It had been raining all night and all day and it did not look like the rain was about to stop any time soon. So I wrapped up my camera in it’s rain gear, donned a rain jacket and rubber boots and headed to Hawrelak park. There were not many birds around other than the usual suspects in an around the pond. On the well-manicured lawn right by the pond an immature Ring-billed Gull was relaxing. It did not seem bothered by my presence. Although gulls are common they can be notoriously difficult to identify and entire books have been dedicated to telling one gull species from another. Their plumage change as they age and there is a great deal of variation within species and often little variation between species. Hawrelak park usually has a large contingent of Ring-billed Gulls, so it is likely that any gull found in the park is one of those… except that this individual does not look like a typical Ring-billed Gull. Although the bill has black on it, the black ring on the bill is noticeably absent and the rest if the plumage is completely different from a Ring-billed Gull. It turns out that this individual’s plumage and bill is the look that juvenile Ring-billed Gulls sport. The typical look of a Ring-billed Gull is known as the breeding plumage and it takes the gull three years to reach it, with its appearance changing with each fall moult.
The orb weavers are one of the more magnificent arachnids in these neck of the woods and this time of the year we have plenty of them looking for a quick meal in our back yard. There are more than a dozen different species of orb weavers in Alberta and they are often found in back yards along the sides of houses and garages. They like to build their webs hear light sources that are left on overnight. If you are a spider tending to a web hoping for some juicy insects to get entangled building your web near a nocturnal light source makes of course a lot of sense. We all know how lights at night attract insects so clearly and clearly the orb weavers have figured this out as well. I came across this plump female, because it is likely to be a female as they are the ones that get the largest this time of year, in a nook by the front light of my house. She had quite a few tangled up flies and mosquitos in her web so it looks like she is doing quite well.
The mornings are noticeably chillier, its becoming dark earlier and the sun is rising later in the morning. Most of the plants have now finished flowering and are producing seeds, nuts and fruits. These are all sure signs of the inevitably approaching end of the summer and the arrival of the long, dark and cold season. I came across this spent inflorescence of a Cow Parsnip with the crownlike appendages giving away its identify. Apparently the seeds are edible and have a citrus-like flavour when used as a spice in cooking.
Last time I was down at the Whitemud Ravine at dawn it was a clear morning with not a single cloud in the sky. As the sun was rising over the eastern horizon a waning crescent moon was setting in the west. I am not much for moon shots but lots of people use their Nikon P1000 to photograph the moon. I suspect mainly to demonstrate the capabilities of the camera. The P1000 has lots of limitations but taking close up pictures of the moon is not one of them. This is entirely thanks to the behemoth sized zooming capabilities of the camera. At 3000 mm at 35 mm equivalent fully zoomed in the camera is more of a telescope than anything thing else. I rarely use it beyond about 1000 mm as the image quality deteriorates noticeably at longer focal lengths. I have never actually thought of shooting the moon with this camera, but with the moon right up there and with the camera in hand I figure “why not?”. I did not, however, zoom in on the moon as I wean Ted to get some foreground into the image as well. So here it is, my first moon shot with the P1000. Only time will tell if this is the first of others to come.
Paper birches are unmistakable as far as trees go. With their white bark peeling in large sheets there really is not other species it could be mistaken for. The paper birch is wide spread across the boreal forest and they are easily found down in the Whitemud Ravine. With its thin bark and readily available sap the tree is a favourite among the Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. Among First Nations the Paper Birch is used to make objects such as canoes, snowshoes, tipis, baskets and paper. It also has medicina al properties and the birch sap can be collected and boiled down to make syrup, wine, and beer. So it turns out that this tree is quite versatile. The peeling bark is excellent as tinder and I always collects bark sheets when hiking and if I know I will be making a fire later on. You just want to be careful not to harvest too much bark from a single tree as removing large chunks of bark could damage or even kill the tree.
It was a sunny and beautiful morning as I was making my way along the trail in Whitemud Ravine. Something, however, was not right. I was not able to put my finger on it, but you could hear. Like droplets of a light morning rain on the leafs of the canopy. Except, it was not raining, the sky was blue and the sun was rising. I was not sure what to make of it. I was not imagining the sound. It was coming from a large paper birch at the edge of the trail. I carefully scanned the trunk, branches and canopy of the birch, but that did not provide any clues to the source of the sounds. Was I loosing my marbles? Had my dogs stopped barking? Were the wheels turning, but the hamster gone? Was I going nuttier than a hoot owl? I hesitated and slowly walked closer to the birch. The sound was still there but still no clue. I was dumbfounded. I held out my hand, like I was half expecting to feel rain droplets on my hand…, except it was definitely not raining…, except, that is when I felt it. Something landed in the palm of my hand. Something tiny and light as a feather. As I zoomed in my eyes on the palm of my hand, there it was. A seed hull from the paper birch. What happened then was remarkable, it was like my eyes and my brain recalibrated their search image. As I raised my eyes I could now see them, thousands upon thousands of seed hulls and samaras raining down from the paper birch canopy high above me. I could feel them land on my face as I looked up. The seed hulls are like shells surrounding the actual seed, or samara. A samara is a fruit with thin wings. The maple “helicopter” seeds are perhaps the most well known samara, but many other species of trees have samaras as well, including birches, ashes and elms. The purpose of samaras and their paper thin wings is to disperse and help the plant to spread its offspring. It is curious how this tree was releasing a mass of samaras all at the same time. That is probably not just a coincidence and it begs the question what triggered the release of the seeds? Is it an environmental cue or do they all ripen simultaneously? So far, I have not been able to find any information about this phenomenon online.
Lately I have come across dense stands of Common Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) along the banks of the Whitemud Creek. I have probably unconsciously seen it all through summer but it is not until now, with its unique yellow button-like flowers arranged in dense, flat-topped clusters that I have noticed it and been able to identify it. Like many of the wildflowers I have come across over the summer the Tansy has also been introduced to North america from its native Europe and Asia. Tansy contains alkaloids that are toxic to both humans and livestock, but despite this it has a long history of medicinal uses. Because of its medicinal uses one can still find this plant in nurseries to be used in gardens. The Alberta Invasive Species Council classifies this plant as noxious and discourages gardeners from purchasing and growing the Common Tansy.
Sometimes it is fun to take the less travelled patch and go off roading during a nature walk. You never know what you will come across when you get away from the main trail and go for a bit of bush whacking. This time, however, I did not realize what I had ran into until after the fact. As I was on my way home I realize my pant legs were covered in burs. I was essentially being used as a vehicle for dispersal and reproduction by a plant. A but is a seed or dry fruit that has hooks or teeth that catch on the fur of passing animals or on the clothing of people. The technical term for this type of dispersal is epizoochory, aka dispersal by attaching to the outside of animals. After I came home I spends some time picking the burs of the pants, but gave up after a while. They were pretty well attached and there were so many that I would be at it the rest of the day if I continued removing them one by one. So I went ahead and washed the pants in the laundry machine. Guess what, they remain attached to the pants. At this point I am thinking of leaving them attached to see if they eventually fall off. After all, this would not be a very successful dispersal strategy if the burs never came off on their own. Apparently burs were the inspiration for Velcro fasteners.
Nuthatches are common at the Whitemud Ravine but tricky to take pictures of as they never seem to sit still. I managed to snap this on single picture of a White-breasted Nuthatch sitting on a log for a second before it quickly moved on. Nuthatches forage on insects climbing around on trunks and branches and are unique as they often move head-first down trees and can even hang upside-down beneath twigs and branches. They have a quite distinctive call so it is easy to pick them out in the forest, it’s another thing to actually spot them though. The White-breasted Nuthatch is the larger of the two nuthatches we have in Alberta, the other one being the Red-breasted Nuthatch.
As I was walking along the trail down at Whitemud Ravine a subtle rustle of leaves from a grove of High-bush Cranberries caught my attention. The bushes were laden with ripe berries and I assumed that the noise came from birds enjoying a snack. I tried to coax my eyes into focusing in on the source of the rustle. It took a while, but then I saw a quick flash of a diminutive bushy tail. That was sufficient evidence to identify the culprit. A Least Chipmunk was balancing on the thin branches of one of the bushes and gorging itself with ripe berries. Summer is coming to an end and the forest is full of ripe berries, fruits, nuts and mushrooms. The squirrels, chipmunks and birds are bushy feasting on the bounty and hoarding supplies for the long winter. Further down the trail I came across a Red Squirrel enjoying a nut from a Beaked Hazelnut bush and another one carrying an entire apple (it was a small apple).