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Good Spot For Birdwatching

With spring’s arrival, many of us can hardly wait to start enjoying the great outdoors. It’s a little early for camping, but not too early for a nice drive and a short walk or two. Last year in April I enjoyed an outing to a couple of spots along southern Lake Manitoba: St. Ambroise Beach Provincial Park on the southeast side of the lake and the Delta Beach area at the south end. (This spring with plenty of snow and a late melt, one might need to go later.)

Both places are part of the 18,000-hectare Delta Marsh Wildlife Management Area, which has one of the greatest freshwater marshes in the world. Delta Marsh is famous as a staging area for wildfowl, and as a stopping point in spring and fall for migrating songbirds, especially warblers.

St. Ambroise Beach Provincial Park, at the north end of PR 430, is often one of the latest parks to open for camping. On the visit last year I discovered why. Even though the snow had melted early, and the ice breakup was two or three weeks ahead of most years, there were still large snowbanks along the lake and into the campground (April 18, 2010). Any year when the snow melts late, the campsites will certainly not be ready by the time the season opens elsewhere in the province. But even with the snowbanks, the sun was warm and the air full of the sounds of returning birds. Blackbirds, flickers, robins and juncos flitted about; ducks and Canada geese flew overhead; and chattering seagulls perched on ice floes in the lake. Loud frogs also proclaimed that spring was here.

Although parts of the beach were snow covered, I strolled a short distance along the wet sand. Then I took the Sioux Pass Marsh self-guiding trail out into the marsh, walking on the boardwalk through tall stands of the previous year’s grass. At the end of the trail an observation tower allows for gazing over the marsh and out towards the lake. I also walked through part of the campground, where the snow had melted, but a hiking trail to the south was still covered with snow and water. This trail is closed from April 25 to August 5 because it passes through the nesting area of the piping plover.

The beach is one of the few nesting spots in the province of these endangered shorebirds, of which it is believed there are only about 30 pairs left in Manitoba.

The St. Ambroise Campground has over 90 sites, all close to the beach. Perhaps you’d enjoy camping there later in summer. If you’re a keen birdwatcher, spring is a good time to go, but perhaps in May or early June, if you’re looking for rare warblers or the beautiful orchard oriole.

A short distance southeast of the park along PR 411 is another interesting spot: the Lake Francis Tall-Grass Prairie, a small remnant of the tall grass prairie that once covered much of southern Manitoba – and our most endangered plant community.

Farther south and west (along PR 227, about 10 km west from PR 430) is a provincial heritage site: the Flee Island Dakota Entrenchment. This is the remains of “cunkaske,” protective circles of wood, stone and earth built by the Dakota (Sioux) for protection against enemies, animals or the elements. It is believed that this one was built in 1864 after an attack by Chippewa bounty hunters from Minnesota. Little remains except for hollowed pits and ridges, but it is culturally significant to First Nations groups.

The last stop on my drive was the section of Delta Heritage Marsh near Delta Beach, at the south end of Lake Manitoba. (Follow PR 240 north from Portage la Prairie, or if you’re driving along PR 227, follow it until you reach PR 240 and then go north.) Stop at the Cadman Bay interpretive signs as you near the lake. Then follow other signs to the “Taking Flight” self-guiding trail near the buildings, which are owned and operated by the Delta Waterfowl Foundation. These used to be the foundation’s headquarters but that moved to Winnipeg several years ago. Research is still carried on there, especially by university students in summer, and there are plans to spruce up these buildings.

The trail is one km return and is wheelchair accessible, except for the observation tower. Included are ponds, information signs, a duck blind, and nesting structures and houses for mallards, wood ducks and geese. By April 18 last year several geese were already sitting on eggs. They didn’t move even though I passed close by. A little later in the spring ducks would also be nesting, and along the lake would be numerous migrating songbirds.

I walked the Taking Flight Trail and then out along the lake. The beach was still snow covered, but a flock of swans swam in the shallow water. Seeing them was a fitting conclusion to an afternoon’s explorations.

– Donna Gamache writes from MacGregor, Manitoba

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