Chapter 2. Southwestern Manitoba
(Bert) At about two minutes per RV, our six rigs are quickly across the border check and into Manitoba. My first bird on entering Canada is a calling Killdeer. In a few minutes we are turning into Turtle Mountain Provincial Park and then we wind through the park roads to a muddy parking lot near the interpretative center. I put on my tall rubber boots for the soggy ground and water puddles and we proceed to Adam Lake on foot.
Amidst a thin veil of gray fog, we see five Red-necked Grebes floating on the lake. Someone asks me how I identify them at this great distance without the aid of color and I point out the features of their distinctive shape. When we get closer, the colors aid identification. A few Barn Swallows perch on signposts where we cross the dike and are so unconcerned about our presence that I take ever closer photos before one decides six feet is close enough and it takes flight. Forster’s Terns sport new tail feathers that are impressively long as they glide and hover gracefully above us.
At the start of a trail bordering the lake, we see our first spring flowers. Just a few inches in height, destined to become much taller, is a patch of Pearly Everlasting, identified by Marilyn. Why the strange name someone asks and Marilyn points to the pearl shaped flower parts and says these flowers are often dried in fall and last forever.
Hiking through the woods and near water’s edge, we get a good start on our warbler list as all are singing and flittering in the trees above us. Yellow Warblers are plentiful, a Black-and-white puts on a good show, Chestnut-sided is a new bird for West Coast birders Dale and Beverly, American Redstart sings sweetly and alludes us for many minutes, and we zero in on the loudly singing Northern Waterthrush. As we finish the loop trail I hear a Great Crested Flycatcher above the parking lot and we soon focus on two of them atop the aspens.
After an early lunch in our RV’s, we drive the short distance to Whitewater Lake. The last few miles are on a smooth gravel country road, but the last mile is formidable so we park on the side of the road and detach our tow vehicles. Taking the lead, my Nissan SUV slips enough that I put it into 4-wheel drive. Don’s small car seems to have the most difficult time, until we see Doug sliding sideways down the road in his powerful big-tired, high clearance Sportsmobile. When he reaches the end of the road, his tires are caked with three inches of mud and I wonder why he didn’t use 4-wheel drive. He says his wheels shift manually outside on each wheel and he didn’t want to step out into the mud. Now he shifts them in preparation for our return. Even though Whitewater Lake is flooded much beyond its normal shoreline, negating habitat for shorebirds, we see many other good birds. Great Egret, although exceedingly common in the Lower 48, is a good find here in Manitoba. We watch a muskrat paddle quietly at water’s edge, identify a Merlin making a beeline above the pier extending into the lake, and study a hundred Franklin’s Gulls circling above us. A Wilson’s Snipe perches close by on a fence post during our return to the RV’s.
Shari takes the wheel of our car to check out the road ahead of us. Meanwhile, we watch a Western Kingbird building a nest atop a stout limb of an old cottonwood tree, using its cotton for nesting material. When Shari returns she claims she has seen an owl. Although I don’t doubt her, I poke fun at her about whether she has nailed down the bird so we can all see it. She is convinced we can find it again and we drive our RV’s only a quarter mile to the row of tall and broad cottonwoods until we see one in flight. We stop and everyone gathers in front of R-Tent-III and together we walk forward. Not only do we find a fluffy white juvenile Great Horned Owl perched in a tree, but we see a second one flying from limb to limb and then both adult owls flying out to the plowed fields. The one youngster remains at its perch for everyone to get good photos as it stares down at us.
(Shari) “Let’s fire Bert and just keep Shari”, I campaign as I spot the birds that are the highlight of the day. Even I am enthused. But I’ll get to that story later. We left camp this morning at the ungodly hour of 7. I have not been up that early in many a month and Barb jokingly says I look like a zombie. No makeup, droopy eyes and just not with it. We travel the short distance to the Canadian border and all cross without incident. It is on to a provincial park where we have birded past years. Here it is wet, wet, wet. I have never seen it this wet and we all park on the upper level and even then I am afraid we may get stuck. I walk the fitness trail with the rest of the group, and finish the whole one-mile loop, a trail I have not done before. I take pictures of our caravan people using the fitness stations and others birding. I find enough people who will hang back and talk with me that the walk is interesting except for the times we stand too long in one place, waiting for a bird to appear. We return to the rigs for an early lunch before heading to another birding stop down a gravel road. I am concerned that the road could be washed out or soft but we have talked to Manitoban and he says it will be alright. The group parks on the side of the road and we unhitch two of the cars while Doug and Kay and Dale and Beverly drive separately with their 4-wheel-drive RV’s. I decide to stay back and take a nap. When the birders return, I take the car to scout the road ahead. It is smooth, wide and solid all the way to the highway. On my return, I scare up an owl and tell the group of it. I think they are skeptical but Bert looks in the area I mention and sure enough we scare up an owl then another one then another one and then a fourth. We have come across a family of owls and one of the juveniles sits on a branch over the road for all the minutes we care to look at it. I have seen the bird of the day and I am thrilled.
We get to Melita and the campsite we had used previous years is inside a barrier close to the flooded river. The Souris River is very wide and almost reaches the road. A 5-ft. wall of sandbags on one side of the road has been erected for protection from the rising water. I have called another RV park close by and we have the group wait in a gas station while I scout out the park. It is muddy in places and wet all over but we find enough spots for the group. We even have an area close to our rig for our Mexican hotdog dinner and Bert’s talk about Baird’s Sparrow and what to expect on tomorrow’s birding day, besides rain.
(Bert) Ken arrives at 6:15 AM in light rain and we discuss how to plan today’s birding. I suspect the rain and threat of more will keep a few indoors this morning, but am pleased when John and Marilyn join Ken and me in my SUV and Richard drives his 4WD truck, carrying Georgia, Dale and Beverly.
As we travel a road paralleling the Souris River the rains intensify and very few birds are visible. We stop at an embankment overlooking the river and are forced to make a U-turn when we see the river pouring over the road ahead of us. A Mule Deer bounces on all fours a hundred yards ahead on the gravel road and to the side we see five White-tailed Deer. I don’t recall ever seeing both deer species so close together.
We return to Melita and head out of town on another road. Now we are on gravel roads. Mud splashes on our side windows, although the rain has lightened up. We stop adjacent to small mounds in uncultivated fields to look for perched owls and are delighted to see one on a fence post, then a second on the ground, then three and finally all four Burrowing Owls. I remember other years when we could not find any in Manitoba, but this year we find four of the five known Burrowing Owls in the province.
Birding is getting better and the rain is now only a light drizzle. We see two Sora wading through wet grass, catch a glimpse of our first Upland Sandpipers, and stop beside a marsh of nesting birds. An American Coot rests on a nest and even closer, not 20 ft. from us a Pied-billed Grebe alights from her nest, revealing a clutch six white eggs. John reads GPS coordinates to me and I write them down for a subsequent report for the Manitoba Birding Atlas. Later we see Horned Grebes starting to build a nest, and when a Swainson’s Hawk begins swooping down close to us we find its mate’s nest well hidden in a cluster of dense short willows.
We find a few of our target species: Sprague’s Pipit and Chestnut-collared Longspur. Ken hears a pipit in a grassy field where spring flowers are beginning to open. We walk into the field and he plays a recording that brings the soaring birds closer to where we stand. Two birds are so high up we have trouble zeroing in on the two black dots in uniformly gray skies. Through binoculars, we can synchronize the pipit calls with the moments of gliding on outstretched wings. We come across the longspurs several times and their pitch black bodies and reddish collars stand out even in flight.
At a house and yard in Lyleton we find a plethora of birds, including Tennessee Warbler, a pair of Blackpoll Warblers and several Baltimore Orioles. The home owners have many feeders out, but I am most surprised at the hanging deer carcass that is a delight to American Goldfinches and a Downy Woodpecker. By far the best bird of the day, seeming quite out of range and habitat is a Red Crossbill. Although its breast is red, I am surprised how orange is its back. Our view is close enough to easily see the crossed bills. This is my first time to see this bird in Manitoba.
My journal today will be long, if I don’t skip telling about the Ferruginous Hawk on a nest and its mate soaring close above us, or the Loggerhead Shrike on the wire, or the Sharp-tailed Grouse playing hide-and-seek in the tall brown grass, or …
We break for lunch at 1 PM, having traveled 88 miles this morning. In the afternoon we find another Swainson’s Hawk on a nest, this one very high on a tall tree. Best for the afternoon is a Long-eared Owl on a nest. It is well-hidden, but we can make out its two (or too) long and pointed “ears” poking above the sticks. On our walk out of the woods I spot a Mourning Warbler, always a treat for me, and a Philadelphia Vireo.
Because of the extensive flooded fields and rivers, not all of the Snow Geese have left the area. Most of the dozen we see are the blue form, showing blue bodies and white necks and heads, but one is all white. Rain is now strong and our bird watching is through muddy windows cracked open just enough to align binoculars, but avoiding rain coming inside. One fence line over a flooded field is filled with five swallow species all in a row: Tree, Northern Rough-winged, Bank, Cliff and Barn.
We round out the day at a home in Pierson where several Cackling Geese pairs are raising goslings, Orchard Orioles and a Ruby-throated Hummingbird are coming to feeders and a Brown Thrasher is sitting on a nest. We make one last visit to the Burrowing Owls, since we have PM birders that didn’t join us in the AM, and see one of the owls in flight and perched. By now we have had more than an inch of rain and this road which was only a bit muddy this morning is now deep in mud and I appreciate my 4WD as we slug our way home in heavy rain.
We return to Melita at 6:30 and later when I count up the species on our day list it comes to 99. Guess we should have stayed out just a bit longer and stood in the rain to find that Yellow-throated Vireo we missed.
(Bert) The pregnant skies are still releasing torrents of rainwater. Two pumps are removing water from the campground, sending it to street ditches. After a travel meeting held inside R-Tent-III, we prepare for departure. Everyone has left the campground before we are ready, but John and Marilyn are waiting at the street to follow us. Out onto the main highway I am buffeted by fierce head-on winds and I keep at 35-45 mph with a tight grip of the steering wheel. Where I remember green pastures from prior trips, now we see lakes and rivers. Bucking winds carry buckets of water. For mutual warmth and protection, cattle huddle tightly on little islands as they battle the winds and rain. I see very few birds, limited to a scattering of Mallards, shovelers and teal that ride over ripples of wind blown water. A sign announces Prairie Land Farms, but instead of farmland, we see a lake stretching across hundreds of acres. Waves tossed enough to create white caps curl as they reach the edge of the highway. A muskrat skurries from the lake on one side of the road to the lake on the other, while we drive on a paved highway only a couple of inches above the water. We turn from the head-on north winds to an easterly direction and I feel relief through the steering wheel and an engine that fights with less strain. A few minutes later I notice water bubbling up from the bottom edge of my side window. Shari checks the other windows and they are bubbling with rainwater that is seeping up through the weep holes. She lays a few towels against the windows to soak up the moisture. A half hour later the winds let up enough for Black Terns to take to the air, but they are tossed violently. By the time we reach Brandon, the rain has almost stopped, though the winds are still bending tall trees. I call off tonight’s search for Yellow Rails. Too cold, too wet, too windy to be out at night. Tomorrow will be better, I hope.
(Shari) Of all 23 caravans over 12 years, we have only cancelled an activity once. So far we have cancelled or postponed a social, a wine and cheese party and two part-day birding trips. Unbelievable! Bert goes out rain or shine as many of our readers will attest, but drenching rain, 44º, and wind gusts of 60 mph are no fun. I think he realized he would be birding alone in such conditions. As we drive today against the northerly wind, our engine works hard to move forward. What once were fields are now lakes complete with whitecaps lapping onto the roads. If this sideways hard rain keeps pouring, the road will be covered in a few hours. It rains so hard that the weep holes in our windows are bubbling water inside our unit. I put towels at every window along the side facing the oncoming rain and within 50 mi. they are soaked. John and Marilyn are following us but we have a difficult time seeing them through our fogged and rain soaked mirrors. We pull off at a gas station and I give them a working radio so that we can communicate. As I return to the RV, I am blown sideways and actually have to struggle to make forward progress. As we near Brandon, the rain decreases to a drizzle but the winds continue to howl. We are all happy to stay indoors and wait it out.
(Bert) On the Manitoba Birds e-group I learned about the cam http://www.cbc.ca/manitoba/features/falcon/ showing a Peregrine Falcon on a nest in downtown Brandon. The birds have been nicknamed Hurricane and Brooklyn. We find the tall, historic building and stare up from three sides but cannot see the nest. Then someone sees one of the falcons perched on a light standard near the top of the building. We focus our binoculars (and my camera) on the falcon and watch it cleaning its talons. Perhaps it recently dined on one of the Rock Pigeons that are plentiful in the city. A half hour later when we are birding near the Hydro Generating Station, two workers stop their truck and tell us about another peregrine pair. Near the top of one of the two cooling towers is a catwalk and through my spotting scope we get a good look at the nest, but cannot see an occupant or its mate nearby.
I stop at the landfill and ask permission for our group to bird beside a small pond and marsh near the entrance. We see two Canvasback pairs and a few other birds and are about to leave when Richard says he thinks he saw a rail. I suspect it is a Sora and I ask John to play a few seconds of his Sora recording. The call gets an immediate reaction and we hear a return call and then see the Sora quickly scudding through the marsh to the base of the hill where we stand looking down. The Sora looks downright disappointed and we suspect it is without a mate and thought his lover had just arrived to his home territory. This city dump is no place for a self-respected Sora and I hope he finds his way to the much more pleasant surroundings of Douglas Marsh not far away.
We drive to the swollen Souris River, overflowing its banks. We find our first pair of Eastern Phoebes and I hear a Common Yellowthroat in the distance. One spurt of John’s recording sends it in close view. We have a good study of other warblers after we arrive at Brandon Hills WMA, through an unplanned circuitous route. The last is the best when we see a Bay-breasted Warbler that has not quite come into full breeding plumage. With at least a half dozen opportunities, everyone except Georgia is able to hear the extremely low-pitched drumming of a Ruffed Grouse. Some pitches of bird sounds, too low or too high, are beyond our hearing capabilities. My intentions were to complete a circular hiking trail and I thought everyone is now prepared for water, as half the group visited Brandon’s Wal-Mart to purchase 16-inch-high rubber boots. Instead, we make a half-loop and encounter water across the path much deeper than we can navigate without filling our boots.
(Shari) Tim Hortons here I come. This is one of those phenomena that cannot be explained. Just everyone in Canada seems to go to Tim Hortons. Our USA equivalent is Dunkin Donuts, without the crowds. All day long, lines of people pass through the drive-thru section or wait inside the restaurant to place their order. Doug and I are the only ones that did not go birding this morning and we are enjoying a breakfast out. I look forward to visiting Tim Hortons at least once in every Canadian trip. I make homage to my diet by only eating half my bagel and half my apple fritter but gulp all of the delicious mocha that I love so much. After our breakfast we hit my favorite Canadian stores and a few new ones too. Our list includes pomegranate juice at a health food store, return of boots at Canadian Tire, fresh veggies at Canadian Superstore, Alexander Keith’s India Pale Ale and tequila for margaritas at the Canada liquor store, and a post office to mail a letter. Doug offers to buy me a hamburger for lunch at one of those famous chains like “In and Out” that I have never heard of before now, but I decline. I am very tempted when he suggests we split one, but know that would be too much especially since we are going out for steak tonight. At 6:15 we gather to carpool to the restaurant. I tell everyone that the best deal is the steak sandwich for $10.95 including salad or soup and fries or baked potato. The sandwich is a misnomer because it is a nice 8-oz. steak lying on a piece of toast. Throw the toast away and you have the same thing as a steak that costs twice as much on the menu. Apparently lots of people listened since I see lots of steak sandwiches settle in front of them. Mine is delicious. When we return home I turn on my iPhone and realize that a geocache is less than 300 ft. from where I am parked. I meet Richard as I step outside and the two of us hunt down the cache and within a few minutes I have it logged. Success ends a very good day.
(Bert) After dinner at a local restaurant, the brave and the few – or is it the foolish? – drive to Douglas Marsh and start birding again at 10:40 PM. You might ask what we intend to see on a star-filled, but moonless, night, while staring into a dark marsh? Well, actually, Dale, Beverly, Kay, Georgia and I probably won’t see anything, but we could hear some interesting nocturnal birds. As we exit the truck, we hear the whistling wings of a Wilson’s Snipe circling over its territory. A few minutes later we see the dark silhouette of a nightjar fluttering close by, good sized in length but with short wings compared to Common Nighthawk and absent of white wing marks. By elimination of other possibilities it must be an Eastern Whip-poor-will.
I hear a sparrow loudly and repeatedly calling and recall the sound as that of a Nelson’s Sparrow, formerly Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow. Dale plays a bit of a recording of Nelson’s and it matches, though he cannot hear the present bird. We walk ever closer to the sound and then Dale hears it too. This one and about three others can be heard calling during most of our stay tonight. Even more prominent in abundance and constant calling are the Soras. As we walk the near mile of highway bordering the marsh, we are never out of earshot of at least three Soras, so there could be dozens calling from the marsh grasses. A surprise is the deep-pitched bass call of an American Bittern, a strange un-birdlike belch that seems to bubble up from deep inside the belly of the tear-shaped bird and squeeze up through its narrow neck. Once only, and then silence.
A small flock of Canada Geese cluck from far away in the marsh and I hear another noise that I do not recognize. I ask Dale to replay the Virginia’s Rail call that he played during our review in the truck. This time he plays the second variance as well. Ten minutes later I hear a similar call again and this time Dale plays the recording louder. The caller quickly joins in an enthusiastic response and a second Virginia’s Rail calls from a more distant spot in the marsh.
We still have not heard from our main target bird, the Yellow Rail. I strain my ears to the limit, attempting to shut out all other noises. By now it is well past 11 PM and the infrequent car traffic has all but stopped, although a distant train rolls a mile away. The dark cloudless sky is pinpricked with a million tiny lights. Some see a shooting star and I study the sky now too. A much larger light than the stars is rapidly receding and we decide it is the space station. I focus my binoculars on the moving target and am amazed on how fast it moves across the circumference of the night sky.
A new sound comes from the marsh and Dale and I quickly decide it is Marsh Wrens. Still no Yellow Rails, though. We continue walking along the highway, stopping frequently to concentrate on the night sounds. Wind passes so gently I only notice it when I face directly toward the marsh. I think of it as the Sounds of Silence, when man’s contraptions are silenced, leaving only those of nature. Finally, I hear the first set of clicks, followed by 30 seconds of abstinence and then another set of clicks, followed a bit later with the third set. The Yellow Rail is quite far off and, perhaps, is turning so that we are not hearing constant clicks. We move along the highway, hoping for a closer one. We hear another rail and later a third. None are close. I step into the marsh, testing the depth of the water. It’s not above my boots so I venture farther, soon joined by Dale. With flashlights to aid navigation through the grass and reeds, trying to find the highest spots, we venture a 100 yards into the marsh. Stopping to listen, we always hear the rail, but it seems always to be far beyond us. I must have stepped in a deeper hole, because I can begin to feel a wet cold sock. We turn back to the highway.
It is a few minutes before 1 AM when I open the door to R-Tent-III. I savor a bottle of favorite Alexander Keith’s India Pale Ale and, simultaneously, savor a delightful evening enjoying nature’s sounds.
(Bert) After showers and marble-sized hail, the skies clear and at 2:30 we head out for birding at Ominnik Marsh. The floating pier sections tip on our weight and sink a few inches below the surface when three are on one section. Mostly, the marsh seems quiet until an American Crow starts harassing a Common Raven. An aerial battle ensues directly above us. The raven has lost several flight feathers and looks worse for wear. The lighter and more agile crow perpetuates the attack and the raven seems helpless to escape its taunting. I snap a series of photos, a black-and-white study in contrasting sizes and tail shapes.
Finishing the loop trail, we visit the shores of Clear Lake and are surprised to see a resting Caspian Tern that ignores our close presence. A beaver paddles nearby in the marsh. Not long after, the whole group is back in R-Tent-III and I present a talk on Ruffed Grouse. We follow with the “Welcome to Canada” wine and cheese party that had been delayed a few days because of the rainy weather.
(Shari) We arrive at the campground ahead of the group to arrange for campsites and park passes. As the last one arrives, so does the rain and hail. What next? Fortunately it stops for the afternoon bird walk along the marsh. But at 4:30 we decide to have our meeting and wine and cheese in our rig. Good thing we have a smaller group and we all fit. Conversation is lively and in spite of close quarters, I notice people changing seats with each other so they can join other conversations. Bert and I swap a number of times as well. We finish off all the wine and cheese I bought and Doug goes back to his rig to get two more bottles. By now we are feeling pretty good about things. I dig into my own stash of cheese and cut more. Don, our official trip weatherman, says the day tomorrow is supposed to be sunny. We have rearranged the schedule because one of the birding roads is washed out. Maybe it will be open again on the weekend sometime. We banter about starting times with early people trying to outshout late starting people. We compromise and will have two departure times. No need to tell you which group I belong in.
(Bert) Our plan is to complete the Audy Loop which includes the bison enclosure. At our first stop at Spruces Picnic Area the chilling winds blow off Clear Lake and stir up white caps on its steel blue waters. A pair of Common Goldeneyes dips in and out of sight in the tossing waves, a half-dozen American White Pelicans rest on shore, and an adult Bald Eagle glides effortlessly above us, soon followed by an Osprey.
We reach the start of the loop and stop again at a small marsh and watch Common Mergansers circle the area. Surprisingly, two females come to rest atop the remains of a large tree, disintegrated except for a stout trunk broken at the top. We wonder if the tree-cavity-nesting mergansers are considering this as a suitable nest site.
We veer off the main loop road to pass into the Indian Reserve in search of Connecticut Warbler. We hear none, but find many other good birds. A Ruffed Grouse drums so close by I’m sure it cannot be more than a few dozen feet away. Perhaps we are too close, as it does not sound again. I step into the dense understory and find a suitable log, suspecting this must be the drumming log. After leaving the area, we hear the grouse drumming again, distantly. Before leaving the Indian Reserve we get our first good look at an Ovenbird singing from a tree and watch a Brown Creeper moving up another.
(Shari) We three late-start “birders” pile into Richard’s truck and head out on the Audy Loop road where we are to meet the early-riser birders. They left at 7 AM, a full two hours before our departure. Within a half hour we catch up to them and, to my way of thinking, did not miss a thing. The day is gorgeous and it feels good just to be outdoors. We notice that a gate is partially closed on the road that heads to the bison reserve but with a bit of weaving we can get our cars through it. Water covers the road in spots and is washboard in others, but very doable. The thrill of the day is a Black Bear crossing the road in front of us. I see these bears often on our trips, but they never fail to delight me. We come to another gate and this one is locked. I guess we have to turn around but not before the group listens and identifies more warblers. I already have had enough birding and choose to sit in the car to read even though Richard says the group has located a “pretty” bird. By the time I get out the bird will disappear anyway. A ranger stops to talk to Bert and tells him we are not supposed to be driving on the road. We say “sorry” and head back stopping for lunch at a picnic area on a pretty lake and then taking another path. I start out with the birders but when they stop forever to look at something, I get annoyed by the bugs and decide to walk back to the truck. Soon Richard and Doug join me and we head home. Doug and Kay are treating the group tonight with champagne and snacks as it is their 44th wedding anniversary. We meet around the fire pit and wish them well. Though not ready to quit our gathering, we are forced inside early by rain.
(Bert) Back on the Audy loop, a black bear crosses the road, pauses to look at us and then lumbers slowly into the forest. Later we see two White-tailed Deer as well. We reach the cattle gate and 10-foot-high fence that marks the boundary of the bison enclosure, but find the road gate locked. Strangely, we meet three other vehicles coming from the other direction. Why is this gate locked when the road is open from both sides? Ten minutes later we find out the reason when a park ranger stops us and tells us the road we are driving is closed to traffic because of its poor condition. Compared to what we were driving in the Melita area, this one seems good to us. Apparently we entered through a gate that was supposed to be locked, but wasn’t. Before we leave the road we get excellent views of two bright orange Blackburnian Warblers. After lunch at Lake Katherine, we hike the trail through the woods, stopping frequently for warblers: Tennessee, Chestnut-sided, Ovenbird, Redstart, and Black-throated Green.
Around a campfire in late afternoon, we enjoy snacks and champagne as Doug proposes a toast to his bride of 44 years today. Only a few - Dale, Beverly and Georgia – join me for night birding. At 8:45 PM, still in good light, we head to the country roads south of Onanole. At first we see typical birds, though adding Blue Jay to the trip list. As darkness sets in, we hear a symphony of birds, notably lead by a duet featuring Hermit Thrush and White-throated Sparrow, both species singing a varied melody in minor key. For contrast, a Northern Waterthrush sends out bursts of song and a Red-eyed Vireo runs patterns of upscale and downscale notes.
At a pond surrounded by marsh, a pair of beaver form straight lines and a shallow wake as they swim underwater, then surface with their broad heads and wide-set eyes exposed. Overhead we watch two Common Nighthawks in erratic flight. Later, just after 10 PM, our car turns a corner and frightens up a Great Gray Owl. It flies low along the gravel road ahead of us, winging slowly, but rapidly receding. A lightly-colored gray headless ghost gives us a brief look and then disappears.
(Bert) PTE 19 is closed because of washed out road damage, so we are missing out on some of the best birding sites and do not have quick access to the east side of Riding Mountain National Park. Instead, we drive south, then east, then north for about 40 mi. to get to East Gate. We stop only a few times en route and on one of these stops we are watching Buffleheads when a Red Fox bounces through marsh grass across the pond. East Gate is lively with birds, most notably a female Evening Grosbeak. Hiking one of the trails just beyond the auto barrier, sharp-eyed Kay spots a sleeping Common Nighthawk stretched along a tree limb. When I take frontal photos, with its tail hidden, it has the appearance of a big-chested large-headed owl with its large dark eyes cracked open in slits, silently watching us.
I recognize the call of a thrush and my mind dwells on the letter “V” and I spit out Varied Thrush. I’m quite sure that is out of range, so we open an NGS field guide and when I see Veery I am sure that is what is calling. Don spins is iPod to Veery and the machine hums a few bars. The Veery shoots out of the forest, across the trail and hides again on the opposite side, then takes shorter jumps in our direction, but never gives us a good view.
Our next birding site is Mount Agassiz. En route we see a hawk fly low across the gravel road from one wooded spot to another. I immediately think Broad-winged Hawk and when it perches a few feet above the ground our binoculars confirm its short-tailed appearance, columns of dotted dark markings along its sides, and indistinct supercilium of a juvenile.
(Shari) My goodness, what a full day and I do not even go on the birding trip: three loads of wash, cooking preparation for tacos, and a bike ride all before 3 PM. Richard borrows Bert’s bike and in late morning we pedal towards the lake. I like this type of bike ride, I say, as I coast downhill all the way into town. We find the path that skirts the lake but soon come to two fallen trees blocking our path. We maneuver past that impediment when the path turns into dirt (read mud), so we head for the road. It is a bit breezy and chilly but soon I am warm, as my tires are soft and pedaling is difficult. I walk up more hills than I ride. At the top of one hill we see another hill so decide to turn around and head the other direction. Again skirting the shore we pedal through an older subdivision with small cottages in straight rows built perpendicular to the lake. These small houses are not my idea of a cottage, yet lots of people must like them. None are for sale and many have been spruced up with new siding and windows since my last visit. We reach the end of the dry trail and when I see mud, we turn around again. Richard did not go on the marsh walk the day we arrived, nor did I, so we decide to take it. I always enjoy this walk. A sign warns us of slippery and wet sections of the boardwalk and I see what they mean in short order. The boardwalk floats on top of the marsh and with all the rain this year, it sinks with any weight put on it. Soon my feet are sopping wet. I should have worn my boots. Oh well. We get a rare treat when what I think is a martin, passes right in front of us. I cannot get my camera out fast enough but do get some sort of hind end view picture. Bert later says what we saw was a mink. Cool!
(Bert) As we walk into around a bowl-shaped opening in woods of short trees just beginning to leaf out, an Eastern Towhee catches my eye. It flies to another edge of the woods and persistently sings “Drink your teeeeee” until we find it again with binoculars. At this location I’ve found Golden-winged Warbler on both my previous visits. Today, it first eludes us, but while we are studying a Common Yellowthroat, the Golden-winged flies from the woods and alights atop a close-by tree. The warbler is a life-bird for several in the group and I suspect it may be the only one any of us will see this year. Later, I check my bird sightings database and notice I’ve seen this species in six countries and four states, but this location is the only place where I have seen it on nesting territory. Today is a good warbler day. We see 11 warbler species, bringing our trip list to 18.
Heading back from Agassiz, we stop again to see a pair of birds on a utility wire. Earlier, my fleeting look at these suggested Eastern Phoebe, but my identification was questioned. Now we have a better, more sustained view, and it especially helps when the birds give us both front and back views. It is our first Olive-sided Flycatchers of the trip.
We complete out grand loop by heading farther north, then west and finally reenter the park at its north entrance. On our route south we catch a 5-sec. look at a moose but then get all the time in the world to study another that seems to delight in posing for photos, causing a “moose-jam” on the park road.
We reach the campground one minute past by 4:30 deadline and I help Shari get everything ready for our 5 PM Mexican taco and margaritas party. Since he learned we had our margarita machine with us in R-Tent-III, Doug has been persuasively suggesting margaritas. Shari finds a bottle of tequila at a Canadian liquor store, priced four times what we pay for it in Mexico. It is worth it tonight.
(Shari) Richard treats me to a coffee and while we wait for it to be brewed, I walk next door to make arrangements for a group dinner on Monday. When we left this morning we coasted downhill. Now it is uphill and I walk more than I ride. The RV smells good when I enter since I had left the taco meat in the slow cooker. I am hungry and can hardly wait for dinner. Doug says he wanted margaritas so I get out the trusty old margarita maker and the group has them finished in short order. This group is again a keeper and one of my favorite types of social groups. They bird hard, but can enjoy themselves too. I love it. Too soon it turns cold and forces us inside to await what tomorrow has in store for us.
(Bert) We start the morning at Lake Katherine because I heard from Ken that yesterday they found a Ruffed Grouse at the drumming log. Although we have heard grouse quite a few times now, we have not seen one at a drumming log. Well, here, this morning, we do not even hear one. We try for Connecticut Warbler at a spot I’ve heard them other years, but not this morning. Perhaps they have not yet arrived to this nesting area. We have better luck with Ovenbird on a road that I believe has more Ovenbirds per acre than any other place I’ve been. Coaxing them from the dense woods, though, is another matter. With much patience I finally spot one singing from behind a thick tree trunk. This one stays perched long enough for everyone to get a look at it.
Back on the main highway, I slam on brakes when out of the corner of my eye I catch a glimpse of pair of Hooded Mergansers. I quickly double back and simultaneously radio the other two vehicles. While watching the mergansers I hear my first Alder Flycatcher of the year and we find its singing post at the edge of the marsh. I suspect the vocal flycatchers just arrived as I have been listening for them. Now that I’ve had my first, I hear them at a half dozen other sites today.
We drive to Lake Audy, taking the country roads outside the national park so that we can approach from the opposite side, not blocked by a closed road. Shortly before we reach the lake, I stop at another when I see a pair of Trumpeter Swans on the opposite shore. Trumpeter Swans are rare in these parts of Manitoba, so we are lucky to find a nesting pair. Many families with young children are camping this weekend at Lake Audy and most of them are intent on fishing. I talk to one fisherman and he tells me it is easy to catch the daily limit of Northern Pike. In a shed, they are cleaning their catch and weighting a 17-in. specimen. At the opposite end of the lakeside park I hear a chickadee in a tall spruce tree, but it doesn’t sound like Black-capped Chickadee. In time, I spot a Boreal Chickadee prowling through the dense branches. On the way back to our cars I see a pair of Eastern Phoebes slip between the cracks of a four-sided kiosk. Peering through the cracks we can see a nest.
We reach the bison enclosure and right up against the fence I count 31 bison, including a few young calves. Inspecting the ground beneath the bison and alighting on the backs of a few are Brown-headed Cowbirds. We slip our vehicles across the cattle guard and cross the enclosed area to a wooded area with several trails. Just after exiting our vehicles we watch copulating Tennessee Warblers. Most plentiful here in the spruce and aspen are singing American Redstarts and I suspect had I kept track of the numbers we have heard many more than 30 today. We get another view of a pair of Blackburnian Warblers, a species so pretty you cannot see too many.
While searching some recently burned spruce trees, we get our first look at Gray Jays as they lightly flutter between tree tops. Although bark is peeled from the charred trunks of the spruce trees, we see no evidence the damage was done by woodpeckers. In another area, though, where the trees are older, we see some evidence of woodpecker attacks. This spot is very close to where I heard tapping on my last visit. Just then, Dale calls us back to a spot where he hears tapping now. Then we hear it again, a loud steady burst of 6-10 taps. I ask Dale to play his recordings of woodpecker taps. Only Hairy and Black-backed come close to what we hear, and Hairy has a faster beat. So, I’m quite sure we are hearing Black-backed Woodpecker. Between us and the bird is a very dense understory, too formidable for any of us to tackle.
A bit farther on the trail and on the opposite side we again hear a Ruffed Grouse drumming. Although a typical lapse between drumming is 15 min., this bird is repeating about every 5 min. I once read in a book dedicated to Ruffed Grouse natural history that the author was almost always successful at finding the grouse and/or the drumming log by zeroing in on the sound after five to six drumming bouts. Here the understory is slightly easier to manage and Kay and I decide to fight our way toward the drumming. After pushing through the sun-drenched brambles, the way gets better under the tall tree canopy. We stop to listen again, then restart toward where I suspect the bird is located. I reach a large downed tree and just opposite I see a Ruffed Grouse with a fully-fanned tail and a wide ruff protruding from its neck. The grouse takes note of me and then walks deeper into the dense brambles, disappearing from sight. I inspect the drumming log. The base of the fallen tree is almost three feet across and cleared of obstructions, providing a relatively flat surface for the grouse to make its performance. The tree took with it much of the surrounding brush, so that the small space is open to clear skies. Kay and I continue past the log and soon push our way out to the path where the other birders have gathered. Only I saw the grouse, but now that we know the site, maybe a few will return here tomorrow on their own.
It has been a good morning and early afternoon of birding, but we have one more treat in store. While driving through the woods, I see a small dark hawk spring from the roadside and perch on a low branch at the side. All I can make out is its dark gray back before it flies away, deeper into the woods. I drive to the spot where it disappeared and notice an opening to the sky and a soaring hawk. In a few seconds I’ve got my binoculars focused on the high soaring Cooper’s Hawk and the other cars pull up, disgorging their birders, and all eyes focus on the short-winged, long-tailed, rounded-tailed raptor. We are about to leave the site when Dale and Georgia call me back out of the car. They have seen the hawk swoop down to a nest atop one of the aspens, pause momentarily and continue back into the skies. We can get a good view of the nest, although cannot tell if another Cooper’s is sitting inside on eggs. I record the GPS coordinates for the Breeding Bird Survey.
(Bert) I look out the front windows of R-Tent-III to see Georgia doing some sort of war dance and flapping her bent arms like wings. Dale, Beverly and Richard are all smiles and one gives the thumbs-up sign. I guess they saw their bird! Early this morning they headed back to the trails beyond the Bison Enclosure, while the rest of us used the free day to catch up on errands. At the start of this caravan Georgia listed the birds she most wanted to see and Black-backed Woodpecker was near the top. Not an easy bird to find, we were quite close yesterday when we heard one pecking sharply on a tree. Excitedly, they tell the story of hearing the woodpecker again and tramping through the woods to get closer to it, missing it several times until it finally comes within range of their binoculars. Then they tell the story of finding the Ruffed Grouse, not the one I saw yesterday and not the same drumming log, but another closer to where they parked the cars. They tell me it was much easier to get to the log and they watched it standing on it and perform it wing beating drumming. Not only did they get these two target birds, but they stopped again at the Cooper’s Hawk nest and this time saw the bird on the nest. I wish I had been there.
(Shari) I know that we are going to hear a good story as soon as I see Richard’s truck pull up in front of our rig. Four smiling faces get out and they all start talking at once. Last night Georgia asked who wanted to go along with her and Richard to try to see the Black-backed Woodpecker. It one of our rare “free” days and only Bev and Dale take her up on the offer, as others want to do wash and other errands. They were off this morning at 7 AM and now they are telling us the story of the woodpecker, a grouse on a drumming log and a bear walking between them. How excited they are and I wish I had been with them. On top of that, the day is one of those perfect ones with sparkling blue skies and warm sunshine.
Jokingly, I tell the group that they should behave, as I am taking them out in public tonight. We walk to our LEO in town and some follow Bert who really does not know where we are to go and some follow me. Bert’s group starts to run to beat us to the street where our two paths are to meet. Giggling all the way and making a bunch of noise. So much for taking them out in public! We all enjoy our Italian dinner and conversation.