The very first bird we spotted as we arrived at the oxbow pond down at the Whitemud ravine was a male mallard that was snoozing on a log. The log was covered in lush greenery with the mallard cosy like a bug in a rug in the greenery. It was very idyllic and looked quite comfortable. Oxbow ponds are unique habitats where the water is still and stagnant compared to the rushing water in the creek. There are rumours of numerous oxbow ponds along the Whitemud creek. So far I have found two, both almost entirely covered with thick riparian vegetation making them surprisingly difficult to spot although they are only steps away from the trail. This particular oxbow is the largest one I have found so far and is bound by an old beaver dam at the north end and a wall of accreted sediments on the south end. Groundwater and seepage from the west side of the ravine feeds the oxbow, as does spring and surface runoff. Other than seasonal fluctuations in the water level the water is completely still in these pond.
It has been raining over the last few days, but this morning there was a break in the weather so without further ado, we went down to the Whitemud Creek to check out what we could find. On a whim we decided to take the trail along going south along the Whitemud Creek from Snow Valley. Usually we stick to the northern section, but I have been curious for a while now to check out some oxbow ponds in the southern section. Right off the bat we saw a subtle movement along the water’s edge. Something tiny and well-camouflaged was scurrying around on the muddy bank. A closer look revealed that it was a small shore bird that was definitely a lifer. After a bit of studying Merlin and discussions back and forth we reached a unanimous verdict, it was a Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius, Lifer #162, AB Big Year #114). The identification was unmistakable, the spotted under parts, orange bill and bobbing tail as it walked around along the water’s edge. That was a great start to a pleasant morning nature walk. The sandpiper was a welcomed bonus, but the real reason we went to this part of the creek were the oxbows. We did find two oxbow ponds nestled among the vegetation along the trail. We did not have the time to explore them today, but now that I know where they are I am looking forward to coming back and spend some more quality time exploring them. Todays picture shows a wide meander in the Whitemud Creek, this is how oxbow ponds are formed. When a river or creek creates a wide meander like this neck of the meander progressively becomes narrower until it is only a land bridge. Sooner or later the river cuts through the neck, e.g. during high water flow regimes during the spring melt, cutting off the meander and forming an oxbow lake. Oxbow lakes are U-shaped and become free-standing bodies of water with very little or not flow and provide a unique habitat quite different from the habitats along the fast flowing water in the main creek.
A change of tunes as today’s picture comes from a fishing trip rather than a nature walk. I don’t do many fishing trips as I prefer to watch the animals and let them live to see another day. While I do have personal objections to hurting or killing animals, which is why stick to plant-based foods myself, I also accept and respect that others have different opinions. Here is the snag thought, if you are consuming animal-based foods, then you should also know where it is coming from and what it takes to acquire it and process it. Contrary to some people’s ideas, fish sticks do not grow on trees (there were stories when I went to elementary school many moons ago about the fish stick tree). So this is where the occasional fishing trip comes in. I see this as a learning opportunity for my meat eating son to catch, dispatch, process and cook his own fish. I am ok with him eating meat as long as he understand on a very personal level what it takes to get it to his dinner plate. You can read and watch YouTube videos about where animal-based foods come from until you are blue in your face, but nothing can replace the experience of fishing or hunting for your own food and then going through the entire process all to way to the plate. If you appreciate your fish or meat after experiencing this process first hand, then good on you. Alternatively, you might also start to question whether animal-based foods are right for you…, but that is a different story altogether. Enough of the philosophical discourse.
Today’s fishing excursion took us to the Ashland Reservoir, about 1 hrs drive south west of Edmonton, close by the hamlet Of Warburg (which has an awesome small burger joint if you are into that sort of food). While the boys were fishing (and yes they did catch some trout) I tried my luck with the wildlife watching. The lake is surrounded by lush deciduous forests and agricultural fields. The lake did not have much water fowl in it, and other than a solitary Common Loon, a few Great Blue Herons, the ever-present Mallard, Red-winged Blackbirds and Canada Geese there was not much else to report. My hunch is that the lack of reeds along the shoreline might be a possible reason for the low diversity. That did not stop the muskrats, however, to put on quite a show. They were quite charming as they were swimming to and fro and curiously checking out our fishing attempts. Long live the muskrats.
Mingled in with the many Blue-winged Teals and Northern Shovelers there was this pair of unique looking ducks. Clearly a male and a female, I had to look it up in the Merlin App to positively identify these waterfowl. They were very “Scaup-like”, which obviously only makes sense to someone familiar with scaups (another waterfowl). The most obvious difference from a scaup, however, was a white band on the bills of both the male and female + the male had a white band at the base of the bill as well. They were very unique looking so identifying them was a cinch once I consulted Merlin. They are Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris), a species of diving duck common in North America. Looking at reported sightings of Ring-necked Ducks in eBird reveals that while this is definitely a North American species, these ducks get around. There are many reports of vagrants found on tiny isolated islands in both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans and beyond, such as in Japan and Western Europe. Further online research does provide a bit more context. These ducks are strong flyers and are know to have a tendency to stray far away from their normal range.
Mallards are one of the most ubiquitous birds in the Northern hemisphere (+ Australia and New Zealand where they have been introduced) and are probably one of the first birds children learn to recognize, although they are more likely to refer to them as ducks, rather than mallard. Technically the name duck is the common name for a large number of species in the waterfowl family Anatidae which includes swans and geese. During a recent morning field trip to Elk Island National Park I found this lone female mallard perching on a tree stump in a shallow pond. She was eyeing me cautiously and seemed quite vigilant yet reluctant to move from her perch. It is possible that she had a nest with either eggs of chicks hidden in the tall grass. It was an overcast day and smoke blown in from forest in northern Alberta lingered over the landscape. The subdued light conditions made it somewhat challenging to take pictures with the Nikon P1000. It all boiled down to balancing the trade off between shutter speed, aperture and ISO to match the subject and light conditions. I took this particular picture at 1008mm (35mm equivalent) at 1/125s shutter speed, f/5.6 aperture and at ISO 560 from the driver’s seat through the open window on the passenger side. Cars make great blinds for wildlife photography. I was only a few meters away from the female and she was clearly aware of my presence. She seemed to tolerate my presence, but I am sure she would take off if I would get out of the vehicle. The long focal length and high ISO (by P1000 standards) did not bode well for a good picture, but I was pleasantly surprised that it turned out quite nice given the constraints.
Muskrats are medium-sized rodents, almost like a mini-beaver, but with a rat-like tail instead of the big paddle tail of the beaver. They are basically large field mice adapted to life in water. They have a groovy dental adaptation allowing them to chew with their mouths closed. Their front teeth protrude ahead of the checks and lips allowing them to chew food under water while their mouth technically remains closed. I found this fella in a shallow pond at Elk Island National Park sitting in waist-deep (by muskrat standards) water munching on his breakfast consisting of aquatic plants. He seemed quite hungry as he was really going to town with his veggies and did not seemed bother with my presence, even when I pulled out and assembled my large tripod. Below is a short video clip of his energetic chewing. The video almost looks like it has been sped up, but it’s a regular speed. Let’s call the muskrat Spikey after his spiky and funky hairdo. So, as I was saying, it is not the video that has been sped up, but rather, it is Spikey that is living his (her) life in the fast lane.
This is the third day of bison-themed posts. Another post and another bison…, yet, this one is different. All my bison pictures and posts so far have featured Plains Bison (Bison bison bison). Today’s picture, however, is featuring a Wood Bison (Bison bison athabascae). Why the trinomial names, instead of the usual Linnaean binomial names? Well, Plains and Wood Bison are considered subspecies within the genus Bison, just like you and I belong to the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens, which is different from the extinct subspecies Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, both belonging to the genus Homo. Morphologically Wood and Plains Bison can be told apart by Wood Bison being substantially larger with bulls averaging 880 kg and females 540 kg while Plains Bison bulls average 739 kg and females 440 kg – so about a 100 kg difference, not exactly spare change. Wood Bison also have a pronounced hump above their shoulder blades forward of their front legs while the Plains Bison is lacking the hump and have their highest point along their back centered over their front legs. Although they are of different sizes and one has a hump, if you do not have them right next to each other telling them apart is probably as easy as telling a Downy Woodpecker from a Hairy Woodpecker (that was a birder joke). If you visit the bison at Elk Island telling them apart (the bison, not the woodpeckers) is child’s play. If you see a bison north of the Yellowhead Highway it is a Plains Bison and if you see a bison south of the highway it is a Wood Bison. This fella was a southerner so, yeah…, definitely a Woody.
The park maintains about 450 Plains Bison and about 315 Wood Bison, selling off any surplus animals. Historically, the Plains Bison lived primarily in their Greater Plains of central North America, while the Wood Bison lived further north, from Alaska into Yukon and the North West Territories and in Northern British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan. It is believed that there used to be up to 30 million Plains Bison and about 170000 Wood Bison during their heydays. All was hunky dory until the Europeans arrived. When the Europeans colonized North America the population numbers of both bison species declined rapidly. By the late 1800s, Plains Bison no longer existed in Canada and the Wood Bison population was down to about 200 individuals. Conservation efforts saved the bison from complete extinction with populations today around 375000 Plains Bison and 6000 Wood Bison.
Bison fur consists of a thin layer of short hair right agains the skin and an outer layer of coarse long hair. In the fall the bison grow the long outer fur to keep them nice and toasty throughout the winter. In the spring they shed their outer coat in large clumps making them look quite mangy. Right before I took this picture this male was wallowing, rolling around in the dry dirt, presumable to try to shed his winter coat. As he stood up a leafy twig got caught behind his horn. Bison wallow for many purposes, such as relieving skin irritations, shed their winter coat, seeking relief from biting insects, as a social behaviour or as part of their mating behaviour during the breeding season. There is an informative writeup on wallowing in bison on the US National Parks web site. It turns out that wallowing creates bowl-like depressions, wallows, that serve important ecological roles in the prairie ecosystem. More on that later, however, once I post a picture of a wallow. This bison was just a few meters away from me so, resisted the temptation to step outside the vehicle and shot this picture from the car. The bison at Elk Island are remarkable accepting of humans in vehicles. Not so much with humans outside of vehicles.
Well, it had to happen…, my bison mojo is back. Just like last Sunday, today I was up at 5 am, on the road at 5:15 and at Elk Island by 6 am. I can get used to this Sunday morning routine. There were plenty of bison around this time. A number of Wood Bison were hanging out along the fence in the South part of the park and I probably must have seen a dozen or so Plains Bison throughout the morning in the North part of the park. Most of them were hanging out out by the aptly named Bison Loop, a few kilometres long gravel loop for for watching bison from your vehicle (but, ironically, I rarely finding bison at the Bison Loop). As I emerged from the Bison Loop I bumped into these two fellas that were taking a stroll down the main thoroughfare towards the Bison Loop (note road sign). Perhaps they just wanted to find out how it is to tour the Bison Loop from “the other side”. It was a bit hazy, probably due to lingering fire smoke, so taking photographs was a bit tricky, particularly when shooting over a long distance. One can see a bit of the haze in the picture. The morning turned out successful, however. I spend quite some time observing a very hungry Musk Rat that was going to town with the aquatic vegetables. A whole bunch of Northern Shovelers and Blue-winged Teal were in the ponds as well, both very beautiful waterfowl. I saw a sparrow that I am still working on identifying, so that one is still a loose end, but I did score two lifers, the Least Flycatcher (Empidonax minimus, Lifer #160, AB Big Year #111) and the Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia, Lifer #161, AB Big Year #112).
We were on the road to Jasper National Park for a camping weekend in the mountains. It is always a special treat to head up into the mountains, but this time we were a bit apprehensive as the weather forecast looked quite gloomy with rain and cold temperatures. Sure enough, as soon as we went through the park gate the rain started coming down. It was, however, too late to turn back now. The road between the park gate and Jasper is scenic as it meanders its way through a valley following the Athabasca River with mountains and lakes surrounding us on either. The highway inside the park is limited to 90 km/h with a number 70 km/h sections. There are good reasons for this as animals often hang out around and on the highway. In the past we have seen coyotes, foxes, bears, elks and bighorn sheep right on this stretch of highway. As we were crossing an isthmus between the Athabasca River on the right and Talbot Lake on the left half-dozen of Bighorn Sheep came galloping towards us along the highway. This must have been a good omen, if you believe in such things, The weekend ended up turn out great. Yes it rained for the rest of the day. but the next two days were sunshine allowing us to do some awesome hikes and birding, including scoring two lifers: Yellow-rumpled Warbler (Setophaga coronata, Lifer #156, AB Big Year #107) and Hammond’s Flycatcher (Empidonax hammondii, Lifer #155, AB Big Year #106). All in all, that would be considered a pretty awesome weekend.