Birders migrate to Edmonton, home to many avian species
Located on the edge of the boreal forest and blessed with a landscape dotted with small wetlands, Edmonton provides birding opportunities that run from tiny songbirds to majestic trumpeter swans. (Ho-Parks Canada-Stephen G. Edgerton / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Bob Weber, The Canadian Press
Published Monday, October 26, 2015 1:04PM EDT
EDMONTON -- Better known for the urban amusements of big-mall shopping and NHL hockey, Edmonton and environs also offer more natural delights.
Located on the edge of the boreal forest and blessed with a landscape dotted with small wetlands, Edmonton provides birding opportunities that run from tiny songbirds to majestic trumpeter swans. And some call the city the Peregrine Falcon Capital of Canada.
"It's very good," said Lu Carbyn, a University of Alberta biologist and well-known local birder. "Almost anywhere you go, you'll see a good complement of species."
Birds are an increasingly popular tourist draw.
A 2012 Nature Canada survey found 18 per cent of Canadians go birding -- a higher percentage than those who enjoy any type of skiing or riding off-highway vehicles. And Edmonton has a lot to offer birders.
The city is on the southern margin of the boreal forest, a vast landscape of trees and wetlands that stretches across the northern reaches of provinces from British Columbia to Quebec. The boreal forest, one of the largest intact ecosystems on the planet, is home for at least part of the year to somewhere between one billion and three billion songbirds.
Most of them migrate. And Edmonton is right on the path of the central flyway, one of North America's major bird flight paths.
The region also offers unusually good avian hospitality.
The local landscape was once scoured by glaciers, leaving thousands of shallow potholes which fill with water as the winter snows melt. Waterfowl from ducks to herons love it, but so do bright, sweet-singing feathered friends such as warblers.
"A lot of these small songbirds avoid the prairies," said Carbyn.
Where to start? Wander through the city's river valley, one of the largest expanses of urban parkland on the continent.
Depending on the time of year, just walking the valley trails can yield woodpeckers (three kinds!), nuthatches, grouse, warblers, finches, crossbills, grosbeaks, juncos, siskins, waxwings and redpolls. Bird surveys suggest Edmonton has North America's highest concentration of merlins -- a small, fierce falcon with steel-blue plumage.
In the city's downtown core, peregrine falcons nest on highrises. On its northwest outskirts, owls swoop onto the fields surrounding industrial areas.
Just west of the city is both the Wagner Bog and the Clifford E. Lee Nature Sanctuary. Look for willow thickets teeming with bright yellow warblers and shallow lakes full of ducks, geese and coots.
To the east lies Elk Island National Park.
Herons stalk its marshes and pelicans fly formation through its skies. Magnificent trumpeter swans -- the world's largest water bird -- nest there. So do cormorants. Swallows snap bugs out of mid-air while bald eagles soar above.
A little farther to the southeast down Highway 14 is Beaverhill Lake.
The prairie pothole has dried up considerably in recent years and no longer hosts the giant flocks of snow geese it once did. Still, some show up every year and the area's woods are full of songbirds and raptors, including species like bright orange orioles and sharp-shinned hawks that zoom between the branches looking for prey.
In the summer, the Beaverhill Bird Observatory offers public bird-banding demonstrations.
Just look for any body of water that's surrounded by a few grasses and reeds around the margin and you can't go wrong, said Carbyn.
"There are all kinds of little nooks and crannies," he said.