Prairie Potholes and Parks

Or... How to Drive from Edmonton to Lethbridge in 2 1/2 Days

April 24 - 26, 1999

A glorious spring weekend preceded some business meetings in Lethbridge, so on the spur of the moment we decided to drive from Edmonton, normally a six hour trip, to try out our new  (well... 1990, but new for us) van. Clutching our well thumbed copy of the Alberta Wildlife Viewing Guide, we decided to check out a few spots along the way, to see what had arrived from the south lately. Rather than include all the information in this trip report, I have linked each of our stops to the relevant page of the on-line guide: these pages include maps of each area. Click here to see the complete species list.

This was the weekend of the Beaverhill Bird Festival, when the roads around the lake are closed to private traffic, so our first major stop was at Miquelon Lakes Provincial Park. I note major stop, because during springtime in Alberta, and with the amount of snow that has recently melted, every farmer's field has its own slough (pronounced "slew") with at least one breeding pair of something feathered, all dressed in their courtin' clothes. Coupled with  Duncan's (my husband) predilection for avoiding highways at all costs, these "prairie potholes" scattered along the back roads attracted a lot of our interest, and absorbed a lot of our time. 

Camoflaged Canada Goose on beaver lodge On the way to Miquelon Lakes, we spotted this Canada Goose nesting in plain sight on a beaver lodge by the side of the road. I never would have guessed that these large geese could camouflage themselves so well. If you can't spot the goose snuggled down in the sticks, click on the picture for an assist! At the Miquelon Lakes we were treated to the joyful sight of Common Goldeneye doing their marvellous courting dance, throwing their heads back with abandon.
In New Norway, on the way to Stettler, we stopped for a quick purchase of some liquid refreshments at what looked like a semi-derelict garage. To our surprise, we spent a pleasant half an hour with the proprietor of Hartland Scale Models who uses what used to be the mechanic's shop in the garage to serve model makers by  manufacturing specialized parts and accessories for many kinds of miniature steam engine models. He actually ran some of the models for us, and the detail was amazing!
Model steam engines in New Norway
Buffalo Lake and the Rochon Sands Provincial Park was our next stop. Although the centre of the lake was still solidly frozen, the wide band of free water around the edges of the ice was teeming with wildlife, with an island out in the middle with American White Pelicans and Double-crested Cormorants staking out their territory. On the edge of the pack ice, we were treated to an excellent view of a pair of Ring-billed Gulls mating.
As we were leaving the lake, a small kettle (5) of what we think were Sharp-shinned Hawks appeared, presumably on their way further north, and one of them cleanly took a passing duck right out of the air as we watched. Red-tailed Hawks were everywhere, and the passing potholes were full of Red-necked Grebes, Red-breasted Mergansers, Mallards, Coots, Bufflehead, and Redhead. A pair of Tundra Swans with a juvenile attracted our attention on one pothole, and on the shores, our first Killdeer and Greater Yellowlegs of the season.
Ol' MacDonald's Resort Sign Leaving the Stettler area, we were severely distracted by the sign to the right! We're MacDonalds, we're certainly approaching Old, and we were in dire need of a resort!  But the "Ol' MacDonald's Resort" sign led us to many other potholes with many more pairs of waterfowl as well as a variety of sparrows, samples of both Rusty and Brewer's Blackbirds, a million European Starlings and the ubiquitous and entertaining American Crows. Sort of a "black" detour...
As we approached the badlands, after a long day of pothole hopping, the approach into the Drumheller valley was awesome as usual, gilded by the late afternoon sun. But what right-minded bird would live here in this desolation? But, birding the badlands was fruitful, if sparse, including a Northern Flicker and a Pileated Woodpecker. At one point, stopped alongside the road east of town, we spotted six pairs of Kestrel (pair of Kestrels???), perched on bare tree limbs - each pair to their own tree, maybe waiting for something alive to wander by? 
Drumheller Landscape
If you follow this link, I have reproduced part of a brochure produced by the Drumheller Regional Chamber of Development and Tourism with more information about birding the Drumheller area. In the spring and fall, the band of cottonwoods and birches along the river banks must look like a true oasis to passing migrants! If you're in the area, don't miss the Royal Tyrell Museum, and see the dinosaurs that our birds descended from...

Leaving Drumheller the next morning, Duncan found a road on the way to Rosedale that wandered up the escarpment away from the highway, and we discovered the end of a bluebird trail, at box 783. The boxes were in pairs, and every pair of boxes had Mountain Bluebirds in one and Tree Swallows in the other! The fence lines between the boxes were decorated with Western Meadowlarks, singing their hearts out. The ponds in the fields here had some different waterfowl, including Northern Pintails and Northern Shovellers, obviously thinking that they had arrived North (hah!).

Prairie Wildflowers We then headed generally in the direction of Brooks, Alberta, on the theory that that was the best sport bird hunting area in the province, so there might be some birds around trying to replace the depredations of last fall's hunting season. Kinbrook Island Provincial Park on Lake Newell was a total loss - everyone in Southern Alberta seemed to be there enjoying the +25C temperatures. 
But, the Swen Bayer Peninsula on the lake was a delight! Many waterfowl were there, avoiding the people, as well as several Semipalmated Plovers hanging around.  Foraging in the short grass prairie amongst the wildflowers, we spotted two life birds - several Horned Larks and a Chestnut-collared Longspur!
The next morning, after getting a teleconference out of the way, we headed for the Tyrell/Rush Lakes. Duncan managed to turn the wrong way off the highway, and he maintained his record by finding a life bird (which seems to happen every time we get lost), a pair of Grey Partridge crossing the road. And, we spotted a Long-billed Curlew pacing around a stubble-filled field. Once we had retraced our steps, turned the right way and found the lakes, the marshes were rife with Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Green and Blue-winged Teal, and a lone American Avocet as well as the usual waterfowl species. On our way back to Lethbridge on the back roads, more Horned Larks almost distracted us from seeing, sitting on a fence as pretty as you please, a Say's Phoebe, another life bird, and a great end to an accidental birding trip.

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