2022-05-25&26 Long Drive Through Banff and Jasper

Swamp Sparrow - Melospiza georgiana
I first met a wintering Swamp Sparrow out of its native range in San Diego. I was pleased to meet it on its breeding grounds during my hike around the Beaver Boardwalk in Hinton Alberta.
Lincoln's Sparrow - Melospiza lincolnii
The first bird to show itself to me at the Beaver Boardwalk in Hinton Alberta, was a Lincoln’s Sparrow.
Northern Waterthrush - Parkesia noveboracensis
I was excited to finally find a Northern Waterthrush on its breeding grounds during my hike around the Beaver Boardwalk in Hinton Alberta.
Solitary Sandpiper - Tringa solitaria
For a long time, the Solitary Sandpiper was a nemesis bird for me. Now I was pleased to meet it on its breeding grounds during my hike around the Beaver Boardwalk in Hinton Alberta.
Athabasca Falls - Scenery
I needed a break from my drive from Banff to Jasper Alberta. Athabasca Falls was the perfect place to stretch my legs.

I didn’t do much birding after leaving Lewistown Montana on May 20. Any birds I met during this part of the expedition came at 60 mph, and in quick glances. I thought I’d better cover some ground if I wanted to get the Canadian portion of my trip underway. 

I crossed the Canadian border on Monday (2022-05-23) at Sweet Grass Montana. I expected to endure some Covid-19 protocol quarantine, but the only hurdle I faced was a search of the RV and an interview, neither of which was a problem. I drove away from the customs station with a plan to head north, crossing the prairies of southern Alberta. After about 100 miles, I grew weary of the featureless stubble of long ago harvested grain stretching out to the infinite horizon. There was a sterility vibe to the landscape, and it pained me to imagine those long-gone grass prairies when all manner of migrating megafauna marched, unimpeded between Mexico and the Canadian Arctic.

Once in Canada, I tested the internet speed my phone provided, and I was encouraged at the 5G coverage I found. Soon, I realized the speed came at a price. After the first few bytes of bandwidth, the roaming agreement of my Verizon plan was limited to a trickle. I was getting data through an eye-dropper, but I needed it in buckets. I had some unanticipated chores to sort out if I was going to execute my plans for keeping my birding travelog engaged. Without going into too much detail, after doing my research Monday night, Tuesday I purchased a plan in Calgary with a Canadian carrier (Telus) that delivered the data in the quantities and speed that solved my problem. 

With my internet sorted out, I drove west out of Calgary towards Banff. The driving I did Monday through the vast agricultural prairies was dull, with very little in the way of native habitat left. I saw only the stubble of cut wheat or other grass crops from the previous season. I left my drive aside by pulling into a rest area, or what Canada calls a “Roadside Pullout”. I saw no signage prohibiting overnight parking, so I thought it would be a good place to stay for the night. I wanted to drive through Banff in the morning, and not rush through without a place to park for the night. 

During my roadside stay, I plotted a course through Banff, Jasper, and Grande Cache, with breakfast and a couple of birding spots on the way to Banff. Wednesday morning I drove about 40 miles to Canmore Alberta on my way to Banff and beyond. I found a place for breakfast and after my meal, I hunted down a place to refill my propane tanks, called Canmore Outdoor Power Equipment. It was the only place in town that refilled tanks. I wasn’t empty, but I always prefer to stay topped off when I can.

Using eBird’s “HotSpot” tools, I learned of a place in town where I’d might look for birds. It’s called the “Policeman’s Bridge”. There are several birds I’d hoped to meet. One being the Boreal Chickadee, and another being the Gray or Canada Jay. I’ve met them in the past, but my inventory of images is very limited. Another place I learned about was called Johnson Lake. It was further up the road and nearer to Banff.

Using eBird’s HotSpot tool is interesting. It can’t be counted on to find specific birds every time, but it is more like a snapshot of what other observers have seen. I’ve begun using it to evaluate habitat, and to see if any interesting species have been recently seen there. Using this process has given me the opportunity to explore places I might have otherwise overlooked. However, there have been some duds where the habitat has deteriorated, and it just isn’t a fun place to hangout. This failure is not common, and most of the places I’ve looked into have been educational. Hell, even the “duds” are educational!

I found that the place in town (Policeman’s Bridge) fell into the “dud” category. It seemed to me that over-ambitious real estate developers are stepping onto and building on some of the better habitat. It spoiled the birding experience for me. Johnson Lake, on the other hand, was more joyful. I met a singing Warbling Vireo in the trees above the lake, that lent himself to captures by my camera.

I did a lot of road-time Wednesday, and after I left Johnson Lake, I didn’t stop until Athabasca Falls, about 30 minutes before Jasper. I took a break from the drive there, because my legs needed to stretch. The falls were dramatic. Here the Athabasca River has cut down through layers of hard rock laid down over many millennia, sending its torrents falling over 75 feet to the channel below. The exposed sheer rock faces appeared as layers of bricks laid by a master mason. I took a few pictures with my new phone. As is my obsession, I wandered the grounds to see what birds might be about, but I didn’t find much going on. Perhaps if I’d spent some time hiking the surrounding trails, I’d have seen more. But this wasn’t the day for an extensive search. After reviewing all the miles ahead, I felt I needed to cover some ground. I can only hope I’ll find some locations along my route where birds will surrender to me nearer to the roadside places I can stop to visit them.

The road in and out of Banff is called the Trans-Canada Highway. I followed it to Lake Louise, where I split off on a road called the Icefield Parkway. I can’t overstate how spectacular the Icefield Parkway views are. Massive snow-capped peaks line each side of the road with mighty glaciers clinging to the rocks above. I could only imagine the miles-thick glaciers, that only tens of thousands of years ago, carved out this gorge on which we travel. Draining this valley to the south is the Bow River, carrying its water to Banff and Calgary, then into a system draining into the Hudson Bay. To the north, The Athabasca River flows to Jasper and into a system that finally finds its way to the Arctic Ocean via the Mackenzie River.

I spent Wednesday night at the roadside a few miles south of Jasper, and I considered my options for the next few days of travel. Lesser Slave Lake was a stay I remembered fondly in 2005 and was a notable trap for warbler migration. Research showed it was a five-hour drive from Jasper, but I hoped to find some locations to meet birds along the way. I would follow a route that would include many of the same stops as my 2005 trip to Alaska. While I prefer to travel along unexplored roads, given the time that has passed, this could be like a *new* road to me. Certainly, the circumstances will be better. (Review my story of the 2005 episode <Here>.) After consulting my notes from my 2005 story, I saw ‌the dates coincided with where I am on this trip, though I seem about 10 days earlier on this expedition. I think the dates were pretty good for meeting birds in 2005. If I’m early, I may want to adjust my pace accordingly.

On my drive to Lesser Slave Lake, I found a place in Hinton Alberta that had a great place for birding at a swamp called the Beaver Boardwalk. I spent several hours there and met species that were unusual for me. I met the Northern Waterthrush and the Swamp Sparrow, along with several other species. There was one species I missed getting any pictures of, and that was a Blue Jay. There were species reported for this location, but I wasn’t able to meet them, such as the Boreal Chickadee. But I was happy with the birds that I got.

After spending Thursday night boondocking at a truck stop in Whitecourt, I arrived at Lesser Slave Lake Friday afternoon and rather than the boondock camping I’d been doing, I booked into Marten River Campground at Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park. I’m sure there will be stories to tell of my time here, but first, I wanted to share my experiences of my trip getting here.

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