There’s is a strip of meadow between the parking lot at the Whitemud Creek and the MacTaggard Sanctuary. This time of year it’s all pretty with flowers in bloom, bumblebees zipping between the flowers and thousands upon thousands of grasshoppers jumping around in the hot afternoon sun. Last week the meadow it was covered in a sea of purple flowers. Of course clueless as I am about botany I had no clue what they were. They were, however, not hard to identify once had access to Internet. It’s the Cow Vetch (Vicia cracca), also known as Tufted Vetch, Bird Vetch, Blue Vetch and Boreal Vetch, and although it is beautiful there are skeletons in its closet. It is native to Europe and Asia and an invasive species in North America where it is considered a weed. While the flowers are much appreciated by bees, bumblebees and butterflies, cattle like likes to munch on it and (allegedly) budgerigars have a particular fondness for the seeds it is a fast growing colonizing species and often dominates disturbed habitats before native plants have a chance to become established. Cow Vetch is in the family as peas and has climbing stems with noose-like branched tendrils that wrap themselves around other plants, often strangling smaller plants.
I have seen my fair share of Pileated Woodpeckers in my lifetime, including some spectacularly destructive individuals that went to town on trees with such vigour that the wood chip went flying. It is always a treat to come across one these birds. They not only spectacular and impressive birds, but also quite noisy. The distinct sound when they work on a tree and their vocalizations, reminiscent of a hysterically laughing monkey, can be heard far and wide. The one thing I have not managed to do in the Pileated Woodpecker department, however, is to take a good (or at least half descent) picture of one. I have numerous out of focus and fuzzy photos that would perhaps qualify for the crap bird photography page, but they are definitely nothing to write home about. The best place to see Pileated Woodpeckers in my neck of the woods is down at the Whitemud Ravine. I regularly see them flying around and most dead standing trees have evidence of their busy work, but I have yet to snap a picture of one in action.
This weekend we had the first two days this summer without rain. It has been a wet summer with daily thunderstorms and serious downpours. As a result the water level in Whitemud Creek is unusually high with part of the creek having fast flowing and frothing whitewater. Parts of the swollen banks have overflowed and inundated vegetation that normally would be on dry land. There seems to be a break in the rain, but now the “arctic heat” has moved in. With temperatures soaring to 30 °C this heat wave is unusual in that it did not come in from the south, but rather from the Northwest Territories, which have been under a heat warning the last few days. The last few days I have been out looking for birds during the hottest part of the days, either mid day or late afternoon. Needless to say, the timing has been completely off and I have not seen much as far as birds go. I think we are looking at some early morning nature walks this weekend to try to remedy the poor timing and get back into the groove of things.
The world loves its chickens. With an estimated total world population of more than 19 billion most of which end up in soups, stews and barbecues there are likely more chickens around than any other wild or domesticated bird. For me chickens are a no fly zone, I don’t eat them (as in, I don’t eat meat) and I don’t count them (as in, I don’t count them as a birder). Yesterday, as we were visiting the Kiwi plant nursery outside of Spruce Grove, I encountered my first chickens not wrapped in ceranwrap. They were running around among the plants looking like they had a jolly good time without a worry in the world. There is a long list of criteria that need to be fulfilled for one to be able to count a bird (as a birder), e.g. one cannot count birds in movies or photographs (but some people are known to practice video game birding), one cannot count captive or caged birds and birds that have been introduced or released and have not established a viable population (there goes the errant budgie). Chickens, being captive, even when they are mischievously free running, are a no go. They were cute and funny though and I could not resist taking pictures of a few of the ladies basking in the afternoon sun. As I was observing them I found myself wondering where they came from (well, obviously from an egg, but before that…). Who is their wild chicken ancestor and are they still around? It turns out that the domesticated chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus) is a subspecies of the Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus), a bird of the south East Asian tropics in the family Phasianidae. The junglefowl was first domesticated about 5000 years ago and the rest is history. Ebird refers to the Red Junglefowl as the “original chicken” and describes it as smaller than its domesticated descendants. The Red Junglefowl can be spotted running wild in South and Southeast Asia as well as in New Zealand and various Pacific and Caribbean islands where it was introduced. Well, now that I have met the domesticated chicken it seems only fitting that I one day track down and it wild cousins in a far more exotic location.
As we were visiting the Kiwi plant nursery at the outskirts of Spruce Grove I notice a soft chattering sound among the trees and shrubbery. I was pretty sure it was a bird but I was not familiar with who the suspect would be. I did not have to wait long. In short order the Barn Swallows came swooping in at low elevation, crisscrossing the sky in death defying maneuvers. One of the swallows landed on top of a tall flag post with a large Canadian flag fluttering in the breeze. I just had to take a picture of this diminutive bird perched on top of the post with a gigantic flag. How do you compose a picture like this? One could zoom in to get a closer look at the swallow, but then the flag would not be in the picture. Alternatively you zoom out to fit both the swallow and the flag, but then the bird is just a speck. I choose the second option. You can sort of see the rust coloured breast of the Barn Swallow (if you squint) sitting on top of the pole without a care in the world.
After the false alarm with the Giant Hogweed lookalike Cow Parsnip I have been seeing lots of these sheep in wolve’s clothing all over the place. The other day, as I spotted another specimen down at the Whitemud Ravine, I noticed that the inflorescence was busy with what looked like flies. I suspect the Cow Parsnip has something edible to offer to insects. While most of the insects looked like “regular” houseflies flies this is likely a complete misrepresentation of what they actually were. There seems to be a different looking fella on the far right of the flower that looks like a winged ant, perhaps it could be some sort of wasp, but I am going out on another limb here. Identifying insects is not trivial and I am an Uber noob at it to start with. It does appear the Cow Parsnips inflorescence attracts quite an attention from a wide range of insects such as mosquitoes, flies, hymenopterans, butterflies, thysanopterans and beetles.
Common Goldeneyes have a distance appearance as adults. Females having a chocolate brown head, yellow eyes and males have a distinct white cheek patch. When I spotted this fella chugging through the pond in Hawrelak park my initial hunch was that its overall shape reminded me of a Common Goldeneye, yet none of the other physical characteristics were there (no yellow eye, no check patch). Upon closer research this is likely an immature Common Goldeneye. Common Goldeneyes are diving ducks and this fella certainly lived up to that reputation as it was energetically diving, popping up for a few seconds and then disappearing under water again. If you look closely you can see his head covered in water droplets and sporting a fuzzy wet do.