Saskatchewan – Searching for Whooping Cranes

Flushed with success from my birding visit to British Columbia, I enlisted my brother Carl in a scheme to visit Saskatchewan and find some Whooping Cranes. I meant to post a trip report before now but “events” and sheer idleness got in the way. Then I discovered that our guide, Chris Charlesworth, had posted a complete report in his blog, so rather than repeat the effort I can concentrate on the aspects of the trip that were most important to me: birds, bird photographs, good food and the delights of Saskatoon’s thriving cocktail scene.

Speaking of good food, our dinner stop on the night we arrived was the estimable La Taverna Italia. The place was busy and possibly a bit understaffed, but the food was excellent. After agonizing over the choices I opted for the spaghetti alla puttanesca and had no regrets – no punches were pulled in this fully-flavoured version of a classic dish. Carl had lasagna and pronounced it highly viable. The cocktail menu was extensive and intriguing, featuring a number of top ingredients that are only dreamed of in the People’s Republic of Ontario. I settled on a Negroni made with Hendricks gin, Punt e Mes, Campari, and a flamed orange peel garnish. It was very fine indeed.

1 October– Roaming around North of Saskatoon

Now to cut to the chase. Yes, we did hook up with the near-mythical Whooping Crane. These magnificent birds, the tallest birds in North America and one of the largest crane species, were not that long ago standing on the precipice. In 1941, after decades of habitat destruction and overhunting, there were just 21 wild birds still clinging to life. An intensive conservation programme was established and over the years the population has grown to about 800 birds. They are not out of the woods yet, but at least there are sufficient numbers now  that the species should survive a catastrophe such as a major storm.

Whoopers spend the winter in Texas and Florida but they travel up to Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Saskatchewan to breed. Our trip was cunningly planned to put us in position to see them on  their way south, and as luck would have it Chris was able to discover a flock near Marcelin on our first morning. Being wary creatures we were not able to get close enough for good photos, but we had a good long look at the beasts before moving on to other delights.

1 October – Saskatchewan birds

Saskatchewan birding - Whooping Cranes
Whooping it up in Saskatchewan. The brownish bird is a colt (a juvenile Whooper).
Saskatchewan birding
Snow Geese including a very dark “blue phase” goose, with two Ross’s Geese below.
Greater White-fronted Geese trying not to be seen.
Rusty Blackbirds on the move.
Black-billed Magpie.

Dinner that night was Cajun-style courtesy of the Bon Temps Café. I opted for a traditional Jambalaya topped with a crawdad and Carl had blackened fish. We were both quite satisfied. They too had an excellent cocktail menu so respecting the New Orleans theme we sampled Vieux Carres – a classic beverage created at the Carousel Bar of the Monteleone Hotel in 1938. Basically a slightly sweet Manhattan-variant featuring Bourbon, Cognac, Cinzano, Benedictine, and Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters, they went down well and I made a mental note to acquire some Benedictine for further experimentation.

2 October – Last Mountain Lake

Chris has described this well in his blog so I will get straight to the photos.

Saskatchewan birding - Sharp-shinned Hawk
Sharp-shinned Hawk in the early morning light.
A Brewer’s Blackbird surveys his domain.
Saskatchewan birding - Sandhill Crane migration
Waves of Sandhill Cranes.
Brown Creeper creeping.
Saskatchewan birding - Golden Eagle
Golden Eagle – an awesome bird!
Grey Partridge in a somewhat shabby setting. But hey, Grey Partridge!

After a full day of birding we had an outstanding meal at The Granary. There were plenty of meal options but prime rib au jus seemed to be their specialty and when in doubt, go for the choice that the restaurant is proudest of. It was superb, and an eight ounce serving was ample with spuds and vegetables. You will be getting the idea that Saskatoon is a cocktail drinker’s paradise and sure enough The Granary was up to the task. For a while I had been wanting to try an Aviation, an early 20th Century creation of Hugo Ensslin of New Yorks’s Hotel Wallick, but the ingredients could not be had in Ontario. So despite the myriad of choices when my eyes alit upon that one the deal was done. It’s a true cocktail-drinkers cocktail, without the crutch of simple syrup to balance off the lemon juice, and was most excellent. Now if only I could get my hands on some Crème de Violette I could make my own. Hmmm.

3 October – Shorebirds and the long road North

The early part of the day was spent running up our shorebird tally before we moved to our advance staging area in Prince Albert. We stopped at a Sobey’s to get provisions for the trip and I took the chance to duck into the Sobey’s liquor store. There were racks of cocktail ingredients the likes of which the inept LCBO would never imagine offering. Yes of course they had Crème de Violette, Carpano Antica Formula, the full Luxardo range and many other fine products. All this at an undistinguished strip mall. Sadly I only had room in my luggage for one bottle.

American Avocets on short final.
Vast flocks of Lapland Longspurs were buzzing about but they Just. Wouldn’t. Land. ☹
Saskatchewan birding
Carl surveys the scene.
Northern Harrier on patrol.
Whole flocks of stubby-necked Cackling Geese!

Unfortunately, our only dinner option in Prince Albert on a Sunday evening was Boston Pizza. They had food. After a fashion.

Mollified somewhat by an after-dinner Northern Saw-whet Owl.

4 October – Prince Albert National Park

The aim of the deployment to northern Saskatchewan was to nab some boreal forest specialties. Which we did. 😊 The chief target for me was the scarce and unobtrusive American Three-toed Woodpecker. Chris used his ninja skills to track one down and we all had good views. Life bird number 1985 for me!

Saskatchewan birding - American Three-toed Woodpecker
The woodpecker in question.
Boreal Chickadees were present but playing hard to get.
Spruce Grouse on the prowl.
A distant River Otter
Horned Lark dispatches a moth.
The mighty Raven.
Canada Jays were plentiful.

Our last dinner as a group was at Manos, a Greek restaurant in Saskatoon. As I recall I had ribs and Carl had steak, washed down by an excellent local craft ale, Great Western Brewing Original 16 Pale Ale . It was a good meal but came at the end of a long day so memories are vague.

5 October – Farewell Saskatchewan

Saskatchewan birding
Los hermanos pájaritos.

We did a bit of local birding in the morning and then resigned ourselves to the tender mercies of Air Canada and made our way home.

Saskatchewan by the numbers

Three life birds for me (Whooping Crane, Smith’s Longspur, American Three-toed Woodpecker), many more than that for Carl, Saskatchewan bird list jumps from 0 to 88, some fine meals, drinking in a lot of big sky vistas – what’s not to like?

A big shout out to Chris and Avocet Tours for a superbly-organized and highly productive tour.

One thought on “Saskatchewan – Searching for Whooping Cranes”

  1. An excellent account of what was clearly a great experience. I took a similar trip the following week but didn’t get to the boreal forest, alas. I did go to Marcelin and Last Mountain Lake (I wonder where the name comes from??) and saw most of the same birds, Whoopers included. Saskatchewan for birders is well worth a visit.
    Great photos, Anthony!

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