Vancouver to Chicago in five days

Ornithologists from all over North America and the world came to the University of British Columbia campus in Vancouver, British Columbia for the North American Ornithological Conference (August 14-18th).  It was a terrific meeting where Field Museum was well represented.  Nick Block who recently defended his dissertation at the University of Chicago won a best student paper award as did incoming U of C doctoral student Shane Dubay for his Masters research (done at the University of New Mexico with Chris Witt).  Nick presented results of his research documenting “despeciation” in a Malagasy songbird.  Shane presented on genetic differentiation and the influence elevation in the evolution of two sister species of Andean flycatcher (Anairetes).  U of C Graduate student Ben Winger presented a paper on his comparative studies of genetic structure in birds across the Maranon river valley of Peru, and Research Assistant Josh Engel presented a poster documenting our research suggesting populations of Long-tailed Mountain Cuckoos (Cercococcyx) of the Afro-montane regions of East Africa should be considered as two species. 

Dave recording birds at Wreck Beach, Vancouver

After the meeting ended, Ben Winger and I joined up with Emeritus Collections Manager Dave Willard to drive the 2700 miles back to Chicago.  Dave had driven out by himself visiting numerous refuges and parks across Canada. After each stop he tallied what he saw and entered his bird lists into e-bird.  We took a different route back hitting a set of different places and traveling faster.  Long road trips are a great opportunity to see and think about the amazing diversity of North American bird communities.  Vancouver is the Pacific Northwest: Northwestern Crows, Pelagic Cormorants, and Band-tailed Pigeons.  From Vancouver, we entered the Canadian Rockies, where we saw Dippers, Barrow’s Goldeneyes, Vaux’s Swifts, and Clark’s Nutcrackers.  In the dry Okanagan Valley, we stopped for few minutes near a hot, dry sage-covered hillside where we heard a California Quail calling.  We spent the night at my Mother-in-law’s house in Trail, British Columbia, where my wife Shannon grew up.  The next morning, as we left Trail, we stopped at Champion Lakes Provincial Park, where we heard Boreal Chickadee and saw Red Crossbills.  From there, we continued to magnificent Banff National Park in Alberta.  The mountains here are magnificent; but the birds were quiet.  This is the period of time when most species are done breeding and spending much of their time building up fat for migration, which makes them harder to find.

Birding at Lightening Lake, Banff National Park

The next morning, Dave drove us out of the Rockies and into the plains and prairies of Alberta and Saskatchewan.  The transition is startling, not far east of Calgary, Alberta, you would have no idea that the majestic mountains to the west were even there.  At the meetings in Vancouver, we had been told by shorebird researcher Nate Senner to stop at a place called Chaplin Lakes which lay just west of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, so that is where we set our sights.  We were not disappointed.  Dotted throughout the waves of wheat and hay, are thousands of small lakes and marshes used for breeding by ducks, shorebirds and other birds of the North American plains.  Now they are filling up with birds on the move.  It makes it hard for a birdwatcher to decide how to prioritize looking at each pond versus putting on the miles necessary to get home.  But Nate’s suggestion kept us moving, and suddenly along the side of the road, we saw a large set of lakes whose shallow shorelines were covered by flocks of Franklin’s Gulls, Wilson’s Phalaropes, Marbled and Hudsonian Godwits, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Baird’s and Stilt Sandpipers, Willets, American Avocets, Short-billed Dowitchers and other species of shorebirds.  Thousands of ducks all in their dull eclipse plumages covered the lakes (Green-winged and Blue-winged Teal, Mallards, Pintail, Shovelers, Gadwall, Canvasbacks, Ruddy Ducks and others) along with American Coots, Eared Grebes, Double-crested Cormorants, and White Pelicans.  Black Terns and Forster’s Terns floated above the lakes.  It was hot, and it was getting late, but the scene was incredible.  These lakes probably host significant percentages of the global populations of some of these species as they prepare for winters from Argentina (Hudsonian Godwits), to the coasts of Peru (Franklin’s Gulls) to the southern U.S. and northern Mexico (many ducks).

Short-billed Dowitchers, Franklin's Gulls and other species staging on a southern Saskatchewan Lake

We stayed in Moose Jaw, and in the morning we angled to the southeast and the U.S. border, but we could not help but stop at one more lake where we estimated there were upwards of 8000 Franklin’s Gulls among many other birds.  Dave had mentioned that our collection had specimens from places like Quill Lake and Maple Creek, Saskatchewan.  Once home, I can see from our database that in 1909 and 1925, the museum sent collector J. F. Ferry and taxidermist Ashley Hine respectively to this region to collect specimens and some of these were prepared as mounts for the Bird Halls.  I like to imagine what Ashley Hine saw and experienced in this region in 1909 over 100 years ago, and I think what we saw on our trip was certainly still somewhat similar despite the conversion of most of the land in this region to agriculture. 

Because we were eager to get home, we stopped less frequently in North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin, but we passed plenty of places where we wished we could spend more time. Some were places Dave had visited on the trip out.  The roadside birds of the plains, like Brewer’s Blackbirds and Swainson’s Hawks gave way to more Red-winged Blackbirds and Red-tailed Hawks as we continued toward Illinois.  Hopefully, the “check engine” light that came on in Dave’s well-travel Suburu wagon right after he dropped me off in Evanston does not mean anything serious.  Now it is time to wade back into planning for next year’s American Ornithologists’ Union and Cooper Ornithological Society Meetings in Chicago, help get the Bird Hall renovations completed for the late September opening, work on the multiple grants I have going, and see how current students are progressing and get new students established.  I now know that I would like to go back sometime to southern Saskatchewan, maybe in a Spring when, just as they did over 100 years ago, the birds make their annual trip to their breeding grounds.  It must be quite a show.