In June 2017 Rosemary Royle and her husband Peter made the trip to Manitoba from Wales, UK. Their birding trip was from June 1st to 21st, 2017, and Rosemary was kind enough to write this thorough report for us to share.
When we told people in the UK that we were going to Manitoba for our holidays they reacted as though we had said we were going to Leicestershire – why? The reaction from a Canadian friend was even more extreme and unprintable. But there were good reasons – the combination of boreal forest, prairie and northern tundra would allow us to fill in some serious gaps in our “Americas” bird list and allow us to do some birding in quiet and out of-the way places which is how we like it. We would hopefully be able to find some fairly difficult sparrows and warblers, catch up with a few missing prairie species and find some northern tundra species which are difficult to find elsewhere. Truthfully though, I would not have thought of this itinerary had I not come across the Birdquest trip which they run every couple of years – our trip was heavily based on this itinerary. If Birdquest go there it must be OK!
We thoroughly enjoyed the trip and were pleased that our planning worked out pretty well (even when we had to change it – see below!). We saw 28 species of waterfowl, 19 species of warbler and 17 species of sparrow, and we managed to get 25 lifers. We missed out (again) on Boreal Chickadee whilst Stilt Sandpiper and Smith’s Longspur eluded us, but we explored and enjoyed four truly contrasting areas of Canada without having to travel too far between them.
The general shape of the trip was that we would spend a few days in the general Winnipeg area, primarily at marsh habitats, to “get our eye in“ and hopefully find Le Conte’s and Nelson’s Sparrows, then move to the far south west to the remnant prairie to find Bobolink, Sprague’s Pipit and Baird’s, Grasshopper and Clay-coloured Sparrows. Then to Riding Mountain National Park for boreal species, including Boreal Chickadee and Grey Jay which had eluded us on previous trips to Canada and America, and for late-arriving warblers such as Mourning and Connecticut and tricky warblers like Golden-winged. Then to Churchill to find breeding waders such as Hudsonian Godwit and Stilt Sandpiper, northern sparrows such as Harris’s, American Tree and Red Fox plus Blackpoll Warbler and Smith’s Longspur. Beluga Whales would also be a target here. Somewhere on the way we would hope to find other new birds for us such as Purple Martin and Chimney Swift!
We had originally planned to go to Churchill by train – in fact that’s where the original idea for the trip came from as we enjoyed the cross-Canada train trip which we did in 2016. When we did the research on the web the CALM AIR flights to Churchill seemed ludicrously expensive – about $1100 for the single journey for one person, so we decided to return by train as well, the journey in each direction taking about 2½ days. On the 31st May, the day we left home (to stay overnight near the airport) we received an email from the Tundra Inn, the lodge we had booked in Churchill, to say that the trains to Churchill were not running as the line was seriously flooded and badly damaged. There was no information on the VIA rail website about this, and indeed, when phoned, over the next few days they stoutly maintained that the train would be running again shortly – they seemed to be in denial!. It was not until the 9th June, when Omnitrax (who run the rail track) made a statement about the line being closed for the foreseeable future, that VIA Rail put a message on their website to that effect. We spent a few hours in the morning when we arrived in Winnipeg rearranging our holiday – our hotel was only 200 yards from the car hire desks and the CALM air desks so it was all very efficient. We finished up flying to Churchill on the day we would have boarded the train, spending the same time in Churchill as on the original plan, then flying back – this gave us an extra 3 days at the end of the trip which I could see might be very useful for targeting birds missed elsewhere! The extraordinary thing about this new itinerary was that the flights only cost us $1400 for two people return!! (less than a third of what we were expecting).
The date for the trip was determined by the time of the year we wanted to be in Churchill. Things change fast at this time of year, but of course can be very variable from year to year. For migrants and rare vagrants late-May is best but we were really after breeding birds for which the first half or middle of June is good. The bugs can be bad from mid-June onwards. We finished up being in
Churchill two days ahead of our original plan which on balance was probably a good thing as we picked up a few migrants on our first day which we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. On the other hand it reduced our chances of Smith’s Longspur!
RESOURCES These were initially hard to locate, but there were several invaluable books which we just couldn’t have done without, even though some of them are rather ancient:
Finding Birds in Southern Manitoba 2006 published by the Manitoba Naturalists Society. My previous web searches for a book such as this had revealed only the even older “Birder’s Guide to Southeastern Manitoba” which I managed to buy second-hand. However, only a few weeks before the trip I found this book and ordered it from the Nature Manitoba website – it was only $10 plus $10 postage and was absolutely invaluable. I think it may have been reprinted as we saw shiny new copies in several wildlife centre shops e.g. Oak Hammock http://www.naturemanitoba.ca/books-insects-animals
A Birders Guide to Churchill 1994 by Bonnie Chartier. This is a very old book but much of it is still relevant. It can only be bought second-hand. It contains vital advice on the climate and the progress of the seasons, and has detailed tables covering which birds can be seen when. (However, ignore all references to Ross’s Gull – the book was written during the time when birders were flocking to Churchill to see the breeding Ross’s Gull)
Manitoba Grasslands Birding Trail a PDF which can be downloaded from the government initiative “Watchable Wildlife” website: http://www.gov.mb.ca/watchablewildlife/birding/index.html
North American Bird Guide, Sibley, app (we used it on Android) Very good for use in the field, especially for checking calls. The book is too big and heavy for field use.
National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America – we used this in the field together with the Sibley app.
For a general map we used “International Travel Maps” Manitoba which was fine for driving. We also bought the BRMB Adventure Backroad Mapbook for Manitoba which we didn’t use much as the navigation in the southwest was easier than we expected (virtually all the road junctions, even the very minor “mile roads”, had signs with the road names e.g. 7N/166W). We also had GPS on our phone and a mapping app (ViewRanger) both of which were comforting.
Yahoo Group Birds and Birding in Manitoba was useful to follow before setting off.
Electronic Aids – everywhere we stayed, apart from Whiteshell, had free wifi so we used the phone in wifi mode to get the weather forecast and to use email for vital changes to bookings and confirmations. (Peter also used it to follow the UK election and the French Open Tennis). We also hired a SatNav with our car and used it for all in-town navigation.
CAR HIRE We hired a Nissan Rogue from Alamo for the parts of the trip in southern Manitoba. It was ideal – AWD and reasonably high clearance, also very comfortable without being too huge. There were several times when we needed the high clearance - along grassy prairie trails for example. Generally driving was easy – the main roads outside the cities were very quiet. SatNav seemed reliable in Winnipeg though it had no idea about the numerous small “mile” roads which we travelled on in the south west.
In Churchill we hired a 4WD SUV from Tamarack Rentals (the only rental company) - it turned out to be an ancient Nissan Rogue, (the old model – much smaller), with several troubling noises and absolutely no mod cons. The ground clearance would have been better in a pickup and in retrospect we should have chosen one of those. Note that Tamarack Rentals had a map showing where you could and couldn’t go – some of the prohibitions were reasonable - the southern part of Goose Creek Road was completely closed due to washouts when we arrived, but in fact they were fixed quickly so we assumed the road would now be OK. Others were more problematic – Twin Lakes Road was prohibited but other birders we met in hire cars went down there and after some consideration, so did we. The road was fine, and the birding excellent! Other tracks were not even on the map, with or without crosses, so we felt happy exploring these! (If you are reading this in Churchill, don’t tell Rose!)
ACCOMMODATION Every time we came back to Winnipeg (4 times) we stayed at the Sheraton Four Points at the airport, which was only 200 yards from the terminal and not too pricey for an airport hotel. The extra convenience of not having to wait for shuttle buses etc, was a boon and it was only about 50 yards from the rental car pick up and return point.
In Portage le Prairie we stayed at the Westgate Inn – it looked dilapidated from the outside but the owner was very friendly and the room was fine – everything worked. (We breakfasted at dawn at the 24-hour Tim Hortons at the other end of town. The breakfast muffin was O.K though it included mandatory cheese, and there was no ketchup! A good cup of tea though)
In Melita the only real choice was the Western All-star Inn and Suites (or Suits as it said on most of its advertising material). This is an unattractive 4-storey block designed for oil-men – the “Steakhouse Restaurant” was really a bar with lots of big TV screens and oddly, had very little steak on the menu. They did a good value brunch on Sunday which we just got back in time for
(2.00 pm) after a morning of birding. The room was excellent – we had a proper kitchenette which even included a dishwasher, so we could make our own breakfasts and meals when we did not feel like battling with the TVs. (PS We did not use the dishwasher!)
Even though Riding Mountain is a big holiday location we were unable to find much choice of accommodation on the web. I think this is because most accommodation is in the form of chalets or cottages, second homes or camping. We finished up at the Elkhorn Lodge – we had a cheap room with a “balcony” which consisted of a basement patio with a sliver of sky! The food was quite good though expensive and we had to tolerate big TVs again, though without sound. (This was because, being out of season, we had to eat in the bar/lounge rather than the restaurant). It was a slightly odd place – it looked like a 60s low rise block of flats rather than a country lodge.
In Churchill we stayed at the Tundra Lodge, which was perfect in every way. Very friendly, quite cheap (well relatively), the room was fine and the help-yourself-at-any-time breakfast was perfect for early-rising birders. There were only two food options open in Churchill when we were there – The Seaport and Gyspsy’s. Both were good in different ways but expensive – even more so when an extra 20% was added on to cover the cost of air-freighting food since the train wasn’t running.
For our bonus 3 days we did some quick research and decided to head east to Whiteshell Provincial Park. We stayed at the Inverness Falls resort – friendly, central and a lovely cabin with views of the river and forest. As it was self-catering we had to stock up before going there (though there were actually cafes and restaurants not far away) – we did so at a little store in Elma where they, amazingly, had everything we needed, including red wine and steak for our celebratory BBQ having just seen Golden-winged Warbler.
WEATHER For much of the time the weather was lovely – sunny or partly sunny days, temperature in the low to mid 20s, not too much wind, hardly any rain. We had one blisteringly hot and very windy day, and for the last five days of the trip the whole of Manitoba, Churchill included, seem to be under a large unrelenting black cloud which kept temperatures well down, though there was not much rain. In Churchill the weather was, as expected, very changeable. Just above zero and heavy cloud the first day and low 20s with bright sunshine the third day.
NUISANCES Apart from large TVs in restaurants, the main issue for us was Wood Ticks. These are quite large (about 2-3 mm across the body and 5 mm toe to toe) and were having a very good year. They were a particular problem in grassy areas and, I think, if you were the first person along that path this year, which we often were. They do not carry diseases but can be slightly alarming as they scuttle around over your body and clothes. Peter had about 30 on his clothes after a walk at Whiteshell. They seemed to take a while to get fixed-on and spent most of their time running around your clothes or lying in wait somewhere. We only had a couple which got fully attached and they were easy to get off. Deer Ticks (the same as the ones in the UK) are in eastern Riding Mountain but we didn’t see one. Both can be tackled by tucking trousers into socks, using DEET and doing careful body checks. There were a few mosquitos in unexpected places – our semi-subterranean balcony at Elkhorn was a favourite spot as was the trail at Delta Marsh but most other places were manageable. Disappearing paths were a problem – on at least 3 occasions we attempted to do a circular walk but were frustrated by the path just disappearing or, in one case, being underwater, for the return loop. It was early in the season and the paths could be hard to follow.
MAMMALS AND OTHER WILDLIFE We managed to see quite a few mammals, including such exciting (for us!) things as bears. Here is a list: Beluga Whale, Bearded Seal, Moose, White-tailed Deer, Caribou, Black Bear, Red Fox, Snowshoe Hare, Rabbit, Beaver, Muskrat, Marten, Richardson’s Ground Squirrel, Red Squirrel, Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel, Chipmunk. Also captive Bison.
It was a little early in the season for butterflies but we managed to identify a single Monarch and a Spurge Hawk-moth. The prairies had a blue butterfly quite similar to our UK Common Blue which I christened “Prairie Blue”.
There were quite a few attractive dragonflies in evidence especially at Whiteshell.
Oak Hammock Marsh: Close to Winnipeg, easy to access from the airport and a great place to start, with plenty of easy waterbirds, though we were actually after harder stuff – Le Conte’s and Nelson’s Sparrows. The resident naturalist gave us some help with locations so off we set. Unfortunately it was incredibly hot (up to 36°) and extremely windy, also late in the morning as we had spent time earlier re-organising the trip, so not ideal. However, we were pretty sure we could hear and then see a Le Conte’s Sparrow about 500 metres up the West Bank Trail where the drainage ditch goes under the track. Poor views of the sparrow were compensated for by fantastic close views of displaying Bobolink and by Purple Martins in their little white houses just metres away from where we parked. After an excellent lunch in the little café we spent time on the boardwalk viewing wildfowl (trying to ignore the noisy school parties though I realise they are a “good thing”). Good views of Marbled Godwit, Wilson’s Phalarope, American Avocet and Semipalmated Sandpiper. We walked the trails for a bit but we gave up quite quickly as it was so hot.
Delta Marshes: Easily accessed from Portage la Prairie, we were again looking for sparrows. On the approach road there were huge number of Franklin’s Gulls both flying by and settling on the road. Also a fly-over Bittern, but only Savanah Sparrows. The circular trail and boardwalk looked neglected but we spent some time in the observation tower and picked up a few goodies such as Hooded Merganser. We poked around the lake access where there were Turnstones on the ground and Baltimore Orioles and Warbling Vireos in the tree but you couldn’t really access the beach. Best of all were the flocks of Pelicans feeding in co-ordinated circles just offshore – they would all dip their heads under at the same time and then upend, and then one of them would come up with a huge fish – and I mean huge! It was a bright sunny day and the white pelicans on the blue lake looked stunning. We then moved on to St Ambroise expecting a boardwalk and a road along the shore through the campsite. There was no boardwalk and the campsite road was shut. Subsequent research on our return home indicates that the Delta Beach area and St. Ambroise were extensively damaged in the 2011 floods which explains a lot (though a Google search on St Ambroise still finds many references to a 122-site camp site even though it has been closed since 2011)
The south-west prairies: for this area we used the Manitoba Grasslands Birding Trail guide. On our first morning, we started early and did the Northern Route. We spent about two hours just travelling up 158W – it was perfect weather and every sparrow was singing its heart out; we identified Chipping, Savannah, Clay-coloured, Grasshopper and Vesper and we were pretty sure we had a Baird’s. There were Meadowlarks singing, Upland Sandpipers tweeting from fence posts, and at wetter places there were Snipe whinnying and Willet and Marbled Godwit flying around and calling. Eastern Kingbirds were very common, there were a few Western Kingbirds and Killdeers peeped from the roadside. A distant pond had a few Snow Geese, an Avocet and Black Terns with a Swainson’s Hawk on a fencepost. At Broomhill MA there were several displaying Bobolinks and hopping along the roadside, a female Dickcissel – a bird which is only seen in these areas in irruption years. Fantastic birding and we hardly saw another vehicle all day. But no sign of Sprague’s Pipit though I was intently listening for the song. Back to the motel for Sunday Brunch (a bizarre mixture of items – didn’t matter, we were starving). After a rest we went out again at 5:00 pm to the eastern half of the southern route, around the Blind Souris valley. Point 12 on this route, between the river and the oxbow yielded quite a few nice birds – Alder Flycatcher, Crimsonbreasted Grosbeak and a fly-by Ruby-throated Hummingbird. We then moved to point 11 – a lovely view over the Blind Souris Valley, beautiful in the evening light. Here we saw a Horned Lark, and at last a Sprague’s Pipit, though it was not singing. We had good flight views – it then settled and although distant, it was clearly a rather plain pipit.
On the second day here, we went straight to point 7 on the trail, a site known as Section 29. It was strangely quiet – not so many sparrows singing. Later the wind increased which did not help. In the wetter sections there was a lot of wader activity including two birds flying around which we later identified (with help) as male Wilson’s Phalaropes – apparently they nest in the sedgy fields, not next to a pool like the other phalaropes and we were just not expecting to see them here. Great views of a pair of Ferruginous Hawks and their nest on a distant tree. We then moved on to Gainsborough Creek (the circular path vanished) and Pierson WMA – both slightly disappointing for birds. We decided to go to Pierson for breakfast (about 11:00). The Heritage Restaurant (one lady I think) was a gem and we met a “wildlife professional” there who was doing surveys. He identified our phalaropes (we then felt very foolish) and gave us tips on where to find Baird’s Sparrow and Loggerhead Shrike. He commiserated with us about the ticks – I had just removed 11 from my person. After this break we headed off to one of the Baird’s Sparrow spots – but no luck – just a Clay-coloured Sparrow which played hard to get for ages and then sang just once – that was all that was needed! Then to the George Malaher WMA – a strange place - exotic trees planted to help support an exotic game bird (pheasant) – but not bad for birds such as Catbird and Greatcrested Flycatcher. Then we went in search of the Loggerhead Shrike – a bit of patience was rewarded with good views of a pair just where our friend had marked an X on the map.
For our final day on the prairies we were up early but the weather was not as good. We set out to visit the three Baird’s Sparrow territories on our map to try and get another more definitive sighting, but no success. There were not many other sparrows around either – had they now all stopped singing as they are now well into their breeding cycle? We did, however, have decent views of a Chestnut-collared Longspur on the road.
Brandon Riverbank Discovery Centre - we went here as it is mentioned as a possible spot for Yellow-throated Vireo but the whole area had been virtually destroyed by floods in 2011 and 2014. The riparian walks are no more. Anyway, we went for a bit of a walk and it was the only place we saw a Belted Kingfisher.
Potholes – we followed the Potholes route in “Where to watch birds in Southern Manitoba”. There were some interesting wildfowl on the better potholes – Buffleheads and Pied-billed Grebe as well as the usual Redheads, Gadwall, Blue-winged Teal etc. We then followed the route to Lewis’s Lake – this was obviously much deeper with fish as we had a splendid Red-necked Grebe, Western Grebe and Redheads and Canvasbacks to compare and contrast. (also Canvasback ducklings)
Riding Mountain National Park A walk by the lakeshore early on our first morning at Wasagaming was notable for its birdlessness apart from Blue Jays, until a stunning male Blackburnian Warbler sat on top of an isolated spruce tree and sang his heart out. What a bird! After breakfast we walked the Ominnik boardwalk trail. It was sunny and warm and the birds were very active, A Grey Catbird sang from the top of a shrub, Song Sparrows belted out their melodies while Nashville and Yellow warblers added to the orchestra. Down on the boardwalk we had excellent views of singing Swamp Sparrows, Yellowthroats and singing wrens, which we initially identified as Marsh Wrens but we have looked at the videos and the song is right for Sedge Wren. At about 1pm we drove along Highway 19 to Lake Katherine. We tried to do the Loons Islands Loop trail but the return loop was under water. However there were plenty of birds with Yellowbellied Sapsucker, Philadelphia Vireo, Myrtle Warbler, American Redstart and Chestnut-sided Warbler. And, an as-yet unidentified insistent song, which increased in volume and which drove us nuts as we just could not see the protagonist. We then drove on to Whirlpool Lake as the car park is supposed to be a good spot for Boreal Chickadee. Peter slept in the car while I looked for Chickadees, not venturing too far as a man carrying a canoe up from the lake told me he had just seen a big bear by the footbridge (which turned out to be only about 50 yards away!).
On the following day we tackled the Eastern Escarpment. We did not leave till after breakfast as yesterday’s experience indicated that the birds did not start early and then kept going for a long time. We set out along Highway 19 (in awful condition – the worst road we experienced) and then walked part of the Burrs & Bittersweet trail. We found the source of our mystery song here – an
Ovenbird unaccountably sat up on a bare branch and sang for us. Then on out of the park, up the highway and back west along the Agassiz Ski Resort Road. There was no other traffic so we drove slowly listening for anything new – there was quite a lot of bird song so this was quite hard. We stopped for a louder, more fruity song and wow! a Mourning Warbler, close and in full view! The habitat did not look particularly special, not even damp, but we heard another later so something must be right. Then on to the Oak Ridge Trail, looking for Golden-winged Warbler. After a trail junction at which we turned left for both the short and long trails, the trail seemed to deteriorate and it certainly didn’t seem to be heading back towards the car so we re-traced our steps. We had good views of Canada Warblers - very smart birds - in the rather overgrown shrubby areas where we turned back but no hint of Golden-winged. (I don’t think the habitat looked right, having seen them later in the trip). We then drove on up the road to the old ski resort area – a very attractive valley – and had lunch on a perfectly positioned picnic table, and the only one! There were Eastern Phoebes here and loads of Barn Swallows nesting in an old shelter building. We then drove right round the park to the north and back down Highway 10 and to the Boreal Trail where we found a Palm Warbler and loads of White-throated Sparrows were singing. Then back down Highway 10 where we saw a large male moose by the side of the road.
The next day we set off early up Highway 10 where we had excellent views of a female bear with cubs, then to the Boreal Trail. The first thing we saw was two Bald Eagles having a bit of a tussle, then one of them stayed around for good views. A Common Loon flew over calling, while a late skein of Canada Geese flew northwards, all very atmospheric. Whilst identifying an unusual Song Sparrow song, we heard some strange alarm calls further along the boardwalk – we rushed along hoping it might be Grey Jays – it was! (We have missed this bird on several previous trips – they seem very reclusive when nesting) They were obviously mobbing something, but what? The answer came when a Great Grey Owl flew up from the ground, quite close to us, and then perched in the classic way on a tall tree stump, staring at us. As I raised my binoculars it flew – but this encounter went down as “moment of the trip” – not only the much-wanted Grey Jay but a Great Grey Owl too! We finished the loop then went around again, this time finding Magnolia Warbler and Lincoln’s Sparrow to add to our tally. Later, after a bit of a chill out and spending some time finding accommodation for the last 3 days, we set off for Lake Audy. We saw the bear with two cubs again on Highway 10, and a bear with 3 cubs on the Lake Audy road. The bison at Lake Audy were excellent – we parked some way from them but they proceeded to walk past us very close to the car – we could hear them huffing and puffing.
Out last morning dawned grey but not wet – we seemed to have a weather window before it rained at 10:am so we set of for Whirlpool Lake. It started to rain a bit, but we stopped every so often on the Whirlpool Lake entrance roads as there was quite a lot of bird song. In this way we found Orange-crowned Warbler, a new bird for us. At the lake we found a family party of Grey Jays but no chickadees. We then drove slowly back along Highway 19 planning to stop around the entrance to the Lake Katherine road which was supposed to be good for Connecticut Warbler. Before we got there we saw a man on the grass verge with a big camera pointing at the trees. We recognised him as a bird photographer we had met earlier. We stopped and quietly got out asking “What do you have?”. He uttered the magic words “Connecticut” and indeed I could hear it singing loudly. It was not easy to find in the foliage but once on it we had excellent views as it threw its head back and sang. Again, the habitat did not look special – fairly young aspen trees.
Portage le Prairie – the Assiniboine Spillway Park. We were on the track of Yellow-throated Vireo again (a riparian species) and we were pretty sure we heard one – it compared exactly with the song on the Sibley app – more strident and fruity and slower then Philadelphia and Red-Eyed - it also did not sing for long and we were unable to locate it in the windy conditions before it flew off.
Winnipeg – La Barriere Park Excellent riparian habitat and you can guess what we were looking for. No success, really rather too windy and late in the day. We actually came back here later in the trip, early in the morning and we nailed it – hearing it sing, then losing it, then hearing it again and finally seeing it!
Churchill. There is a lot of information in Bonnie Chartier’s book about where to watch birds here, but these notes will hopefully provide something of an update. The bare bones are still correct though – Granary Ponds, Goose Creek Road, Hydro Road, Akudlik Marsh and Twin Lakes are still the best areas.
We did not know what to expect in term of environmental conditions in Churchill – there was an extremely heavy snowfall in March followed by extensive flooding in April. There had also been very warm weather during the early spring. The rivers (Churchill river and Goose Creek) were indeed still very high when we arrived, meaning that some of the side roads off Goose Creek Road were under water and impassable. The ice conditions were, however, about normal for the time of year – it was breaking up fast as we were there.
On our first day, which was very cold and overcast, we started at the Granary Ponds. We found out later that the water level was high (not good for waders) but there were lots of Greater Scaup and Pintail, plus a family of Tundra Swans. We then came to a water channel which drained the ponds – it was a sheltered spot and was absolutely full of sparrows, mostly House but also Song, Savannah and White-crowned, plus Yellow Warblers and a bird that we identified as a female Blackpoll Warbler (a new bird for us). Then we drove up to Cape Merry and were disturbed to find the footpath up to the viewpoint closed, with tape across. So we viewed the river area from the car park, and the sea from further back along the road. There was a lot of ice around and also a lot of birds – Surf and White-winged Scoters, Red-throated Loons, Eiders, Common and Red-breasted Mergansers. Plus various gulls and terns. Also Bearded Seals and one Beluga! At one point what looked like a large tern flew over us – when I saw the tail I shrieked “Long-tailed Skua” – which it was – a bogey bird which we have previously failed to see in several locations. We then went to Goose Creek Road – this has two main parts, the first is forested and the second is more open with pools. The forest was quiet but the pools had some birds - we were pleased to identify a few Lesser Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitchers and a Least Sandpiper. A lady driving a tour minibus stopped to talk to us and give us some advice – as we had only just arrived we could not ask her meaningful questions but we mentioned that there didn’t seem to be many waders about and she agreed. It was only afterwards that we found out that this was Bonnie Chartier - we certainly did not make good use of this encounter!
The next day dawned cold and overcast. We set off on an expedition along the coast – very grey and very few birds with the exception of a Semi-palmated Plover by a sand quarry and an unexpected American Black Duck on a small river. After a few snow flurries the sky suddenly cleared to wall-to-wall blue – still cold though. After lunch we went back to the Granary Ponds to see if anything had changed – not really, just the addition of a Spotted Sandpiper. We then went to Aduklik Marsh and walked around the bund path – terrific views of Pacific Loons in breeding plumage, also cooing Eiders and other ducks. Then at last, on the way back in some submerged grass we found the first bird on our wanted list – Hudsonian Godwit, three of them. We watched them for a while in the sunshine through the scope then suddenly a Red-necked Phalarope walked into the scope view, in fact two, and we watched them mating. Then, close to the car, we saw a male Blackpoll Warbler, the first of many – though when you learn the strange ticking song you hear a lot more than you see. Had they just arrived? We then tried Landing Lake road – we saw two more Godwits and plenty of common sparrows. Lovely wet terrain but not a wader to be seen. On each branch of this road we were defeated by deep water across the road. A short-cut along Scrap Metal Dump Road (true to its name) took us to Goose Creek Road which was a little more lively in the evening sunshine Tree Swallows seem to have arrived and were investigating nest boxes. An American Wigeon was on the ponds and best of all, a Rusty Blackbird flew across the road and landed in a visible tree where we had a good look at him. Pleased that we had now made some impression on our “wanted” list we had a happier evening!
The following day was lovely and sunny so we set off along Goose Creek Road to have a serious crack at sparrows. We drove very slowly, listening, and I was pretty sure I heard the distinctive song of Harris’s Sparrow. It was a little way into the trees and we could not see it. I played the first song on Sibley (recorded in New York) to check – it was the same rhythm and tone but a different pitch. However the sparrow didn’t care about that as it zoomed in, but unfortunately perched up
right against the sun. It then flew back and perched with everything except its tail and beak obscured by a tree trunk. It then flew off, never to return. A most unsatisfactory sighting and it was the only one we saw. Next up was a singing Grey-cheeked Thrush – the song matched exactly but this one did not respond and we never saw it. We then parked by the Road Closed sign, where Goose Creek Road turned into Hydro Road and walked. The road here was a causeway with quite high water either side (usually presumably much lower) with various willows and other shrubs growing in it. For some reason it was a magnet for warblers and sparrows which seemed to be catching emerging mosquitoes (Bonnie Chartier in her book says it is her favourite Churchill birding spot) As the road washouts now seemed to be fixed, we brought the car down – while Peter was doing this I had found an American Tree Sparrow singing its rather feeble little song. It came immediately to one play of the song on the app and hung around long enough for Peter to get good views. We then continued with many stops to the second bridge and parked on the other side in order to have a good look round. A pleasant 8 note warbling song which I had heard before and failed to identify now started up on the other side of the river. It was our lucky day as it’s owner flew across the river and landed straight in front of us – a Red Fox Sparrow. Somehow it had never occurred to me that this sparrow would have such a song. We had excellent views. Flushed with success we turned back – the road ahead seemed to deteriorate and we didn’t want to risk it. Back to the lodge for a second breakfast then out to Cape Merry to make the best of the good weather. (We had earlier asked the receptionist at Tundra Inn why Cape Merry was closed – she did not know but phoned the National Park. Apparently it was because the small office at the car park was not being manned (no train = no tourists apparently) so there was no-one on Polar Bear lookout – you could go up there at your own risk. (It would have been nice if the notice had said that) So of course we did. There was less ice now and we had really good views of Belugas, some really close in and a lot more out in the tide race. Also Parasitic Jaegers – a group of four harassing the gulls and terns. Then back to Granary Ponds where we found 3 Cranes feeding on what looked like an old pile of spilt grain. We then pottered round for the rest of the afternoon, finding it difficult to stay awake in the unaccustomed warmth!
The next day dawned overcast again but not too cold. We met a couple in the kitchen who had been here on a course run by the Polar Research Institute – they had also not seen Stilt Sandpiper, Boreal Chickadee, Smith’s Longspur or Whimbrel. We set off down Goose Creek Road in what seemed like good conditions but it was very quiet – radical action was called for and we decided to tackle the forbidden Twin Lakes Road. The surface was actually fine. We found a nice pair of Willow Ptarmigan which gave good views and then, when we reached the wet marsh area, we found we were following a vehicle with birders doing a bird count. So we stopped when they stopped and looked where they looked! In this way we at last found a couple of Godwits and a Lesser Yellowlegs calling from the tops of small trees (as we had read they do). We parked at the entrance to Cook Street and walked down the track to the cottage on the shore and then a bit further on. We were scolded by Bonaparte’s Gulls nesting in trees, we admired the lichens and mosses and we saw yet another very obliging pair of Grey Jays. But no Boreal Chickadees. Driving back across the marsh there was more wader activity – there were Godwits and Yellowlegs in the air calling and displaying, especially when a Northern Harrier passed by, up to 14 birds in the air at once, and then joining in was the unique sound of a Whimbrel – we watched it fly and land and saw the dark rump and curved bill. Although this bird is no longer split as Hudsonian Whimbrel, it was nice to have it in the bank! There were quite a few birds of prey around too – as well as the Harrier there was a Bald Eagle, an Osprey and a Rough-legged Hawk. There were Redpolls around too, and another Tree Sparrow.
Our last day dawned cold and cloudy again with some rain. We had another go at Goose Creek Road and found a Tennessee Warbler in the rain. We went to “Up the Creek”, a cottage on the Goose Creek Subdivision where there are bird feeders. We had conflicting advice on whether you could go in if there were folks at home (there were) and it was also raining so we gave up (we would have been here earlier if we had known about it). We spent the rest of the day trying to find a Smith’s Longspur (they should have just arrived) but the weather was not conducive to small passerines singing! We did investigate the western extension of RX road which led over the railway and down towards a flat plain by the river. There were hundreds of Canada Geese here (the ones in Churchill are the middle-sized variety) plus a leucistic one - mostly white with a dark brown neck
and one Snow Goose. There were Cranes here too and also a solitary caribou – somebody’s pet perhaps?. We also looked for “common” Golden Plover in various places to no avail and we investigated Paradox Road – perfectly driveable and with nice views and lovely flowers – the dwarf azaleas were just coming out. We then had a last look at Granary Ponds – a pair of Red-necked Phalaropes were most obliging, and then, in the drainage cut, possibly the most unexpected bird of the trip, a Grey Catbird feeding with sparrows in the dwarf willows!
We then left Churchill somewhat disappointed. Everyone agreed that most of the waders had simply moved on further north – it was flooded and very warm when they arrived and they just kept on moving. If you look at the breeding distribution of most of these birds, the northern border of Hudson Bay is actually a southern breeding outpost – most of their breeding sites are much further north. We were hoping to see lots of breeding waders and in this we were disappointed – the prairies were actually better for that! As far as the target passerines were concerned we saw only one or two birds of each species. In short, finding birds was a real struggle.
Around Winnipeg: We went first to La Barriere park in Winnipeg where we had the place completely to ourselves and eventually found our Yellow-throated Vireo. We then moved on to the area near Ste. Genevieve described in “Finding birds in Southern Manitoba” as the easiest place to find Golden-winged Warbler. Indeed it was. We followed the instructions and at our third stop on Monominto Road we could hear a lot of interesting song and found Scarlet Tanager and Indigo Bunting. Whilst watching these I heard what I thought was the song of a Golden-winged Warbler. Checking it with the Sibley app had the usual effect - it came zooming in and gave us cracking but short views. We would never have seen it otherwise – it was in really thick stuff. (It may have come to pishing but we didn’t try it). We drove on up the road and stopped at another spot, hearing the magic song again. One quick burst of the app and it came and gave wonderful prolonged views. Very pleased with this success we set off for Whiteshell Provincial Park.
Whiteshell Provincial Park: After settling into our cabin we went out for a lovely evening walk – the sun was coming out – along the High Rock Ridge Trail which we could access straight from out cabin. Lovely scenery – bare rock with lichens and mosses, lovely flowers and some good birds – a Black-backed Woodpecker quietly tapping on a dead tree, a Pileated Woodpecker drumming “basso profundo” and lots of Hairy Woodpeckers and Flickers – there was a lot of dead wood from wind blow. Route-finding was a little challenging but with a bit of effort you could usually just see the next marker (could be either a red, orange or blue arrow, or a ski sign or a cairn) after a few yards in the apparently correct direction! It was a lovely spot, but I am sure we were the first people to walk it this year, resulting a very large numbers of ticks which we had to get off (well try to) before going into the cabin.
The next day was rather grey with the odd spot of drizzle. With no target birds to find here we just enjoyed ourselves on the trails. We walked the Jessica Lake trail B loop and took a packed lunch. We picked up good numbers of warblers – Black and White, Am. Redstart, Nashville, Blackburnian and Canada. We then walked to Rainbow Falls and then just pottered around seeing Beaver in the river by the cabin as well as Muskrat in the ditch.
The following day we set off for the McGillivray Falls walk, but it was closed (apparently bridges are down). On the way back we stopped to look at a Sharp-shinned Hawk on a roadside wire. A cyclist stopped and asked us if we were birdwatchers. We said yes and he said there was a Great Grey Owl on a pole just back down the road. Indeed there was, giving very close views. It seemed quite brownish – maybe a young bird looking around for a territory? They are not common this far south. We then went to the other end of the park and walked the Pine Point Falls walk – there were other people there, really the first we had seen. It was quite a birdy walk – Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (and Red Squirrels sucking their sappy tree holes), Hairy and Pileated Woodpeckers and plenty of warblers. The day before Peter had tried pishing and was amazed when it worked – it has never worked before for us! (Does it only work in the breeding season?) I heard an odd warbler song and asked Peter to pish – he did and up popped a lovely Mourning Warbler.
On our last day in the field we went back to Oak Hammock Marsh for the sparrows. We went up the West Bank trail again and this time we are pretty sure we saw Nelson’s Sparrow, though it would not give good views. After lunch we tried the area down by the sewage lagoons and we struck lucky with an obliging Le Conte’s Sparrow which was singing its characteristic song. So back to Winnipeg quite pleased with our last-minute flurry!