On the concrete embankment under the Fox Drive overpass across the Whitemud Creek fresh snow has blown on and covered the concerted in a pristine thin and fluffy layer of fresh snow. A series of animal track Crossed the snow diagonally. The tracks looked fresh so I tried to follow them for a bit but they disappeared into the shrubbery and were lost. There are not many choices in terms of who could have made the tracks. Size-wise they could be squirrel tracks but are missing the imprint of the long forepaw and they are too large for a vole. I suspect they were made by a weasel, likely a least weasel.
Last week weekend the time changed back to winter time. As a result darkness falls even earlier now, making it difficult to do any nature walks in the afternoons during the week. This picture was taken at around 3:30 in the afternoon with the sun already starting to set behind the tree tops. The earliest I would be able to reach this spot during the week would be around 5 pm, at which point darkness is falling and there would be no possibility to take any pictures. We are currently about one month away from winter solstice (December 21) so the darkness will get worse first, before things will start to move in the opposite direction.
In a naked tree right by the Whitemud Creek, along a sinuous bend in the creek, an abandoned bird’s nest is clinging perilously to a branch that seems to be far to narrow for it to balance on it. It must have been a prime real estate location during the summer, with a view of the creek and beavers frolicking in the waters below. One can still see lichen that was used for insulation and warmth sticking out of the nest. The nest is now covered in snow and I have my doubts whether it will survive the winter storms and the weight of heavy snow.
Snow usually is seen as something that covers things up. It covers up my driveway every time it snows, and then I have to spend time and energy removing it. In the forest, however, snow reveals who has been there and where they went. The Whitemud Ravine is, as the name suggests, a ravine so the ability for wildlife to move around is limited. Any long distance movement will pretty much have to be along the relatively narrow shape of the ravine. I am not sure if this is the reason, but I have never seen so many animal tracks crisscrossing the forest floor as in the Whitemud Ravine. Most of them are relatively easy to identify, squirrels, hares, weasels, and coyote. The track in the picture is from a deer. Other than squirrels and voles I have not actually seen any other mammals in the ravine, but the tracks reveal that when the humans are not watching the forest is bustling with activity.
A phase transition is the transformation of a thermodynamic system from one phase or state of matter to another one by heat transfer. The term is most commonly used to describe transitions between solid, liquid and gaseous states of matter, and, in rare cases, plasma. The only type of phase transition one is likely to encounter in these neck of the woods at this time of the year is between the liquid and solid state in water. As a matter of fact the shoulder seasons tend to be a lot of going back and forth between ice and liquid water. The last few days have been milder and the ice that formed on the creek last week is now melting. As a result the water level has increased and the creek is flowing noticeably faster.
At this time of the year there seems to only be one single thing on the mind of the Black-capped Chickadees…, food. They seem to spend all their time looking for food and feeding and clearly view us humans as a source of food. A 1992 study estimated that chickadees, and similar small birds, need about 10 kcal per day to survive. Chickadees consume a wide range of food stuffs, including insects and seeds. One of their favorite treats, particularly this time of year, are sunflower seeds. According to my calculation a single hulled sunflower seed has on average 0.29 kcal (100 grams of sunflower seeds has 585 kcal, which corresponds to approximately 2000 hulled seeds…, the rest is math). This little fella was thoroughly enjoying his snack and in the pan of a few minutes came by about 10 times to pickup another seed. That means he got about a third of its daily energy intake from the snack we brought. Here is more food for though. An adult chickadee weights about 10 grams and this adult birder weights about 8000 times more. If I would have the same daily per gram energy requirements as the chickadee my total daily energy requirement would be 80000 kcal, about 30 times what it actually is. I would get all my energy from sunflower seeds I would have to consume almost 14 kg of hulled sunflower seeds every day. There is some food for thought. Fortunately metabolic rates in warm-blooded animals does not scale linearly, but that is a different story.
Sometimes you come across odd, unexpected and out of place things in the forest. Like for example a fir tree with holiday decorations in the middle of the forest. Whoever put up the decorations, did they do it for others to find it and be confused? It is certainly an odd thing to do. Is the person coming back after the holidays to remove the decorations? Only time will tell.
I heard a rumor on the CBC radio morning show that there were ice pancakes in the North Saskatchewan River. Well, there is nothing else to do other than hurrying down to the river to check it out for myself. With the current frigid temperatures it will likely not be long before the river freezes over completely. Indeed, the river was full of ice pancakes drifting rapidly downstream. Under normal conditions, i.e. in the absence of ice pancakes, the flow of the water in river appears deceptively slow. The speed, however, at which the ice floes were moving downstream was quite remarkable and not expected. Ice pancakes (or pancake ice) is a form of ice that consists of round pieces of ice with ranging in diameter from 30 centimeters (12 in) to 3 meters (9.8 ft). The pancakes in the North Saskatchewan river were on the smaller size with most of them being around 1 meter in diameter. With more snow in the forecast, I guess this will be the proverbial icing on the cake.
When I started this project – 228 days ago on March 29 – the world was in a deep freeze and the creek was encased in thick ice. Ice thick enough to walk, bike and ski on. Well, the creek is frozen again. The ice is still thin and transparent, but with the current temperatures it will not be long before we can yet again go for a nature walk on the creek (rather than by the creek). I am looking forward to this as if offers a refreshing new perspective on a familiar scene. An added bonus is that it also allows to access areas that are inaccessible during the rest of the year. Say what you want about blistering cold temperatures and long dark winters, a nature walk on a early winter morning is an experience that involves all the sense. From the feeling of walking though untouched snow, to the sounds – the muffled silence (the snow absorbs sound) interrupted only by the sounds of steps through snow, the cold on your face, the taste of frozen snots in your mouth (if you have facial hair, you’ll understand) is an unique and unforgettable experience bringing you closer to nature. Vive l’hiver!
So winter is definitely here. The snow arrived over the weekend and the temperature has dropped drastically. This morning as we were heading to the Whitemud Creek the mercury was at -24C. It was a beautiful clear morning, the sun was beaming from a clear blue sky and, yes it was cold but the absence of a breeze made it tolerable. Of course, all the winter her was required; long johns, layer upon layer on the upper body, heavy duty kits, double toques and Little Hotties stuffed into the boots. Other then the Black-capped Chickadees and cawing of ravens on the distance we did not see much of the fauna. It was nevertheless a beautiful walk and the fresh snow and frozen creek turned a familiar landscape into something magical.