‘Twas the morning before Canada Day, when all through the park not a human was stirring, only the bison. Well, it’s not that time of year yet (as a matter of fact, today is day 178 so we are exactly halfway there), but it sure felt like that time of year this morning. At 6 am I rolled into Elk Island National Park and as the Bison Loop emerged around a curve in the road, for a second, I though I was dreaming. The field surrounding the Bison Loop and Mud Lake was filled with bison. There must have been several hundreds of them. Adults, awkward and mangy looking teens and milk chocolate coloured calves dotted the grassy field, more bison were hiding in the tree groves, bison were blocking the road and the Bison Loop gravel road was a veritable traffic jam of bison. One of the collective nouns for bison is an obstinacy of bison (the other ones are a heard of bison, a gang of bison and a troop of bison). The term seems quite fitting to such a massive animal that clearly has the attitude that they can do whatever they want. If they decide to cross the road and stand in front of your vehicle, they will do just that. As I approached the Bison Loop I thought to myself, “if I drive into the loop, I will be stuck for who knows how long”. This is one traffic jam I would love to be in. Said and done, I drove into the loop and was soon surrounded by bison and stuck in my first bison traffic jam. A few hours later I emerged on the other side of the loop with tones of picture and unforgettable memories. It was almost as if I had travelled a few hundred years back in time to the heydays of the bison when an obstinacy of bison roamed the grasslands as far as they eye could see. Much more could be said about this experience, and I will say more…, expect the next few days to have a bison theme. Tomorrow is Canada Day and the plans are to spend the day in the great canadian outdoors at Elk Island with family and friends and, hopefully, another obstinacy of bison.
I was standing at the edge of a small grassy patch by Lake Beaumaris. All around me there were a large number of Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles and House Finches fluttering about in the shrubbery surround the lawn and on the lawn itself. None of the species were new, yet there was handful of odd looking individuals mixed in among all the usual suspects. They had the overall shape and color of a sparrow, except they were at least twice the size of any sparrow I know. Their beak, however, was decidedly non-sparrow-like. It had the distinct triangular shape of a blackbird…, yet there was not a speck of black on these individuals. I had my suspicions, but I was not sure and when I left I was still very much on the fence regarding the identification of these birds. I had lots of picture of them, so once I got home the research begun. After extensive online research and carefully study of Sibley I can only conclude that my suspicion was correct. These were female Red-winged Blackbirds. It is and odd phenomenon, male Red-winged Blackbirds are not only one of the easiest birds to identify both by look and sound, but also one of the most abundant species around ponds, wetland and marshes, yet paradoxically female Red-winged Blackbirds are nowhere to be seen. I had not put much thought into it previously, tacitly assuming that the females probably looked the same as a the male. I was, however wrong. While the females have a similar overall shape as the males, and their beak is certainly the same shape and size, not much else is similar. It is quite peculiar that while the male Red-winged Blackbirds were one of the first spring migrants I observed many months ago, and since then I have seen hundreds upon hundreds of them, it is only now that I came across the females. At this point I do not have the faintest idea of why the males are so abundant while the females are so rare. This will definatelly require more thinking and research to figure out what is going on.
Sometimes nature throws you for a loop of the least expected kind. As we were driving into the Bison Loop at Elk Island National Park I had barely finished mentioning that we would never encounter bears here when we, you guessed it, spotted a bear. We saw it clear as day meandering along the forest edge. I was so taken back that I did not even reach for the camera. As the bear turned around and started heading into the forest I came to my senses and drew the cameras in best Lucky Luke style and managed to take one single picture before the bear was gone. As far as a wildlife picture goes it is a pretty crappy picture with a somewhat fuzzy focus of the bears behind. Sure it would have been nice to get a better picture of the bear but for all intents and purposes this photo serves as a documentation of something I have believed was impossible, a bear encounter at Elk Island National Park. This park is the smallest national park in Canada and is, just as the name suggests, an island. This island is not, however, surrounded by water, but rather by farmers’ fields, roads, towns and cities. Even the official web page of Elk Island does not mention bears as one of the animals one might see. Further research revealed that bear sightings are reported once or twice a year. Considering the number of visitors the park gets (about 500000 in 2018), that is a very low number. So clearly the bears are there, but it is likely a small population. The various reaction people have to bear sightings are interesting. For example, my better half is now concerned with me heading out to the park alone in the mornings the way I have been doing over the last few months. I on the other hand, I am strategizing about how I can track down another bear in the park for a closer look. Considering the serendipity of our sighting I am really not sure how one could track down a bear in Elk Island, other than just continuing to visit the park as often as one is able to and hope for another chance encounter.
Elk Island National Park is the home to two species of frogs; the wood frog (Rana sylvatica) and the Boreal Chorus Frog (Pseudacris maculata). I am not a frog expert by any means but I do believe that the white stripe down the middle of this fella means that it is a Wood Frog. We encountered sneaking about in the leaf litter as we were hiking the Simmons Trail. It was quite far away from the closest water source, but it has been raining a lot the last few weeks and the understory was very wet and muddy, so I imagine a frog is going to find it quite comfortable even on dry land under those conditions. The camouflage on this individual was quite remarkable as it blended in with the leaf litter perfectly.
The Prickly Wild Rose (Rosa acicularis), also known as Alberta Wild Rose, Wild Rose and Nootka Rose is a small deciduous shrub with pink flowers and thick, thorny stems. Once the flowers wither it turns into a small oval shaped seed pod known as a rose hip. It has a circumpolar distribution occurring on both sides of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and is the official flower of the province of Alberta. Rose hip soup is a bit of a staple food stuff in Sweden. In this part of the world you would be lucky if you found rose hip tea. There is however a little know but reliable supplier of a “Rosehip drink” in these neck of the woods. At IKEA they stock rosehip drink, which is probably as close as you get to bonafide Swedish rosehip soup. Why does this matter in the big scheme of things? Firstly because rose hip soup is super yummy and secondly, every time I encounter a Wild Rose bush it reminds me of Sweden, where I spend a few decades many moons ago drinking rose hip soup out of the thermos during the winter (beats hot coco hands down).
Along Simmons trail in Elk Island National Park there is a 4 foot tall tree stump. It looks like the tree snapped like a match during a windstorm. The way the tree broke off left a piece of bark jutting up from the broken surface almost like a semicircular retaining wall. Inside the stump, sheltered by the protruding bark piece an American Robin has build a nest. I have seen the nest occupied on several occasions (for example here), but last weekend the nest was empty and the robin was nowhere to be seen. There were no remnants or signs of chicks or eggs in the nest. Maybe the chicks, hatched and moved out? Apparently robin chicks are ready to move out of their parents’ digs after 2 weeks, which is quite amazing when you consider they are helpless and featherless when they hatch. As summer just arrived I am wondering if we might see the same or a different robin (or another bird) move in and raised a family before the season is over.
The field surrounding the shallow pond was covered in tall grass with patches of tall stemmed yellow flowers. These were Meadow Buttercups (Ranunculus acris) at home in their perfect habitat, a moist meadow close to water. As pretty as it is, this is not a plant that is native to these neck of the woods. The plants native habitat is in Eurasia but these days the plant can be found across much of the world. It is considered an invasive weed and has developed resistance to herbicides. Even though it is an introduced species at Elk Island National Park, where I found these specimens, it makes a colorful addition to any wildflower meadow. These plants are perennials and are usually left alone by cattle as they are poisonous. The Alberta Agriculture and Forestry Department does not tiptoe around what consumption of fresh Meadow Buttercup will do to animals (which presumably would also include humans):
When the fresh plant is ingested, enzymes break down the sap within the stems and leaves into a compound called protoanemonin that can cause irritation or blistering of the skin, mouth and digestive tract of the animal. In severe cases, it can cause paralysis, convulsions and death.
In other words kids, do not even think about eating this pretty plant. According to the Alberta Agriculture and Forestry Department this plant is relatively rare in the Elk Island region (Lamont County).
In the center of the Bison Loop at Elk Island National Park there is a small shallow pond. You can clearly see it from the gravel road as it is no more than 25 meters away. Despite the proximity I have never actually been down to the water’s edge. I decided to change that unacceptable omission today…, I mean, I have been to the Bison Loop more times than I can count and never though it was worth going down to the water. I assume I though that looking down at the pond from the gravel road is close enough to see everything that could possibly be of interest around the pond. That is clearly the view of someone that still has a very superficial understanding of nature, someone that still does not know how to pay attention to the small details. Said and done. I found a well-beaten bison path through the tall grass (ticks anyone?) and walked down to the pond. It took me almost 30 seconds to get from the gravel road and down to the pond, so not to strenuous by any measure. The bison clearly used this pond as a watering hole as the surrounding grassy field was criss crossed by bison trails and the mud along the water’s edge was covered in bison hoof prints. In a low shrub along the trail a piece of bison fur was floating in the wind. I could not resist picking up the fur. I was half expecting the fur to be coarse and stiff and, perhaps, have some sort of bison body odour to it. To my surprise it was silky soft and had no smell at all.
It was a typical family scene that probably happens in bird families around the world every morning. While mom was looking after the kids, dad was busy looking for breakfast. The Red-necked Grebe family had two chicks, one of which was snoozing snug and cosy on mom’s back while the other one was floating nearby, also snoozing. Dad was nowhere to be seen. After about five minutes dad appears out of nowhere with a small fish in his beak. When realizing breakfast was incoming the chick floating on the water stirred, shook the sleep out of its eyes and raced towards the dad. The chick was rewarded with the fish. Dad took off right away and the chick swam back to mom and fell asleep again. This scene repeated itself several times over the next ten to fifteen minutes. The fish catching abilities of the dad were quite impressive. He returned with a new fish every few minutes. Most of the time the fish was small enough for the chick to eat it, but a few times he came back with impressively large fish that even he had trouble swallowing. He ended up having to let go of some of the fish as they were simply to large.
It was an overcast Friday morning. It had been raining non-stop all week and the last time I was able to go for birding was a week ago. Luck was, however, on my side this morning. As I was heading out to work there was a break in the rain and next thing I knew the morning meeting I was heading to was rescheduled. All of a sudden I had one hour of rain-free unscheduled time at my disposal. Without further ado I ran back in, grabbed my camera binoculars and set my heading dead north. I was heading to Beaumaris Lake, a birding location I have heard lots of excited birders rave about but not had an opportunity to visit yet. Beaumaris Lake is a 2.7 km loop around a lake that is situated in the neighbourhood of, you guessed it, Beaumaris in North Edmonton. Despite its location in the midst of the subdivision, surrounded by houses on all sides, the lake is a birding hotspot with 158 species recorded on eBird. I spend the next 45 minutes strolling around the lake (I did not make it all the way around, so I have a good reasons to come back to explore the rest of the lake). The Red-necked Grebes were out in full force with their chicks hanging out with mom while dad was busy catching fish. While the Red-necked Grebe family were the highlight of the day, I also got a nice close up look at a bunch of Common Grackles. While it was overcast and grey when I arrived, once I started photographing the birds a well-timed break in the cloud cover let the sun through. The Common Grackles suddenly went from looking black to stunning dark blue purple iridescent. My time was soon up and I had to head to work. It was a wonderful start to the day and I will definitely be back to spend some more quality time at the lake getting to know its feathery inhabitants.