During the last visit to Jasper National Park we came across this low coniferous shrub covered in odd looking orange spiky clusters. My suspicion is that it is some form of rusty fungus, but this comes from someone that knows absolutely nothing about fungi, so take that with a very large pinch of salt. Rusty fungi are pathogens that infect plants, and while they typically do not kill the plant they are considered unsightly when occurring in gardens. There are some 7000 species of rust fungi so trying to identify the species is no small feat. The second thought that came to my mind when I encountered the fungus (the first thought was, ”what on earth is that?”) was “how does it feel?”. Although spiky I had a sneaky suspicion that it might not be solid upon touch. I tried touching it and sure enough, as soon as the spikes were touched they collapsed into a slimy mess. The third though that came to my mind was “I wonder how it tastes?”, so without further ado I…, just kidding. I did resist the temptation to lick the slime off my fingers.
A few days ago I wrote a post about a Common Goldeneye female soloing it in Whitemud Creek (see post #079). Well, as I mentioned in that post, there are two species of goldeneyes in these neck of the woods, the Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) and Barrow’s Goldeneye (Bucephala islandica). Similarly to the Common Goldeneye, the Barrow’s Goldeneye is named after its piercing golden eye. While the species look very similar their distributions are quite different. The Common Goldeneye can be found across Canada, from the Pacific all the way to the Atlantic Ocean while Barrow’s Goldeneye, on the other hand, is found in a narrow belt running north south along the Rocky Mountains and the odd small pocket in Eastern Canada.
Along a forested section of the trail looping around the First Lake on the Valley of the Five Lakes trail we encountered these small purple flowers poking through the thick moss cover. They had an “orchidy” sort of look to them but at the time I did not know what they were. It turns out they they are indeed orchids known by various names, including, Calypso Orchid, Venus’ Slipper or Fairy Slipper (Calypso bulbosa var. americana). It is a circumpolar perennial orchid found in undisturbed montane forests. They belong to the genus Calypso, which only contains this one species, which takes its name from Greek signifying concealment, as they tend to favour sheltered and undisturbed areas of conifer forest floors. Although it is wide spread globally it is considered threatened or endangered in some part of the world (e.g. several U.S. states and in Sweden and Finland) as it is sensitive to disturbances and has a rather finicky reproductive strategy. It relies on visits by pollinating insects, specifically bumblebees here in Alberta, by deception as it does not produce any nectar to reward its pollinators. As a result insects quickly learn not to visit it again. Talk about burning your bridges reproductively.
We were on the road to Jasper National Park for a camping weekend in the mountains. It is always a special treat to head up into the mountains, but this time we were a bit apprehensive as the weather forecast looked quite gloomy with rain and cold temperatures. Sure enough, as soon as we went through the park gate the rain started coming down. It was, however, too late to turn back now. The road between the park gate and Jasper is scenic as it meanders its way through a valley following the Athabasca River with mountains and lakes surrounding us on either. The highway inside the park is limited to 90 km/h with a number 70 km/h sections. There are good reasons for this as animals often hang out around and on the highway. In the past we have seen coyotes, foxes, bears, elks and bighorn sheep right on this stretch of highway. As we were crossing an isthmus between the Athabasca River on the right and Talbot Lake on the left half-dozen of Bighorn Sheep came galloping towards us along the highway. This must have been a good omen, if you believe in such things, The weekend ended up turn out great. Yes it rained for the rest of the day. but the next two days were sunshine allowing us to do some awesome hikes and birding, including scoring two lifers: Yellow-rumpled Warbler (Setophaga coronata, Lifer #156, AB Big Year #107) and Hammond’s Flycatcher (Empidonax hammondii, Lifer #155, AB Big Year #106). All in all, that would be considered a pretty awesome weekend.
My first flycatcher turned out to be a tricky nut to crack. I spotted it at the top of a dead spruce along the Athabaskan River along the old Ice Fields Parkway in Jasper National Park. Right from the get go I had no idea what I was looking at. I knew that the species was new to me and since I was nit even able to place it in a bird category, e.g. sparrows, finches, black birds, etc, I knew that this was something big. As I had not hope of identifying the bird in the field I focused on getting photographs of it from as many angles as possible. Fortunately it was a sunny day and the bird was perched in full sunlight, so I was able to get some decent pictures of it. Later on after the usual consultations with Merlin and Sibley it appeared that I had a flycatcher at my hands from the genus Empidonax. Flycatchers are small insect eating birds with many species looking similar. Sometimes positive identification is only possible based range, behaviour or vocalizations. My flycatcher is most likely a Hammond’s Flycatcher (Empidonax hammondii, Life: #155, AB Big Year: #106).
There are many cultural depictions of black birds, such as ravens and crows, that associate these birds with ill omen and death. Clearly these are figments of peoples’ imaginations. Black birds are highly intelligent, uber cool, and ecologically important as they are ubiquitous, globally distributed and take on the roles of predator, prey and scavenger, all in one. This picture from Jasper National Park is emblematic of some of those darker cultural depictions that these birds sometimes are associated with. At first glance there may not be any apparent death or ill omen here, but upon closer inspection, the rust coloured needles of the surrounding pine forest, tell a different story. These “red tops” have succumbed to the mountain pine beetle. Over the last several decades this beetle has ravaged the pine forests of British Columbia, and more recently it has spread into Alberta. The underlaying reasons for this multi-decade epidemic are complex and multifarious with books written about it. Without getting into details, the ultimate causes of this cataclysmic epidemic can all be attributed human arrogance, misguided policies, science illiteracy and greed.
Enough doom and gloom. Black birds are not always associated with ill omen and foreboding. In Native American culture the raven is viewed as a creature of metamorphosis, symbolizing change or transformation. I like to view this lone black bird as exactly that, a sign of the ongoing metamorphosis of the forests of western Canada. Right now it might be difficult to see beyond the destruction, but nature will prevail and out of the ashes of the red tops ecological succession will create new ecosystems and new opportunities that only time will tell. Personally, I am looking forward to the wild flowers that are expected to be one of the early colonizer.
As far as this one particular black bird hanging out in a forest of mountain pine beetle killed trees. The question is, is it a crow or a raven? As in American Crow vs. Common Raven. Typically the movement and vocalizations would give it away, but this fellow did neither. It just sat there. My first though was that the “curved bill” suggests it would be a raven. A consult with the folks at Edmonton Nature Club zeroed in on the overall shape and proportions being more consistent with a crow. In the end I am on the fence with this one.
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.
One of our favourite valley bottom hikes around Jasper is the Valley of the Five Lakes trail. With a name that sounds like it would come right out of the lore of Middle Earth, the hike does not disappoint. With panoramic vistas of the surrounding mountains, emerald green and azure blue lakes the trail meanders through Mountain Pine Beetle ravaged pine forests, lush spruce stands and aspen groves. It is a popular trail and to beat the rush you want to be hitting the trail before 10 am. Last weekend we visited Jasper National Park and were fortunate enough to be able to do the Valley of the Fives Lakes trail twice. On our first day out we were greeted by a vocal Pileated Woodpecker and accompanied along the trail by Dark-eyed Juncos singing from the tree tops and American Robins hopping about through the understory. We found a mother bear with her cubs hiding in the bushes along the trail. As tempting as it was to linger and try to get a nice photograph of the family, we opted for a quick peek and then moved on to avoid undue stress on the new mother. The sound the cubs made was quite interesting. It was reminiscent of the cooing sounds of pigeons. So next time you heart a cooing in the forest it might be something bigger and furier than a pigeon or a dove. Often people are worried about meeting bears along the trails, and admittedly that I shared this concern once upon a time. Many bear encounter later, however, I found myself very lucky if I spot a bear. I don’t go actively looking for bears, but if our paths cross an already special day suddenly becomes unforgettable in the best of possible ways.