Manitoba has numerous Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) scattered about the province, some small and others quite large. One of the largest is the Whitewater Lake WMA in southwestern Manitoba, between the towns of Boissevain and Deloraine. If you’re interested in birds, or looking for a new spot to visit, you might like to check it out. We drove there last year and were pleasantly surprised, as the place is much more developed than when we’d visited a few years earlier.
Classed as a “globally signifi-cant Important Bird Area” (IBA), Whitewater Lake is a shallow saline wetland, about 9,000 hectares in size. It is a major breeding area for ducks and a staging area for waterfowl, shorebirds and tundra swans, a stopover place during both spring and fall migration. The numbers given are staggering. Studies show that during migration as many as 190,000 snow geese, 509,000 ducks and 23,000 shorebirds may pass through here, as well as 12,000 sandhill cranes and up to 20,000 tundra swans. (Spring swan numbers peak in late April/early May, and fall numbers in October/early November.) In total, the region is said to provide habitat for over 110 species of birds.
On our visit we didn’t see signifi cant numbers of geese or cranes – perhaps we were too early – but we did see pelicans, cormorants, about 20 or more lovely tundra swans and various ducks such as American coots and mallards. Shorebirds were plentiful including the greater yellowlegs, marbled godwits and the American avocet, a beautiful long-legged bird which I hadn’t seen in such large numbers before. Several sections of Whitewater around the edge of the water. The lake is subject to frequent periods of drought, for instance in the late 1980s when the lake was dry. In order to offset that, Ducks Unlimited began a wetland development project on the eastern side about 20 years ago. Dikes were built to form two cells to hold in fresh run-off water and keep out the saltier lake water. (These would be nice for canoeing, if you enjoy that.)
Lake are accessible by local gravel roads, but the area we visited, the most developed section, is on the southeastern corner of the lake. The easiest route is to take Highway No. 3, three miles south of Boissevain, drive seven miles west, and then follow the signs north and west. (A slightly shorter route goes cross-country from just south of Boissevain.)
Fed mainly by run-off waters from the Turtle Mountains, Whitewater Lake has no outlet, and the salts that give it its name – it was once known as White Lake – form a white crust
More recently a public access area (wheelchair accessible) has been developed by Manitoba Conservation with a visitor centre, parking area, picnic shelter and several information signs. A viewing mound looks out over the freshwater cells, and north of the mound is a short boardwalk into the marsh. Beyond that are trails leading north and east to the Lake View Tower. For those wanting a much longer walk, or a bike ride, the Marsh Dike Trail will lead you around the marsh. We walked as far as the Lake View Tower but the sun was setting so we made our way back to the entrance. We visited in the fall but the spring migration is impressive too, and the birds’ plumage is brighter and showier at that time. (The American avocets we saw in September already sported their pale fall/winter plumage.) Summer visits usually offer sightings of various ducks and shorebirds. Black-crowned night herons breed in the area in significant numbers, as well as more than 3,000 pairs of Franklin’s gulls. Cattle egrets are frequent visitors, also.
For those who are less interested in birds, the region has other interesting features. On the way to the lake we discovered Strathallen School, an old country school still standing with a memorial cairn nearby. We saw a sizable herd of buffalo, and many oilwells, which I hadn’t realized were that far east. All in all, it was an interesting afternoon and evening, topped off by a colourful sunset. If you go, remember your binoculars and bird book – and your camera, of course!
Recommended books for birders visiting this area are Finding Birds in Southern Manitoba, published by the Manitoba Naturalists Society and the Brandon Naturalists Society; and two books by Bill Stilwell: Scenic Secrets of Manitoba and Manitoba, Naturally. If you want to drive by the back roads, Backroad Mapbook, Southern Manitoba is useful. – Donna Gamache writes from MacGregor, Manitoba