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Frank Lake, home to some of Southern Alberta’s best birding

If you’ve ever had opportunity to fly through a major international airport hub, like Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, Beijing Capital, Dubai, Los Angeles or London’s Heathrow, you’d have an understanding of the potential mayhem that exists in the skies above those cities.  Air Traffic Controllers must have wits about them that few humans could muster up in a lifetime.  Airport cleaning staff and maintenance crews on the ground likely follow a tight schedule to keep things ticking over.  And all the time passengers come and go with varying levels of easiness, satisfaction and contentment expecting everything to work seamlessly.

Should you find an opportunity to visit Southern Alberta’s local wetland gem at Frank Lake, you’d probably ask how it’s possible that an avian air traffic control system is not in place to manage the birdlife in the skies over this teeming wildlife wonderland.  The wetland is perfectly located on the migratory route of many water bird species making their intercontinental voyages northbound during the spring and southbound during the fall.  The joint efforts of key industry, government and Ducks Unlimited Canada has ensured that this unlikely location maintains sustainable water levels year-round for the more than 190 bird species that pass through or are resident here.  Nesting boxes, nesting platforms and man-made rock islands facilitate breeding locations for the wide variety of bird species.

Frank Lake is well-supported by government, industry and Ducks Unlimited Canada

Located on highway 23, roughly six kilometres east of Highway 2 and the southern end of the town of High River, the wetland appears to be bounded by massive electrical power lines as if protecting the avian microcosm.  At first sight this may not appear to be the most appealing destination for first-time bird watching visitors.  However, detouring off highway 23 onto the gravel road that leads to the three wetland basins, spread across 4,800 acres of dry and flooded habitat, is undeniably worthwhile.  Several roads offer access to different sections of the wetland, some of which are only passable in the dryer seasons. 

The layout of the Frank Lake wetland system

The main gravel road terminates at a strategically-located bird blind.  Access to the blind is along a boardwalk that traverses a marshland filled with cattails.  This landscape is a breeding paradise for the plentiful American coots, ruddy ducks, mallards, eared grebes and abundant yellow headed blackbirds that nest here in the spring, not to mention the Canada geese and even the odd muskrat.  Look out for canvasbacks, redheads, lesser scaups, various herons and perhaps even the Clark’s grebe.

The bird blind at Frank Lake
A yellow winged blackbird watches on as a Canada goose takes flight
The male ruddy duck employs some unusual behaviours in an attempt to attract a mate
A coy American coot
A striking eared grebe
An elegant-looking Wilson’s phalarope
Mallard ducks
A pair of muskrats caught cruising through the marshland

Along the water’s edge there is a plethora of wading and shoreline birds: American avocet, black-necked stilt, Wilson’s snipe, Franklin’s gull, California gull and various plovers.  In the adjacent grasslands you’ll encounter the performing killdeer, savannah sparrows, brown-headed cowbirds, and even tree and barn swallows.

This edgy Wilson’s snipe wasn’t altogether happy with me approaching for a photo
The constantly trawling American avocet
A barn swallow rests at the bird blind while gathering nesting mud

Needless to say, where there is water, there are bugs.  Frank Lake serves these up in abundance, which is what makes this habitat appealing and sustainable for so many bird species.  As a result, during the summer you are likely to encounter plentiful bats swooping across the landscape in pursuit of the insect life.  A bat house, mounted on the one wall of the bird blind, is a reminder of the variety of wildlife that the bugs support here.

Can you spot the cloud of insects that almost blur the bird blind in this picture?
Even the insect life can be seen proliferating and procreating
Bee hives and the landscape shrouded in smoke from the August 2018 fires
Busy bee hives

While many bird species remain resident at Frank Lake from the early spring through to late fall, massive flocks of birds make the wetland a screeching cacophony of a variety of bird calls during the spring and fall migrations.  Flocks of trumpeter swan, tundra swan and white-faced ibis may be seen during brief migratory windows.  Birds seen here on one day may be gone the next.  There is even significant variation from hour-to-hour.  So, be sure to revisit the Lake on a regular basis throughout the year to enjoy the diverse bird sightings. Be prepared to blow your mind, particularly if you have any photography bent. You will not be starved for fabulous photographic opportunities!

It’s not uncommon to see flocks of migrating birds at Frank Lake in the spring and fall
Christa recording the cacophony of bird noise
Photographers are not starved for material to capture on film at Frank Lake
Photographic material abounds at Frank Lake, as does the bird life

Remember to bring:

  • Binoculars
  • Camera
  • Tripod
  • Note book and pencil
  • Shoes suitable for marsh walking (or a change of shoes)
  • Bug spray
  • Sunscreen
  • Hat
  • Light sweater to protect against the wind (& bugs)
  • Snacks
  • Drinking water
  • Emergency toilet paper (serviced portable toilets are available)
A killdeer luring us away from her young
A killdeer and chicks
A trio of swooping yellow winged blackbirds
Yellow winged and red winged blackbirds abound
Not much good is reported about the “parasitic” brown-headed cowbird that are abundant
A pair of Canada geese

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