Last weekend we came across our first plant in bloom of the year. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was a Prairie crocus (Anemone patens). Surprisingly (perhaps) we found it in Jasper National Park at a location that is at about 400m higher (1362ft) in elevation than Edmonton (1060m vs. 645m, 3478ft vs. 2116ft). I had assumed that spring would be running later in the valley bottoms of Jasper National Park than in Edmonton, but I was proven wrong. This fury little harbinger of spring is actually not a crocus at all, but rather an anemone in the Buttercup family. The prairie crocus only blooms during roughly a two week period, starting in mid-April. The phenology (the study of seasonal timing of life-cycle events) of the prairie crocus is, however, in a state of flux due to anthropogenic climate change. In a 2011 study researchers found that between 1936-2006 the mean monthly spring temperature increased between 1.5 °C-5.6 °C (depending on the month) in the central parklands of Alberta. As a result, the timing of the Prairie crocus blooming has shifted and is now (or at least in 2006) up to two weeks earlier than in 1936. This was in 2006, 13 years ago. The warming trend has of course continued since then and it would be interesting to know what effects it has had on the phenology of the Prairie crocus (and other plans and animals) since. One more good reason to hit the low elevation trails sooner rather than later. The crocuses are calling!
There is an elevated boardwalk across a small creek along the Valley of the Five Lakes trail in Jasper National Park. The creek cannot be more than 2 m (~7 ft) across and is surrounded by lush riparian vegetation. When we visited, we came across a shrub by the creek, still leaf-less, sporting what looked like willow catkins. I am not a plant person so I am going out on a limb here, but the shrub looked like a form of Pussy Willow, one of the smaller species of the genus Salix. The catkins typically appear much earlier than the leaves and are traditionally considered one of the earliest signs of spring. With the light behind the shrubbery I decided to try to do a backlit shot with my Nikon P1000. With the jumble of branches, not surprisingly, the camera did not have any trouble focusing on the shrubbery. A similar scenario occurred a bit further along the trail. Lots of shrubbery in the foreground, but this time a bear family lounging in the understory behind the jumble of branches. Perhaps not surprising, the camera focused on the shrubbery rather than the bear family. This is a common scenario as most of the subjects I photograph are birds in, you guessed in, trees and shrubs. Often with a jumble of branches between me and them. I have only had the P1000 for a few weeks so far. With my lack of previous experience with digital cameras, taming this beast is quite frustrating at times. There is an active P1000 Facebook group that I peruse when things get out of hand, just to remind me that it is actually a quite capable camera able to to take stunning images once you master it. My experience shooting through shrubbery with the P1000 reminds me of Monty Python’s The Knights Who Say Ni, where the Head King demand a shrubbery as a appeasement in return for letting Arthur and his party pass unharmed. Once Arthur brings the shrubbery it turns out that the Knights Who Say Ni are no longer the Knights Who Say Ni, but rather the Knights Who Say Ecky-ecky-ecky-ecky-pikang-zoom-boing-mumble-mumble who now require another shrubbery and also require Arthur to cut down mightiest tree in the forest… with … a herring! Nonsensical, yes, but sometimes my success (or lack thereof) with the P1000 is reminiscent of this farce.
The trail the Valley of Five Lakes in Jasper National Park meanders between and around…, you guessed it, five lakes. The Fifth Lake (that is actually it’s name) is different from the other four lakes in that it is emerald green this time of year. It is surrounded by lush spruce forests and at one end of it (NW side) there is a small wooden boat dock. The dock is the perfect spot for taking a break with a beautiful view of the lake and the surrounding mountains. Last time we were here there was a lonely Common Loon enjoying the spring sun. This iconic species came in as species 52 on the AB Big Year list and 103 on the Life List. As we were studying it through our binoculars I noticed how the loon would lay its head flat on the water surface moments before diving. I am not sure if I just have not noticed this behaviour previously or if this was a behaviour unique to this particular individual. I will definitely look for this next time I see a loon and hopefully get a video recording of it.
I have been doing regular nature walks for a tad over four months now. While the focus of my outings typically is on birding, I go with an open mind and are game for any nature observations that I come across. Now, four months of going for walks in the forest does not make me an expert nor have I had any profound insights, but there are a few things that I have come to realize make at least my nature walks more enjoyable. So here it is, in true David Letterman style, the Top Ten Things Not to do When Going on a Nature Walk…
1. Don’t bring your phone
Turn it off, or even better, leave it behind (gasp!). And for Pete’s sake, whatever you do, don’t under any circumstance use your headphones. Nature walks are all about being present in the moment and cell phones…well, they have the exact opposite effect on your brain. Nuff said. Damn your eBird and Merlin for making such awesome apps. Yes it is convenient, but the last thing I want to do when watching birds is to be on my phone. The solution is of course simple, take notes in a notebook with a pencil and take pictures (not with your cellphone),… or even better, draw the bird (still mustering up courage for that one).
2. Don’t finish your chores
If you are anything like me, the chores at home will never end. If you are aiming to finish your chores and then reward yourself with, say, a nature walk, you will likely never go. With kids and pets in the house and working adults, getting your castle into tip top show home cleanliness and organization is a Sisyphean task with rapidly diminishing returns. My grandmother always said, “You do not live in a museum, get out and live”. The dishes can wait, the birds are calling and I must go!
3. Don’t be unprepared
…but don’t over do it. What “being prepared means” obviously depends on where you are going and for how long. But even for the shortest of nature walks in my local forest patch I always bring the following items,
camera with spare battery
small lens cleaning kit
my home made trail mix that is equally suitable for humans, squirrels and birds
notepad and pencil
a pocket knife
toque (that’s Canadian lingo for a close-knitted woollen hat) or a cap, depending on the season
finger gloves with cutoff fingers, or beefier gloves in the winter
cell phone…, well, this is awkward,… clearly I am not practicing what I am preaching (see #1 above). In my defence, I never actually take the phone out and its on silent. I carry it so it can track my location and the number of steps (this might sound like a lame execute, but as a high school teacher I have unparalleled expertise in hearing lame cell phone excuses).
field guide(s). Yes, I actually bring the brick-sized field guides, but I leave them in the car. Once I am back in the car after the walk I enter my eBird observations and check the field guide for anything that was tricky to id.
4. Don’t be “somewhere else”
Another word for not being “somewhere else” is mindfulness. Be aware of your surrounding. Listen to to the forest, smell the environment, feel the air on your skin and feel your fingers go numb as you try coax your binoculars into focus on a cold winter morning. The birds can help you with this one. If you just look for the birds you notice other things, things you were not looking for in the first place.
5. Don’t go alone,… don’t go with others,…
…do both. Go alone. Go with a friend. Go with your family. Go with strangers. While many of my outings have been with my modestly sized family, other field trips are with (non-birding) friends, or with a black belt birders from Edmonton Nature Club, yet other are solo excursions. Perhaps not surprisingly, I have found that it is difficult to convince anyone to join you for a pre-dawn field trip on, say, a Saturday or Sunday morning. As a result, I have done several early morning field trips to Elk Island National Park to hang out with the bison at sunrise while the rest of the gang get to sleep in.
6. Don’t let the weather be your foe
Let the weather be your ally. Embrace the sun, rain, wind or freezing temperatures. There is no bad weather, just bad attitude towards the weather. The same forest in different weather will be a completely different experience. Either way, the animals in the forest never complain about the weather, they just deal with it. Why should we be any different?
7. Don’t go at the same time every time
Mix up the times. Go after work. Go first thing in the morning on a day off. Go at night. Go midday. Depending on the time, different critters will be out and about.
8. Don’t walk
I know. It’s called a “nature walk”, but surprising things might happen if you stop and listen and just be one with the environment. I tend to mostly be on the move when I go for a nature walk, but if you stop and stay put for a while you slowly become one with the surrounding forest and you might start noticing some of the more subtle things that are easy to miss, or as scallywag Master Gibbs puts it in The Curse of the Black Pearl:
He waded out into the shallows and there he waited three days and three nights till all manner of sea creature came and acclimated to his presence.
10. Don’t rush!
Last but not least, if you rush it you are better off not going. There are two possible strategies here, either take your time and finish when you are finished, which assumes that you have time on your side. Alternatively, if you have limited time, adjust your outing to fit your schedule. Don’t try to rush through a nature walk just to get it done so you can move on to the next item on your to do list. Nature walks cannot be rushed, it’s not in their nature.