Story by Jody Robbins
Vacay.ca Family Travel Columnist
WINNIPEG, MANITOBA — I’m not a birder, or even a bird person per se, but just try holding a tiny wren in the palm of your hands and see if your heart strings aren’t tugged to the max. Feeling the gentle fluttering of a wee bird’s downy wings between your closed palms is a surreal sensation, one that’s further heightened at the moment of release. Not that I recommend holding birds for sport, but at Oak Hammock Marsh the sky’s the limit, when it comes to experiencing fowl life.
Situated just outside of Winnipeg, this conservation centre and reclaimed wetland area is a haven for outdoor and wildlife lovers. It’s one of North America’s birding hot spots and a great destination for inquisitive families. More than 300 species of fowl — more than half the number of species in Canada — have been spotted at this refuge.
Bird Banding in Manitoba
Your journey begins with a role in important research. Visitors learn about capturing, banding and releasing birds back into nature. Every half hour staff check fine mesh nets set up purposefully to catch birds. Carefully these feathered friends are bagged and brought inside to a bander.
Birds are taken out of their cloth bags and recorded, keeping valuable information about their species and sex. During the procedure, naturalists teach guests how to identify birds (tip: blow on their stomach feathers to reveal their sex) and talk about why this wetland wonderland is such an important stop on the migratory path.
Then comes the best part, releasing the wrens and sparrows back into nature. Naturalists gently place the birds into your hands and you’ll have to quickly cup your palms together, so they don’t flit away. Outdoors you go and when you open your fingers, the birds are released back into nature. Next year, they may be caught again and scientists will have the markers recorded to ensure they’re growing on track and the eco-system is providing for them well.
Wetland Fun for Families
After your banding experience, kids can spread their wings — literally! Using the wing string, visitors can figure out what their wingspan would be if they were a bird. Take a walk through the interactive exhibits to learn more about the wildlife that calls these wetlands home. Guests can feed snakes, salamanders, turtles, frogs and fish, and use spotting scopes to glimpse the birds who are living in the marsh.
Would you believe wetlands rival rainforests for species diversity? To explore one of the most productive ecosystems on earth, you’ll want to head outside. Allow ample time for bird watching on the docks and especially for critter dipping — scooping up the bugs, fish and amphibians that live in the marsh. To get even more up close and personal with water fowl, large canoes are available for gentle paddles, as you learn voyageur songs and sample a marsh delicacy: cattails!
More of a landlubber? There are more than 30 kilometres (18 miles) of trails to explore — best done through a guided hike with an interpreter. You will be led to some of the lesser seen parts of the wetland. However you decide to spend your time here, you’ll need to watch your step. The 36-square-kilometre facility is home to 10 species of frogs and toads, who constantly hop around, causing kids to have a hoot as they try to catch them.
An on-site cafe with a bird’s-eye view of the marsh makes it easy to spend the entire day here. There’s also a lush rooftop garden that guests can wander through. But Oak Hammock Marsh isn’t just a summer spot. Come fall, the skies darken, as approximately 100,000 waterfowl make a pit stop here on their way south for the winter. No matter when you visit, you’re sure to hear the call of the wild, or is that birdsong?
MORE ABOUT OAK HAMMOCK MARSH
Location: 1 Snow Goose Bay, Stonewall, Manitoba (see map below). The attraction is 40 kilometres (24 miles) north of Winnipeg.
Bird Banding: The next bird banding session takes place June 27, 2015 from 8-10 am. Register here.