In the center of the Bison Loop at Elk Island National Park there is a small shallow pond. You can clearly see it from the gravel road as it is no more than 25 meters away. Despite the proximity I have never actually been down to the water’s edge. I decided to change that unacceptable omission today…, I mean, I have been to the Bison Loop more times than I can count and never though it was worth going down to the water. I assume I though that looking down at the pond from the gravel road is close enough to see everything that could possibly be of interest around the pond. That is clearly the view of someone that still has a very superficial understanding of nature, someone that still does not know how to pay attention to the small details. Said and done. I found a well-beaten bison path through the tall grass (ticks anyone?) and walked down to the pond. It took me almost 30 seconds to get from the gravel road and down to the pond, so not to strenuous by any measure. The bison clearly used this pond as a watering hole as the surrounding grassy field was criss crossed by bison trails and the mud along the water’s edge was covered in bison hoof prints. In a low shrub along the trail a piece of bison fur was floating in the wind. I could not resist picking up the fur. I was half expecting the fur to be coarse and stiff and, perhaps, have some sort of bison body odour to it. To my surprise it was silky soft and had no smell at all.
Well, it had to happen…, my bison mojo is back. Just like last Sunday, today I was up at 5 am, on the road at 5:15 and at Elk Island by 6 am. I can get used to this Sunday morning routine. There were plenty of bison around this time. A number of Wood Bison were hanging out along the fence in the South part of the park and I probably must have seen a dozen or so Plains Bison throughout the morning in the North part of the park. Most of them were hanging out out by the aptly named Bison Loop, a few kilometres long gravel loop for for watching bison from your vehicle (but, ironically, I rarely finding bison at the Bison Loop). As I emerged from the Bison Loop I bumped into these two fellas that were taking a stroll down the main thoroughfare towards the Bison Loop (note road sign). Perhaps they just wanted to find out how it is to tour the Bison Loop from “the other side”. It was a bit hazy, probably due to lingering fire smoke, so taking photographs was a bit tricky, particularly when shooting over a long distance. One can see a bit of the haze in the picture. The morning turned out successful, however. I spend quite some time observing a very hungry Musk Rat that was going to town with the aquatic vegetables. A whole bunch of Northern Shovelers and Blue-winged Teal were in the ponds as well, both very beautiful waterfowl. I saw a sparrow that I am still working on identifying, so that one is still a loose end, but I did score two lifers, the Least Flycatcher (Empidonax minimus, Lifer #160, AB Big Year #111) and the Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia, Lifer #161, AB Big Year #112).
Reliable intelligence indicates that the bisons at Elk Island National Park have had their calves. I have not had much luck finding bison over the last few months and things do not seem to improve. It is likely that the adult bison might be even shyer now that they have calves. During my last visit parts of the park had been shutdown to the public due to the calving, so that will likely not improve my bison viewing luck. Assuming the smoke from the wild fires clears I will be doing another dawn field trip to Elk Island this weekend, so wish me luck. If there is one thing wildlife watching has taught me is that crossing the path with wild animals takes good timing and no small amount of luck. Over the years I have had some very memorable run-ins with bison at Elk Island. The one that perhaps stands out the most in my mind is a bison stampede down the main access road involving around 30-50 bison charging down the road as we were driving the other way. Fortunately we were safely inside our car but as the bison passed us our vehicle was completely surrounded by bison hoofs and horns. It appears that memorable encounters are separated by long periods were no animals are encountered. Historically it has been the same situation with bears in the mountain parks. There are years were we do not see a single bear, only to have bears dropping out of trees all over the place the following summer. It takes patience and persistence, that is for sure. The rewards of viewing wildlife in their natural habitats are memories that last a life time.
The sun was rising over the highway as I was heading east on my way to an early morning excursion at Elk Island National Park. As far as national parks go, Elk Island National Park is the smallest national park in Canada. It is unique, however, in that it is the home to the highest density of ungulates in Canada. Perhaps the most famous residents are the Plains Bison (in the northern part of the park) and the Wood Bison (in the southern half of the park). While this park never seems to get very busy, getting there early on a Sunday morning guarantees that one will have the whole place to oneself. Other than a very energetic Pileated Woodpecker going to town on a wooden power pole, the ravens, Black-capped Chickadees, Canada Geese and starlings were out. The pothole lakes in the park were still largely frozen over while most lakes outside the park seem to have open water by now. The Canada Geese were, however, patiently biding their time, hanging out on the frozen lakes waiting to get their feet wet. I found a dozen Plains Bison just chilling in the sunrise, including the female on the picture that unabashed relieved herself right in front of me. On this particular morning, the males were more into doing number twos.
Project 365 is a challenge where you kickstart your journey as a photographer by committing to taking one photo a day for one year. Now, I am not a photographer (yet) so Project 365 does not seem to apply to me, or does it? I recently came across the Disperser Tracks blog where a Project 365 is remixed as a photography / blog / narrative challenge. In the words of Disperser Tracks: Three-hundred-and-thirteen posts, each with a photo . . . and a joke and an original doodle. On a side note, Disperser Tracks did a Project 313 (instead of 365) because he/she likes to “go against the tide” and the number 313 is, mathematically speaking, prettier (something I can relate to in my day to day job). In other words, feel free to take the idea behind Project 365 and turn it into anything your want.
So here is my version of Project 365. First of all, next year (2020) is a leap year, which means that if I start today (March 29, 2019) and do this project for one year, that year will be 366 days long. So, that means I will be doing Project 366. Secondly, rather than committing to take one picture a day, I am committing to posting one picture with a story every day. This picture will not necessarily have been shot on the same day, but it would be taken by me (or by a member in my family) and it will be accompanied by a short narration. To me Project 365…, I mean Project 366, is not so much about taking pictures as it is about telling stories. The stories will be told through pictures and through the written word. Sort of like Hinterlands Who’s Who, except blogging-style.
Do not, however, expect dazzling images or profound stories of all manners of charismatic critters on a daily basis. While all the posts will be on the topic of natural history, much of it will likely be rather mundane stuff. Stuff that we might see on a daily basis, but not notice. Or as I often say, when you are looking for birds, you find all the other things as well, things that you have seen a million times but never noticed. Stuff like this…
Yes, that’s a very large turd found at Elk Island National Park. Apologies for not including a familiar object for scale but, trust me, it was big, really big. The turd is remarkable in more ways that just because of its monumental size. It is dung from a Plains Bison. Bison dung provides a fascinating story of nutrient cycling and providing a home to an entire ecosystems of micro-organisms and insects. Bison dung has also served mankind in the form of fuel for cooking and warmth. Today, there are more bison at Elk Island National Park than existed in the the whole of North America in 1880. The Wood Bison (which also lives in Elk Island National Park) is the largest land mammal in North America, followed closely by their relative the Plains Bison. Hence, the huge turd!
The ultimate purpose of my Project 366 is to use it as an excuse to head out into nature more often, to practice my observation skills, id’ing skills and being mindful and present in the moment. A more mundane reason for embarking on this project is to kickstart my photography and blogging skills.
Here is the plan. Project 366 entries will be posted at midnight, starting tonight. Posts will include a picture and a short story relating to the picture. That’s it! Sounds easy enough. Wish me luck and make sure you are up at midnight for the next year to be the first one to see the day’s entry. I better go and snap some pictures now.
Disclaimer (aka as the fine print): I reserve the right to modify the rules as I go along to make this project more personally meaningful. There may be various glitches and mishaps along the way due to technical shortcomings. I will embrace every “failure” as a learning opportunity and learn from my mistakes and from the haphazard limitations that modern technology sometimes throws our way. In other words, I am building this plane blog as I am flying writing it. I know, this is a terrible analogy when applied to important stuff that actually matters, but since this blog is not mission critical and no humans or animals will get hurt in the process, the analogy sort of works here.
May the curiosity be with you. This is from “The Birds are Calling” blog (www.thebirdsarecalling). Copyright Mario Pineda.