Alberta 2012: Astotin Lake

Bison

On my first full day in Alberta I met my best friend April for brunch, and then the two of us went to Elk Island National Park for some birding. She isn’t an avid birder like I am, but loves the outdoors and is always happy to try something new…especially if it means getting away from the kids!

We decided to stop by my old house in the country first since it was on the way. We parked on the road in front of the driveway, but the house didn’t resonate with me at all. I noticed in a detached way that someone had put some shutters up outside the second floor windows and painted them green, but felt no emotion at seeing it again after 16 years, nor any curiosity about the people who lived there now.

I was much more interested in the small slough across the road. I heard a Least Flycatcher singing in the trees across the water and a few Red-winged Blackbirds calling from the cattails. The cattails were too thick to see the water from the road, so we drove around the corner and parked along the side of the township road. There we found open water on the slough on the other side of the road, with plenty of birds swimming around – and not your typical mallards either! The first bird I noticed was an adult American Coot preening at the edge of the cattails.

American Coot (adult)

Two adult Pied-billed Grebes were swimming in the middle of the pond with one juvenile. The stripes on the juvenile’s face help to camouflage young grebes from predators. Although the chicks leave the nest soon after hatching, they cannot swim well for the first ten days and spent most of that time on the parent’s back. By the age of four weeks, young grebes spend day and night on the water and are able to avoid danger by diving beneath the water’s surface.

Pied-billed Grebe (juvenile)

There were also four juvenile American Coots swimming in the water with the grebes. I heard a Sora call from cattails, and a second one responded from the marsh across the road. A Red-tailed Hawk soared over the road while large blue dragonflies danced all around.

American Coot (juvenile)

After that April and I continued on our way to Elk Island National Park. This park is located less than an hour east of Edmonton and was first established as a game sanctuary in 1906. It is now the only entirely fenced national park in Canada, protecting the endangered aspen parkland and herds of free-roaming bison, moose, deer, and elk. The 194 square-kilometre park provides shelter to 253 species of birds, including 137 breeding species.

Like me, April had tried searching for information about birding Elk Island National Park and had come up with very little. At the gate she asked where we could go to find birds, and the park employee was happy to give us directions to a spot on Astotin Lake well away from the crowds using the campgrounds, trails, and day-use areas along the main road. Driving through Elk Island National Park reminded me of Algonquin Park without the large hills – sloughs dotted the landscape, and I noticed coots and grebes on most. We were driving in April’s convertible with the top down, and I heard a couple of Red-eyed Vireos and one Clay-coloured Sparrow along the way. An unusually large number of darners were busy hunting over the road; I was reminded of the Red Admiral migration earlier this year when one or two flew past me every minute. Then a large white bird flew toward us and passed directly over our heads. It was an American White Pelican, one of the species I had hoped to see! I was so thrilled that I didn’t even think to try to take its picture.

Then, after driving past the parking lot by the warden’s office, we came across this bison standing in the road!

Bison

Although I knew that there were bison at Elk Island National Park, I didn’t expect to see one; I had put them on my mental “nice to see, but not likely” list. So finding one looming in the road ahead of us was a bit of a shock! April stopped the car so we could take some pictures. However, when the bison kept walking toward us, I wasn’t sure how to react. I knew what to do in an encounter with a bear, skunk, porcupine or coyote (though these mostly run off when spotted), but not bison! We took our fill of photos, then April did a U-turn and returned to the parking lot we had driven by.

Bison

The walk to the lake wasn’t far. Along the way I encountered a White Admiral, two swallowtails, and a Red-winged Blackbird calling from the top of the tree. At first I didn’t recognize the call, for it sounded different than the snoring exhale of the eastern Red-wings.

Canadian Tiger Swallowtail

The sun shining in the hazy sky made the lighting less than ideal for viewing the birds on the lake. There were a lot of them – four large white pelicans were distinctive, as were several Buffleheads and ducks that might have been either Ring-necked Ducks or scaup. At least two species of grebe – Red-necked and Eared – were swimming on the water as well. The Eared Grebe was one of the birds I was hoping to see in Alberta and my third lifer of the trip. Because Horned Grebe also occurs in Alberta, I took several photos of the grebes to identify them. The grebes I saw all had black necks (instead of reddish brown), a sparse ear tuft, and no yellow patch between the eye and the bill. A few terns were flying over the water; I counted four Black Terns and two white terns, but didn’t get a good enough look at the white ones to identify them.

Astotin Lake

April and I walked out toward the tip of the point, and that’s when a huge flock of gulls rose up from the water into the air. They must have been sitting on the sand at the water’s edge, hidden from view behind the thick vegetation. Most appeared to be Ring-billed Gulls, but there were a few smaller, black-headed gulls with them. I was hoping to see some Franklin’s Gulls among them, but they all appeared to be Bonaparte’s Gulls based on the bill colour (black), the pink legs, and the black edging on their wings.

Bonaparte’s Gull (adult)

Bonaparte’s Gull (juvenile)

I tried to walk out to the sand but it was too wet. I was hoping the white terns were roosting there so I could take some photos, but found a pair of shorebirds instead! One was large and reddish with the long bill of a dowitcher. Both Short-billed and Long-billed Dowitchers are present in Alberta; while Short-billed Dowitchers breed in central and northern Alberta, Long-billed Dowitchers breed along the coast of the Arctic Ocean and pass through central Alberta only during migration. Given the time of year, this is most likely a Short-billed Dowitcher. These species are best identified by voice, however, and I don’t recall if he called when he flushed.

Dowitcher sp.

The other shorebird is a sandpiper commonly seen in Ontario, the Semipalmated Sandpiper. Both eventually flew off while I was trying to photograph the dowitcher, circled around the lake and disappeared. A pair of Spotted Sandpipers also flew over the water; I hadn’t even noticed them along the shore.

Semipalmated Sandpiper

I heard a Common Yellowthroat singing as we walked along the point, and April spotted a frog near the water. It was small, like a Wood Frog or a Boreal Chorus Frog, though I didn’t get a good enough look at it to identify it. A small yellow and black dragonfly caught my attention, so I stopped to photograph it.

Black Meadowhawk

It wasn’t until I looked it up later in the hotel that I realized it was a meadowhawk, chiefly because it isn’t red or orange. The black ladder-like markings on the thorax left no doubt that it was a teneral Black Meadowhawk. Only mature males are entirely black; females and immature males have black and yellow markings. This species is the only meadowhawk in which the mature male has no red on its body.

Black Meadowhawk

We had trouble finding our way back to the road, as there is no formal trail on the point. We came across this skull bone while looking for the path back to the road:

Skull bone

We found our way back to the road after that, pleased with the outing so far. April seemed impressed by the way I could identify so many birds – especially by ear – though she also said I have Attention Deficit Disorder when it comes to nature! Perhaps I did get easily distracted with each new discovery and photo opportunity, but Astotin Lake was an amazing place with so much wildlife to see. We weren’t ready to head back to Sherwood Park yet, so we decided to check out one more trail at Elk Island.

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4 thoughts on “Alberta 2012: Astotin Lake

  1. LOL–I think I would have found a bison in the middle of the road to be intimidating too! He has a distinct “don’t mess with me” look about him.

    Those western ponds do seem to have more going on, in breeding season, than our eastern ones. Here, you have to go to specialized locations like sewage lagoons to see much other than mallards and Wood Ducks in summer. In the Okanagan I found it much more common to see coots, teal, pintails, etc., on any little patch of water.

    • Hi Suzanne! Yes, I noticed that about the ponds out west…it was amazing how much waterfowl I saw even during the middle of breeding season. And every one of those species (Red-necked Grebe, Eared Grebe, Ruddy Duck, Ring-necked Duck, Bufflehead, American Coot) is COMMON out there, while here we see them only in migration, or sewage lagoons. Another reason I wish I had been a birder back when I lived there.

    • Thanks Jim! My photos of Elk Island don’t really do the place justice at all. If you’re ever in the Edmonton area, I can’t recommend a stop there highly enough!

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