Prairie Provinces: Winter 2023–2024

Winter 2023–2024: 1 Dec–29 Feb

Rudolf Koes

James Fox

Recommended citation:

Koes, R.F., and J. Fox. 2024. Winter 2023–2024: Prairie Provinces. <> North American Birds.

The winter of 2023–2024 was one of extremes in the prairie provinces. Mostly abnormally mild temperatures were broken by two severe cold snaps. Alberta was particularly hard hit around the second week of January, when the temperatures ranged from -35° C to -40° C, bottoming out at -46.4° C at High Level on 15 January. To the east it was slightly less brutal. January finished unseasonably mild in Alberta. Precipitation was low: in Alberta snow cover was non-existent until late February and it was hardly better to the east. With poor fruit and cone crops, most waxwings and winter finches were in low numbers. Similarly northern owls were mostly absent, although locally in southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan Snowy Owls and Northern Hawk-Owls made a bit of a showing.

The mild late fall and early winter enticed numerous waterfowl, passerines and a few other species to linger past normal fall departure dates. Those that survived the January cold spell often made it through the season. Alberta usually harbours numerous geese, swans, ducks and other waterbirds through the winter, especially at cooling ponds and sewage lagoons; hence they are often not included in the region’s winter report. An interesting sidenote here is that a study in the Edmonton area found that although survival rates were high, wintering birds did not reproduce well in following springs. It seems the season took too much out of them.

Geese through Ducks

Two tardy Snow Geese were at Saskatoon, SK on 4–5 Jan (m. ob.). Also late was a Greater White-fronted Goose at Gardiner Dam, SK on 3 Jan (Kale Worman). A tally of 550 Cackling Geese at Gardiner Dam on 3 Jan was high for the time of year (Kale Worman). The first Canada Geese of the spring arrived in Saskatchewan and Manitoba on 23 and 24 Feb, about two weeks earlier than normal (m. ob.). A lone Trumpeter Swan was seen at the Charleswood Sewage Lagoons, Winnipeg, MB on 18 Dec (Bob Shettler) and a day later seven trumpeters made a fly-over near Falcon L, MB (Alvin Dyck). Early were two Trumpeter Swans at Whiteshell PP, MB on 24 Feb (Donna Stewart, ph.) and three at Spruce Woods, MB on 25 Feb (Kendra Imrie). There were several reports of Tundra Swan in Saskatchewan, the latest at the Qu’Appelle Valley Dam, SK on 21 Jan (Jeff Mander, ph.). Lingering dabbling ducks were too numerous to mention all; only the most unusual are recorded here: a Gadwall at Minnedosa, Manitoba until 28 Dec (Erica Alex), with the last one in Saskatchewan on 2 Jan, an American Wigeon through the winter at Crooked L, SK (Don Weidl), two American Black Ducks through the season at Winnipeg (m. ob.) and single Green-winged Teals in February at Gardiner Dam and Saskatoon (m. ob.). Of the diving ducks the following were noted: a Redhead at Echo Valley PP, SK until 17 Feb (m. ob.), three Ring-necked Ducks through the season at Crooked L (Don Weidl), a Harlequin Duck from 2 to 15 Dec at Pine Falls, MB (Nature Manitoba, m. ob.), a Long-tailed Duck at Keephills Cooling Ponds, AB from 6 to 16 Dec (m. ob., ph.), 14 Bufflehead at Boundary Dam, SK on 5 Feb (Brett Quiring, Daniel Sawatzky), a Barrow’s Goldeneye at Saskatoon on 18 Dec (m. ob.), Hooded Mergansers through Feb at Boundary Dam, Crooked L and Pine Falls (m. ob.), a Red-breasted Merganser at Saskatoon from 10 to 24 Feb (John Lundgren, ph.) and finally up to two Ruddy Ducks at Wascana L, Regina, SK until 27 Dec (m. ob.).

Grouse through Owls

A 2023 survey of Greater Sage-Grouse in southern Alberta found only 18 males, with a total population estimated at perhaps 40 birds in the province. The future of this species in the prairie provinces looks bleak. In contrast, Sharp-tailed Grouse appeared to have had a very successful breeding season in 2023 in Manitoba. Numerous observers reported high numbers. Two Eared Grebes at Harris Reservoir, Maple Creek, SK on 20 Dec were unexpectedly late (Sharlane Toole, ph.). There seems to be no stopping the northward spread of Eurasian Collared-Doves in the prairie provinces: two were noted at Churchill, MB on 2 Dec, hundreds of km north of the previous northern-most sighting in the province. One remained until at least 18 Feb (Jennifer Massan, m. ob., ph). A White-winged Dove was first seen near Starbuck, MB on 25 Nov 2023. Numerous birders came out to see it, but it had to be taken in for rehabilitation on 9 Jan 2024 when severe cold visibly weakened it (Carole Penner, m. ob., ph.). A Sandhill Crane lingered near Neepawa, MB until 9 Jan, providing a record-late date for the province (Mark Usick, ph.). Records of peeps in winter are almost unheard of in the prairie provinces, making the sighting of a Baird’s Sandpiper at Gardiner Dam from 3 to 14 Dec most noteworthy (Nick Saunders, Thompson Hyggen, Michael Sveen, ph.). A Black-legged Kittiwake was a rare find at Qu’Appelle Valley Dam on 17 Dec (m. ob., ph.). A California Gull at Saskatoon on 25 Feb was a very early spring migrant (Michael Sveen, ph.), as were single Herring Gulls at St. Adolphe and Winnipeg – likely involving the same bird – also on 25 Feb (Andy Courcelles, Jennifer Fisher). Two Yellow-billed Loons were at the Keephills Cooling Pond from 6 Dec to 8 Jan, departing during the cold spell (m. ob., ph.). A Northern Harrier near Brandon, MB on 19 Feb was a very early spring migrant (Bill & Clayton Gallaway). Sharp-shinned Hawks were more prominent than usual in Manitoba, with at least 13 reported during the season. Both Western and Eastern Screech-Owls continued to be reported in small numbers in southern Alberta (m. ob., ph.). Northern owls were scarce to absent, the only exceptions being Snowy Owls in the Regina area (27 on the Christmas Bird Count on 27 Dec) and southwest of Winnipeg, with a maximum of 19 on 19 Feb (Alvin Dyck, Ron Basin) and Northern Hawk-Owls locally northeast and north of Winnipeg. A Northern Pygmy-Owl was observed on 19 Feb at Meadow Lake PP, SK, in the area where the species has now been present since 2016 (Dan Zazelenchuk). Several Northern Saw-whet Owls wintered; one or two at Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park attracted numerous photographers.

Kingfishers through Cassin’s Finch

A tardy Belted Kingfisher was at Regina 16–17 Dec (Fran Kerbs, ph.) and another bird at La Barrière Park near Winnipeg remained until 12 Jan, providing a first January record for Manitoba (m. ob., ph.). Rare in Saskatchewan, especially in winter, was a Red-headed Woodpecker at Regina from 27 Dec to 27 Feb (Bruce Holmes, Brett Quiring, m. ob., ph.); possibly the same bird was noted there 24–27 Feb (Todd White, Murray Hopfner, ph.). A Red-bellied Woodpecker continued from fall to 7 Jan at Drumheller, AB (m. ob., ph.). Northern Flickers wintered in higher than usual numbers in Manitoba, with as many as six reported, including one or two Yellow-shafted x Red-shafted hybrids, in northeast Winnipeg (m. ob. ph.). Gyrfalcons went virtually unreported. Northern Shrikes were relatively common in southern Manitoba, with as many as five seen during a one-day birding outing (Garry Budyk, Rudolf Koes). Up to six Chestnut-backed Chickadees were at Beauvais Lake PP, AB through the winter (m. ob.). A tardy Ruby-crowned Kinglet lingered at Erindale, SK on 28 Dec. Bohemian Waxwings were scarce, due to a poor fruit crop. Red-breasted Nuthatches had a poor showing in southern Manitoba, but better numbers were noted in Saskatchewan. Saskatchewan’s third Pygmy Nuthatch, first seen on 7 Nov 2023, remained until 10 Jan. Enjoyed by many, it may have succumbed to the cold on the latter date (Daniel Sawatzky, m. ob., ph.). Unusual winter thrush relatives were a Gray Catbird at Assiniboine Park, Winnipeg on 28 and 29 Dec (m. ob., ph.) and another bird that wintered near Selkirk, MB, where it was last reported on 20 Feb (Mary Krieger, m. ob., ph.), plus a Brown Thrasher through the season in Winnipeg (Garry Budyk, John Weier, m. ob.,ph.). A Hermit Thrush at Winnipeg was last reported on 14 Jan, providing the first-ever record for that month in Manitoba (Vitalii Kushtochka, m. ob., ph.). A Eurasian Tree Sparrow was noted at Morden, MB from 20 Dec to 28 Jan (Carol Holmes, m. ob., ph.), with another at Winnipeg in late Feb (m. ob., ph.), while a House Sparrow x Eurasian Tree Sparrow hybrid continued from fall through the winter near Ste. Anne, MB (Vic Reimer). Evening Grosbeak numbers were exceptionally low, a worrying phenomenon. Pine Grosbeaks fared slightly better in Manitoba. Saskatchewan saw a minor influx of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches, with reports from Hafford, La Ronge, Love, Maple Creek, Melfort and Swift Current. A Cassin’s Finch was a rarity from 19 Feb into Mar at Edmonton (m. ob., ph.).

Redpolls through Warblers

Although a few decent-sized flocks of redpoll were reported, numbers were generally low, especially in Alberta. Only Manitoba hosted a fair number of Red Crossbills, with birds mostly seen at feeders, as the cone crop was very poor. White-winged Crossbills were absent. In contrast, Pine Siskins were present in good numbers in Manitoba, e.g. 354 were tallied on the Oak Hammock Marsh Christmas Bird Count (CBC) on 16 Dec. The following uncommon to rare sparrows were reported: a Fox Sparrow from 31 Dec into Mar at Estevan, SK (Kathy Hedegard), lone White-crowned Sparrows at Winnipeg from fall through the season (Ryan Porteous) and at Wascana Lake from 25 Dec into Mar (Daniel Sawatzky), a Harris’s Sparrow at Morden 31 Dec (Carol Holmes), a Vesper Sparrow at Dalmeny, SK on 27 Dec (Nicholas Collis), a Spotted Towhee through the winter at Grande Prairie, AB (Tracy Kirouac, ph.), an Eastern Towhee at Broadview, SK from 14 Dec to 24 Jan (Don Weidl, ph.) and another near Rosser, MB 26 Dec (Sandra Gowan, ph.). Three Yellow-headed Blackbirds at Tofield, AB on 16 Dec were rare winterers (m. ob., ph.), as was a Red-winged Blackbird from Dec to 1 Jan at St. Albert, AB, a first for the local CBC (m. ob., ph.). A Palm Warbler at Drumheller on 1 Jan was unusual (Nathan Heuver). One Pine Warbler at Carlyle, SK was present from 10 Dec to 3 Jan (Don Weidl, m.ob., ph.). Manitoba’s first wintering Pine Warbler was last seen on 18 Jan. It may have fallen prey to a raptor, as it had survived the cold spell earlier in the month (Jan Huth, m. ob., ph.). A Yellow-rumped Warbler was at Calgary from 10 Dec to 8 Jan (Les Ryan), another was seen on the Selkirk/Oak Hammock Marsh CBCs, MB on 16 and 19 Dec and one more yellow-rump was at Brandon on 27 Dec, while an “Audubon’s” Yellow-rumped Warbler was a nice addition to the Regina CBC on 27 Dec (Sarah Ludlow).

Report processed by Andrew Keaveney, 13 Jun 2024.

Photos–Prairie Provinces: Winter 2023–2024

Shorebirds in general – and sandpipers in particular – are very rare in winter in the prairie provinces, making this Baird’s Sandpiper at Gardiner Dam, Saskatchewan, a great find. Initially spotted on 3 Dec 2023, it is seen here on its last date of appearance, 14 Dec. Photo © Nick Saunders.

The Keephills Cooling Ponds west of Edmonton, Alberta, retain open water throughout the winter, attracting many birds, including these two Yellow-billed Loons on 16 Dec 2023. Photo © Jameson Koehn.

Two Northern Saw-whet Owls spent the winter of 2023–2024 at Assiniboine Park, Winnipeg, Manitoba. Roosting in conifers during the day, they were often difficult to find, but occasionally provided nice opportunities for photography. This image was captured on 17 Dec 2023. Photo © Cam Nikkel.

This Chestnut-backed Chickadee, here on 21 Dec 2023, is one of several that were found at Beauvais PP, Alberta during the winter of 2023–2024. Photo © Asher Warkentin.

This Cassin’s Finch at Edmonton, Alberta, seen here on 24 Feb 2024, was well east of its usual range. Photo © James Fox.

This Spotted Towhee, seen here on 16 Feb 2024, wintered successfully at Grande Prairie, Alberta. Photo © Tracey Kirouac.

During the winter of 2015–2016 a Pine Warbler successfully wintered at Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, a first for the province. The bird shown here at Carlyle on 10 Dec 2023 provided Saskatchewan’s second winter record; apparently it did not survive, as it was last reported on 3 Jan 2024. Photo © Don Weidl.

Manitoba’s first wintering Pine Warbler frequented a number of feeders at a Winnipeg garden, where it was last seen on 18 Jan 2024 (here 30 Dec 2023). Photo © Cam Nikkel.