Where’s Whooper?

… Not to be mistaken with a vacation from conservation. When your work is your passion, it spills over into every aspect of your life, including road-trips.

Since the field season has ended, there is not any exciting shrike-related events I can share, so I thought I would recap some noteworthy sightings I had during my week off after Thanksgiving. After visiting my family in Calgary, my boyfriend and I drove back to southern Ontario, visiting as many National Parks as we could, as entry is free to celebrate Canada’s 150th. We went through Banff NP to Jasper NP, which I had not been to in years. I was hoping to spot some woodland caribou, but as they are threatened that was not to be. We did spot some more common ungulates in the park, including elk, big-horned sheep and mule deer and went on a quiet hike through the breathtaking Malign Canyon.

Malign Canyon

From there, we proceeded to Elk Island NP, just east of Edmonton. This park has an interesting history of conservation missteps and successes for bison. It is also the birthplace of many moose and elk which have been reintroduced to Ontario and Nova Scotia after being extirpated due to unrestricted hunting. In the early 20th century Elk Island NP was the temporary home for a herd of plains bison from Montana, after they had been extirpated from Canada. Enough avoided recapture to form a stable population in the park, where they still reside. In the 1920’s, plains bison were reintroduced to Wood Buffalo NP in northern Alberta, the home of the largest remaining herd of endangered wood bison, which were previously thought to be extinct. This was nearly disastrous, as the plains and wood bison interbred, which could have resulted in the extinction of the wood bison due to hybridization. The plains bison also introduced diseases to the wood bison which nearly wiped them out. In the 50’s, a genetically pure wood bison herd of approximately 200 was found in the park and several were relocated to a secure area of Elk Island National Park to prevent further hybridization. This herd is now thriving and has become an important source population for reintroductions across the globe.

Plains bison make a nice magpie perch

We didn’t head for any parks in Saskatchewan, because I had other plans for tracking down an endangered species. This time in the fall is generally a poor time for bird watching, with the exception of waterfowl and some late-migrating shorebirds. I was overwhelmed by the tens of thousands of Ross’ and snow geese that we saw stopping over in agricultural fields and wetlands as we crossed the prairies, but I had seen on eBird (a website for reporting bird sightings) that whooping cranes had been seen recently east of Saskatoon. They were my real target. Since going to “zoo camp” as a child, I have seen them at the Calgary Zoo, which has been instrumental in their recovery, but was ecstatic to have even the remote possibility of seeing them in the wild. We headed onto a diversion through backroads bordering possible migration stopover habitat and I tried to steel myself for the fact that we were not likely to see any whooping cranes; however, it did not take long before I spotted a few suspiciously large cranes on the edge of a large flock of smaller sandhill cranes. We found a pair with their lone juvenile offspring. One of the adults even had ID colour bands, like giant versions of those we put on eastern loggerhead shrikes! I was very happy to be able to submit my observation and photos, and hopefully make another biologist as happy as I am when we receive a report of a sighting for one of our shrikes.

A pair of whooping cranes with their mottled juvenile offspring

The rest of the drive was beautiful (particularly Riding Mountain NP in Manitoba) but I had already hit my peak of excitement. I hope everyone reading this has a chance to see a wild animal whose species was brought back from the brink of extinction by conservation efforts – it is a phenomenal experience which illustrates why the hard work done by Wildlife Preservation Canada and many other organizations is so worthwhile.

-Alisa Samuelson, LoyaltyOne Young Conservation Leader for 2017