We took a seven-day trip out to Alberta to sample the province’s major biomes and their birds: the prairie, aspen parkland, boreal forest, and Rocky Mountains. I found useful background information on the province in Alberta: a Natural History (Hardy, W.G. 1967. Hurtig Pub.). From Yakima, WA, it took us much of the day, without stops, to reach Alberta via Crowsnest Pass. From there, we continued on halfway across the province until nightfall, staying in Bow Island, ready for dawn birding.
30 June. From Bow Island we headed south and east past Manyberries driving section roads through a landscape of dryland farms, rangeland, and patches of shortgrass prairie. Then a steady rain started. We pressed on, stopping as birds showed themselves. Though it rained for much of the morning, by noon we’d seen a good selection of the prairie “specialties” including Upland Sandpiper, Long-billed Curlew, Marbled Godwit, Burrowing Owl, Loggerhead Shrike, Sprague’s Pipit (perhaps 10), and a variety of sparrows including Lark Bunting, Grasshopper and Baird’s Sparrows.
Still trending south and east we crossed Agriculture Canada’s “One Four” Research Area” on Road 22, a truly wonderful stretch of shortgrass prairie. Though it was still raining, there were Horned Larks and Vesper Sparrows everywhere, a Badger lopping along in front of us, and a mud-lined lake full of waterbirds. This spot invited a prolonged study with our scopes, and yielded many species. Here we found Eared Grebe, eight species of ducks and waders such as Greater Yellowlegs and hundreds of Wilson’s Phalaropes.
Then, it abruptly cleared out of the northwest. A brief drying breeze followed. As if to celebrate the storm’s passage, the prairie birds came alive with flight songs of many Horned Larks and Vesper Sparrows. East of Hwy 41, Road 20 beckoned us to explore more shortgrass prairie. A Ferruginous Hawk posed handsomely, and both McCown’s and Chestnut-collared Longspurs performed their wonderful flight songs. Just a few yards north of the border, on Road 12, our only Bobolink of the trip perched closely.
Back on Highway 41, we headed 30 miles north towards the Cypress Hills, a mountain mass rising nearly 2000 feet above the prairies straddling the Alberta and Saskatchewan border. Along the highway, we encountered a hen Sharp-tailed Grouse and chicks by the side of the highway.
An abrupt change to rolling country signaled we were leaving the prairie landscape and entering the Cypress Hills, a misnomer. The early French-Canadian explorers mistakenly thought the Lodgepole Pines here were their “cypres” or Jackpine of eastern Canada. A pretty mosaic of interfingering of grassland and mixedwood forest of Trembling Aspen and White Spruce occurs on the north-facing slopes and ravines, prairie on the south. These hills contain tiny outlying populations of a number of species, both “Western” and “Eastern” in their distribution. Examples of species typical of western North America were Western Wood-Pewee, Dusky Flycatcher, Red-naped Sapsucker, Mountain Bluebird, Western Tanager, and Spotted Towhee. Eastern species included Least Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, Tennessee Warbler, American Redstart, and Ovenbird, Gray Catbird, and Clay-colored Sparrow. Ruffed Grouse, a continent-wide species, exploded from underfoot.
1 July. Leaving Brooks at dawn, we were impressed as we abruptly encountered the escarpment bordering Dinosaur Provincial Park. We stopped by the roadside to admire the multi-hued badlands, a stark and beautiful scene. Rock Wrens sang from the rocky ledges, a Prairie Falcon wailed from cliffs in the distance and a Yellow-breasted Chat sang from the dwarfish riparian below, all species at the edge of their range at this site, a great introduction to the badlands.
The large campground set amidst the tall cottonwood woodland in the valley bottom appeared filled due to the holiday weekend. I’m not sure why because the place was swarming with mosquitoes! Some of the campers had bug tents; we noted others spraying repellent as we did so ourselves. We walked several interpretive trails here, the first into the badlands. Here we observed Great Basin elements such as Prickly Pear Cactus and Greasewood (Sarcobatus vermiculatus) and an abundance of Needle-and-thread Grass; and Lark Sparrows perched atop capstones singing. A doe Mule Deer serenely chewed her cud on 50 feet from us. Our second walk was into riparian habitat, very buggy, indeed. Here we had great views of Red-naped Sapsucker, Brown Thrasher, and Clay-colored Sparrows. Walking along the trail, it became obvious why this place was swarming with mosquitoes. The swales were flooded to a shallow depth, perhaps only an inch or two, perfect for mosquito larvae.
Reflecting on our birding here, it was apparent this site, like the Cypress Hills, held an interesting mixture of both western and eastern species. Western birds included Prairie Falcon, Western Wood-Pewee, Say’s Phoebe, Western Kingbird, Violet-green Swallow, Rock Wren, Spotted Towhee, and Lark Sparrow. Eastern birds we observed included Least Flycatcher, Brown Thrasher, Clay-colored Sparrow, and Baltimore Oriole.
Taking time from birding, we sampled some of the in situ dinosaur exhibits, impressive! In addition to its particularly beautiful scenery, Dinosaur Provincial Park – located at the heart of the province of Alberta's badlands – contains some of the most important fossil discoveries ever made from the 'Age of Reptiles', in particular about 35 species of dinosaur, dating back some 75 million years.
North from Dinosaur Provincial Park, we once again sped along a landscape constantly changing, a mosaic of dryland farming, rangeland, and native prairie. Subtly, though, the shortgrass prairie was changing, to my eye, to “mixedgrass,” a reflection of higher precipitation. I believe this was occurring as the rainshadow effect of the Rockies lessened, as we headed north, and the Rockies here trend northwest; hence we were getting farther from this mountain barrier with each passing mile.
ASPEN PARKLAND PARKLAND AND BOREAL FOREST
By and by, we met scattered patches of dwarfish aspen, outliers of the Aspen Parkland biome, a major vegetation zone that forms the southern part of the boreal forest in Canada’s prairie provinces. With each passing mile, the aspen clumps tended to become larger and more luxuriant and then intermixed with White Spruce. We would spend the next three days in this huge area of ecotone, roughly 10% of the province, moving between aspen parkland and boreal forest depending on soil type, drainage patterns, slope and aspect of the countryside. Only at Calling Lake, our northernmost stop, did we leave behind parkland and enter broad expanses of boreal forest; even there, it was interrupted with patches of parkland.
1 July. Our first stop in the “Northcountry” was at Muriel Lake south of Bonnyville, known for Piping Plover. Traipsing to a smallish bay on the west side of a long sandy spit from Lakeshore Road (the track leading past the abandoned house-thanks for the tip Barry Levine), we scoped the many gulls and terns near at hand and found one Bonaparte’s among the numerous Franklin’s Gulls in addition to the scads of Ring-billed and California Gulls. Common Terns were everywhere, at least 100. We were pleased to see the spit was off limits to all at this season to protect the thousands of nesting waterbirds: pelicans, cormorants, gulls and terns. In the little embayment, we had a superb view of an adult Piping Plover. Also about were Marbled Godwits. These, unlike some we’d encountered on the prairies, showed no signs of agitation at our presence. Had these birds finished nesting?
From here we took Range Road 460 north along the west side of Muriel Lake towards Jessie Lake on the outskirts of Bonnyville. We had very good birding (ducks, gulls, shorebirds, and Sora) from this road looking out into the wetlands. Notable here were lots of Lesser Yellowlegs (100+) and a few Greater (10) Yellowlegs, Stilt Sandpiper (1), Long-billed Dowitcher (5), and Wilson’s Snipe. The fall shorebird migration appeared underway.
Along Ethel Lake Road , west of the lake, we stopped by a snag-bordered sedge marsh at dusk. A Yellow Rail ticked away close by, but the marsh was too wet for our knee-high Wellingtons, so we had to be content hearing this uncommon and sought-after species. Here, we heard Olive-sided and Alder Flycatchers, LeConte’s and Nelson’s, Sharp-tailed Sparrows, and White-winged Crossbill. That night we car-camped at a meadow edge nearby, serenaded by Swainson’s Thrushes until quite late (10:30 pm), revealing we were now reaching northerly latitudes (540 N).
2 July. We began at dawn on the Ethel Lake Road, adding a single White-winged Crossbill at the Black Spruce bog. We focused our efforts in the Boreal Forest at two places. First we headed to Cold Lake Provincial Park, well-known on the birding circuit. This park has great birding in a pretty setting of mixedwood forest. Our first walk was along the Campground Trail from the boat launch to the campground, followed by the Lakeshore Trail back to the boat launch. We encountered a great selection of “eastern” warblers including Tennessee, Magnolia, Myrtle Yellow-rumps, Black-throated Green, Blackburnian, Bay-breasted, Black-and-white, American Redstart, and Ovenbird. Other birds included Cooper’s Hawk, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Eastern Phoebe, Boreal Chickadee. The open second growth woodland in the park, just off the road between the boat launch and campground, was good for Chestnut-sided Warbler, here near its western limits. In a denser tract of aspen, we had Blue-headed Vireo, our only one for the trip.
In the afternoon, we headed west to Lac la Biche and Sir Winston Churchill Provincial Park. Along the way, we stopped by the roadside at a Black Spruce bog and called up a Blackpoll Warbler, though it was quite hot. The park is reached by crossing a causeway, from which we scanned deeper waters of the lake. A flotilla of White-winged Scoters, about 70–strong was our notable find here. Western Grebes peppered the lake, too.
Entering the park, As we drove each campground loop in the park looking for a campsite, we heard a Cape May Warbler, for which this park is noted. The campground at the park was full so we headed east into the “Lakes Country,” and chanced upon a grassy power line right-of-way flanked by mature second growth aspen and spruce woodland, a habitat I judged good for owls and a good spot to camp. We tried for owls such as Barred, Great Gray, and Boreal with no luck, as was to be the case throughout our trip. There was a LeConte’s Sparrow singing here, a bit of a surprise as the grass seemed too dry for this species.
3 July. We spent the whole morning in Sir Winston Churchill Provincial Park, first walking the wide track accessed by the “Staff Only” sign (before the campground on the north side of the road). Our best find on this walk was an adult and just fledged young American Three-toed Woodpecker. We also saw Pileated Woodpecker. On this circuit, we had no luck in finding warblers for which this park is know such as Blackburnian, Bay-breasted, and Cape May. We did, however, hear a Great Crested Flycatcher.
Our second hike here was out to Long Point. This excellent trail wanders through boreal forest and wetlands, then traverses slopes thick with rank shrubbery. We didn’t see a lot of birds on this walk, though tried very diligently for Philadelphia Vireo, but we were only able to muster Red-eyed Vireo. Our biggest find was two male Cape May Warblers in the shrubbery out at the very tip on Long Point. We watched them spring up from the vegetation and begin flying out over the water and then return. This suggested to me these birds were already migrating, which would be very early according to Warblers (J. Dunn, K.Garrett. 1997. Houghton Mifflin) state the fall movement begins in the last third of July). From here, we scanned the opposite lakeshore for our only Bald Eagle of the trip. We took time out for a swim at the deserted beach along the return leg of our hike, flushing a flock of Common Goldeneye and two Greater Scaup (moulting birds?). A flock of cormorants and pelicans were being closely monitored by a dozen or so Herring Gulls, perhaps breeding in the area.
Along the way, we stopped off to view Lake Charron. Scanning this lake gave meaning to the term “duck factory” given to the potholes and wetlands in North America’s northern mid-continent. It was filled to the brim with ducks. Bufflehead by the score, a smattering of Common Goldeneyes and Lesser Scaup, and tons of Gadwalls, American Wigeons, Northern Pintails, Mallards, a few Northern Shoevelers, and Blue-winged Teals. Pretty impressive!
North and west from Lac la Biche, we headed towards Calling Lake, on the birding trail for Palm Warbler and Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. Along the way to this spot, we passed the gargantuan Alberta-Pacific Mill. Train tracks and wide highways lead to this mill, all geared to gobble up immense quantities of logs. A huge log yard with monstrous overhead cranes moving entire truckloads of logs as effortlessly as moving some 2 X 4s. This one complex appears capable of eating up the Boreal Forest for hundreds of miles around it.
At the Athabasca River, we stopped to take in the scene. Here, we felt we had entered the “North Country. The river was huge, the forest stretching away to the horizons. Birds were not numerous. Several Purple Martins were new on our trip list.
Calling Lake was the northernmost stop on our Alberta circuit. This place has a real North Country feel. Expansive Black Spruce bogs appeared common. Farmland plots were small, the overriding impression is that of forest in every direction. Though it was hot and sticky, at a likely looking spot (on highway 1/3 mile north of southern access to town, Black Spruce bog to east of highway), we donned our Wellingtons and traipsed off in to a bog. With little effort, we lured a Palm Warbler into view, then a Boreal Chickadee. A Yellow-bellied Flycatcher responded to our call, but did not come in closer.
We started south at 1630 in the afternoon and two hours later were munching on fast food in Edmonton two hours later, a rude change from the boreal forest. We then headed out to Beaverhill Lake, but were thwarted at our first access when we noticed the lake level was way down. Either we were at the wrong spot or birding opportunities here have changed over the years. We elected to head south, reaching the outskirts of Calgary about midnight. We stayed at the Dickson Rest Area along Highway 2 and awoke to some pretty cool dawn birding: Least Flycatcher, Baltimore Oriole, and Clay-colored Sparrow being notable.
Before heading into the Rockies we drove parts of Calgary for a bit, targeting Merlin in areas of mature spruce. We had no luck with this species, but did blunder into a number of Common Grackles, a relative newcomer to Calgary.
4 July. Escaping busy Banff, we hiked the Marsh Trail near Cave and Basin, finding our first trip Willow Flycatcher. Warblers here were distinctly western in flavor: Orange-crowned, Yellow, Audubon’s Yellow-rumped, Townsend’s, Common Yellowthroat, and Wilson’s.
Wanting to “see all of Alberta,” we had yet to sample the subalpine and alpine habitats. It has been 28 years since I hiked up Parker Ridge, a short hike to an alpine ridge offering chances to see the various high mountain species. This ridge lies in northern Banff, so I talked Ellen into the drive (90 miles) to this area just south of Jasper National Park. How times change! Trail erosion since 1978 has turned the once smooth and narrow tread into a superhighway with countless small treads made by the lawless cutting switchbacks. Nevertheless, the birds are still there; the alpine flowers just as pretty, and the views sublime. We noted Horned Lark, American Pipit, Fox and White-crowned Sparrows, and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch. We half-heartedly searched for White-tailed Ptarmigan, advertised on the interpretive signs, but had no luck (not surprising due to the late afternoon hour). We also kept an ear open for Golden-crowned Sparrow, a species that breeds regularly in Jasper’s subalpine without any luck, too, though I couldn’t recall noting it on Parker Ridge in the past, though the habitat looks similar to that in Jasper.
5 July. We stayed the night in the Castle Mountain Chalet cabins, a nice break from camping. The following morning at dawn, we again hit Johnston Canyon for American Dipper and Black Swift, having no luck on either. So, we poked about nearby Muleshoe Meadows Picnic Area, adding Hooded Merganser and MacGillivray’s Warbler to our trip list. Back to Johnston Canyon, still no dipper. On a hunch, I suggested nearby Moose Meadows, where I’d imagine a swift cruising over early in the morning before ant swarms, the species preferred food, climbed to stratospheric altitudes. Presto, Black Swifts over the meadows! Ours was a momentary glance before two swifts whirred away out of sight. Ellen pointed out an Alder Flycatcher here singing next to a Willow, the first opportunity for her to compare these two quite similar species.
Heading homeward, we made a last stop at the Vista Lake Overlook. Neat to watch here was a cow Moose with her calf swimming (or wading) in the lake far below. We were able to share this wildlife spectacle with a van full of Koreans stopped here; it was neat to hear their gasps (in Korean) at seeing these great beasts! In the snags from this viewpoint, too, we had marvelous studies of a fully attired Pine Grosbeak, our last “trip bird” for our Alberta list.
We left the province with good evidence Alberta is great for breeding birds: 197 species, including 20 waterfowl, 10 diurnal raptors, 13 flycatchers, 4 vireos, 22 warblers, and 21 sparrows. Spicing up the list were 13 shorebirds, some of them migrants.
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Great Horned Owl
American Three-toed Woodpecker
Great Crested Flycatcher
N. Rough-winged Swallow
Cape May Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow
Gray-crowned Rosy Finch