Fall is Migration Time in Saskatchewan
(Article reprinted with permission of Tourism Saskatchewan.)

This fall the truly dedicated will set out with maps, compasses, binoculars and serious expressions. No, this isn’t an episode of The Amazing Race and no, they aren’t searching for lost treasure. Autumn in Saskatchewan offers one of the only chances most people will get to actually spot a whooping crane.

Although “whoopers” are one of the most easily recognizable birds, few people can boast to having actually seen one. This species of crane has long been considered endangered; in the 1940s their numbers dwindled to just 21. Conservation efforts have helped restore numbers to about 200, but there is still only one flock of wild, migratory whooping cranes in existence.

One of the reasons that Saskatchewan is significant to bird watchers from around the world is that whooping cranes stop in southern and central Saskatchewan on their migratory path. Each year the cranes migrate from Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories to southern Texas. Their stop in Saskatchewan is the only area on the Canadian portion of the migration route that is accessible to bird watchers. People flock to some of the areas that whooping cranes have been known to visit, hoping for a glimpse of one of these rare birds. But if you want to see a whooping crane, you’ll have to do your legwork, and keep your fingers crossed. Ken Kessler, coordinator for the Saskatchewan Birding Trail, admits, “There’s luck involved, that’s for sure, but they are spotted in the province every year.” The whoopers’ last-known location is tracked through the whooping crane hotline. A call to the hotline before you head out will help narrow down your search and improve your odds at actually finding these rare birds.

That most elusive of birds - the endangered Whooping Crane. (See image in orginal article).

If this level of dedication sounds a little intimidating, there are innumerable less difficult ways to introduce yourself and your family to bird watching. And if you are planning to travel in Saskatchewan this fall, you’ll be in the right place. According to Kessler, Saskatchewan is one of the best places in the western hemisphere to bird watch. “We are in the centre of the flyway, so we get huge numbers during migration. There are over 350 species to be seen in the province, including some that are considered endangered. We also have lots of natural habitat, unlike more urban bird watching areas.”

The recent publication of the Saskatchewan Birding Trail Experience makes it easy to get out there and see what our winged friends are up to at this time of year. The guide covers some of the key bird watching areas in the province, and offers great advice on getting started. If you are just beginning to keep track of the various species you’ve spotted, fall migration is a great time to start. Between the end of August and the beginning of October, the province will be full of different species and vast numbers of birds. Your birding journal will quickly fill up with just a few stops across the province, and you’ll soon understand why Saskatchewan is a bird watcher’s paradise.

A trip to the Quill Lakes area, Canada’s largest salt-water lake, guarantees some memorable sights. Quill Lakes consists of three separate lakes, and is one of the most productive waterfowl areas in North America, hosting about one million birds annually. Pete Joyce of Ducks Unlimited Canada in Wadena says, “Just the sheer number of birds people are able to see is impressive. We have hundreds of thousands of birds going through this area in the fall.” This is no exaggeration. An average of 200,000 shorebirds, 400,000 ducks, 130,000 snow geese, 80,000 Canada geese and 40,000 sandhill cranes stop here. The sight—and sound—of enormous fields covered in masses of waterfowl promises to be unforgettable.

There are two areas developed for self-guided bird watching in the area. The Wadena Wildlife Wetlands/Quill Lakes Interpretive Area along Highway #35 has five miles of trails and marsh boardwalks, a canoe launch and an observation tower that overlooks a feeding station. Foam Lake Heritage Marsh, just north of the town of Foam Lake, also has some excellent viewing opportunities. The Marsh includes 4,000 acres of prairie wetland, hiking trails, lookout towers, a picnic area and lots of informational signage.

There are also self-guided driving tours available if you prefer. Pick up a driving package and get all kinds of valuable birding information from the friendly people at Ducks Unlimited in Wadena. With plenty of accommodations, great restaurants and many other activities in the area, combined with some of the province’s best bird watching, a trip to the Quill Lakes makes a perfect weekend escape.

Saskatchewan is also home to North America's first bird sanctuary, established in 1887 at Last Mountain Lake. Because the lake is so long it has two different habitats, offering the potential to spot a wider variety of birds. In fact, more than 280 different species of birds have been recorded at Last Mountain Lake. Large numbers of migratory birds also pass through the area in the fall.

Stop at the Information Centre located on the north end of the lake for detailed information on birdwatching in the area. There is also a banding station on the north end of the lake, which can accommodate observers if arrangements are made ahead of time. Although the lake is long, access to the various points of interest is easy, and there are many places to stay in the area, including Rowan’s Ravine and the resort community of Regina Beach.

The Great Blue Heron is found in many marsh areas throughout the province. It moves at lightning speed to catch small fish with its long bill.(See image in orginal article).

A stop at Chaplin, between Moose Jaw and Swift Current, is an excellent way to take a break from the road if you have a final destination along the TransCanada. Take a check-list of birds in the region and make bird spotting a game for the family. You can call ahead to arrange a tour of the area as an easy introduction. If you prefer to set out on your own, the best fall bird watching in the area is at Reed Lake near the town of Morse, just west of Chaplin. You will see large numbers of waterfowl and shorebirds, and the area always has a variety of prairie birds. Observing these birds in the natural habitat means that you’ll have plenty of opportunities for a close-up experience.

Bird watching in the Chaplin area is quickly gaining popularity according to Clem Miller, a birder and volunteer with the Chaplin Tourism Committee. He says, “There are more people every year who want to try bird watching. It gives them the chance to be outdoors, meet some really interesting people and learn a lot.”

No matter where in Saskatchewan your birding adventures take you, fall is a wonderful time to start your own birding journal. And maybe one day you’ll add that elusive whooping crane.


(Related links and images pertaining to this article can be found at the Tourism Saskatchewan website.)