Our plans to go to BC this month to meet up with fellow bluebirders and photograph Western Bluebirds were thwarted by the border closure, so we decided to change direction and head east. Fortuitously, we were able to make it both a fun-work adventure, as we were able to meet up with Trevor Herriot, lead author of the newly released Backyard Bird Feeding: A Saskatchewan Guide at his cabin near Indian Head to shoot some outdoor video about bird feeding. Nature Saskatchewan (NS) has published this book, so we were happy to also be joined by NS’s Executive Director, Jordan Ignatiuk, for an outdoor meeting to discuss and confirm details about our book launch, to be held this evening by Zoom! We were also able to join Trevor and Jordan for a spring walk through some beautiful local natural areas.
Bluebird legend, conservationist-extraordinaire and long-time friend, Lorne Scott, also lives near Indian Head, so we were delighted to be able to spend some time with Lorne, touring his farm and bluebird trail, getting updated on his many conservation projects, and being able to watch him hand (and mouth!) feed his resident Richardson’s Ground Squirrels. He has been feeding these “gophers” for so long that they come running when he calls them. It was remarkable to see how they trusted him and it was fascinating to watch the interactions between the various mother gophers and their newly emerged young.
Our next stop was Yorkton, where we connected with fellow naturalists, Paula and Morley Maier. Many EBF supporters will remember Morley’s remarkable bird boxes—fashioned into exquisite works of art using salvaged wood from abandoned prairie homes— that were sold at two very successful EBF fund-raisers.
An unexpected surprise at the Maier farm was a fox den. Not surprisingly, I spent many happy moments watching and photographing the four adorable and fearless kits.
The Maiers had regaled us on our first visit many years ago with stories of the famous red-sided garter snake den at Ft. Livingstone (near the MB border) so we were delighted to finally visit it. The NWMP established their headquarters in the area in 1874 and it was the site of the first capital of the Northwest Territories. However, the entire fort was eventually dismantled and moved due to the sheer numbers of snakes that would emerge each spring and overrun the buildings.
It was remarkable to witness the spectacle of this natural event: thousands of snakes pouring out of holes from a massive underground hibernaculum to mate in roiling ‘mating balls’ before slithering off in all directions to their summer territories. Miraculously, they return each fall, as they have done for millennia, to this ancestral hibernaculum. Awe-inspiring!
We decided to then explore the Quill Lakes area northwest of Yorkton. These International Bird Areas boast Canada’s largest saline lake and support millions of migrating birds. We were able to stop at many wetlands to watch and photograph several species of shorebirds (including my first-ever opportunity to photograph Ruddy Turnstones!), but shortly after lunch, the weather had started to deteriorate and an ice storm was forecasted. We were just pondering our options when a horrible grinding sound forced us to pull over on a remote rural road. Long story short, the front left wheel bearings had fallen out. Two long and chilly hours later, a very kind tow truck driver appeared (we’d like to give a huge shout out to Neil’s Service from Elfros!). Thankfully, AMA covered the towing charge and Neil delivered us about an hour later to HB&B AGRO Sales in Foam Lake. The garage scheduled us in for the next morning, hoping that the repair would be a simple bearing replacement. If not, they warned, we’d be stuck there for four days due to the long weekend holiday.
By morning, the fierce ice storm had taken out the power and everything (vehicles, buildings, trees, highway) was encased in ice. With their other bookings cancelled due to a lack of power, we hobbled into the garage and the mechanics, working by flashlight, determined that no further damage had been done. Within a couple of hours, using their SK farm-honed mechanical skills, we were running on smooth new bearings. Our sincere thanks to Cory and his team for getting us back up and running under such trying circumstances.
With ice-covered branches crashing everywhere and the back roads in poor condition, we decided to continue north to check out Prince Albert National Park. Luckily, the access road to the Foam Lake Heritage Marsh was passable, so we were able to spend some time checking out the ice-covered landscape and watching flocks of shivering Yellow-headed Blackbirds sitting like Christmas ornaments on ice-laden bushes.
The weather was a bit better as we headed north, but the wind still howled and we learned that the area north of the City of Prince Albert had just experienced the opposite extreme of natural catastrophes—a forest fire. Smoke could still be seen as we skirted our way around the north edge of the Nisbet Forest to the park. The cold weather had reduced the long-weekend crowds, so we enjoyed some quality hiking and wildlife watching, including brief sightings of an otter and a pine marten, and a delightful stop on the highway to let a black bear and her triplet cubs cross the road in front of us.
On our return south, we paid a visit to renowned owl bander and naturalist, Harold Fisher. He was recovering from the trauma of the fire, which thankfully (due to favourable winds and quick action of local fire fighters) spared all homes in the area. Harold showed us the extent of the fire, which covered about 40 square miles, came dangerously close to his home, and resulted in the incineration of large tracts of forest. Sadly, several of his Northern Saw-whet owl boxes as well as a large Great Blue Heron rookery were lost in the blaze, and black bears displaced by the fire are now showing up in his yard.
With the danger of the fire thankfully passed, Harold took us on a tour of some of the beautiful wetlands in his neighbourhood and along some of the back roads where he spends his winters banding Great Gray and Northern Hawk Owls. He also spoke optimistically about the future, as he well understands that fire is nature’s way of regenerating the forest ecosystem.
After suffering from weeks of extreme drought, we said goodbye to Harold as he welcomed the arrival of the drenching rains. Although torrential downpours and blasting winds made our trek home a bumpy and slow drive, we left Saskatchewan relieved that the province was finally getting desperately needed moisture. We arrived home to the same conditions – a once-parched earth vibrant and alive with the blessing of generous spring rains.
I have spent quite a bit of time in various bird blinds this spring, watching and photographing waterfowl. On three separate occasions, I had the good fortune to enjoy a ring-side seat as Common Goldeneyes underwent their mating ritual.
It was so interesting to observe! The male would first undergo some ritualized displays in front of the female, including stretching his neck in the air, flipping water with his beak and doing some big leg stretches. When she lowered her head into the water to signal her permission, he would rise up in the water, circle to her back, and climb aboard. Her head would be dipped below the surface for a few seconds, then she would resurface and they would twirl around for about 15 seconds during coitus. The deed done, he would then dismount and swim off, usually shaking his head. She would swim away and take a vigorous bath.
These images are quite heavily cropped, which shows the sequence but has resulted in them being a bit grainy. Enjoy!
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