A Prairie Oasis for Shorebirds

Sanderling at Mackie Ranch. Photo by Jason Battle.

As you drive along the Trans-Canada Highway past Chaplin Lake, you’ll likely notice the massive white piles of sodium sulphate from the nearby mine production. But did you know that the saline lake here is also a hot spot for shorebirds?

American Avocet. Photo by Jason Battle (taken at Mackie Ranch).

During spring and fall migrations, thousands of shorebirds use the lake and the surrounding grasslands to stop and refuel or nest. The Nature Conservancy of Canada’s (NCC’s) Mackie Ranch conservation project is located along the eastern shoreline of Chaplin Lake, the second largest saline lake in Canada. The area is within the boundaries of the Chaplin-Old Wives-Reed Lakes Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. This site is one of only three in Canada with the designation of hemispheric importance to shorebirds, and the only site that is located inland. Birds are important for people in terms of health and well-being but also economically through birding, pest control, cleanup, and seed dispersal. Chaplin Lake is known for its remarkable birdwatching opportunities. Over half of the world’s population of sanderlings stop to rest and feed at Chaplin Lake during their spring migration. Many other migratory shorebirds also visit the lake, such as semipalmated sandpiper, Baird’s sandpiper, red knot and piping plover.

Saskatchewan Mining and Minerals Inc. (SMMI) plays an important role in conserving wetland habitat at Chaplin Lake. “Our production keeps the water levels maintained,” says Rodney McCann, president and CEO at SMMI. “Maintaining water levels allows the shoreline to be preserved, which is so important for nesting shorebirds,” said McCann. “Without consistent water levels, in extreme wet seasons, there would be limited shoreline, which is critical for migratory birds. Also, in extreme dry seasons, there would be a low food source for birds, which includes brine shrimp and insects.”

Consistency is important for both the birds and the mining operations. “The higher the brine density, the higher the levels of sodium sulphate, creating an optimal environment for brine shrimp, and for our business,” says McCann. SMMI’s customers use sodium sulphate in a variety of ways, including detergents, pulp and paper, glass, water treatment and livestock feed. “We are excited about the future at our Chaplin facility,” says McCann. “Growth will allow us to be a viable, sustainable business, and we will continue to be stewards of wetlands for years to come.”

Moose. Photo by Jason Battle (taken at Mackie Ranch).

In addition to the fabulous shorebirds, NCC’s Mackie Ranch property contains 646 hectares (1,598 acres) of grasslands and wetlands. Grasslands are one of the rarest and most at-risk ecosystems in the world and are a critical part of Saskatchewan. They filter our water, help prevent flooding and droughts, sequester carbon and, for thousands of years, have provided sustenance for humans. Over the past 25 years, Saskatchewan has lost more than 809,000 hectares (two million acres) of native grassland and now less than 20 per cent remains intact.

Thanks to the previous landowners, Jim Mackie and his family, the ranch has been carefully managed for over 100 years. The property and surrounding area are home to many plants and animals, including sharp-tailed grouse—Saskatchewan’s provincial bird. There are at least two active mating leks on the ranch. “It’s fascinating to watch sharp-tailed grouse sing and dance—the way they flutter their wings and stomp and spin in tight circles,” says Mackie. “And it’s a big competition; only a few of the males are selected as mates by the females.”

Several at-risk species can also be found in the area, including burrowing owl, ferruginous hawk and long-billed curlew. Mackie’s favourite animal to spot is antelope and he has occasionally seen moose move across the land. As for along Chaplin Lake, “The piping plovers are really cute, but I love Canada goose,” says Mackie. “They make so much noise, and I love their energy. It’s always good to see them come back.”

Mackie says he is grateful that NCC will continue to allow cattle to graze the land to keep the grass healthy. “This is good grass country, and I’m happy that NCC will look after the land for years to come.”

For more information on how NCC works to protect natural areas in Saskatchewan, visit