[Tweeters] Barry Levine trip report-Seattle to Churchill-super long

Andy Stepniewski steppie at nwinfo.net
Thu Dec 31 12:17:45 PST 2015


Barry’s passing is indeed sad news. I’d like to pass on to Tweeters his great trip report from Seattle to Churchill a decade ago. I imagine Barry would be pleased that other birders benefit from this account in their search for all the fabulous birds and natural history he and Kate saw on this journey.

Andy Stepniewski
Wapato WA
steppie at nwinfo.net

Observers of Birds,

Kate and I went venturing into the northern hinterlands in search of some fun from July 5th-Aug 1,2005. We got that and more on a trip that rocketed from Seattle to Missoula, into southern Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, through Riding Mt. to The Pas and then on to Churchill, with a return through Prince Albert Provincial Park Saskatchewan), Cold Lake (Alberta), Brooks area (S. Alberta), Banff-Jasper (Alberta) and the Okano(a)gan (BC and Wa. state).
Highlights included:

Smith's Longspur's and Ross' Gulls in Churchill.
Just north of Tilley, Alberta where we had Baird's Sparrow, Chestnut-Collared and McCown's Longspurs and Sprague's Pipits all in one stop.
A Polar Bear seen in Hudson Bay (more on this later)
Unusual for the time of the year Gyrfalcon, Black Tern, seen in Churchill
Most of the possible warblers, sparrows and flycatchers.

Some history, particulars, and other information that might be helpful for those planning such a trip.

You can drive in one day to Missoula. Certainly within the realm of possibility. We did it, with a stop in Yakima to pick up a copy of Bonnie Chartier's out of print book "A Birder's Guide To Churchill" from Andy Stepniewski. As it turns out there is now another book on Churchill birds (published last year) though it's format is different from Bonnie's book, and so some might want to have both.

When we reached Missoula that night, hotels were in high demand and so we got stuck for a high ticket room. Someone on a strict budget might want to stay outside of town, or better yet camp. Temperature was high (90's). Seemed hot to us Seattleites.

>From there we hurried through the prairies to get to Churchill ASAP because we had heard that after the 2nd week in July your chances of seeing some of the birds lessens significantly. It took us 3 days because we made a stop in Riding Mt. Provincial Park, but it could be easily driven in 2. We did see some great birds on the drive to Riding Mt.(Sharp-tailed Grouse with babies in N Montana, Burrowing Owl in Southern Saskatchewan).

Camped in Riding MT and got poured on. There was incessant rain this summer in this part of the world and it made it difficult to see birds and wildlife. Some of the hoped for warblers were missed here. It was the only real possibility for Golden-winged and we didn't see any. The heat and the bugs were pretty miserable. We felt fortunate that we had purchased Bug Off clothes from REI before we left Seattle, but in the high heat they were almost unbearable to wear. Got in some nice hikes and overall thought Riding Mt had some great possibilities though like most places we visited it would be better to be there at least 2 weeks earlier.
We headed north to The Pas where we were to board the train to Churchill. I'd recommend driving all the way to Thompson (3 hours north). The road is great and there's very little traffic. Form there the train ride is about 12 hours and leaves in the morning. That would get you into Churchill at night without having to sleep on the train.

>From The Pas it was a 24 hour ride that starts at 8:30 in the evening and gets you there at 8:30 the next night. From Thompson the round trip is $102 Canadian, from The Pas $192 for a reclinable seat. Sleeper cars were close to $1000 when we tried to make reservations. The reclinable seats can work out, depending on the other members of the car you're riding in. Going to Churchill we were stuck in a car with kids who were into partying for most of the night. Luckily all of them left the train in a small town at about 3:30 and we were able to get about 6 hours of sleep.

Coming back the train was totally quiet and we got a great night of sleep. Best to say, it's a chancy experience, but it's a way to get into the Arctic for a very reasonable amount of money. At first we were unsure whether this was easily doable. The answer is yes, it's very easy and straightforward.

Churchill was about all we had hoped for. We saw most of the birds that we wanted to see, with the unbelievable # of Belugas and the addition of the Polar Bear, Arctic Hare, Bearded and Ringed Seals, we were very happy. The Polar Bear was located in Hudson Bay while we were on a tour of the fort across the Churchill River. While a tour guide was extolling the virtues of the history of the fort, I was scanning the bay through my scope. I saw the bear swimming about 1/16 mile from the shoreline and quickly brought the guides attention to it. He conceded us a few minutes to view the bear and then went right back into his history lesson. I asked if we could get a closer view of the bear and was told firmly no. About 1/2 hour later after the fort tour, we went back in the boat and the captain took us out to see the bear. Luckily after a 15 minute search we found the bear out about 1/2 mile from the shoreline. We were able to get within 15 feet of the swimming bear. Wow!!!!

Churchill birds of interest: juvenile Boreal Owl and Great Grey Owl (both seen from the train), Black Tern across form the dock area (no other July records in the literature I've seen), Gyrfalcon seen in the Cape Merry area, Pectoral Sandpiper seen by the weir. The Smith's were seen along the Twin Lakes Road at a spot recommended by Bonnie Chartier. There's a open marsh area that is about 2 kms in length (can't be missed). On the east side of the road is a green tent like structure about 50 meters in the marsh. We had 2 females across the road from the green tent-like structure. I ventured about 100 yards into the marsh on the west side, but alas and alack never did flush up a male

The Ross' was seen at the end of Cape Merry in a group of Bonaparte's Gulls. About the Ross' and most other birds, you should constantly watch your back for bears. Polar Bears can be almost anywhere and they are extremely dangerous. Make sure you read up on these mammals before entering into their habitat. The people in Churchill take these bears very seriously. We saw a few people out on the tundra with rifles while they were doing fieldwork.

Camping is out in Churchill, so you have to go for hotels. The prices ranged from $75-95. We stayed at the Tundra Inn($95) and liked it a lot. Free internet service was a bonus. Car rental goes for $75 a day and you get a truck which works fine, except if you go into sandy areas. As we learned, it is possible to get stuck in the sand. Gas is $1.30 a liter. We ended up spending about $80 for the gas we used during our 5 day stay. For most people 5 days might be a little long. Though the 3 day option might not give you enough birding time. I guess it depends on the time of year you go. In June when the birds might be a little easier that might be enough time. We were happy we chose 5 days.

Our return took us through Prince Albert Provincial Park. We knew nothing about the park, but we were to find this spot to be a treasure trove of birds, mushrooms, wild flowers, butterflies, great hikes and the best wild strawberries we have ever eaten. They were as good as Washington state strawberries, which I think are about the world's best. Warblers came fast and furiously. All the expected eastern types were there. We took 3 hikes (Boundary Bog, Waskesiu River and Spruce River Highland) in the park and were rewarded during all 3, especially the Spruce River with both Mourning and Connecticut warblers.

Cold Lake, our next stop, can also be reached by very good roads and is a nice area to spend at least a few days. The eastern warblers that we had missed were easily picked up here. We had great help from Ted Hindmarch and he even extricated himself to join us for 2 evenings of birding. Ted is a great/good birder and person, who can be found at birdingpal.com. We definitely got to see some country that we would not have had a chance to see on our own.
Places Ted took us to were Ethel Lake to look for Sedge Wrens and Yellow Rail, Highway 897 (primrose Hwy.) for Yellow-bellied Flycatcher and Cold Lake Provincial Park for the warblers (especially good to take the trail that goes from the boat launch around toward the campground).

South of Cold Lake Ted sent us to Muriel Lake to see Piping Plover and White Pelicans. Make sure to drive on the south side of the lake and stop between the 2 areas of bungalows. We walked out past an abandoned house to the beach, and then headed out parallel to the water (through the sandy area) to a spot where we could scope the distant sand bars, and sure enough that worked.

Driving south to Dinosaur Provincial Park and the Drumheller area was easy enough. The park is well worth checking out. Nice place to camp also. Rock Wrens were easy here and just a few miles north of Tilley along hwy 876 we were able to see the longspurs, pipits and Baird's Sparrow. Drumheller is also worthy of a visit just to see the world class Dinosaur museum. One could easily spend 2-3 hours in the museum. I would plan a visit that would not include an evening stay as accommodations in and around town are way overpriced.

Heading next to Banff-Jaspar, we drove 1A and really enjoyed the beauty of one of the most renowned drives in the world. We didn't see quite as much wildlife as I remember from my trip over 35 years ago, but that didn't detract much from the outstanding scenery.

We walked the Johnston Canyon Trail to the Ink Pots and really enjoyed that. Along the trail is a nesting area for Black Swifts (though we saw none there) and Dippers are usually seen along the river. Great hike as well. In Banff itself, we walked a marsh trail across from where the cave is located. Very birdy place. That plus a hike around Vermillion Lakes (which we didn't go to) would seem to make a fine morning of birding

In Lake Louise we walked a trail to a teahouse by a lake. I wouldn't recommend it bird wise, unless you go before the crowds. The hike itself was wonderful in that we took it after pretty much everyone had returned.

We rode the tram up to Whistler's Mountain in Jaspar. Had 20 or more White-tailed Ptarmigan roaming around. One was as close as 6 inches. Also saw Rosy Fiches and American Pipits there. Make sure you walk up from where the tram lets you out to the back side of the mountain. We headed straight up and then when it leveled off a bit, we headed to our left to where there were no people, and we found the birds there. Also of note was a morning foray (7 o'clock)to the tram before it started operating. Under the tram line as you look up, I had a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.

In the park accommodations are pretty full this time of the year, so we would recommend getting to a campsite before 2 or 3. Otherwise you can be shut out. In Jaspar we stayed in home accommodation. Sort of bed and breakfast without the breakfast. Even that comes for $80 Canadian at the least. Though the place we stayed at had a foosball table and was very comfortable. We loved Jaspar. It seemed to be less hectic than Banff (which we still liked a lot) and Lake Louise which was overrun with people to the point of being something I would recommend to stop, take your pictures, and move on.

Revelstoke Provincial Park(BC) was well worth a stop for the great profusion of wildflowers. Truely awe inspiring. Didn't see anything there that was new bird-wise.

Stopped off at Dick Cannings place in Penticton on the way back. Dick is one of the great naturalist/birders in our part of the world. He gave us some info on the last group of sort after birds, while we watched Black-chinned and Calliope Hummingbirds at his feeder. Campgrounds and hotels were extremely hard to find. we ended up having to backtrack to stay in another way overpriced hotel. A few stops along Shuttleworth Creek in OK Falls the next day produced some nice birds, but we were definitely feeling like the time of the year was really working against us. Seemed like the right time to head back to Seattle.

Crossed the border at the appropriately named Nighthawk, Wa. and enjoyed a lovely ride down the US Okanagan Made it back to Seattle by 10:00 that night.
A second part with a trip list will follow.

Much thanks to the following people:

Andy Stepniewski, Dick Cannings, Ted Hindmarch, Phil Cram, Bonnie Chartier, Ken Knittle, Charley Wright, Jason Rogers, Alan Roedell, Linda Ball, Bernice and Robert Grey, Fred Korbut and others that have sent in trip reports.

Barry Levine
Seattle,Wa. USA
levineb at bsd405.org

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