Monthly Archives: March 2019

Project 366 – Post No. 003 – Geese on Ice

What is Project 366? Read more here!

The Canada Geese are back and with that, spring migration is slowly getting started. I spend the morning at Elk Island National Park and came across, what must be one of the most iconic Canadian sights, a bunch of Canada Geese making a racket on top of a beaver dam in a frozen lake. No sight of beavers though. I imagine, however, that the occupants of the dam must have been royally annoyed by being awoken so rudely by the geese. Not far away, I spotted a band of European Starlings chattering away in a tree. The starlings became species 42 on my Alberta Big Year list. It may be a slow start to spring but from now on it can only get better as the pace of the returning migrants quickens. There is much too look forward to as our familiar birding spots are about to get transformed. The bison were also out in full force, both the Plains and the Wood bison. I also saw some deer and a fleeting shadow at a forest edge in the distance eerily reminiscent of a moose, but maybe it was just an optical illusion combined with wishful thinking.

May the curiosity be with you. This is from “The Birds are Calling” blog (www.thebirdsarecalling). Copyright Mario Pineda.

Project 366 – Post No. 002 – Quite a Looker

What is Project 366? Read more here!

Bohemian Waxwings like to hang out in fruit tree. They are frugivores with an attitude. They can be found roaming around in large groups, descending on fruit trees and engaging in noisy fruit eating feasts before moving on. Over the last few weeks we have been seeing Bohemian Waxwings regularly in the Whitemud Ravine. They are handsome birds with facial markings resembling the makeup of a Chinese opera performer, wingtips with distinct bright yellow, white and red markings, dark orange under tail feathers and bright yellow tail tip. You can never have enough Bohemian Waxwings in your life.

May the curiosity be with you. This is from “The Birds are Calling” blog (www.thebirdsarecalling). Copyright Mario Pineda.

Project 366 – Post No. 001 – A Gaggle of Bohemian Waxwings

You could hear them all around. Chattering and singing. Like a rambunctious social gathering. Like a large group of old friends all talking at the same time around the dinner table. First we could only hear them, but once our eyes managed to see beyond the tangled branches we could see them, the Bohemian Waxwings. They were everywhere and once we started observing the gaggle we soon realized what all the commotion was about. It was dinner time and the trees were full of fruit. With all the chattering it made you wonder if, by any chance, some of those berries may have something stronger in them just virgin fruit juices. A gaggle of drunken waxwings? Fancy that.

May the curiosity be with you. This is from “The Birds are Calling” blog (www.thebirdsarecalling). Copyright Mario Pineda.

Project 366

Project 365 is a challenge where you kickstart your journey as a photographer by committing to taking one photo a day for one year. Now, I am not a photographer (yet) so Project 365 does not seem to apply to me, or does it? I recently came across the Disperser Tracks blog where a Project 365 is remixed as a photography / blog / narrative challenge. In the words of Disperser Tracks: Three-hundred-and-thirteen posts, each with a photo . . . and a joke and an original doodle. On a side note, Disperser Tracks did a Project 313 (instead of 365) because he/she likes to “go against the tide” and the number 313 is, mathematically speaking, prettier (something I can relate to in my day to day job). In other words, feel free to take the idea behind Project 365 and turn it into anything your want.

So here is my version of Project 365. First of all, next year (2020) is a leap year, which means that if I start today (March 29, 2019) and do this project for one year, that year will be 366 days long. So, that means I will be doing Project 366. Secondly, rather than committing to take one picture a day, I am committing to posting one picture with a story every day. This picture will not necessarily have been shot on the same day, but it would be taken by me (or by a member in my family) and it will be accompanied by a short narration. To me Project 365…, I mean Project 366, is not so much about taking pictures as it is about telling stories. The stories will be told through pictures and through the written word. Sort of like Hinterlands Who’s Who, except blogging-style.

Do not, however, expect dazzling images or profound stories of all manners of charismatic critters on a daily basis. While all the posts will be on the topic of natural history, much of it will likely be rather mundane stuff. Stuff that we might see on a daily basis, but not notice. Or as I often say, when you are looking for birds, you find all the other things as well, things that you have seen a million times but never noticed. Stuff like this…

Yes, that’s a very large turd found at Elk Island National Park. Apologies for not including a familiar object for scale but, trust me, it was big, really big. The turd is remarkable in more ways that just because of its monumental size. It is dung from a Plains Bison. Bison dung provides a fascinating story of nutrient cycling and providing a home to an entire ecosystems of micro-organisms and insects. Bison dung has also served mankind in the form of fuel for cooking and warmth. Today, there are more bison at Elk Island National Park than existed in the the whole of North America in 1880. The Wood Bison (which also lives in Elk Island National Park) is the largest land mammal in North America, followed closely by their relative the Plains Bison. Hence, the huge turd!

The ultimate purpose of my Project 366 is to use it as an excuse to head out into nature more often, to practice my observation skills, id’ing skills and being mindful and present in the moment. A more mundane reason for embarking on this project is to kickstart my photography and blogging skills.

Here is the plan. Project 366 entries will be posted at midnight, starting tonight. Posts will include a picture and a short story relating to the picture. That’s it! Sounds easy enough. Wish me luck and make sure you are up at midnight for the next year to be the first one to see the day’s entry. I better go and snap some pictures now.

Disclaimer (aka as the fine print): I reserve the right to modify the rules as I go along to make this project more personally meaningful. There may be various glitches and mishaps along the way due to technical shortcomings. I will embrace every “failure” as a learning opportunity and learn from my mistakes and from the haphazard limitations that modern technology sometimes throws our way. In other words, I am building this plane blog as I am flying writing it. I know, this is a terrible analogy when applied to important stuff that actually matters, but since this blog is not mission critical and no humans or animals will get hurt in the process, the analogy sort of works here.

May the curiosity be with you. This is from “The Birds are Calling” blog (www.thebirdsarecalling). Copyright Mario Pineda.

The changing scenery of Jasper

Spring break is here and there is not time to waste. Right after school on Friday afternoon we hit the road and went to Jasper for the weekend. Other than skiing at Marmot Basin we had no plans other than enjoying the mountains. We have been to Jasper many times before, but this time a distinctly different scenery greeted us when we arrived. The smoke of burning wood hung heavy in the air and stacks of lumber were piled up high throughout Jasper. Anyone who has been to Jasper over the last few years could not have missed the signs. Over the last few years more and more trees around Jasper (and throughout the National Park) have been turning rust coloured as they succumbed and died to an almost invisible foe – the Mountain Pine Beetle. No larger than a grain of rice this beetle has decimated the pine forests of British Columbia over the last decades. Slowly but surely it has advanced East-wards until it crossed the Rocky Mountains and invaded Alberta.

We go to Jasper every year and every time more of the pine forests has turned a rusty brown colour. With this many standing dead trees fire hazard becomes a serious concern. To prevent a wildfire in the proximity of the town-site, last fall infested stands were logged and remove or burned.

As one enters Jasper from the highway (west side of town) along Connaugh Drive, one used to be greeted by a lush green forest along the roadside.

Not anymore. Now the view from Connaugh Drive is dramatically different.

A closer look at the tree trunks reveals the characteristic blue staining of the wood due to a fungus that is introduced into the tree by the Mountain Pine Beetle. If recovered in time this wood is structurally sound and can still be used for lumber. It would be interesting to know what the plans for this lumber are.

When pines are infested by Mountain Pine Beetles they turn a rusty colour as they die. The rust color fades to a grey color after a few years creating stands of ghost-like forests.

This trunk of a pine trees exhibits the characteristic pitch tubes of a Mountain Pine Beetle attack. As the beetles drill into the tree, the tree defends itself by extruding sap which then form yellow clumps on the outside of the bark.

The lack of sap around these holes suggests that these may be exit holes for the offspring of the beetles that initially attacked this tree. By the time the offspring emerge (the following year) the tree is already dead and does not have the sap anymore. Once the offspring emerge they set out to find new hosts and mates to continue the cycle.

Clear cutting and burning of infested stands by Patricia Lake north of the town-site.

The removal of the infested trees around Jasper started last October, once the ground was frozen to minimize damage from the heavy machinery. The green hatched area on the map indicates the where trees are being removed.

The pine forest will undoubtedly recover, but it will take time and in the meantime there will be some major changes to the flora and fauna of the affected regions. I suspect that once the vegetation starts to colonize the newly formed large open areas we will likely see more brush-like vegetation and perhaps more wildflowers as well. Obviously anywhere where the dead trees are left (which is pretty much everywhere) there will likely also be an increase in wildfires.

May the curiosity be with you. This is from “The Birds are Calling” blog (www.thebirdsarecalling). Copyright Mario Pineda.

Spring is here and so are the beavers

Today is the first day of spring and all the signs are here; the creeks and rivers are largely ice-free, the beavers at the Whitemud Creek have awoken from their winter hibernation and the buds are bursting.

During my nature walk along the Whitemud Creek the other day the beavers were out in full force, swimming around in the slurry waters, breaking through ice floes like fury little ice breakers and chilling on the banks with their friend, the muskrat. The onset of the seasonal changes is sudden and things are changing fast. Just a week ago my son and I walked on the frozen creek, meeting people on skis and walking their dogs. Today the creek is virtually ice free. I am super-excited about the upcoming return of the migratory birds, but a bit sad that I have to bid farewell to the Snowy Owls.

The buds are bursting. Photo: Mario Pineda.

Officially Spring arrives at 3:58pm today (Spring Equinox). It is a sunny day, not a cloud in the sky and +11 °C. What better way to greet spring and all the the excitement it will bring about in nature than heading down to the creek. We will head down for a first spring nature walk as soon as work and school is out.

Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) doing a very thorough spring grooming. Photo: Mario Pineda.

North American Beavers (Castor canadensis) basking on the banks of Whitemud Creek. Photo: Mario Pineda.


Beaver on ice. Photo: Mario Pineda.

Canadian-style fury icebreaker. Photo: Mario Pineda.

May the curiosity be with you. This is from “The Birds are Calling” blog (www.thebirdsarecalling).

Spring is in the air

So it looks like spring is in the air. I would not dare to claim that spring has arrived. It’s in the air, like the smell of something yummy simmering and tempting us of greater things to come. The deep freeze has finally relented and we are back at more seasonal temperatures.

One of my recent “resolutions” is to get out into Nature more often. Now, “more often” is unacceptably vague. It’s like saying, “I will loose some weight”. Anyone into fitness and weight loss would tell you that “loosing some weight” just does not cut it. It needs to be specific. So, lets quantify what spending more time in Nature means to me. My aim is (currently) to head out into Nature at least twice a week, once during the work-week and a second time, for a longer outing, during the weekend. I have been doing well over the last few weeks, often going birding several times during the week and weekend. Undoubtedly the milder weather and the brighter evenings make it easier and more appealing to head out.

During a walk earlier this week at Whitemud Creek we tested our new camera, a Canon SX70 HS. My son managed to get a nice picture of a Black-capped Chickadee, something I found notoriously difficult as these tiny feathered bundles seem to be in constant motion. I did however manage to get a shot of a Southern Red-backed Vole peeking out of a tunnel in the snow trying to grab a sunflower seed. Southern Red-backed Voles are active throughout the winter and spend their time under the snow-pack in the subnivean zone. Here they enjoy protection from the elements  and construct long tunnels as travel corridors. These forest dwelling voles are short-lived, with a maximum life-span of about one year, and depend on coniferous, deciduous and mixed forests. 

A Black-Capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapus) enjoying the spring in the air. Photo: Matias.
Southern Red-backed Vole (Myodes gapperi) peaking out of its snow tunnel in search of a snowflower seed snack. Photo: Mario Pineda.
Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) enjoying a snack. Photo: Matias.

May the curiosity be with you. This is from “The Birds are Calling” blog (www.thebirdsarecalling).

World Wildlife Day birding

Today’s excursion, first one in March, happened to coincide with the World Wildlife Day (March 3). It was a beautiful sunny winter day with temperatures reaching a “balmy” -15 °C (-19 °C with the wind chill). Living in sub -30 °C range for a month changes one’s perspective on what constitutes cold weather. Anyone not having lived through these extreme temperatures for any length of time would likely and perhaps rightfully consider us a bit “nuts”. It is remarkable, however, that no matter how cold it gets, the birds are always out and active; with the exception of the owls, which just seem to “chill” (pun intended). Perhaps extremely low temperatures require birds to keep foraging in order to stay warm and to maintain their metabolism throughout the night.

Today we went for a 4 km walk along the Whitemud Creek Ravine (south of Snow Valley this time), our local winter bird hotspot. While we did not break any birding records it was well worth spending some time outside with the usual suspects; the Black-capped Chickadees demanding sunflower seeds, a Pileated Woodpecker going to town on an old tree, a very energetic Downy Woodpecker making a racket that seemed entirely disproportionate to its diminutive size, a Raven soaring silently overhead and a White-breasted Nuthatch snatching a sunflower seed before the chickadees found it. Lots of Red Squirrels were out as well looking for a morsel to eat.

A Red Squirrel taking advantage of the sunflower handouts. Picture by Vero M.
After accosting us for sunflower seeds, this Black-capped chickadee got its demands met. Picture by Vero M.

The eBird record for today’s excursion:

Edmonton--Whitemud Creek, S of Snowvalley, Edmonton, Alberta, CA
3-Mar-2019 12:04 PM - 1:33 PM
Protocol: Traveling
3.976 kilometer(s)
Comments:     Beautiful sunny winter day, -15C (-19C with wind chill). 
5 species

Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens)  1
Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)  1
Common Raven (Corvus corax)  1
Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)  10
White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)  1

As of end of February we have seen 40 species of birds in Alberta. While the winter may be a slow time for birding, the final count for the greater Edmonton area winter bird count was finalised by the Edmonton Nature Club on March 1. Between December and February total of 91 species of birds were observed in a 160 km diameter circle centred on Edmonton (West/east boundaries are roughly Seba Beach and Ryley and the north/south boundaries are roughly Westlock and Wetaskiwin). This is the highest number of species observe since the count started 7 years ago. This year there were several notable additions (e.g. Eared Grebe, Great Blue Heron, Hermit Thrush and Brewer’s Blackbird). A total of 119 species were observed over the last 7 years. This just shows that, despite the long harsh winter, there is a remarkably large number of species present in and around Edmonton during this time of year.

Although we have had a somewhat slow start to our AB Big Year, most of these species will be present throughout the year giving us opportunities to bag them later. Some species, however, only occurs in the Edmonton area during the winter, for example Snowy Owls (which we did see a few weeks ago), Snow Bunting (not seen), Common Redpoll (seen), Hoary Redpoll (not seen), Pine Grosbeak (not seen), Brown Creeper (seen) and Northern Shrike (not seen) just to mention a few. Since we are “lucky enough” to have winter weather for more-or-less half the year (Oct to March on a typical year), we still have a few weeks to track down these winter visitors.

Number of check lists reporting Snowy Owl sightings in the Edmonton area over the last five years by time of year clearly showing that Snowy Owl sightings only occur between November and March.

I find myself still thinking of the poor Great Blue Heron that was found in Hermitage Park at the beginning of February (during the extreme cold spell). There was a discussion thread on the Edmonton Nature Club’s bulletin board that tracked the heron’s deteriorating condition and then it just vanished. It appears that this individual was at the wrong place at the wrong time of the year and it is unlikely this story had a happy ending. While many species seem to do well in our harsh winter environment, there is a fine line between survival and death when environmental conditions are at their extreme.

Here is the complete list by Edmonton Nature Club of species seen during the winter count 2018/19 in the greater Edmonton area:

  • Trumpeter Swan
  • Tundra Swan
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Red-necked Grebe
  • Western Grebe
  • Horned Grebe
  • Eared Grebe
  • Canada Goose  
  • Mallard
  • Gadwall
  • Northern Pintail
  • American Wigeon
  • Green-winged Teal
  • Canvasback
  • Redhead
  • Ring-necked Duck
  • Greater Scaup
  • Lesser Scaup
  • Common Goldeneye
  • Barrows Goldeneye
  • Bufflehead
  • Hooded Merganser
  • Common Merganser
  • Red-breasted Merganser
  • Ruddy Duck
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk
  • Cooper’s Hawk
  • Northern Goshawk
  • Rough-legged Hawk
  • Golden Eagle
  • Bald Eagle
  • Merlin
  • Prairie Falcon
  • Gyrfalcon
  • Peregrine Falcon
  • Gray Partridge
  • Ring-necked Pheasant
  • Ruffed Grouse
  • American Coot
  • Eurasian-Collared Dove
  • Rock Pigeon
  • Great Horned Owl
  • Snowy Owl
  • Great Gray Owl
  • Barred Owl
  • Northern Saw-whet Owl
  • Northern Hawk Owl
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Hairy Woodpecker
  • American Three-toed Woodpecker
  • Black-backed Woodpecker
  • Northern  Flicker
  • Pileated Woodpecker
  • Northern Shrike
  • Blue Jay
  • Canada Jay
  • Black-billed Magpie
  • Common Raven
  • American Crow
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • Boreal Chickadee
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Brown Creeper
  • Golden-crowned Kinglet
  • Townsend’s Solitaire
  • Hermit Thrush
  • Varied Thrush
  • American Robin
  • European Starling
  • Bohemian Waxwing
  • Cedar Waxwing
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Northern Cardinal
  • American Tree Sparrow
  • White-throated Sparrow
  • Song Sparrow
  • Dark-eyed Junco
  • Snow Bunting
  • Common Grackle
  • Evening Grosbeak
  • Pine Grosbeak
  • Brewer’s Blackbird
  • House Finch
  • Red Crossbill
  • White-winged Crossbill
  • Common Redpoll
  • Hoary Redpoll
  • Pine Siskin
  • American Goldfinch
  • House Sparrow

May the curiosity be with you. This is from “The Birds are Calling” blog (www.thebirdsarecalling).