The Quill Lakes - a Birder's Delight

By Joan Eyolfson Cadham

    Prairie Tips & Ethics  
They were named for the population they so thoroughly support. They were named for the goose quills which the Indians once collected, first for their own needs and then to bring to the fort at Touchwood for export to Europe.  
  The Quill Lakes, about 90 minutes drive from Saskatoon, east on Highway 16, are the largest inland body of salt water in North America. They form a RAMSAR site and are a bird watchers' paradise.  
  To be designated a RAMSAR site, a wetlands of international importance, a site has to host more than 1,090,000 shorebirds or 15 percent of a flyway population annually. The Quills are officially recognized as a Western Hemisphere Shoreline Reserve Network Site, part of a chain of 23 reserves in several countries including the U.S., Mexico, Brazil, Surinam, Argentina and Peru.
  The Reserve covers 40,000 acres including the salt lakes, freshwater marshes, mixed grass prairie and aspen parkland.

The Quill Lakes area is home to 34 species of shorebirds, including the endangered Piping Plover. Other species include the American Avocet, the Marbled Godwit, the Least Sandpiper, the Semi-palmated Sandpiper, the Red-necked Phalarope, the Stilt Sandpiper, and the Hudsonian Godwit. However, this area of Saskatchewan is also a major migratory flyway and the Quill Lakes, nearby Fishing Lake, and the Foam Lake Marsh provide a staging area for 400,000 ducks, 130,000 snow geese, 80,000 Canada geese and 40,000 sandhill cranes. Middle Quill Lake (Mud Lake) has a colony of 400 White Pelicans, and Fishing Lake attracts cormorants as well. The area has the distinction of providing habitat for endangered species, including the whooping crane, Baird's sparrow, the ferruginous hawk, and the peregrine falcon.

The Quills (Big Quill Lake, Mud Lake and Little Quill Lake) cover an area of about 230 square miles, tucked between Highways 35 and 6 east and west and Highways 5 and 16 north and south. Big Quill is roughly 18 miles long north and south and 11 miles across at the widest point. Little Quill is about 15 miles long, running east and west, and six miles wide. Mud Lake bridges the two bigger lakes. The three together form one body of connected water with a common level.  
  The Quills were formed when the last of the continental ice sheet retreated more than 10,000 years ago. The lakes are at the lowest part of the glacial lake basin so that there is no outflow of water. Some spring water and seasonal run off makes its way into the lake system but evaporation has created a highly saline body of water.  
  As water levels drop, the lakes reveal massive expanses of apparently white sand beaches. In truth, the area is a large mud flat with an alkaline topping, as tough to drive on as slick ice.  
  In spite of the size, the lakes basin is really a shallow saucer set into the Quill Plain. Reports of water depths vary from about 20 feet to two feet. The bottom shifts, creating sand bars. The water is not particularly navigable and metal parts on a water craft would rust quickly because of the salt.
  Besides birds, the area supports deer and smaller animals, in particular foxes, skunks and coyotes. White tail deer are very common.  
Much of the shoreline and adjacent upland around Big Quill is provincial Crown Land that is being transferred to the Saskatchewan Wetland Conservation Corporation, the provincial co-ordinator for the North American Waterfowl Management Plan program.  
  There are viewing sites around the lakes.  
  Tourists are reminded that driving on wet alkali is not recommended. As well, much of the land is hay bottom harvested by local farmers, or grain fields. Tourists are asked to please check with farmers before crossing fields. Even foot traffic can seriously damage a crop and vehicle ruts can damage expensive farm equipment. Driving through grain fields or across stubble can cause field fires. Ask about trails and foot paths.  
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Farmland & Prairie Tips & Ethics for birders and nature seekers