By Kevin Rushworth
With Frank Lake quickly becoming an international birding destination, a recent situation where nature photographers were caught disturbing nests and sensitive habitat has caused concern for a local biologist.
Greg Wagner, wildlife biologist, said bird watchers have always known about the lake east of town as an international destination.
“Nature photography has really taken off in the last five to seven years and nature photographers outnumber the amount of bird watchers five to one,” he said.
At the end of May, Wagner said he confronted two nature photographers who were walking back and forth through the emergent cattail beds north of the observation blind.
The reeds are home to nesting colonies of black-crowned night herons as well as one of the largest colonies of the white-faced ibis in Alberta.
“What these actions do is force birds off their nests, which lead them to be open for predation and chilling of eggs,” Wagner said. “When you rush a bird off a nest, they can often spill nests or spill young off nests.”
Wagner noted that destroying nests is a direct violation of the Alberta Wildlife Act. He said others have noted other people doing similar inappropriate activities at Frank Lake.
“First and foremost, Frank Lake is a nature conservation area and if you’re in there destroying nests, you’re defeating the purpose of the lake,” Wagner said.
The observation blind was funded by Cargill and Wagner said great photographs can be taken from there without disrupting the birds.
“If you’ve got patience, you’re going to get the good shots,” he said. “Most wildlife photographers know that. There is a contingent of people out there who will do anything for their shots and that’s unfortunate.”
If people witness people disturbing birds, the situation can be reported and investigated by Fish and Wildlife officers, Wagner said.
Wagner said he contacted the Report a Poacher line at 1-800-642-3800 and told the officer he caught two photographers disturbing nests in direct violation of the Alberta Migratory Bird Convention Act among others.
Recently, Wagner pitched his Come Bird With Us proposal to the Town of High River and is hoping for confirmation on the Hughes-Mercer lands being turned into a nature sanctuary.
“I put together that proposal and clearly, if you look at the economic and demographic numbers, there are opportunities for millions of dollars to flow into this town because of the birding activity at Frank Lake,” Wagner said.
Although more photographers and birders would come to High River, there’s a chance for people not understanding protocol. Wagner said most of it comes down to learning opportunities.
“It’s a matter of education by and large,” he said. “Camera prices have really come down and you’ve got a lot of people taking a real interest in it.”
Wagner said 99 per cent of the birders and photographers are Frank Lake are following the rules, but there are only one or two “bad eggs.”
If the Hughes-Mercer lands west of George Lane Park are to move forward as a nature sanctuary, a nature centre could solve many of the questions before birders visit the lakes.
“Established bird watchers and photographers also have a role in this,” Wagner said. “If I see somebody acting inappropriately, I’ll point out you’re maybe a little too close to that bird or that nest,” Wagner noted.
In addition, he is also in the process of creating a naturalist group to help the town look after the birding opportunities and information in the area.
Currently, the Town of High River is in the process of launching a tourism website with six different themes—one of which is bird watching.
Residents who enjoy walking their dogs around Frank Lake are asked to keep their pets on leash from April 1 to July 1. After those months, the dogs can be off leash, Wagner said.
The website is sure to draw many more birders and nature photography enthusiasts into town, from many different countries.
“If you were to sit there in the blind for eight hours a day, five days a week through an open water period, you would probably meet people from 20 countries and 20 states,” Wagner said.
For more information, please check out www.highrivertourism.com. Wait for the completion of the birding tab of the website.