I have been seeing these white flowers on the first floor all over the place. To continue in a state of ignorance is obviously unacceptable when it comes to something you encounter in every forest you visit. Sure enough, they were not difficult to identify. These are Bunchberries (Cronus canadienses), also known as Bunchberry Dogwood, a common plant carpeting moist forest floors throughout Canada. This unassuming plant has been referred to as the fastest moving plant in the world due to the curious way in which the plant spreads its pollen. The stamens in the Bunchberry are like miniature medieval trebuchets and, when triggered by an insect, launch the pollen into the air to coat the unsuspecting insect. If I would have known about this I would have definitely tried it out by poking at the flower. This is just a botanical ballistic experiment that I have to do next time I come across these plants. The original study reporting this remarkable pollen spreading strategy was published in the journal Nature in 2005. Here is a link to the paper, but you need a subscription to access the article. There is, however, a freely available PDF here and there is also lots of information, including videos of the process, on the website of the author.
Mingled in with the many Blue-winged Teals and Northern Shovelers there was this pair of unique looking ducks. Clearly a male and a female, I had to look it up in the Merlin App to positively identify these waterfowl. They were very “Scaup-like”, which obviously only makes sense to someone familiar with scaups (another waterfowl). The most obvious difference from a scaup, however, was a white band on the bills of both the male and female + the male had a white band at the base of the bill as well. They were very unique looking so identifying them was a cinch once I consulted Merlin. They are Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris), a species of diving duck common in North America. Looking at reported sightings of Ring-necked Ducks in eBird reveals that while this is definitely a North American species, these ducks get around. There are many reports of vagrants found on tiny isolated islands in both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans and beyond, such as in Japan and Western Europe. Further online research does provide a bit more context. These ducks are strong flyers and are know to have a tendency to stray far away from their normal range.
Mallards are one of the most ubiquitous birds in the Northern hemisphere (+ Australia and New Zealand where they have been introduced) and are probably one of the first birds children learn to recognize, although they are more likely to refer to them as ducks, rather than mallard. Technically the name duck is the common name for a large number of species in the waterfowl family Anatidae which includes swans and geese. During a recent morning field trip to Elk Island National Park I found this lone female mallard perching on a tree stump in a shallow pond. She was eyeing me cautiously and seemed quite vigilant yet reluctant to move from her perch. It is possible that she had a nest with either eggs of chicks hidden in the tall grass. It was an overcast day and smoke blown in from forest in northern Alberta lingered over the landscape. The subdued light conditions made it somewhat challenging to take pictures with the Nikon P1000. It all boiled down to balancing the trade off between shutter speed, aperture and ISO to match the subject and light conditions. I took this particular picture at 1008mm (35mm equivalent) at 1/125s shutter speed, f/5.6 aperture and at ISO 560 from the driver’s seat through the open window on the passenger side. Cars make great blinds for wildlife photography. I was only a few meters away from the female and she was clearly aware of my presence. She seemed to tolerate my presence, but I am sure she would take off if I would get out of the vehicle. The long focal length and high ISO (by P1000 standards) did not bode well for a good picture, but I was pleasantly surprised that it turned out quite nice given the constraints.
Muskrats are medium-sized rodents, almost like a mini-beaver, but with a rat-like tail instead of the big paddle tail of the beaver. They are basically large field mice adapted to life in water. They have a groovy dental adaptation allowing them to chew with their mouths closed. Their front teeth protrude ahead of the checks and lips allowing them to chew food under water while their mouth technically remains closed. I found this fella in a shallow pond at Elk Island National Park sitting in waist-deep (by muskrat standards) water munching on his breakfast consisting of aquatic plants. He seemed quite hungry as he was really going to town with his veggies and did not seemed bother with my presence, even when I pulled out and assembled my large tripod. Below is a short video clip of his energetic chewing. The video almost looks like it has been sped up, but it’s a regular speed. Let’s call the muskrat Spikey after his spiky and funky hairdo. So, as I was saying, it is not the video that has been sped up, but rather, it is Spikey that is living his (her) life in the fast lane.
This is the third day of bison-themed posts. Another post and another bison…, yet, this one is different. All my bison pictures and posts so far have featured Plains Bison (Bison bison bison). Today’s picture, however, is featuring a Wood Bison (Bison bison athabascae). Why the trinomial names, instead of the usual Linnaean binomial names? Well, Plains and Wood Bison are considered subspecies within the genus Bison, just like you and I belong to the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens, which is different from the extinct subspecies Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, both belonging to the genus Homo. Morphologically Wood and Plains Bison can be told apart by Wood Bison being substantially larger with bulls averaging 880 kg and females 540 kg while Plains Bison bulls average 739 kg and females 440 kg – so about a 100 kg difference, not exactly spare change. Wood Bison also have a pronounced hump above their shoulder blades forward of their front legs while the Plains Bison is lacking the hump and have their highest point along their back centered over their front legs. Although they are of different sizes and one has a hump, if you do not have them right next to each other telling them apart is probably as easy as telling a Downy Woodpecker from a Hairy Woodpecker (that was a birder joke). If you visit the bison at Elk Island telling them apart (the bison, not the woodpeckers) is child’s play. If you see a bison north of the Yellowhead Highway it is a Plains Bison and if you see a bison south of the highway it is a Wood Bison. This fella was a southerner so, yeah…, definitely a Woody.
The park maintains about 450 Plains Bison and about 315 Wood Bison, selling off any surplus animals. Historically, the Plains Bison lived primarily in their Greater Plains of central North America, while the Wood Bison lived further north, from Alaska into Yukon and the North West Territories and in Northern British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan. It is believed that there used to be up to 30 million Plains Bison and about 170000 Wood Bison during their heydays. All was hunky dory until the Europeans arrived. When the Europeans colonized North America the population numbers of both bison species declined rapidly. By the late 1800s, Plains Bison no longer existed in Canada and the Wood Bison population was down to about 200 individuals. Conservation efforts saved the bison from complete extinction with populations today around 375000 Plains Bison and 6000 Wood Bison.
Bison fur consists of a thin layer of short hair right agains the skin and an outer layer of coarse long hair. In the fall the bison grow the long outer fur to keep them nice and toasty throughout the winter. In the spring they shed their outer coat in large clumps making them look quite mangy. Right before I took this picture this male was wallowing, rolling around in the dry dirt, presumable to try to shed his winter coat. As he stood up a leafy twig got caught behind his horn. Bison wallow for many purposes, such as relieving skin irritations, shed their winter coat, seeking relief from biting insects, as a social behaviour or as part of their mating behaviour during the breeding season. There is an informative writeup on wallowing in bison on the US National Parks web site. It turns out that wallowing creates bowl-like depressions, wallows, that serve important ecological roles in the prairie ecosystem. More on that later, however, once I post a picture of a wallow. This bison was just a few meters away from me so, resisted the temptation to step outside the vehicle and shot this picture from the car. The bison at Elk Island are remarkable accepting of humans in vehicles. Not so much with humans outside of vehicles.
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).