It’s the jet noise that first makes me look up. I was pursuing a black-throated green warbler in Northern Alberta’s boreal forest when a super-sonic rumble drew my gaze higher.
Located 14 kilometres east of Royal Canadian Air Force Station Cold Lake is Cold Lake Provincial Park, home of two fighter jet squadrons, where the presence of these powerful flying machines adds to the birdwatching excitement.
Cold Lake Provincial Park is one of Alberta’s best destinations for spring birdwatching. Situated in a transition zone between boreal forest and aspen parkland habitats, more than 200 bird species have been recorded here, including 22 colourful warbler species.
I set up camp, literally, in one of the park’s best places to search for avian treasures. At Lund’s Point campground, the A loop sits at the base of a narrow peninsula poking into Cold Lake.
There are plenty of birds to see along the peninsula, but the foot trail from A loop to Hall’s Lagoon connects me to aspen forests, wetlands and riparian habitats. I meet a grey-haired man on the trail, his baseball cap adorned with a bird logo and binoculars hanging from his weathered neck, hinting he’s a fellow bird lover.
He asks if I had heard a nearby bird. I pause, as a soft, repetitive trill drifts over the morning air. With the confidence of a long-time bird lover, he tells me that was a black-throated green warbler.
The tiny yellow-faced, black and white warbler with black throat is a bird I’ve never seen — a lifer in birder parlance — so I search the trees carefully for the source of the noise. It’s not an easy task with thick forest, leaves obscuring birds tinier than chickadees, but I find the warbler, and also a blackburnian warbler, a black and orange spectacle, and a pine grosbeak with vivid pink, black and white feathers.
Elated from my successful morning of birdwatching, and wanting to quit while I’m ahead, I take an afternoon drive to Cold Lake to better see the planes. On Kingsway Road near the air base, I pull into a parking lot. Lights blinked on a CF-18 Hornet before the pilot hits the throttle and the plane blasts by in a noisy liftoff, flying high over the same forests used by nature’s aviators.
I aim my camera at the metal flying machine before I notice a sign warning photographers not to use lenses longer than 300mm. I put my gear away and use my phone to take a short video. A fellow standing nearby wanders over to ask if I’ve ever seen Exercise Maple Flag. At my puzzled expression, he explains how the sky was full of planes when Canada’s allies brought aircraft and crews for several weeks to practice war manoeuvres.
It seems the boreal landscape, which is good habitat for songbirds, is also popular with human aviators. The vast forests with numerous lakes resemble European topography and make it a good backdrop for military training although I later learn Exercise Maple Flag hasn’t been held since 2019.
Continuing my skyward observations, I add a side trip to St. Paul, a town of approximately 6,000 people about 120 kilometres southwest, and Canada’s first UFO Landing Pad. The attraction isn’t as strange as it sounds.
The citizens of St. Paul came up with the idea during Canada’s 1967 Centennial Celebrations. Wanting to be ready in case extra-terrestrials made contact, the sign to the large cement platform cautioned earthlings “if we fail to travel Earth without destroying the environment, how shall we ever travel the universe safely?” Timely advice as humans race ahead with Mars exploration while many songbirds, like the ones I saw this morning, speed towards extinction.
I walk towards the cement platform and a gardener weeding nearby blooms. He tips his baseball cap back when I ask if the landing pad has ever been used. Smile lines near his eyes creased as he tells me no one has yet seen a spaceship land, and his easy smile hints that I’m not the first to ask.
A sign proclaims the Landing Pad and UFO tourism information centre sits at the intersection of Galaxy Way and 50th Avenue. In 1967 there were 100 UFO-themed celebratory activities in St. Paul including Martian-inspired hairdos and a lunar property auction, but today I find only a few space-themed remnants in the U.F.O. Pizza and the Galaxy hotel signs.
Peeking through the window of the saucer-shaped tourism information centre I see handiwork of local artisans for sale, although few have a space theme. Whether residents have lost interest in their galactic connection, I can’t confirm as the building is closed but streaking across the sky are birds and aircraft taking advantage of the northern Alberta landscape. I watch a sparrow flit past flags flapping against a blue sky and realize the sentiment to take care of earth while contemplating space exploration is still valid even if none of the current visitors are from outer space.