Thursday 19 April 2012

Last Mountain Lake Bird Sanctuary

A Safe Refuge for Migratory Birds

Millions of birds travel through Saskatchewan every year as they make their way between breeding grounds in the North and winter quarters in the South.

One of their most prized resting areas is the Migratory Bird Sanctuary at the north end of Last Mountain Lake.

The north end of the lake is extremely shallow, providing a combination of islands, mudflats, and marshes. “It’s mucky mud with lots of insects and worms,” explains Kerry Hecker, a biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service, who manages Last Mountain Lake Bird Sanctuary and Wildlife Refuge. “The water is quite shallow and warm, with lots of minerals. The waterfowl really like it.”

“The number of geese during the fall migration is staggering,” Kerry says. “A whirlwind of snow geese spirals up into the area. It’s almost deafening.” There were 450,000 snow geese, 200,000 ducks, plus innumerable songbirds and shore birds in a recent day’s observation.

Over 340 bird species have been recorded at Last Mountain during migration, including 60 species that nest here. They range from Meadowlarks and Robins to Red-Tailed Hawks, Sandhill Cranes, and Swans. The lake provides a refuge for nine endangered species, including the Peregrine Falcon, Piping Plover, Whooping Crane, Burrowing Owl, Ferruginous Hawk, Loggerhead Shrike, Baird’s Sparrow, Caspian Tern, and Cooper’s Hawk.

A Long History
Deep wagon wheel ruts are still visible at the north end of the lake, remnants of the Touchwood Trail, which was a busy thoroughfare during the fur trade. John Macoun, one of Canada’s earliest botanists, described the Last Mountain Lake area as “The Flower Garden of the North West.” Like other early visitors to this area, he was surprised and delighted by the number and variety of birds, exclaiming that he couldn’t walk along the shore without stepping on nests and eggs.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, everything, from bison to birds, was fair game for hunters, with large plots of land being set aside in Western Canada as public shooting grounds.

But Last Mountain Lake was different. Prominent individuals, such as Edgar Dewdney, then Lieutenant Governor of the North West Territories (of which Saskatchewan was part), lobbied Prime Minister John A. MacDonald to set this land aside. In 1887, it became the first officially protected area in Saskatchewan and the first bird sanctuary in North America.

The federal Migratory Birds Act was passed in 1917, and Last Mountain Lake was designated as a migratory bird sanctuary in 1921.

In the 1950s and ‘60s activities around the Sanctuary began to have an impact, and the government purchased land in order to create a buffer zone. This area, which is home to a number of rare provincial plants that thrive in salty soil, became a National Wildlife Area in 1994.

For Birds, not People
Visitors to the bird sanctuary are sometimes disappointed. There are no interpretive staff and no points of interest. “We have a mandate to protect and conserve this area for migratory birds and wildlife,” Kerry explains. “We monitor people quite closely. There is a driving tour, and there are good spots for birdwatching, but there are only a couple of trails. We like to give the birds privacy to nest and raise their chicks, so we may restrict some access, particularly at the height of the breeding season.”

Kerry’s job is to manage the site and to ensure that it remains a good habitat for birds. In the past, wildfires and herds of bison grazing on the land maintained the grasslands ecosystem. The National Wildlife Service now mimics these earlier, natural forces by using prescribed burns and herds of cattle (and occasionally horses, sheep or goats) to maintain the natural habitat.

Kerry pays close attention to the grazers. “You can get them to selectively eat certain weeds if you choose your time, location, and density very carefully,” she explains. Some of the cultivated land is being reseeded with native prairie plants. Prescribed burns are very specifically timed for the few days when the weather is perfect and they can keep the burn exactly where they want it. Kerry also monitors the water quality, particularly the creeks which pass through industrial/agricultural lands.

“I’m a generalist biologist,” Kerry says, “which is good, as I need to know a little about a lot of things and have the ability to call on experts when needed.”

If you are interested in visiting the Last Mountain Lake Bird Sanctuary, Kerry suggests coming during the fall migration as the sheer number of birds passing through is spectacular. You may also want to visit Last Mountain Bird Observatory, Last Mountain Regional Park, which is operated and maintained by Nature Saskatchewan.

Further Information:
Saskatchewan’s Environmental Champions: John Macoun
John Macoun, Dean of Canadian Naturalists
The Field Naturalist, W.A. Waiser (available from the Saskatoon Public Library)
Migratory Bird Sanctuaries, Environment Canada
Saskatchewan’s Environmental Champions: Last Mountain Lake Bird Sanctuary
Last Mountain Bird Observatory

Photo Credits: Native sunflowers, 2011 Environment Canada; Kildeer eggs, 2011 Environment Canada, Kerry Hecker; Three-flowered avens, 2011 Environment Canada, Kerry Hecker