Summer Birding in the Calgary/Canmore/Banff/Lake Louise Strip (with Extensions to British Columbia)

By Grant Gussie
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Banff
   Sunshine Meadows
   Fenland Trail and Vermillion Lakes
   Cave and Basin
   Banff Townsite
Canmore Townsite
Aspens
Lake Minnewanka
Johnston Canyon
Vermilion Pass
Lake Louise
Field Townsite
Columbia River Valley
Prairies
Calgary
 

Sunshine Meadows

The "prize" species of Banff are the white tailed ptarmigan and the grey-crowned rosy finch, both of which are in the high meadows and alpine tundra during the summer. Rosy-finches are best left to the winter, when they form flocks and come down to visit feeders in the foothills. But ptarmigan are always hard to get and birders are proud of getting them. They weren't always so hard...you used to be able to take a gondola up to Sunshine Meadows in the summer which gave you easy access to this habitat...but the meadows were suffering from all the visitors. Nowadays a bus still goes up there in the morning to drop off hikers (leaving you to walk back), or groups of birders can also charter a bus for a two-way trip. Or you can always walk both ways as well. Its a stiff hike but is easily possible in a full day if you are reasonably fit.

Fenland Trail and Vermilion Lakes

Much less strenuous are the Fenland Trail/Vermilion Lakes which are very close to the Banff townsite (just west and north of town, on the north side of the Bow River). Anybody can give you directions to the trailhead. These trails are good and flat and make for a nice half-day walk.

The Fenland Trail goes through primarily an old-growth conifer habitat, but there are also some wet meadows, willow thickets, and aspen habitats along the way. Along Fenland Trail are (among others):

In the more open marsh habitat of the Vermilion Lakes (which can be reached by the same trail system as Fenland) you can see: the usual roundup of North American ducks, but most notable is the Barrow's goldeye which is near the eastern limit of its range. Also there are

Cave and Basin

The marsh below the Cave and Basin (about 3km west of town, but on the south side of the Bow River) is also worth a look for the same marsh birds, and also (surprisingly) some tropical fish that were introduced about 40 years ago and live near the outlet of the hot springs. It is an amazing sight to see in a cold day in winter, when its -30C and all the trees are covered with snow and frost and there are tropical fish swimming at your feet.

Banff Townsite

Within the town of Banff itself (and almost anywhere else in the park for that matter) the American robins, American magpies, common ravens, black-capped chickadees, and northern flickers are extremely abundant and can be found in pretty much anybodyís yard. Grey jays are particularly abundant as well, and are well known for taking (and occasionally stealing) food right from your hand. Bird feeders (and bird feeding) are forbidden in Banff National Park, however, and so the diversity of birds in the town is not as great as one would expect.

Canmore Townsite

It has been my experience that European birders get most excited about seeing hummingbirds, which is understandable since they are a New World specialty and very unique. There are two species nesting around Banff (rufous and calliope), and at least two more (ruby throat and black chinned) will show up occasionally as well. Unfortunately, despite being reasonably common, hummingbirds aren't easy to come across and they are so quick its very very difficult to get more than a fleeting glimpse. I think you would be much more likely to get them if you go to the town of Canmore just east of the Banff Park entry gates and stake out someone's hummingbird feeder. (For those unfamiliar, a hummingbird feeder is basically a glass or plastic bottle hanging in a tree with a red opening at the bottom). You can find hummingbird feeders in people's yards just by walking around any of the older residential areas in Canmore. But you are not allowed to feed birds in national parks so you won't see them in Banff itself, which is why you have to go to Canmore. A yard with lots of yellow and red ornamental flowers will also attract hummingbirds but landscaped yards are uncommon in Banff, where the growing of ornamental (introduced) flowers is discouraged.

Aspens

On the way from Banff to Canmore (near the eastern edge of the park) there is also some aspen habitat, which is rare within Banff National Park (where the forests are almost all coniferous). The aspens are also worth a stop. This is a great area for wrens, wood warblers, ruffed grouse, flycatchers, and the Accipiter hawks. You can also find aspen habitat around the east end of Banff Springs golf course.

Lake Minnewanka

The largest lake in the area is Lake Minnewanka, a short drive north and east of Banff townsite. This area has never been very productive for me and I wouldn't recommend it. Grey jays and ring-billed gulls do however frequent the shore area. Nearby Two-Jack Lake does however have some possibilities (that I admit that I have yet to explore) and may be worth a look as it offers a more hospitable shoreline and a greater diversity of habitat.

Johnston Canyon

Going west from Banff townsite, there are two highways taking you to Lake Louise. Highway one is the main high-speed thoroughfare, but. I would choose instead highway 1A, which has lots of little meadows and spots you can stop at. Among them is Johnston Canyon, where the black swift nests (one of very few places in Alberta where they do). It is also a good place for water dippers. Definitely stop there.

Vermilion Pass

About half way between Banff and Lake Louise (just west of Johnston Canyon) is Castle Junction, which is the turn off to Vermilion Pass and Radium Hot Springs. Take a quick 10km excursion up this road as well. Near the crest of the pass is the "Vermilion Burn", where a massive forest fire occurred about 30 years ago. There are still lots of dead standing trees and an abundance of berry bushes, so it is worth a look. Various owls and the rare Lewis woodpecker can be picked up there by the fortunate.

Lake Louise

There is very little flat land around Lake Louise itself and the walks in that area are much more strenuous than Fenland Trail/Vermilion Lakes. And birding in that area is generally less productive, species wise, due to a much smaller variety of habitats. The forests in that area are mostly lodgepole pine, which does not support a lot of diversity. You are more likely to come across Stellar's jays there than in Banff townsite, however...and these are beautiful birds and worth a try. Also exceptional is the varied thrush, which can be seen in small meadows in the area, and occasionally in the landscaped grounds of Chateau Lake Louise as well.

You can also take a gondola up the Lake Louise ski hill and hope for a rosy finch or white-tailed ptarmigan but your chances aren't great. You have to do a lot of walking before you are likely to come across either of these birds.

Field townsite

Driving across the Great Divide along highway one into British Columbia can add the chestnut backed chickadee to your list as well; and the further west you go the more likely a Stellar's jay or varied thrush sighting is. The area around the town of Field BC (about 30km west of Lake Louise on highway one) will get you some results and is a good spot for water dippers. Water dippers are wonderful little birds: quite drab, but absolutely fascinating to watch.

Columbia River Valley

Another excellent area is the Columbia River Valley south of Golden BC, which is another 60km or so west of Field. There are a lot of marshes and small lakes there, with ospreys and bald eagles all over the place. The usual assortment of marsh birds are in abundance as well.

Prairies

Visitors to the area should also consider some time in the prairies, as there is a wide variety of birds in the open land and marshes just east of Calgary too. You have to go into Calgary to catch your flight home anyway. I would suggest Langdon Reservoir, southeast of Calgary on highway 22X for shore birds, water birds, and raptors. Prairie falcons are in the area, as well as northern harrier, red-tailed hawk, Swainson hawk, bald eagle, and short-eared owl. There are plenty of shore birds that nest there too, most commonly the killdeer and most notably the American avocet. The reservoir is also where huge flocks of shorebirds and waterfowl can be seen in spring and autumn migrations.

Calgary city

Within the city of Calgary itself, the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary is a must, as the bird life is varied and abundant. Many wood ducks are nesting within the sanctuary, and this is about the only place in the area that they do. The "Weaslehead" area at the west end of Glenmore Reservoir, is another birding hot spot. Other wild areas and city parks are also spaced along the Bow River right through the city, and have many species. Most productive is the Bowness Park/Bowmont Natural Area pair in the northwest of the city, Beaverdam Flats in the south east, and Fish Creek Provincial Park in the south. Nosehill Park also offers short grass prairie habitat within city limits, where vesper, Bairds, and clay-colored sparrows can be seen, along with western meadowlarks, red-tailed hawks, and Swainson hawks. And a coolee named "owl valley" on the park's north side has aspen trees and a resident pair of great horned owls.

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