to the campground where we strolled through the cottonwoods along the banks of the Red Deer River and saw some nice birds. Our first Brown Thrashers appeared, as did the first Common Grackles of the trip. Several new species of flycatcher were added to our trip list including Least Flycatcher, Western Wood-Pewee and Western Kingbird. Baltimore Orioles sang from the tall cottonwoods along with Yellow Warblers, Warbling Vireos and House Wrens. A hybrid ‘Red-shafted X Yellow-shafted’ Northern Flicker sat on a trunk next to the road, allowing us to come to our decision on its lineage.
Common Nighthawks sailed above the trees, obviously not knowing they should be roosting during the day. I spotted one nighthawk roosting nighthawk however and we had great scope views.
After a picnic lunch we explored the badlands where the arid habitat produced Rock Wrens and gorgeous Violet-green Swallows. There were Rock Wrens and attractive Lark Sparrows about as well. We attempted to have a walk at Cottonwood Flats, but a short thunderstorm ‘rained on our parade’. We did make it far enough on the trail to see a female Spotted Towhee however. We retreated to the café and visitors center for a while and once we emerged we were greeted by a pair of American Goldfinch. To finish off an already spectacular day we stopped at the viewpoint where we enjoyed breathtaking vistas of the badlands. Eagle-eyed Gill then made another excellent sighting, a Prairie Falcon soaring over the rock formations! She then pointed out its nest in a crack in the rocks and we watched the other adult Prairie Falcon as it presumably fed young in the nest before poking her head out of the entrance and giving us all great views. Very satisfied we drove on to Brooks where we spent the night.
June 7 – Our first stop this morning was in the grasslands south of Brooks where we had two particularly interesting sightings. The first was a displaying Sprague’s Pipit high overhead and the second was a Brewer’s Sparrow singing incessantly from the top of a sagebrush. At Kinbrook Island Provincial Park we explored the marsh which was teeming with life this morning. There were Red-winged and Yellow-headed blackbirds jockeying in the reeds for the best singing perches. Song Sparrow sang enthusiastically while a pair of Soras chased one another about at the edge of the marsh. Waterfowl was plentiful and included such beauties as Redhead, Ring-necked Duck, Hooded Merganser, Blue-winged Teal, American Wigeon, Ruddy Duck and numerous breeding plumage Red-necked Grebes. A Wilson’s Snipe called vociferously from its perch near the marsh, and in a distant tree I spotted an adult Great Horned Owl roosting. A little more searching revealed a fledgling Great Horned Owl nearby. The young one had quite a bit of white downy feathering, but it was nearly the size of the adult. More scanning and I discovered the second adult owl roosting nearby. In the campground area we saw several species about the cottonwoods including our first Swainson’s Thrush, a Least Flycatcher, numerous Western Kingbirds, Yellow Warblers, Common Grackles and a female Downy Woodpecker. Out on Lake Newell there were too many boats and jet skis for much to be present, though we did see a pair of Common Mergansers as they flew past.
After picking up lunch in Brooks we made our way to Tillebrook Provincial Park where we had a picnic. The cottonwood trees were losing their seeds which is embedded in snowflake like balls of fluff all around us. Even though it was a balmy 30 degrees Celsius today, it looked as though it were snowing!
Our next stop after lunch was in the prairie near Tilley, along the Trans-Canada Hwy. Here we easily found our target species, Chestnut-collared Longspur as there were close to a dozen in the area. The males decked out in black and white with an attractive chestnut area on the nape, sail through the air in a flight song, then descend to a bush below. We had great views of them through the scope as they sat atop the bushes.
Overhead another Sprague’s Pipit sang. We scoped a wetland where loads of waterfowl were present as well as White-faced Ibis, nesting Marbled Godwit, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet and Wilson’s Phalarope were present. We then made our way into Medicine Hat, spotting a couple groups of Pronghorn Antelope on the way. A short stop at the world’s tallest teepee was in order, and it was somewhat impressive standing at about 200 feet tall. The drive down into Cypress Hills Park was nice and as we gained elevation slowly we watched temperature fall by about 8 degrees Celsius. The hilly terrain covered in pine trees and the pristine waters of Elkwater Lake were a welcome change from the flat, barren, yet beautiful prairie we had been in for the last few days. Over the lake an Osprey circled several times, a first for the trip. Along a trail we tracked down a pair of Red-eyed Vireos also a first for the tour. It was a very productive day and we tallied about 75 species of birds before it was all said and done. There was a lovely sunset over Elkwater Lake this evening.
June 8 – Before breakfast we headed out to do a little birding near the town of Elkwater. It was a beautiful sunny morning with a little breeze that stayed with us all day and helped to keep the hot temperatures more bearable as thermometers read about 33 degrees Celsius. We enjoyed views of several American Redstarts, some immature males and a nice full plumage male decked out in orange and black. We had fleeting glimpses of a Veery as it skulked through the vegetation and we enjoyed nice views of Red-naped Sapsuckers this morning amongst the aspens. A quick stop at Elkwater Lake produced sightings of several White-winged Scoters and we had the chance to meet Colton Prins and his assistants at the local ringing station. Because of the warm weather they had not caught many birds at all this morning, but it was nice to have a chat about the local birds anyhow.
After breakfast at the café we made our way to Spruce Coulee where along the fence line on the road we saw good numbers of Mountain Bluebirds.
At Spruce Coulee we had great scope views of a male Western Tanager, and we had our first good looks at American Red Squirrel as it chattered away. A Caspian Tern circled several times over the lake before disappearing. We paused at a lovely viewpoint from which it seemed we could see forever from our perch in the hills. A pair of Dusky Flycatchers showed well at the edge of a clearing, and White-tailed Deer made an appearance as well. Near Reesor Lake we tried frustratingly to see a male MacGillivray’s Warbler, a notoriously skulky member of the wood-warbler family. Some people managed brief but good views of the bird, but many only saw it in flight as it crossed the road. We had lunch at Reesor Lake where we sat on picnic tables while watching fisherman bring in several trout. An Osprey appeared and was also successful in catching a small trout and carrying it off.
Northern Rough-winged Swallows showed off nicely, as did a Gray Catbird in amongst a stand of Trembling Aspens. Nicola pointed out a Least Flycatcher sitting on its nest in the crook of an aspen. We carried on down a gravel track where we saw a Coyote in the fields. As soon as we paused to have a look, the canine shot straight into the forest. It seems everywhere we go there are Richardson’s Ground-Squirrels and we saw plenty once again today. We stopped at a creek crossing where we got good views of Veery as well as White-crowned Sparrow and a stunning male American Redstart. An Olive-sided Flycatcher perched atop a dead tree just as the field guide says it is supposed to do. We returned to Elkwater for a little late afternoon siesta since temperatures were over 30 degrees Celsius.
After dinner we made our way to the causeway near Elkwater and watched for beavers that I had found the previous night. Unfortunately the beaver wouldn’t appear for us this evening, but we did see several Muskrats and White-tailed Deer. Bird life was thriving in the marsh with Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Yellowthroats and Song Sparrows singing persistently and waterfowl like Ring-necked Duck, Blue-winged Teal, Lesser Scaup, American Wigeon and Red-necked Grebe were seen. Wilson’s Snipe winnowed as they flew overhead and a plethora of swallows zipped about over the surface of the water. It was a nice way to finish the day, even if the beaver didn’t show up.