AWOL Part 3 ... Western Swing

It was regret that I couldn't spend more time in the Westby region. It is a rich habitat for many prairie birds that I didn't have a chance to see, but the high winds and ominous forecast signalled the time to move on. I was hoping to find better weather in Saskatchewan, but weather systems have no respect for politcal boundaries. The high winds, torrential rains, and even wet snow severely limitied my birding intentions. Fortunately, there were a few breaks in the weather, and there were a few birds to enjoy.


Heading west from Westby I decided to check out another farm road. I was disappointed to see that the gale force winds had cleared all the fences of any perching sparrows, but my consolation was a pair of Northern Harriers floating in the wind.

The pair of harriers were circling in a field next to the road. They would cruise downwind and then tack slowly upwind. The female was the closest to the road and I was able to position my camera in the car for a couple of shots as it drifted by.

To my disappointment the male harrier kept its distance in the middle of the field.

One last pass with the female harrier. I could have stayed longer but with 500 km to cover, I headed west.

My plan was to stop at Medicine Lake NWR to look for a Bobolink and check out the Pelican nesting site. It's not often that things go as planned, but today was my day. Just after were entered the self-guided loop I spotted a black bird in the short grass to my right. As I got closer it flew to my left and landed on the barbed wire fence. It was my long sought after Bobolink.

The Bobolink only stayed for a couple of shots so I proceeded to the viewing site of the pelican rookery. I wasn't disappointed. It was neat to see about 200 pelicans crowded on the end of the protected island.

Saskatchewan was next on highway 6 and then west on 18 to Cornach and Rock Glen. With the winds gusting over 70 k/h I didn't expect to see much but couldn't miss a Barred Owl in its nest in a grove of trees right next to the road. I made the mistake of getting out of the car and flushing the adult out of the nest. All that remained was a couple of curious nestlings. ***** Egg on my face time - James Page has informed me that this is a Great Horned Owl, and now that I have taken a closer look, I do feel pretty stupid.

Meanwhile, the adult landed in a tree across the pond and had to hang on for dear life in the wind.

Just after the owl a grouse popped up from the grass beside the road and cautiously made its way to the nearby farm field. It looked back cautiously at me while I snapped a couple of record shots. My best guess for the grouse is a Sharp-tailed.

After an early night in Moose Jaw seeking refuge from the wind, rain, and snow, I was delighted to see a few patches of blue in the morning sky. My destination today was Chaplin Lake and hopefully a tour to visit the Piping Plovers. Unfortunately, the tours weren't happening because the rains had rendered the dyke roads impassible. Plan B was to check out a few other conservation spots like Pelican Lake.

Pelican Lake is a conservation area just west of Moosejaw, and it was the scene of a "It's a small world" surprise. A lone blue car was parked at the end of the road with a scope pointed out to the lake. As I approached a familiar face greeted me. It was Gillian from Campbell River. She was working in the area as a field biologist studying Ferruginous Hawks. We exchanged a few pleasantries, and before she left she pointed out a pair of Ruddy Turnstones. However, my first priority was to get some better shots of the Red-necked phalaropes.

There was a flock of about a 100 Red-neckeds working close to shore. As I approached they would fly out and then gradually work their way back to shore.

Meanwhile, I slowly worked my way to the waterline, and in due course the phalaropes grew accustomed to my presence.

Like the Wilson's, the Red-necked female is larger and more colourful

After the phalaropes were flushed the soon headed back towards shore.

The male Red-necked is smaller and less courful than the female.

While I was photographing the phalaropes a second surprise flew in. From a distance I thought they were dowitchers, but as I focussed my camera, I was excited to see the long down-curved bills of a flock of Stilt Sandpipers.

I slowly worked my way towards the stilts, but they were very skittish and suddenly took off.

My next task was to locate the turnstones, but I was distracted by a circling Marbled Godwit.

I was hoping for a close-up flight shot, but it kept its distance as it landed by the lake.

I was delighted to find the pair of Ruddy Turnstones in an area where the prevailing waves had piled up soil and fine debris.

The male Ruddy was splendid in its bright rufous feathers.

The female is also very attractive with hints of rufous on its coverts and scapulars.

As I mentioned before, I just can't refuse taking pictures of the American Avocet.

It would have been easy to fill my 4 gig card with just the Avocet, but I showed great restraint and only took two shots.

Eenie, meenie, miny, moe - is it a Western or Eastern Meadowlark? I was assuming it was a Western but the white malar and rufous-tinged back has me guessing Eastern. You'll have to help me out here.

I love seeing the exotic-looking Eared Grebes in breeding plumage. I found six close to the road in Chaplin Lake.

The golden plumes radiating from the red eye really turn me on - I mean artistically if you're thinking otherwise.

Just another Swainson's! Yes I saw so many Swainson's that it became rather mundane. I'm kidding. I stopped and enjoyed every one of them. Oh, I forgot to mention that I'm now back in Moosejaw. Clem Miller at the Chaplin Nature Centre gave me a little hope that if the sun shone and the wind blew all day and it didn't rain, there might be a chance to ride the dykes tomorrow. Since I was about three days ahead schedule, all I needed was a hint of hope to stay another day.

Besides seeing a few Swainson's around Moose Jaw, I also enjoyed a farm field with about 50 Black-bellied Plovers, and a couple of Gray Partridge.

I was jubilant to wake up to dry ground the next morning. I called Clem and he said the dyke roads were dry enough. He had no problem finding the Piping Plovers, and I was happy to see a few of the endangered species. Thinking about the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, it could be a critical blow to the Piping Plover's survival as most of them winter on the gulf coast.

Because of the degenerating weather I was happy just to get a few record shots of the plover.

After the plovers we ran into Sanderling city. I had never seen so many Sanderlings at one time. The road ahead of us was covered with Sanderlings. I think Clem said that half the world's population of Sanderlings stage at Chaplin Lake during migration.

It was great to see them in full and partial breeding plumage.

Amongst the many Sanderlings was large numbers of Semipalmated Sandpipers.

I normally only see them on their fall migration so it was also great to see them in breeding plumage during their spring run to the north.

It was fascinating to see the thousands of shorebirds at Chaplin Lake. The shallow waters rich in brine shrimp was the perfect habitat the migrating and resident shorebirds, and the Chaplin Nature Society has to be applauded for their efforts in working with the local industries to conserve and protect the area. I would have loved to stay a few more days, but the skies were threatening, and it was westward ho. I felt a tinge of regret as the Saskatchewan prairiescape slipped by. There were so many wonderful birds being reported on the Saskatchewan birding website that I realized that I had never even scratched the surface of the prairie birding potential.

You won't be surprised to hear that wind, rain, and snow whipped us out of Saskatchewan. Rather than fight the nasty conditions I called it a day in Medicine Hat instead of pushing on to Calgary. The next day I was in Canmore or Gray Jay country.

To avoid the crowds in Banff I decided to check out the backcountry road (Spray Lake trail) from Canmore to Peter Lougheed Provincial. I had visions of an almost four-wheel drive only road but I was in for a fine surprise. It turned out to be the finest four-lane gravel road I had ever seen. Birds were fairly plentiful along the route but most were too distant for pictures . The main exception were the Gray Jays that were common along the way.

Chipping Sparrows were also plentiful but checking each flock carefully, I finally found one that was different. I believe it was a Brewer's.

As I rounded a bend in the road I spotted a gray bird with a yellowish head on the road. It was either eating gravel for grit or getting its salt fix. Although I had little experience with this bird, I knew it was a female Pine Grosbeak. Before I could get a picture it flew into a medium-sized conifer. Try as I might, I couldn't relocate the bird, but after 20 minutes the male grosbeak emerged on a branch.

The grosbeak was slowly working its way to the end of the branch as it nibbled on the buds at the end of each shoot.

With the full morning sun flooding the landscape the male grosbeak's full beauty was exposed.

Banff was great for Bighorn Sheep and deer but birds were more of a challenge. At Johnson Lake in Banff I was checking out the Common Loon that a British Birder told me about. It was too far away for a picture and the breeding area was restricted so I couldn't go any farther. After I left the area I turned around and saw an Osprey dive close to the location I just vacated. It disappeared under the water. I expected the usual explosion of water as it blasted upward, but that didn't happen. The Osprey struggled to emerge from the water for a good reason. It had caught a lunker! I was about 200 feet away in poor light, but I took the shot anyway just to prove that I wasn't telling a tall tale.

The next day on my way to Lake Louise I stopped again at Johnson hoping for for a replay of the previous day's action. Of course, it didn't happen. Sensing my disappointment, the Common Loon did swim by just to offer me a consolation picture.

The grassy slope above the lake was hopping with Chipping Sparrows so here's another picture for you.

Another Banff bird for the record was a Common Yellowthroat by Vermillion Lake.

Yellowrumps were everywhere on my whole trip including Banff.

One last picutre at a rest stop in Banff was the Red-breasted Nuthatch that was constantly upside down.

My last national park stop was Lake Louise. It was cold and gray and the lake was still frozen so it was fitting to be greeted by a couple of gray birds. The first was the jocular Clark's Nutcracker.

You won't be surprised to hear that the nutcrackers were hanging around the parking lot where they opportunistically scavenged every last morsel of food dropped by the tourists.

I'm sure you guessed that the other gray bird was the Gray Jay. It seemed wary of the larger nutcrackers but one managed to sneak in to grab a bread crumb.

Although there was no squawking, the Gray Jay seemed wise enough to stay away from the nutcrackers.

It was great to get back to B.C. despite more of the liquid sunshine. My first destination was Salmon Arm, home of the dancing Western Grebes.

Unfortunately, the grebes didn't dance for me, but I wasn't disappointed. I knew that it would take some careful reasearch and planning and not just luck to witness the fabulous event.

I walked half way along the trail to Christmas Island but decided not to go all the way as it was getting late. On one of the side trails I was happy to find a few Redhead Ducks. Here's the male.

Here's the female that looks so sweet and innocent but she is notorious for her brood parasitism.

The next morning I awoke to a little sunshine. The forecast was for rain by noon so I headed for Nature Bay to see what I could see. It was a quiet, serene, picturesque morning. I was a little disappointed not to see many birds but there was a busy beaver on the grassy spit near an Osprey's nest about 30 m away. It was worth a few shots.

As I was leaving the wharf I spotted another Osprey nest close to the resort. I looked enviously at the balconies on the resort and salivated at the thought of sitting there with a glass of wine in hand and a bird's eye view into the nest. Anybody want to go to Salmon Arm in a couple of weeks?

While I was contemplating the possiblities one of the adults flew in with a branch for the nest.

It proceeded to do a little rearranging to set up the nursery.

That prompted the other Osprey to get up and help with the alterations.

I'm not sure if they had blueprints to follow but they seemed to know exactly where to put the branches.

When the alterations were completed it was the other Osprey's time to leave. I watched it fly out to the lake, hover, dive, and emerge with a fish. Unfortunately, the Osprey from the other nest ambushed it and the fish was dropped while the game of Osprey tagged ensued.

After the Osprey action I headed south to Vernon. The sun was still shining by the time I reached Predator Ridge but there were ominous clouds lurking all around. I just missed getting a picture of a female Bullock's Oriole with a big insect on Commonage Road but found a few subjects on a pond at Predator. I thought I would get a great shot of a Pied-billed Grebe with junior in tow but it veered into some tall weeds before it got into range.

I had better luck with the Ruddy Ducks at the wildlife viewing stand that extended into the small lake.

I think the ducks were used to seeing people on the viewing stand and ventured closer than other locations.

The rainclouds were closing in as I headed up Beaver Lake Road. It was very quiet all the way to Beaver Lake where I stopped for a refreshing coffee. On the way back I finally found an eastern Kingbird on the farm fence.

My real target was the Western Bluebird. The first female I found was very cooperative. The overcast conditions are never the best but a close-up view is a good consolation.

The males were a little more wary than the female. This was the best I could do given the dull light and less than ideal proximity.

A real bonus was the Lazuli Bunting. It popped up for a couple of shots then disappeared. I was lucky to get a couple of shots just before it started raining. I could barely see the road as I headed towards Osoyoos on the White Lake Road.

It was raining the next morning as I headed up Venner Meadow Road. The rain must have been ideal for Townsend's Solitaires as I found three of them.

On the way down I saw many birds like sparrows, flycatchers, and raptors but the only photo op was a Western Tanager.

In the late afternoon the rain let up and a dyke walk off Road 22 was in order. Eastern Kingbirds were the first birds I saw.

My biggest surprise was the gray Catbird. I was focussed on a female Bullock's Oriole in a tall tree when the mewing of a catbird caught my attention. I looked up just in time to see a catbird dive out of the same tree and land by the farm fence. I raced to the fence and caught a couple of shots before it hopped behind a wild rose thicket.

I had never seen a catbird before and was quite intrigued by the orange flag it was displaying on its rump.

The Gray Catbird made my day, but on the way back I almost got another great shot. A Northern Harrier was cruising just across the canal when it was attacked by a Red-winged Blackbird.

The forecast for the next morning was for sunshine, but you won't be surprised to know that I woke to drizzling rain. Bad weather seemed to be the theme for most of my trip, but when I look back at the photos, the cup was half full, and it was a pretty good trip. Someday I would like to spend some real quality time in Sakatchewan and the Okanagan, but for now, it's home sweet home.


Bird Poster

My poster is on display at: Victoria - Swan Lake Nature House

























Port Hardy - MUSEUM


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