The Cooking-Lake-Blackfoot Provincial Recreational Are is a large nature reserve east of Edmonton. This reserve is characterized by rolling hills and a “knob and kettle” terrain, containing glacial moraines and depressions filled with small lakes. In one of those kettle lakes we came across a solitary American Beaver doing laps back and forth across the lake. Was it doing it’s daily exercise regime, was it patrolling its territory or was it just generally restless? Who knows what goes through the head of a lonely beaver on a sunny summer day. The Cooking Lake-Blackfoot Provincial Recreational Area is part of a much larger 1600 square kilometre area known as Beaver Hills and was designated an UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2016.
This Wood Frog liked to live dangerously. It was basking at the surface of a shallow vernal pool of water in the middle of the trail as we came barraging along on our mountain bikes. The only reasons we managed to spot it was because we decided to get of our bikes and walk around the pool that nearly covered the entire width of the trail. Any other mountain biker would have seen this obstacle as a challenge one needs to tackle head on at full speed. The frog did not bat an eye as we spotted it and moved in closer to have a good look at it. Maybe it figured that if it just stays completely still we might not see it. Perhaps that is a viable strategy for the half a dozen garter snakes that we came across on the trail just a few hundered meters away, but it did not work with us…, then again, we were not considering it as our next meal.
Dragonflies are a bit of an oxymoron. While everyone is able to instantly recognize a dragonfly, very few people know the names of the various dragonfly species, never mind being able to tell them apart and identify them. I am no different. We had just finished a trail ride in Cooking Lake-Blackfoot Provincial Recreation Area and had taken a break for a snack at the Waskahegan Staging Area when a couple a dragonflies landed on a sunny patch on the ground right next to us. My camera was out of reach and I did not want to spook the dragonflies so I decided to try to use my phone to take some pictures. I took a few pictures from some distance away and then I slowly moved to phone closer and closer thinking that they will for sure take off. But they stayed. I managed to get about a foot away from this one dragonfly (the phone was not able to focus at a closer distance) and managed to take this close up. At the time I had no idea what it was, other than a dragonfly. After a bit of research it appears that it most likely is a species of Meadowhawk, specifically a Cherry-Faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum internum), but there are a few other species of Meadowhawk that look very similar. The name “Meadowhawk” is quite telling of the ecology of this species. It is found near marshy ponds, lakes, slow streams and on meadows. Like all dragonflies, the Meadowhawk is a predator. I can just picture it patrolling the meadow like a hawk for any soft-bodies flying insects such as mosquitoes, flies, moths and mayflies.
Going birding mid-day is not ideal. Most birds are out of sight, but if you put your mind to it you might be able to hear them skulking in the shrubbery. For a birding noob like me the only thing more frustrating than no birds is hearing birds and being unable to see them and identify them. Plants have none of these problems. Be it dawn, mid-day or dusk – the plants are there. So on this late afternoon down by the Whitemud Creek I did not see much in terms of birds but I did encounter this patch of White Cockles. Like many of the pretty flowers I have encountered, this one is also an invasive species. White Cockles are commonly found in pastures, roadsides, waste areas, gardens and occasionally in cultivated fields. The White Cockle, also known as White Campion (Lychnis alba syn. Silene alba S. latifolia) was introduced from Eurasia and rumor has it that it was introduced with ship ballast.
Black-capped Chickadees may be one of our smallest birds but they are definitely one of the most resourceful and intelligent birds in these neck of the woods. There have learned to take full advantage of our weakness for cuteness and manipulated our feeble human minds to provide them with free snacks year round. Although I do not bring snacks, plenty of other people do. There are always piles of sun flower seed strewn about along the trail and on the bridge railings along Whitemud Creek. They swoop down, grab a sunflower seed and then fly off to a nearby shrub where they get to work on the seed. It’s basically like a fly-through fast food joint. Chickadees are also known for hoarding food for leaner times. Although chickadees undeniably have small brains, they are no bird brains. They are very capable of remembering where they hide food stashes when they need to find them in the middle of the winter.
Different species of spiders create different types of spider webs. The spider web type that probably come to your mind first is the classical spiral orb web design. This type of web is created by spiders in the Araneidae family, aka as orb-weaving spiders. With 3122 species these are the most commonly found spiders across the world. Many orb-weaving spiders build a new web each day. They tend to hide during the day and become active during the evening hours when they consume the old web before spinning a new web in the same general location. As a result the webs of orb-weaving spiders are generally clean and free of accumulated debris. This spider web that I came across on an early morning down by the Whitemud Creek was covered in morning dew. Tiny water droplets were strung up on the silk fibres like bright pearls strung on a sting. The ability of spider webs to collect water is unique and difficult to understand. For example, human hair cannot do this. As it turns out a recent study showed that the water collection ability of spider silk is an artefact of the microscopic structure of the silk. As far as we know the ability for spiders silk to collect water does not seem to serve any biological purpose. On the contrary, when the spider silk is wetted it reduces its ability to capture prey, an obviously bad thing from the spider’s perspective. One cannot deny, however, that morning dew captured on a spider web is a very photogenic effect that we humans probably enjoy more than the spider itself.
Along the trail at the Whitemud Creek one can find Low-bush (Viburnum opulus) and High-bush Cranberries (Viburnum edule). Calling these shrubs cranberries is misleading as they are more closely related to elderberries than to the true cranberry. They produce a stone fruit called a drupe (a drupe is fleshy fruit with a central stone like core containing one or more seeds), like a cherry, whose acidic flavour resembles that of the cranberries. The fruit have a tangy musky odour and not a favourite food of birds. During the winter, when other sources of food are scarce, the berries often become survival food for birds such as waxwings and robins. Both the Low-bush and High-bush Cranberry shrubs are native to North America and can be found in thickets along shorelines and creeks, swamps and forest edges. Both species appear identical, except one of the grows low (up to 2 m) and the other species grows high (up tp 4 m). It is left to the reader to deduce which one is which.