The fall colors are now coming in with full force. Officially the first day of fall in the Northern Hemisphere is on Monday September 23, in three days. So the timing of the changing colors of the leaves is pretty good. Last year we were hit with the first snow on the last day of summer. There is currently no snow in the forecast, but things are definitely cooling so anything is possible I assume. The bird diversity has decline noticeably. The ponds and lakes are eerily empty and one can start feeling the fall in the air. It is a bit melancholic that what once was is not gone and we are standing at the door step of a long dark and cold winter. On a more cheerful note, winter will bring with it new denizens of the frozen wilds. The snowy owls, the Bohemian Waxwings, Redpolls, and Pine Siskins.
Lots of people harvest what nature has to offer, most often in the form of hunting or fishing. I have, however, not encountered many people that harvest wild plants or parts of wild plants. Recently we met a gentleman down by the creek that was harvesting Chokeberry for himself and his family. He told us that people these days, specially in the cities, do not harvest wild plants, berries, fruit or mushrooms. So we thought, let’s try something new and the other day we went out down to the creek to harvest some rose hips. I am well-familiar with rose hips as it is commonly consumed in Europe, where I grew up. I have never, however, harvested my own rose hips so this was a new experience for me. Rose hips felt like a safe choice as there is nothing else around that could me mistaken for rose hips. Berries can be trickier and mushrooms are definitely beyond my comfort zone at this point.
The American Red Squirrel loves to munch on seeds, particularly sunflower seeds when these are provided by their human subjects. Sunflower seeds do not occur naturally in the Whitemud Ravine but people distribute sunflower seeds by the bags along the trails so there is always plenty to go around. A diet that predominantly is based on seeds is sometimes referred to as seed predation or granivory. The Red Squirrels are opportunistic and will incorporate a range of food items into their diet such as fruit , berries and fungi. This fella that we encountered along the trail was to busy munching on sunflower seeds to really care about our presence. The light in the picture allows one to clearly see the typical dark band across the bushy tail.
Over the summer the Whitemud Creek has been quiet when it comes to waterfowl. Maybe it is the constant strong current but it seems that most water fowl prefer more still water for their day to day business. The other day, however, as we were down buy the creek harvesting rose hips we came across half a dozen Common Mergansers hanging out on the banks for the creek. I am not sure what brought them there, but it was a welcomed sight. After a while sitting on the shoreline they went into the creek and started going back and forth, sort-of aimlessly. As mergansers migrate south in the fall, one possibility is that they are starting to get together to prepare for their migration to their overwintering habitats.
The Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium) have matured and the flowers have have turned into long thin stalked brown seed pods that have splitting at the tip. The two half’s of the seed pod then curl backwards and releasing numerous small seeds that have long white hairs attached to catch the wind. When all the pods have opened the top of the plant looks like a fuzzy mess. A single fireweed can produce up to 80000 seeds. The fuzz was used by native peoples as fibre for weaving and for padding. For example, Salish people wove fireweed with the down of mountain goat wool for making blankets. The seed are also an excellent fire starter.
It was a beautiful sunny Sunday morning and we had made our way to Whitemud Ravine south of Snow Valley to Look for some rose hips. I was not sure about the timing as some online resources claim one should wait with harvesting rose hips until after the first frost as they are supposedly sweeter that way. They appear ripe, however, with some of them starting to turn to soft and mush so we decided to try out both versions; harvest some before the first frost and then compare these to rose hips harvested after the first frost. There is certainly no shortage of rose hips along the trails so I think there will be plenty left to harvest later in the season. We ended up with about two cups of rose hips. We washed them, pinched off the old rose petals and now have them out to dry. Once they have dried up a bit we will try making rose hip tea.
The prevailing view of lichens for the last 150 years or so has been that they a composite organism resulting from a mutually beneficial relationship between a fungus and an algae. It turns out that recent research from the University of Alberta (which is in my neck of the woods) has found that this relationship is more complex than previously thought. Researchers found that a lichen may be made up of up to three different fungi and that no two lichens necessarily have the same mix of fungal partners. Most lichens are rather plain looking, not particularly flashy and are easily overlooked. What this research shows is how little we know and understand about nature that is right under our noses. One could easily spend an entire lifetime understanding and studying nature that is right outside ones doorstep without needing to go to any more exotic locations.
The Identification Guide for Alberta Invasive Plants has nearly 90 species listed. Twenty one of the species have yellow flowers. The other flower colours include white, purple, pink, red, green, blue and orange. Today’s invasive plant is the Perennial Sow Thistle (Sonchus arvensis), a member of the sunflower family. It has yellow, dandelion-like flowers that are grouped in loose clusters at the ends of stem. Like most invasive species in Alberta it was introduced to North America from Europe and Asia. It reproduces prolifically through underground rhizomes and wind dispersed seeds. Apparently a single plant can produce up to 13000 seeds and each seed can remain viable for 3-6 years. Along the Whitemud Creek there are still large stands of flowering Perennial Sow Thistle
Lichens are cool critters. They are a composite organism consisting of an algae or bacteria living in a mutualistic relationship with a fungus. The resulting lichen has properties different from those of its component organisms. While lichens share features with plants, e.g. growing in a specific location, the inability to move and sometimes a plant-like shape, they are not plants. A mutualistic relationship is characterized by two different organisms coexisting and working together, each benefiting from the relationship. It’s sort of reminiscent of a marriage. Lichen s can be tricky to identify, but this one appears to be a species of shield lichen, possibly a Common Greenshield Lichen (Flavoparmelia caperata).
The water level has been dropping in the Whitemud Creek and the flow of the water has slowed down substantially from oily a week ago. It is remarkable how the level of the water and speed of the flow closely reflects the current precipitation regime. As soon as there is a break in the weather, it does not take long for the creek to adjust. On a few occasions I have tried to track the upstream meandering and branching network of creeks in Google maps but once one gets past the airport (about 30 kilometre away) there has been so many bifurcation and the creeks are so small that one is starting to loose track of them. What this exercises has revealed, however, is that the watershed of the Whitemud Creek is quite large and much of of it spans agricultural fields. This probably also means that there is likely quite a bit of fertilizer and herbicide run off ending up in the creek. In addition to this I have also come across several outfalls that flow into the creek… so, yeah…, I would pass on drinking the water or going for a bath.