Frank Lake Ibis Colony Destroyed?

Guest Post by Greg Wagner

White-faced Ibis by Dan Arndt

White-faced Ibis by Dan Arndt.

Ducks Unlimited developed the Frank Lake project under the North American Waterfowl Management Plan which is a tripartite initiative between Canada, the United States and Mexico aimed at conserving migratory birds across the continent. The Plan’s goal is to return waterfowl populations to 1970s levels through the protection of upland and wetland habitat.

This has certainly been achieved at Frank Lake where upland habitats have been secured and are managed for nesting waterfowl and other birds, and where wetland habitat has been created and protected through the establishment of dams and the addition of tertiary treated effluent from the Town of High River and Cargill. It is also one of the few large wetlands with large cattail and/or bulrush beds in southern Alberta and attracts a number of breeding bird species that are dependent on these habitats including White-faced Ibis, Black-crowned Night Heron, Franklin’s Gull, Forester’s Tern, Western Grebe and Eared Grebe. Many of these species are listed as sensitive under the General Status of Alberta Wildlife Species, largely because of the scarcity of large wetlands with emergent vegetation.

Because of its conservation importance, Frank Lake has also been identified as an Important Bird Area  and as an Environmentally Significant Area within the Municipal District of Foothills.

Frank Lake is also a popular area for hunting, birding, wildlife photography, dog walking and hunting dog trials. Ducks Unlimited has also established an educational program at the lake, which had initially been offered to students in Calgary schools, but which is now being offered to rural schools in the area. It truly is the goose that laid the golden egg.  If people show some respect for the area and following a few basic rules (eg., dogs on leash during the nesting period from 1 April to 1 July) it should remain as an area that can serve as a significant wildlife conservation area, and at the same time be enjoyed by a number of different user groups.

The best known and most heavily used site on the lake is the observation blind on Basin 1 in the northwest corner of the lake. It is located within an extensive bulrush marsh and provides excellent viewing opportunities of Eared Grebe, Coots, Ruddy Ducks, Blackbirds and Marsh Wrens. Looking out to the east you can count dozens if not hundreds of White-faced Ibis. During the spring, the calls of Franklin’s Gulls are deafening. This reed bed supports the largest breeding population of emergent dependent birds on the lake, and in the province.

In the past photographers have been observed wading through the reed bed near the blind and trying to get close to the reed bed and nesting area of White-faced Ibis on a crudely constructed raft. These individuals cause untold damage to the birds nesting in these areas, in violation of the federal Migratory Bird Convention Act and the Alberta Wildlife Act. I few weeks back I raised my concerns with the local Fish and Wildlife Officer.

Making a hasty retreat.

Making a hasty retreat.

Unfortunately, last weekend I encountered two individuals (a man with graying hair and a women with long blonde hair) marching through the reed beds north of the blind, cameras and long lenses in hand and pulling an inner tube with camouflage material wrapped around it. They were right in the area where the Ibis and Night Herons nest. About 25 Black-crowned Night Herons were flying around the reeds at the time.

I yelled at them to get out of there and that they were destroying nests in violation of the Alberta Wildlife Act. I also phoned Report a Poacher 1-800-642-3800 and ended up speaking with the local Fish and Wildlife Officer I had met with a few weeks back. I indicated what these two people were doing and that they were disturbing nesting birds in violation of the Migratory Bird Convention Act and the Alberta Wildlife Act. He asked me to record their license plate number. I also took some photos of them in the reeds.

After about twenty minutes they came out ashore and had the pleasure of some lively conversation and in your face time with yours truly. They indicated that they were long-time birders and were doing nothing to disturb the birds. I have left the matter in the hands of the Fish and Wildlife Officer. But I wonder, do these two pick up a couple of six packs of mice from their local pet store anytime the go out looking for owls?

Last spring, I watched the Franklin’s Gull return to Frank Lake and begin nesting over most of May. Unfortunately, I was away for most of June. When I got back, I visited another large reed bed marsh supporting a large Franklin’s Gull breeding colony. The place was deafening with adult birds circling overhead, and recently fledged young everywhere.

Their vehicle

Their vehicle

Frank Lake was much different. I only saw a flock of 20 birds heading to the lake from nearby fields. No adult birds circling over the reed beds and no recently fledged young. There was zero nest success. I wondered at the time what had happen, and probably will never know. I thought it was probably something environmental, a quick increase in lake levels following a major rainfall event. But now, I wonder if it may simply have been caused by photographers traipsing through the bulrushes.

Frank Lake has become widely known as being the home to White-faced Ibis. I fear the breeding colony, or at least the major colony of the lake, has been destroyed. So if someone is out at Frank Lake and wants to know why there aren’t so many Franklin’s Gulls around the blind, or where all the Ibis have gone. maybe this post provides an answer.


Posted by Pat Bumstead:

We know Frank Lake is a very popular birding destination for many of our readers. Put the Report A Poacher number 1-800-642-3800 in your cellphone. If you see idiot photographers endangering the birds for the sake of a picture, make note of the following and give them a call:

  • Date, time and location of offense
  • License plate number of vehicle
  • Vehicle description, including any identifying features, dents, stickers, etc.
  • Description of person(s) involved
  • Description of evidence at the scene, or evidence of the crime that the violators took with them
  • Details of the violation

Most of our Canadian bird species are in serious trouble throughout their ranges. Bird watchers are the ones out in the field, and can cover far more territory than Fish & Wildlife officers. If you see someone wading through nest sites, baiting owls, stealing eggs from a nest or anything else that threatens the birds, speak up for them! If we don’t, there might not be any birds to watch.

10 thoughts on “Frank Lake Ibis Colony Destroyed?

  1. I was told that the Ibis disperse from Frank Lake en masse after the young have fledged early in July and spread out to all of the little ponds in the vicinity. If you came back at the end of June, then maybe they had gone. Your post is a little unclear as to the chronology. Also, there were lots of Ibis near the blind but once they settled in the reeds you would never have known they were there. Your concerns are well-founded, though.

  2. As an occasional visitor to Frank lake from the UK and a retired professional conservationist I am disgusted at the behaviour of these so-called photographers. I have enjoyed immense pleasure at this fabulous site and been able to photograph birds adequately from the blind and from the trails. Surely there must be laws that these people have broken? If that is the case they should be prosecuted and banned from access to such places.

  3. Same happened at the Bird Sanctuary, but they will not listen. I shouted at them to get back on the path and the reply was ‘I am a photographer’. They need to police these sites as the normal joe photographer will not listen.

    • This spring a pair of Great Horned Owls were nesting in the spruces south of Walker House at the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary, in an off-limits area. It was difficult but possible to see the nest from the lawn. A rope was put up with warning signs to stay out of the area, but within two days there were hundreds of footprints in the snow in the off-limits area. The owls apparently abandoned that nesting site and were not seen there again.
      -Bob Lefebvre

  4. I too am appalled by the behaviour of these so called nature photographers and are concerned about the damage they do to bird habitats but I also cannot condone the publicizing of photographs that depict these individuals and their vehicle in a recognizable way. Confront them and call them out on their acts in person? Yes, absolutely. Other than that, let the authorities deal with them.

    • We had quite a bit of debate at Birds Calgary about whether to give any information at all about the people who allegedly did this. At one point we had taken out the photos of them and their vehicle, replacing them with bird photos, but in the end two of our three Calgary-based writers, plus post author Greg Wagner, wanted to leave them in. We feel that we have shown enough that people can see that were doing what Greg said they were doing, without identifying them. The photos do not show them in a recognizable way. (Greg has their license plate number and photos of them in the reed bed, but that evidence will go to the Fish and Wildlife officer.)

      As for confronting people who you believe are endangering wildlife, that is an individual choice but I would strongly urge people to follow the procedures that Pat Bumstead outlined in the addendum to the post. We do need to speak up about abuses, but personal confrontations, especially when out in remote areas, are risky and should be avoided.

  5. The other thing that can help in reporting is video. If you have a smart phone, pull it out and hit the video button, then there is no disputing what they have done.

    By the way there is NO reason in this day and age for a photographer to disrupt the area. Resolution in cameras are so high, plus lens power, that all the “getting close” can be done sitting at the computer at home. (This is coming from a photographer!)

  6. I have read the story of the alleged offender, You are out of your mind! She is a serious conservationist. Photographers are not evil. We would not be out there photographing bird behavior if we did not love and respect the birds and their habitat. Just what makes you more special in the environment????

  7. The way the above post reads to me is, that you got very upset because two Birders were getting pictures, and you got Very Loud and aggressive and Scared all the birds away as well as Scaring the H– out of the two birders. I think I pretty well have that straight since I’ve heard both sides of the story !!! You pretty well admit to your part in the disturbance … !!!

  8. There are a lot of ibis … and pelicans and terns and eared grebes and a few stilts… at Frank Lake as of yesterday. When I first read this post, I somewhat agreed but less so now. There are bird photographers who would do anything to get a photo. But then I have seen lots of trampling damage due to birders who are not photographing. And botanists who go off trail.

    And professional botanists who don’t hesitate to pull up entire plants as samples (roots and all).

    I have seen people walking over rare plants and destroying them just to avoid walking through mud on a path. And people who don’t even know what they have destroyed.

    When I look at the above couple’s photo, their “camouflaged inner tube” is a floating bird blind and I really objectively don’t know if they were distressing any birds. They may have been but maybe not if they knew what they were doing. There are no signs prohibiting people from going into the reed beds. You don’t know that this couple destroyed nests at all as you have only assumed this. And they may have had their eyes glued to the ground avoiding any nests.

    The above comments about Inglewood and the owls are interesting – we don’t know if all or most of the footprints near the owls were from photographers but just as likely from some non-photographing observers as well. The assumption is made that they were photographers and likely some were but not all of them.

    Similarly, some people using a floating blind would disturb nesting birds but some would not if they were knowledgeable and conscientious. The above comment about not having to get close to birds to take photos is only true to a certain extent but even with the bigger lenses you have to get close. As a postscript I would say a list of rules for the bird blind would be good – we could start with no dogs (even on leash), no chatting in loud voices, etc. , no feeding the ducks bread crumbs, … and for the area in general no hunting, no hunting dog training, again no dogs, no walking through reed beds. If this is such an environmentally sensitive area, then some uses are just inappropriate. A request to respect photographers would be good too so that if someone is taking a photo, you do not rush up to take one of your own and scare the birds. Wait till the first photographer is done. Birds will tolerate one person alone but two or more is a cause for fear.

    That first photographer may have known how to calmly and quietly approach birds without alarming them and photographer #2 has not only wrecked the photo but has scared the birds. By the way, the fact that your couple consisted of two people can be put to good use in approaching birds without alarming them. For example, it is well-known that if 2 people enter a blind and one person comes out and leaves, the birds relax and are no longer wary. Birds don’t count and think that all the people have left. The remaining person does not threaten them. So we don’t know but your supposedly egregious couple might have done exactly that!

    Aim for conservation, not appeasing various diverse groups. I think your comments about the photographers are over the edge, although your intention was well-based. Better to worry more about what chemical pollution is in the tertiary treated water, if any, and chemical runoff from fertilizers.

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