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WATCHING BIRDS IN CANADA

by Margo Hearne

There's something very grand about Saskatchewan, from the endless rolling plains to the southern Cypress Hills, vast acres stretch to the horizon. Herds of buffalo and antelope once wandered these exotic prairies. Much of the land is now under the plough, however, the sense of illustrious emptiness remains.

Saskatchewan, we found, was the province of princely gesture. The ice in our cooler melted en route to Prince Albert National Park, and we stopped at a Co-op store in a little town south of the Park. They had no ice, but directed us to the butcher next door who chipped us out a solid piece from his freezer. He wrapped it in paper and as we carried it back to the truck the Co-op manager leaned out from his door to ask if we had found some, while the butcher watched, smiling from his store doorway. We had a feeling they might burst into song with the whole town joining in, like an old Nelson Eddy movie, as we drove away to the north woods.

The ice lasted all the way to the race-track in Toronto (but that's another story, as this story is about birds). That evening we watched a Kingfisher feed its young by Waskesiu lake, while the sun set in its usual brilliance, sparking off the golden lake and setting the Kingfisher's fish on fire.

Next morning a family of Three-toed Woodpeckers fed on fallen logs beside our campsite. As they busily and noisily scattered the bark, feeding on exposed morsels, two Gray Jays silently approached, eager for a breakfast of fresh woodpecker. The wary woodpeckers, however, with a sharp "pik" alerted the chicks and off they flew. The Jays hung around for a bit, idly scratching their ears and stretching their wings before merrily dispatching a loaf of bread which a camper had forgotten to pack.

On to Quill Lakes Nature Reserve. Surrounded by a sea of whispering prairie grass, we drove a rutted track to one of the best birding lakes in the Province. To the sibilant song of the wind and the alarm note of nesting Wilson's Phalaropes, we stopped in the centre of the track for a tail-gate tea break in the sun. Tiny LeConte's Sparrows sang around us, their gentle "fisip" blending with the singing grass. Later, a short stroll took us to the edge of Quill Lake where two almost invisible, totally secretive Yellow rails "tick-ticked" among the rushes. They were striped black and yellow just like their rushy habitat and remained, invisibly singing, throughout the sunlit afternoon.

A new morning found us driving through southern Manitoba looking for unturned sod. The tall grass prairie near Lyleton was alive with butterflies. Clouded Sulphurs, Silver-bordered Fritillary and unidentified Blues danced above the waving flowers. In the centre of a dusty road a fox came out and sat daintily, ears perked, then stretched out in the sun to lick its paw. When we moved it vanished. We found a small strip of shelter belt where Black-billed cuckoos, kingbirds, warblers, and sparrows lived in raucous harmony. The fringe of trees and their lovely inhabitants were protected only by the low price of grain as the land was not worth turning. Along the main highway practically everything that was cuttable is cut, including the right-of-ways which could be home to those subtle sparrows who travel so far to find their homeland razed.

I loved Manitoba, where the people are as naturally friendly as spring sunlight, but I pined for a family farm here and there, where the trees are uncut and the little pond in the back quarter is left for ducks.

Ontario gave us the best camp site in Canada, a stone grotto at Rushing River, high above Lake of the Woods. Campfires flickered among the distant trees and the laughter of campers rose in the twilight. Fireflies twinkled beside us and we sat entranced, while they danced and glimmered deep into the night.

Back west. Southern Alberta feeds the best beef in the world in the best bird habitat. We heard Sprague's Pipits spiralling down from the blue sky before vanishing into the dry grass. Chestnut-collared and McCown's Longspurs flicked off the sides of the road at Cypress Hills. A Prairie Falcon suddenly appeared to us after we had scanned the skies for hours, sitting on a fencepost looking as though it had been there for centuries. Days of canola crops, evenings of Nighthawks and Great Horned Owls. And of course, those fabulous Pronghorn Antelopes, antlered monarchs, fading in and out of the dusty hills. It seems as though dry country creatures take on dry country colours, except for Mountain Bluebirds who appear to live in the sky and so are coloured like the sky. Near Fort Walsh a field of Richardson's ground squirrels sat upright "tweeting" and wringing their little paws as a badger, like a compact muscular shag rug marauded over their homeland.

We go north to Norbuck to visit our bee-keeping friends. The town disappeared years ago and only the name remains. Our friends tend over six million head of tiny workers scattered throughout the clover fields. After a thorough grounding in the ways of the honey-bee and a tour of the extracting plant, we walked through their little forest, admiring the many singing birds. Our friends comment dryly on the difficulty they have keeping their strip of trees intact. Their ranching neighbours almost implore them to cut it down, intimating that they are being unAlbertan, or even worse, unbeefy! They defy convention and stand by the trees.

We add greatly to our growing Canadian bird list here as nuthatches, chickadees, hummingbirds, and grosbeaks all live within a stones-throw of the honey house. We also watch a sapsucker boldly girdling their newly planted, burgeoning fruit trees. The paradox of protection! The sapsucker finally leaves, as do we, with our friends' best wishes for the journey and a pail of honey for the road.

It rained all over us in British Columbia, and we had hardly a dry day from the Peace River to Prince Rupert. One evening, after a long drive over rain-thick roads, we found a lakeside camp site. In an attempt to keep the rain out of our dinner we tied a tarpaulin from our truck to the nearest aspen. A little Yellow Warbler came to test the knots, sing a little and the weather finally cleared. We strolled to the lake to watch an Osprey soar, then, by an open meadow a rising mist softened the brilliant, unexpected sun, while two Baltimore Orioles sang in the shade. Our BC moment.

We saw an emerald Osprey fly over Emerald Lake. Coyotes stalking geese near Vanderhoof and a family of Black Bears feeding by the roadside. Fork-tailed Storm Petrel soared away from the ferry to Haida Gwaii. Millions of mating Mayflies sang, deafening and harmless in the still air at Cypress Lake. In Ontario, Vireos sat in trees and sang. In British Columbia, Quail scurried through the underbrush, mouse-like, then took off with a roar. In Alberta Sapsuckers drilled holes in fruit trees. In Manitoba, Terns fluttered over rushes preventing canoe races. A Grouse family stopped traffic in Saskatchewan. Can you fly? Nor can I, but all across Canada we know when Spring has arrived - the birds are singing!

 

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