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Birding

The Canadian Badlands is one of the best birdwatching areas in North America, boasting more than 300 species. Prairie skies are the aerial hunting grounds of perhaps Canada’s finest assembly of raptors: red-tailed and Swainson’s hawks, merlin falcons, bald and golden eagles, and even turkey vultures. Scattered lakes and sloughs are brimming in spring and fall with scores of migrating ducks, geese, shorebirds, and swans.

Many species nest here, congregating along lush river valleys and in prairie grasslands. A surprising number of birds -- including several types of owls -- are year-round residents. The birds of this region are accessible for both serious and casual birdwatchers, with many species easily viewed in the region’s provincial parks and protected city river valleys. Diligent birders might even spot a rare sage grouse, burrowing owl or piping plover.

Be sure to look up driving times before you depart. A full list of visitor centers as well as contact information for attractions on this tour can be found by downloading the tour document.

The Canadian Badlands Touring Routes aim to follow good secondary highways and occasionally, offer gravel-road alternatives. Please drive carefully and respect private property. Every effort has been made to ensure accurate information at the time of publication. You are advised to conduct further research in advance. We are unable to accept responsibility for any inconvenience, loss or injury sustained as a result of anyone relying upon this information.

Tour Route

1. Before you leave

Areas of choice habitat within the Canadian Badlands act as a magnet for large concentrations of bird species. This is particularly true in the vegetated valleys of the region’s prairie rivers -- the Red Deer, Bow, Oldman, South Saskatchewan and Milk -- where large cottonwood trees rise above thickets of willows and berry bushes. Fortunately for birdwatchers, these bird oases are found within protected areas with easy public access.

The Canadian Badlands is dotted with many lakes, reservoirs and sloughs -- some natural, some the product of Canada’s largest network of irrigated farmland, and some the result of various wetland enhancements projects. In spring and fall the skies above these waters are often black with waterfowl and countless other species that pass through on one of North America’s great migratory flyways. Many of these sanctuaries also accommodate nesting birds, ranging from great blue herons and American white pelicans to various ducks, geese, and shorebirds.

The great grasslands of the Canadian Badlands provide critical habitat for a diversity of nesting songbirds, grouse, and raptors. Indeed, some of the highest densities of breeding birds in Alberta are found in these southern grasslands. Further north, around Red Deer, the aspen parkland mix of grasslands, aspen groves, lakes and sloughs provide a wide range of bird-friendly habitats.

Attentive enthusiasts will also discover birds in some unusual places. Turkey vultures, for instance, have been spotted in downtown Medicine Hat. Canada geese, ravens, and great horned owls are known to nest in the steel girders of Lethbridge’s famed High Level Bridge. A reintroduced population of wild turkeys may be seen running through Elkwater townsite in Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park.

The tours suggested in this guide have been arranged geographically, each combining several destinations of interesting birding terrain. Most require more than a day to complete, though longer stays and more extensive explorations are certainly encouraged. You might well choose to focus a trip on just one of the birding hot spots described in each tour.

While spring and fall migrations offer the heaviest volumes and greatest diversity of birds, many species can be seen throughout the summer months and a surprising number in winter as well.

TIP - Birds are generally most active in the early morning and evening hours. During the hotter days of summer, these are also the most pleasant times for a birding stroll and provide the best light for taking photos.

2. Lethbridge, Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park and Taber Tour

This tour through southern Alberta reveals a diversity of landscapes and bird species. It features two distinct river ecosystems – the cottonwood forests along the Oldman River in Lethbridge and the badlands of the Milk River – and a scattering of shallow lakes in between.

During this tour, take a leisurely stroll through a coulee in Lethbridge’s Old Man River Valley. The Helen Schuler Nature Center offers interpretive programs and provides information on all the birding opportunities available in this region.

Be sure to visit the picturesque Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park where spotted towhees chatter throughout the evening. The rock cliffs and hoodoos throughout the region provide an amazing backdrop to watch an array of creatures’ aerial stunts.

The Alberta Birds of Prey Center is a must see attraction on this tour. Here, you can experience raptors up close, learn more about the rehabilitation work this group does, see a captive population of endangered burrowing owls, and even get your photo taken with one of their winged creatures on your arm.

3. Lake Newell, Dinosaur Provincial Park, Medicine Hat and Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park Tour

This tour offers a stark contrast of habitats. You can travel from the desert like, cactus-ridden badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park to the forests and rough fescue grasslands of Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park. In between, the city of Medicine Hat features fine birding along the South Saskatchewan River.

Irrigation ditches and canals line the landscape near Brooks. These channels deliver much needed water to the farmers and ranchers of the region. They also provide a great opportunity to search for ring-necked pheasants as they search for water and nesting grounds.

Be sure to visit Dinosaur Provincial Park, renowned for its badlands and as the home of a seemingly endless supplies of dinosaur fossils, it also boasts Canada’s second highest density of breeding birds.

Medicine Hat provides amazing birding opportunities with all the creature comforts of an urban center. Enjoy a walk along the South Saskatchewan River, or visit one of the city’s many parks, and watch birds fly along clay cliffs.

Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park is a unique landform in the Canadian Badlands. This region rises 700 meters above the rest of the nearby prairies and is home to more than 220 identified bird species; the largest number documented in the Canadian Badlands. Wild turkeys, owls, and tundra swans all call the hills home.

4. Drumheller Valley, Hanna and Special Areas Tour

This tour contains pockets of good birding terrain along the small lakes on either side of the Drumheller Valley and along tree-lined stretches of the Red Deer River Valley. Further northeast, the grain fields and wetlands surrounding Hanna are a fall Mecca for migrating Canada geese. Beyond, the scattered lakes of the Special Areas are often teeming with migrating shorebirds and waterfowl.

The ghost town of Dorothy in the Drumheller Valley becomes a colorful spot as mountain bluebirds visit the area during warm summer days. You never know what you might see in the Drumheller area. Eagles, hawks, pelicans, and sometimes herons visit the valley.

As you drive this tour, cruise slowly down the prairie roads and watch sparrows flit through the tall grasses and crops, sometimes as if they are playing tag with the vehicles they encounter.

Hanna is so much a home for the Canada goose that they have built statues of geese throughout the town to honor their feathered friends. Gaggles of geese fill the sky twice a year as the birds embark on their annual migration south in the winter, and then back north for the summer.

5. Red Deer Area Tour

The Red Deer region’s ecosystems are quite different than the open grasslands to the south. The soils are richer and moister, with rolling croplands interspersed with stands of poplars and, in sheltered river valleys, spruce and fir. Shallow lakes are plentiful, providing good nesting sites for waterfowl and shorebirds.

Be sure to visit the Ellis Bird Farm. The 260 acre farm is a quiet oasis for nature lovers and home to nest boxes and the world’s largest outdoor collection of bluebird houses. Watch nesting birds in the visitor center via camera, sip a cup of tea, or take a walk on the farm’s boardwalk.

The Kerry Wood Nature Centre is host to various interpretive displays and allows you to get up close and personal with all kinds of feathered friends.

Various reservoirs, sloughs, marshes, and lakes offer a variety of species just waiting to be discovered.

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