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.
As we were approaching the parking lot at the Savage Centre by the Whitemud Ravine my teen suddenly said “That looks like a Giant Hogweed”. His words made me stop in in my tracks. The statement was remarkable in the first place? How would a run of the mill teen know of Giant Hogweed? Secondly, Giant Hogweed has not been found in Alberta (yet) and finding its here would be unprecedented and very bad news indeed. Giant Hogweed (Heracelum mantegazzianum) is native to Eurasia. It was introduced in North America as an ornamental plant and soon started to throughout the continent. As if that would not be bad enough, the really bad news is that it is that the weed is highly noxious as the sap causes severe burns, blistering and scarring and even blindness if it gets in the eyes. There is plenty of graphic images online of the horrific damage the plant causes to skin (Google it at your own risk). It is considered as one of Canada’s most dangerous plants and has, to date, been found in the Atlantic provinces, Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia. According to Alberta Agriculture and Forestry the plant has not been found in Alberta yet and all plants reported as possible Giant Hogweed in Alberta have turned out to be Cow Parsnip. The plants belong to the same family and look very similar. The Giant Hogweed is sometimes even referred to by the name Cow Parsnip. The key difference between the plants though is that Cow Parsnip is harmless. We learned a lot that afternoon as we carefully inspected and photographed the plant. I still don’t know, however, where my teen learned about Giant Hogweed.