The Blue Spruce (Picea pungens) can be found natively through the Rocky Mountains with Alberta being its northern limit. These evergreen shrub with their blue-green needles and perfect conical shape have a regal looking about them. In traditional First Nations medicine the needles are used for an infusion to treat colds and an upset stomach. These are slow growing trees that with as lifespan of hundreds of years. The squirrels in the river valley have a particular fondness for the cones of the Blue Spruce. It’s not uncommon to see squirrels with in full speed with carrying spruce cones to their middens where they store them for the winter.
It started raining as soon as I arrived at Hawrelak park. I sat in the car for a few minutes debating if I should call off my nature walk or if I should brave the rain and proceed with my planed walk. In end end I decided to go for the walk. Is was not raining too hard and I had brought my camera’s rain gear so I should be good. Perhaps not surprising most birds had taken refuge from the rain and were nowhere to be seen, but – perhaps unsurprising – the waterfowl were out. An assortment of waterfowl were hanging out on the pond, seemingly oblivious to the rain. There were quite a few what looked like immature Common Goldeneye hanging chugging around, diving and popping up all over the place. I am not 100% sure about the identification as these fellas were all brown with black bills and eyes. Common Goldneyes seem to be the best match.
It’s not often you see a coot on dry land and this fella appears oddly disproportionate as it is standing at the waters edge at the Hawrelak park pond. Coots look quite craceful when chugging through the water this one is more plump-looking, chicken-like with a too small head, or too chunky body. It was a balmy end-of-the-summer day and the coot and its nearby chicks looked quite comfortable just hanging out on the well-manicured lawn. Coots do migrate a south in the winter, but tend not to go far south. It seems that they are just flying far enough to avoid the coldest of the deep freeze. The coot may be an accomplished swimmer and diver, but it is an awkward and clumsy flier often requiring long running takeoffs across the waster surface. It sort of makes sense that it would keep its winter migration short.
On the banks of the North Saskatchewan River there are a large number of outfalls. An outfall is a drainage facility that conveys stormwater into a natural receiving water body (ex. creek, river, etc…). There city has a map online of all the outfall locations and, well, there are quite a few of them. The other day, as I was walking along the southern shore of the North Saskatchewan River I spotted Outfall 23 across the river. I noticed that the water coming out of the culvert was foaming and getting stuck along the shore as it drifted down stream. Foamy water in itself does not necessarily mean that the water is contaminated (see my previous post number 131 on foam lines). This time, however, it was clear that the foam originated from the outfall culvert. Outfalls convey stormwater that has been collect from runoff from impervious surfaces (e.g., roofs and roads) typically from entire neighbourhoods. This means that pollutants from roadways, lawns and roofs are essentially concentrated and discharged at a single point making the outfall a point source for pollution. The water quality in the North Saskatchewan River changes throughout the seasons with high runoff seasons such as spring resulting in more silty and polluted water. A 1994 study found that discharge of stormwater during summer rain storms does affect water quality in the North Saskatchewan River, including increasing levels of heavy metals and fecal coliform bacteria. The same study also found that the composition of invertebrate animals are dramatically affected downstream from Edmonton due to the change in water chemistry as it flows through the city. One of the effects is an increase in the nutrient levels in the river (think lawn fertilizers) which on one hand can augment the food base for the invertebrates but it can also wreck havoc with the levels of disolved oxygen, similarly to lake suffering from eutrophication (nutrient enrichment).
The Creeping Thistle inflorescences, which are everywhere along forest edges and open fields, are slowly undergoing a metamorphosis from pretty fuzzy purple flowers to mangy-looking fuzzy grey bunches of seed. The seeds have a feathery appendage, aka as a pappus, that enable the seed to be carried by the wind. Wind dispersed seeds is, however, only one trick the Creeping Thistle has up its sleeve when it comes to reproducing. It is also able to make new copies of itself by reproducing vegetatively by developing an extensive lateral root system.
It had been raining all night and all day and it did not look like the rain was about to stop any time soon. So I wrapped up my camera in it’s rain gear, donned a rain jacket and rubber boots and headed to Hawrelak park. There were not many birds around other than the usual suspects in an around the pond. On the well-manicured lawn right by the pond an immature Ring-billed Gull was relaxing. It did not seem bothered by my presence. Although gulls are common they can be notoriously difficult to identify and entire books have been dedicated to telling one gull species from another. Their plumage change as they age and there is a great deal of variation within species and often little variation between species. Hawrelak park usually has a large contingent of Ring-billed Gulls, so it is likely that any gull found in the park is one of those… except that this individual does not look like a typical Ring-billed Gull. Although the bill has black on it, the black ring on the bill is noticeably absent and the rest if the plumage is completely different from a Ring-billed Gull. It turns out that this individual’s plumage and bill is the look that juvenile Ring-billed Gulls sport. The typical look of a Ring-billed Gull is known as the breeding plumage and it takes the gull three years to reach it, with its appearance changing with each fall moult.
Common Goldeneyes have a distance appearance as adults. Females having a chocolate brown head, yellow eyes and males have a distinct white cheek patch. When I spotted this fella chugging through the pond in Hawrelak park my initial hunch was that its overall shape reminded me of a Common Goldeneye, yet none of the other physical characteristics were there (no yellow eye, no check patch). Upon closer research this is likely an immature Common Goldeneye. Common Goldeneyes are diving ducks and this fella certainly lived up to that reputation as it was energetically diving, popping up for a few seconds and then disappearing under water again. If you look closely you can see his head covered in water droplets and sporting a fuzzy wet do.
Mixed in with the mallards in the Hawrelak pond were a few ducks that looked different. They were clearly females in their modest drabness, but they did not look like mallard females. These were American Wigeons. Last time we encountered these we were at Coal Lake during our Big Day on May 4 together with the Edmonton Nature Club. The Hawrelak pond (it does not seem to have an official name) is man made and was build in 1964. The pond is popular with water fowl in the summer and human ice skaters in the winter. Although there is not public swimming it has been used for the swimming portion of triathlon competitions. Next week this year’s World Triathlon Championships are taking place which means that the water fowl will share the pond with swimmers racing through the water. I suspect the birds might simply just move somewhere else during the event. In the past the City of Edmonton has chlorinated the pond to make it safe for the swimmers as it had problems with blue-green algae. I assume that chlorinated water is as safe for water fowl as it is to humans, but it will be interesting to see if the water fowl return to the pond after the sporting event. Looks like I might head down to the park during the event, not to look at the athletic performances, but rather to check in on the wigeons and the other birds.
The benefits of visiting city parks is that the wildlife is accustomed to human presence and is far less likely to be wary of humans. Case in point, as we were circumambulating the pond in Hawrelak Park we came across this female mallard with a single duckling sitting at the waters edge mere meters away from picnicking people. As we approached, they (the mallards, that is) were completely unphased by our presence and just ignored us. I ended up taking a few mugshots of the duckling from about 2 meters away and neither duckling or mom seemed to mind at all. Normally I would keep my distance to an animal with young offspring, but these two seemed completely at ease with all the people around them. They could have easily jumped into the water and swam away. Perhaps they took their chances around human as sometimes, I imagine, it might pay off in the forms of edible treats. Female mallards, which care and raise the young on their own, can lay up do a dozen eggs. It appeared that this female was left with a single offspring still “living at home”.
Another hot day and another mid-day birding walk, this time in Hawrelak Park. The Ring-billed Gulls were out in full force. We had a picnic lunch in the shade of a tree and as soon as we were done our eating the gulls arrived for their eating. A pair of them were particularly bold as they walk right up to us and scanned our surrounding looking for a morsel to eat. They did manage to find a piece of bread hiding in the lawn only an arms length away from us. Because they were close and the bright mid-day sun they were easy to photograph. I rarely push my P1000 past the 1000 mm mark as the image quality rapidly deteriorates at longer focal lengths. Today, however, with the bright light, the gulls standing still watching our every move I could not resist pushing the focal length up to 1411 mm for a close up mug shot of one of the fellas. It pretty obvious why they are called Ring-billed Gulls. Whatever your opinion is about these opportunistic omnivores they are quite handsome and clever for someone with a bird brain. Any bird that’s can take advantage of humans to improve their own fortunes deserves our respect.