Back to my old stomping grounds in Saskatoon and the most Whooping Cranes ever seen in one spot!

Well I always love to go back to Saskatoon. It is such a beautiful city and there are many things I miss about living there. Chris Charlesworth had a large amount of people sign up for his Whooping Crane and Saskatchewan birding tour and he asked me if I could come and guide the group with him for his company Avocet Tours. I said for sure and became his co-leader. Many flights were delayed including mine on October 2nd due to the largest snow storm in Calgary's October history. They had the most snowfall of any October in the last 100 years! Saskatoon luckily had all of its snow melted but everywhere outside of Saskatoon was blanketed with snow.

I started out by taking the group to the Saskatoon Weir where used to be my favourite place to sit after work and see the American White Pelicans fish. Today we were looking for October migrants as it's a great spot for them like Palm Warblers. In 2014 I found the second record of House Wren for October in Saskatoon and the 2nd record of Yellow Warbler in October for the whole of Saskatchewan. Today we found another rarity though a Red-throated Loon. It was a continuing bird but it had bee frequenting the area of the South Saskatchewan River by  the sewage plant. We were surprised to see him so far down the river. He was still mostly in breeding plumage. They sure are stunning and although quite common in the Vancouver area are extremely rare in Saskatoon.

A rare Red-throated Loon in Saskatoon - Photo: Melissa Hafting

We saw many White-throated Sparrows, a Harris's Sparrow, 1 Swamp Sparrow, Lincoln's Sparrows, stunning Red Fox Sparrows, White-crowned and House Sparrows. We saw Orange-crowned, Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warblers, a late Tennessee Warbler and a possible Palm Warbler that I couldn't get on. Chris spotted a late Tennessee Warbler. The trees were lined with Ruby-crowned Kinglets and also had a few Hermit Thrushes and Robins. There was a blue jay calling and several magpies. Also had a Double-crested Cormorant, about 2400 Canada Geese with 3 Cacklers in the flock. The ducks consisted of Redheads, a Bufflehead, American Wigeon, Blue-winged Teal and a few Green-winged Teal. 2 Franklin's Gulls swam extremely close to shore. There were also several California and Ring-billed Gulls.

Franklin's Gull near the weir in Saskatoon - Photo: Melissa Hafting

A Merlin was chasing some Common Ravens flying overhead.The Meewasin Trail was loaded with Least Chipmunks which was a lifer for many. Least Chipmunks are the smallest chipmunk in North America.

Least Chipmunks were everywhere and are so darn cute! - Photo: Melissa Hafting

There was Belted Kingfishers, Greater Yellowlegs, Killdeer and a Hairy Woodpecker and Red-breasted Nuthatch. Surprisingly we could not find a White-breasted nuthatch which is usually easy here. We unfortunately dipped on the reported Bay-breasted Warbler. It was a great start to the tour. Before dinner that night Monica Nugent and I found a White-tailed Jackrabbit stretching in a city park. They really are huge hares! I miss seeing them in the winter when they are stark white.

Hairy Woodpecker are always a delight to see - Photo: Melissa Hafting

After a delicious lunch at the Tin Shack in Colonsay where I had the best sandwich of my life which was a meatloaf grilled cheese (ya I didn't know what to expect either! but it's amazing) and a lasagna soup (ya it sounded weird but was again amazing!). Some of the best food in the world is in tiny little prairie towns where the locals go.

We found some Red-tailed Hawks and an early Rough-legged  Hawk after lunch plus at least 8000 Snow Geese with at least a thousand or 2 blue forms. Its amazing to see so many blue forms in the prairies because in Vancouver we rarely get to see more than 2 in a flock. I sure miss that from the prairies. The geese were flying and calling it was a beautiful sight. We also saw a Ross's Goose that Chris spotted in the flock which is always a treat!

A large flock of  Snow Geese. We found a Ross's in this flock when they landed - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Look at all the blue form Snow Geese - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Later in the day we looked for a Sabine's Gull that Chris had seen the day before while scouting but we couldn't relocate it. We drove an hour from there and found a flock of 25 Whooping Cranes with 2 Juveniles. The juveniles are a treat to see with their reddish feathers. I am always blown away when I see Whooping Cranes. It is such a spectacle because they are the tallest birds in North America they are all white with red face and black tails and wing tips. They are stunning. They are critically endangered with a population of less than 500 so I won't reveal the actual location as I said before when I saw them in 2015 which you can read about HERE. These guys are breeding in Wood Buffalo National Park in Northern AB and stop in Saskatchewan to feed before their long journey to Texas.

25 Whooping Cranes on migration from their Northern AB breeding grounds - Photo: Melissa Hafting
It is spectacular to see Whooping Cranes in flight - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Other good birds was a flock of 35 American Golden-Plovers, a large flock of Cackling Geese and a beautiful flock of thousands of Sandhill Cranes. Sandhill flocks in the numbers you see in the fall in the prairies is another sight to behold and I just love the sounds they make. Lots of waterfowl were out and about Northern Shoveler, Ring-necked Duck, Gadwalls and Lesser Scaup plus many Green-winged Teal and Tundra Swans. Plus a large flock of Blackbirds which looked like Rusty to me but just too distant to confirm it.

We finished the night at the delicious Granary restaurant where I ordered Northern Pickerel one of my favourite local fishes from this area. I should mention the night before I ate at Taverna in downtown Saskatoon and had about the best Scampi Pasta I ever had. Saskatoon really has grown the city of 7 bridges has really become more hip and is a happening place, more development and more people than in 2015 when I was last there.

I sure was glad to have my long underwear on today it was just freezing out there.Winter begins in the prairies in Oct and lasts till May most years.

The next day we went to Last Mountain National Wildlife Area. This is the first wildlife refuge ever created in North America. It was founded in 1887. As we drove the entrance road I spotted 15 Gray Partridge. I spotted them and pulled over to the shoulder of the road. They sat and clucked and didn't run away they had juveniles and adults in their covey. It is so different than seeing one in the Okanagan in BC where it is extremely hard to find a Gray Partridge and even when you see it, you don't see it for long usually it is flushing away from you or it runs across the road quicker than you can say "Gray Partridge!." Near them we found a late Swainson's Thrush sitting over them on a post. Well the wind was really bad but we found some American White Pelicans.

Gray Partridge near Nokomis, SK - Photo: Melissa Hafting

1 of 2 American White Pelicans at Last Mtn NWA - Photo: Melissa Hafting

American White Pelicans feeding at Last Mtn NWA - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Usually this place is good for Smith's Longspur especially along the Grasslands Trail but no luck for us today. We did find huge flocks of Lapland Longspurs and Horned Larks outside of the park). when the wind died down). We also found a Mourning Dove, a beautiful pale Prairie Merlin, lots of waterfowl like Canvasbacks, Redheads (including a leucistic one!), Northern Shovelers, Common Goldeneye, Red-neced and Horned Grebes, Northern Pintail, Buffleheads, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Lesser Scaup, Green-winged and Blue-winged Teal and American Coots and hundreds of beautiful Tundra Swans and more Snow Geese. We also saw some nice shorebirds: elegant American Avocets, Pectoral Sandpipers, American Golden-Plovers and Greater Yellowlegs. In addition to the Merlin, the raptors we saw were: Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks, Bald Eagles and the palest Rough-legged Hawk I ever saw. There were plenty of Western Meadowlarks and we even found a late Swainson's Thrush. We also saw some White-tailed Deer and got stuck behind hundreds of Black Angus Cattle and some cowboys who were travelling up the road delaying us by 1.5 hours.

Prairie Merlin at Last Mtn NWA - Photo: Melissa Hafting

An elegant American Avocet in non-breeding plumage - Photo: Melissa Hafting

The following morning in Viscount we found some Mule Deer, a Muskrat, some Striped Skunks that were huge and put on a show! We also saw a Thurteen-lined Ground-Squirrel. On the bird front we heard a Harris's and saw a White-throated Sparrow. We also saw a White-breasted Nuthatch, some American Tree Sparrows and a beautiful Great Horned Owl. The shorebirds we saw were American Avocets, a few probable Pectoral Sandpipers, a 1/2 dozen Bonaparte's Gulls and many other goodies like Western Grebe and Common Goldeneye just to name a few!. Unfortunately, we saw many a slow moving Porcupines dead at the side of the road. When I lived in the prairies I would see them frequently on my walks to university.They moved so slow I am never surprised when I see the poor things hit.

Later that morning we continued on and found 26 Whooping Cranes in one spot; another 5 in another and 126 in one other spot! That means we saw 157 whooping cranes in one day. It was record breaking for Saskatchewan to see 126 Whooping Cranes in one spot anywhere in the province. It is literally seeing 1/3rd of the critically endangered population. My friend Monica and I both got teary-eyed seeing that incredibly moving sight. It was truly magical! I made a video of most of the flock plus took several photos.There was also a large flock of a hundred Greater white-fronted Geese with the Whooping Cranes as well. I will and I'm sure everyone else who saw this will never forget this amazing day or the people they shared it with. I can't remember being this happy in such a long time. I just felt pure joy and realized what really matters in life not the small stuff and not the people that dislike me but those that love me, family and true loyal friends. Keeping this planet green and endangered animals from going extinct and being engaged and active in politics so that we can make efficient changes is wildlife management is key. In Saskatchewan you are allowed to shoot Sandhill Cranes and the hunters were out in full force killing them. That is the only downside of birding the prairies,at this time of year, it is a shame that it is legal in SK. It is illegal in almost all other Canadian provinces including BC.

126 Whooping Cranes in one (all aren't pictured) spot a record for NA - Photo: Melissa Hafting

A large flock of Greater White-fronted Geese in Saskatchewan - Photo: Melissa Hafting

I am a poor videographer but here is my video of the impressive number of Whooping Cranes:

Here is a better movie that Chris Charlesworth made on his phone:

In Bremen we found a Ruffed Grouse strutting across the road, more Gray Partridge, a  Blue Jay, a Sharp-shinned Hawk and hundreds of Cackling Geese that were so darn tiny and cute. We saw a dark-morph Red-tailed Harlan's Hawk that was incredibly gorgeous, a large flock of American Golden-Plovers and a few
Wilson's Snipe. It almost felt like I was back in Nome, AK; as the American Golden-Plovers ran around the grass near our feet,like they do in the tundra which is so unlike we see on the Pacific Coast.

We finished this incredibly amazing day with some owling in Prince Albert. There we found a Barred, Long-eared and a few Northern Saw-whet Owls. Later on we got to watch an owl bander band Northern Saw-whet Owls and Long-eareds Owl. I was allowed to hold the beautiful tiny Saw-whet and release him. It was amazing to hold him and feel how warm he was and how calm he seemed. I  walked him outside to let him go and held him for a full minute. This is done so that they can adjust to the light change.

After he adjusted to the light. I let him go and he perched on the top of my hand where he sat briefly before he took off and landed in a tree! It was an incredible end to a sensational day.

The next day we went to Prince Albert National Park to explore the beautiful boreal forest. It was -11 C and really cold. There was snow on the ground. We went to Boundary Bog Trail where we found Boreal Chickadees, Canada Jays, White-winged Crossbills and 2 Spruce Grouse a male and a female sitting on the path.

Female Spruce Grouse on the Bog Springs Trail - Photo: Chris Charlesworth

They really are among the prettiest grouse there is. Also Larry Cowan and Nancy Kruger spotted a late gorgeous male American Redstart in full breeding plumage that we all got great looks at.

Beautiful Prince Albert National Park from Bog Springs Trail - Photo: Melissa Hafting

After this we went to Waskesiu where we saw Harris's Sparrow, an American Three-toed Woodpecker that Monica Nugent spotted and a probable Black-backed Woodpecker. The Black-backed Woodpecker never landed but in flight it sure looked like one but I didn't count it since we couldn't confirm it 100%. We saw some Common Loons on the water, Herring, California and Ring-billed Gulls. Also I found a late male Cape May Warbler foraging in the conifers with some Red-breasted Nuthatches and Myrtle Yellow-rumped Warblers. Chris Charlesworth told me that my Cape May Warbler was his favorite bird after the Whoopers this trip.

Male Cape May Warbler in Prince Albert National Park - Photo: Melissa Hafting

After that we went down the Narrows found and found 2 early Snow Buntings. We found a Belted Kingfisher and Red-necked Grebes and more White-winged Crossbills and many Ruffed Grouse including a gorgeous male displaying! We also saw a Rough-legged Hawk and many Hairy Woodpeckers, Slate-colored Juncos and White-throated and Fox Sparrows and many Red-breasted Nuthatches,

Female Snow Bunting in Prince Albert National Park - Photo: Melissa Hafting

After a nice lunch on the banks of Waskesiu Lake we found a large herd of Manitoban Elk on the golfcourse and some of the male bucks were bugling. The large males were truly stunning they were running around chasing each other but this small herd of femlaes were more docile.

Female Manitoban Elk eating grass on the golf course - Photo: Melissa Hafting

After we left more snow came down in Prince Albert and my friend went to look a the Whooping Cranes on Oct 8th but too much snow had fallen and pushed them on their way. We sure were lucky to experience that once in a lifetime experience! I also heard the Red-throated Loon had left the city and a Blue Grosbeak down in Weyburn so it seems with the colder weather coming in, everything was on the move in Northern Saskatchewan.

The next morning we went south of Saskatoon to Blackstrap Reservoir where we found 41 species, including a late male Yellow-headed Blackbird. We also saw over 150 migrating robins, a Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker and we found 2 Palm Warblers here who wouldn't make themselves too visible. We finally got good looks at some accommodating Blue Jays, an  American Golden-Plover and found another juvenile Black-crowned Night-Heron. Chris saw 2 Ross's Goose in flight in  a large Snow Goose flock as well. The water had many Western and Pied-billed Grebes as well and we found a single American White-Pelican fishing with some Bonaparte's Gulls. The sun was shinning but it was windy and bitterly cold. Many Harris's Sparrows were out and about here with American Tree Sparrows and Western Meadowlarks.

Record shot of a male Yellow-headed Blackbird at Blackstrap Lake - Photo: Melissa Hafting

After a really nice morning here, we went to Gabriel Dumont Park, where we found some Blue Jays and saw 2 conspicuous Swamp Sparrows. After this we chased a rarity at Heritage Park. It was really sunny and warm by now at 11 degrees Celsius. At the park we found 4 Common Grackles, some beautiful Red Fox Sparrows, a couple White-breasted Nuthatches and many Red-breasted Nuthtaches. Magnolia Warblers are one of my favourite warblers so I was determined to find one. I walked ahead of the group and started to pish everywhere. I eventually got the gorgeous male Magnolia Warbler to pop up. By this time most  of the group was with me and we all got good looks at it. The Magnolia was moving fast and pretty skulky and I was trying to help the others get on the bird so I never got a chance to get a photo of this gorgeous bird.

After a successful morning here we went for a delicious lunch at my favorite place to eat in Saskatoon "The Berry Barn." Here we all had the best perogies ever with farmer's sausage and cabbage rolls.  We also got stunning views of the river and saw hundreds of Sandhill Cranes by the river who were bathing. We all sure were going to miss that sound and the large flocks of these beautiful bird. It is a shame they are allowed to be legally hunted in Saskatchewan. We finished our meal with a piece of delicious Saskatoon Berry Pie.

I said goodbye to the tour group and Chris and I celebrated a great end to a really successful and fun tour, with great birds in beautiful Saskatchewan. The total number of species for the trip was 107.

Group at Last Mtn SK - Photo: Chris Charlesworth

A great bunch of birders from all over NA happy to see Whooping Cranes! - Photo: Chris Charlesworth


  1. Nice report mel. Bought back memories of our trip a few years ago. I think the most we got was about 25 Whoopers.

    1. Thank you very much for your kind words glad you saw 25 whoopers they are so cool to see even just one!

  2. Wow what an adventure - glad it was such fun and as well good for the soul to see all the whooping cranes. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Sounds like an amazing trip! Congrats on getting the great pictures and finds!

    1. thanks it really was amazing to see all those whooping cranes and all the other birds especially the rare warblers was awesome to see.

  4. Looks like one very happy group! Great going on all the whoopers and i love that photo of the cape may. Interesting how some warblers linger so late on the prairies.

    1. yes i guess it is because they have the boreal forest so close but i wish some of them would stray our way into bc! vancouver hasn't had a magnolia or cape may in far too long!

  5. Great Blog Mel and a wonderful array of birds for that time of year. It must have been fun to co-lead a group. Chris is a great guy!

    1. Yes he's a great guy lucky to have him as a friend. Thanks for your kind words John best wishes to you!


Post a Comment

Popular Posts

Dowitcher Identification

Hawk Identification Tips from every angle (Sharpie vs Cooper and Red-tailed Subspecies)


*Updated - The most famous Red-tailed Hawk is eating fish on the ground just like a Bald Eagle!

*UPDATED* The First Ever Black Birders Week May 31-June 5th