Chapter 1.  Southwestern Manitoba

Day 2 – May 27 – Turtle Mountain Provincial Park

(Bert) Canada border crossing is a breeze, not much more than saying hello. Compare that to our last trip when it took four hours for our caravan to cross from Mexico into the U.S.A.! The first bird I hear in Manitoba is a White-throated Sparrow serenely singing, “Oh Canada, sweet Canada, Canada, Canada.”

We stop at Turtle Mountain Provincial Park, head to Adam Lake and a parking lot big enough for a dozen RV rigs. After a week of erratic weather, this morning is pleasantly warm with blue skies: an excellent day to enjoy a walk around the lake and through the woods. A pair of Red-necked Grebes parade nearby, close enough for photos, and in the far distance across the lake we see two Western Grebes. A Forster’s Tern puts on a show: gliding in front of us and over our heads, its forked tail appearing a few inches longer in its bright spring plumage than I remember when I see them wintering in Texas.

Across the small pond a Red Fox comes to the edge for a drink of water, then jumps in short hops across the marsh grass to the woods. It prowls the beach, spies a pair of Canada Geese and disappears in the grass, perhaps in stealth pursuit of prey. The geese are wise to the fox and silently slip into the pond and float from shore, out of reach of the fox.

The trail we walk through the woods near the lakeshore could aptly be called Yellow Warbler Trail for its abundance of singing and frequently visible warblers. A singing Red-eyed Vireo pops into view immediately when I play the first short phrase of its song. Best of all though is the thrush whose song I don’t recall. As I spin through thrush songs on my iPod, I find the matching Veery song and although I have the volume turned down the distant Veery hears it too. It comes to us to investigate and makes several passes over our heads, alighting on surrounding branches.

After making the trail loop we head back to our RV’s for lunch. Sara Frances tells me about a warbler she heard near the Interpretative Center. Northern Parula is not on our list of expected warblers here, but its distinctive song and the fact that Sara Frances frequently hears it near her Georgia home where they nest, makes me believe she really discovered a rarity here.

(Shari) A little after 9 AM and about 10 mi. into Manitoba, I hear Connie’s voice over the CB announcing that she got BINGO. To keep everyone on our drives from place to place from getting bored – as if birding wasn’t enough - I had made Bingo cards with objects to be seen in route but never anticipated hearing a winning Bingo within the first hour of travel. Others soon follow and I hear Bingo from then until 1:30 PM. Unbelieveable! We stop at Turtle Mountain Provincial Park for some birding. It is a Chamber of Commerce day with sun, blue skies, and trees recently leaved out. Verna and I walk to the office of the park to purchase passes for everyone. Walking back we spot a deer crossing the road just ahead of us. As we eat lunch at the picnic table on the deck of the interpretative center, Curt asks if a bird counts if you find it inside your RV. He says he has a Ruby-throated hummingbird inside. We all think he is pulling our leg but get up from our lunch to check it out. Sure enough, the poor bird is frantically flying upwards trying to find a way out. Curt has all the windows and door open but the bird just flies up. Chris, to the rescue with her gentle hands, catches the bird and releases it out the door. Boy does that bird have a story to tell his friends at the bar tonight.

After lunch we head to Melita, arriving about 2 PM. It takes us much longer to park than it did last time we did this trip since we have more and bigger rigs. But when we all get parked I hear comments about how nice the campground is. I think the weather is coloring everyone’s attitude. But it seems nicer to me too. For one thing, in spite of all the rain we had, the ground is solid. At four we meet around the fire for a bird count off, bird talk and hot dogs grilled over the fire. Topped off with s’mores, it is a true picnic. As I sit writing this journal, I notice a few cars circling the campground. Lookie loos. We must be the talk of the town and the highlight of the week. Gas prices must not be too high yet for town sightseers. Ken, our birding guide for tomorrow, is out scouting the area. He should be back by 9 to spend the night on our couch. We had planned to depart at 7AM in the morning but he said birding would be better at 6:30. Ugh! The group may just have to live without my not-too-cheerful presence tomorrow. Let’s see, if I go to bed right now I can still get 9 hours of sleep. Goodnight!

Day 3 – May 28 – Melita to southwest corner of Manitoba

(Shari) “This better be worth it,” I tell Ken at our 5:55 AM breakfast table. He has promised me four owl species and a performing grouse this morning and I am holding him to it. Everyone is ready and anxious to go and at 6:30 sharp six cars loaded with four people each (ours has 5) leave the campground for our first real day of birding. In short order, Ken tells Bert to stop and I see white triangles moving above the brown stumps of grass about two football fields away. He says that is the Sharp-tailed Grouse lek and after Bert focuses the scope, I can see about a dozen birds, tails fanned out, strutting to beat the band in an attempt to attract a mate. It is really cute and I think we leave too soon. I think I could watch this all day but we have miles to go and appointments to keep.

The next time Ken tells Bert to stop, he says he hears a Baird’s Sparrow. Now I don’t especially like sparrows – they all look alike – but after Bert’s talk last night I would like to see this rare bird. I hear something like an insect calling in the distance and Ken climbs the barbed wire fence and is off in hot pursuit. He tells us to follow. Some of us do and some don’t negotiate the fence and then the long walk over rough pasture and cow pies to the location Ken says he hears the bird. I stand around and stand some more. I listen and look. I stand some more. It starts to drizzle and I am way not prepared for the wind and cold. After what seems like hours, I decide to head back with Peggy, Marie and Trevor close behind. Trevor almost steps on a nest with eggs and chicks and we call the rest of the group to come look. They are not interested since they are now focused on the Baird’s Sparrow. Darn, I left too soon! I don’t think I can make it back to the group in time so I remain standing by the nest to mark its location. Later, Ken identifies the nest as one a meadowlark built. He removes four eggs and they are different. He tells us the bigger egg is that of the meadowlark and the smaller three are cowbird eggs. Cowbirds are taking over- which is a bad thing - and he gives those eggs to Marie for a souvenir. He replaces the meadowlark egg in the nest with the chicks. We don’t know what the little chicks are since they don’t even have feathers yet.

We bird the highway, we bird the gravel roads and we even bird tractor lanes. Of note to me, we find a Burrowing Owl on a nest in the ground, a Great Horned Owl with two chicks on a nest in a tree and a screech owl on a nest in a nest box. I actually did not see the screech owl since Peggy and I were busy receiving rhubarb from the owner of the property. We get good looks at Mountain Bluebirds and collared dove and some kind of long spur, and bobolinks and …. We go back to camp for lunch and while the group munches on sandwiches around the picnic table discussing this morning’s finds, I take the car to exchange money (bad exchange rate for us at 96 cents to the dollar) pay campground fees and purchase wine for our wine and cheese party tomorrow. Wine prices are ridiculous at $30 for 3 liters of boxed wine that I pay $14 for in the states. The group continues to bird this afternoon and I take a nap, not awaking until Bert comes in the door at 5:30. Apparently Trevor and Verna knocked on my door four times but I never heard them. I join the group already gathered around the fire and we have a bird count off and a travel meeting before retiring to our rigs for dinner.

(Bert) Ken suggests an early start to get to the Sharp-tailed Grouse leks and precisely at 6:30 we are heading out of Melita, past Lyleton and to the south-west corner of Manitoba where the province meets North Dakota and Saskatchewan. We are in time to see the pompous parade of more than a dozen strutting males, heads down, yellow eye tufts erect, white tails pushed skyward. I hope the females are paying as close attention as the excited birders watching through binoculars and spotting scopes. We don’t tarry long, because we want to find Baird’s Sparrow early enough to hear it singing. Stopping at the field where Ken has found them previously, he hears one now. It must be a long way from the road since no one else hears the call. Walking through the field we get closer and now I hear it too, but we can’t seem to get close enough to it to see it. A light rain discourages some and they head back to the cars, including Shari who surprisingly has joined the birding group this morning. As soon as they leave, the Baird’s Sparrow comes into view and prominently perches several times on grass tufts, one time close enough for a poor photo. Although the field guide drawings are quite similar for the Ammodramus genus of sparrows, in real life this Baird’s Sparrow looks distinctly different from the others. We’re on a roll now and our target birds appear like clockwork. Several times we encounter the brightly plumaged Chestnut-collared Longspurs. We hear Sprague’s Pipits call from the air and a few of us can see it circling high above. When it returns to earth it drops abruptly like a pitched stone. On another of the myriad interlinking country roads we find Mountain Bluebirds at nest boxes similar to ones we’ve seen Tree Swallows. I don’t think there is another shade of blue as pretty as the feathers of this male bluebird.

A female Ferruginous Hawk takes flight from her nest, revealing a juvenile on the large pile of interweaving sticks. The adult presents an aerial display affording us nice views of its long wings and, when it banks, its rufous and gray upper wing surface.

We stop at the rural home of some friends of Ken’s. The owner raises Snow and White-fronted geese and the penned birds attract migrants that sometimes tarry with the domestic. Now he has a wild Richardson’s Goose, a subspecies of the Cackling Goose. The goose is the first to greet us when we pull into the driveway. We debate whether this only slightly smaller, slightly shorter necked, slightly smaller billed goose is Cackling or Canada, eventually settling for Cackling. Another goose attracts my attention and I photograph a cross between Canada Goose and Greater White-fronted Goose, an odd bird that the land owner says has returned to his homestead more than one year.

On the road again, we stop at the nest site of a Burrowing Owl. Although standing erect when we first pull up, now it hunkers down in its hole and only the eyes and crown protrude above the ground and through the surrounding grass. Elsewhere this morning we’ve seen two Great Horned Owl owlets on a nest, attended nearby by the adult, and now we head to Lyleton to a nesting Eastern Screech-Owl. At first we don’t see the owl, content instead to watch the many other birds attracted to the feeders and wooded oasis of this town property. Ken climbs the tree to check the nest box and finds four owlets and an adult inside. Very briefly he shows us the adult in hand, as he checks the young which he intends to band in a few days. Before leaving Lyleton we stop at the trees where a pair of Eurasian Collared-Doves has been seen repeatedly, some of the very few known in Manitoba. Happily they are present and accounted for when we arrive, as is the Say’s Phoebe that is a regular in this town. We make a direct route back to Melita for an overdue lunch, but I stop once more when we see a Merlin perched near its nest.

We’ve seen enough good birds that we could call it a day, but Ken knows of some other rare treats, so we are off again at 1:30, heading first to a nest site for a Long-eared Owl. It is sitting on the nest and we can clearly see its oversized ear tufts and facial disks, but the branches between it and us make for a difficult photo op. While heading toward another site we see a Merlin chasing a Cooper’s Hawk, an interaction I’ve not seen before. Ken monitors Loggerhead Shrike nests, a threatened species in Manitoba, and he takes us directly to a nest with four 6-day-old chicks. The adult looks on from another bush as we inspect the nest which is surrounded by a wire mesh that Ken added to protect the birds from predators. In a few days he intends to return to band the juveniles. We missed seeing Grasshopper Sparrows in the morning, although we heard a few. Now Ken and I hear another and this time we are able to track it down in the field and get a good view. We visit a few more sites, adding Wood Duck and Northern Rough-winged Swallow. Ken and I cannot think of any southwest Manitoba specialty that we’ve missed and head back to camp. At the bird count-off around the campfire I tally today’s birds and come to the impressive total of 103 species.

Day 4 – May 29 – Whitewater Lake and Douglas Marsh

(Bert) An overcast sky at Whitewater Lake this morning dims the shorebird colors but does not stop us from identifying a substantial list of species. None in the heron family, however, except for Great Blue. After an hour of scanning from the observation mound I decide to pursue the wren that has been calling repeatedly from the marsh below us. Switching to rubber boots, I walk into the marsh and play the call of Sedge Wren. Immediately the wren pops up 10 ft. in front of me, high enough in the reeds for the birders on the mound to see. Behind me I hear a Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow calling and move in its direction, but it is less cooperative and soon disappears. When I return to the mound the Sedge Wren has preceded me and is now entertaining the group from alternate perches almost at their feet. Camera shutters click for fantastic close-ups. This bird is a real entertainer and after 20 min. we leave it still singing from the mound.

Following the country road along the south side of the lake, I stop when I see a grouse on the side road. The other cars line up behind me and we watch as the Sharp-tailed Grouse steps back into the roadway. To our surprise, a Gray Partridge steps out right behind it, giving us a striking illustration of how small the partridge is compared to the grouse. Manitobans living in this area must wonder why we are so enthralled with these birds, as they are commonplace to them. But for us, they are a rarity, especially the partridge.

After lunch we drive to Brandon and during our wine and cheese party I talk about the Sounds of Douglas Marsh and play the calls of the birds we hope to hear tonight. A pre-stop at the sewage ponds is worthwhile for the swarms of Bank Swallows circling the lake where dozens of Red-necked Phalaropes float with hundreds of ducks. We arrive at Douglas Marsh as the winds pick up speed and chill the air. On the billboard we can read about the Le Conte’s and Sharp-tailed sparrows and the count of 13 and 90 birds, respectively, during a dedicated 2003 survey. We hope to find one of the 13 as we lumber awkwardly over the grass tufts rising above wet marsh. Hearing a squeaking sparrow, I move toward it until it pops to another spot and then hear it call – a Le Conte’s Sparrow, I’m sure. It chooses a close perch and I’m amazed at the excellent photos taken by many in our group of birders. Later we hear two more sparrows, but I am less certain whether they are Le Conte’s or Sharp-tailed. The many Marsh Wrens are easy to identify, though, and with patience we eventually see several before the darkness settles in. Now we walk the paved road slowly, listening in the darkness for bird songs, being distracted once by a beaver as it slaps its tail in warning to us. Bent calls me to a spot where he thinks he has heard a Yellow Rail. I look at my watch, thinking that 10 PM is still a bit early. I don’t hear the bird call again and his description of the call doesn’t seem right. Then at another location I hear a call I recognize as Virginia Rail and when I replay a recording for it, Bent says that’s the bird he heard too. I play the recording louder and from the bird calling in the marsh, I know it has moved closer. We stand huddled together in the cold, staring into the dark swamp when we see a black rat-like animal scurrying directly toward me, intent on finding my iPod. It comes to within four feet, stops, and then retreats a few feet back into the marsh. Flashlights illuminate the Virginia Rail and its thick pencil bill. Another Virginia calls loudly and scurries near us. Wow, what a show! Ten minutes later and farther along the road we hear a fourth Virginia and this one calls incessantly, even being heard from a great distance. Now, a little before 11 PM I impatiently announce it is time for a Yellow Rail to sound off. A minute after 11, I hear one tic tic tic across the road and move to that side. The ticking moves along side the road almost as fast as I walk beside it. Others now hear the subtle ticking. Barely able to see our hands in front of us, no way could we see ticker. Nonetheless, we are quite happy with hearing all the Night Sounds of Douglas Marsh.

(Shari) It’s a nice leisurely morning as the birders are all gone. When Bert returns at noon, we hastily depart for our next campground. Getting into Brandon at 2 PM is just not enough time to go to the grocery store and liquor store for our wine and cheese party. I drive to the Canadian store, my favorite, and wish I had more time to peruse the shelves. There are so many tempting items. Whole sections of Indian, Chinese and Mexican displays offer interesting foodstuffs and lots of bins containing items by the pound to scoop out as much as you want in a plastic bag. Hopefully tomorrow Bert can ride with someone else and I can have the car to shop. Luckily many people are running late also and I have some extra minutes to cut cheese and arrange crackers. Local Brandon residents and fellow Wagonmasters Nadeen and Lyle join us for wine and cheese and answer questions about the Polar Bear trip they lead. I have a couple of glasses of wine, my first in three weeks and my does it taste good. We eat so much cheese and crackers tonight that there is no room for supper. The group breaks up early since Bert has a bird trip scheduled for 6:30 PM. I keep thinking soon he will wear them out but off they go in search of the Yellow Rail. Lyle and Nadeen live here and have never visited the places Bert is taking the group tonight. They are invited to come along but gracefully decline the invitation. Me too. I intend to watch TV.

Day 5 – May 30 – Brandon

(Bert) Only sanitary engineers and birders would include both the landfill and the sewage treatment plant on their tour of Brandon. The stinging, bone chilling winds take the interest out of our morning visit to the landfill. We hear a Sora winnowing, but don’t find the California Gulls I hoped to see. However, driving around to the railroad track property beside the landfill, we see a couple of the gulls overhead there. A predator has found the nest of some of the ducks and geese that try to hide in the tall grasses, as evidenced by the broken and empty egg shells we chance upon.

Our main birding stop is Brandon Hills WMA where we enjoy a 2 km hike through the woods. Early spring flowers are just beginning to appear, violets and marigolds taking the lead. When Bailey aligns his camera in the direction of a distant patch of Marsh Marigolds he notices a perched hawk deep in the woods. We gaze at it for a minute, see its short banded tail, watch it take flight and then agree it is a Broad-winged Hawk. We add Ovenbird and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker to our trip list. The woods sing with the songs of redstarts, the clicks of Least Flycatchers and the unending monologues of Red-eyed Vireos. The singer that grabs my attention is a Veery. Chris wanted another chance to see this bird and today she gets it. The Veery is close and sings enthusiastically from an open perch. I hear the electronic chirps and beeps of digital cameras recording the event. Nearly completing the loop, I notice morels growing beside the trail and call back to Curt and Chris because we just had a discussion about these tasty morsels yesterday. I see Chris is already gathering some along the trail. I pick two for Shari since she and I have never tasted these and when I return to camp she is delighted at the present.

(Shari) Shop ‘til you drop, that is my motto. Jack and Pam graciously drive Bert on today’s bird outing so that I can have the car. My day starts at Tim Horton. It is the Canadian equivalent of Dunkin Donuts with great coffee, breakfast sandwiches and yummy donuts. I get there at 9 AM and the drive through is 20 cars deep, stretching to the highway. Even inside the restaurant people are lined up in a curve. I order a mocha latte, a breakfast sandwich and an apple fritter. Heck with the diet today. I find a table by a window and watch the people come and go. I wish I had stock in this restaurant chain. I wonder where all the people come from since it is a workday in the middle of the morning. When I leave the lines are as long as when I came.

Next stop is the dollar store where I hit pay dirt. I find stuff for our Costa Rica trip and some items for myself. Not like in the U.S., where in the dollar store you find things $1 to $5. This is a true dollar store and I am amazed at all the items they have for sale. I end up buying close to 70 items, all one buck each. A new Wal-Mart has been built since my last visit to Brandon. I find some items there too, most notably a thermal coffee pot since ours bit the dust in Rugby. Next is my favorite: The Canadian Store. First I get gas so I can spend my 7.5 cents a liter rebate in the store (but forget to do it later anyway). I walk every aisle in the store listening for my name coming from the shelves. In the next two hours, 23 items call out to me and make it to my cart. Gees, Bert would hate my day and would have gone bonkers after Tim Horton. To each his own. At 2:30 I return home, put my goodies away, do the dishes and Bert arrives. We take showers and meet the group at 6:15 for our LEO – Let’s Eat Out - at a steak place. Unfortunately half our group gets a brand new server who has a bit of trouble with our orders. She tells me that they do not have non-alcoholic beer (which they do) and I have to remind her about the escargot. It comes between my cheese soup and my steak sandwich. I know Steve and Nancy had some mishaps with their order also. All in all we had a good time, though.

Day 6 – May 31 – Riding Mountain

(Shari) I am going to get an inferiority complex since this is the second day that no one wants to accompany us on the trip to our next campsite. We pull out at 9 and make the 60-mi. trip alone, thinking how deserted the highway is. While I am at the kiosk arranging for the group’s camping sites, two rigs pull in behind me and the rest follow within the next two hours. When I drive to the office for the park passes, it starts to drizzle. As I hand the passes out to rigs as they come in, it starts to rain. By the time Bert leaves for a short birding hike, it starts to pour. Wilderness Adventures says in their marketing literature to Gambell, Alaska, “There is no such thing as bad weather, just poor equipment and a bad attitude.” Well, I guess I have both since I elect not to join the group even though they are going to one of my favorite places. I just may go myself in the next few days. Trevor makes a fire in the stove at the shelter where we’ll hear Bert’s bird talk on grouse and enjoy a warm and cozy social hour. Many people brought snacks, so again we are not very hungry for dinner. I prepare half of the pork kebobs I purchased, saving the rest for another day. I wonder if pork is okay to bring across the U.S. border? I know beef is still a no-no. Bert gathered morel mushrooms the other day and Curt and Chris tell me to sauté them in butter. Tonight we have them with the pork and they have a delicious, kind of a smoky, grilled taste. If you get a journal tomorrow you know that we were not poisoned. The rain has stopped and the weather report indicates tomorrow is sun and clouds. That will be good.

(Bert) Had I known, I would have revised the schedule. Our 2:30 walk through Ominnik Marsh is in the rain and we see only a few species. By the time we return to camp the rains have stopped. Bent saw a Ruffed Grouse during our walk and Trevor saw another in the camping area while he prepared the campfire for our 5 PM social. How appropriate since my talk today is on Ruffed Grouse. After dinner, the skies washed of rain, now open up and the warblers are active: spring bright Myrtle, Redstart, Chestnut-sided, Blackburnian, Orange-crowned and Mourning warblers.

Day 7 – June 1 – Riding Mountain

(Shari) Another spectacular day! All but six of the group went on one of Bert’s marathon bird trips. I sleep in, do some wash and walk to town stopping at the park’s visitor center. I am disappointed at the large number of closed stores and the lack of ranger programs but nonetheless have a pleasant walk on a pleasant day. Looking like snow softly falling from the sky, the cottonwood trees are shedding their white fluffy stuff. Much of it collects on the side of the road and with an imagination it too appears like snow. When the birders come back, Steve and Nancy tell me their car won the tick contest with a count of 22 ticks found in the car or on their persons. Luckily these ticks are big and are easily seen and/or felt as they tickle their way up your leg. Also the little buggers take about 24 hr. to decide where they want to chow down and by then you have found and gotten rid of them. I still don’t like ticks. We gather in front of our rig in the warm sunshine with unshelled peanuts and snacks and a very pesky squirrel that wants some of our food. Way too soon it is time to go inside if you want to eat dinner before the next bird outing Bert has planned.

(Bert) Something about tics in a gadwall, I couldn’t understand the radio transmission. When we stop again I ask Steve for clarification and find out his carload - with license plate GADWALL - has been competing with another on how many ticks they have found on themselves and the car. Their car is winning with 21 so far. Now all of us start feeling them, some real and some imaginary. It started when we walked a field near Agassiz Ski Hill.

Intent on finding Golden-winged Warblers where I had seen them two years ago, I prolong the search in the woods clearing. I hear a distant bird calling, but it takes me a half hour to track down the source. Then I find the female, followed immediately by the male and the wait was worth it. In stunning colors the birds are photo-documented by our photographers. While the group is watching this pair, I hear another calling from across the clearing. Later we watch this pair too – the male chasing the female through the brush and both shooting past us in a 5-min. bout too fast to photograph even with video - and I record the GPS coordinates of both pairs for the biologist that is studying them this spring in Manitoba. It has been a good morning and we’ve already found Red-headed Woodpecker, Snow Goose, Evening Grosbeak and dozens of Chestnut-sided Warblers. A bit farther in the direction of Agassiz Ski Hill, Marie directs our attention to a woodpecker in a dead spruce tree. Just before it takes flight she sees the yellow top notch and facial lines confirming American Three-toed Woodpecker. Others missed the bird, but fortunately we later see another at the East Gate to Riding Mountain and this time Bailey even gets a photograph of its three toes. Also at East Gate we hear the low pitched wing thrashing of a Ruffed Grouse. When we meet the park ranger he tells us of a nearby drumming log. We stand at the edge of a thickly snarled woods and can just make out the log between the interwoven branches and even see the grouse perched upon it. Our presence, though, must be intimidating and the grouse slowly moves off the log and farther into the woods. We wait quietly for a half hour, yet it does not return to the log for a performance. We’ve heard the grouse drumming three times this afternoon, seen the drumming log, seen the grouse on the log, but have not seen the grouse drumming from the log. Maybe another day.

In the evening I lead a small group to Lake Katherine, stopping to hear a Connecticut Warbler in the distance. We move down the road to a spot where Celeste heard two Eastern Screech-owls early this morning – a rare find for these parts. I play a recording and do not get a response. We continue to the lake and stop at a place I saw Mourning Warbler two years ago. Testing a few of the half-dozen recordings I have of its varied song, a small bird jets past me, or I assume that’s what happens judging by the swish of wings I hear. Then we see it in the semi-darkness, perched on the nearby bushes in clear view – another stunning bird.

Heading to yet another birding spot near Onanole, we stop at a place where I hope to hear woodcock or Great Gray Owls. We hear Wilson’s Snipe circling above us, but no woodcock. Marie suggests I play my owl recording. When the gruff great gray growl emanates from my speaker I get an immediate response, but not the one I expected. Marie asks, “What’s that?” I say, “Common Loon,” and then one flies over the trees and over our heads, complaining loudly in flight. Next a large mammal moves in the dark woods and I think Moose, but it is a horse disturbed by the owl call. In the blackened field another animal moves, a smaller one – a grouse someone announces - with its head held high. Training our binoculars at the dark shadow, it’s not the head. It’s the upraised tail of a Striped Skunk scurrying in circles. What a strange night this has been: the woodcock is a snipe, the owl is a loon, the moose is a horse and the grouse is a skunk!

Day 8 – June 2 – Riding Mountain

(Shari) Can you believe that I get up again at 6 AM to go on a bird outing? The group is going to the bison area and I am hoping to see other wild animals as well. I am not disappointed as we see a moose and calf and then four bison followed by a black bear crossing the road in front of us. Again some of the group gets ticks and Steve jokes that Nancy is one tick ahead in today’s contest. On our way back to camp we see a mother bear and the cutest ball of black fur with four legs scampering across the road. Bert returns by his promised 12:30 and after lunch I start to prepare for our hamburger cookout. I make some brownies and prepare a veggie tray while Bert drives to town to retrieve E-mail. We have a wonderful dinner at the shelter before retiring to our rigs. It has been a day full of sunshine, great scenery, good company and yummy food. We sure are blessed to be able to enjoy life like this.

(Bert) When I play a screech-owl recording at the spot where Celeste told me she heard one yesterday, Jack H. tells me he heard the distress call early this morning at the campground when a flock of crows harassed a bird that quickly flew away. For a local rarity, these birds certainly get around. I wish I could see or hear it, but I get no response from my playback.

We continue down the road to Lake Katherine, tranquil and peaceful, a brightly mirrored surface reflecting the saw tooth peripheral spruce, a postcard scene. A pair of Common Goldeneyes float nearby and when the drake takes flight I freeze the black-and-white action of wings and its reflective image in a photo.

A parade of mammals delights us along the Lake Audy loop. Is it springtime or our good fortune or the normal density of animals that makes today so special? First it is a beaver paddling slowly past us on Clear Lake and when it comes out of the water Steve centers it in my spotting scope and we can watch it working something in its front feet. Four Evening Grosbeak perch just above us, a species we only see in the far northern states or the west. Then it is back to the mammals: a Moose cow trots ahead of us with her young calf, a half dozen bull Bison graze just near the horizon and then a giant Black Bear lumbers across the grasslands inside the Bison enclosure.

We stop to get out for a short walk in a habitat that supports the less common woodpeckers. I hear an American Three-toed Woodpecker, but do not see it. Better though is the Swainson’s Thrush that approaches closely and still better is the two Boreal Chickadees that are easily in camera range. When we reach Lake Audy, many in the group stay to explore the area. Shari and I return to the campground with a few others and see another bear, this one with a tiny cub that must only recently been born. At our 5 PM social I hear about the many other mammals discovered in the afternoon. Besides the deer often seen by everyone, Bill reports an Elk with a calf – the same pair that a wildlife guide told us he witnessed being born this morning. Bill and Connie also found a part of the Bison heard, counting 28 cows and, at another section, three bulls. They even found a American (Pine) Marten on their return drive. Trevor and Paul drove to Brandon this morning to get a replacement converter for Paul and Celeste’s RV and on the return they watched a Cougar cross the highway. Adding Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel, Richardson’s Ground Squirrel and Franklin’s Ground Squirrel to the day list, we come to an amazing total of 11 mammal species today and 19 since we started the trip.

Day 9 – June 3 – Riding Mountain

(Bert) If yesterday was Mammal Day, today should be called Warbler Day. I see winter warblers in the tropics, spring warblers in Texas migration, yet nothing beats finding the vivid colored feathers of warblers on their nesting grounds. Our birding day is split into four short trips separated by returns to the campground. Collectively, we find 13 warbler species, most of them on the early morning walk along a country road adjacent to Clear Lake. The specialties are Tennessee, Nashville, Cape May and Blackburnian. It’s the Blackburnian that gets the most exclaim. When the orange parts of its head catch the morning sun, it’s as if the bird is on fire. In late morning we find a pair of Blackburnians again when we visit The Spruces beside Clear Lake. Then the butterflies - Mourning Cloak, Eastern Comma, Red Admiral and Canadian Tiger Swallowtail - distract the photographers and delay our return for lunch. In the late afternoon we hike Boreal Trail. This being a good warbler day, Nancy makes a request for two more: Blackpoll and Bay-breasted. I assure her we will see Blackpoll Warbler later in the trip, but I’m less sure about Bay-breasted. Not five minutes later, I see a Bay-breasted and direct everyone’s attention to its location as it flits between spruce trees. So much for my predictive powers. On the way out of the parking lot we stop for a moose that seems reluctant to move away. We gawk at it and photograph it to our heart’s content and it just stares back at us. Shari surmises it has a calf on our side of the road and is waiting for us to retreat, trusting that the calf will remain hidden to us. Perhaps, for the moose remains even after we move on.

(Shari) Before joining the birders on an afternoon hike in the Boreal Forest, I make a rhubarb cake for our June birthdays and anniversaries. I think I get a life bird – Bay-breasted Warbler – at least I don’t remember seeing that bird before. Even with a new bird, I get bored waiting around for the group to see something else and Curt and I decide to walk the trail in the reverse direction and meet the group in the middle. We turn around and enjoy our 1 km walk, snapping pictures of beautiful yellow flowers by a stream, fresh bear scat and quiet scenery. We sit at a bench with a view of a marsh stretching out in front and soon see our group cross the bridge. I am careful not to stray off the path because of the prevalence of ticks this year. Bert had one in his belly button last night that had already grabbed hold. Chris said she read to put liquid dish soap on the tick and it would release. Bert laid on his back, poured in the soap and 20 min. later all he had was a clean belly button and a slippery tick swimming in liquid soap. So, he gently pulled it out with a tweezers. On our return to camp we stop twice for moose. I am surprised at how black they are. Alaska moose are brown. As soon as we get home, I get out the rhubarb cake and Cool Whip and serve everyone a piece during our social. This is the first time I made such a cake and if I say so myself, it is delicious. I will make it again whenever I get rhubarb. I almost, but not quite, decide to join the owlers tonight. Instead I watch a Miss Marple mystery on television and go to bed before Bert gets home.

(Bert) A few us try our luck at owling again tonight. Jack H. certainly was lucky this morning when, on his own, he visited Ominnick Marsh and witnessed 22 crows chasing a Great Gray Owl. We all would have liked to see that event. As darkness sets in six of us now travel country roads, scanning the sides for owls. We stop to watch a Red-necked Grebe sitting on eggs in a nest while her mate floats nearby. Another pair is in the process of building a nest in the reeds. A half hour later I see an owl perched on a nearby fence post. We watch it intently as it watches us, swiveling its neck as only owls can do. Its small ears perk up as the wind plays with its feathers. Then it takes flight, flying low over the grasslands. A sudden plunge, claws drawn forward for a quick snatch it comes up barren of prey and continues its silent flutter flight. A deer enters the field and the owl comes near it, stopping up short to rest again on a fence post. It tries once more in its hunt for food, this time coming in our direction across the field. Leaving this owl we search in vain for another hour or so and then return. I ask Chris to stop the car periodically so that I can listen for night calls. In the darkness I hear Wilson’s Snipes, Canada Goose, Mallard, Red-necked Grebe, Alder Flycatcher, Yellow Warbler, Gray Catbird, Eastern Phoebe, Common Yellowthroat, but no owls, nor the woodcocks I’m trying for. Back at the marsh where we saw the nesting grebes, we stop again. This time I see the black outline of an owl against an almost black sky. I motion everyone to come out of the cars to see this owl and after they have located it I shine my flashlight in its direction. Disturbed, it flies to the opposite side of the small pond and Marie sees where it lands again. When we all have our binoculars trained on the spot I aim the beam at the water and the reflection gives us just enough light to make out the details of the Short-eared Owl, our second for the evening.

Day 10 – June 4 – Riding Mountain

(Bert) I think everyone is looking forward to our free day today: free to choose their own activity. Of course, they can do that any day, but when I offer interesting birding trips almost everyone follows me. Now they are off in multiple directions, some for birding, some for errands, some just taking it easy near camp. Shari and I go for a long walk – probably 5 mi. long – to Wasagaming and Ominnick Marsh and then along the shore of Clear Lake. I see several of the Swamp Sparrows that others have reported at the marsh – it has been a popular spot to visit in the off hours. Nursery-age kids on an outing are gathering marsh life in dip nets and with their chaperones are identifying thing-a-majigs, twirly-magigs and tumble-dedums. When we return from our walk I assemble three days of journals and drive to a WI-FI site to send them off. Then I continue to a new birding site I heard about. My visit is too short to find the nesting swans, but I do get to see Black-crowned Night-Heron. At our campfire I talk about Great Gray Owls – no. 6 on the top 50 species that birders want to see in North America.

(Shari) Riding Mountain National Park is one of the jewels in the Canadian Park system and it will be hard to depart in the morning. Today is one of Bert’s rare free days and we enjoy the late morning walking to the marsh. With typical male humor, Bert rocks the floating boardwalk giving me a sensation of tipping. We spot a Swamp Sparrow before walking to the lakeshore. I convince him to stop for café mocha and split a cinnamon roll at the bakery before walking back to the rig in the pleasant sunshine. While Bert checks out a birding site and retrieves E-mail, I continue with my three loads of wash. Soon it is 4 PM and bird talk time with travel meeting conducted around the fire. Seems like everyone enjoyed their free day – some did wash, others took a drive or a bike ride. We hear about sightings of birds, bears and moose before we depart for our night out at the Italian restaurant. I have salmon marinated in raspberry vinaigrette with strawberry salsa. Delicious! Other plates look good as they pass by. Our table resists the tempting tiramisu that Jack and Pam share and we threaten to steal it from them. Life is short: we should have had dessert first!

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