June 1 ~ This afternoon I met up with the group of 6, of which two live in Alberta, and the rest are from the U.K. This is a joint Limosa / Traveling Naturalists trip. After dinner we disappeared into our rooms for some rest, but anyone looking out their bedroom windows would have noted one of the most memorable things about Alberta, the sunsets.
June 2 ~ After a delicious breakfast we made our way an hour south of Calgary to Frank Lake, a very productive wetland habitat near the town of High River. As we made our way to the lake, we paused at several ponds and ditches along the way where a nice selection of waterfowl was collected. Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, Cinnamon and Blue-winged teal, Mallard, Lesser Scaup and Redhead were included here, alongside shorebirds like American Avocet, Willet, Wilson’s Phalarope, Spotted Sandpiper and Killdeer. Along the
dusty road to Frank Lake we were constantly entertained by roaming flocks of Yellow-headed Blackbirds, with lesser numbers of Red-winged Blackbirds, Brewer’s Blackbirds and Brown-headed Cowbirds mixed in. Tree Swallows poked their heads out of nest boxes while Savannah Sparrows seemed to occupy a number of fence posts. We also saw Clay-colored Sparrows here as well and had brief encounters with Nelson’s Sparrow. A pair of Gray Partridge was a nice find this morning as well.
We walked through the long grass down to the edge of the lake where we set up scopes and began tallying a dizzying array of birds. Eared, Western and Pied-billed grebes, Osprey, American White Pelicans, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Forster’s Terns, Common Yellowthroat, Marsh Wren, Ruddy Ducks, Bufflehead and Black-necked Stilt were all called out by our group, as well as a number of others. A school group of about 40 children
invaded the place and we patiently waited for them to vacate so we could carry on birding. Not before pausing for lunch in High River, however. Behind the restaurant in town we saw several Common Grackles foraging around a little reservoir. Back out to the Frank Lake area and we first explored a country road on the north side of the lake. Swainson’s Hawks were rather obliging along this road, with one bird even found sitting on a nest in a little fir next to the road. Red-tailed Hawk was also spotted, though at a bit of a distance. Our first butterfly of the tour, a Common Alpine, emerged from the grasses when the sun poked out. Along fence lines both Western and Eastern kingbirds posed, while Western Meadowlark and Vesper Sparrow also showed. On our way back down to the hide we dodged Richardson’s Ground Squirrels, which are particularly common around Frank Lake. From the hide we had great views of Western and Eared grebes, Ruddy Ducks, Black-necked Stilts, White-faced Ibis, Canvasback and more. A Sora made a brief appearance in the marsh, though it left most of us wanting more. We returned to Calgary in the late afternoon as the wind picked up considerably and some storm cells began to accumulate. At the end of the day we had tallied about 70 species.
June 3 – Our day was spent in the foothills near Cochrane, west of Calgary. We enjoyed fantastic weather today with sunny skies and pleasant temperatures. As we followed the Trans-Canada Hwy west from Calgary we caught a glimpse of a White-tailed Jackrabbit. After a short ‘pit-stop’ in Cochrane we made our way to Horse Creek Road where we explored a marshy area that proved to be very productive this morning. Sparrows were numerous here and along with the usual Clay-colored and Savannah sparrows we had several other species new for the trip list such as Song Sparrow, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow and the elusive Le Conte’s Sparrow. Local birders call this road ‘Snipe Alley’ and we could see why as there were several Wilson’s Snipe on fence posts and in watery ditches. All the while we could hear winnowing, or drumming snipe overhead as well.
Three Wilson’s Phalaropes fed on a small pond in front of us, with one brightly colored female and two somewhat drab males. Sora called several times, but remained hidden in the marsh. Some caught a brief glimpse of a Least Flycatcher this morning, but it disappeared before everyone could get a look. A little farther down the road we saw both male and female Mountain Bluebirds on wires alongside the van.
Our next stop was at a little log house / community center where I hoped to see Eastern Phoebe. We did see the phoebe eventually, as well as a number of other interesting species such as White-throated and Chipping sparrows, Tennessee Warbler and a gorgeous male Rose-breasted Grosbeak. With the warm weather several butterfly species were about today including our first Northern Crescent and several tiny unidentified blues. Some cattle ranchers were herding cows here, and one little fellow was trying to escape so we attempted to help them out. The little calf managed to sneak past Colin, not for lack of effort. Before heading into town for lunch we made one last stop at a small bog. More new birds were added to the list here including a very nice Alder Flycatcher, a couple of American Goldfinches and a Solitary Sandpiper that was perched atop a tree. Overhead a Red-tailed Hawk was being pestered by Red-winged Blackbirds. An Old World Swallowtail, a rather large and bright yellow and black butterfly, sailed slowly by.
After lunch in Cochrane we did a little exploring along Grand Valley Road. In spruce / pine forests here we had another batch of new species with Townsend’s Solitaire, Red-breasted Nuthatch and Ruby-crowned Kinglets tallied. Then, our second experience with cattle of the day occurred, as a cattle drive was taking place right in front of us. Once all the cows had passed we carried on our route a bit farther and found some more goodies including a couple of Boreal Chickadees, a male ‘Myrtle’ Yellow-rumped Warbler and a Dark-eyed Junco. Our first Red Squirrel was noted here as well as it munched on a cone at the forest edge. We returned to Calgary via a slightly different route and Hwy 1A and had a little r & r before dinner.
June 4 – We left Calgary this morning, and enjoyed lovely weather again all day long, much like yesterday, though a few degrees warmer. As we traversed across very straight prairie roads we saw a few ducks at various roadside ponds including Canvasback, Blue-winged Teal, American Wigeon, Northern Shoveler and Northern Pintail.
We entered the rather stunning Red Deer Valley and paused in Drumheller to pick up lunch before making our way east towards Hand Hills Lake. Our first Pronghorn Antelope, a rather distant individual, was spotted, so we stopped the van and got out for scope views. Even better than the distant pronghorn was a Long-billed Curlew that was strutting about on the grass nearby. More birds were noted as we stopped at some little groves of aspens along the way; Least Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo, Yellow Warbler and House Wren were seen quite well. At a little wetland along the road we enjoyed some stunning breeding plumage Horned Grebes. We got to Hand Hills Lake and there was a rodeo / stampede taking place this weekend so there were hundreds upon hundreds of people there. Plan B it was, so off we went to Little Fish Lake Provincial Park, which turned out to be a lovely little gem of a spot. We had a picnic while we were entertained by several Cedar Waxwings. We saw Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel here, a rather attractive little rodent that apparently has 13 lines on its back, though we didn’t count. Once finished lunch we scanned the lake which had quite a variety of birds on it. There were many Western Grebes, along with one or two Red-necked Grebes, as well as American White Pelicans,
Double-crested Cormorants, Ring-billed Gulls and several Black Terns here. Among the more usual waterfowl species we saw a couple of pairs of Hooded Mergansers on the lake. In the aspens near the lake we saw a lovely male Baltimore Oriole and we also saw a Brown Thrasher skulking in the lakeside vegetation. This was my first visit to Little Fish Lake and it won’t be my last.
The group spent the last bit of the afternoon exploring the world famous Tyrell Museum of Paleontology and it sounded like they had really enjoyed themselves. Before leaving the museum Colin and Jenny pointed out several attractive dragonflies over a pond; a Cherry-faced Meadowhawk, a Four Spotted Skimmer and a tiny bright blue damselfly. We headed for our hotel and a little down time before heading out for dinner.
June 5 – Shortly after 7 AM we left Drumheller and began our journey towards Dinosaur Provincial Park, about 1.5 hours away. Along the drive we paused to view several wetland areas along Hwy 56 south of Drumheller. As usual the ponds held many ducks, as well as shorebirds including Wilson’s Phalarope, Willet, Marbled Godwit, Black-necked Stilt and American Avocet. Along a fence line I spotted an Upland Sandpiper and we had great views
of this bird. Another exciting find this morning was a male Lark Bunting, decked out in black and white, along the same fence line as the Upland Sand. We were off to a cracking start!
Once at Dinosaur Provincial Park we headed for the campground and the tall cottonwoods along the Red Deer River. The area was alive with birds and the more common species included Least Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo, Yellow Warbler, Common Grackle and Cedar Waxwings. Several Brown Thrashers were noted and we saw our first Gray Catbirds and Western Wood-Pewee of the tour. Common Nighthawks could be heard calling and after a bit of searching we finally saw a couple flying over the treetops. We had a picnic lunch then did a little exploring in the badlands. We saw our first Rock Wrens and Lark Sparrows here, and we saw Prickly Pear and Pincushion cacti along our walk, as well as stunning scenery. We took a stroll through Cottonwood Flats and as we entered the trail a couple of people told us to be on the lookout for a Moose they had seen. Shortly thereafter we found the Moose, a young male, galloping out of sight across a meadow. We added several new species of birds here; Northern Flicker, Spotted Towhee, Red-eyed Vireo, American Kestrel and Yellow-breasted Chat.
After an ice cream at the cafe we headed for a viewpoint and upon arrival we were greeted by a Prairie Rattlesnake right next to the parking lot! The view of the badlands was breathtaking and just when we thought it couldn’t get any better we spotted a Prairie Falcon soaring around the cliffs below. Feeling quite content we drove on to Brooks where we spent the night.
June 6 – The weather today was rather spectacular with sunny skies, a warm breeze and hot temperatures. We began on the prairie south of Brooks where Sprague’s Pipits were seen doing their elaborate flight song high overhead. Yet another sparrow was added to our bulging list for that family; Brewer’s Sparrow. The highlight for me was finding a Ferruginous Hawk nest in a cottonwood here with four fluffy chicks inside. Overhead a breeding plumage Common Loon flew past, which made for a somewhat unusual sighting out in the grasslands.
At Kinbrook Island Park we explored a wetland that was teeming with birds. The nice selection of waterfowl included Northern Shoveler, American Wigeon, Cinnamon Teal, Canvasback, Redhead and Lesser Scaup. Yellow-headed and Red-winged blackbirds were numerous and we could hear Sora in the marsh but they remained unseen as usual. A pair of Red-necked Grebes were tending to young, with one adult giving piggy back rides to
young. Overhead, an immature Broad-winged Hawk sailed by, a bit of a surprise sighting. In the campground / picnic area, we strolled about and found a few more goodies, the best of which was a first year male American Redstart singing away. Out on Lake Newell we saw a few Western Grebes, but aside from that and a bustling colony of nesting gulls in the distance, the lake was pretty quiet. A squadron of 30 American White Pelicans were flying in formation just to the north of the lake.
We picked up lunch in Brooks and took it to Tillebrook Provincial Park where we had a picnic. Among the cottonwoods here we picked up a few more species; Downy Woodpecker (male and female), and a rather shy male Black-and-white Warbler that was somewhat unexpected. We found the pellets of Great Horned Owls, but couldn’t find any owls unfortunately. Before leaving the Brooks area we had a quick visit to the historic Brooks Aqueduct.
East of Tilley and just south of the Trans Canada Hwy we stopped in the prairie and enjoyed views of several Chestnut-collared Longspurs as they played in the wind. An adult
and juvenile Horned Lark also were added to the trip list here. A Coyote was briefly seen alongside the hwy this afternoon. We paused to stretch our legs in Medicine Hat at the ‘World’s Tallest Teepee’ before turning south on Hwy 41 to Cypress Hills and Elkwater where we are to spend the next three nights.
June 7 – Before breakfast we assembled outside our hotel and went for a walk along the shore of Elkwater Lake. It was a bit breezy, but the sun was shining and the birds were singing. Red-necked Grebes were noisily going about building nests and doing courtship displays. Two pairs of White-winged Scoters were quite nice to see and were the first for our tour. In the reeds were the usual Red-winged and Yellow-headed blackbirds, along with Common Yellowthroats, Common Grackles and Song Sparrows. Gray Catbird sang vociferously but remained hidden in the bushes. We had views of rather sharp looking male American Redstarts this morning and we saw our first Red-naped Sapsucker, quite a good looking individual as well. Red-eyed Vireo showed well as it sang in the aspens, and
several Pine Siskins posed for scope views. Over a distant ridge our first Turkey Vultures teetered about on the rising thermals. A few mammals seen this morning included the ever present Richardson’s Ground Squirrels, as well as both Mule and White-tailed deer.
After a lovely breakfast at a little local cafe we headed off to do more exploring of Cypress Hills. As we drove through open country at the top of the plateau we saw several Mountain Bluebirds and Tree Swallows along a fence line. At Spruce Coulee we paused in mixed forest and had good views of our first Dusky Flycatcher, a species that reaches the eastern limits of its Canadian range in Cypress Hills. A male Rose-breasted Grosbeak also showed himself here. We followed instructions from other birders who said they had Three-toed
Woodpeckers up a trail, and though we never found this species, we did find Hairy Woodpecker and had great views of a Golden-crowned Kinglet. An Ovenbird sang several times but only showed himself very briefly which was a bit frustrating. We continued along Reesor Lake Road pausing to search for MacGillivray’s Warbler. This proved rather difficult as a male of that species was skulking in the bushes offering up no more than bits and pieces of his plumage at a time. Tennessee Warbler was noted here again however, and we had another view of a lovely male Red-naped Sapsucker. At a nice viewpoint we scanned the grasslands below and spotted a couple of American Elk in the distance, new for the growing mammal list.
We had lunch in the rather hot sun at Reesor Lake and then carried on along Battle Creek Road, making a brief excursion into Saskatchewan. We saw several good birds in Saskatchewan including a Ruffed Grouse that was sitting in the middle of the gravel road, and a lovely male Western Tanager. Other species we noted on the Sask side of the border included Ovenbird, American Redstart, Warbling Vireo, Dusky Flycatcher, White-crowned Sparrow and a Cooper’s Hawk sailing overhead.
Back in Alberta we made one last stop at a bridge over Battle Creek. We didn’t have too much here, but I looked up in the sky and spotted an adult Golden Eagle sailing overhead which was unexpected. As we drove back to Elkwater we saw a healthy looking Coyote trotting off into the sagebrush. We were a bit relieved to be back in the air conditioning for a little break before dinner.
June 8 – Our final full day in southeastern Alberta began at the Fire Rock Campground where, before breakfast, we did a little birding. We had several highlights including a noisy male Wild Turkey that was all puffed up and displaying and a female Barrow’s Goldeneye, both species new for the trip list. We visited Colton Prins, a young friend of mine that was banding birds along the shore of Elkwater Lake this morning. He was a busy chap when we arrived with Red-winged Blackbirds, Song Sparrow, Yellow Warbler, Least Flycatcher and Downy Woodpecker to be banded. As we arrived back at our hotel, I spotted a male Merlin sitting in a tree across the road so we set up the scope and had a good look.
After breakfast we drove south from Cypress Hills to Wild Horse, a remote border crossing between Alberta and Montana. We stopped just short of the border and had great views of a Grasshopper Sparrow as it sang from a barb wire fence. In the same area were several male Lark Buntings, Horned Larks and a Chestnut-collared Longspur. A Common
Nighthawk sailed over as well. We spent much of the day exploring Range Road 20, a well known road for birding, that cuts across some great prairie habitat. A Say’s Phoebe was seen near some hay bails where we figured it must be nesting. A male Bobolink made a brief appearance, but unfortunately didn’t stick around long. We saw a couple of nice Ferruginous Hawks in the area today, including a dark-morph adult, which is rather uncommon. Northern Harriers were also fairly common today. Bird of the day for me anyhow was a Burrowing Owl, my first in Alberta, that sat atop a sagebrush while we watched through the scope. We had lunch in the van, since it was very hot and there is no shade whatsoever in this area. After lunch we carried on our way and continued to find goodies. We searched in a field of longer grass for Baird’s
Sparrow and eventually had great extended views of one. We then searched for McKown’s Longspur and heard one singing in the sky above but couldn’t spot it. Some young redneck ranchers pulled up on their atv and questioned us about what we were doing. We said we were looking for birds but they just looked at us dumbfounded and figured we must be up to disturbing cattle or something. After they let us be we continued along the dusty road and as luck would have it a pair of McKown’s Longspurs sat right in the middle of the road for us to see. Though we saw no new mammal species today we did see several Pronghorn, Mule Deer, White-tailed Deer, the ubiquitous Richardson’s Ground Squirrel and a Coyote. We arrived back at Elkwater feeling like we’d had a great day and after a little rest we headed for dinner. This evening a thunderstorm rolled in and entertained us as we fell asleep.
June 9 -Big news hit the tour this morning when I announced I had become a daddy overnight as my son Carsen was born just before midnight on June 8. There was an air of excitement all day today due to the big news.
After some overnight thunderstorms we emerged from our hotel in Elkwater to find lovely sunshine once again, though temperatures a little cooler. We drove to Medicine Hat and had breakfast at Perkins, then picked up lunch and made our way to Writing On Stone Provincial Park. The drive was broken up with a short stop at Vernon Lake where we added a number of species to our daily tally; Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Marbled Godwit, Willet, Wilson’s Phalarope, Cinnamon Teal, Northern Pintail, Yellow-headed Blackbird and numerous Cliff Swallows were highlights here. We carried on our drive, spotting a nice light immature Ferruginous Hawk on a fence post next to the road. Northern Harriers were seen several times again today, as were Swainson’s Hawks. Horned Larks were abundant all along the roadways. Once at Writing On Stone we immediately struck by the beauty of the place with the winding Milk River, along with stunning coulees, towering cottonwood trees and the Sweet Grass Hills in Montana in the distance, this place is truly gorgeous. At a viewpoint we made our first stop to take photos and take in the scenery. We walked around the campground, finding a nice variety of birds here with Least Flycatcher, Western Wood-Pewee, Brown Thrasher, Gray Catbird, Yellow Warbler, Northern Flicker and dozens of American Robins seen. At a scenic vista overlooking the Milk River we enjoyed stunning looks at a Rock Wren as he sang from a coulee in front of us. The short walk down to The Battle Scene rock art area
was well worth the effort to see some of the parks’ namesake stone writings. Along this walk we saw a Lark Sparrow quite well and Mary pointed out a female Common Merganser with several tiny chicks floating down the river. We had distant views of a Prairie Falcon over a ridge across the river and we watched a pair of Cooper’s Hawks engaged in a display flight as well. From yet another stunning viewpoint we viewed the old Mounted Police outpost in a meadow below. A female Northern Harrier flew in and landed along the bank of the river and proceeded to have a drink. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a harrier drink before. There’s a first for everything. After a little visit to the wonderful visitors center we were on our way to Lethbridge, a drive that took us through Milk River and Stirling to our hotel at the south end of this city of 90,000.
June 10 – From Lethbridge we made our way to Waterton Park, a journey of about 1.5 hours. Once in Waterton we visited Maskinonge, a wetland area excellent for birds. In the marsh we viewed our first Sandhill Crane through the scope, while Osprey also posed for scope views. Over the wetlands several Black Terns swooped to and fro as they caught insects. A pair of Common Loons were a treat for us to see, since the only loon we had seen thus far had been in flight over the prairie. We paused to view a lake just north of our hotel, the Prince of Wales. Here we spotted up to 4 Trumpeter Swans snoozing on a sand bar and a pair of Bald Eagles perched some cottonwoods. Next, we visited Cameron Falls, an impressive waterfall situated close to the Waterton townsite. Here we enjoyed watching a pair of American Dippers feeding young in a nest behind the falls. Also here we had our only Golden-mantled Ground-Squirrel of the tour.
We explored the first half of the Red Rocks Parkway this afternoon as well. Our first stops produced one of the most stunning birds of the tour, Lazuli Buntings. Also new for our bulging trip list was Calliope Hummingbird, a male that sat atop a dead tree alongside the road. We enjoyed several unusually great views of MacGillivray’s Warbler today along the Red Rocks Parkway. New for the mammals list was a Black Bear, spotted by Richard, as it foraged on a grassy hillside above the road. Columbian Ground Squirrels have replaced Richardson’s Ground Squirrels here in the mountains and we saw a number of them today. Our last stop was in a campground where we looked at some very interesting flowers that we eventually identified as Bear Grass. Also here we saw our only Wilson’s Warbler of the tour. We headed for our hotel, situated atop a hill overlooking the stunning Rocky Mountain scenery.
June 11 – Before breakfast we returned to Maskinonge, and though the wind was blowing rather hard, we managed to see some good birds. A Belted Kingfisher, our only for the tour, was noted here, and we enjoyed great views of other birds like Lincoln’s Sparrow, Black Tern and Red-naped Sapsucker. We visited the Hay Barn area where we had views of Northern Waterthrush, Veery, American Redstart, and a flyby Wood Duck.
We returned to our hotel for breakfast and then made our way back out to continue exploring Waterton Park. Along the Red Rocks Parkway we stopped at a beaver pond and though we didn’t see a beaver, we did see Alder Flycatcher, Calliope Hummingbird and heard a Virginia Rail, among others. Farther along we paused to take in the view and the sighting of our first Mountain Chickadee was an added bonus. We paused at another roadside stop along a small creek and were rewarded with great views of a male Rufous Hummingbird. Each time the bird turned his head the gorget shined brilliant red and gold. Overhead today we saw up to three adult Golden Eagles. Other highlights this morning included a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers, briefly visiting their nest hole, and our one and only Willow Flycatcher, a bird that was being harassed by a bold male Calliope Hummingbird. We strolled along the path at Red Rocks Canyon where we watched an adult American Dipper tend to a fledgling. Our first Townsend’s Warblers appeared here and were stunning as ever. We enjoyed views of Swainson’s Thrush, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and our one and only Pacific-slope Flycatcher of the trip. The wild flowers were quite impressive in this area today.
Before we called it a day we paid the Bison Paddock a visit. We drove the road through the rolling grassy hills here, eventually spotting the herd of Bison as they enjoyed a lazy afternoon. As far as birds were concerned we saw our daily Mountain Bluebirds, along with Vesper Sparrows and several species of ducks on the little ponds. We returned our hotel and enjoyed a lovely dinner, the last we would have together on this tour.
June 12 – This morning as we had breakfast at our hotel on a hill overlooking Waterton Lake, the wind blew very strong. Some of us could feel the building rocking on the top floor this morning due to the strong winds. We were on the road by about 8:30 AM and made the drive of about 1.5 hours to Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump. Along the way we enjoyed views of a herd of American Elk. Some of the final birds noted this morning included the omnipresent Swainson’s Hawk as well as abundant Red-winged Blackbirds and the resident colony of Cliff Swallows.
Once at the buffalo jump we made our way inside to escape the winds and we were greeted by a Peigan tribe first nations fellow named Little Leaf who gave us a great lesson on the ways of the local tribes in the days of the buffalo jump and on their ways today. We watched a short and informative video on the buffalo jump and then explored the museum which everyone agreed is done up very well. After lunch in the cafeteria where some of us tried some bison chili and bison burgers, we drove to Calgary. Once in Calgary we stopped off at a local hotel and said goodbye to Ray, Minnie and Jenny. Next stop was at the airport where I bid my farewells to Colin and to Richard and Mary. It had been a great trip and we had found 175 species of birds and a respectable list of mammals as well. I arrived home in Kelowna at 8:45 PM and after meeting Carsen for the first time, life would never be the same again.