June 9 – A number of us went for a very enjoyable walk this morning before breakfast, along the shores of Elkwater Lake. The highlight was seeing three Great Horned Owls, two adults and a fledgling as they were mobbed by Black-billed Magpies, Common Grackles and American Robins. Otherwise, the usual species were encountered such as American Redstart, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Red-necked Grebe, White-winged Scoter and a Red-naped Sapsucker that was sucking sap from it ‘wells’ in a cottonwood tree.
After breakfast we made our way south of Cypress Hills to the Wild Horse area in the extreme southeastern corner of Alberta. We veered north right at the border with Alberta and Montana and began our birding along a dirt track where we were welcomed by two roosting Common Nighthawks.
In an area of longer grass we had great views of a male Bobolink as he gave flight songs over the fields. As we crossed through a marshy area we were inundated by Willets, Marbled Godwits, Wilson’s Snipe and Wilson’s Phalaropes not to mention Red-winged and Yellow-headed blackbirds and a noisy flock of European Starlings. Our next target species, Baird’s Sparrow, was rather easy to find at the same place we had it last year. We got excellent views of this scarce and declining grassland sparrow as it sang from the short grass nearby.
Clouds of Cliff Swallows fed on insects low over the fields at the same location. A pair of Upland Sandpipers put on a great show for us, with one bird sitting atop a fence post right beside our van. Lark Buntings decked out in black and white did their flight songs as well, the first for our trip thus far. We had lunch amongst the sagebrush and it was quite enjoyable with sunny weather and warm temperatures. After we had finished eating our food we had great views of both Grasshopper and Brewer’s sparrows. To finish off our birding in the Wild Horse area we stopped in some short grass where we watched a ‘larking’ male McCown’s Longspur, in addition to more attractive Chestnut-collared Longspurs. A Ferruginous Hawk sailed by, startling the ever present Richardson’s Ground Squirrels. Other mammals seen included a Coyote spotted by Rod and a distant Pronghorn. We had several White-tailed Deer today as well. We made our way back to Elkwater and enjoyed an ice cream in the sun at the local café.
June 10 – This morning we left the Cypress Hills area and made our way west towards Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park. Along the way we stopped in Medicine Hat to pick up lunch and refuel the vehicle, and then we were off, everywhere. A short stop at Vernon Lake added quite a few species to our daily tally including Cinnamon Teal, Canvasback, Northern Harrier, Yellow-headed Blackbird and American White Pelican to name a few. Following my gps, I ended up taking a rather roundabout way to get to the park, but in the process we saw some nice countryside as we drove alongside the Sweetgrass Hills of Montana. Western Meadowlarks, Horned Larks and American Robins were numerous. Once we arrived in the park we had lunch then took a stroll through the cottonwood forest in the campground. We had fantastic views of Brown Thrasher here, our best of the tour. Also, we had Spotted Towhee for just the second time on the tour, this time with a male and a female posing for scope views. Several roosting Common Nighthawks were seen in the cottonwoods, while Least Flycatchers, Yellow Warblers, Western Wood-Pewee and American Robins were common. The rock formations of the Milk River Valley were quite spectacular and we climbed some rocks to get a better view of the river and the hoodoos. Back in the parking lot I spotted a Prairie Rattlesnake as it presumably escaped from under a neighboring car. The snake, rather slowly, moved through the parking lot and onto the grass where it eventually curled up next to a tree. Park wardens soon arrived and, after giving us a little lesson on rattlesnakes, captured the snake and relocated it to a less populated part of the park.
After a short visit to the museum we ventured out to see some actual writing on stone. We visited the Battle Scene, where on the rocks you could see the illustrations quite well with a little concentration. We climbed back to the top of the canyon and carried on with our drive that eventually took us into the City of Lethbridge where we had dinner at the local casino.
June 11 – We left Lethbridge and made our way towards Waterton Park this morning, with the drive taking about an hour and a half. Our excitement grew as the mountains got larger and larger in front of us. Once we entered the park we made our way for Red Rock Parkway and spent several hours exploring the birds and wildlife of this fantastic area. The mountain scenery was spectacular and the weather was great, but perhaps a little breezy.
Some of the first birds we encountered included the stunning Lazuli Bunting and a dazzling little male Calliope Hummingbird. Near a wetland we had views of our first Willow Flycatchers, and our best views of Black-capped Chickadee of the tour. Columbian Ground Squirrels replaced Richardson’s in the park and we saw good numbers of them today. Through the scope we watched an American Beaver swimming in a pond near its lodge. Wildflowers were plentiful and we saw meadows of Indian Paintbrush, Three-spotted Mariposa, Arrow-leafed Balsamroot and more. The new birds kept appearing with Cassin’s Vireo and Audubon’s Warbler added to our list. A Prairie Falcon sailed past and disappeared behind a mountain, and a male Western Tanager sang from the top of a tall fir tree. We stood on a bridge and scanned up and down a river for dippers with no luck. I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye and quickly exclaimed ‘Bear, bear!’ as a pitch black American Black Bear crossed the road at the far end of the bridge. I spotted another Black Bear on a distant grassy hillside and we watched this larger animal at length as it turned over rocks and tree stumps as it searched for food. Just then, the first Black Bear decided to cross the creek and we watched amusedly as it paddled its way across the frigid and rapid waters.
At Red Rocks Canyon we strolled along the path and admired the forces of erosion on the lovely iron stained rocks. A Pacific-slope Flycatcher sang from the spruce trees at the top of the canyon wall, while Golden-crowned Kinglet, Townsend’s Warbler and Swainson’s Thrush appeared as well. An American Dipper was seen in the creek below and we watched as the bird repeatedly flew into a particular area of the rock wall. We speculated there was a nest there.
Our final stop of the day was at Cameron Falls where not only did we have a great time watching the antics of the local Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel population, but we also saw yet another American Dipper, this one very well. We arrived at our hotel, the Prince of Wales Hotel, and admired its architecture and its spectacular view.
June 12 – Before breakfast we made our way to Maskinonge, an area of wetland near the entrance to Waterton Park. Birding here was quite good this morning and we added several species to the list including Sandhill Crane, Pied-billed Grebe, Belted Kingfisher, a stunning male Black-headed Grosbeak and a very obliging Northern Waterthrush.
Mammals seen this morning included several American Elk and a number of White-tailed Deer, in addition to the usual Columbian Ground Squirrels. As we made our way back to the hotel we were very happy to stumble upon a Red Fox and her cubs!
After a very nice breakfast we picked up lunch and made our way up the Cameron Lake Road for much of the day. While we did see several interesting and new birds here, the mammals really stole the show. We pulled into a picnic area, got our scopes and cameras out and began birding when I spotted a ‘blond’ Black Bear coming towards us through the trees. The bear clearly had no fear of humans so we retreated towards the van, cameras clicking all the way. Park rangers promptly arrived and we followed their instructions to get in the vehicle. The bear came right up to our van, even sniffing the tires, and fed on grass and dandelions only 6 feet away!
After the bear left us alone and headed into the trees we repositioned and tried to see a Fox Sparrow I had heard. Nicola spotted the sparrow quickly and we had nice scope views of this the ‘Slate-colored’ race of Fox Sparrow. In a nice patch of spruce woodland we were treated to great views of a male Varied Thrush, as well as very boisterous Pacific Wren as it sang its heart out from the trees in front of us. At Cameron Lake we saw our one and only Steller’s Jay of the tour, and we watched an American Red Squirrel carry its babies in its mouth to a new location. I spotted a Moose swimming across the lake and we watched through the scope as the large animal made pretty quick work of the lake, emerging on the other side. We had more looks at Varied Thrush here, along with Wilson’s and Townsend’s warblers and Dark-eyed Junco.
A drive through the Bison Paddock was quite rewarding and we were treated to very up close looks at a small herd of American Bison that are genetically pure descendents of the massive herds that once roamed the prairie. There were a few large bulls, and a number of cows with suckling calves.
On ponds here we had our only Barrow’s Goldeneye of the tour, along with Cinnamon Teal, Ring-necked Duck, Bufflehead and Lesser scaup. A pair of Mountain Bluebirds perched next to their nest box on a fence line and another exciting mammal for the day, American Badger appeared. There was one adult badger and two youngsters playing about in the wind at the entrance to their burrow. What a treat! Our final dinner together as a group was a very enjoyable one, and we reflected on how well we had done for birds, mammals, and the weather. At this point the rain was really coming down outside so we were quite happy to have mostly sunny weather for this tour.
June 13 – After breakfast we emerged from the Prince of Wales Inn to find it was quite a cool and fresh morning after overnight rains. We made the drive of about 1.5 hours to Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump and explored the excellent museum as well as the physical jump site. Our only Yellow-bellied Marmots of the tour were seen very well here as they basked on rocks and on the concrete structure of the museum as well. Birds were few but included Brown Thrasher, House Wren, Cedar Waxwing and Gray Partridge. As we neared Calgary a thunderstorm arrived and made the last ten minutes to the airport quite interesting. We said our goodbyes at the airport and began the journey home after a very adventuresome holiday in southern Alberta.