Arctic Birds on Migration: Saskatchewan

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Many of the Arctic birds are large white birds such as geese and swans but also include smaller and different coloured sandpipers and other birds.

 

Where is the best place to see these magnificent Arctic birds?  The most common answer would be in the “Arctic”; however this would not be correct.  During the summer, the Arctic birds spread out in pairs all along the Arctic coast for breeding.  Finding and photographing all of them would be difficult and very expensive.  There is a better place.

Map-Migration

Arctic Birds in Saskatchewan

The best place to see Arctic birds is near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.  Arctic birds spend the winter in various places such as the west and east coasts of southern USA, the gulf coast of Texas, and in Mexico and even further south.  However, during migration, most Arctic birds pass through central Saskatchewan on their way south.  Not only do they pass through here, but they stop to rest and feed and remain here for several weeks.  This is a wonderful opportunity for bird watchers and photographers to see most of the Arctic birds without even going to the Arctic.

 

The map above shows the migration routes of several Arctic birds.  Note that although they have different destinations, all of them except the Arctic tern pass through the circle around Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.  The time to see them is during the month of October. 

Snow Goose

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The easiest of the Arctic birds to find is the Snow Goose.  It is a pretty bird, for a goose.  Adults are pure white with black wing tips (labeled A in photo above) but you might see three other types of Snow Geese.  Immature birds are a light grey (B).  There is a dark phase, called the Blue Goose (C), which is a very dark grey with a white head.  Immature Blue Geese are dark grey all over, including the head (D).  Snow and Blue Geese are in reality the same species. They interbreed and the chick could be either colour.

 

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Snow Geese breed in the high Canadian Arctic and the north coast of Alaska and north-west Greenland.  In winter, they migrate to various places in the southern United States and northern Mexico.

 

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Seeing a Snow Goose is nice, but what is spectacular is seeing a flock of thousands of them all at once.  They travel is huge flocks and I have seen more than 25,000 at a time.  I saw a massive flock fly overhead that blocked out the sky for several minutes.  The population of Snow Geese is in excess of five million, not including juveniles of the current year.

 

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Look for Snow Geese on many ponds and lakes around Saskatoon.  A huge flock of Snow Geese flying overhead is is an awesome sight and the sounds are amazing.  In the last photo above, a flock of Snow Geese cover a lake.  (click on photos to enlarge and back arrow to return here).

 

In the movie below, thousands of Snow Geese fly overhead and thousands more cover the lake below like a blanket of snow.  I guess that is why they call them Snow Geese.  

 

 

 

Tundra Swan

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In with the Snow Geese, you might be lucky enough to see some Tundra Swans.  These huge, beautiful birds live along the Arctic Coast of Canada and Alaska and Siberia.  The ones from Siberia migrate to south-east Asia and Europe.  North American birds migrate to the southern United States.  The Tundra Swan is magnificent a bird.  It is all white except for its black bill and brownish head and neck.

 

There are two species of swans in North America.  The other is the Trumpeter swan which lives in Alaska and northwest Canada, but not as far north as the Arctic Coast where the Tundra Swans spend the summer.  They migrate down the west coast to the Vancouver area in winter.

 

Tundra Swans don’t fly in huge flocks, like the Snow Geese, but seeing even a couple of these huge, beautiful, white birds is a thrill.

 

Ross’s Goose

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Look carefully at the huge flocks of Snow Geese. Mixed in with them might be some Ross’ Geese.  These geese are often overlooked as they are much the same as the Snow Goose.  They are a bit smaller and have a very different bill than the Snow Goose.  They have a stubby bill and the lower mandible is the same orange colour as the top instead of black as on the Snow Goose.  Also the bill is more orangish and has a slightly bluish colour at the base.

 

They breed in a very small area on the Arctic Coast of central Canada and along the west coast of Hudson’s Bay.  In winter, they migrate to south-west Untied States and Mexico.

 

Cackling Goose

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The Cackling Goose is an small, Arctic version of the very common Canada Goose.  It is the same colour as the Canada Goose, but there are some differences.  The Canada Goose lives all over North America, except along the Arctic coast; that is where the Cackling Goose breed.  The Canada Goose has a large bill, but the Cackling Goose has a short, stubby bill.  The Cackling Goose is smaller and has a small white ring around its neck but not on all birds.  During winter, they migrate to south-western United States and northern Mexico.

 

Whooping Crane

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The premier prize of migrating Arctic Birds is the Whooping Crane.  They breed in Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada’s Northwest Territories which is south of the Arctic Circle and so technically is not an Arctic Bird, but too magnificent to leave out of this story.

 

The Whooping Crane is a success story of a bird that has bounced back from the edge of extinction.  In the 1940s, there were only 21 of these magnificent birds.  Through conservation efforts of the Canadian and American governments, the population is now more than 400 (plus another 160 or so in captivity).

 

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In late September and early October, they migrate to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the gulf coast of Texas.   They do not migrate in flocks and they do not all leave at the same time.  They travel in small family groups spread over a month or more apart.  Some Whooping Cranes might arrive in Texas before others have left the Northwest Territories.   It takes them two or three days to get to the Saskatoon area, where they stop for a couple of weeks.   They make several other stops between here and Texas but only for short periods of time.  This is a great opportunity for people to see an extremely rare endangered species.

 

The Whooping Crane is the tallest bird in North America, standing at 1.5 meters (five feet) tall.  Immature birds on their first migration are a bit shorter and are a mottled brown and white colour.

 

Wood Buffalo National Park was created in 1922 to protect the almost extinct Wood Bison and the Whooping Crane.  I have been to Wood Bison National Park and also Aransas in Texas and this year I saw another 18 birds bringing my total Whooping Crane sightings to almost 10 per cent of the total population.  Few people have seen even one of these beautiful birds.

American Golden Plover and Black-bellied Plover

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Black-belly-1csOther Arctic birds that you might find on migration in Saskatchewan are the American Golden Plover and the Black-bellied Plover. These are small, beautiful birds but unfortunately, they change colour during the winter and by the time they get to Saskatchewan they are a dull grey.

 

The first two photos above show the American Golden Plover in summer and winter plumage.  I took the summer photo on the Arctic tundra.  By the time they get to Saskatchewan they have changed to their winter plumage.  So the only way to see them in their beautiful summer colours is to travel to the Arctic.  The photo on the left is the Black-bellied Plover which is very similar in colour to the Golden Plover during the summer but without the gold spots.  The winter plumage is the same colour as the Golden Plover but lighter.

Greater White-fronted Goose

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This is a brown goose that lives along the Arctic coast and migrates to Texas and Mexico.  (The photo with chicks was taken in Alaska during the summer.  By October, the chicks are about the same size as their parents and able to migrate).

 

Arctic Tern

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The Arctic Tern looks much like the Common Tern that can be found further south but this is an Arctic bird. This is one that you will not see in Saskatchewan. They migrate down the west coast, past North America, past South America, and on to Antarctica. They spend the winter (Antarctic summer) in Antarctica and, in the spring, make the return trip to the Canadian Arctic and Alaska. This is an amazing round trip of about 71,000 km (44,000 miles). As they can live about 30 years, this is equal to three round trips to the moon.

 

Note:  All photos on this page are copyright and must not be copied without written permission.  All photos are the property of My Thatched Hut with the exception of the photo of the immature Whooping Crane which is used courtesy of the International Crane Foundation. 

 

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Thank you not only for massively multiplying my knowledge of these birds, but also for the beautiful pictures of masses of the birds in flight...the patterns they form are fantastic!

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

I know how much U love birds, birding and nature, Tom, and you've give all of us who are even vaguely interested a reason to head up to Saskatoon.  Of the many great birds you document, the one that has fascinated me the most is the whooping crane.  Standing almost as tall as a man, it was at one time even closer to extinction than the California Condor.  I'm far more optimistic about the Whooping Crane's survival than the Condors, and I really would love to see one of these in the wild.  

 

Exactly when would you recommend as the best time to go?  Is there a specific spot you'd recommend?

Twitter: @DrFumblefinger

"We do not take a trip, a trip takes us".  John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charlie

All of these birds pass through Saskatoon during October.  The Whooping cranes fly from the Northwest Territories in two or three days flying time and then stop for a couple of weeks near Saskatoon before flying on to Texas.   I have been to their breeding grounds in the north and their wintering grounds in Texas so I have seen about 30 or so of them.  They don't migrate in large groups like geese.  They travel in family groups so five or six of them will arrive at a time.  Some will reach Texas before others have left the north, so it takes about a month for them all to pass through Saskatoon.   I might go back next October.  Email me if you want specific locations.   Tom

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