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.
During a hike through the Valley of the Five Lakes in Jasper National Park we encountered a grove of trees covered in Old Man’s Beard, a type of lichen that grows in tassels attached to the branches of trees. These lichens grow extremely slowly and are sensitive to air pollution, especially sulfur dioxide, a byproduct of burning fossil fuels. I found it peculiar that we only found this lichen in a single grove of trees located in a small area. Clearly there must be something unique about that location or those trees, but I cannot put my finger on what that might be. We hiked this trail twice this weekend as many of the higher elevation trails are still snow covered. The Valley of the Five Lakes is at the bottom of a valley just south of the town site and is one of our favourite day hike trails.
The mountains have been calling and with the Easter long-weekend arriving we wasted no time. As soon as school was out we hit the highway heading East. We arrived in Jasper late last night. Other than a close encounter with a band of coyotes on the highway the darkness was enveloping the landscape and did not reveal any other animals or scenery upon our arrival. The next morning we woke up to a grey sky with intermittent light rain. None of that mattered as we were happy and rejuvenated to breathe the cool mountain air. Jasper is at an elevation of about 1000 m (compared to Edmonton’s 645 m) and as a result the lakes still have a thin layer of ice on them and the mountains still have substantial amounts of snow on them. We are hoping to do some hiking over the weekend, but as many trails still are snow and ice covered we have to choose the trail wisely. A month ago I attempted to the Tonquin Valley trail but the trail surface was sheer ice and it was far to perilous to proceed. In the end we renting expedition grade cleats and ended up hiking the Maligne Canyon (which was spectacular). We will probably not see too many birds as these arrive later here. If we are lucky we might see some large mammals though.
We visited Francis Point last weekend as part of out Snow Geese chase. It was a windy day and the birds were notably absent. What the nature walk lacked in birds, however, the frogs made up for with a chorus of song. Even in the tiniest and most ephemeral of ponds the frogs were croaking loudly in unison as they were getting into an amorous mood. The frogs made a duck-like quacking sound that initially confused us. A recent survey of amphibians at the nearby Beaverhill Bird Observatory only found Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica or Lithobates sylvaticus) and o with only anecdotal evidence of Boreal Chorus Frogs (Pseudacris maculate) in the area. The Wood Frog is the most widely distributed amphibian in Canada and is associated with moist woodlands and vernal woodland pools. Wood Frogs are the earliest breeders in most of their range. Wood Frogs are known to be exceptionally freeze tolerant with their blood and tissue often freezing during the winter. We made a feeble attempt to visually spot the frogs, but anytime we approached a pond the chorus immediately fell silent. We figured that was their way of saying: “Leave us alone – we are busy”.
The water level at out local creek in the Whitemud Ravine was high for most of March due to the snow melt. Now that the snow is gone the water has receded substantially leaving areas along the bank, that previously were submerged, exposed. We came across the following tracks on a recently exposed sand bank along the shore. Due to recent erosion when the water level had been high we were unable to actually get down on the sand bank to have a closer look at the tracks. The tracks were large, though, and were leading from the water’s edge. The only two possibilities in terms of who could have made them are either a beaver or a musk rat. The tracks were far too big for a muskrat and they were missing the markings caused by the tell-tale muskrat tail, which leaves a beaver as the only plausible candidate. As we were pondering these questions guess who emerges out of the water? No one other than a beaver him/her self. As the beaver slowly waddled up on the bank it left exactly the same tracks behind it. I almost wish the same thing would happen everything you find animal tracks in the wild. After spotting animal tracks, you take your best shot at identifying them and then comes the “answer key” walking along leaving exactly the same tracks.