Dark-eyed Juncos are discrete little bird that like to “fly under the radar” by staying close to or on the ground. As I was watching the activity at the bird feeders with chickadees, nuthatches, downies and other winter birds quickly flitting in to pickup a morsel and then off again I failed to notice the more subtle activities going on on the ground. It took a while before I noticed the subtle scurrying of small dark colored birds on the ground. A closer look revealed the unmistakable dark hooded birds were Dark-eyed Juncos. Half a dozen or so of the juncos were scurrying around on the snow covered ground munching on all the seeds that had fallen down from the feeders.
As we made our way along the Whitemud Creek I was struck by how much everything everything has changed since the last time I was here, about six weeks ago. Edmonton has received lots of rain over the last month and the vegetation has grown like crazy. Locations that had an unobstructed view of the creek six weeks ago are not completely overgrown with dense shrubbery and understory. The Great Horned Owl family (mom, dad and two chicks) have move on and it appears that their cavity now is uninhabited. The Least Chipmunks are out in full fore scurrying around along the creek wherever one turns. We also saw quite a few Dark-eyed Juncos that were quite curious about our activities. Although we spend some time looking (and listening) for Pileated Woodpeckers it was not until we got back to the parking lot that a large individual made a bee-line across the parking lot and into the forest. As soon as it was out of sight it let loose it’s characteristic vocalizations that sounds like a hysterically laughing monkey.
One of our favourite valley bottom hikes around Jasper is the Valley of the Five Lakes trail. With a name that sounds like it would come right out of the lore of Middle Earth, the hike does not disappoint. With panoramic vistas of the surrounding mountains, emerald green and azure blue lakes the trail meanders through Mountain Pine Beetle ravaged pine forests, lush spruce stands and aspen groves. It is a popular trail and to beat the rush you want to be hitting the trail before 10 am. Last weekend we visited Jasper National Park and were fortunate enough to be able to do the Valley of the Fives Lakes trail twice. On our first day out we were greeted by a vocal Pileated Woodpecker and accompanied along the trail by Dark-eyed Juncos singing from the tree tops and American Robins hopping about through the understory. We found a mother bear with her cubs hiding in the bushes along the trail. As tempting as it was to linger and try to get a nice photograph of the family, we opted for a quick peek and then moved on to avoid undue stress on the new mother. The sound the cubs made was quite interesting. It was reminiscent of the cooing sounds of pigeons. So next time you heart a cooing in the forest it might be something bigger and furier than a pigeon or a dove. Often people are worried about meeting bears along the trails, and admittedly that I shared this concern once upon a time. Many bear encounter later, however, I found myself very lucky if I spot a bear. I don’t go actively looking for bears, but if our paths cross an already special day suddenly becomes unforgettable in the best of possible ways.