Saskatchewan ~ Cranes & Geese

September 30 to October 5, 2021

Day 1 – The group arrived in Saskatoon today. I drove from Regina to Saskatoon this afternoon, spotting two large Moose along the way. The 7 folks in the group, from across Canada, including BC, Alberta and Ontario, plus myself, are all fully vaccinated against Covid-19, a requirement of joining a tour with us these days. This is the first tour I have led since the early days of the pandemic, after which travel shut down worldwide. This would be a different tour than any I had previously guided. For one, we are required to wear masks in all public spaces. Vaccine passports had to be presented before entering restaurants. Crowds had to be avoided, and sanitization to had to be a priority. So, armed with binoculars, and disinfecting wipes, we set out on our birding trip. We had a delicious dinner at La Taverna Italian in downtown Saskatoon. As we walked back to the van after dinner, a White-tailed Jackrabbit popped out and hopped about on the downtown streets! Our home base hotel for 4 of the 5 nights on this trip are near the airport on the northern outskirts of Saskatoon.

Day 2 – We left our hotel at dawn and made our way north to an area where I had heard there had been recent sightings of the big white cranes we so sought after. Along the way we saw some of our first flocks of geese strewn across the blue sky. The weather was superb today, with brilliant sunshine and blue skies. Temperatures were over 20 degrees Celsius and there was a light breeze blowing. We turned off the paved highway onto a dusty dirt road, and in the distance we could see some large white birds standing in a field. They were Whooping Cranes. There were 27 of them there, all together in a flock. Twenty-six were adults and just one was a rusty juvenile. They were feeding and jostling with one another, occasionally jumping into the air and flapping their massive black-and-white wings. Our main target bird for the trip. Twenty-seven of them, and at the first stop of the tour. With the Whoopers ‘in the bag’, the pressure for the day was mostly off, but not totally. I had to find some other goodies to entertain the group for the rest of the day.

In addition to the cranes, there were also masses of geese present in the same area. Tens of thousands of them were Snow Geese, but we also had good views of all 4 other regularly seen species of goose in this area; Canada, Cackling, Ross’s, and Greater White-fronted. A pair of Bald Eagles sat near their nest in a row of aspens across a field, and the constant rattling and tinkling of Lapland Longspurs and Horned Larks came from the skies above.

We then checked out a small lake. Or was it a large pond? Anyhow, there were just short of 40 species here. Shorebirds included Greater Yellowlegs, Long-billed Dowitchers, Pectoral Sandpipers, Black-bellied Plovers and best of all an American Golden-Plover. Waterfowl were plentiful and included Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal and a Blue-winged Teal. Overhead a female Northern Harrier sailed by, as did a rather late Turkey Vulture. Flocks of Lapland Longspurs and Horned Larks flew by, some landing briefly on the mud along the shore. Brushy edges to the shore had several species of sparrows in them, including Swamp, White-throated and Song. Several Rusty Blackbirds crept along branches of dead bushes and trees at the edge of the pond. Along the road to this lake / pond, we had a great view of an American Badger barreling off through the stubble, dust flying behind him. Occasionally he would stop and look back at us, showing off his impressive black and white muzzle.

We returned to Saskatoon feeling very content with our morning. After picking up lunch in the supermarket we headed out to explore Cosmopolitan Park, along the shore of the North Saskatchewan River. It was very quiet in the department of migrant songbirds here. No warblers, or vireos or kinglets could be found, though there were a few White-throated Sparrows, American Tree Sparrows and an American Robin or two. Down on the river were quite a few Ring-billed Gulls, along with an adult California Gull. Franklin’s Gulls were overhead, catching insects on the wing. Our first Double-crested Cormorant of the tour was seen flying up the river. We photographed a Richardson’s Ground-Squirrel that was standing next to a building. Moments later a security guard emerged and asked us what we were photographing. It appeared we had high powered cameras aimed at residents in a mental health facility. Once we assured him we were photographing a squirrel, all was well, and off he went. We returned to our hotel for a bit before heading out for a delicious dinner at Bon Temps Cafe.

Day 3 – This morning we had a bit of a drive ahead of us, as we made our way southeast towards Last Mountain Lake National Wildlife Area. Along the drive, we enjoyed some nice sightings including a fairly photogenic adult Sharp-shinned Hawk, and a pair of very large Moose, the male with a huge rack of antlers. Our first Coyote of the tour was also noted as it scurried off through a field. We stopped along the entrance road at a spot with some bird activity. There were plenty of Yellow-rumped Warblers (Myrtle), White-throated Sparrows, Brewer’s Blackbirds, and finally our first flocks of Sandhill Cranes.

Around the visitor’s center we had some nice migrants including half a dozen immature Harris’s Sparrows, Palm Warbler, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and American Robins. ‘Slate-colored’ Dark-eyed Juncos were numerous. Blue Jays were heard, but proved hard to see, while we got nice views of Common Grackles in the trees. For much of our time at the visitor’s center, huge flocks of noisy Sandhill Cranes rattled overhead as they sailed south. They were all gathering at a lake to the south, and several thousand were present. On a bit of water to the south of the center were thousands and thousands of geese. Most appeared to be Snow Geese, and many of them of the ‘blue morph’. We had a picnic lunch at the tables outside.

Next up we did the driving loop, stopping to scope the lake. There were plenty of ducks including Redhead, Canvasback, American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Gadwall, Mallard, Green-winged Teal, Blue-winged Teal, Bufflehead, etc. A few Cackling Geese were spotted in amongst the Canada Geese. Tundra Swans were calling as they flew in to land on the lake. A Great Blue Heron, our first for the tour, waded in the shallows, and a few shorebirds present included Black-bellied Plover and Greater Yellowlegs. Northern Harrier was seen several times today, flying low over the grasslands and marshes.

We parked our cars at the Grasslands Trail entrance, and Anthony spotted a Brown Creeper hitching up the trunk of a tree next to the van. We took a walk through the prairie along the Grasslands Trail, hoping for a glimpse of a rather rare and elusive songbird that would be a lifer for everyone on the tour, including the guide, a Smith’s Longspur. As we walked along, several Lapland Longspurs flushed from the grasses and as did little groups of Horned Larks. Then, two longspurs flew up in front of me, showing all the characteristics of Smith’s Longspur. There was more white in the outer tail feathers than on the Lapland Longspur, as well as a very distinct white patch on the lesser wings coverts. The underparts of the bird were warm and buffy colored.The call matched up, as it was a dry, slightly slower rattle than that of the Lapland Longspur. I got a lifer, and that is a rare occurrence in Western Canada for me these days.

We drove around to the east side of Last Mountain Lake at the regional park, where we scanned the lake once again. We added some new species here such as Western and Horned grebes, American Coots, Bonaparte’s Gulls and Hooded Merganser. Along the edge of the road, we watched Hermit Thrushes and an immature Harris’s Sparrow hopping about in the grass. Another big highlight was an immature Golden Eagle sitting in a tree close to the road, next to a raven. The raven, which is a big enough bird itself, was dwarfed by the eagle.

Driving west on Hwy 15, I did a u-turn to see some Gray Partridge that I had seen out of the corner of my eye. I swear I do watch the road! We pulled up and watched 15 of them as they crouched and skulked in the grass. At the south end of the Blackstrap Reservoir we had 6 American White Pelicans, as well as our first Pied-billed Grebes.

Back in Saskatoon, we had a very good dinner at The Granary.

Day 4 – Our morning began with a drive east of Saskatoon to the Blucher / Clavet area. Once again, it was sunny and beautiful today, though a little on the cool side early in the morning. We drove up and down dusty country roads, looking for cranes, geese and other birds in the fields and on the lakes and ponds. One field was covered in Sandhill Cranes, perhaps 2000 or more of them. A little pothole had some fantastic birds including 34 American Avocets, in their black and white winter plumage. Other shorebirds here included both American Golden and Black-bellied plovers, as well as Long-billed Dowitchers, some Pectoral Sandpipers and two late Stilt Sandpipers. At Crawford Lake, we added Sanderlings to the trip list, as perhaps two dozen were present and running about on the shore. Huge flocks of geese were in the area, and included all 5 expected species, Snow, Ross’s, Canada, Cackling and Greater White-fronted.

We returned to Saskatoon for lunch and then started the drive north towards Prince Albert. We traveled via Marcelin, in hopes of spotting Whooping Cranes once more. Anthony spotted three cranes flying in the distance and they were Whooping Cranes. We drove towards them, however we were still quite a distance away from them where we got out to set up our scopes. It was a pair of adults and a juvenile bird.

From Marcelin it was about an hour’s drive to Prince Albert. We arrived, checked in to our hotel and then went for dinner at Boston Pizza. After dinner we went out and got fantastic views of a Northern Saw-whet Owl north of the North Saskatchewan River. The owl was incredible, and the night sky also put on quite a show this evening. We added White-tailed Deer to our growing mammal list.

Day 5 – As the sun came up we left Prince Albert and headed north towards Prince Albert National Park. At Boundary Bog we walked the 2 km trail and had some fantastic sightings. We started off with a big target species for the trip, American Three-toed Woodpecker. As we followed the trail we saw several Boreal Chickadees, as well as Canada Jays and our first Golden-crowned Kinglets of the tour.

Two male Spruce Grouse provided another highlight, as they sat still next to the path. White-winged Crossbills called overhead, and we also had great views of a Pileated Woodpecker. In addition to the birds, the scenery was great. Golden colored tamaracks lit up against the blue sky. The trail opened up to a viewing area at the edge of a small lake, where Carl spotted something in the water. We raised our binoculars and realized it was a Northern River Otter!

We then headed into the town of Waskesiu, on the shores of Lake Waskesiu. We grabbed some lunch at the deli and sat at picnic tables near the lake. Along the shore were some gulls, including mostly Ring-billed Gulls, but also one California Gull. Black-billed Magpies tried to get into bear proof garbage bins, without any luck, I might add. After lunch we took a little drive around to try and spot some American Elk. We found them, about 8 or so, resting on the green grass of the golf course. Most were females, but there was one buck with a big set of antlers.

For the next couple of hours we explored the Narrows Road, stopping in at a couple of locations along the way. At South Bay, we scanned the lake, spying a couple of Common Loons far out on the water. A huge Common Raven poked about on the shoreline right in front of us. Short stops at a little lake provided our first Ring-necked Ducks and Common Goldeneye of the tour, and we had more views of Boreal Chickadees, along with Red-breasted Nuthatches.

As we drove along the Narrows Road, we saw up to 30 Canada Jays, as well as plenty of Dark-eyed Juncos and a couple of obliging Horned Larks! Once at the Narrows, we enjoyed some more views of Common Goldeneye, as well as Red-necked Grebe. There were Rusty Blackbirds present, and the group spotted the 2nd Pileated Woodpecker of the day when I went off to fetch the van. The day was getting on now, and we still had to drive about 2.5 hours back to Saskatoon. The drive was pleasant, but as we neared ‘Toon Town’, a hazy smoke drifted in, apparently from forest fires around Hudson Bay. We went out for a delicious meal this evening at Manos.

Day 6 – It was the final morning of the tour and we hoped to add a few more species to our trip list before all was said and done. We headed to the Saskatoon Forestry Farm, a city park with lots of big trees and manicured lawns. There were some nice birds here, including some birds new for the trip, including White-breasted Nuthatch, House Finch, Purple Finch and Golden-crowned Kinglet.

Our final stop of the tour was at Gabriel Dumont Park, along the shores of the North Saskatchewan River. I hoped we might find a Swamp Sparrow here, as not everyone had obtained a good view of this species yet. In the exact same spot along the shore that I had one in 2018, a Swamp Sparrow appeared and was seen by everyone. Score! There were Yellow-rumped Warblers, a single Palm Warbler, and the final new bird of the tour, an Orange-crowned Warbler here.

We grabbed lunch, took it back to the hotel near the airport, and the tour was all finished. We said our goodbyes and traveled off in various directions. We had tallied 107 species of birds as a group during our tour. Thank you to all who came along. It was a great tour, with fantastic birds, great weather and equally great company. Until next time.

BIRD SPECIES LIST: Snow Goose; Ross’s Goose; Greater White-fronted Goose; Cackling Goose; Canada Goose; Tundra Swan; Blue-winged Teal; Northern Shoveler; Gadwall; American Wigeon; Mallard; Northern Pintail; Green-winged Teal; Canvasback; Redhead; Ring-necked Duck; Bufflehead; Common Goldeneye; Hooded Merganser; Ruffed Grouse; Spruce Grouse; Sharp-tailed Grouse; Pied-billed Grebe; Horned Grebe; Red-necked Grebe; Western Grebe; Rock Pigeon; Mourning Dove; American Coot; Sandhill Crane; Whooping Crane; American Avocet; American Golden-Plover; Black-bellied Plover; Stilt Sandpiper; Sanderling; Pectoral Sandpiper; Long-billed Dowitcher; Greater Yellowlegs; Bonaparte’s Gull; Franklin’s Gull; Ring-billed Gull; California Gull; Common Loon; Double-crested Cormorant; American White Pelican; Great Blue Heron; Turkey Vulture; Golden Eagle; Northern Harrier; Sharp-shinned Hawk; Bald Eagle; Red-tailed Hawk; Northern Saw-whet Owl; Belted Kingfisher; American Three-toed Woodpecker; Downy Woodpecker; Hairy Woodpecker; Northern Flicker; Pileated Woodpecker; American Kestrel; Merlin; Canada Jay; Blue Jay; Black-billed Magpie; American Crow; Common Raven; Horned Lark; Black-capped Chickadee; Boreal Chickadee; Red-breasted Nuthatch; White-breasted Nuthatch; Brown Creeper; Winter Wren; Marsh Wren; Golden-crowned Kinglet; Ruby-crowned Kinglet; Hermit Thrush; American Robin; European Starling; Cedar Waxwing; House Sparrow; American Pipit; House Finch; Purple Finch; White-winged Crossbill; Pine Siskin; American Goldfinch; Lapland Longspur; Smith’s Longspur; American Tree Sparrow; Savannah Sparrow; Fox Sparrow; Song Sparrow; Lincoln’s Sparrow; Swamp Sparrow; White-throated Sparrow; Harris’s Sparrow; White-crowned Sparrow; Dark-eyed Junco; Western Meadowlark; Rusty Blackbird; Brewer’s Blackbird; Common Grackle; Orange-crowned Warbler; Palm Warbler; Yellow-rumped Warbler.

MAMMAL SPECIES LIST: White-tailed Jackrabbit; Red Squirrel; Richardson’s Ground-Squirrel; Muskrat; Northern River Otter; American Badger; Coyote; White-tailed Deer; Mule Deer; Moose; American Elk.

PHOTOS: From top of report to bottom: Snow & Ross’s geese by Nigel Eggers; Whooping Cranes by Chris Charlesworth; Snow Geese by Chris Charlesworth; Richardson’s Ground-Squirrel by Chris Charlesworth; Moose by Chris Charlesworth; Sandhill Crane by Chris Charlesworth; Rusty Blackbird by Nigel Eggers; Hermit Thrush by Nigel Eggers; Golden Eagle by Chris Charlesworth; American White Pelican by Chris Charlesworth; Greater White-fronted geese by Chris Charlesworth; Horned Lark by Chris Charlesworth; Northern Saw-whet Owl by Nigel Eggers; Boundary Bog fall colors by Chris Charlesworth; American Three-toed Woodpecker by Chris Charlesworth; Elk by Chris Charlesworth; Canada Jay by Nigel Eggers; Spruce Grouse by Chris Charlesworth; Golden-crowned Kinglet by Nigel Eggers; Harris’s Sparrow by Nigel Eggers; Group at Boundary Bog by Chris Charlesworth.

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