The very first bird we spotted as we arrived at the oxbow pond down at the Whitemud ravine was a male mallard that was snoozing on a log. The log was covered in lush greenery with the mallard cosy like a bug in a rug in the greenery. It was very idyllic and looked quite comfortable. Oxbow ponds are unique habitats where the water is still and stagnant compared to the rushing water in the creek. There are rumours of numerous oxbow ponds along the Whitemud creek. So far I have found two, both almost entirely covered with thick riparian vegetation making them surprisingly difficult to spot although they are only steps away from the trail. This particular oxbow is the largest one I have found so far and is bound by an old beaver dam at the north end and a wall of accreted sediments on the south end. Groundwater and seepage from the west side of the ravine feeds the oxbow, as does spring and surface runoff. Other than seasonal fluctuations in the water level the water is completely still in these pond.
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.
It is difficult to have the Monday blues when you got to spend the gorgeous spring weekend in the great outdoors. I did an early morning foray to Elk Island National Park to catch the bison at sunrise (I did not manage to convince anyone else to join me) and we went on two trips out to the area east of Beaverhill Natural Area in search of the elusive Snow Goose. The Snow Goose chase is a story in itself but it suffice to say that we ended up crisscrossing the Range Roads and Township Roads in the area. Virtually all the snow is gone by now and the majority of ponds and lakes are ice free. Many of the fields are inundated with shallow ponds, something the water fowl are taking full advantage of. We did not focus our attention on these birds (the Snow Geese were calling) but during a brief pit stop on a dusty and desolated Range Road I took the following picture of some water fowl enjoying the gorgeous spring day. While the image quality and composition is nothing to write home about it serves as a good example of the genre of documentary wildlife photography I am aiming for. While beautiful composition and top notch image quality always is a bonus my aim is to document an interesting species, behaviour or natural history artefact. Image quality and composition comes secondary. This image was taken at 210 mm focal length with a Nikon P1000 (that is 1512 mm in terms of 35 mm) and with ISO 250. I took the picture to help me id the two Northern Pintails (male is far left and the female is far right) hanging out with the Mallard couple. While we have seen the Northern Pintail previously (in the Keephills Cooling ponds a few months ago) last time they were, well, pinpricks on the distant horizon and we just had to trust pro-birders with high-magnification scopes for the identification. To date this is the clearest and closest view I have ever had of Northern Pintails, which is oddly satisfying. This is precisely the reason why we recently got a super-zoom bridge camera. So far it is serving its intended purpose. In the one week that we have used it, pictures from this camera has helped us to identify three different species, Northern Pintail, Rough-Legged Hawk and American Tree Sparrow (the last two being lifers).