Today I managed to squeeze in two nature walks. A morning visit to Centennial Park in Sherwood Park. It was a blistering cold day with temperatures down to -20C, yet the winter hardy birds were out in full force. In the afternoon I visited The Whitemud Ravine. This time it was quiet and, other than Black-capped Chickadees, I spotted a fleeting glance of a Pileated Woodpecker. I heard the characteristic monkey laugh of it first and as I started scanning for it I saw a quick flash of it landing on the back of a dead old growth tree. By the time I made my way around the tree the Pileated Woodpecker was gone, but I did find a large cavity roughly where it had landed. I suspect that the woodpecker was likely in that cavity. This is the second potential nesting site of a Pileated Woodpecker I have found at the Whitemud Ravine. I am still lacking any useful photographs of Pileate Woodpeckers, so I will need to monitor these cavities more regularly. Around 3:30 in the afternoon the sun was getting low and by 4 pm it was dusk-like and too dark for photography. The early darkness is an unexpected challenge when it comes to birding during this time of the year. Winter solstice is still several weeks away so things are looking dark (pun intended) for the next little while.
Fungi are the organisms that contribute to the decomposition of dead animals and plants. What we typically think of when we think of fungi are actually the charismatic fruiting bodies. The actual fungus, however, is “invisible” as it is buried underground or inside a decomposing tree trunk in the form of a mycelium. The mycelium is the vegetative part of a fungus and consists of a mass of branching, thread-like hyphae. These fruiting bodies of so called polypore fungi were growing all the way around the trunk of a dead tree. Polypores are also called bracket fungi, and their woody fruiting bodies are called conks and they typically inhabit tree trunks or branches consuming the wood.
It never ceases to amaze me how hardy and resilient the animals in the forest are and how meek and helpless we humans are. Take this unassuming red squirrel as an example. I came across this little fella on a bitterly cold morning sitting in a tree munching on a snack seemingly not being bothered by the cold at all. I on the other hand, I was bundled up in more layers that I care to count, little hotties in boots and, toque and gloves…, yet, I had to keep moving to stay warm. It is remarkable that an animal so vulnerable and helpless to the elements has managed to become the globally dominant organism. The reason for the “success” of humans is obviously the brain. What we lack for in hardiness, teeth, claws and physical prowess we make up for with our brain. Nevertheless, this humble squirrel (and others like it) deserve our respect and admiration.
Now that the leaves are long gone one can easily see the twisted branches of trees. I found the contrast between the gnarly branches of this weathered three, the golden shrubbery and the dark blue visually striking. I don’t know what kind of tree it is. Deciduous trees are harder to identify when they don’t have leaves toree al their identity.
Along a stretch of the Whitemud Creek (south of the Whitemud), along a bend in the creek that is off the beaten trail I came across a long swath of the bank that had recently collapsed due to erosion. This bank is on the outside of the loop and is referred to as a cut bank. Cut banks are often vertical bank or cliff that forms where the outside of a meander cuts into the floodplain or valley wall of a river or stream. Cut banks are under constant erosion due to helicoidal flow (cork-screw-like flow) of the water in the meander. As the cut bank is undermined by erosion, it commonly collapses as slumps into the river channel. One consequence of this constant erosion and regular collapses is that the tree roots are often exposed and undercut, eventually leading the trees to fall into the river. The ice covered creek was covered by the remains of trees that must have fallen onto the ice over the last few days, shattering upon impact. It was quite a dramatic sight illustrating that the Whitemud Ravine is in constant flux and that things can change rapidly in nature.
The two weeks have been an ongoing thaw-freeze cycle with thawing during the day and freezing at night. As a result large parts of the creek are ice free or with just thin sheets of ice covering the parts where the water flows slowly. The trails are icy and, without the proper footwear, dangerously slippery. The mild weather has, however, made the birds more active. This is quite typical weather here in central Alberta and it is just a matter of time before we are plunged back into an arctic deep freeze.
It was a grey, cloudy and breezy day. It was drizzling and the temperature was hovering around the freezing point. Perhaps not an ideal for a nature walk but as I was already down at Snow Valley on other business I decided got for a walk along the creek on the south side of Whitemud Drive. The last few days have been going back and forth between thawing and freezing so the trails were icy and slippery. It was a good opportunity to try out my new cleats and they made all the difference, doing an admirable job of securing my footing on even the iciest of surfaces. As soon as I entered the trail the wind died down, the clouds parted and the sun came out. It was not long before the sun was beaming down from a clear blue sky. Nature can be unpredictable at times. The usual suspects were out in full force, several dozen Black-capped Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Downy Woodpeckers were fluttering around in the forest while ravens were soaring and cawing high above the tree tops. Most of the action, however, was at the Nutz Saloon were a couple confident and noisy and Red-breasted Nuthatches were having a jolly good time. I spend quite some time at the saloon before moving on. I’ll bring some refreshments next time to refill the saloon.
The snow cover at the Whitemud Ravine is criss-crossed by the distinct tracks of rabbits and hares. Here in Alberta we have three species of native rabbits and hares, the cottontail rabbit, snowshoe hare and white-tailed jackrabbit. While I cannot tell the species apart just based on their tracks they are relatively easy to identify if you spot one.
Looks can be deceiving, specially when it comes to ice. After a few days of cold temperatures the creek finally froze over. This was followed by snow covering up the ice. After all of this the creek looked like it was frozen solid and that it may support a person walking on it. In reality the ice is thin enough to be entirely transparent and is fat from being thick enough to support a person. It will take a weeks of extremely low temperatures (in the double digits) to make the ice thick enough to walk on. The moving water under the ice likely causes it to take longer to build up thick ice.
An epiphyte is an organism that grows on the surface of a plant and derives its moisture and nutrients from the air, rain, water or from debris accumulating around it. While epiphytes in the tropics are know to be rather splendid in size and diversity the boreal zone has its fair share of epiphytic organisms as well. They may not be as charismatic as their tropical counterparts, but they are just as beautiful. This naked branch of a pine, that is no more than a foot in length, is covered in at least two different types of lichens and a bit of moss as well. While it is getting crowded on the branch, when it comes to lichens, things happen very slowly due to their slow rate of growth.