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.
In complete tranquility and at ease the Blue-winged Teal was resting on a submerged rock. If it would not be for the ever so subtle ripples on the water surface its reflection would have been indistinguishable from the real thing. The surface of the pond almost perfectly mirrored the waterfowls, the foliage of the surrounding forest, the reeds and the blue sky. It was a quiet and calm early morning with only the birds and beavers going about their business. The colours were vibrant and stunning with the emerald green foilage and the dark blue sky nestled together on the surface of the pond like a water colour painting. Unfortunately scenes like this are likely to become fleeting and elusive this summer and for the years to come. Fast forward less than a week and much of Alberta is covered in a grim post-apocalyptic yellow, smelly and impenetrable blanked of smoke. The smoke has drifted in from massive forest fires raging in northern Alberta. As of tonight the largest of the forest, the Chuckegg Creek fire, is over 500 000 acres in size, that is about 2300 square kilometres. The smoke is so thick that the street lights have turned on, their light sensors thinking it is evening time. The Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) is at 72…, and that is on a ten point scale…, let that sink in for a bit.
As climate change is going unchecked the forecasts are dire. All predictions indicate that longer and more intensive fire seasons are here to stay. Humanity has accomplished remarkable feats in the span of only a handful of lifetimes, proving that we are capable of astounding feats when we set our minds to it. Unfortunately we humans also suffer from a self-entered navel-gazing dysfunction that has made our society, our leaders and decision makers unwilling to grasp the severity of the situation. The smoke blanketing the capital of Alberta is particularly poignant as it conincides with our politicians in the legislature introducing a bill (Bill 1: The Act to Repeal the Carbon Tax) at 12:01 today killing our already weak climate change initiative.
David Attenborough once said that “No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”. I cannot imagine how anyone experiencing first hand the magic beauty of a Blue-winged Teal in repose in a emerald green lake under a dark blue morning sky could remain indifferent to the injustice that is being done.
Tucked away behind the visitors centre by the bison paddock at Elk Island National Park there is a large steel structure holding up a metal roof. It looks like it is being used for protecting materials and machines stored outdoors from rain and snow. On Google Maps one can see the large roof here. During a recent visit at the paddock I was walking around looking for bison. I barely noticed the structure until I came closer to it and all of a sudden a swarm of swallow-like birds emerged out of nowhere. The swallows seemed agitated and were swarming around me. It was reminiscent of scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. The reason for the commotion was soon obvious. The steel girders holding up the roof were covered in swallow nests. Most of them had swallows darting in and out and many were still under construction. There was quite a commotion with swallows peeking out of the nests, while others brought in the mud. I assume that these were breeding pairs that were building the nest together. It was quite a sight seeing these engineers of the bird world building their homes. In the picture one can see the darker wet mud that was recently added to the nest surrounded by the lighter dry mud. As I stood there admiring the swallows I completely forgot about the bison and it was not until I was about to leave that I realized that I had not yet identified the species. The only swallows I have seen to date in Canada are tree swallows and barn swallows and the bison paddock swallows seem to have features from both of these species, a white chest like a tree swallow and a bunch of rufous color on their head like a barn swallow. The white patch on their forehead, however, gave them away as Cliff Swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota, Lifer: #150, AB Big Year: #110).
Today’s post, #61, marks the completion of 1/6th of my Project 366. While it is far to premature to celebrate I am in a bit of disbelieve that I actually have managed to post every single day for the past two months. The biggest surprise has been that the writing and posting is not the main challenge but rather getting out into nature enough to have fresh pictures to accompany the posts. Now back to regular business…
During an early morning visit to Elk Island I came across an American Robin that had build its nest in a hollow tree stump. I was surprised that it had chosen such an exposed nesting location. The nest was about shoulder high right along a hiking trail and there really was no way one could miss it. While stayed on the opposite side of the trail from the nest the robin did not seem particularly phased. It sat completely still and the fact that it insisted on staying put rather than flying off could mean that there were eggs or young in the nest. This was one of those times were I was particularly appreciative of the extra long zoom capabilities of the P1000.
The alarm clock went off at 5am. Fifteen minutes later I was heading East on a quiet and empty Yellowhead Highway, into the sunrise and towards Elk Island. Nature walks at dawn is a meditative experience. The dawn of a new day, the absence of humans and human made noises washes away stress, sleepiness and rejuvenates the mind. The absence of human-made sounds is made up for by a cacophony of natural sounds, primarily birds. Dawn is the time of day that birds are by far the most active and vocal. As I was approaching the park thick impenetrable fog shrouded the landscape forcing me to, at times, slow down to walking speed on the highway. I have not seen fog this thick in many years. It was the proverbial pea soup with visibility diminished to only a few meters. Once I arrived at Elk Island heavy fog banks covered the open fields and ponds. Not ideal for viewing or photographing wildlife, but magical nevertheless and quite inducing for landscape photography. After a quick scan of the fog covered Bison Loop I settled in at the Mud Lake parking lot to brew myself a cup of coffee and wait for the fog to lift. I spend the next few hours hiking along ponds and wetlands around Tawayik Lake seeing lots of waterfowl and industrious beavers.
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.
Not all nature walks go as planed. While part of the excitement of heading out into the wild is that you never knows what you will see, sometimes unexpected events arise due to human errors (or human stupidity). During three recent nature walks things did not unfold as planed due to human (= my) mistakes. Here are these recent fails and the lessons I learned from them. A word of warning; there is some graphical content below. If you are squeamish at the sight of blood you might want to stop here and avoid scrolling past this point.
A few weeks ago I went birding in the Whitemud Ravine. It was a mild day and the trails were icy after several weeks of thaw-freeze cycles. Shortly after leaving the car I realized I had forgot my finger gloves in the car. As it was not cold I decided to forgo the gloves. I often veer of the beaten trail in favour of “off-roading” through the understory and along riparian vegetation. This time was no different. As I was descending a trail-less and particularly steep and icy section, I lost my footing, slammed into the ground and went sliding down the icy and muddy slope on my back. As my arms were flailing trying to grab hold of something to arrest my fall, I grabbed a thin tree trunk that ended up cut the palm of my hand. I always use gloves when I am out, both to keep fingers warm and for protection. As irony has it, the one time I did not bring gloves I ended up with a bad cut on my hand. I also did not bring a first aid kit so I had to seek medical attention from the ski patrol at a nearby ski hill. The least enjoyable part of the experience was when they had to dig out pieces of bark stuck in the gash. Take home message – always bring (wear) gloves and bring a small first aid kit! Oh, I and I should also get traction devices.
It was 6 am on a Sunday morning and I had decided to head out to Elk Island National Park to watch bison at the sunrise. It was a cold winter morning and, as expected, very quiet and tranquile at Elk Island. Once I arrived at the Bison Loop and started to assemble my gear I realized that I had forgotten my gloves (again) and my toque, and my sweater. While hiking around kept me somewhat warm, anytime I stopped and tried to use the camera or binoculars my fingers rapidly froze and became useless appendages. Take home message – always being warm clothes, gloves and a toque! It can be surprisingly chilly early in the morning (even in the summer) and when watching or photographing wildlife one often stands (or sits) still for long periods of time.
The following weekend I tried the Elk Island National Park at sunrise field trip again. By now I had been labelled a complete loonie by the rest of the family…, but the birds are calling…, so I got to go. It was a beautiful morning. The sky was clear and the sun was rising. What could possibly go wrong? I triple checked that I had packed my gloves, warm clothes and a small first aid kit. Finding myself at the Bison Loop again, getting myself ready to head out…, to my horror I realize that I forgot to bring the binoculars. I can suck up physical injury, blood, pain and suffering but to go wildlife watching and birding without your binoculars…, that is unheard of. It’s unforgivable. Fortunately I had my Nikon P1000 with me so it had to serve as a binocular substitute, a job it does not do very well. Take home message – do not forget the binoculars!
These are too many fails in too short of a time. Getting out into nature is supposed to reduce stress, not increase or cause stress. Time to reboot my brain, pull up my socks and get seriously organized. It is not like I am trying to land one the moon. It’s just a nature walk for Pete’s sake.
Coyotes sometimes get a bad rep. Any creature, however, that survives the long dark cold Canadian winter and comes out at the other end looking this handsome and chilled deserves our respect. We spotted this beautiful Coyote at the Bison Loop at Elk Island National Park last week. He was pacing back and forth at the edge of the forest and seemed just a curious about us as we were about him. Just by happenstance, at 6 am the next morning smack dab in the middle of Edmonton I found two coyotes in front of our house. They were probably looking for a cat for breakfast and took off as soon as they spotted me.
May the curiosity be with you. This is from “The Birds are Calling” blog (www.thebirdsarecalling). Copyright Mario Pineda.
The Canada Geese are back and with that, spring migration is slowly getting started. I spend the morning at Elk Island National Park and came across, what must be one of the most iconic Canadian sights, a bunch of Canada Geese making a racket on top of a beaver dam in a frozen lake. No sight of beavers though. I imagine, however, that the occupants of the dam must have been royally annoyed by being awoken so rudely by the geese. Not far away, I spotted a band of European Starlings chattering away in a tree. The starlings became species 42 on my Alberta Big Year list. It may be a slow start to spring but from now on it can only get better as the pace of the returning migrants quickens. There is much too look forward to as our familiar birding spots are about to get transformed. The bison were also out in full force, both the Plains and the Wood bison. I also saw some deer and a fleeting shadow at a forest edge in the distance eerily reminiscent of a moose, but maybe it was just an optical illusion combined with wishful thinking.
May the curiosity be with you. This is from “The Birds are Calling” blog (www.thebirdsarecalling). Copyright Mario Pineda.