Saskatchewan ~ Cranes & Geese. Oct 2 to 7, 2018

September 29 to Oct 2 – I arrived ahead of the group of September 29, flying into Saskatoon and picking up a rental vehicle, then driving north to Prince Albert for the night. I spent September 30 exploring Prince Albert National Park, beginning with a little exploration of the lovely little town of Waskesiu. It was cold, breezy and there was a skiff of snow on the ground. As I pulled up to the shore of Waskesiu Lake, I immediately

fox sparrow
‘Red’ Fox Sparrow. Waskesiu, SK. Sep 30, 2018. Chris Charlesworth.

noticed a bunch of birds on the ground foraging. There were sparrows, including ‘Red’ Fox Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Harris’s Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow and White-crowned Sparrow here. Hermit Thrush also hopped about on the ground, along with a number of ‘Slate-colored’ Dark-eyed Juncos. In the trees around the town, the wheezy calls of Boreal Chickadees were heard often, along with the mechanical ‘beeping’ of Red-breasted Nuthatches. I went to photograph some elk on a lawn, when I heard a strange call note. I tracked it down and it was a Palm Warbler, along with a few ‘Myrtle’ Yellow-rumped Warblers. A Black-backed Woodpecker was a nice surprise this morning, right near the playground on the shore of the lake. Huddled on the beach were a few Ring-billed, California and Bonaparte’s gulls.

I explored down the road to the Narrows, encountering about the world’s tamest Red Fox along the way. Obviously people had been feeding this animal. Down at the Narrows I saw a group of three River Otters on a sandbar, and today I saw many Red Squirrels and

spruce grouse
Spruce Grouse. Prince Albert Nat Park, SK. Sep 30, 2018. Photo: Chris Charlesworth.

several Mule and White-tailed deer as well. A Winter Wren called several times and appeared briefly. A short walk along the Treebeard Trail produced more Boreal Chickadees, another Winter Wren, some White-winged Crossbills and a late Orange-crowned Warbler.

Before I left the park I took a walk along the Boundary Bog Boardwalk. The highlight here for me was a stunning male Spruce Grouse that was sitting right in the middle of the trail. More Boreal Chickadees, my first Canada Jays, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Brown Creeper and the calls of American Three-toed Woodpeckers were also found here. I drove back down to Saskatoon where I spent the night.

The next morning I headed out towards Viscount, east of Saskatoon, where ebird showed a few reports of Whooping Cranes. Today, a light snow fell for much of the day. Birds were numerous though. I found the area where a couple thousand Sandhill Cranes were

whooping crane
Whooping Cranes, Muskiki Lk, SK. Oct 1, 2018. Photo: Chris Charlesworth.

foraging on a distant hillside. Suddenly some white shapes appeared from behind a hill and they were Whooping Cranes, 9 of them.

Ponds and lakes in the Viscount area were full of the usual waterfowl, and fields had quite a few American Golden-Plovers today. Rusty Blackbirds were fairly common, at the edges of ponds and puddles. I searched through hundreds of Lapland Longspurs, looking for Smith’s Longspur with no luck. There were some Horned Larks mixed in however.

From Viscount I headed to Muskiki Lake and on a small puddle a few km from the lake, I found three more Whooping Cranes resting. One particular field had 70 or so American Golden-Plovers. Harris’s Sparrows were noted at various places today. Feeling I had successfully ‘scouted’ this area for the tour, I headed back to Saskatoon.

On my final morning of scouting, I was joined by Nancy, Liz and Cathy, from Prince

lapland longspur
Lapland Longspur. Viscount, SK. Oct 1, 2018. Photo: Chris Charlesworth.

George. We returned to the Viscount area where again we found several Whooping Cranes at the same place I had seen them the day before. Liz spotted an American Goldfinch, and several Harris’s Sparrows along a muddy track. A single Rusty Blackbird flew overhead, calling.

Before we finished up for the day, I spotted an immature Sabine’s Gull, locally a rare bird, as it foraged on a lake alongside Franklin’s and Ring-billed Gulls. Near Crawford Lake we enjoyed watching a massive flock of geese, with mostly Snow Geese involved, as they flew and landed several times on the fields.

The group was supposed to all arrive this afternoon and evening, but mother nature had other plans. There was quite a significant early season snow fall in Calgary, and this delayed several people. Those of us that were present went out for dinner at an Italian restaurant in downtown Saskatoon.

Oct 3 – We awoke to a nicer day, with mixed sun and cloud as we explored trails along the South Saskatchewan River at ‘the weir’. A few lingering migrants were about including Yellow-rumped and Orange-crowned warblers, Lincoln’s, Swamp, Fox and

Red-throated Loon. ‘The Weir’. Saskatoon, SK. Oct 3, 2018. Photo: Melissa Hafting.

White-throated sparrows, Hermit Thrush, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and the like. Down on the river we spotted an adult Red-throated Loon, a local rarity that had been present for several days. Cathy spotted a Black-crowned Night-Heron resting in the trees and it flushed and headed straight past much of the rest of the group. Blue Jays called, but mostly remained hidden in the trees. Downy and Hairy woodpeckers were noted here. By the time we were finished here, we’d tallied close to 40 species.

After a coffee stop, we returned to the airport area to pick up Dave and Julia, from California. They were supposed to arrive the previous evening, but the Calgary snowstorm had delayed them until lunch time today. Once they had joined us we headed east of Saskatoon to Colonsay where we had a delicious lunch at the Tin Shack Restaurant, home of the soon to be famous Meatloaf Grilled Cheese sandwich. After lunch we made our way to Viscount to find Whooping Cranes for the group. It took a bit

Whooping Cranes, E. of Saskatoon, SK. Oct 2018. Photo: Melissa Hafting.

of searching, but eventually we found a group of Whooping Cranes in a field. We counted several times and eventually came up with 26 birds in the group, a great start to our crane and goose tour! In addition to the Whooping Cranes, there were many Sandhill Cranes in the area as well. We encountered a huge flock of Snow Geese this morning, and I got the scope out and showed the group one Ross’s Goose mixed in. Raptors were quite prevalent as well, with a lot of Red-tailed Hawks seen most days on tour. We had a couple of Bald Eagles this afternoon, as well as Northern Harrier and a Rough-legged Hawk. We returned to Saskatoon in the evening as the sun set. Back at the hotel we were met by Dave from Calgary, the final delayed participant to arrive! Finally, we were a full group, including 10 participants, myself and co-leader Melissa Hafting. We went for dinner at a local favorite restaurant, the Granary.

Oct 4 – This morning we headed S.E. of Saskatoon towards Last Mountain Lake National Wildlife Refuge, apparently the oldest of its kind in North America. A locally rare Bay-breasted Warbler had been spotted along the S. Saskatchewan River at Kinsmen Park, so we checked here first. We couldn’t find the warbler, but we did see some other interesting species such as ‘Red’ Fox Sparrow, Hermit Thrush, Orange-crowned Warbler, and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. On the river we spotted the Red-throated Loon again, this time farther away, but nonetheless, a chance for those people who had not yet arrived when we saw the loon the first time, to see it as well themselves. We picked up lunch at Subway and then headed south. As we drove along Hwy 11, we spotted an unusual raptor sitting on a fence post next to the highway, so we pulled over, got out the scopes, and after walking a short distance closer, we determined it to be a light morph immature Rough-legged Hawk. Flocks of Snow Geese, Canada Geese, Cackling Geese, and a few Sandhill Cranes were scattered across the horizon.

The bumpy road towards the refuge produced a few flocks of geese, Northern Harrier,

Gray Partridge, Last Mountain Lake, SK. Oct 2018. Photo: Melissa Hafting.

and a number of Red-tailed Hawks. Melissa radioed to me that there were Gray Partridge up ahead so my van sped off to have a look. Luckily we arrived just in time and watched the covey of partridge wander across an open field and disappear into a stand of aspens. We took the ‘scenic route’ around Last Mountain Lake, due to the fact that on our main route in, there was a full on cattle drive in operation. The cowgirl, named ‘Cheryl’ apparently, kindly told us they’d be 20 min to a half hour until the cows were off the road, so we tried a different route. We didn’t end up at the headquarters on our first try, but rather at the Last Mountain Lake Regional Park, where a quick scan of the lake produced Horned Grebe, Red-necked Grebe, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Bonaparte’s Gulls and more. In a nearby field we paused to look through a flock of mixed Lapland Longspurs and Horned Larks. Our second try was successful and we ended up

American Avocet. Last Mountain Lake, SK. Oct 2018. Photo: Chris Charlesworth.

at the refuge headquarters. Here, we utilized their facilities, and then embarked on the short walking look through the grasslands. It was cool and breezy out there, and we were all bundled up. Birds were few and far between as we walked through the mixed prairie grasses. Birding on the ponds and lakes, however, was very productive. We pulled up to the shore of the lake, got out our scopes and began scanning, new birds being called out from every which direction. ‘Great Blue Heron’, somebody said, and another person called out ‘American White Pelican’. There were American Avocets, Pectoral Sandpipers, Tundra Swans, Redheads, Canvasbacks. American Coots and many other species present here today. Raptors were also fairly numerous today, with several sightings of Red-tailed Hawks, Bald Eagles, Northern Harrier, Rough-legged Hawk and Merlin. Melissa’s participants saw our only Swainson’s Thrush of the tour, a bird perched on a fence post next to the road. Western

‘Prairie’ Merlin. Last Mtn Lake, SK. Oct 2018. Photo: Melissa Hafting.

Meadowlarks were seen nicely as they skulked through the short grasses. All in all it was a fantastic day. We had dinner at a Greek place, that really wasn’t very Greek at all. We’ll all take a round of double moussakas!

Oct 5 – We loaded up our luggage today, as we would be traveling on to Prince Albert at the end of the day today. Once we picked up sandwiches at Subway from perhaps the most friendly Subway employee ever, we headed east to Viscount. Dave A, the most delayed of all the folks from Calgary’s weather fiasco, still hadn’t see Whooping Cranes, so we returned to the same area we had seen them two days earlier. It didn’t take long to spot the large white figures out in the field and within no time we were enjoying fantastic views of 26 Whooping Cranes through the scope! A short look in a patch of brush before we left added a Great Horned Owl to our trip list. We saw several American Tree Sparrows, and a White-breasted Nuthatch flew

grain elevator
Grain elevator near Muskiki Lake, SK. Oct 2018. Photo: Chris Charlesworth.

right over our heads. New for the mammal list this morning were two Striped Skunks that were frolicking about at the edge of the road, and a Thirteen-lined Ground-Squirrel seen by Melissa and her passengers.

We explored a road along the east side of Muskiki Lake next, and one of the first interesting species we saw was a Ruffed Grouse right on the side of the road. As we pulled up close to the grouse, a flock of Gray Partridge flew from one patch of trees to another. Where we had lunch it was pretty quiet, though Monica did hear a calling Blue Jay. Down on a pond closer to the lake were a couple hundred Cackling Geese. We paused to take some photos of a rather scenic red grain elevator, a real iconic Canadian scene, out on the prairie. I took the group to a pond north of Muskiki Lake where I had seen 3 Whooping Cranes earlier in the week. To my surprise there were 5 there today! Cathy almost flushed 2 American Golden-Plovers from the prairie right beneath her feet, but the birds scurried a short distance and we were able to view them through the scopes.

Making a last minute decision we altered our itinerary and headed for the town of Marcelin, about an hour away. There had been ebird reports of large numbers of Whooping Cranes in the area. We checked the ebird location, but found nothing but empty fields being worked over by harvesters. Next, we tried another spot that I had heard about, in some fields in the opposite direction. As we drove closer, I spotted a field dotted in large white birds. They were Whooping Cranes. We hopped out of the van and began counting. Our counts came up with a high of 126 Whooping Cranes, all in one flock! This made our day total of Whoopers, 157, not far off %30 of the wild world population of these beautiful birds. We all left feeling emotional and in awe that we had seen so many Whooping Cranes today.

Part of unprecedented flock of 126 Whooping Cranes, near Marcelin, SK. Oct 2018. Photo: Melissa Hafting.

Once in Prince Albert we went out for dinner at Amy’s Restaurant, which was very nice. After dinner we headed into the outskirts of Prince Albert, in the dark, ending up in front of the house of my friend’s Harold and Shelly Fisher, a father and daughter, who operate an owl banding station here. Technically, first we ended up in somebody else’s driveway, but that’s not important. Upon arrival we were greeted by Harold, and Shelly and her other half, Dale. They were holding two species of owl, one a Northern Saw-whet Owl and the other a Long-eared Owl. All 15 of us trudged into Harold’s kitchen where we

prince albert park
Colors around Prince Albert, SK. Sep 2018. Photo: Chris Charlesworth.

admired the owls and watched as the bird received its new piece of jewelry, a leg band with an identifying number on it. The owls were studied for plumage molt, and thus could be determined their age. By weighing the owls we determined the owl’s sex, as females are heavier than males. Liz got to release the lovely Long-eared Owl, whose name had now been coined as Hooper. Many others got to release Northern Saw-whet Owls, as we banded several of them tonight. A Barred Owl called from the woods here too. The night sky was wonderful, and we said goodbye to the banders and returned to Prince Albert for some much needed rest.

Oct 6 – After picking up lunch to go at Tim Horton’s, we left Prince Albert and drove north for about an hour, to Prince Albert National Park. Along the way, we paused to photograph a male Pileated Woodpecker that was working away on a telephone pole. Cathy thought she saw a Great Gray Owl, which got our excitement levels up, but upon

Female Spruce Grouse. Prince Albert National Park. SK. Oct 2018. Photo: Chris Charlesworth.

return the bird was no longer there. Once in the park, a few stray snowflakes were falling. We headed for the Boundary Bog trail and boardwalk. The first interesting birds we found were Golden-crowned Kinglets and several Boreal Chickadees. Farther along the path, several people caught a glimpse of a female Spruce Grouse in the bog. We all saw a female and then a male Spruce Grouse a little further down the path, where both were sitting at the edge of the trail. ‘Male American Redstart’, Nancy said, and we quickly scrambled to get the best viewing place of this little gem of a warbler as it foraged on, and close to the ground. It was moving about with one or two ‘Myrtle’ Yellow-rumped Warblers. Eventually everyone had a lovely look at the bird, which, though rather common as a breeding species, should be much farther south at this point in the migration.

We pulled into a parking spot in Waskesiu and I hopped out and exclaimed ‘Harris’s Sparrows’, as two of these rather uncommon, and sought-after sparrows, foraged on a grassy hillside. ‘Woodpecker’ called Monica, and once the scope was on the bird, it was revealed to be a female American Three-toed Woodpecker. Red-breasted Nuthatches and Dark-eyed Juncos were rather numerous, and there were a few Yellow-rumped Warbler

Cape May Warbler. Waskesiu, SK. Oct 2018. Photo: Chris Charlesworth.

around, but Melissa found another nice rarity this morning, a male Cape May Warbler. This bird also got people scrambling, for good views and to grab their cameras. Out on a little rocky point there were Ring-billed, California and two Herring gulls, the latter species, the only for the tour of its kind. Another woodpecker flew over and Melissa and I discussed that we thought it was a Black-backed Woodpecker. It did not ever reappear however, so we will never know for sure.

We headed down the Narrows Road, pulling in at South Bay to have lunch. It was cold, and windy and everybody except me stayed in the vehicle to eat. By the time I had finished my sandwich, the lettuce poking out the far end had frozen! We flushed a male Snow Bunting from the side of the road as we headed towards the Narrows. We saw a few Canada Jays, as they gave off their alarm calls and slinked off into the boreal forest. A displaying male Ruffed Grouse was another great highlight this morning, as he pranced about at the side of the road with his black ruff fully flared out. At the Narrows there were a few Hooded Mergansers, Common Goldeneye, Common Loon, and a Belted

Snow Bunting. Prince Albert National Park, SK. Oct 2018. Photo: Melissa Hafting.

Kingfisher. I let out my best Barred Owl imitation, and it must have been ok, since several of the birders in my group emerged from the woods to see where the owl was. It did attract a couple of Blue Jays and a Hairy Woodpecker at least. We had a quick look along the bottom reaches of the Treebeard Trail, but again did not find much. An American Three-toed Woodpecker was heard and my Barred Owl call entertained the group. As we drove back towards Waskesiu, Melissa radioed, ‘Snow Bunting’, so we stopped and sure enough there was another Snow Bunting, this one a female type, foraging in the leaflitter in the ditch. We returned to Waskeskiu via the golf course, where several Elk were resting and feeding on the greens. In town, some people went to look one more time for the Black-backed Woodpecker, but all they found was a Cooper’s Hawk and not much else. Others had a coffee and a snack in the deli before we began the journey of just over two hours back to Saskatoon. This evening we went out

Elk. Waskesiu, SK. Oct 2018. Photo: Chris Charlesworth.

for dinner at Station Place, an old railway car converted into a restaurant.

Oct 7 – Our final morning of birding in Saskatchewan began at 7 AM. We headed south of town to Blackstrap Reservoir where we spent much of the morning. Upon arrival we saw a whole group of Double-crested Cormorants, one of which was really harassing a Ring-billed Gull to give up its food. Dave A, and several others came back from a walk along the shore boasting they had seen a Yellow-headed Blackbird so we all went and took a look. Sure enough, a Yellow-headed Blackbird, a male, was foraging in the grasses right at the edge of the road. A female Belted Kingfisher sat in a bush next to the lake, surveying the situation, while on the water were Bufflehead, Red-necked Grebe, Western Grebe, Pied-billed Grebe, Lesser Scaup and more. A single American White Pelican was good to see, since some of the folks found a dead one on the beach as well. An immature Black-crowned Night-Heron, only our second for the trip, flew across the water. Overhead were skeins of Snow Geese and I picked out a Ross’s Goose, but couldn’t get anyone else onto it before they had disappeared. Four Harris’s Sparrows sat together on a fence next to the road at one point, and finally we had pretty good views of Blue Jays here. Yellow-rumped Warblers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets were moving through the lakeside vegetation, and we saw a Hairy Woodpecker and a ‘Yellow-shafted’ Northern Flicker too. Our list of species for this location was nearly 40 species!

group shot
Almost a full group shot, except for Nancy. Chris was taking the picture! Oct 2018. Photo: Chris Charlesworth.

We headed back towards Saskatoon, stopping in at Gabriel Dumont Park. There had been a couple of uncommon warblers reported here the day before, but we couldn’t find them. Melissa and I did hear the ‘tshat’ call note of a Common Yellowthroat here though. Two Swamp Sparrows performed nicely for everyone, allowing scope views and Black-capped Chickadees were numerous. Our final official birding stop of the tour was at Heritage Park where there had been a Magnolia Warbler reported. It didn’t take too long for Melissa to find it and eventually most of us had enjoyed pretty good views. While searching for the Magnolia, I spotted a Nashville Warbler, and it was seen by at least one other tour participant. Both of these warbler species should be long gone from the Saskatoon area by this point in the fall migration. Another addition to the trip list here, finally, was Common Grackle. We saw White-breasted Nuthatch for just the second time on the tour, and Nancy pointed out a ‘Red’ Fox Sparrow here. We scurried off, as our bellies were telling us it was time for lunch. Our final meal of the tour was a good one at the Saskatoon landmark ‘The Berry Barn’. After lunch we returned to the airport area, said our goodbyes and hoped for smooth travels for everyone on their return trips home. Our trip list total was 107 bird species.

Chris Charlesworth


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