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.