Handhills Lake is located 20 km southwest of Hanna, Alberta. The lake has a surface area of 8 km² and features almost 18 km of shoreline with large, extensive mudflats, alkali flats, sand beaches, and pebble shorelines that provide important Piping Plover breeding habitat and staging grounds for other shorebirds. The lake is fed by alkali springs and a number of small, intermittent channels, but there is no drainage out of the lake.
This site is important for the nationally endangered (and globally vulnerable) Piping Plover. This species nests most frequently along the eastern shore and forages at the various seepage areas or at specific springs. On average, 33 Piping Plovers have been recorded at this site during the breeding season (nine surveys during the last ten years). Probably even more birds are actually present, since this average uses only the minimum estimate for each year. Since surveys began in the early 1980s, estimated numbers of breeding Piping Plovers have ranged from 2 to 82, but have been consistently greater than 20 in recent years. The 31 to 44 birds recorded in 1998 represent over 1% of the Northern Great Plains population, and as much as 2.5% of the Canadian Great Plains population. Prior to the 1980s there were probably smaller numbers of breeding plovers as the habitat was less suitable due to higher water levels.
This site is also significant for concentrations of staging geese (5,000 15,000) and other waterfowl, especially when water levels are high.
Shallow lakes such as Handhills Lake are susceptible to drought when there is little winter snow pack and minimal spring rains. This leads to naturally fluctuating plover populations. Other concerns at this site include the deterioration of shoreline habitat caused by the trampling of cattle and by the use of off-road vehicles. Recently, the cattle trampling issue has been addressed through the placement of fencing near the "key" nesting areas.
Handhills Lake has been identified as a potential Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN) site under the endangered species category.IBA Criteria Habitats Land Uses Potential or Ongoing Threats Conservation Status