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The Boreal Centre will be the newest addition to Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park, established as a natural heritage site in 1966 on the east shore of Alberta’s second largest lake. The seed for the centre was inadvertently planted about a decade ago when local visionaries and bird enthusiasts founded the Lesser Slave Lake Bird Observatory. Dedicated to the study of bird conservation, the observatory carries out avian research and promotes birding events at the park such as the June Songbird Festival and the autumn swan watching field trips, guided hikes in winter and summer, bird-banding demonstrations, and bird song identifi-cation. For hardy birders,

the Baillie Birdathon (a 24-hour birding marathon) takes place in early May. The birding year winds down in December with the annual Christmas bird count.

The success of these programs and an assessment of future avian research needs prompted a partnership between the Lesser Slave Lake Bird Observatory and Alberta’s Parks and Protected Areas to plan a major facility dedicated to “nurturing stewards of the boreal forest” through research, education, and ecotourism.

The design and materials that Manasc Isaac Architects selected for the Boreal Centre achieve a high standard for sustainability in government buildings.

Planned to leave only a tiny “footprint” during construction and operation, the building will be cooled and warmed by heat pumps from a geothermal field. The sharply angled roof will collect snow and rain to supply the Boreal Centre’s modest water needs; the urinals will be waterless and the toilets composters. Even building materials, like panels made of straw, meet the demanding sustainable criteria of the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) green building rating system.

What makes Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park the site of so much future thinking is the ecology. The park features old-growth balsam fir, wetlands, forest, sand dunes so significant that Canadian Pacific once considered building a grand hotel there, a rich mixture of boreal and

foothills plant species, and, of course, birds: 242 species at last count.

“We saw our first Pacific Loon and Lazuli Bunting and our second Chestnut-sided Warbler last year,” notes Amy Wotton, the observatory’s CEO, adding these birds to its list of rare and special sightings.

Two percent of North America’s western Tundra Swan population relies on the wetlands around Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park for feeding and staging during spring and fall migrations. In 2000, Lesser Slave Lake watershed and the park were named by Bird Studies Canada and the Canadian Nature Federation as a

“globally significant Important Bird Area.” Up to 650 nesting Western Grebes and more than 10,000 migrating waterfowl depend on these wetlands each year.

During migration, thousands of songbirds converge along a narrow strip of forest wedged between Marten Mountain and the east side of Lesser Slave Lake, making the location ideal for the Lesser Slave Lake Bird Observatory, Canada’s northernmost bird monitoring station. Twenty-one sites across Canada record bird migrations and track changes in bird populations for the Canadian Migration Monitoring Network.

The study of migratory songbird populations helps researchers track environmental change. In just 30 years, songbird populations have dropped by half. Deforestation has

contributed to the loss of the birds’ wintering habitat in Central and South America, just as forest fragmentation, pollution, and acid rain have reduced the birds’ breeding and nesting habitat in the mixedwood boreal forest.

Because the boreal is integral to their survival, migratory songbirds become key indicators of forest health. Studies of birds, such as the Canada Warbler, in the park’s reasonably intact boreal forest, enable researchers to establish benchmark data for relatively undisturbed bird life. With such data for comparison, researchers are able to understand how human and industrial activity

outside the park influences boreal bird populations.

The centre’s new laboratory, research library, and office space will benefit such studies. In addition, eco-cabins will accommodate visiting scientists. Frank Fraser, a park naturalist and centre planner, has arranged for the Point Reyes Bird Observatory in California to send “three Mexican biologists as interns at the Boreal Centre every year on behalf of the birding community and conservation community.”

With the new centre, observatory programs to help children learn why birds migrate, how they survive winter, and their importance to the ecosystem will be expanded. The facility will provide “the best opportunity for people to see songbirds close-up and for children to hold in their hands a living bird,” says Wotton.

In addition, Alberta Education is already working with the observatory to deliver the first virtual Bird Trek to classrooms in Alberta, with plans to offer the learning modules to schools in the United States, and farther south.

Fraser anticipates educational program-ming at the centre will include research tours, perhaps even Elderhostel groups and the art community. “We want the general public, like the citizen-scientists who now track Tundra Swan numbers, to become involved locally as stewards of the boreal forest. To our knowledge,” he adds, “this is the only facility in the world with such services and mandate. It’s strategically located in the largest and the least understood ecosystem in the world. The boreal forest environment is incredibly important for bird life, among many other species.”

Wotton agrees. “These boreal birds are an essential part of the food chain, they play a vital role in the complex web of biodiversity, and their healthy future is the vision of the Boreal Centre for Bird Conservation.”

Joan Sherman lives near Athabasca, where she writes about natural history

and conservation of wildlife habitat.

Parks in progress
Lesser Slave Lake
Male Western Tanager in breeding plumage
Rendering of the Boreal Center for Bird Conservation.
Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park: A birder's paradise, by Joan Sherman

Rendering of the Boreal Center for Bird Conservation.

Male Western Tanager
in breeding plumage

LEGACY   Fall 2005
LEGACY   Fall 2005

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