Monday 28 October 2019

Whooping Crane Safari to Saskatchewan - 13-20 Oct 2019

My brother Andrew and I went to Saskatchewan in search of Whooping Cranes.  The Saskatoon area is well known stop over area in October. We gave ourselves a full week to find and enjoy the cranes with extra time to enjoy the other birds migrating through the prairies in October.  An area 75 minutes drive north of Saskatoon, near Marcelin, was the place to go in 2019 A good number (50!) of Whooping Crane had been reported here a few days before our arrival.

It was a royal success. On the first day we counted 110 and second day 112 Whooping Cranes. We had up to 64 in sight at one time. The huge birds with perhaps the loudest call of any bird in North America was the most wary species I had ever encountered.  Even at 500 m a car stopping on a little traveled road was enough to spook them. They were spectacular in flight. Huge birds. Photos were mainly of birds in flight. They would not fly over a human being either so even flight shots were all distant.

The spectacularly conspicuous Whooping Cranes needs a lot of space to feel comfortable. It can find these requirements in parts of sparsely populated Saskatchewan. 

Note the rusty bird in between the two white birds.  the rusty bird is a juvenile. We saw only about ten juvs.

Whooping Cranes feeding in comfort a long way from people and in a wide open terrain so it can spot potential predators (coyote) from a safe distance. 


Cousin to the Whooping Crane is the relatively abundant Sandhill Crane.

Sharp-tailed Grouse were fairly easy to see in the same areas as the Whooping Cranes within 30 minutes of sunrise. We saw a group of six doing a mock up of their spring dances in the corner of a remote wheat field.

An adult Golden Eagle looking for injured Snow Geese at Luck Lake caused a big stir. It was one of six Golden Eagles observed during the trip.

 This immature buteo (above and below) was a form of the Red-tailed Hawk, either a dark morph Western Red-tailed Hawk or a Harlan's.  

This stunning adult Harlan's Hawk ( just a race of the Red-tailed Hawk!) was one of the highlights of the trip.

This fat dog with the black tail was one of hundreds of Black-tailed Prairie Dogs preparing for hibernation at Grassland National Park.

Buffalo were reintroduced to Grasslands in 1996 and certainly fit the part now.

Best bird in the Grasslands Nat Park was this close fly over encounter of a gorgeous, pale morph adult Ferruginous Hawk.

See Part II below for the Geese of Saskatchewan.

Saskatchewan Part II - The Geese

The geese in Saskatchewan are amazing. The sheer volume is incomprehensible. Yah! so you come across 50,000 Snow Geese in a roadside lake. No big deal. No one rushes out to see such, for such events are commonplace scattered about the southern half of the province.  They feed in the cut wheat fields in the morning and evening and rest by day in the larger ponds/lakes.  Snow Geese were the most numerous species.  Among the Snows there were always some Ross's.  White-fronted Geese seemed more local.  However, we came across 25,000 resting by day at a lake that also hosted 100,000 Snow Geese.  A local farmer said he'd never seen so many geese as this fall. Canada Geese were abundant but often formed their own concentrations separate from the Snow Goose throngs. Among them it was fun to see the Cackling Geese. Sometimes there were sizable flocks of Cacklers with a few large Canada Geese sticking out like ugly ducklings among the flock. I am a non-believer in giving Cackling Goose full species status. The experience in Sask did nothing to change my mind. There are lots of in betweens. Even among the Cacklers there were differences, some with white breast some with dark breasts, a few with white rings around the neck. There is no doubt that Cacklers are a cute form of the Canada Goose but best left as a subspecies if I could change the rules back to the way they were.

One Bald Eagle fly over caused a mass flush of 30-40,000 Snow Geese feeding in a recently cut wheat field. The sound of that many panicked geese nearly lifted us off the ground.
Beware of low flying geese.

Within the flocks this is what it looks like.

Breakfast in a wheat field.

Pretty easy to pick out the two Ross's Geese by the stubby bills.

One Ross's, One Snow.

There are eight Ross's in this picture.

There are three easy Ross's  and one near Ross's in this flock.

Didn't do so well on photographs of the Greater White-fronted Geese even though they were less jumpy than the Snow Geese. They were my favourite goose to watch.

Speckle-bellies is a secondary name for the White-fronted Goose.

Who Made Who? Three Cacklers with two larger Canada Geese.

Mixture of Cacklers and other Canada Geese

A few large Canada Geese among this flock of Cacklers.

A parade of Cacklers.

Not a goose but related. Tundra Swans were commonly present in low hundreds compared to tens of thousands of geese.

Tundra Swans, gray immatures with white adults.

A sub adult Trumpeter Swan on the right with an adult Tundra Swan. Fairly easy to see the differences in the bill size and shape of feathering around bill in this photo. It was the only Trumpeter Swan we noticed. Not sure of its status in Saskatchewan.