Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, an Oasis in the Prairie!
Spared from the glaciers that flattened everything in the Canadian prairies 25,000 years ago, the Cypress Hills are an anomaly in the landscape of southeast Alberta and southwest Saskatchewan. More importantly, what it means to birders is that there are over 239 recorded bird species, and counting in this very unique and special place!Over 30 years had passed since we last visited the Cypress Hills – long before either of us was an avid birder – so we embarked on the trip with much enthusiasm and anticipation! We spent 5 days in the park and started birding at 5:30 am every single day. It was epic, so much so that we need a vacation to recover from the vacation 😉
These are the top five birding hotspots we discovered in Cypress Hills:
Hotspot #1 – Elkwater Lake Shoreline Trail & Boardwalk
One of the best places for birding is the Elkwater Lake shoreline trail and boardwalk. It’s a well constructed 3.4 km trail (one way) along the south shore weaving in and out of the marshes and willow thickets–a great habitat for birds! It’s also easy walking and very accessible for 2 legged creatures!
It seems Cypress Hills wanted to make a very good first impression with us. Not more than 5 minutes into our first birding excursion on the very first day, we encountered a Red-naped Sapsucker! This was pretty exciting for us as we don’t see many of this particular species. After observing this bird for a little while, we realized that he and his significant other had a nest in a bush not more than 30 feet from us. They were making pretty regular “air express” meal deliveries to the nest while keeping a wary eye on “invasive” species like us humans.
Common Yellowthroat Mania – Wow! We have never seen an abundance of Common Yellowthroats quite like this before. These little birds were everywhere, but nowhere. We had to be extremely patient to get this photo. We stood nearly motionless on the boardwalk for over half an hour and finally this little guy “came out of the closet” and revealed its striking beauty, but it was well worth the wait!
While totally focused on photographing the Common Yellowthroats, we almost missed the fact there was a Wilson’s Snipe perched on the boardwalk! We think he was feeling a little bit left out over all the attention the yellow birds were receiving.
Sometimes you get lucky… or perhaps you create your own luck when you spend hours and hours in the early morning looking for birds. After a few mornings along the Elkwater Lake shoreline trail, we had a very nice surprise when a Baltimore Oriole appeared out of thin air. It only stayed about 10 seconds, just enough to steal this image.
If you lookup the definition of “random” in the dictionary, surely you’ll find “Song of a Gray Catbird.” Most birds have a pretty repetitious song, but not the Gray Catbird. At first it’s a difficult song to recognize, but with experience it becomes one of the easiest to identify because of its randomness. Like the Common Yellowthroat, this Gray Catibird required A LOT of patience. Most of the time it was buried deep in the vegetation and only on one occasion did it “show its quality.”
Cedar Waxwings also make themselves at home along the shoreline trail. We usually found them in small groups of 3 or 4 birds foraging for berries along the trail. We never tire of seeing Waxwings!
The shoreline trail ends where the road crosses over the lake and there are some fantastic wetland areas on both sides. We watched Black Terns flying at high velocity picking up insects over the water. It was extremely difficult to photograph them in flight (especially when they don’t face the right way) but eventually one of them felt sorry for us and perched on a post! Thank you!
Species sighted: common yellowthroat, yellow warbler, red-winged black bird, red-naped sapsucker, white-crowned sparrow, tree swallow, black tern, gray catbird, baltimore oriole, cedar waxwing, red-necked grebe, canada goose, mallard, blue-winged teal, green-winged teal, northern pintail, lesser scaup, white-winged scoter, wilson’s snipe, ring-billed gull, caspian tern, belted kingfisher, mourning dove, northern flicker, american robin, eastern kingbird, red-eyed vireo, black-billed magpie, american crow, bank swallow, black-capped chickadee, song sparrow, brown-headed cowbird, turkey vulture, red-breasted nuthatch, veery, western wood-pewee, american white pelican, least flycatcher.
Hotspot #2 – Reesor Lake
Although the shoreline trail along Elkwater Lake could keep a birder busy for weeks, there are some equally fantastic locations in other areas of the park. Reesor Lake is one such destination worth visiting and it’s only 20 minutes from Elkwater townsite.
A few minutes before we arrived at Reesor Lake, something caught our eye high up in a tree. We were looking into the sun so all we could see was a dark blob — a silhouette against the sky – but we knew it was something worth checking out. We had to drive about 5 minutes further down the road to find a turnaround spot and come back toward the bird with the sun shining in the right direction, hoping the bird would still be there. Yawza! It was a beautiful Osprey! We watched him for about 15 minutes before he eventually flew off, probably thinking about his next meal.
Reesor Lake has a nice concentration of American White Pelicans. They seem to have no fear of people at all and lazily float by the fishermen on shore. However, as docile as these big birds may appear, they have a sneaky side too! We were watching Caspian Terns catch fish in Reesor Lake and the Pelicans would immediately chase after the Tern! Quite often the Tern would drop the fish while escaping, providing yet another unearned meal for the Pelican.
There is nothing like watching a Caspian Tern soar above a lake and then tuck its wings in and dive like a missile into the water! They rarely miss either. It seems like the only ones coming up empty handed at Reesor Lake were the line of fishermen along the shore 😉
While enjoying the views of Reesor Lake and the antics of the terns and pelicans, we heard the loud raucous call of two Belted Kingfishers. The male was flying around, making a racket around the lake, while the female was up on hill calling back. We think they probably had a nest and the boy was bringing back “lunch,” like the fish he caught in the image below.
Species sighted: common yellowthroat, yellow warbler, red-winged black bird, white-crowned sparrow, tree swallow, bank swallow, gray catbird, cedar waxwing, canada goose, caspian tern, belted kingfisher, american robin, black-billed magpie, american crow, brown-headed cowbird, american white pelican, osprey, mallard, double-crested cormorant
Hotspot #3 – Horseshoe Canyon / Beaver Creek Hiking Trails
This was an experience we will NEVER forget. While out for a day hike we came across a pair of Northern Harriers. It was a windy afternoon and they were playing in the updrafts while making their laughing “kekekekeke” calls. We stood there watching for almost an hour and every once in a while one of them would line us up and dive-bomb toward us, pulling up just before they got within reach of our heads! They were messing with us and they knew it – the “kekekeke” calls got even more animated. They were laughing at us, we were laughing at them, it was an amazing encounter!
While hiking the trail we could hear a house wren singing in the trees. After surveying the forest for a few minutes, we found our little friend going to and from his nest in a tree cavity. We could hear the wren babies inside the nest incessantly begging for food and it seemed like the parents were just barely able to keep up with the demand.
As populous as the Common Yellowthroats were along the shoreline trail, White-crowned sparrows were just as populous along the Horseshoe Canyon / Beaver Creek hiking trails. These guys never stop singing all day long, and we love it!
Yellow Warblers were pretty frequent in most places in the park. This one struck a nice pose for us.
Species sighted: common yellowthroat, yellow warbler, red-winged black bird, red-naped sapsucker, hairy woodpecker, downy woodpecker, white-crowned sparrow, tree swallow, gray catbird, cedar waxwing, mourning dove, northern flicker, american robin, eastern kingbird, black-billed magpie, american crow, black-capped chickadee, song sparrow, brown-headed cowbird, red-breasted nuthatch, veery, western wood-pewee, least flycatcher, northern harrier hawk, red-tailed hawk, turkey vulture, house wren, chipping sparrow, dark-eyed junco.
Hotspot #4 – Ferguson Hill Road and Campground
Wild Turkeys were introduced to the Cypress Hills in the 1960’s and we were determined to find at least one of these bizarre looking creatures. We skulked around Ferguson Hill Road and campground at 5:30am in the morning while everyone was sleeping in their tents and trailers. Yeah it was a bit creepy, but once again, Cypress did not let us down! We saw a family of about five Wild Turkeys waddling around one of the campgrounds. They were scavenging around picnic tables, beside tents, and under trailers. Nobody saw this happening except us. One time we surprised the Turkeys when they were right beside someone’s tent and the male let out a bellowing “gobble, gobble gobble” call – now that’s an alarm clock you won’t forget anytime soon! Oops – sorry camper!
Hotspot #5 – Spruce Coulee Road
Spruce Coulee Road is a quiet gravel road that takes you out to Spruce Coulee Reservoir. We really liked birding along this road because we could stop the car and watch a bird for an hour before another vehicle would drive by. Oh, and another reason we like it is we saw some pretty cool birds there!
While driving down Spruce Coulee Road we nearly got whiplash when we saw an unexpected bird along the fence – a Bobolink! This was our first sighting of a Bobolink so we were pretty excited, to say the least. The male was singing his unusual song all morning and every so often the female would fly in beside him for a few minutes. A super memorable experience!
Savannah Sparrows are common and widespread across Canada, so capturing an interesting image of one of these doing something different is always the objective. The wind was blowing one afternoon and this guy was struggling to keep his balance on a bush causing him to flap his wings every once in a while. We were pretty happy with how this image turned out!
American Robins are so common everywhere that we often do not pay enough attention to them. Cypress had no shortage of Robins either, but this one stands out as one of the nicer Robin images we’ve captured because the light was absolutely perfect in that moment and the colour of his plumage was amazing..
Species sighted: common yellowthroat, mountain bluebirds, american goldfinch, white-crowned sparrow, tree swallow, mourning dove, american robin, eastern kingbird, black-billed magpie, american crow, brown-headed cowbird, song sparrow, savannah sparrow, clay-coloured sparrow, vesper sparrow, bobolink, western meadowlark, swainson’s hawk, european starling.
As you can see, this was an action packed birding trip to Cypress Hills and there was so much more we could have included but this blog post was getting pretty long already! We also captured some fantastic images of birds on some excursions just outside Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park. If you like Hawks, Horned Larks, Western Kingbirds, Eastern Kingbirds and Sharp-tailed Grouse, you can find these images and stories over at StaderArtBirds.wordpress.com
Thanks for reading!
Marcy & Ray Stader