Grasslands National Park
Grasslands National Park is a haven for prairie bird enthusiasts. Both common and rare species may be found here, and it is a flyway for many migratory birds that breed in the boreal forest and Arctic.
Grasslands National Park is probably best known for its breeding birds that are species at risk, however a variety of species pass through during their spring and fall migration.
There is variation around the times certain bird species will leave in the fall and come back to Grasslands National Park in the spring for their breeding phase of life. For spring migration, birds start to arrive from March up until end of May. Fall migration begins as early as August, however some species start their migration as late as October. Some of the variation in arrival and departure dates for migratory birds depends on how far they must travel. For example, Swainson’s Hawk will overwinter as far as Argentina causing most of them to leave for fall migration by September.
Plenty of migratory birds stopover at Grasslands National Park or can be seen flying over on their way down to their wintering grounds. Many sparrows, such as Harris’s Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow and White-crowned Sparrow, other songbirds such as Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Yellow-rumped Warbler, raptors, American White Pelican, Snow Goose, and Sandhill Cranes are among some of the bird species that visitors could observe passing through Grasslands National Park.
Some bird species can be found here year-round, while others are found here in the summer to breed or just during the winter months. As Grasslands National Park is open year-round, bird watching is always accessible.
In the summer, Grasslands National Park hosts many types of waterfowl, shorebirds, songbirds and raptors. Waterfowl and shorebirds like Upland Sandpiper, Long-billed Curlews, Willets, Marbled Godwits and Northern Shovelers can be commonly seen. Songbirds like the Lark Bunting, Chestnut-collared Longspur, Sprague’s Pipit, Western Meadowlark, Rock Wren, Loggerhead Shrikes, and a wide variety of sparrow species can also be found. Look up at the sky at dusk for Common Nighthawks, or you may be able to spot them roosting on fence posts during the day. If you are lucky, you may even see a Red-headed Woodpecker where there are patches of trees or shrubland. Finally, raptors like the Burrowing Owl, Ferruginous Hawk, Northern Harrier, Red-tailed Hawk and Swainson’s Hawk can be spotted perching or flying overhead.
There is an extensive list of birds that can be found in Grasslands National Park, some of which are species at risk. There are several monitoring projects carried out through the season to track breeding populations of species at risk. Monitoring allows the park to implement conservation and management practices to protect these species.
Winter is a special time to see birds that have migrated from further north to spend the winter months in the snow-capped hills and open valleys of Grasslands National Park. By travelling further south, these birds escape the harsher temperatures and limited resources associated with northern winter climates.
During the months of November to April, species like Snowy Owl, Bald Eagle, Snow Bunting, Northern Shrike, Lapland Longspur, Rough-legged Hawk, Bohemian Waxwing and Pine Siskin can all be found.
There are many year-round residents that rely on the habitat available in Grasslands National Park. Game birds like the Sharp-tailed Grouse, Grey Partridge and Ring-necked Pheasant can be found foraging in open fields. If you spot a rare Greater Sage-grouse, be sure to report your observation to Parks Canada staff. Species like Golden Eagle, Prairie Falcon, Merlin, Short-eared Owl and Great Horned Owl are year-round aerial predators. Woodpeckers like the Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker and Northern Flicker are also present, often in woody habitats. You can also expect to see Black-billed Magpies and Horned Larks year-round.
Grasslands National Park is composed of lowland and upland grassland intersected by rivers and coulees with patches of badlands, bearpaw and prairie dog colonies. All these spots provide habitat that different bird species use for foraging and nesting.
Habitat for birds
There are various trails and viewing platforms that give visitors a chance to see different birds. For some tips on what habitats you can expect to see certain birds, look at the list below:
- Prairie Dog Colonies – prairie dog colonies are defined by dense systems of burrows interspersed with short vegetation. You may see a variety of raptors, like Ferruginous Hawk and Northern Harrier, and select songbirds, like Horned Lark. As their name suggests, Burrowing Owls nest in burrows, and these colonies are where you are most likely to see them. Although Long-billed Curlews can be seen in other locations too, they are frequently spotted on prairie dog colonies. Check out Top Dogtown Trail and the lookout at Larson Colony.
- Upland Grassland – the upland grassland is preferred by Chestnut-collared Longspur, Sprague’s Pipit, Baird Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Western Meadowlark and Upland Sandpiper. Check out Broken Hills Trail, Timbergulch Trail, Two Trees Trail and the beginning of Otter Basin Route for upland grassland-loving birds.
- Lowland Grassland – short grass and shrub habitat allow for easily accessible ground cover and perching opportunities. Sharp-tailed Grouse and Greater Sage-grouse prefer these habitats in addition to Lark Bunting and Marbled Godwit. If you are lucky enough to see a Sage Thrasher, please report your observation to Parks Canada staff. Check out BearPaw Sea Trail, Otter Basin Route, Timbergulch Trail and Riverwalk Trail.
- Frenchman and Rock Creek River – the rivers and coulees have riparian buffers where small trees and shrubs grow along the banks. Waterfowl and marsh-loving birds, like Northern Shoveler and Spotted Sandpiper, may be found in river habitats feeding on aquatic insects and vegetation, like seeds. Various swallows can be seen foraging, including Bank Swallow and Northern Rough-winged Swallow that nest in the river bank, and Barn Swallow and Cliff Swallow that may nest on nearby infrastructure, like bridges. Loggerhead Shrikes seek out shrubland often near coulees or rivers. You may also see some cryptic songbirds sneaking around like Spotted Towhee, Gray Catbird and Brown Thrasher. Check out Ecotour Scenic Drive, Riverwalk Trail, Larson Trail and Rock Creek Trail for glimpse of these types of birds.
- Badlands, Buttes and Bearpaw – these hilled, open areas with dry rocky features that were formed by glacial activity, offer opportunities to see Rock Wren, Brewer’s Blackbird, Vesper Sparrow and Prairie Falcon. At nighttime, perhaps if you are out looking at the stars, you may hear a Common Poorwill in this habitat. Check out Badlands Lookout, Red Buttes Route, Valley of 1000 Devils Trail, 70 mile Butte Trail, Eagle Butte Trail and Borderlands Lookout to see these birds.
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