Previous Tours - Churchill
Top 10 lists are voted upon by the participants at the completion of each tour.
Favorite birds of the CHURCHILL & SOUTHERN MANITOBA TOUR,
conducted 6-16 June 2014, as voted upon by the participants & leaders.
1) WILLOW PTARMIGAN
2) American Bittern
3) Pacific Loon
4) Sedge Wren
5) Black Tern
6) Arctic Tern
7) Chestnut-collared Longspur
8) Wilson’s Snipe
9) Eared Grebe
The entire group agreed upon the most exciting mammal of the tour: three POLAR BEARS on the ice in Churchill, a female with two cubs. This is exceedingly unusual in the month of June. None of us had expected to see even one. Close contenders were 21(!) Black Bears, 5 Moose, and 35 American Bison in Riding Mountain National Park. Riding Mountain also yielded a Mink, while Churchill produced a Least Weasel. Twenty-four Snowshoe Hares in one hour put on quite a show at Riding Mountain. Two White-tailed Jackrabbits in the SW corner of Manitoba were fun to watch. We found just one turtle, a Western Painted Turtle sunning itself on a log. Yellow Lady’s Slipper, an orchid, was abundant in what we felt were very unlikely locations.
CHURCHILL & SOUTHERN MANITOBA, CANADA
Bob Schutsky, Tour Leader
6 – 16 June 2014 Trip Report by Bob
5 Jun, Thu As usual I arrived in Churchill a day early to finalize the arrangements and do a bit of scouting. The afternoon weather was a bit rough, with falling snow, 1-foot drifts, and 25-40 mph winds. Road conditions were not great, but were slowly improving. A few of the nicer finds included a pair of Hudsonian Godwits, a dozen female Red-necked Phalaropes, a flock of 100s of Ruddy Turnstones, and a brilliant Yellow Warbler against the new snow. Our group would search for these and many additional species upon their next day arrival from Winnipeg.
6 Jun, Fri The afternoon flight arrived, and the participants moved into the Polar Inn, in downtown Churchill. Our first major stop along Goose Creek Road was a private feeding station owned by Mr. and Mrs. Bilenduke. They have welcomed the birding public for many years, and the feeders are always productive. Some of our early finds included Harris’s Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, and a male Pine Grosbeak. A small flock of geese passed over, containing small numbers of Snow, Blue, and Cackling Geese. Further down Goose Creek Road onto Hydro Road we saw five Sandhill Cranes, and a few gorgeous Short-billed Dowitchers and Hudsonian Godwits. Many of the shorebirds that we see on this tour are in full breeding plumage. Occasional periods of blowing ice pellets added interest and intrigue to the weather. After dinner we visited the granary ponds, just a short drive from our lodge. Some of the species of interest included nine Snow Buntings, a Baird’s Sandpiper, two Greater White-fronted Geese, a male Blue-winged Teal, and a Horned Lark. We all settled into the Polar Inn for the night.
7 Jun, Sat Cape Merry is the point where the Churchill River runs into Hudson Bay. On our way there we found that two Lapland Longspurs had joined last night’s Snow Bunting flock. At the Cape we found our first Parasitic Jaeger, Red-throated Loon, and all three species of scoter. There was no snow, ice, or rain falling this morning, which made seeing the Yellow Warblers, Arctic Hare, and Harbor Seals a bit more enjoyable. After lunch we birded Launch Road, from the Churchill Airport to the Northern Studies Centre. Our target bird was Willow Ptarmigan, and we were thrilled to find EIGHT, five males and three females. It would later be voted the number one bird of the entire tour! We heard our first of many Boreal Chorus Frogs, in a snow squall with 35 mph winds! They are about the size of a Spring Peeper. We never did see them, but heard them well. Two new late day ducks included a male Lesser Scaup and a pair of Gadwall.
8 Jun, Sun Little did we know, but this would very quickly become the most exciting day of the tour, for all of us. Upon leaving the lodge after breakfast, we stopped to speak with a friend who was leading another tour group. We exchanged information, and Ken had very good news. They had just seen three POLAR BEARS on the ice, not far from Cape Merry! Within just a few short minutes we were scoping a mother and two cubs, sleeping on the smooth ice of Hudson Bay. Polar Bears are exceedingly rare in Churchill in June. And to add to the excitement, none of us had ever seen one anywhere, and we certainly did not expect to see even one on this tour. We returned after lunch to see the bears just awakening, wandering off toward the pack ice. Many visitors and residents of Churchill were lucky enough to see them today before they disappeared. It was a very moving experience, and a first for any of our previous June Churchill tours. WOW!!! On our way back to town we saw a Least Weasel, another new mammal for this destination. A return visit to the Bilenduke’s feeding station produced a Boreal Chickadee, several Gray Jays, and our first Snowshoe Hares. Further up Hydro Road we saw four new shorebird species, all in breeding plumage: Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Dunlin, and Pectoral Sandpiper. Unusual for Churchill was two American Coots. From Polar Bears to Boreal Chickadee to American Coots, what a day!
9 Jun, Mon The weather improved nicely to sunny and calm. We took advantage of this a spent most of the day woodland birding at Twin Lakes. An exciting find en route was a color-banded Hudsonian Godwit in an extensive marsh. It was banded in 2009. This information adds a piece to the puzzle for the researchers who are studying this exquisite shorebird. We became quite well-practiced at locating Willow Ptarmigan, finding many more today. We saw our first Tree Swallows, Orange-crowned Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and Wood Frogs. A Short-eared Owl put on a good show near Camp Nanuq. Later in the day we found a male Blackpoll Warbler, and had spectacular looks at a displaying Ruby-crowned Kinglet. The sun and warmth brought out some butterflies, Spring Azures and Mourning Cloaks. A black morph Red Fox was quite striking.
10 Jun, Tue - - Moving to Winnipeg This afternoon we would fly to Winnipeg, so we decided to explore the granary and Cape Merry one last time before packing and preparing for our flight. We were hoping that some Beluga Whales may have moved into the mouth of the river, but we found none. Some years we see them, other years we don’t. But we always search, ever hopeful. Cape Merry was full of aquatic species. We had great looks at a Parasitic Jaeger, Pacific Loons, Surf Scoters, Common Goldeneye, and many other species. Harbor Seals were scattered liberally across the ice. Back at the parking area there is a Port-o-John. Two of us decided to make use of it. I was lucky, Val was not. When she walked inside and pulled the door closed, the door handle broke. We tried everything that we could to open the door, without success. Val was stuck in the bathroom. Nancy stayed to keep Val company, while John and I went to town to notify the National Park Service. Two expert mechanics and 30 minutes later, the door was opened and Val was free. It is simply amazing how many poor jokes can be generated from such a simple mechanical failure. But everything ended well. We still had plenty of time to pack our luggage, settle for the van, eat lunch, and head for the airport. Next stop, Winnipeg for the night.
11 Jun, Wed Today’s destination was Riding Mountain National Park, with a visit to the Minnedosa Pothole region en route. These small ponds and lakes yielded an abundance of ducks. We saw almost all of the possible species. Male Ruddy Ducks were especially popular. We had wonderful views of Red-necked and Horned Grebes, saw a few Marsh Wrens, and heard numerous Soras. After moving into Manigaming Lodge, we visited a local restaurant for dinner. We searched for a Great Gray Owl later this evening, without success. But Eastern Bluebirds, American White Pelicans, and an adult Northern Goshawk were greatly enjoyed. We lucked into a man named John who had given me advice, 10 years previously, about good places to search for Great Gray Owl. He gave us some updated information, plus a suggestion for a good drive tomorrow morning . . .
12 Jun, Thu John’s suggestion was to take an early morning drive along route 10 north through the park, the main highway. Lots of large mammals and Bald Eagles like to feed along the mowed shoulders of the road and the scattered ponds and marshes. What an understatement this turned out to be! It was undoubtedly one of the BEST 2-hour wildlife drives I have ever taken in North America, with TEN Black Bears and FIVE Moose. The next morning we saw an additional ELEVEN Black Bears and 35 American Bison. WOW, what a wonderful experience! Later on Thursday, Nancy stepped off of the trail to track down a Wood Frog. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker flew to the adjacent tree and began feeding at the sap wells, at very close range. An Olive-sided Flycatcher joined us for our picnic lunch at Whirlpool Lake. After dinner we all enjoyed an American Bittern, a Sedge Wren, and a Ruffed Grouse. We also saw 24 Snowshoe Hares in the final hour of daylight. That’s a lot of rabbits.
13 Jun, Fri This was our final morning in Riding Mountain. One of our early surprises was a Mink, no more than 10 feet from us. One of the bears near Lake Audy was a blonde-colored Black Bear cub, with a black mother and two black siblings. It was very impressive. While waiting for the Subway sandwich shop to open, the group found a male Blackburnian Warbler singing in a tree adjacent to the parking lot. What a beautifully plumaged warbler. Fourteen Western Grebes kept us entertained at our picnic lunch spot. And Mourning Warbler is always a good find. We attempted to bird some additional pothole country on our drive to Brandon, but torrential rains made things difficult. We were lucky enough to find our only Purple Martins of the tour.
14 Jun, Sat Today’s birding would be a big change of pace. We headed out from Brandon to the southwest corner of the province, into open prairie and agricultural land. We were in the very far corner, almost within sight of the Saskatchewan and North Dakota borders. Baird’s Sparrow is an exceedingly rare and elusive bird in Manitoba, so this was one of our big target species. We heard one very well, but we were not fortunate enough to see it. We did manage superb looks at a singing Grasshopper Sparrow. There were many additional highlights, such as prolonged looks at three American Bitterns, plus another one heard. American Bittern was voted the number two bird of the tour. Good looks at babies are always fun. We managed to see a young Willet, Killdeer, American Coots, and Canada Geese. Male Chestnut-collared Longspurs gave very striking tail displays. A pair of Gray Partridge put on quite a roadside show. Numerous Upland Sandpipers and Wilson’s Snipe perched on fence posts and utility poles, and displayed from there. We saw 100s of Eared Grebes and mass feeding flocks of Franklin’s Gulls. A White-tailed Jackrabbit sat up, looked around, then ran like the wind across the open fields. A Western Painted Turtle sunning itself on a floating log was the only turtle of our entire tour.
15 Jun, Sun - - Father’s Day We began our last full day at Douglas Marsh, just a short drive east of Brandon. After hearing numerous Soras throughout the tour, we finally had a fine look at one. We also had extraordinarily good looks at numerous Sedge Wrens. In a hedgerow near the marsh we saw our only two Lark Sparrows and sole Black-capped Chickadee of the tour. A mid-day visit to the woodlands of Brandon Hills yielded several new species: Black-and-white Warbler, Baltimore Oriole, Broad-winged Hawk, and three Wild Turkeys. The Tom turkey was in full display. On a late day return to Douglas Marsh we made a gallant attempt for Yellow Rail, but the water level was high, and we neither heard nor saw one. It was still a wonderful place to visit in the late evening sunset.
16 Jun, Mon - - The End of the Tour We made our final drive east. Our very successful and enjoyable tour ended late in the morning at Winnipeg International Airport. I look forward to a return visit in early June 2015.
Favorite birds of the CHURCHILL & SOUTHERN MANITOBA TOUR,
conducted 6-16 June 2008, as voted upon by the participants & leaders.
1) SMITH'S LONGSPUR--Great looks at a breeding-plumaged male in Churchill, after much effort.
2) Rock Ptarmigan--A big surprise at Cape Merry at the mouth of the Churchill River.
3) Northern Hawk Owl--Incredible views along Goose Creek Rioad in Churchill, and we even heard it calling. We suspect there was a nest nearby.
4) Le Conte's Sparrow--An extremely cooperative and territorial bird at Douglas Marsh, near Brandon.
5) Great Gray Owl--We saw it catching a rodent near Riding Mountain, then flying away into the sunset!
6) Willow Ptarmigan--Excellent views of several individuals in Churchill.
7) Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow--Close scope views near Whitewater Lake, south of Brandon.
8) Sedge Wren--Bob had to 'lay down on the job' to bring in this bird at Oak Hammock Marsh, north of Winnipeg.
9) Boreal Chickadee--Prolonged point blank views near our lodge at Clear Lake, Riding Mountain.
10) Little Gull--Multiple individuals along the Churchill River, perched and flying.
11) Spruce Grouse--Two females at Twin Lakes, Churchill. One was exceedingly cooperative.
There were also a number of mammalian highlights. The Churchill River yielded Beluga Whales with their young, plus Bearded and Harbor Seals. We had great looks at a female Black Bear with two cubs, Coyotes, and a family of Red Fox that included NINE pups of several different colors. A River Otter and Arctic Hares were also enjoyed by the entire group. On several occasions we found clusters of Yellow Lady's Slippers, very beautiful orchids.
CHURCHILL & SOUTHERN MANITOBA
Bob & Kim Schutsky, leaders
Trip Report by Kim
You mention to someone that you're traveling to Manitoba and most likely the first words out of their mouth will be "Where is Manitoba?" "It's a Canadian province directly north of North Dakota and Minnesota." "Oh, I didn't realize it was an entire province."
Once across the Canadian border, the folks at immigration and customs want to know your intended address. "Churchill - on the shores of the Hudson Bay - then Riding Mountain National Park - then finally Brandon." "Are you fishing?" "No, I'm birding. I'm part of a bird watching group." "Oh. Enjoy your trip, and welcome to Canada."
Our excited group of birding adventurers were welcomed to Canada ... by comfortably warm air temperatures, a slightly barren landscape, and high water levels from recent snow melt ... when we deplaned in the subarctic outpost of Churchill, Manitoba. Located on the southwest shores of Hudson Bay, Churchill is only accessible via train or plane. The 1200 residents earn their livelihoods mainly through ecotourism (Polar Bears, Beluga Whales, and birds being the main attractions) and the shipping of grain from the port. The group comfortably settled into the Lazy Bear Lodge where, at any moment, tour participants could scan the wetlands behind the lodge for at least fifteen different bird species. We placed piles of birdseed outside of each room. A flock of 20-30 Snow Buntings, plus a few Common Redpolls, Lapland Longspurs, and White-crowned Sparrows is always a welcome sight.
For the next three and a half days, the group tirelessly birded all accessible areas of Churchill. Every drive toward Cape Merry or the Churchill River included a thorough scan of a grain spill along the railroad tracks near the port granaries for Lapland Longspur, Snow Bunting, Ruddy Turnstone, and Sanderling. We frequented the awe-inspiring landscape of Cape Merry at the mouth of the Churchill River, where we regularly scoped Common Eiders, scoters, mergansers, and loons, and rejoiced at thrilling views of a lone Rock Ptarmigan. Any Rock Ptarmigan present during the winter should have been gone months ago. Luckily for our group, the ice broke up on the Bay enough that we were able to witness the annual homecoming of the sleek and brilliantly white Beluga Whales that return to the river to birth their calves, while feeding incessantly on the fish available with each incoming tide. Goose Creek Road, which took us further upriver, produced all the usual ducks, shorebirds, and gulls - including Little and Thayer's Gull. When time allowed, we stopped to check the trees and grounds surrounding the Bilenduke home feeders, stops that paid off with amazing views of arctic feeder birds including Harris's Sparrow and Pine Grosbeak. Goose Creek Road leads to one place and one place only - the pumping station. The pumping station itself failed to produce any memorable sightings. However, a mere kilometer and a half away, the group was treated to awesome views of a Northern Hawk Owl, believed to be nesting near the road. A tip from a local birding enthusiast led us to Churchill's abandoned landfill where we were surrounded by large flocks of Sandhill Cranes and happened upon a Richardson's Goose (smaller version of the Canada Goose) that, although dead, lent itself to close inspection by curious tour participants and leaders. Another area frequented by Churchill birders is the Twin Lakes region where half the group ventured one day to nail down Spruce Grouse, Northern Goshawk, and Willow Ptarmigan. No, the other half of the group wasn't lounging at the lodge. They instead opted to carefully investigate every small gull in all of Churchill in an attempt to find the highly sought-after Ross's Gull. A valiant effort was made, but the simple truth was that the bird was not to be found. None was seen by anyone during our stay, the first time that a Bird Treks tour has ever missed this Arctic rarity.
A review of Churchill's highlights wouldn't be complete without mentioning the at-first elusive, but eventually extremely accommodating Smith's Longspur found by the group while venturing toward the research facility. We had stopped in an area known to regularly produce Smith's Longspur. Moments after stepping out of the van the song was heard and the pursuit was on. We'd hear it. We'd follow it to a particular area. One or two tour participants would catch a glimpse. We'd hear it. The group would move to another area. One person would linger and see the bird in the area the group had just left. The group would return. The bird wouldn't be seen or heard. The decision was made to eat lunch along the roadside. And then the bird was heard again. This time it flew in and perched its colorful self on the telephone wire near the vans. Everyone saw it! But the best view came a bit later when a small group of participants adventured off the road. They had one fly in - right in - practically beneath their feet - where they were able to watch it and photograph it and do the greater-prairie-chicken-dance in celebration of the incredible view. They returned to the vans high-fiving each other while grinning from ear to ear from the experience.
Tuesday the 10th, we found ourselves back at 30,000 feet, making a speedy return to Winnipeg, where we would spend one night before driving west to Riding Mountain National Park. Along the way, we stopped at the Oak Hammock Marsh where a large inventory of shorebirds, freshwater ducks, rails, and common marsh species were easily added to the trip list. We all enjoyed a wind-blown picnic marsh-side, while a plethora of chattering Richardson's Ground Squirrels did their best to make off with the crumbs. With satisfied stomachs, the group walked a loop trail trying to nail down the little but loud Sedge Wren. We couldn't have asked for a better vantage point - the bird came right into leader Bob's iPod and entertained everyone with its ease and gymnastic grace, all from less than a meter away.
Continuing on, the group drove - following Les's navigational skills - to Riding Mountain National Park, and our two-night home on the shores of the glacially-made Clear Lake. The habitats of Riding Mountain differed greatly from those of Churchill, as did the birds. Freshwater lakes and densely wooded forests produced Franklin's Gull, Forster's Tern, Boreal Chickadee, Alder Flycatcher, Evening Grosbeak, and warblers galore (Magnolia, Tennessee, Orange-crowned, Cape May, Ovenbird, and Blackburnian to name a few). This year we succeeded in tracking down the graceful Great Gray Owl. With a detailed map drawn by a knowledgeable waiter at a local eating establishment, we made our way into the rolling hills bordering the national park. For hours we slowly cruised the section of road suggested to us, until darkness and tiredness were too prominent to ignore. Not more than a minute back onto the main road an owl was spotted soaring over the fields. It had an abnormally large head. It was the Great Gray! Check, double check, and good night.
The final birding destination for the group was Brandon, Manitoba. Located due south of Riding Mountain and due west of Winnipeg, Brandon also afforded the group access to new habitat and new birds. Our time was split equally between various wetlands including Douglas Marsh and Whitewater Lake (an inland saline lake), and miles upon miles of gorgeous rolling fields. A surprising, and stunning, find was a breeding plumaged Stilt Sandpiper at Whitewater Lake. Careful study of the immaculate plumage made for a happy group of birders.
The blue ribbon winner of Douglas Marsh is the rare Yellow Rail. As we waited for the sun to set behind the marsh and for the distinct clicking of the Yellow Rail to begin, the group was treated to a very cooperative Le Conte's Sparrow, methodically traversing a circuit through the marsh. We were all ecstatic that this bird's circuit ranged from two to twenty-two meters from the roadside. It obviously was protecting its territory from the iPod intruder and we appreciated its diligence and feistiness. As dusk changed to dark, our attention was turned to the variety of nighttime noises heard across the marsh. Soras called, as did a Virginia Rail. The Yellow Rail "tic-tic, tic-tic-ticked" also, but only two tour participants and co-leader Kim were in the right place at the right time to have the privilege of hearing it.
Brandon's endless expanses of fields were both abloom with brilliant flowers and aflight with impressive birds. Our group flushed two Gray Partridges. Upland Sandpipers were practically regulars as we cruised the gravel roads. Bobolink sat upright in the grasses, displaying their brilliant gold, black, and white plumage. A family of Great Horned Owls was a delight to watch - the proud and protective parents alongside the large and fluffy young - in a small grove of trees. Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow came in close and stayed close for great views.
A birding tour is often quite exhausting but delightful at the same time. Our trip to Manitoba didn't disappoint - in either the level of satisfaction and the delight with which our group returned home, richer for having visited the many parts of Manitoba.
Favorite species of the CHURCHILL & SOUTHERN MANITOBA TOUR,
conducted 7-17 June 2007, as voted upon by the participants & leaders.
1) NORTHERN HAWK OWL--we found a calling female along Goose Creek Road in Churchill that was incredibly cooperative and gave us fantastic scope views. We even watched it get into a bit of a tussle with a Short-eared Owl.
2) Gray Partridge--prolonged views of a pair in a field west of Brandon.
3) Boreal Chickadee--we had at least two close encounters, on at Churchill, the other in Riding Mountain.
4) King Eider--we saw three adult drakes at the mouth of the Churchill River after a major wind and snow storm.
5) Upland Sandpiper--several indiduals put on fantastic shows near Whitewater Lake south of Brandon.
6) Willow Ptarmigan--these beautiful birds are always a bit hit at Churchill. They were seen well and greatly appreciated.
7) Red Phalarope--we had scope views of two breeding-plumaged birds, another result of our Churchill snowstorm.
8) American Golden-Plover--a simply gorgeous breeding shorebird at Churchill.
9) Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow--a cooperative bird near Whitewater led to scope views and photos from 25 feet.
10) Ross's Gull--once again we were lucky enough to find the first Ross's Gull of the season in Churchill, a truly rare find.
Over the course of three consecutive days we saw three different Black Bears at Riding Mountain National Park: a rich brown one, a jet black one, and a blonde one that was in the process of shedding its winter coat. Churchill yielded a large herd of Bearded Seals and a family of Red Foxes that included the two adults and five young pups. We also saw a Coyote, Snowshoe Hares, White-tailed Jackrabbit, and an introduced European Hare. Orchids put on a nice show with numerous Yellow Lady Slippers and a few Coral Root.
CHURCHILL AND SOUTHERN MANITOBA
7-17 June 2007
Co-Leaders Bob Schutsky and Kim Schutsky
ip Report by Kim Schutsky
The air temperature was brisk, the landscape slightly barren, and the ice floes in Hudson Bay were thick, when an intrepid group of birding adventurers deplaned in the sub-arctic outpost of Churchill, Manitoba. Located on the southwest shores of Hudson Bay, Churchill is accessible only via train or plane. The 1200 residents earn their livelihoods mainly through ecotourism (Polar Bears, Beluga Whales, and birds are the main attractions) and the shipping of grain from the port.
Co-leaders Bob and Kim Schutsky had already been in town for 24 hours and had scouted the area for a few key species. Weary from their day of travel, after dinner the Bird Treks entourage piled into the van to locate the Northern Shrike and Northern Hawk Owl found earlier that day.
Two separate rock cairns along the dirt road to the water pumping station marked where the birds had been earlier. As we approached the first, all eyes looked left to spot a tree top bird. “There!” came a shout from the back, and there it was, a Northern Shrike elegantly perched atop a dead snag. It flitted about a bit – edging closer and closer to the van. Striking looks … but not as striking as the views we had of the Northern Hawk Owl further down the road. We watched it to our hearts’ content, walking as close to it as we possibly could. It called gently, turned on its perch to give us different views, and was what the birdwatching world refers to as a “very cooperative bird”. Two local but rare specialties located within hours of touchdown, and all this before 10:30 pm, when the sun sank through a brilliant array of colored clouds.
For the next three and a half days, the group tirelessly birded all accessible areas of Churchill. We frequented the grain spill along the railroad tracks near the port granaries for Lapland Longspur, Snow Bunting, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, and a single Red Knot. Goose Creek Road, which took us further upriver, produced all the usual ducks, shorebirds, and gulls - including Little, Sabine’s, and the first Ross’s Gull of the season – and a herd of Bearded Seals. Many hours were spent scouring the trees and grounds surrounding the Bilenduke’s private feeders, hours which paid off with amazing views of Boreal Chickadee, Gray Jay, Fox Sparrow, Common Redpoll, and Pine Grosbeak, and a fleeting glimpse of a Harris’s Sparrow. Multiple trips were made to the granary ponds and further west to Cape Merry at the mouth of the Churchill River. The stellar birds found on the granary ponds were a pair of breeding-plumaged Red Phalaropes, while at Cape Merry we rejoiced at distant, but fantastic scope views of three drake King Eiders. There’s only one other locale all Churchill birders visit – Twin Lakes and the scenic and productive drive out there. Willow Ptarmigan, Ross’s Goose, Pacific Loon, and Bohemian Waxwings delighted the group. Short-eared Owls were seen daily and the family of Red Foxes was quite entertaining.
Five days into our trip, we found ourselves back at 30,000 feet, making a speedy return to Winnipeg, where we would spend one night before driving west toward Riding Mountain National Park. A quick venture was made to Oak Hammock Marsh where a large inventory of shorebirds, freshwater ducks, rails, and common marsh species were easily observed. A Sedge Wren nearly landed on the iPod speaker that was used to lure it out of the marsh. We all enjoyed a relaxing picnic in the warmth of the sun while a plethora of chattering Richardson’s Ground Squirrels did their best to make off with the crumbs.
Day six – another travel day - northwest to Riding Mountain National Park and our two-night home on the shores of the glacially-made Clear Lake. The habitats of Riding Mountain differed greatly from those of Churchill, as did the birds. Freshwater lakes and densely wooded forests produced Franklin’s Gull, Forster’s Tern, Black-billed Cuckoo, several flycatchers, Evening Grosbeak, and warblers galore (Tennessee, Orange-crowned, Cape May, and Blackburnian to name a few). A male Scarlet Tanager was unusual along the main street of the village. The Black Bears were also a highlight of Riding Mountain. We were lucky enough to see three different pelages - black, brown, and pale yellow – lumbering about the roadsides.
Our final birding destination was Brandon. Located due south of Riding Mountain and due west of Winnipeg, Brandon also afforded the group access to new habitat and new birds. Our time was split equally between various wetlands including Douglas Marsh, Oak Lake, and Whitewater Lake (an inland saline lake), and miles upon miles of gorgeous rolling fields. The blue ribbon winner of the Douglas Marsh is the rare Yellow Rail. We set up camp amongst the lightning bugs and Marsh Wrens and patiently waited, while the sun set across the marsh, for the distinct clicking and ticking of the Yellow Rail. As dusk changed to dark we heard the first one calling, but although the hours passed, we never got a glimpse of the elusive bird. Oak Lake was a “hey, why don’t we drive this route instead” kind of detour. No doubt the extension will stay on future itineraries. Oak Lake itself was beautiful with access to open water and marshy backwaters. The surrounding Oak Lake Sand Hills were equally as unique and home to many trip birds including Eastern and Mountain Bluebirds, Baltimore Oriole, and Lark Sparrow. Prior to our detour to Oak Lake, we spent a few hours in awe of the thousands of waders and waddlers at Whitewater Lake. You have to see it for yourself, that’s all there is to it.
Brandon’s endless expanses of fields were both abloom with brilliant flowers and a-flight with impressive birds. Three Gray Partridges strutted in a field, spitting distance from our group for fifteen minutes. Upland Sandpiper was a cinch as it sat tall and giraffe-necked on a fence post directly across from the van. When not watching this oddly proportioned bird, you could scan your binoculars two fields of view to the right to study the Nelson’s (Sharp-tailed) Sparrow that sat four feet from the scope. A Ferruginous Hawk effortlessly soared above the field near its nest. A nesting Western Wood-Pewee didn’t stray far from its home territory. Bobolink sat upright in the grasses, displaying their brilliant gold, black, and white plumage. Aside from the constant challenge of sparrow identification, birding the fields seemed easy and relaxed.
Eleven days and 210 bird species later, the weary but happy travelers departed for other corners of the earth, with happy memories of a wonderful tour.
Favorite species of the
CHURCHILL and SOUTHEAST MANITOBA CUSTOM TOUR,
conducted 10-17 June 2006, as voted upon by the eight participants & tour leader.
1) NORTHERN HAWK OWL--Lengthy and incredibly close views of 4 newly-fledged young and one adult near Pinawa. What an experience!
2) Black-backed Woodpecker--Close looks at a female at Twin Lakes in Churchill.
3) Willow Ptarmigan--Repeated good views at Churchill, especially the one on the gravel mound with the Canadian flag in the background.
4) Spruce Grouse--A displaying male in the spruce forest at Twin Lakes.
5) Pacific Loon--Many at Churchill, but the nesting birds put on especially good shows.
6) Virginia Rail--Taped a very cooperative bird into point-blank range at Oak Hammock Marsh. What a view!
7) Smith's Longspur--three males in a territorial dispute at Churchill.
8) Little Blue Heron--A 1-year old bird at Akudlik. This was only the second Churchille record.
9) Bohemian Waxwing--multiple sightings at Twin Lakes.
10) Short-eared Owl--two birds hunting and perching near the Churchill granary.
11) American Bittern--several in flight, one perched for a very good view along Goose Creek Road in Churchille.
Additional highlights included large numbers of Beluga Whales in the Churchill River, a young Black Bear in Whiteshell Provincial Park, roadside Showy Orchids on the road to Whitemouth Bog, and numerous White Admiral butterflies. We also saw Bearded, Ringed and Harbor Seals, an easy-going Arctic Hare, a very speedy White-tailed Jackrabbit, and a large colony of Richardson's Ground Squirrels. Standing on the ice on Hudson Bay and boating among the floe ice was quite an experience.
Favorite birds of the CHURCHILL & SOUTHEAST MANITOBA TOUR,
conducted 5-15 June 2003, as voted upon by the participants & leader.
1) NORTHERN HAWK OWL--incredible looks at this totally unexpected bird, plus we heard it calling!
2) Ross's Gull--a close adult bird and the first Churchill sighting of the season.
3) Willow Ptarmigan--multiple birds, but we were especially impressed by the one taking a dust bath.
4) Gray Partridge--two pairs in one day: WOW!
5) Little Gull--a simply spectacular bird, and we saw adults daily at Churchill.
6) Three-toed Woodpecker--great scope views of a male.
7) Le Conte's Sparrow--superb scope view at Douglas Marsh.
8) Black-backed Woodpecker--a pair feeding young at close range.
9) Connecticut Warbler--great looks at an otherwise elusive species.
10) Spruce Grouse--two males along a beautiful woodland trail.
Nice mammals at Churchill included many close looks at Beluga Whales, two Bearded Seals, numerous Arctic Hares, and several black-phase Red Fox, which was new to all of us. In the southern portion of the province we found two Black Bears, an Elk, and a Coyote that was visiting a Black-tailed Prairie Dog town. The biggest surprise was a Short-tailed Weasel (Ermine) carrying a vole that was probably as heavy as it was. It carried it down a gravel road toward us until it was only ten feet away! The vole was so heavy the the weasel had to rest after every few steps.
Favorite birds of the CHURCHILL, MANITOBA TOUR,
conducted June 7-15 2002, as voted upon by the participants & tour leader.
1) WILLOW PTARMIGAN--as many as 12 in one day on the tundra, with several of them calling.
2) Short-eared Owl--many sightings, with some catching voles at Riding Mountain.
3) Yellow Rail--one of the most sought after birds in North America, in the beam of our spotlight.
4) Spruce Grouse--two displaying males, sometimes only three feet from us!
5) Pacific Loon--beautiful silky-plumaged pairs on many of the ponds and lakes at Churchill.
6) Bohemian Waxwing--great looks on our day at Twin Lakes.
7) Arctic Tern--almost constantly in sight at Churchill.
8) Connecticut Warbler--a singing male in the scope for all to see at Riding Mountain.
9) Sprague's Pipit--we witnessed both the prolonged aerial display and the male perched in the short-grass prairie.
10) Smith's Longspur--great looks at this striking bird of the tundra.
We also enjoyed the pods of Beluga Whales at the mouth of the Churchill River, the female Red Fox nursing her 5 pups and the male fox carrying a Hudsonian Godwit toward the den, and the female Black Bear with 2 cubs feeding on dandelions at Riding Mountain. The White-tailed Deer that turned away a large stalking Coyote and sent it running was also a very exciting moment, as was the Merlin dust bathing in the road!
Leaders: Bob Schutsky and Mike Haldeman
Trip Report by Mike Haldeman
After everybody's early arrivals in Winnipeg, we were able to head right out to Oak Hammock Marsh and start birding. Highlights among the thousands of waterbirds there included a Red-necked Grebe, hundreds of Black Terns, and many Wilson's Phalaropes.
The next morning we were back at the airport for our morning flights to Churchill. After arriving at this northern outpost on Hudson Bay and getting over the shock of the cold and all the ice that still covered many of the lakes, we soon settled into the birding. Within minutes we were enjoying our first of many looks at breeding-plumaged Pacific Loons, Red-necked Phalaropes, Hudsonian Godwits, and American Golden-Plovers. Greater Scaup, Long-tailed Ducks, and Arctic Terns seemed to inhabit every ice-free pond. Due to the wintry weather there was still a flock of Snow Buntings and a few Lapland Longspurs around, all in breeding plumage. A feeding station outside of town produced Pine Grosbeaks, Common Redpolls, and a Harris's Sparrow, among others. And this was all in the first day.
The next day it began to warm up and would continue to do so throughout our four-night stay. At the end of Goose Creek Road we had fly-by Sabine's and Ross's Gulls, as well as our first Parasitic Jaegers. Short-eared Owls and American Bitterns put in a couple of appearances each day. In one instance we were even able to watch a bittern give its "thunder pumping" call at close range. We found singing male Smith's Longspurs at a couple of locations on the tundra and even saw a few Hoary Redpolls among some willows at the tundra's edge. Our full day at Twin Lakes gave us most of our boreal birds. Northern Shrike, Bohemian Waxwing, Three-toed Woodpecker, and a fast but close Northern Goshawk were some of the highlights. A return evening trip (optional, but VERY productive) put our group within mere feet of two displaying male Spruce Grouse, one of several wonderful excursions in the low light hours surrounding the 10:30 sunset. We even had a Gray-cheeked Thrush in our scopes singing atop a spruce at 11:15 pm one evening.
Willow Ptarmigan seemed rather common this year. We counted twelve of these beautiful birds in one day and even heard the male's strange calls. These birds were almost as confiding as their Spruce Grouse cousins. It was also nice to see both Surf and White-winged Scoters in courtship behavior on small ponds within the boreal forest. Black Scoters were seen on the open waters of the Churchill River.
On our last day in Churchill the ice that had been slowly receding finally cleared and the river opened. After another quick trip down Goose Creek Road to find the Little Gull that had previously eluded us, we went right to Cape Merry to spend time scanning the river mouth. Common Eiders were abundant. Two groups of Belugas, the White Whales, swam by with a few of their blue-gray young, as a Ringed Seal lazed on one of the ice flows. A Harbor Seal swam past and a few mottled gray and white Arctic Hares scurried among the boulders to add to our mammal list. But this all had to come to an end and we found ourselves reluctantly boarding a plane bound for Winnipeg.
CHANGES IN LATITUDE
By Dave Rieger, Manitoba Tour Participant
This year has certainly provided me with some contrasts in birding. In January, I spent nine days in the rainforests and marshes of Trinidad and Tobago finding our North American migrants wintering among the local birds. In June, I headed in the opposite direction and found many of the same migrants breeding in Manitoba.
Traveling with Bob Schutsky’s Bird Treks, we spent five days in Churchill on the shore of Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba. At almost 60 degrees latitude, the sun didn’t set until 10:30 PM. I was never awake when it was totally dark, so I’m not sure when or even if that occurred.
Flying into Churchill gave us a great view of what was in store for us. We were in the transition zone between the boreal forest and the tundra. Aside from the handful of roads that radiated out from the cluster of buildings that comprised the town, there was little evidence of man. The town is only accessible by rail, plane, or boat (when the bay was not frozen). The landscape consisted of patches of spruce amongst the expanse of tundra, glacial lakes, the Churchill River and Hudson Bay. As we landed, a wall of fog stood at the edge of the bay where the cold air over the frozen bay hit the warmer air over the land. It was June 8, 2002 and many of the lakes, the river, and the bay were still covered with ice. Patches of snow lay in the shadows and our winter coats went on as we de-boarded our plane.
There’s always a great sense of anticipation when I first reach a new area and this day was no exception. The 3-mile drive from the airport to our motel took almost an hour, as we had to stop at every unfrozen pond to check for waterfowl. The Long-tailed Ducks were beautiful in their breeding plumage, as were the Pacific Loons. The first life bird for me in Churchill was the Hudsonian Godwit. The last day of the trip, we saw our last one of these handsome birds being carried in the mouth of a Red Fox returning to feed its mate and kits.
Of particular interest in this extreme environment was the fragility all around us. The town was constructed by the government as an alternative shipping facility for grain. Although construction occurred 30-40 years ago, the scars are still evident. Re-growth there is measured in decades rather than years.
The avian spectacle was tremendous. The birds in breeding plumage were displaying in ways never seen in our home latitudes. Shorebirds such as Lesser Yellowlegs and Wilson’s Snipe were commonly seen perched and singing atop Red Spruce. The Bonaparte’s Gulls were nesting in the spruce. I was looking at an unidentified pair of shorebirds in rusty plumage riding an ice floe when someone informed me they were Sanderlings. Pairs of Willow Ptarmigan were commonly seen along the roads and Spruce Grouse were displaying in the late evening. The Granary ponds always provided treats such as Red-necked Phalaropes, Arctic Terns, and Snow Buntings. Some of the other more notable birds seen while we were there were Smith’s Longspur, Harris’s Sparrow, Pine Grosbeak, Boreal Chickadee, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Ross’s Gull, Sabine’s Gull, and Little Gull.
The day we were to leave Churchill, we awoke in the morning to find the ice on the Churchill River had broken up. We spent a good part of the day at Cape Merry. Everyone’s favorite birding spot at Churchill seems to be Cape Merry, the rocky promontory at the mouth of the Churchill River. From this scenic vantage point we could scan the river or gaze out over the endless reaches of Hudson Bay. The turbulent tides and co-mingling waters produced an ever-changing exhibition of birds and mammals. It is from this vantage point that the Polar Bears are best spotted, but by June they were long gone. With the ice gone, a pod of 10 Beluga Whales finally surfaced. A Parasitic Jaeger flew over the river mouth and a Greater White-fronted Goose floated by on an ice floe. What a great way to end this leg of the trip.
We completed our tour of Manitoba in the southern portion of the province. In Riding Mountain National Park we had our fill of Connecticut and Mourning Warblers. We spent that evening searching for and finding a Great Gray Owl. On our early morning outing the next day, we even spotted a Black Bear and two cubs foraging on dandelions. Later, in Douglas Marsh, we found Sedge Wrens, Le Conte’s Sparrows, Nelson’s (Sharp-tailed) Sparrows, and the elusive Yellow Rail (we were knee deep in water at 11:00 at night for that one!) The aerial display of the Sprague’s Pipit and its straight vertical dive back to the ground was particularly impressive.
In nine days, we assembled a trip list of 208 species. Who would have guessed the cold clime of Manitoba would produce a higher trip list than Trinidad and Tobago?
Favorite species of the Churchill & Southern Manitoba Tour,
conducted 8-16 June 2001, as voted upon by the participants & leader.
1) SMITH'S LONGSPUR
2) Ross's Gull
3) Great Gray Owl
4) Connecticut Warbler
5) Willow Ptarmigan
6) Bohemian Waxwing
7) Little Gull
8) Sharp-tailed Grouse
9) Gray Jay
10) Harris's Sparrow
That is undeniably THE MOST impressive Top 10 list that I've ever seen for a North American Tour! Also enjoyed by all were the Beluga Whales feeding at the mouth of the Churchill River and the Fisher swimming to shore in a remote lake.