Chapter 3. Northern Manitoba
(Shari) More bear and moose are sighted on our drive out of Riding Mountain. This is my fourth visit to the park and we hit the jackpot as far as mammals are concerned, with sightings of bear and moose every day. Neat! As we travel nearly 300 mi. north today, the country changes from spruce and forest to farmland and marsh then again spruce and forest. All eyes are peeled on the roadside hoping for a glimpse of a Great Gray Owl but Celeste and Paul are the only lucky ones to see it.
We arrive at the casino in The Pas by 2 PM and are told where to park. After six of us park, another man comes and tells us we parked wrong and he wants us to move 6 ft. forward. I don’t know what 6 ft. will accomplish but we do as we are told. The casino is very generous with us and gives each person $5 to use as he/she sees fit. I, like many others gamble my money away. Bert sticks his $5 in his pocket and later gives it as a tip to the waiter who serves us dinner at the casino. I have two hours of entertainment trying to loose the money on penny and nickel slot machines. After the two hours I get bored and want to quit so get reckless and start to bid five lines at a time. Soon my two rolls of nickels are gone and I return to R-Tent-III.
At dusk, a group of us carpool to the dump to see the bears. I came unprepared for the swarms of mosquitoes that descend on us, so stay in the car. Some brave birders remain outside looking at the hundreds of gulls making a meal from the mounds of garbage. Bert sets up his scope, swatting at a cloud of mosquitoes the whole while. Two cars depart and two remain. About an hour later, three bears appear and walk the length of the garbage heap before disappearing behind a mound of junk. We wait awhile longer but no more mammals show up and we too go home.
(Bert) Heading north we pass through at least three distinct ecotones. In the high elevation of glacier built Riding Mountain we find another Black Bear, a bull Moose and a flock of Evening Grosbeaks at the edge of the dense forests and Ring-necked Ducks floating on clear lakes.
After 27 mi. we’ve traversed the park and rapidly drop a thousand feet down the mountain to the flat farmlands – a patchwork quilt when viewed from above - where birdlife is sparse except for an occasional crow or Red-tailed Hawk. The Red-taileds we saw in southwest Manitoba showed many characteristics of the pale Krider’s morph, but those now are the more common Eastern subspecies with obvious red tails.
After crossing Garlan River and paralleling Duck Mountain Provincial Park the setting is park like with groves of aspen, vacant grasslands and occasional farms. Decrepit weatherworn farmhouses lean precariously, aged by wind and snow, perhaps not used in generations. Ukrainian cemeteries register more gravestones than we see humans 100:1. Chalk dust clouds drag erasure marks across a blue palette sky, stretched over a lush green countryside.
At mile 95 I record my first American Kestrel today and decide to monitor the species population as we head northward. At mile 114, Black Spruce intermingle with the aspen and by mile 182 the spruce predominate. Now also the land ceases to be farmed: too short a growing season here, although global warming will likely change that. I’m still seeing kestrels regularly, the last at mile 202. Calculating the transect density, I counted 1 kestrel per 7 mi.
At mile 218 we cross the 53rd Parallel, entering Northern Manitoba. By mile 242 the spruce intermingle with tamarack where the land is wetter and, briefly, I see more aspen again as we pass near the shores of Lake Winnipegosis. Dozens of vacant Osprey nests rest on utility cross poles, although we seen no nearby birds. In fact, I see only a flicker and a Gray Jay in 35 mi. of this the Black Spruce – Tamarack habitat.
When we reach The Pas, I park the RV and tally what I saw along the road and at our two rest stops: 44 species and from what I’ve heard from others they have seen many additions. But none compares to the one that flew directly across the windshield in front of Paul and Celeste at mile 200. They were treated to an extreme closeup of a Great Gray Owl that barely survived the encounter.
(Bert) An odd choice for a Sharp-tailed Grouse lek, the half dozen grouse sit peacefully, an occasional grouse strutting, on a volleyball sand court on the shores of Clearwater Lake. The leks we visited earlier in our trip were distant and even then our presence a quarter mile away sometimes was noted as a disruption by the grouse. These, however, seem oblivious to our presence only a couple dozen feet away. A bicyclist, a man and his dog, cars driving close by, none seem to disturb these grouse. All the better for photographing and close observation through binoculars and scopes.
Elsewhere on the beach we watch a Black-bellied Plover decked out in jet black ink feathering contrasting with impeccably white. Mergansers and a Common Tern are fly-bys and just as we are about to leave, two shorebirds arrive. I retrieve my scope and motion to the others to come back out of their vehicles. The brightly spring plumaged Sanderlings are a surprise to most in the group who are used to seeing them on southern seashores in their drab winter plumage.
Back in our RV’s, we continue northeast through the boreal forests of Northern Manitoba. Except for a few developed parks that attract mostly fishermen, humanity’s only footprint is the highway we ride. Spruce and some wetlands dominate the scenery. I don’t see mammals, but others later report they found beaver, coyote, fox and Snowshoe Hare. Best birds are Sandhill Cranes and two Bald Eagles. I continue my kestrel count, finding only two in 120 mi.
We arrive at Wekusko Falls and except for the difficulty of parking the larger rigs in the tight campsites, everyone is impressed with the tranquil spruce-aspen forest we are camped in and shortly after getting settled, they hike to the lake, river and waterfalls. A pair of Red-necked Grebes, one sitting on a nest and its mate floating nearby, are the biggest attraction since the nest is only 25 ft. from the pier and the two have become accustomed to nearby observers. I watch as the adult rises from the nest, stretching its wings and tail, revealing the large white eggs below. Then it slips into the water, staying nearby and inspects the nest with a bill poke here and a rearrangement there. It calls to its mate and immediately gets a loud response. I wonder what they said in grebe language.
(Shari) Taking my tea outside, I walk the parking lot of the casino. Looks like everyone has gone birding with Bert. I return to R-Tent-III and decide to read my book until the group comes back. Promptly at 9, Bert pulls in and we are off to our next destination. It is only a 2 hr. jaunt to the provincial park but it seems again as long to get everyone parked. I send rigs into Bay 2 of the campground one at a time while Bert parks them, attempting to match size of rig and size of site. Finally we are all parked, I eat lunch and Bert goes birding. I also bake cookies for our potluck. Trevor and Verna set out mosquito coils around the perimeter of our lot with a fire in the middle and by 4 PM, we have no mosquitoes. Bert talks about ptarmigans, I run a travel meeting and then we have a most delicious potluck. Some groups do not like potlucks but this one indicted they did. I know Bert likes them.
(Bert) The dawn chorus of warblers reverberates from the tall spruce. My ears tell me they are many, but my eyes see few as the Tennessee, Cape May and Bay-breasted warblers stay hidden in the top branches. We hike toward the waterfalls spilling into Lake Wekusko and along the wooded shoreline we hear a new song. Steve and Nancy describe it as half a vireo song and I hear the resemblance as the Magnolia Warbler sings. This bird throws up its head, opens its mouth wide and sings lustily. For months of each winter I see Magnolia Warblers daily, almost hourly, in Mexico and Belize, but in winter plumage many of the colors are absent or dulled and today’s bird seems almost like another species, school bus yellow below with sharply defined black racing stripes on its sides and splashes of gray, black and white across its head and back.
At 9 AM we pull out of the campsite, heading toward Thompson. While stopping at the “T” intersection with Hwy. 39 I use binoculars to identify a blackbird on the utility wires and am surprised to see the dark eyes hinting at red, a female Brewer’s Blackbird. This is the farthest north I’ve seen one in Manitoba and is beyond the range shown in Bezener & De Smet (2000). Continuing along Hwy. 39 we search diligently for Great Gray Owl, but no one finds an owl this trip. Pisew Falls is as splendid as our last visit. The gorged and tannin stained river plunges torrentially over the drop, throwing up a mist around the frozen ice cap below, the last remnant of winter. By the time we reach Thompson my kestrel count for the day is 8, all between mile 8 and 119 (1 per 15 mi. to Joey Lake, or 1 per 19 mi. for the whole route to Thompson).
(Shari) A late and leisurely departure puts us at Pisew Falls by 11:18 AM. We would have arrived earlier if we had not crawled along the highway searching for a Great Gray Owl along the section of road we had seen it in previous years. No luck! At the falls I almost decide not to hike the two trails but since the day is so pretty, I put on my jacket and head out along the boardwalk and down the stairs. I am so glad I do. I had forgotten how pretty the scene is. I am surprised that 20 ft. of snow still fronts the falls since it has been so warm. I know I have many pictures of this falls from my previous two visits but I can’t help snapping more. After eating lunch in the parking lot we drive the remaining 50 mi. to Thompson, fill up on discounted gas and head to the campground. Some do their laundry before our meeting around the fire. Bert talks about identifying scaup and other birds found in Churchill. I talk about the logistics of the train, the town and our hotel. A group of us go to eat at the Chinese restaurant near the campground. Bill and I have spicy: so spicy that my nose is still running as I write this. Bert’s meal is bland and according to him not very tasty. I always have a hard time getting him to eat Chinese and I guess it will be months before I will be able to convince him to go again.
(Bert) In Thompson area birding this morning our best bird is a Pectoral Sandpiper at a land bridge over Burntwood River. Patiently, the bird stays on the rocky embankment while we watch it through my scope and can pick out the finely lined chest abruptly terminated at the clean white belly. It’s the first Pectoral I’ve seen in Manitoba. Another flock of Canada Geese are flying high above us, 250 forming a modified "V", moving like a checkmark pointing north. While other geese are sitting on eggs or have hatched chicks, these still have not reached their northern nesting areas.
(Shari) By 1 PM - a full 4 hr. early - mittens, long underwear, hand warmers, boots, and bug suits stuff our luggage bags. Seems I am not the only one anxious to go and many are milling around all packed too. By 4:30 Colleen and crew come to pick up the luggage and at 5 we pile into cars that take us to the train station. Not long after we arrive, we are told that the train is an hour late. To keep everyone busy, I hand out the “clues” that the Canadian Mounties gave me. Tongue in cheek, I inform them that the Mounties need our help catching a murderer on the train. Someone killed a Great Gray Owl and we need to find out who did, with what weapon and where the murder was perpetrated. Surprisingly, most everyone gets involved in the game and soon we are able to board the train. We move to our assigned rooms. Maybe “rooms” is the wrong word to use, since they are more like “cubbies.” Some of us have doubles, some singles, one triple and six berths similar to Pullman sleepers. I don’t know why all the different rooms but it keeps things interesting for me. After the train gets underway, 20 of the group can sit in the dining car for dinner. Trevor, Verna, Bert and I have a private wine and cheese party while we wait our turn. Meals on the train are tasty and reasonably priced. Both Bert and I have pan fried trout, mashed potatoes, veggies and roll for $10.50 and we share a triple berry pie with ice cream for desert. Soon I am bombarded with people solving their clues and asking for more. Steve comes up and threatens to throw me off the train if I don’t give him all the clues. The group is really into this game and many are close to the solution by nightfall. By 10 PM I am too tired to keep my eyes open and retire to my little cubbie, enclosed by a curtain for the night. Bert is above me in his little cubbie and I only count four or five of his snores before I too fall asleep.
(Bert) We quit birding early so that everyone can prepare for the train trip. Almost all are done hours ahead of time and idle the afternoon away waiting for our expected 6 PM departure. The train leaves late, a typical situation, and at 7:15 I’m watching the spruce-aspen forests glide past my train window. Blue sky and fluffy white clouds complement the pleasant weather soon to change. When I walk forward from our berth to the dining car others in our group tell me they saw a pair of Bald Eagles at a river crossing. I tell them they changed to ravens by the time I saw them at the back of the train. After dinner I continue to watch for wildlife, seeing a Merlin at 9:10 but little else besides ducks and geese. The habitat transitions to stunted Black Spruce and willows, then barren tamarack and a few patches of taller spruce, only to become progressively shorter farther north. Sixty-six miles thus far by train, at 9:44 the train passes through Arnot where a Barn Swallow circles above and I return to our sleeper car for the evening.
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