A Bird Watcher’s Guide to Alberta’s Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park

Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park is located nearly in the heart of the province of Alberta, about a 3 hour drive northwest from Edmonton. It’s known for its natural beauty, and the Marten Mountain Viewpoint, but it’s known best for being one of Canada’s most remarkable birdwatching locations. Our resident birdwatching expert, Carol Patterson, is here with all the details.

A song sparrow pauses between songs next to a spider's web at Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park
A song sparrow pauses between songs next to a spider’s web. Photo Credit: Carol Patterson

I was searching for maximum bird song and I didn’t have much time to do it. Ontario’s Point Pelee National Park may be Canada’s best known birdwatching destination but many of those songbirds are passing through.

At Alberta‘s Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park, the warblers – the melodic masters of the avian world – put on an awe-inspiring audio display as they set up breeding territories. I’d first visited the area during the pandemic but access to some facilities was restricted.

I was back, eager to listen to birds and to learn from warbler scientists what makes this place special.

Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park – A Bird Watching Mecca

At Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park migrating birds are funnelled into a narrow route between the lake’s east shoreline and the tall elevations of Marten Mountain. Birds don’t want to fly over the water and be exposed to predators or bad weather and flying too high takes them away from the forest bug supply. In spring or fall thousands of songbirds can be seen in a single day over the park. 

Decades ago, birdwatchers noticed this “Point Pelee effect” of birds concentrated in a small geographical area and lobbied for a bird observatory in the area.

Birdwatchers seek songbirds in Alberta's boreal forest
Birdwatchers seek songbirds in Alberta’s boreal forest. Photo Credit: Carol Patterson

In 1994, an independent, non-profit society, the Lesser Slave Lake Bird Observatory (LSLBO) was formed, and in 2006, the Boreal Centre for Bird Conservation, a hub for educational programs opened. Both are the only ones in Canada located in a boreal forest.  Patti Campsall, Executive Director, told me, “People come here from (as far as) the United States because they get the chance to see warblers in their breeding habitats and the males are in their breeding plumage.”

The Boreal Centre for Bird Conservation in Action

Why the fuss about warblers? Respected bird expert, Kenn Kaufman, describes warblers as “a creature of sheer magic.” They’re small, colourful (mostly), and as the name suggests, know how to belt out a pleasing song, often surprisingly loud for their diminutive size.

They eat mainly insects and come to the boreal forest to breed and nest. The Boreal Songbird Initiative estimates that 325 North American bird species or almost half of common species in Canada and the U.S. use the boreal forest for nesting or migratory resting places.  

Visitors to the Boreal Centre for Bird Conservation can see bird exhibits and read about the boreal forest. They can borrow cross country skis in winter and in warmer months, check the current lists on birds being banded. 

Bird banding is an important part of scientific observation, tallying the number and species of birds examined along with observations of physical health. Well-trained specialists briefly capture the birds, observing their physical condition, placing a small numbered band on their leg, and releasing the bird.

At the observatory’s annual Songbird Festival each May, guests can observe a bird being banded. On other days, visitors up early enough to watch the banders (they start an hour before sunrise), may have the chance to observe a banding with permission.   

An Appreciation and Respect For Our Winged Companions

Walking along the lakeshore shortly after sunrise I encountered several of the observatory’s summer staff and was invited to watch one of their banding sessions. In a small building, I stood quietly next to the counter where each bird would be examined. The stub wall had posters with questions and answers, a great timesaver. I imagine the staff were often asked if the birds bite (yes, but it doesn’t hurt too much), or which is the meanest bird they catch (surprisingly, the black-capped chickadee). 

Birds like this Ovenbird are briefly captured by observatory staff to band and to monitor population trends
Birds like this Ovenbird are briefly captured by observatory staff to band and to monitor population trends. Photo Credit: Carol Patterson

One employee sat ready with a journal to record observations, the other slowly placed her hand into a small cloth bag, and removed an Ovenbird, a warbler that is often heard yelling, “teacher, teacher, teacher”, but seldom seen scurrying in the dark corners of the forest floor. This species weighs approximately 20 grams, roughly equivalent to five sugar packets. 

As the Ovenbird (named for the shape of its nest, not a fondness for baking) rested quietly in the bander’s hand, I marvelled at the strength of warblers that migrate between the tropics and the boreal forest twice a year and their navigation skills. I had read in the weekly report by Robyn Perkins, LSLBO Bander-in-charge, that it’s not unusual for songbirds to return to where they had successfully nested the year before, often within 10 meters! 

Banding Together

Canada's boreal forest is important nesting habitat for birds such as this Yellow Warblers
Canada’s boreal forest is important nesting habitat for birds such as this Yellow Warblers . Photo Credit: Carol Patterson

The Lesser Slave Lake Bird Observatory has banded nearly 106,000 birds since they started and their records support this location fidelity. Only 44 birds that the organization has banded have ever been found outside their banding area! However, it’s not uncommon to recapture a bird they’ve seen before. According to Perkin’s report, on average they recapture six to ten percent of birds they band annually. 

I watched the last cloth bag twitch as it was placed on the counter. The bander slowly reached into the bag and gently withdrew a feathered creature. It felt a little like birding Christmas, waiting to see what species emerged from the flannel depths.

It was a Swainson’s Thrush with spotted breast and a brownish-olive green back. A pale ring circled its dark eyes making it looking like it was wearing spectacles. This bird was less colourful that its taxonomic relative, the robin, but it’s flute-like song adds much to a spring morning.

Biologist Rachel Carson spurred environmental action with her 1962 book, Silent Spring, warning that pollution and indiscriminate pesticide use would lead to ecosystem collapse. Her idea of a silenced spring was enough to alarm conservationists and nature lovers.

I shuddered at the thought of walking through the forest ringing Lesser Slave Lake without the whistles, thrills and calls of birds. Fortunately. enough people were mobilized by Carson’s book and other conservation initiatives, and Canada’s forests still ring with birdsong each year albeit in reduced numbers. 

Come for the Birding, Stay for the Views

At Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park nature lovers can enjoy birdwatching or hiking without crowds
At Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park nature lovers can enjoy birdwatching or hiking without crowds. Photo Credit: Carol Patterson

On my last day, I wandered from my campsite to the edge of the lake, my toes squishing through the soft sand of the long, deserted beach, the lake surface a giant mirror stretching kilometers to the horizon. By the time people come to the beach for their summer vacations, the birds will be much quieter, busy raising their young, the need to be the center of attention gone. 

I watched a common merganser chase a fish, while a loon’s eerie call pierced my morning reflections. I might not have been in Canada’s best-known bird watching location, but it might be one of its best. 

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