Travel Tuesday – Elk Island National Park

Posted by Dan Arndt

While this blog usually focuses on the birds in and around Calgary, many folks travel for work, for pleasure, or just to see new great birds in other areas of the province. In the last year, I’ve been up to Elk Island National Park twice, and each time has been absolutely amazing. I look forward to my next visit, and hope it’ll be sooner than next summer, but time is always fleeting and it can be hard to justify a trip without other things to do up there. Plus, with the Friends of Fish Creek Autumn Birding Course starting up in a few weeks, many of my weekends are spoken for!

The Beaver Hills region of Alberta, which includes Elk Island National Park, are a unique topographical area formed by the retreat of the glaciers at the end of the last ice age. As they melted and stagnated, they formed what is known as “kame and kettle topography”. Why is this important to birds, you might ask? These kettle lakes are home to tens of thousands of gulls, shorebirds, and a water source for the surrounding boreal forest that established along the top of the “kames” which are regional topographical highs. In many cases, these are up to a hundred meters higher than the surrounding landscape, and gently sloped on either edge, forming something similar to the foothills style landscape that we’re so used to around Calgary.

Over Heritage Day long weekend, we spent three days up there relaxing by the lake, enjoying the calm, serene waters, and weathering the sometimes frighteningly extreme weather.

Storm over Astotin Lake

This storm cell over Astotin Lake was so severe that we were asked to evacuate our campsite and take shelter in our vehicle.

Thankfully, the weather lightened up over the next two days allowing for some good sightings of some beautiful and amazing birds, some of which paid us many visits at our campsite over the weekend. This juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was part of a family group that spent every day in the trees nearby.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Western Tanagers are some of the most colourful birds we get in Calgary, and it was great to find not one but two breeding groups on hiking trails in the park.

Western Tanager

Western Tanager

The main campground is located a stone’s throw from Astotin Lake, which is home to dozens of Red-necked Grebes. Last year, there must have been nearly two-hundred just near the shoreline in late September, but this year, since it was a bit earlier, the numbers weren’t quite so high. The population was still healthy this August, as this adult shows.

Red-necked Grebe

A Red-necked Grebe finds his favourite fish breakfast.

Shorebirds were present in small numbers as well, though I would expect by this time, their numbers are much higher, and will continue to climb until late September as migration steps on its perpetual course. A few Semipalmated Sandpipers and Least Sandpipers seemed to be flocking with, and stalking, this Long-billed Dowitcher, who in turn followed around a Greater Yellowlegs every time it was startled and flew off in another direction.

Long-billed Dowitcher

Long-billed Dowitcher

Greater Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs

Semipalmated Sandpipers (centre, left) and Least Sandpiper (front right).

One of my favourite shorebirds was present on the shores of Astotin Lake, and seemed to be the mother (or maybe father?) of at least three juveniles that tentatively poked their heads out of the long grasses every few minutes. This Killdeer kept a wary eye on me and would fly away any time I moved toward it, or toward the young ones, so I simply sat on a picnic table and waited for him to come to me.



Some of the other birds present in good numbers were a couple of flocks of American White Pelicans, Song Sparrows, and even a few Eastern Phoebe made their presence known.

American White Pelican

American White Pelican

Evil Phoebe

This Eastern Phoebe looks downright evil with the flash reflection in its eye!

By far though, the flocks that outnumbered all other birds combined were the huge numbers of Barn Swallows swarming over the lakes, and the massive flocks of Franklins and Bonaparte’s gulls, both quickly losing their breeding plumage and entering their winter molts.

Mostly Bonaparte’s Gulls with a few Franklin’s Gulls thrown in just to make things interesting (and confusing!).


Good birding!

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