Where can you take your nature-loving youngster once they’ve devoured all the animal videos and picture books in your library? When children express an interest in nature, the next step might be to take them outdoors where they can encounter animals in their natural habitat. That can be intimidating if you don’t feel outdoor-savvy, and unlike a picture book, wildlife doesn’t always show up when you want.
So, where do you have a reasonably good chance of seeing critters that’s suitable for beginner wildlife watchers?
Here’s seven places I recommend. You can indulge your child’s love of wildlife in places with minimal gear, maybe close-toed shoes for gravel trails, and binoculars if you have them. Remember never to feed animals – even if it ups your odds of seeing them! If the animal you’re searching for can’t be seen, try looking for scat (animal poo) or tracks. It’s great fun after a rainfall or in winter after a snowstorm, and your children can learn to become animal trackers!
Calgary Zoo’s Canadian Wilds, Calgary (ungulates)
For an easy intro to wildlife species, or before you head into the wild, start with a visit to the Calgary Zoo’s Canadian Wilds where you can orientate your animal lover to some of Canada’s most elusive ungulates – moose, caribou and muskox. Try visiting early or late in the day to see animals at their most active and learn more about the habitat Canadian bears, cougars, and ungulates prefer.
Bow River Habitat Station, Calgary (fish)
Don’t forget about Alberta’s finned creatures when introducing your children to nature. At the Bow River Habitat Station, you can feed the fish on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Sam Livingston Fish Hatchery or bait your hook for catch-and-release fishing in a Learn to Fish clinic. Seeing how a million trout are raised to support fish populations or joining a Marsh Dipping walk might spark a watery appreciation of gills and fins.
Ann and Sandy Cross Conservation Area, Foothills (birds, small mammals)
The Ann and Sandy Cross Conservation Area is close enough to Calgary to visit before lunch but with 12-square-kilometres of foothills landscape, you might stay the whole day. You could spot large animals – bears and cougar have been seen – but you’re more likely to encounter thirteen-lined ground squirrels near the education centre or mountain bluebirds feeding their young. To protect habitat, dogs and bikes aren’t allowed. There’s no admission but you will need to buy a parking pass ($10/day at the time of writing).
Ellis Bird Farm, Lacombe (songbirds and insects)
When Charlie and Winnie Ellis were farming near Lacombe, they had the highest concentration of nesting bluebirds in North America. Now, their land and the wild birds are cared for in perpetuity by MEGlobal Canada, and the homestead transformed into a no-fee nature attraction with bee-friendly gardens, a purple martin colony, a pond with nets for scooping teeny water creatures, and Knee-High Nature programs. During non-COVID-19 summers, the annual insect jamboree has been a popular draw. Hopefully, it returns in 2022.
Forestry Trunk Road, West of Sundre (wild horses)
You might not equate horses with wild animals, but Alberta has a large population of wild horses. One of the best places to look for wild equine herds is west of Sundre along Highway 584 and various township roads en route to Ya Ha Tinda Ranch, where Parks Canada winters their rangers’ steeds. Keep your eyes open for small groups of horses, usually a stallion with a few mares and foals or bachelor herds of battle-worn males. Stop where the Forestry Trunk Road crosses highway 40 near Mountain-Aire Lodge and scan the riverbanks for horses coming to drink. Although they may look tame, these are wild animals, so don’t approach them closely. Print out a copy of the map before leaving, as cell service is limited.
Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation, Coaldale (raptors)
At the Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation in southern Alberta, you’ll get as close to birds of prey as you’d like. There are screened enclosures of rare hawks and owls, and then there are “ambassador” animals that you can meet nose to beak. Staff will help you hold an owl or hawk on your arm for a photo, and you’ll discover some of the misfortunes that bring the birds to the Foundation. For a total thrill, take in one of the flying demonstrations where you’ll see a large eagle or hawk fly freestyle across a meadow before returning to its handler for a free meal.
Waterton Lakes National Park bison paddock, Waterton (bison)
There was a time when you couldn’t travel across Alberta without running into tens of thousands of bison. Now you have to look harder. One of the best places to see bison is at Waterton Lakes National Park. Parks Canada has just reintroduced bison after the 2017 Kenow wildfire to the paddock north of the park entrance on Highway 6. The rolling grasslands keeps your chance of seeing bison very high, and driving through the paddock gives the adventure a safari feel. Just remember to stay in the car, so there’s no harm to the animals or your little bison watcher.