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  • Writer's pictureKarl Koerber

Saskatchewan Road Trip, Part 3: From Sandhills to Sandhill Cranes

Day 3: We bade a reluctant farewell to Val Marie and headed up to Swift Current for a couple of nights, hoping to explore some areas north of Highway 1, including the landforms known as the “Great Sandhills.” Getting there involves a longish trek through miles of farmland, but along the way we had our first sighting of pronghorn. I’m always thrilled to see these relatives of giraffes and okapi, and on this trip we saw many more than we’d seen on previous visits to the prairies, perhaps a sign that the population is growing.

The side road to the sandhills leaves Highway 32 at the village of Sceptre (population around 80), where we serendipitously got a tour of the museum by a very enthusiastic volunteer and supporter. It is an impressive museum, housed in the former elementary school and supported and maintained by volunteers from this tiny community.

We are definitely in the flatlands now, with the sandhills somewhere beyond the horizon.

A couple of white-crowned sparrows greeted us at the sandhills parking area. It's quiet here this time of year, and we had the place to ourselves for most of our visit.

The Great Sandhills Ecological Reserve is comprised of dunes, some open and active and others stabilized with vegetation, that cover an area of about 1,900 km2. The sands that make up the dunes were deposited near the end of the last ice age.

The dunes are impressive, and those that are active can apparently travel quite a distance, slowly burying the vegetation lying on the leeward side.

It was definitely worth the visit, but not much more to see here, except for a lot of cows and a few more birds. I’m pretty certain this is an eastern bluebird, at the very western limit of its range.

On the drive back to Swift Current we enjoyed a moment of strange synchronicity when we noticed a big flock of sandhill cranes foraging in a field beside the highway. We knew the fall migration was underway and were delighted to see them – the first time either of us had seen these majestic birds in the wild.

Day 4: On a quest to see migrating birds and the Saskatchewan River/Lake Diefenbaker region, we took Highway 4 north, across the South Saskatchewan River. The descent into the river valley was marked by a sudden change from dead flat to coulees and rolling hillocks.

We headed on toward Lucky Lake, where we hoped we might see some more of the fall bird migration, and it didn’t disappoint. Another flock sandhill cranes had convened in a field near the lake, taking to the air when we drove by.

There were also thousands of snow geese gathered in a long ribbon down the middle of the lake, pausing here on their journey southward to the milder winters in parts of the USA and Mexico.

I managed to get closer to another flock of geese at a different, smaller lake along the highway.

The dark-coloured geese are also snow geese, but with different coloration, and are known as “blue morphs.” Those with white heads are adults, and the ones that are completely blue-black are juveniles. I was also happy to see a few trumpeter swans in the mix.

Near the end of our day, we crossed Highway 1 near Chaplin Lake to take some side roads back to Swift Current. Chaplin Lake is the second-largest saline lake in Canada, and the site of a sodium sulphate extraction operation. The water is pumped from the lake into shallow ponds, where it evaporates, after which the salt is gathered into piles for further processing.

The lake is also prime bird habitat, with up to 100,000 shorebirds counted in past one-day aerial surveys. We stopped at the edge of a wetland where we saw this American bittern, along with a couple of American avocets. I wish we’d had more time to check out the bird life in this area, but it was time to move along.

And, just in case you didn’t know, Hodgeville, Saskatchewan is the coyote capital of Canada.

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Oct 21, 2023

Thanks, Karl, the pronghorn and migrating bird photos are incredible - of course, I didn't see any bird migration in my trip in July of 2016 but the shots of the sand dunes were a great reminder of my trip with my granddaughter back then.


Oct 19, 2023

These shots of birdlife in Sandhill are beautiful. Thanks again, Karl. Ron

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