Birding out at Chaplin

Lisa
Lisa Goudy
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Chaplin Nature Centre big draw for nature lovers

It is not a pleasant smell driving down the dirt roads by Chaplin Lake.

When the wind blows, white salt scatters along the roads and water. If there were a lot of rain recently, mud would splat in every direction as the truck drove through the private roads. It’s easy to want to cringe at the smell.

Yet Chaplin Lake serves as a midway point for many birds, specifically shorebirds such as American avocets and piping plovers, in their annual migration patterns. The birds come from Mexico just north of Puerto Vallarta, stop off at the Great Salt Lake in Utah and then come to Chaplin Lake and Old Wives Lake to lay eggs, refuel or move on up north to the Arctic.

Between 10,000 and 12,000 visitors from around the world stop by the Chaplin Nature Centre every summer to learn about the birds or to go on the dirt roads for a bird tour.

“It’s all about doing something that might help small town Saskatchewan. As a businessperson in the community, I was always interested in anything to help to make things a little better, bring a few more people to the community,” said Clem Millar as he drove down the bumpy road, eyeing the waters for birds.

“This is one of those things where we knew it wasn’t going to be huge, but it did have some potential.”

He recalled when, in 1994, representatives of the Saskatchewan Wetland Conservation Corporation came out to the community of Chaplin, which has 250 residents. They mentioned they’d done surveys and discovered shorebirds come through Chaplin Lake, Reed Lake and Old Wives Lake in southern Saskatchewan.

Then the idea of creating a tourism centre for education on the need for conservation of habitat and wildlife was born. “People in small town Saskatchewan are a little bit hesitant to take on something new, change and whatnot. The community couldn’t understand how people might come to view shorebirds on this lake because it’s a lake where the salt blows steady, you’ve got a smell there in the summertime and who in the world would come to Chaplin, Saskatchewan to view shorebirds?” said Millar.

But he was one of eight or 10 people who decided to take a chance on it.

“I’ve always been kind of outdoorsy. I ride horses a lot … but I never got involved with birds until this and it kind of grows on you,” he said. “As you start to understand, it just seems that you start to pick it up and start to feel a little more comfortable with it.

“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time on this, on being a part of this because it’s absolutely different than anything I’ve ever done before and I meet a lot of people.”

In 1997 the area was designated a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve. The centre currently operates without any consistent government funding.

“We have never been in the red,” said Millar. “We knew from the start this place had to live on its own merits and on its own two feet.”

At the centre, visitors can learn about the brine shrimp, which are a source of high-protein foodfor the birds. Some of the birds can double their body weight by feeding on the shrimp over a period of 10 to 14 days.

They will find out about the “white stuff” surrounding the area, he said. Saskatchewan Minerals mine sodium sulfate out of Chaplin Lake and provide many jobs that has kept the community of Chaplin on its feet.

They can view the hand-painted mural of the scenery on a curved wall in the centre. From May to June, the centre also offers a school program.

“It’s much easier to get young people thinking right than it is to change the minds of an old guy like me,” said Millar. “So if we can get the young ones thinking about this kind of stuff, maybe it will help for the future.”

And anyone can head out on a 30-minute or two-hour bird tour on a private road to see many types of birds in May to the end of August. Learn about the endangered piping plovers that come to rest at Chaplin Lake. There are only 5,000 piping plovers left in the world and about 100 pairs hang out in Chaplin.

Or learn about the phalarope, where the females lay eggs and leave the eggs for the male to incubate and raise the young.

“It doesn’t matter that somedays you don’t get as many varieties as other days, but you get so close,” said Millar. “You hardly need your binioculars to come out here and get some close viewing of the actual product.”

For more information, visit chaplintourism.com or call 306-695-2277.

Lisa Goudy can be reached at 306-691-1289 or follow her on Twitter @lisagoudy

Organizations: Chaplin Nature Centre, Saskatchewan Wetland Conservation, Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve

Geographic location: Chaplin, Saskatchewan, Old Wives Lake Mexico Puerto Vallarta Great Salt Lake Utah Arctic Reed Lake Southern Saskatchewan

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