After seeing plenty of Wood Bison at a distance dotting pastures, fields and forest edges I imagined that the day I would get close and personal with the largest terrestrial animal in the americas would be along a remote trail far away from human civilization. Well I could not me more mistaken. I came across this gigantic male Wood Bison right by the fence along Highway 16. I had stopped on a gravel road turn-out along the highway and there he was, a solitary male Wood Bison, right on the other side of the fence. I could have reached out and touched him if I wanted to. I decided not to give him any reason to tear down the fence and go after me. He was certainly curious though. As I approached the fence he came right up to meet me, not the least shy. Although the wire fence looked solid and was at least 6 feet tall it would not stand a chance against an adult Wood Bison hellbent on getting through. I did manage to get some nice closed up pictures of him, including this one where he is staring me down probably wondering what my intentions were.
Right by the parking lot at the south side of Elk Island National Park there was an energetic Yellow-bellied Sapsucker hard at work trying to drill holes in the posts of a widening fence. Sapsuckers are known for creating symmetrical rows with large number of shallow holes on trees in order to harvest tree sap. I wonder if it was working on the wooden fence by mistake (which clearly will not have many sap) or if it was looking for insects (which the fence posts may have). Sapsuckers can make a large number of holes in a single tree and there are known instances where trees are girdled by overly enterprising sapsuckers. The Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers is our only woodpeckers that migrate south in the winter.
Intermingled with the massive bison were these small brown birds that were mostly hiding in the tall grass and occasionally emerging and landing on the back of a bison before diving down into the grass again. These were Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater), a species commonly associated with grazing animals. The tend to look for insects and seeds to eat on the ground stirred up by the larger animal. Before European settlement, the Brown-headed Cowbird followed bison herds across the plains. Because of their nomadic lifestyle they engage in brood parasitism laying their eggs in the nest of unsuspecting birds of other species. These days the species is commonly seen around domesticated livestock and at suburban bird feeders. At Elk Island, however, they still live their traditional lifestyle in close association with bison herds.
While most of the bison on the meadow were pretty chilled and seemed to just enjoy the sunny morning a few of the males had other things in mind. These two males were ogling and sizing each other up. Just as it looked like they were about to walk away, they turns around and crashed their heads together. Their horns locked together and a twisting wrestling match ensued were the two bulls trekked to outmaneuver each other. This went on for a while when suddenly one of the bison lost his footing and crashed down on his side. He was back on his feat at once and they were back in staring competition mode. Bison bulls engage in head butting battles fort mating privileges. I am not sure when the mating season for the bison in Elk Island starts, but these males might be getting ready for it.
Among the hundreds of bison covering the meadow I found this one calf that decided to take a snooze in the sunshine. It did not have a care in the world and was clearly oblivious to my presence. An adult bison walked by and deposited a bison sized turd a few feet from it’s head, but little bison baby just kept snoozing on. With coyotes, bears, vehicles and pooping bison around you think this youngster would be a tad more wary, but I guess if your mom is a half a tonne (500 kg = 1100 lbs) lady capable of running as fast as a horse, anyone even thinking of messing around with her precious baby would soon regret it and would probably not live to tell the tale. Since the bison were introduced at Elk Island National Park in 1907, over 100 generations of have been born and raised in the park. This calf was in the northern par of the park which means it is a Plains Bison. In the southern part of the park the Wood Bison live. It would be interesting to see some of their calves. Would they look different? That sounds like an exciting field trip; tracking down some Wood Bison calves.
At the edge of a grove, away from the melee, a lonely bison mom and her calf were having a moment. The reddish brown calf was quite assertive, pushing its head into the mom’s groin, clearly letting her know what it wanted. I was probably not more than 25 meters from them, stuck in a bison traffic jam in the Bison Loop at Elk Island National Park. Mom and calf seemed not to mind my presence at all. I opened the sunroof of the truck and climbed out with my camera. This vantage point gave me an unobstructed view of the surroundings. As I was observing mom and calf I was surprised when I realize that the cow had horns, something I had assumed only male bison would have. It turns out that the physical differences that distinguish males (bulls) from females (cows) are quite subtle so determining a bison’s sex is not entirely trivial. Clearly the presence of horns cannot be used to tell males and females apart. Although a cow’s horns are slightly more curved and slender than a bull’s, one would likely have to be quite experienced to be able to pick up on this. Obviously a bison feeding a calf is one sure-way of positively identifying a female.
So here is another bison post as promised yesterday. This was the view as I entered the Bison Loop at Elk Island National Park yesterday morning at 6 am. Those bison were in no hurry anywhere and took their sweet time. They were mainly just standing around, occasionally a few of them decided to lie down in the grass or on the dirt road. I was slowly inching my way along in my vehicle. Mostly I was standing still waiting for a few of the bison to lumber on. A few times I got too close and I got some dirty bison looks thrown my way. Clearly the message was, this is our turf and here we are the traffic.
Today is July 1 and other than it being Canada Day it also marks the half way point of my Alberta Big Year. 178 day down and 178 days left to go. My current tally is 114 species seen in Alberta since 00:01 January 1 this year. According to eBird 404 species of birds have been reported in Alberta since the beginning of times (or at least since the beginning of the eBird record). Looking at the species reported this year only, the number is 317. Clearly I have long ways to go to reach the stratosphere of birding in Alberta. I am hoping to boost this number by going to some targeted hotspots beyond Edmonton during the summer, e.g. Frank Lake and Inglewood Bird Sanctuary, both these locations are located in and around Calgary. Other than this, my bread and butter will be my two main field locations, the Whitemud Creek and Elk Island National Park. With 153 species recorded at Whitemud Creek and 243 species reported at Elk Island there are plenty more treasures waiting to be found.