I suppose 3 months is long enough to leave everybody in suspense, so here is the rest of the crane story… Two days after arriving in Saskatchewan I was beginning to vibrate with nail-biting anxiety. I had come all this way, but wasn’t entirely sure how to get the Whooping Crane. Sure, the ID was simple enough, and I had a “sure” spot lined up, but I was a 3-hour drive from that location, and without a car. The forecast for Friday, 7th of October, was looking rather dreary. Pounding rain and wind. Perfect weather to prevent Whooping Cranes from leaving the country! So with that I “borrowed” our friends’ vehicle, and sped down the prairie.
My first stop was Radisson Lake, part-way between N. Battleford and Saskatoon. My copy of “Birds of the Saskatoon Area” that I had just picked up second-hand described this lake as being a good spot to see Whoopers. Great I thought, I might be able to get the cranes and save some gas. While the birding here was good, there were no cranes to be had. I set off down the road again through pounding rain and patches of fog. The driving was simple enough (it’s not the easiest place to get lost), but after 2 hours I was beginning to get concerned. I hadn’t really expected to just bump into a Whooping Crane on the side of the highway, but surely there should’ve been a Sandhill Crane by now? Maybe they got the weather forecast and high-tailed it before the storm hit?
At long last I found the Muskiki Lake grid road I had been directed to. A short ways along I was relieved to spot a small group of Sandhills in a little reservoir. And then I was there, the south end of Muskiki Lake, the Whooping Crane promised-land. Just one problem; there were no Whoopers. And despite reports of hundreds of Sandhills, a thorough count turned up only 80. My heart sank. But, having come this far I wasn’t about to give up so easily. I drove around some more, finding another grid road further to the east. The road was dirt, and hilly, and perilously close to becoming a slippery, soupy car-catcher. I scanned the countryside with my binoculars until I came across several white dots in the distance. I put my scope on the dots and could see that yes, these were cranes, and not in fact pelicans, egrets, or other large white birds. However, they were still several kilometres distant, and I could not have ruled out Siberian Crane with these views (an impossibly unlikely species to show up, but I’m a bit of a listing purist). I drove back to the first location to see if I could spot the birds from a slightly higher viewpoint, but they were obscured from that angle. Suddenly, a small family group picked up and flew closer, into the field near where I had first spotted those distant blobs. I raced back to the second road, took out my scope, and stealthily crept behind some trees until the cranes were in view. Still not crippling views, but I could at least see all the features I wanted to. Plus, I discovered that the cranes had black on the crown behind the red, something I did not notice before when looking in guide books. Eventually some other groups flew closer, though none quite as close, and I managed to count at least 16 birds, including 2 family groups each with 2 juveniles. Must’ve been a good breeding season up north! These are truly one of North America’s most iconic species, and I was thrilled to pick them up on “home” turf as they are one of very few Canadian breeding-endemic species; at least as far as the current wild population goes.
Happy, but cold and wet, I returned to the car and set off on the long drive back to N. Battleford. And I only got lost once!