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Birding the Foothills and Prairie of Southern Alberta

To begin the summer holidays of 2022, my Mom and I planned a trip to Frank Lake, a Wetland of International Importance near High River, Alberta. Unfortunately, a few days before we were scheduled to leave, we both became ill and were worried that we would have to cancel the trip. I recovered quickly but my mom was sick for several days. Because my mom wasn't able to take me, my dad and made last minute plans to go during the same dates using the accommodation that was already booked.

To begin the trip, we left late Friday morning, stopping at Elizabeth Lake just outside of Cranbrook, BC. Here, we saw Trumpeter Swan, Ruddy Duck, Eared Grebe, and a variety of other waterfowl. For the remainder of the drive we did little birding until arriving in High River around 7:30pm. That evening I went on a walk in a city park near our Airbnb where I saw a family of White-breasted Nuthatches and my first Baltimore Oriole of the year.

The following morning, we left early for the main viewing area at Frank Lake itself with the goal of seeing breeding shorebirds and waterfowl. Bird action here, as always, was excellent with Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, White-faced Ibis, Wilson's Phalarope, Franklin's and California Gulls, Black-crowned Night Heron, American White Pelican, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and Western Grebe being just a few of the many species that we saw.

Black-necked Stilt

Wilson's Phalarope

American White Pelican

Yellow-headed Blackbird

California Gull

Next, we drove about 40 minutes to Plummer's Road, a short road going through deciduous forest, marshland, and grassland. Along the first kilometer of the road, we saw forest and grassland birds such as Mountain Bluebird, Tree Swallow, and my lifer Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Following that, we walked along a short side road traveling through a marshland. Flying above the reeds, I watched only one Black Tern, significantly less than in past years. In the surrounding trees and reeds, Alder Flycatchers, House Wrens, and a LeConte's Sparrows sang. In the wettest parts of the marsh, several Wilson's Snipe appeared to be nesting.

Wilson's Snipe

Plummer's Road eventually led to Brown Lowery Provincial Park, an area of protected coniferous forest in the foothills. Here, I saw White-throated Sparrows, Mountain, Boreal, and Black-capped Chickadees, Hairy Woodpecker, and my lifer Tennessee Warbler.

After a long drive further North on an unsuccessful search for a Yellow Rail, we headed back South to High River and William's Coulee Road. On the large rock bluffs on the east side of the coulee, we found six Prairie Falcons along with a singing Rock Wren. While pulled over looking at an Western Kingbird about a kilometer further down the road, we were alerted to the presence of a Ferruginous Hawk nest not much further along the road by a local bird enthusiast. We quickly followed him to a mid-sized cottonwood tree in which there were two large nestlings and their parents.

Ferruginous Hawk (Attacked by an Eastern Kingbird)

Ferruginous Hawk

To end what was already an amazing day, we found two Upland Sandpipers on our way back to High River. Interestingly, these two birds were very close to the place where we had seen one individual on our last trip one year prior.

Upland Sandpiper (Poor Photo)

The following morning, we drove around Frank Lake to the second basin entrance in search of Sprague's Pipit. Shortly after beginning our walk we were threatened by a Marbled Godwit, likely upset with us for getting to close to a hidden nest. We left it's territory quickly, but it continued to dive at us a couple more times.

Marbled Godwit in flight

Losing hope that we might find the pipit we packed up and began driving to the main observation area. However, one last stop along the rough dirt road leading to the second basin allowed me to find the Sprague's Pipit that I had been looking for.

Shortly after arriving at the main viewpoint, two Semipalmated Sandpipers, an unusual species for that time of year landed on the mudflats with several Marbled Godwits. Shortly after, these birds were joined by two Long-billed Dowitchers, another species that was unexpected for that time of year.

Marbled Godwit

Semipalmated Sandpiper

Long-billed Dowitcher

Shortly after, at another section of mudflats nearby, I found my lifer White-rumped Sandpiper feeding near a group of Wilson's Phalarope.

White-rumped Sandpiper

After a busy two mornings of birding, we returned to our Airbnb earlier to rest before heading back to the main observation area for Photography during the "golden hour." This is the best time of day for photography as the sun is low in sky making for softer and more goldish light. I spent nearly an hour crouched on the mudflats in hopes of photographing a White-faced with no luck until a small flock flew over allowing for a decent photo. Fortunately, during the wait, the opportunities to photograph other species were numerous.

Marbled Godwit (2)

Marbled Godwit (3)

Black-necked Stilt (2)

Black-necked Stilt (3)


White-faced Ibis

At our car, we met two other birders who told us about a Blue Grosbeak that they had found in a nearby park one day prior, forcing us to make a difficult decision of looking for the Yellow Rail, which they provided us with more information on, or chasing the Blue Grosbeak. The two birds were in opposite directions and we were heading back to Nelson the next morning.

Unable to make a decision the night before I woke up the next more and chose to chase the Blue Grosbeak, stopping on William's Coulee Road along the way in hopes of finding a Sharp-tailed Grouse. While we did not end up finding either of the target birds, we did get another chance to see the Ferruginous Hawk nest, the Prairie Falcons, and a Swainson's Hawk.

Swainson's Hawk

This trip went incredibly well, ending with a final species total of 129. I'm looking forward to going back soon!


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