Intermingled with the massive bison were these small brown birds that were mostly hiding in the tall grass and occasionally emerging and landing on the back of a bison before diving down into the grass again. These were Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater), a species commonly associated with grazing animals. The tend to look for insects and seeds to eat on the ground stirred up by the larger animal. Before European settlement, the Brown-headed Cowbird followed bison herds across the plains. Because of their nomadic lifestyle they engage in brood parasitism laying their eggs in the nest of unsuspecting birds of other species. These days the species is commonly seen around domesticated livestock and at suburban bird feeders. At Elk Island, however, they still live their traditional lifestyle in close association with bison herds.
While most of the bison on the meadow were pretty chilled and seemed to just enjoy the sunny morning a few of the males had other things in mind. These two males were ogling and sizing each other up. Just as it looked like they were about to walk away, they turns around and crashed their heads together. Their horns locked together and a twisting wrestling match ensued were the two bulls trekked to outmaneuver each other. This went on for a while when suddenly one of the bison lost his footing and crashed down on his side. He was back on his feat at once and they were back in staring competition mode. Bison bulls engage in head butting battles fort mating privileges. I am not sure when the mating season for the bison in Elk Island starts, but these males might be getting ready for it.
Among the hundreds of bison covering the meadow I found this one calf that decided to take a snooze in the sunshine. It did not have a care in the world and was clearly oblivious to my presence. An adult bison walked by and deposited a bison sized turd a few feet from it’s head, but little bison baby just kept snoozing on. With coyotes, bears, vehicles and pooping bison around you think this youngster would be a tad more wary, but I guess if your mom is a half a tonne (500 kg = 1100 lbs) lady capable of running as fast as a horse, anyone even thinking of messing around with her precious baby would soon regret it and would probably not live to tell the tale. Since the bison were introduced at Elk Island National Park in 1907, over 100 generations of have been born and raised in the park. This calf was in the northern par of the park which means it is a Plains Bison. In the southern part of the park the Wood Bison live. It would be interesting to see some of their calves. Would they look different? That sounds like an exciting field trip; tracking down some Wood Bison calves.
At the edge of a grove, away from the melee, a lonely bison mom and her calf were having a moment. The reddish brown calf was quite assertive, pushing its head into the mom’s groin, clearly letting her know what it wanted. I was probably not more than 25 meters from them, stuck in a bison traffic jam in the Bison Loop at Elk Island National Park. Mom and calf seemed not to mind my presence at all. I opened the sunroof of the truck and climbed out with my camera. This vantage point gave me an unobstructed view of the surroundings. As I was observing mom and calf I was surprised when I realize that the cow had horns, something I had assumed only male bison would have. It turns out that the physical differences that distinguish males (bulls) from females (cows) are quite subtle so determining a bison’s sex is not entirely trivial. Clearly the presence of horns cannot be used to tell males and females apart. Although a cow’s horns are slightly more curved and slender than a bull’s, one would likely have to be quite experienced to be able to pick up on this. Obviously a bison feeding a calf is one sure-way of positively identifying a female.
So here is another bison post as promised yesterday. This was the view as I entered the Bison Loop at Elk Island National Park yesterday morning at 6 am. Those bison were in no hurry anywhere and took their sweet time. They were mainly just standing around, occasionally a few of them decided to lie down in the grass or on the dirt road. I was slowly inching my way along in my vehicle. Mostly I was standing still waiting for a few of the bison to lumber on. A few times I got too close and I got some dirty bison looks thrown my way. Clearly the message was, this is our turf and here we are the traffic.
Today is July 1 and other than it being Canada Day it also marks the half way point of my Alberta Big Year. 178 day down and 178 days left to go. My current tally is 114 species seen in Alberta since 00:01 January 1 this year. According to eBird 404 species of birds have been reported in Alberta since the beginning of times (or at least since the beginning of the eBird record). Looking at the species reported this year only, the number is 317. Clearly I have long ways to go to reach the stratosphere of birding in Alberta. I am hoping to boost this number by going to some targeted hotspots beyond Edmonton during the summer, e.g. Frank Lake and Inglewood Bird Sanctuary, both these locations are located in and around Calgary. Other than this, my bread and butter will be my two main field locations, the Whitemud Creek and Elk Island National Park. With 153 species recorded at Whitemud Creek and 243 species reported at Elk Island there are plenty more treasures waiting to be found.
‘Twas the morning before Canada Day, when all through the park not a human was stirring, only the bison. Well, it’s not that time of year yet (as a matter of fact, today is day 178 so we are exactly halfway there), but it sure felt like that time of year this morning. At 6 am I rolled into Elk Island National Park and as the Bison Loop emerged around a curve in the road, for a second, I though I was dreaming. The field surrounding the Bison Loop and Mud Lake was filled with bison. There must have been several hundreds of them. Adults, awkward and mangy looking teens and milk chocolate coloured calves dotted the grassy field, more bison were hiding in the tree groves, bison were blocking the road and the Bison Loop gravel road was a veritable traffic jam of bison. One of the collective nouns for bison is an obstinacy of bison (the other ones are a heard of bison, a gang of bison and a troop of bison). The term seems quite fitting to such a massive animal that clearly has the attitude that they can do whatever they want. If they decide to cross the road and stand in front of your vehicle, they will do just that. As I approached the Bison Loop I thought to myself, “if I drive into the loop, I will be stuck for who knows how long”. This is one traffic jam I would love to be in. Said and done, I drove into the loop and was soon surrounded by bison and stuck in my first bison traffic jam. A few hours later I emerged on the other side of the loop with tones of picture and unforgettable memories. It was almost as if I had travelled a few hundred years back in time to the heydays of the bison when an obstinacy of bison roamed the grasslands as far as they eye could see. Much more could be said about this experience, and I will say more…, expect the next few days to have a bison theme. Tomorrow is Canada Day and the plans are to spend the day in the great canadian outdoors at Elk Island with family and friends and, hopefully, another obstinacy of bison.
This is the third day of bison-themed posts. Another post and another bison…, yet, this one is different. All my bison pictures and posts so far have featured Plains Bison (Bison bison bison). Today’s picture, however, is featuring a Wood Bison (Bison bison athabascae). Why the trinomial names, instead of the usual Linnaean binomial names? Well, Plains and Wood Bison are considered subspecies within the genus Bison, just like you and I belong to the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens, which is different from the extinct subspecies Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, both belonging to the genus Homo. Morphologically Wood and Plains Bison can be told apart by Wood Bison being substantially larger with bulls averaging 880 kg and females 540 kg while Plains Bison bulls average 739 kg and females 440 kg – so about a 100 kg difference, not exactly spare change. Wood Bison also have a pronounced hump above their shoulder blades forward of their front legs while the Plains Bison is lacking the hump and have their highest point along their back centered over their front legs. Although they are of different sizes and one has a hump, if you do not have them right next to each other telling them apart is probably as easy as telling a Downy Woodpecker from a Hairy Woodpecker (that was a birder joke). If you visit the bison at Elk Island telling them apart (the bison, not the woodpeckers) is child’s play. If you see a bison north of the Yellowhead Highway it is a Plains Bison and if you see a bison south of the highway it is a Wood Bison. This fella was a southerner so, yeah…, definitely a Woody.
The park maintains about 450 Plains Bison and about 315 Wood Bison, selling off any surplus animals. Historically, the Plains Bison lived primarily in their Greater Plains of central North America, while the Wood Bison lived further north, from Alaska into Yukon and the North West Territories and in Northern British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan. It is believed that there used to be up to 30 million Plains Bison and about 170000 Wood Bison during their heydays. All was hunky dory until the Europeans arrived. When the Europeans colonized North America the population numbers of both bison species declined rapidly. By the late 1800s, Plains Bison no longer existed in Canada and the Wood Bison population was down to about 200 individuals. Conservation efforts saved the bison from complete extinction with populations today around 375000 Plains Bison and 6000 Wood Bison.
Bison fur consists of a thin layer of short hair right agains the skin and an outer layer of coarse long hair. In the fall the bison grow the long outer fur to keep them nice and toasty throughout the winter. In the spring they shed their outer coat in large clumps making them look quite mangy. Right before I took this picture this male was wallowing, rolling around in the dry dirt, presumable to try to shed his winter coat. As he stood up a leafy twig got caught behind his horn. Bison wallow for many purposes, such as relieving skin irritations, shed their winter coat, seeking relief from biting insects, as a social behaviour or as part of their mating behaviour during the breeding season. There is an informative writeup on wallowing in bison on the US National Parks web site. It turns out that wallowing creates bowl-like depressions, wallows, that serve important ecological roles in the prairie ecosystem. More on that later, however, once I post a picture of a wallow. This bison was just a few meters away from me so, resisted the temptation to step outside the vehicle and shot this picture from the car. The bison at Elk Island are remarkable accepting of humans in vehicles. Not so much with humans outside of vehicles.
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).
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.