Reliable intelligence indicates that the bisons at Elk Island National Park have had their calves. I have not had much luck finding bison over the last few months and things do not seem to improve. It is likely that the adult bison might be even shyer now that they have calves. During my last visit parts of the park had been shutdown to the public due to the calving, so that will likely not improve my bison viewing luck. Assuming the smoke from the wild fires clears I will be doing another dawn field trip to Elk Island this weekend, so wish me luck. If there is one thing wildlife watching has taught me is that crossing the path with wild animals takes good timing and no small amount of luck. Over the years I have had some very memorable run-ins with bison at Elk Island. The one that perhaps stands out the most in my mind is a bison stampede down the main access road involving around 30-50 bison charging down the road as we were driving the other way. Fortunately we were safely inside our car but as the bison passed us our vehicle was completely surrounded by bison hoofs and horns. It appears that memorable encounters are separated by long periods were no animals are encountered. Historically it has been the same situation with bears in the mountain parks. There are years were we do not see a single bear, only to have bears dropping out of trees all over the place the following summer. It takes patience and persistence, that is for sure. The rewards of viewing wildlife in their natural habitats are memories that last a life time.
In complete tranquility and at ease the Blue-winged Teal was resting on a submerged rock. If it would not be for the ever so subtle ripples on the water surface its reflection would have been indistinguishable from the real thing. The surface of the pond almost perfectly mirrored the waterfowls, the foliage of the surrounding forest, the reeds and the blue sky. It was a quiet and calm early morning with only the birds and beavers going about their business. The colours were vibrant and stunning with the emerald green foilage and the dark blue sky nestled together on the surface of the pond like a water colour painting. Unfortunately scenes like this are likely to become fleeting and elusive this summer and for the years to come. Fast forward less than a week and much of Alberta is covered in a grim post-apocalyptic yellow, smelly and impenetrable blanked of smoke. The smoke has drifted in from massive forest fires raging in northern Alberta. As of tonight the largest of the forest, the Chuckegg Creek fire, is over 500 000 acres in size, that is about 2300 square kilometres. The smoke is so thick that the street lights have turned on, their light sensors thinking it is evening time. The Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) is at 72…, and that is on a ten point scale…, let that sink in for a bit.
As climate change is going unchecked the forecasts are dire. All predictions indicate that longer and more intensive fire seasons are here to stay. Humanity has accomplished remarkable feats in the span of only a handful of lifetimes, proving that we are capable of astounding feats when we set our minds to it. Unfortunately we humans also suffer from a self-entered navel-gazing dysfunction that has made our society, our leaders and decision makers unwilling to grasp the severity of the situation. The smoke blanketing the capital of Alberta is particularly poignant as it conincides with our politicians in the legislature introducing a bill (Bill 1: The Act to Repeal the Carbon Tax) at 12:01 today killing our already weak climate change initiative.
David Attenborough once said that “No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”. I cannot imagine how anyone experiencing first hand the magic beauty of a Blue-winged Teal in repose in a emerald green lake under a dark blue morning sky could remain indifferent to the injustice that is being done.
Tucked away behind the visitors centre by the bison paddock at Elk Island National Park there is a large steel structure holding up a metal roof. It looks like it is being used for protecting materials and machines stored outdoors from rain and snow. On Google Maps one can see the large roof here. During a recent visit at the paddock I was walking around looking for bison. I barely noticed the structure until I came closer to it and all of a sudden a swarm of swallow-like birds emerged out of nowhere. The swallows seemed agitated and were swarming around me. It was reminiscent of scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. The reason for the commotion was soon obvious. The steel girders holding up the roof were covered in swallow nests. Most of them had swallows darting in and out and many were still under construction. There was quite a commotion with swallows peeking out of the nests, while others brought in the mud. I assume that these were breeding pairs that were building the nest together. It was quite a sight seeing these engineers of the bird world building their homes. In the picture one can see the darker wet mud that was recently added to the nest surrounded by the lighter dry mud. As I stood there admiring the swallows I completely forgot about the bison and it was not until I was about to leave that I realized that I had not yet identified the species. The only swallows I have seen to date in Canada are tree swallows and barn swallows and the bison paddock swallows seem to have features from both of these species, a white chest like a tree swallow and a bunch of rufous color on their head like a barn swallow. The white patch on their forehead, however, gave them away as Cliff Swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota, Lifer: #150, AB Big Year: #110).
For the Global Big Day of Birding on May 4 we joined the Edmonton Nature Club tour of central Alberta, an all day marathon of birding. There is an excellent field trip report written up by field trip leader and I doubt I would do a better job at summarizing the day. I particularly like how she refers to the participants as “citizen scientists”. As it turns out, bird observations checklists submitted to eBird are being used in research and conservation efforts providing information about species range, timing of migration and estimation of population sizes and trends. So there you have it. It all started with trying to get out into nature more, then it morphed into birdwatching, birding and photography and now I am contributing to science. Who knows where this adventure will end up taking me.
A Big Day field trip is all about quantity and big numbers. We ended up driving almost 600 km and managed to see 80 different species of birds, of which 40 were lifers. For beginner birders like us this is an incredible learning opportunity. Yes, you are thrown in at the deep end and sometimes you sink. For example when seemingly everyone is awestruck by a bird in their binoculars while we cannot even find what they are looking at (happened several times). Yet others times you can say you saw a lifer, but you know that you would never be able to find it on your own, never mind identify it again. But you get to count it. On a Big Day everything happens at a hectic pace compared to the regular slow meandering nature walks I am used to. You do not get to spend much time with any of the birds or taking photographs because time watching one bird, is time lost scoring another bird. For us, it was about learning to identify new species, learning from the pros and scouting new birding locations for future field trips. We had lots of fun and we will definately be returning to many of the locations we visited during this tour de force of central Alberta.
Our planed itinerary was jam packed with lots of car birding and with the occasional short walk.
The Lyseng Reservoir was tucked in among stubble fields and Hutterite colonies and had an impressive diversity of water fowl and shore birds. Many of our lifers were found here.
One of the highlights were definitely the Sandhills Cranes. We encountered several large flocks grazing in the stubble fields. It was difficult to photograph them however as they very quite skittish. As soon as we stopped and got out of the car they started walking away from us although we were still quite a distance away.
All in all it was a fun day, with lots of Birding action and supere productive in terms of seeing new species. I did not get an opportunity to photograph much as things just happened too fast and we never spend much time in one location before moving on.
Today’s post, #61, marks the completion of 1/6th of my Project 366. While it is far to premature to celebrate I am in a bit of disbelieve that I actually have managed to post every single day for the past two months. The biggest surprise has been that the writing and posting is not the main challenge but rather getting out into nature enough to have fresh pictures to accompany the posts. Now back to regular business…
During an early morning visit to Elk Island I came across an American Robin that had build its nest in a hollow tree stump. I was surprised that it had chosen such an exposed nesting location. The nest was about shoulder high right along a hiking trail and there really was no way one could miss it. While stayed on the opposite side of the trail from the nest the robin did not seem particularly phased. It sat completely still and the fact that it insisted on staying put rather than flying off could mean that there were eggs or young in the nest. This was one of those times were I was particularly appreciative of the extra long zoom capabilities of the P1000.
The alarm clock went off at 5am. Fifteen minutes later I was heading East on a quiet and empty Yellowhead Highway, into the sunrise and towards Elk Island. Nature walks at dawn is a meditative experience. The dawn of a new day, the absence of humans and human made noises washes away stress, sleepiness and rejuvenates the mind. The absence of human-made sounds is made up for by a cacophony of natural sounds, primarily birds. Dawn is the time of day that birds are by far the most active and vocal. As I was approaching the park thick impenetrable fog shrouded the landscape forcing me to, at times, slow down to walking speed on the highway. I have not seen fog this thick in many years. It was the proverbial pea soup with visibility diminished to only a few meters. Once I arrived at Elk Island heavy fog banks covered the open fields and ponds. Not ideal for viewing or photographing wildlife, but magical nevertheless and quite inducing for landscape photography. After a quick scan of the fog covered Bison Loop I settled in at the Mud Lake parking lot to brew myself a cup of coffee and wait for the fog to lift. I spend the next few hours hiking along ponds and wetlands around Tawayik Lake seeing lots of waterfowl and industrious beavers.
I was at the Emerald Pond in Sherwood Park looking for charismatic birds such as pelicans. The pelicans were a no show, but there was plenty of Canada geese in the tall grass surrounding the pond. I did not pay much attention to the geese and as I was walking along the shore they kept a close eye on me and slowly, almost reluctantly, moved out of my way as I was approaching. As I approached one goose that appeared alone I noticed something else moving around in the grass right beside the goose. They were goslings and this would explain the slighly odd behaviour of the adult geese. The adult was herding the goslings towards the water’s edge while keeping its head high and its gaze fixed on me. As I started to scrutinize the other geese around the pond, now that I knew what to look for, I saw they all had little ones. The yellow goslings were remarkable well-camouflaged in the tall grass and obediently followed their moms and dads into the water. Once in the water the families quickly crossed the pond and got out of the water on the other side. I imagine the goslings might be safer in the tall grass as they would be easy prey for an opportunistic raptor in the open water.
Today’s picture is a contribution from my lovely better half and my sister-in-law. While going for a stroll in the MacKinnon park, right below the old Royal Alberta Museum, chatting about stuff that only better halfs and sister-in-laws chat about they came across this curious looking critter. I received a picture and a short video clip at work asking me what this critter is. To be completely honest, I had no clue what it could be. It looked somewhat similar to a marmot, but the only marmots I have ever seen were high up in the mountains, so I did not think it would be a marmot. It turns out that it is a marmot. Marmots are essentially large squirrels in the genus Marmota, with 15 species spread out throughout the northern hemisphere. One of the species is the Hoary Marmot (Marmota caligata) which I saw many years ago in Lake O’Hara. The fella in MacKinnon Park, however, is a Groundhog aka Woodchuck (Marmota monax) which is another species in the same genus. It turns out this particular Groundhog is somewhat of a local celebrity and has even been featured as a news story on CBC. Apparently people are regularly feeding it and it is obvious that it is very comfortable around humans. It is quite regrettable that people do not have the sensibility to treat wildlife, even urbanized wildlife, appropriately. Groundhogs are known to have an aggressive nature so having one so comfortable around humans could potentially lead to trouble down the road.
The Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) became lifer #158 and AB Big Year #109. It was a special find as this was the first time I did not finds the bird, but rather the bird found me. I was at the parking lot of Snow Valley on a sunny morning trying to get a good view of a bird sitting at the very top of the tallest spruce tree around singing its heart out. Because of the position of the bird and the bright light it was difficult to get a good view of its colour. Based on the size and over all shape I suspected a Dark-eyed Junco. I decided to try to identify it by its song, so I pulled up its audio file in the Merlin App to compare with the actual song. Within seconds after pressing play half a dozen small birds swooped in around me. They landed just a few meters from me in the trees, on the park bench and on a trash can. The suspected junco…, well, it flew of, go figure. The closest bird was definitely a house finch with its reddish head and neck and shoulders. The others were house sparrow sized and shaped but with a rust cap and black eye liner. It was a band of Chipping Sparrows and they were very curious about the large non-junco making junco sounds. So I guess one could say the Chipping Sparrow find was serendipitous. Birding with the Edmonton Nature Club I have seen birders playback bird calls in an attempt to attracts birds or bring them closer in. If used judiciously this appears to be an efficient trick turn the tables and instead of trying to sneak closer to the birds convince the birds to come closer to you.
I had never been down to the Whitemud Ravine in the morning before. Last Tuesday I was off from work and woke up early to a beautiful sunny morning. It was the perfect morning for a nature walk down by the creek. Said and done, at 7 am I started out down at the Snow Valley parking lot. Right off the bat, the birding kicked in at full gear with a bunch of Chipping Sparrows (Spizella passerina) hanging out in the trees by the parking lot. These were lifers for me and by playing their call through the Merlin App I had them sitting all around me in the trees curiously eyeing me. I can just imagine what must have been going though their bird brains, “Is this an intruder?” or “Is this a potential mate?”. That was a great start to a morning of some awesome birding. Other than two lifers, the highlight was definitely the Great Horned Owlets that were hanging out in their cavity. They were about 3 weeks old and getting quite large. By owl standards they would probably be considered teenagers. They sure behaved like teenagers, curious, oblivious to the dangers of the outside world, not following their owl parent instructions etc. There they were, perching precariously at the edge of the nest and ogling passersby. The sudden croaking of ravens directed their attention skywards. I am not sure if they would be aware of the dangers the ravens pose, but their parents definitely are. Dad, sitting in a nearby tree, started hooting and right away mom was inbound. She landed at the edge of the cavity pushing her owlets inside. The owlets had none of it as they tried to get past mom to check out what the commotion was about. Although the mother barely fit in the nest she blocked the entrance pushing her owlets back into the nest as she intently eyed the skies for the ravens. I spend well over an hour at the nest, snapping pictures and shooting videos of the chicks.
Below is a video clip (13:16 min) of the action at the nest. Mom arrives at 7:32 and the person you can hear talking and shooting pictures in the background is Wayne Oaks, the resident Whitemud Ravine birding afictionado.
All in all, it was an amazing and beautiful morning full of birds, two of which were lifers (Chipping Sparrow and the American Goldfinch). I could have continued but after 3.5 hrs and 6 km my stomach started to grumble so it was time for a second breakfast and more coffee. This experience has opened my eyes to the virtues of early morning birding. The weekend cannot arrive soon enough.
Here is the eBird summary of the morning.
Edmonton–Whitemud Park, Edmonton, Alberta, CA May 21, 2019 7:07 AM – 10:37 AM Protocol: Traveling 6.341 kilometer(s) 18 species
Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) 5 Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) 12 Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca) 2 Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) 3 Common Merganser (Mergus merganser) 5 Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) 4 Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) 1 Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) 1 Sound only Common Raven (Corvus corax) 3 Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) 15 American Robin (Turdus migratorius) 4 House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) 1 American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) 2 Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) 3 Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) 3 White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) 1 Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) 2 Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) 1