I recently ventured to Heritage Wetlands Park in Sherwood Park. This wetland is in a curious place, located smack dab in the middle of a sub-divisions in Sherwood Park where it is surrounded by residential properties to the North and South and bounded by Clover Bar Road to the East and Highway 21 to the West. The park consists of four small ponds with plenty of reeds along the shores. No matter where you go you are looking into someone living room and there is no escape from the noise of the busy roadways nearby. Despite what appears to be a less than ideal location the wetlands are bustling with bird life. During my two brief visits I saw 18 species of birds, six of which are lifers (Green-winged Teal, Double-crested Cormorant, Tree Swallow, Franklin’s Gull, Song sparrow, and Red-winged Blackbird). As I logged my observations on eBird later that afternoon I noticed several observations in the same location on the same day of American White Pelicans. A bit more research revealed that historically there is a group of 10 to 20 pelicans that hang out in the wetlands. With a wing span of up to 3 m, the second largest wingspan of any North American bird, after the Californian condor eBird describes it as “extremely large and conspicuous” . How I managed to miss spotting them beats me. I guess I have at least one good reason to go back “pelican hunting” as soon as it stops snowing (yes it is April 30 and it is snowing). Here are a few more really good reasons to go back (as soon as it stops snowing): Northern Shoveler, Barn Swallow, White-throated sparrow, Common Grackle, American Wigeon, Great Blue Heron, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Purple Martin. All of these species were seen by others on the same day I was there and all of them would be lifers for me.
The charming fella on the picture is a Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena). A number of Red-necked Grebe pairs were cruising back and forth on the ponds. I imagine they might be having their nests in the reeds. This species is know for ferrying their young chicks around on their backs, so it might be worth keeping an eye out over the next while for some unbearable cuteness.
The secret is out, someone saw one of the Great Horned Owl chicks peaking out of the nest the other day. I am obviously talking about Edmonton’s own celebrity owl family down in the Whitemud Ravine. Last time I was down there, four days ago, mom owl was still in her cavity. I did not see any chicks but mom was peaking out of the nest and she seemed to be “higher up” in the nest, perhaps indicating that there are growing chicks below her. While this is exciting news, I am a bit concerned about the well-being of this celebrity family. Just like any celebrity family, they are under close scrutiny of the public with eager paparazzi nature photographers and birders watching their every move. There always seems to be photographers at the nest. To anyone regularly trafficking the trail it would be completely obvious that there is something interesting hiding in the trees. So far, everyone seems to be mindful and considerate of the feathered family, but it only takes one bad apple to cause irreparable harm. There are good reasons why eBird does not allow the publication of the exact location of owl nests. Owls are vulnerable to disturbances not just from humans but also from other birds. For example, owls are commonly harassed by other birds. If other birds, such as crows, ravens and other raptors, get alerted to the presence of the owls they could start harassing them or even prey on the young. Perhaps one could view all the nature loving photographers and birders as standing on guard around the family, making sure they are not bothered by anyone with ill intentions. I know that I will be back at the nest, carefully and mindfully observing the family from a distance.
It was a cold and windy spring day. Heavy wet snow had blanketed Edmonton overnight. The good news was that there was no need to remove any of the snow as it was rapidly melting. The bad news was that it made the roads, sidewalks and trails a mess. A cold and windy breeze made things generally unpleasant and cold. Not ideal conditions to go birding, but (in theory) the birds are going to be there, rain or shine. Nevertheless, with the miserable conditions and only 30 minutes to spare I did not have high hopes as I hit the gravel trail at the Heritage Wetland Park in Sherwood Park. I could not have been more wrong. Despite the bone chilling strong breeze, within seconds I was greeted by the metallic clanking call of several Red-winged Blackbirds (Life List #105, AB Big Year #54). During the next 30 minutes I was barely able to put my notebook down, the birds were everywhere. Eleven species later I had also scored two more lifers; the Song Sparrow (Life List: #106, AB Big Year: #55) and Franklin’s Gull (Life List: #107, AB Big Year: #56). The Song Sparrow was quite a hoot. There it was sitting on an exposed branch violently swaying in the wind singing up a storm in the blustering breeze. You can see the ruffled feathers from the breeze on the back of his head as he is going to town. Not sure if he is telling other males to stay away or if he is trying to impress some lady friend, or both. Either way, in the breezy conditions his efforts seem futile and perilous, but what do I know about Song Sparrow logic.
The Song Sparrow brings to mind a scene from the 1995 movie Crimson Tide where Capt. Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman) and Lt. Cmdr. Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington) on submarine USS Alabama get into an argument after Capt. Ramsey decides to run an emergency drill at the same time as there is a fire in the galley which ends up killing one sailor.
Capt. Ramsey: So, Mr. Hunter, do you think I was wrong to run that drill sing in the breeze? Hunter: Not necessarily, sir. Capt. Ramsey: Do you think I got that mansparrow killed? Hunter: No, sir. One thing had nothing to do with the other. It was an accident. Capt. Ramsey: Would you have run the drillbeen singing? Hunter: No, sir, I wouldn’t have. Capt. Ramsey: Why not? Hunter: The fire in the galley owl could have flared back up come back for seconds. I would have seen to it first, sir. Capt. Ramsey: I’m sure you would have. Me, on the other hand, I tend to think that that’s the best time to run a drill sing. Confusion onthe shipin the reeds is nothing to fear. It should be taken advantage of. Lest you forget, Mr. Hunter, we are a ship of war in breeding season, designed for battle to hook up with females and making baby birds. You don’t just fight battlesbreed when everything is hunky-dory. What’d you think, son? I was just some crazy old coot [sic]… putting everyone in harm’s way as I yelled “yee-haw”? Hunter: That was not my first thought, sir. But there’s no excuse. At the time I was fighting the fire in the galley the owl had Stan for lunch... I did not agree with your call, sir.
I had been bushwhacking along the trails and through the brush at the Whitemud Creek for a few hours and the sun was getting low in the sky. I had just finished checking part of the trail where Pileated Woodpeckers often hang out (with no luck). As I started heading back a quick bout of chirping in the shrubbery along the trail caught my attention. The twilight made it tricky to find the culprit, but there it was – an American Robin sitting in a Mountain Ash just minding its own business. Initially I did not reach for my camera as I already have plenty of pictures of robins and it was getting too dark to take pictures anyway. The robin was, however, sitting completely still, almost like it was posing for me so I figured that I could at least try to get a picture of it. While I did have the camera on a monopod I figured that the chances of the pictures turning our would be quite slim. It was getting dark and there was jumble of twigs and branches between me and the robin. I doubted the camera would be able to focus properly through the shrubbery in the low light. To my surprise the camera nailed the focus immediately. At 1/60s (which is a really long exposure at 705mm zoom) and ISO 500 (which is a sure recipe for grainy images lacking detail) the exposure settings were a bit challenging to say the least. I ended up only taking a few pictures. When I inspected the images back at the car I was astonished. Every single image was razor sharp (by P1000 standards), the exposure was spot on and the the bokeh was awesome. The P1000 really throws me for loops at times. Only a few days earlier I had been shooting Ospreys in transmission towers under, what would be considered, ideal conditions (a backdrop of a bright blue sky, no interfering shrubbery, etc.). Despite this, I had great difficulty coaxing the camera into focusing properly (both with auto focus and manual focus) and the pictures came out unacceptably soft. For a brief moment the robin made me feel like a deadeye, but the truth is that I am still not able to wrap my head around why the camera struggled with the osprey in what should have been ideal conditions but nailed the robin in the twilight.
On a side note. This post is #30 of my Project 366. One month down, eleven to go. Congratulations to…, me! Keep up the great work. 😁
As you head out of Edmonton on the Yellowhead Highway eastbound towards the mountain parks you pass by the sleepy village of Wabamun, primarily know for being one of the gateways to fishing in Wabamun Lake. On the left hand side of the highway, right by the ramp for Wabamun there are power transmission towers rising high above the surrounding forests. Right on top of one of the towers embedded into the steel lattice there is a large messy-looking stick nest. I noticed the nest several month ago in the middle of the winter as we were heading out on one of our field trips to Jasper. The minute I saw it, it intrigued me. Who build the nest? Does it get occupied during the breeding season? By whom? How large is it? How long has it been there? It clearly is a large nest, but without a known point of reference it is quite difficult to estimate its size. I suspected that it was most likely a raptor nest. Digging around on eBird did not reveal anything as I was unable to find any reported observations at this location. The winter came and went, spring arrived and we went back and forth to Jasper several times. The nest remained perched on the transmission tower and my curiosity just grew but did not get satisfied…, until last weekend. As we were on our way back from Jasper and were approaching the tower I had a feeling, a hunch if you will, that something was about to happen. As I was the driver I decided to forgo the temptation to reach for the binoculars. Instead I asked the rest of the gang in the car to get the binoculars and get into standby mode. Of course they had no idea what I was talking about so they were a bit slow,… too slow. As we emerged from under an overpass, there it was, the transmission tower and on top of it, right by the nest, two large white and dark brown raptors with fuzzy unkept “hairdos”. Id’ing was a breeze – they were a pair of Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus), the iconic fish raptors. These magnificent birds of prey became number 104 of our World Life List and 53 on our AB Big Year list. As we were cruising along at highway speeds we had passed them in a blink of an eye. At the next exit we turned around and went back to get a closer look. As we were admiring Mr. and Ms. Osprey some of my questions got their answer but new questions arose as well. Apparently an adult Osprey is around to 60 cm (~24in) long. Using the individual in the picture as a referent suggests that the nest is between 3-4 Osprey units in diameter (i.e. 180cm-240cm, 72in-96in), a truly impressive size. Does this pair inhabit the same nest every year? Did they build it, or did they inherit it? Either way, as we parted ways (for this time) I wished the force to be with them in their truly electrifying abode.
Last weekend we came across our first plant in bloom of the year. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was a Prairie crocus (Anemone patens). Surprisingly (perhaps) we found it in Jasper National Park at a location that is at about 400m higher (1362ft) in elevation than Edmonton (1060m vs. 645m, 3478ft vs. 2116ft). I had assumed that spring would be running later in the valley bottoms of Jasper National Park than in Edmonton, but I was proven wrong. This fury little harbinger of spring is actually not a crocus at all, but rather an anemone in the Buttercup family. The prairie crocus only blooms during roughly a two week period, starting in mid-April. The phenology (the study of seasonal timing of life-cycle events) of the prairie crocus is, however, in a state of flux due to anthropogenic climate change. In a 2011 study researchers found that between 1936-2006 the mean monthly spring temperature increased between 1.5 °C-5.6 °C (depending on the month) in the central parklands of Alberta. As a result, the timing of the Prairie crocus blooming has shifted and is now (or at least in 2006) up to two weeks earlier than in 1936. This was in 2006, 13 years ago. The warming trend has of course continued since then and it would be interesting to know what effects it has had on the phenology of the Prairie crocus (and other plans and animals) since. One more good reason to hit the low elevation trails sooner rather than later. The crocuses are calling!
There is an elevated boardwalk across a small creek along the Valley of the Five Lakes trail in Jasper National Park. The creek cannot be more than 2 m (~7 ft) across and is surrounded by lush riparian vegetation. When we visited, we came across a shrub by the creek, still leaf-less, sporting what looked like willow catkins. I am not a plant person so I am going out on a limb here, but the shrub looked like a form of Pussy Willow, one of the smaller species of the genus Salix. The catkins typically appear much earlier than the leaves and are traditionally considered one of the earliest signs of spring. With the light behind the shrubbery I decided to try to do a backlit shot with my Nikon P1000. With the jumble of branches, not surprisingly, the camera did not have any trouble focusing on the shrubbery. A similar scenario occurred a bit further along the trail. Lots of shrubbery in the foreground, but this time a bear family lounging in the understory behind the jumble of branches. Perhaps not surprising, the camera focused on the shrubbery rather than the bear family. This is a common scenario as most of the subjects I photograph are birds in, you guessed in, trees and shrubs. Often with a jumble of branches between me and them. I have only had the P1000 for a few weeks so far. With my lack of previous experience with digital cameras, taming this beast is quite frustrating at times. There is an active P1000 Facebook group that I peruse when things get out of hand, just to remind me that it is actually a quite capable camera able to to take stunning images once you master it. My experience shooting through shrubbery with the P1000 reminds me of Monty Python’s The Knights Who Say Ni, where the Head King demand a shrubbery as a appeasement in return for letting Arthur and his party pass unharmed. Once Arthur brings the shrubbery it turns out that the Knights Who Say Ni are no longer the Knights Who Say Ni, but rather the Knights Who Say Ecky-ecky-ecky-ecky-pikang-zoom-boing-mumble-mumble who now require another shrubbery and also require Arthur to cut down mightiest tree in the forest… with … a herring! Nonsensical, yes, but sometimes my success (or lack thereof) with the P1000 is reminiscent of this farce.
The trail the Valley of Five Lakes in Jasper National Park meanders between and around…, you guessed it, five lakes. The Fifth Lake (that is actually it’s name) is different from the other four lakes in that it is emerald green this time of year. It is surrounded by lush spruce forests and at one end of it (NW side) there is a small wooden boat dock. The dock is the perfect spot for taking a break with a beautiful view of the lake and the surrounding mountains. Last time we were here there was a lonely Common Loon enjoying the spring sun. This iconic species came in as species 52 on the AB Big Year list and 103 on the Life List. As we were studying it through our binoculars I noticed how the loon would lay its head flat on the water surface moments before diving. I am not sure if I just have not noticed this behaviour previously or if this was a behaviour unique to this particular individual. I will definitely look for this next time I see a loon and hopefully get a video recording of it.
I have been doing regular nature walks for a tad over four months now. While the focus of my outings typically is on birding, I go with an open mind and are game for any nature observations that I come across. Now, four months of going for walks in the forest does not make me an expert nor have I had any profound insights, but there are a few things that I have come to realize make at least my nature walks more enjoyable. So here it is, in true David Letterman style, the Top Ten Things Not to do When Going on a Nature Walk…
1. Don’t bring your phone
Turn it off, or even better, leave it behind (gasp!). And for Pete’s sake, whatever you do, don’t under any circumstance use your headphones. Nature walks are all about being present in the moment and cell phones…well, they have the exact opposite effect on your brain. Nuff said. Damn your eBird and Merlin for making such awesome apps. Yes it is convenient, but the last thing I want to do when watching birds is to be on my phone. The solution is of course simple, take notes in a notebook with a pencil and take pictures (not with your cellphone),… or even better, draw the bird (still mustering up courage for that one).
2. Don’t finish your chores
If you are anything like me, the chores at home will never end. If you are aiming to finish your chores and then reward yourself with, say, a nature walk, you will likely never go. With kids and pets in the house and working adults, getting your castle into tip top show home cleanliness and organization is a Sisyphean task with rapidly diminishing returns. My grandmother always said, “You do not live in a museum, get out and live”. The dishes can wait, the birds are calling and I must go!
3. Don’t be unprepared
…but don’t over do it. What “being prepared means” obviously depends on where you are going and for how long. But even for the shortest of nature walks in my local forest patch I always bring the following items,
camera with spare battery
small lens cleaning kit
my home made trail mix that is equally suitable for humans, squirrels and birds
notepad and pencil
a pocket knife
toque (that’s Canadian lingo for a close-knitted woollen hat) or a cap, depending on the season
finger gloves with cutoff fingers, or beefier gloves in the winter
cell phone…, well, this is awkward,… clearly I am not practicing what I am preaching (see #1 above). In my defence, I never actually take the phone out and its on silent. I carry it so it can track my location and the number of steps (this might sound like a lame execute, but as a high school teacher I have unparalleled expertise in hearing lame cell phone excuses).
field guide(s). Yes, I actually bring the brick-sized field guides, but I leave them in the car. Once I am back in the car after the walk I enter my eBird observations and check the field guide for anything that was tricky to id.
4. Don’t be “somewhere else”
Another word for not being “somewhere else” is mindfulness. Be aware of your surrounding. Listen to to the forest, smell the environment, feel the air on your skin and feel your fingers go numb as you try coax your binoculars into focus on a cold winter morning. The birds can help you with this one. If you just look for the birds you notice other things, things you were not looking for in the first place.
5. Don’t go alone,… don’t go with others,…
…do both. Go alone. Go with a friend. Go with your family. Go with strangers. While many of my outings have been with my modestly sized family, other field trips are with (non-birding) friends, or with a black belt birders from Edmonton Nature Club, yet other are solo excursions. Perhaps not surprisingly, I have found that it is difficult to convince anyone to join you for a pre-dawn field trip on, say, a Saturday or Sunday morning. As a result, I have done several early morning field trips to Elk Island National Park to hang out with the bison at sunrise while the rest of the gang get to sleep in.
6. Don’t let the weather be your foe
Let the weather be your ally. Embrace the sun, rain, wind or freezing temperatures. There is no bad weather, just bad attitude towards the weather. The same forest in different weather will be a completely different experience. Either way, the animals in the forest never complain about the weather, they just deal with it. Why should we be any different?
7. Don’t go at the same time every time
Mix up the times. Go after work. Go first thing in the morning on a day off. Go at night. Go midday. Depending on the time, different critters will be out and about.
8. Don’t walk
I know. It’s called a “nature walk”, but surprising things might happen if you stop and listen and just be one with the environment. I tend to mostly be on the move when I go for a nature walk, but if you stop and stay put for a while you slowly become one with the surrounding forest and you might start noticing some of the more subtle things that are easy to miss, or as scallywag Master Gibbs puts it in The Curse of the Black Pearl:
He waded out into the shallows and there he waited three days and three nights till all manner of sea creature came and acclimated to his presence.
10. Don’t rush!
Last but not least, if you rush it you are better off not going. There are two possible strategies here, either take your time and finish when you are finished, which assumes that you have time on your side. Alternatively, if you have limited time, adjust your outing to fit your schedule. Don’t try to rush through a nature walk just to get it done so you can move on to the next item on your to do list. Nature walks cannot be rushed, it’s not in their nature.
One of our favourite valley bottom hikes around Jasper is the Valley of the Five Lakes trail. With a name that sounds like it would come right out of the lore of Middle Earth, the hike does not disappoint. With panoramic vistas of the surrounding mountains, emerald green and azure blue lakes the trail meanders through Mountain Pine Beetle ravaged pine forests, lush spruce stands and aspen groves. It is a popular trail and to beat the rush you want to be hitting the trail before 10 am. Last weekend we visited Jasper National Park and were fortunate enough to be able to do the Valley of the Fives Lakes trail twice. On our first day out we were greeted by a vocal Pileated Woodpecker and accompanied along the trail by Dark-eyed Juncos singing from the tree tops and American Robins hopping about through the understory. We found a mother bear with her cubs hiding in the bushes along the trail. As tempting as it was to linger and try to get a nice photograph of the family, we opted for a quick peek and then moved on to avoid undue stress on the new mother. The sound the cubs made was quite interesting. It was reminiscent of the cooing sounds of pigeons. So next time you heart a cooing in the forest it might be something bigger and furier than a pigeon or a dove. Often people are worried about meeting bears along the trails, and admittedly that I shared this concern once upon a time. Many bear encounter later, however, I found myself very lucky if I spot a bear. I don’t go actively looking for bears, but if our paths cross an already special day suddenly becomes unforgettable in the best of possible ways.