The wetland is adjacent to Big Lake in St. Albert, a globally recognized Important Bird Area which provides habitat for thousands of waterfowl and shorebirds during both migration and the breeding season. The 350-metre long boardwalk crosses through the marsh, with sections of open water among the dense cattails to provide windows into the wetland. My mother, stepfather and I visited the wetland in early July 2018 on a gray, breezy day where the highlights included Eared Grebe, three Sora calling, a Wilson’s Snipe calling, four Black Terns, five Common Yellowthroats, and an assortment of waterfowl, including Bufflehead and Ring-necked Duck – two ducks we only see during migration in Ottawa.
Unfortunately the only one of these species still present in mid-September was the Bufflehead, unless the others were far out on Big Lake where we couldn’t see them. Three species of dabbling ducks were present in the open water of the wetland, including female-type Gadwall and Blue-winged Teals – two species I usually don’t see up close in Ottawa. The Gadwall was resting against the reeds when we first spotted it, then left for a leisurely swim. The white wing patch (called a speculum) is diagnostic among the dabbling ducks. The female Gadwall resembles a female mallard, but has a distinctly puffy-looking head and an orange bill with black on the top.
There were five Blue-winged Teal altogether in the pond, and while most of them began swimming away when we stepped onto the viewing platform, one eventually returned and began preening. The female, too, resembles the female mallard (as does the non-breeding male), but note the faint dark line through the eye, the pale arcs above and below each eye giving it a surprised look, and a pale area at the base of the bill.
There were no Common Yellowthroats on this visit, but I did hear three different Swamp Sparrows calling from the cattails of the marsh. Cedar Waxwings were hawking for insects, and three swallows flew over at one point – likely Tree and Barn Swallows. When we got to the lookout we were surprised to see that it was closed – there was a fence blocking the entrance. It had been closed in 2018, too, and I was hoping it was open by now.
Still, we walked down to the edge of the water where we saw several shorebirds in the shallow water. They were too far out to identify without a scope, but I was able to identify a Lesser Yellowlegs when it flew by at close range, by both the length of the bill and by its softer, less strident call. I also heard both Pine Siskins and American Pipits calling as they flew over, though only the siskins landed in a tree close enough to see them. White-crowned Sparrows called from the grassy vegetation, though I only saw one, and a Yellow-rumped Warbler popped out when I started pishing. I heard the cry of a hawk which I assumed was a Red-tailed Hawk, until I learned later that the Swainson’s Hawk has a similar call (which I heard frequently at the unnamed pond across from Tim Horton’s in Schonsee). We also were thrilled to see an adult Bald Eagle flying overhead, crossing the water effortlessly.
We walked along the trail that runs between the lake and Nadeau Pond and got a closer look at some of the waterfowl. We saw a Ruddy Duck, two Bufflehead, several Pied-billed Grebes, and a large number of American Coots on both bodies of water – with their black bodies and white bills, they were easy enough to distinguish at a distance.
The most surprising bird to me was the Common Loon we saw on Nadeau Pond. Based on the finely scalloped appearance of its back feathers I am guessing it is a juvenile. When I first saw it I was hoping for something more exotic, like a Pacific or Yellow-billed Loon, but the head shape and the dark collar wrapping around to the front of the neck ruled those species out.
We got there much later in the day (around 2:30 pm) on our second visit on September 21st. Still, we were graced by the presence of a soaring accipiter in juvenile plumage right in the parking lot as we arrived. It was flying fairly low, and large enough to be either a Cooper’s Hawk or a goshawk. There were fewer songbirds present, and I didn’t see or hear any sparrows, pipits or siskins this time. However, both the Blue-winged Teals and the female Gadwall were still swimming in the same patch of open water.
I was lucky enough to see a Blue-winged Teal resting close to the boardwalk in one of the narrow channels through the marsh. I would love to see a male in breeding plumage up close like this one day.
It was a beautiful, warm sunny day and the deep blue of the sky was reflected in the water. The boardwalk zigzagged through the marsh toward Big Lake, and when I wasn’t looking at the ducks I was busy looking for dragonflies and other wildlife. I didn’t see any skimmers in the marsh itself, though I saw several darners flying by; I wondered what species (some emeralds and whitefaces, perhaps?) I could find here at the height of dragonfly season in July.
The only mammal we saw was a muskrat busy feeding on the vegetation at the edge of a large section of open water. My sister was thrilled to see it; I told her I’ve seen one swimming around Lake Crystallina right near her place. They don’t seem to be as difficult to find in Alberta as they’ve become in Ottawa in recent years.
While I was watching the muskrat I saw a large darner fly in and land on one of the reeds hanging over the water. It didn’t have the thin stripe of a Variable Darner that I’m used to seeing, so I thought perhaps I’d found something new for list of dragonflies. It turned out to be a male Lance-tipped Darner instead – new for my Alberta list, not new for my life list.
We walked to the end of the boardwalk and spent some time walking around the edge of Big Lake. This time the shorebirds in the muck along near the lookout were close enough to identify: there were three Greater Yellowlegs and six Lesser Yellowlegs. I saw lots of American Coots, at least six Pied-billed Grebes, and a juvenile Northern Harrier which briefly flew over the marsh.
There were a few meadowhawks along the edge of the lake, but when I saw a pair of darners mating I was much more interested in photographing them. They landed twice in the grass at the edge of the path; I was trying to focus my camera on the pair until an unleashed dog ran up to me and scared them off. Fortunately we saw the pair later, and I was able to get close enough to get some good photos and identify them as Variable Darners.
I also saw another darner flying low over the grass. I watched as it settled onto a piece of grass, and moved closer to it. It was another Lance-tipped Darner.
The Lance-tipped Darner allowed me to get so close with my camera that I was tempted to catch it with my bare hands to get a better look. To my surprise I was able to pick it out of the vegetation and show my sister and her boyfriend. The darners are all very stunning up close, especially the males with their bright green, black and blue colouration.
Erin’s boyfriend noticed this caterpillar crossing the gravel path near the parking lot. It was one I hadn’t seen before, and I was later able to identify it as a moth caterpillar called an Intermediate Hooded Owlet. While the caterpillar is quite distinctive and even flashy, the adult moth is another plain brown moth with vertical lines that provide good camouflage against tree bark. It can be found across southern Canada and the northern U.S., with a flight season from May to October. There are two generations per year; I am guessing that this individual will spend the winter in its larval or pupal form and emerge as an adult in the spring.
The John E. Pool Wetland is an amazing place, though small in size. It’s worth spending a few hours there any time in the warmer months, when the water is open and birds are either passing through or breeding there. Although I didn’t see as many dragonflies as I would have liked, it was great having a high quality birding hotspot so close to my sister’s place.