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.
One of the most common sounds in the forest along the Whitemud Ravine is the distinct chattering noise made by the Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). Red Squirrels are solitary and territorial rodents that use their vocalization to announce their presence and defend their territory. In the fall they collect spruce and pine cones and hoard them underground in a central storage depot called a mídden. The midden is the main source of food during the winter and allows the squirrel to remain active throughout the winter. Because of the importance of these food caches they readily defend their territory from other squirrels that dare venture into it. Their address in the forest is permanent as individual squirrels stay in their territory for their entire lives. We came across this Red Squirrel that was perched on a branch along the trail making a cacophony of chattering sounds. As we walked past it it just ignored us and continued its noise making. Clearly this was the head of this territory and no squirrel or human should not even dare to think otherwise.
Mixed in with the mallards in the Hawrelak pond were a few ducks that looked different. They were clearly females in their modest drabness, but they did not look like mallard females. These were American Wigeons. Last time we encountered these we were at Coal Lake during our Big Day on May 4 together with the Edmonton Nature Club. The Hawrelak pond (it does not seem to have an official name) is man made and was build in 1964. The pond is popular with water fowl in the summer and human ice skaters in the winter. Although there is not public swimming it has been used for the swimming portion of triathlon competitions. Next week this year’s World Triathlon Championships are taking place which means that the water fowl will share the pond with swimmers racing through the water. I suspect the birds might simply just move somewhere else during the event. In the past the City of Edmonton has chlorinated the pond to make it safe for the swimmers as it had problems with blue-green algae. I assume that chlorinated water is as safe for water fowl as it is to humans, but it will be interesting to see if the water fowl return to the pond after the sporting event. Looks like I might head down to the park during the event, not to look at the athletic performances, but rather to check in on the wigeons and the other birds.
The benefits of visiting city parks is that the wildlife is accustomed to human presence and is far less likely to be wary of humans. Case in point, as we were circumambulating the pond in Hawrelak Park we came across this female mallard with a single duckling sitting at the waters edge mere meters away from picnicking people. As we approached, they (the mallards, that is) were completely unphased by our presence and just ignored us. I ended up taking a few mugshots of the duckling from about 2 meters away and neither duckling or mom seemed to mind at all. Normally I would keep my distance to an animal with young offspring, but these two seemed completely at ease with all the people around them. They could have easily jumped into the water and swam away. Perhaps they took their chances around human as sometimes, I imagine, it might pay off in the forms of edible treats. Female mallards, which care and raise the young on their own, can lay up do a dozen eggs. It appeared that this female was left with a single offspring still “living at home”.
Another hot day and another mid-day birding walk, this time in Hawrelak Park. The Ring-billed Gulls were out in full force. We had a picnic lunch in the shade of a tree and as soon as we were done our eating the gulls arrived for their eating. A pair of them were particularly bold as they walk right up to us and scanned our surrounding looking for a morsel to eat. They did manage to find a piece of bread hiding in the lawn only an arms length away from us. Because they were close and the bright mid-day sun they were easy to photograph. I rarely push my P1000 past the 1000 mm mark as the image quality rapidly deteriorates at longer focal lengths. Today, however, with the bright light, the gulls standing still watching our every move I could not resist pushing the focal length up to 1411 mm for a close up mug shot of one of the fellas. It pretty obvious why they are called Ring-billed Gulls. Whatever your opinion is about these opportunistic omnivores they are quite handsome and clever for someone with a bird brain. Any bird that’s can take advantage of humans to improve their own fortunes deserves our respect.
The sun was out today and by noon is was getting quite hot. Going birding at noon on a hot day is probably not the best timing, but sometimes you just have to take what you get. As we were about to enter the shaded forest around the creek I noticed a crow in a tall snag. It was not moving and was perched in peculiar posture. As I zoomed in on it it still did not move. I shot several pictures of it and it was completely frozen, with its head turned up and its bill slightly open. It almost looked as if it was panting, except I was not able to see any panting motion. Once I came home I did some research. My hunch was that it could have been a form of thermoregulation to cool down and avoid overheating. Apparently birds do pant to keep cool and get rid of excess heat. The behaviour is referred to as gulag fluttering where the bird rapidly flaps membranes below the bill to increase evaporative cooling. Looking at videos of gulag fluttering confirms that the beak is partially open the way the crow had it and one can usually see the fluttering in the throat right below the beak. While it is possible that this crow was doing gulag fluttering I did not see the fluttering movement of the skin. I was quite far away though and, at the time, I did not know to look for it.
This time of year, middle of summer by central Alberta standards, any open meadow at the Whitemud Ravine has lots of Red Clover (Trifolum pratense) covering it. The bumble bees seem to like it and apparently all parts of the plant are edible, but can cause bloating and apparently should not be eaten in the fall as the plant accumulates alkaloids. It is native to Europe, Western Asia and northwestern Africa, but has been introduced to various part of the world and is now common through the americas. It has a pretty flower and is quite photogenic. This picture was taken on an embankment by the creek, which can sort of be seen in the blurry background.