Red-back Voles are common inhabitants of the northern forests. Just as the name suggests the fur on their back is reddish brown. There are two species of red-back voles in Canada, the Northern Red-back vole (Myodes rutilis) and the Southern Red-back vole (Myodes gapperi). Studies have shown that the Northern Red-back Vole occurs north of latitude 60°N and the Southern Red-back Vole south of 60°N with virtually no overlap between the two species in North America. Edmonton is located at 53°N and the 60 parallel North constitutes the border between Alberta and the Northwest Territories. This means that most likely this is a Southern Red-backed Vole. This fella did not seem to be particularly shy. It just continued to munch on its snack while I was taking pictures only a few meters away.
Well, I don’t actually know if the beavers are back…, I do know, however, that at least one beaver is back at the Whitemud Creek. The last time I encountered beavers at the creek was over three months ago back in mid-April (See Post No. 020). At that time there were beavers galore in the creek and then they just vanished. There is obviously much more to this story, but I’ll save that for a different day. What matters is that it appears that a beaver has somehow found its way back to the creek. A few days ago I caught a fleeting glimpse of one individual doing the rounds in the creek. I just barely managed to snap a picture of it. It is a good thing I did, otherwise I probably would have been second guessing myself, questioning myself if I really had seen what I thought I had seen or if my eye or brain were just playing tricks on me. I am intrigued about where this beaver came from. Did it swim in from the North Saskatchewan River or did it come down from an upstream location of the creek? My suspicion is that it came in from the North Saskatchewan River, but I have no idea how to prove that. I have to admit that while it was super exciting to spot a beaver at the creek again, it did not come entirely as a surprise. A few days earlier I saw the writing on the wall in the form of a freshly felled poplar bearing the unmistakable signs of a beavers handywork.
So here is a bit of a stumper. I came across this waterfowl sitting on a log in the creek the other day. It was alone and the question that immediately came to my mind was “What is it?”. My hunch is that it was an immature Common Merganser, given the spiky hairdo, white belly, overall grey with a hint of reddish-brown on the head. What makes me second guess myself, however, is the bill and the legs. Both these appendages are red to brownish-red in Common Merganser. On this individual, however, the colours were nowhere close to that. On the other hand though, the bill and leg colours are brightest on adult males and are progressively duller the younger the individual is. Comparing this individual to other Common Mergansers I have seen and online images online + cross referencing with reported sightings at this location in eBird does not leave many other options available. It is interesting that while one typically relies on unique species specific field marks when identifying birds, birds can be as variable in appearance as humans and sometimes you come across individuals that only partially fit the search image. It is in situations like this that being able to take a picture of the birds is invaluable, particularly afterwards when you start questioning your observation. While today’s picture may not stand up to the scrutiny of pixel peepers it does serve its intended purpose, to document an individual and aid in its identification and, lets face it, being shot at the 35 mm equivalent of 1008 mm there are few other camera set ups that could pull this of. Yes you could probably shoot it at 600 mm on a full frame camera and then crop in post-processing and end up with an image with a higher resolution…, or you could get a Nikon P1000 and take the cash you save and go on a photo safari to <name of your choice of a far away exotic location>. For me it is a easy choice, travel always trumps hardware. Let’s put it this way. When you are old and gnarly reminiscing about your birding heydays, what’s will you remember? Will you fondly remember you top of the line equipment and massive 600 mm optics? Or will you remember that epic birding trip you did with you family to <name of your choice of a far away exotic location> where you scored n lifers (where n is a very large number) and created memories to last a lifetime? Nuff said!
Another Cedar Waxwing post (there was a previous one recently here). It is hard to resist these photogenic birds with their punky hairdo. They are easily found down in the Whitemud Ravine during the summer as they seem to like to hang out by streams and ponds. They are sociable and tend to be seen in flocks. This individual was down at a small pond together with 3 of its mates. Cedar Waxwings have a bit of a reputation for enjoying munching on berries (such as Mountain Ash berries) that are overripe and have begun to ferment. As it turns out, fermented fruit has the same effect on birds as it has on humans. I guess by this measure they would be considered the party animals down of the creek. So there you have it folks – humans get their fermented fruit on Whyte Ave and Cedar Waxwings get it down by the creek. On this sunny summer day, however, these particular waxwings were on their best behaviour.
Perched on a dead branch jutting out over the pond was an Eastern Phoebe with its distinct big-head and white “scarf” around its neck. Phoebes belong to the Tyrant Flycatcher family and with their short beaks they specialize in catching flies and other flying insects. The Tyrant Flycatchers are a family of passerine birds occurring throughout North and South America. It is considered the largest family of birds, with more than 400 species. That could be a challenging and unique side hobby to birding – a Tyrant Flycatcher Life List + it would take you all across the Americas in your quest. I could live with that. The Eastern Phoebe did not stay put for long. All of a sudden it took off. It made a short u-shaped flight, presumably to catch a snack, before returning to the same perch. With the amount of rain we have been getting this summer there is no shortage of mosquitoes so any critter that preys on these pesky critters is in my good book.
I came across a stand of shrubs along the Whitemud Ravine trail that looked like Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta). It had the typical serrated leaves and the small catkins (the male flowers), but I did not find any female flowers or any nuts so I was a bit on the fence for a positive identification. That was until I found one shrub that had the characteristic bristly husks that look like long beaks (hence the name Beaked Hazelnut). The nuts grow inside these husks. The Beaked Hazelnut is our only nut-bearing native shrub and is an important source of food for, you guessed it, squirrels and chipmunks. Birds, such as woodpeckers and jays, also enjoy a nut as a snack. While the nuts are edible, store-bought hazel nuts typically come from the Common Hazel (Corylus avellana) which grows in Europe, around the Mediterranean Sea and throughout Western Asia. For a minute I was tempted to try the nut but decided to stick to the adage of only taking pictures and only leaving footprints and decided to leave the nut for the denizens of the forest.
Another milestone! Post 122 out of 366 makes it one third of the way through my Project 366. Four months in and I think I can safely say that have the ropes figure out by now and that I am on the proverbial roll.
I went for a nature walk this morning to the Whitemud Creek. To mix things up a bit I accessed the trail system from a secluded and well-hidden trail head in the Ogilvie Ridge neighbourhood. This trail head takes you right into a portion of the Whitemud Ravine south of Snow Valley. According to the map it is about a 4 km walk to Snow Valley but I did not go that far today. It started out cloudy and breezy but the sun snuck out behind the clouds about one hour into the walk. The highlight of the walk was the “discovery” of a a pair of ponds off the trail that were busy with all manners of bird life such as Bohemian Waxwings, Eastern Pheoebes, House Finches, and a Downy Woodpecker (no waterfowl though). There was also evidence of recent beaver activity. These ponds do not appear on any map or even in Google Earth. I am sure the ponds are know to the locals, but they are not visible from the main trail and one has to meander through a brushy meadow to find them. As I was finding my way across the meadow I encountered stands of Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium) a tall perennial herbaceous plant related to willows. The Fireweed is native throughout the temperate Northern Hemisphere, including throughout the boreal forests of Canada. It is a pioneer species and is often one of the first colonizer after forest fires, hence the name Fireweed. It was known as bombweed during the Second World War as it was rapid to colonize bomb craters. Fireweed is one of the best known medicinal plants and has been used worldwide in traditional medicine. Experimental and clinical studies have confirmed that all parts of the plant have a broad range of pharmacological and therapeutic properties, including antioxidant, anti-proliferative, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and anti-aging properties. A recent review of the therapeutic potential of Fireweed provides an impressive list of benefits:
Traditional use of fireweed includes an infusion or tea, which has been reported as a treatment for migraine headaches, insomnia, anemia, delirium tremens, infections, and colds. E. angustifolium extracts have been reported to be effective treatments for gastric ulcer; duodenal ulcer; gastritis; colitis; various gastrointestinal disorders, such as dysentery and diarrhea; and prostate or urinary problems, such as urethral inflammation, micturition disorders, prostatic adenoma, and benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). E. angustifolium has also been used topically as a cleansing, soothing, antiseptic, and healing agent to treat minor burns, skin rashes, ulcers, and infections, and for treatment of inflammation of the ear, nose, and throat…
Although I am not suffering from any of the listed ailments at the present time, it am tempted to head back and collect some of the leaves while they are available to keep a stash of this miracle plant at home for future uses.