FEATURES - Winter 1997
The Spectacular Beaverhill Lake Snow Goose Festival
By Elaine Lye
Thousands of nature enthusiasts and bird lovers will be watching the skies for the arrival of spring's first snow goose. Once again, curious on-lookers will flock to Beaverhill Lake for the fifth annual Snow Goose Festival, April 26-27, to celebrate the spectacular migration of a variety of birds to their northern breeding grounds.
Each spring u-shaped lines of thousands of white geese with black-tipped wings fly from their wintering areas in California, Mexico, New Mexico and Texas to gather at Beaverhill Lake near Tofield, Alberta before heading north. The Snow Goose Festival celebrates the migration of over 100,000 birds at Beaverhill Lake. Photo by G.W. Beyersbergen.
"The lake is one of the most important migratory bird staging sites in western Canada," says Gerry Beyersbergen, a wildlife biologist with Environment Canada's Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS).
In May, 1996, Beaverhill Lake became part of the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN). Beaverhill Lake, only the fourth such site in Canada, is now an internationally protected shorebird area.
The Snow Goose Festival has become one of the largest of its kind in western Canada. Last year, approximately 6,000 people attended the festival.
"More and more people are coming to the festival from across the province and outside of Alberta," says Beyersbergen.
It is a spring-time favorite for many people like Emily, a visitor at the 1996 festival. "I could hardly believe that so many birds could flock to one place! It is something that you really can't believe until you see."
During the first week of May, the last of the snow geese leaves Beaverhill Lake. "Beaverhill Lake is where the geese feed, rest and fatten up before they head north. If you want to see the largest number of geese the best time to come to the Snow Goose Festival is either in the early morning or toward the evening," says Canadian Wildlife Service biologist, Paul Pryor. The birds will eventually arrive at their arctic nesting grounds by mid-May, marking the end of their seasonal migration.
The festival provides the thousands of visitors to Beaverhill Lake with the unique opportunity to hear and watch the flocks of snow geese up close in their undisturbed and natural habitat. The geese are usually seen in very large flocks and they are vocal.
"If they all get going together, they sound like the brass section of a junior high band warming up their horns," says Beyersbergen.
The wingspan of the snow goose is about 90 cm and its average weight is 2.2 to 2.7 kilograms, the male being larger. When flying, they stay together in large groups but do not generally fly in Vs like Canada geese. Instead, they form lines or Us that change shape frequently. Snow geese are sometimes called "wavies" because of the apparent waving motion of the flying lines of geese. When the thousands of birds take to the sky at Beaverhill Lake, "it looks like a big dark cloud is overhead," says Pryor.
But snow geese are not the only type of bird you will see at the festival. You'll experience a grand wonder of nature as many other migrating Canada geese, white-fronted geese, swans, cranes, various shorebirds and a variety of songbirds arrive at Beaverhill Lake. Other wildlife like foxes, owls, hawks, coyotes, deer and moose have also made appearances during past festivals.
Perhaps the most popular attractions of the festival are the guided bus tours and hikes. Biologists from federal, provincial, non-government wildlife agencies and naturalist organizations lead participants through key bird-watching sites. Prices are only $4 per person or $12 per family.
"It's a great opportunity for people to get an experienced guide to explain what's going on and to help locate the best viewing locations," says Jackie Kallal, Director of Community Development for the Town of Tofield. "I've seen all those happy faces as people get off the tour buses. It's really a unique experience." Bus tours and guided field hikes usually sell out quickly.
Kallal has a few tips for first-time festival goers. "Be sure to dress for the weather. Rubber boots or hiking boots are essential for walking near the lake. Also, if you miss out on the tours or don't feel up to a hike, there is a free shuttle bus out to Francis viewpoint and other viewing areas. You'll still have a chance to enjoy watching the birds from there."
Snow goose watching is just one of the attractions at this bird haven. The festival also offers a program for all interests and skills, including many free, family-oriented activities in the Town of Tofield. Wildlife exhibits, an art show and sale, a kids enviro-education centre, art classes, a craft sale and a hearty pancake breakfast are only a few of the in-town events. You can also try your hand at the bird house building competition. On the Saturday night of the festival, everyone is welcome to the Tofield community hall to share a special evening with the volunteers who make this unique event possible.
For more information and to purchase Saturday night tickets (including dinner) after March 1, call the Town of Tofield at 662-3269 or the John Janzen Nature Centre in Edmonton at 496-6950. Also beginning March 1, tour registrations will be taken at the Tofield town office at the above phone number.
The Snow Goose Festival is sponsored by many wildlife, natural history and community organizations, local media and also enjoys the support of hundreds of volunteers who help make the event a success.