Travel

A Saskatchewan road trip in search of whooping cranes

In the mid-20th century, the elusive birds numbered in the dozens. Thanks to decades of conservation efforts, they appear to be making a comeback. 

  • Oct 07, 2021
  • 1,319 words
  • 6 minutes
Whooping cranes linger in Saskatchewan on their way south (the northward trip is very hurried).
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“Over there! Do you see those large white birds? I think they’re cranes!”

I lean across my husband, trying to focus my binoculars as he speeds our truck at 100 kilometres per hour along a flat stretch of Saskatchewan highway, closing in on some of Canada’s rarest animals.

COVID-19 cancelled many travel plans but it hasn’t stopped me from pursuing an adventure years in the making. With instructions not to stop on the narrow highway, we follow our guide onto a secondary road, easing to a stop next to dusty, fallow farmland. Poking through the rubble are a half-dozen lanky whooping cranes, some of the world’s scarcest creatures and perhaps the shyest. I slowly ease open the truck door and slip through the crack, dropping to the gravel while staying close to the vehicle. After decades of searching, I’ve finally found the birds at the top of my avian bucket list.

“They are the most easily flushed species I’ve seen,” says Stan Shadick, holder of the eBird record for most bird species seen in Saskatchewan, and a guide to some of the province’s best wildlife spectacles. “They will be startled by a person walking a half-mile away. If you don’t step away from the car we can watch them.”

My breath feels shallow as I press against the truck so as not to startle the birds with my movement. The cranes’ white feathers stand out starkly amongst the dull leafless trees and harvested fields. They’ve spent the summer raising young in Alberta’s Wood Buffalo National Park, and now they’re fuelling up for their flight south to Texas’ Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Rosy feather caps bob up and down like periscopes as they probe the soil for seeds and bugs. The breeze bites through my gloves as I snap photos.

With my travel writer’s wings clipped by the pandemic, I’ve been diving into road trips, a 1988 Slumber Queen truck camper serving up comfy sleeps with minimal risk of virus exposure. COVID-19 has created space in my schedule for a trip I’d always talked about but never executed: a search for whooping cranes in the province I left to establish my career.

 

Each fall, birders make their way to northern Saskatchewan to see whooping cranes.
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When my dad was fighting in WWII, whooping cranes numbered fewer than two dozen and their outlook seemed dismal. In 1972, when 15-year-old Carol thought she might become a forest ranger, there were fewer than 100 wild whooping cranes migrating over Saskatchewan. By 1992, I was living in Calgary, spending my days accounting and evenings volunteering on the Calgary Zoo’s board of directors. That year the zoo joined the struggle to boost crane populations, launching a captive breeding program with birds being released into a new eastern migratory flock and non-migratory flocks in Florida and Louisiana. As I switched careers to ecotourism planning and then travel writing, cranes were being bred and released into the wild.

I’d seen captive whoopers but I wanted proof that the Calgary Zoological Society’s conservation efforts and that of other organizations and people mattered. Maybe I wanted proof that my evenings pursuing bylaws and budgets made a difference. The International Crane Foundation numbered wild whooping cranes at 667 last year. Many people see them in Texas each winter but I dreamt of seeing them in Saskatchewan, where my passion for wildlife was ignited many decades ago.

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Stan Shadick has been birding in Saskatchewan since he was a child.
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Saskatchewan has plenty of flat, wide open spaces but it’s still hard to find the only self-sustaining flock of whooping cranes spread over a province almost as large as Texas. I’d been monitoring eBird, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s database of citizen bird sightings, but there weren’t many people recording whooping crane observations and those that did seemed to add them days after birds were spotted.

So, even though I grew up in the wedge-shaped province, I decide to tip the odds of a crane sighting in my favour by hiring a local expert. We meet Shadick, our avian advisor, after sunrise and follow him in search of the cranes. Shadick, a retired astronomy professor, has a knack for spotting unusual things a long ways away. 

Scientists believe whooping cranes were always uncommon. Saskatchewan boasts plenty of ideal breeding habitat for the birds, but their innate shyness has made it extremely difficult for them to adapt to human presence. Fortunately, according to Shadick, the birds are showing up more often in the prairie province. “I saw my first whooping cranes in 1972 when there was a pair near Blackstrap [Provincial Park]. I had looked for them unsuccessfully for many years before,” he recalls. “A decade ago we saw 39 birds but in 2015 there was a significant increase in the number of birds seen in the area north of Saskatoon. A flock reached a maximum count of 154 in 2018.”

After finding our first birds, Shadick leads our tiny convoy past a leafless tree, slowing as a bald eagle lifts off, then winding past tidy farms to a large field. I spot a tall bird with a snowy feather bustle, then another and another. A mated pair, their necks extended straight ahead and their legs straight back, float past. Their long legs drop like a plane’s landing gear as they settle on the stubble. We slowly open our doors and set up cameras and spotting scopes.

“Two, four, six, eight,” I count, my accountant’s brain giddy at the flock I see stretching across the field. “I think there’s at least 50!”

Shadick, huddled over his scope, does his own census: “I count 60. And three colts (juvenile cranes),” he declares, lifting his head as a cacophony of harsh bugling fills the air. In a single farmer’s field, we’ve found more than 10 per cent of the Wood Buffalo flock (counted at 506 in the winter of 2019-2020)!

Shivers run up my back as I focus on a caramel-coloured colt ambling between two adults, their stilt-like legs striding in unison. It took months for these birds to pick a life-long mate, and usually only one egg laid each year yields successful offspring. Now this pair are showing junior the migration route, their travel plans unchanged by border restrictions — although they are not unaffected by world events. In 2017, the Trump administration reduced funding to the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and eight birds with important genetics were transferred to the Calgary Zoo for their breeding program.

A pair of whooping cranes take flight over a field near Saskatoon. Cranes mate for life and can take a long time to find the right partner.
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A pair of cranes leap into the air, black wing tips flaring as they jump and dance around each other. The rest continue to poke at the ground.

“They will start their day near water, then move to a field to eat for several hours, then return to the water for shelter at night,” Shadick explains. I manage to gulp down a sandwich as emotions bubble to the surface. All those years I searched for a way to preserve wildlife, other people were doing the same. Now, proof that it worked is fluttering in front of my eyes. I blink back tears.

On our way back to Saskatoon we stop at an interpretative lookout over the North Saskatchewan River, a graffiti-stained map showing the cranes’ migration path. “They may not have had the most accurate data when this was made,” says Shadick, pointing at the map. “I think the path maybe went too far west and may not go east far enough.

“I hope there will be whooping cranes nesting again in Saskatchewan,” he adds thoughtfully.

As we pack up our scopes for the last time, I ask Shadick if he’ll update eBird with our birding bonanza.

“Sure,” he smiles, “but we don’t put whooping cranes on the rare bird alert. Saskatoon is almost in the centre of the migration; the birders here don’t consider them a rare bird sighting.”

It seems my years of volunteering are finally delivering a satisfying payoff: a crane comeback. 

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