Spring in Waterton (Photo by NCC)

Spring in Waterton (Photo by NCC)

A grasslands odyssey

Gus Yaki leads tour of southern Alberta

Gus Yaki and fellow walkers near Milk River (Photo by Patrick Mahaffey)

Gus Yaki and fellow walkers near Milk River (Photo by Patrick Mahaffey)

Originally from Creston, British Columbia, Angela Waldie moved to Calgary in 2004 to study environmental literature at the University of Calgary. She teaches at Mount Royal University, writes poetry and creative non-fiction, and is dedicated to raising awareness of endangered species and landscapes.

This spring, I had the chance to explore southern Alberta with Calgary-based naturalist Gus Yaki, who organized a walking tour of southern Alberta to recognize Canada’s 150th and raise funds for habitat conservation and research.

While documenting the species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and plants encountered en route, Gus introduced participants to the remarkable biodiversity of the grasslands, wetlands and forests of southern Alberta.

I’ve known Gus for two years, and I’m greatly inspired by the dedication, energy and humour he brings to his passion for conservation. He leads the monthly Elbow River Bird Survey, guides walks for Nature Calgary and teaches birding and botany classes, in season, throughout the city. When I learned that he would be guiding a tour of southern Alberta, with a focus on grassland birds, I leapt at the opportunity to join him.

The journey began in the southeast corner of the province, near the Saskatchewan and Montana borders on May 19, and concluded in Waterton Lakes National Park on June 22. Because of the number of participants, Gus twice guided a group over the first section from the Saskatchewan border to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park before beginning the final segment of the tour. I joined Gus for the first section, from May 19 to 29, and the final section, from June 12 to 22.

Vesper sparrow (Photo by Angela Waldie)

Vesper sparrow (Photo by Angela Waldie)

 

Participants were drawn to this opportunity for a variety of reasons. Susan Church, past Alberta Region chair of the Nature Conservancy of Canada, explained that while she has often toured grasslands in the past, she hasn’t had the opportunity to explore them in this way. “Where else can you get this,” she asks, “where you can walk for this vast stretch?”

Jennifer Solem, who grew up in Saskatchewan, loves the grasslands and feels they’re often undervalued. For her, the walk presented a unique opportunity for a pilgrimage in a place of sometimes misunderstood beauty — a prairie "Camino."

Having grown up in BC, I haven’t spent much time in the grasslands, as I tend to travel to the mountains for hikes or vacations. I’ve entered this landscape vicariously, through the work of writers such as Sharon Butala, Trevor Herriot and Wallace Stegner. Although these writers offer a compelling introduction, reading cannot bring the grasslands alive as much as walking through them, with my senses tuned to birdsong and wind, and the broad expanse of sky.

Walking through the grasslands is a study in subtlety. In the sparsely populated southeastern corner of the province, which is mostly ranchland, we watched chestnut-collared longspurs, western meadowlarks and vesper sparrows singing from atop clumps of sage — the tallest vegetation in sight. We had to step carefully, as occasionally we came across clutches of eggs camouflaged among the grasses — evidence of both the fragility and resilience of this landscape.

Gus Yaki watching a prairie rattlesnake (Photo by Ann Lawson)

Gus Yaki watching a prairie rattlesnake (Photo by Ann Lawson)

 

Temperate grasslands are one of the most endangered ecosystems worldwide, and many resident and migratory species rely on this habitat. We crossed numerous pastures over the course of our trek, and those on which the native vegetation remained undisturbed, or only minimally disturbed, hosted far more species than where the vegetation had been replaced by non-native species.     

Gus obtained permission for us to walk across the Onefour Heritage Rangeland Natural Area, where we heard the ethereal songs of endangered Sprague’s pipits high above us. As we scanned the jet contrails in search of the small white specks responsible for such captivating sounds, I realized the extent to which birds animate and expand the grasslands. Northern harriers as well as Swainson’s, red-tailed and ferruginous hawks often drew our gazes towards the horizon while Sprague’s pipits extended the grassland landscape far into the sky. This expansive realm, however, relies on the preservation of healthy native grasslands. 

This walk also emphasized the importance of wetlands, as we were often amazed at the number of waterfowl and shorebirds we found on a small pond or slough. During a lunch stop, we identified 12 species of ducks, as well as Canada geese, eared grebes, American coots, killdeer, willets, Wilson's phalaropes, Franklin’s gulls and ring-billed gulls around a single slough.

As we transitioned from grasslands to foothills and forests, we encountered woodland bird species, such as hairy woodpeckers and red-naped sapsuckers, flying to and from their nests to feed young. On the trails in Waterton Lakes National Park, American dippers perched on rocky ledges in the spray of waterfalls and western tanagers flashed through the forests in brilliant hues of crimson and yellow.

Hairy woodpecker chick in Waterton Lakes National Park (Photo by Angela Waldie)

Hairy woodpecker chick in Waterton Lakes National Park (Photo by Angela Waldie)

 

Although I felt a certain relief at being back in this familiar forested landscape, I missed the subtle beauty of the grasslands where we had spent so many days of our journey. The contrast between arid grasslands and the lush forests of Waterton Lakes was a powerful reminder of the variety of habitats throughout Alberta.

Over the course of the entire walk, Gus personally recorded 160 species of birds, as well as 27 mammal, four reptile and two amphibian species. He and the other participants raised thousands of dollars in support of conservation.

On July 25, Gus entertained an audience at Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park with a slideshow and stories from the first part of the walk. Additional presentations are scheduled for later this fall.

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