Today’s post, #61, marks the completion of 1/6th of my Project 366. While it is far to premature to celebrate I am in a bit of disbelieve that I actually have managed to post every single day for the past two months. The biggest surprise has been that the writing and posting is not the main challenge but rather getting out into nature enough to have fresh pictures to accompany the posts. Now back to regular business…
During an early morning visit to Elk Island I came across an American Robin that had build its nest in a hollow tree stump. I was surprised that it had chosen such an exposed nesting location. The nest was about shoulder high right along a hiking trail and there really was no way one could miss it. While stayed on the opposite side of the trail from the nest the robin did not seem particularly phased. It sat completely still and the fact that it insisted on staying put rather than flying off could mean that there were eggs or young in the nest. This was one of those times were I was particularly appreciative of the extra long zoom capabilities of the P1000.
The alarm clock went off at 5am. Fifteen minutes later I was heading East on a quiet and empty Yellowhead Highway, into the sunrise and towards Elk Island. Nature walks at dawn is a meditative experience. The dawn of a new day, the absence of humans and human made noises washes away stress, sleepiness and rejuvenates the mind. The absence of human-made sounds is made up for by a cacophony of natural sounds, primarily birds. Dawn is the time of day that birds are by far the most active and vocal. As I was approaching the park thick impenetrable fog shrouded the landscape forcing me to, at times, slow down to walking speed on the highway. I have not seen fog this thick in many years. It was the proverbial pea soup with visibility diminished to only a few meters. Once I arrived at Elk Island heavy fog banks covered the open fields and ponds. Not ideal for viewing or photographing wildlife, but magical nevertheless and quite inducing for landscape photography. After a quick scan of the fog covered Bison Loop I settled in at the Mud Lake parking lot to brew myself a cup of coffee and wait for the fog to lift. I spend the next few hours hiking along ponds and wetlands around Tawayik Lake seeing lots of waterfowl and industrious beavers.
I was at the Emerald Pond in Sherwood Park looking for charismatic birds such as pelicans. The pelicans were a no show, but there was plenty of Canada geese in the tall grass surrounding the pond. I did not pay much attention to the geese and as I was walking along the shore they kept a close eye on me and slowly, almost reluctantly, moved out of my way as I was approaching. As I approached one goose that appeared alone I noticed something else moving around in the grass right beside the goose. They were goslings and this would explain the slighly odd behaviour of the adult geese. The adult was herding the goslings towards the water’s edge while keeping its head high and its gaze fixed on me. As I started to scrutinize the other geese around the pond, now that I knew what to look for, I saw they all had little ones. The yellow goslings were remarkable well-camouflaged in the tall grass and obediently followed their moms and dads into the water. Once in the water the families quickly crossed the pond and got out of the water on the other side. I imagine the goslings might be safer in the tall grass as they would be easy prey for an opportunistic raptor in the open water.
Today’s picture is a contribution from my lovely better half and my sister-in-law. While going for a stroll in the MacKinnon park, right below the old Royal Alberta Museum, chatting about stuff that only better halfs and sister-in-laws chat about they came across this curious looking critter. I received a picture and a short video clip at work asking me what this critter is. To be completely honest, I had no clue what it could be. It looked somewhat similar to a marmot, but the only marmots I have ever seen were high up in the mountains, so I did not think it would be a marmot. It turns out that it is a marmot. Marmots are essentially large squirrels in the genus Marmota, with 15 species spread out throughout the northern hemisphere. One of the species is the Hoary Marmot (Marmota caligata) which I saw many years ago in Lake O’Hara. The fella in MacKinnon Park, however, is a Groundhog aka Woodchuck (Marmota monax) which is another species in the same genus. It turns out this particular Groundhog is somewhat of a local celebrity and has even been featured as a news story on CBC. Apparently people are regularly feeding it and it is obvious that it is very comfortable around humans. It is quite regrettable that people do not have the sensibility to treat wildlife, even urbanized wildlife, appropriately. Groundhogs are known to have an aggressive nature so having one so comfortable around humans could potentially lead to trouble down the road.
The Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) became lifer #158 and AB Big Year #109. It was a special find as this was the first time I did not finds the bird, but rather the bird found me. I was at the parking lot of Snow Valley on a sunny morning trying to get a good view of a bird sitting at the very top of the tallest spruce tree around singing its heart out. Because of the position of the bird and the bright light it was difficult to get a good view of its colour. Based on the size and over all shape I suspected a Dark-eyed Junco. I decided to try to identify it by its song, so I pulled up its audio file in the Merlin App to compare with the actual song. Within seconds after pressing play half a dozen small birds swooped in around me. They landed just a few meters from me in the trees, on the park bench and on a trash can. The suspected junco…, well, it flew of, go figure. The closest bird was definitely a house finch with its reddish head and neck and shoulders. The others were house sparrow sized and shaped but with a rust cap and black eye liner. It was a band of Chipping Sparrows and they were very curious about the large non-junco making junco sounds. So I guess one could say the Chipping Sparrow find was serendipitous. Birding with the Edmonton Nature Club I have seen birders playback bird calls in an attempt to attracts birds or bring them closer in. If used judiciously this appears to be an efficient trick turn the tables and instead of trying to sneak closer to the birds convince the birds to come closer to you.
I had never been down to the Whitemud Ravine in the morning before. Last Tuesday I was off from work and woke up early to a beautiful sunny morning. It was the perfect morning for a nature walk down by the creek. Said and done, at 7 am I started out down at the Snow Valley parking lot. Right off the bat, the birding kicked in at full gear with a bunch of Chipping Sparrows (Spizella passerina) hanging out in the trees by the parking lot. These were lifers for me and by playing their call through the Merlin App I had them sitting all around me in the trees curiously eyeing me. I can just imagine what must have been going though their bird brains, “Is this an intruder?” or “Is this a potential mate?”. That was a great start to a morning of some awesome birding. Other than two lifers, the highlight was definitely the Great Horned Owlets that were hanging out in their cavity. They were about 3 weeks old and getting quite large. By owl standards they would probably be considered teenagers. They sure behaved like teenagers, curious, oblivious to the dangers of the outside world, not following their owl parent instructions etc. There they were, perching precariously at the edge of the nest and ogling passersby. The sudden croaking of ravens directed their attention skywards. I am not sure if they would be aware of the dangers the ravens pose, but their parents definitely are. Dad, sitting in a nearby tree, started hooting and right away mom was inbound. She landed at the edge of the cavity pushing her owlets inside. The owlets had none of it as they tried to get past mom to check out what the commotion was about. Although the mother barely fit in the nest she blocked the entrance pushing her owlets back into the nest as she intently eyed the skies for the ravens. I spend well over an hour at the nest, snapping pictures and shooting videos of the chicks.
Below is a video clip (13:16 min) of the action at the nest. Mom arrives at 7:32 and the person you can hear talking and shooting pictures in the background is Wayne Oaks, the resident Whitemud Ravine birding afictionado.
All in all, it was an amazing and beautiful morning full of birds, two of which were lifers (Chipping Sparrow and the American Goldfinch). I could have continued but after 3.5 hrs and 6 km my stomach started to grumble so it was time for a second breakfast and more coffee. This experience has opened my eyes to the virtues of early morning birding. The weekend cannot arrive soon enough.
Here is the eBird summary of the morning.
Edmonton–Whitemud Park, Edmonton, Alberta, CA May 21, 2019 7:07 AM – 10:37 AM Protocol: Traveling 6.341 kilometer(s) 18 species
Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) 5 Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) 12 Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca) 2 Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) 3 Common Merganser (Mergus merganser) 5 Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) 4 Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) 1 Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) 1 Sound only Common Raven (Corvus corax) 3 Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) 15 American Robin (Turdus migratorius) 4 House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) 1 American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) 2 Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) 3 Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) 3 White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) 1 Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) 2 Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) 1
Found this lovely Common Merganser (Mergus merganser) down at the Whitemud Creek yesterday morning. There its was, just chilling on a log with its funky hairdo…, er, “featherdo”? If you look closely at the picture you can see the serrated edge of the bill. Mergansers eat fish so this helps them grip their prey. Sometimes they are referred to as sawbills. The famed naturalist and painter John James Audubon referred to these as Buff-breasted Merganser and Goosander in his 1827 book The Birds of North America. This particular merganser appeared to be alone and is likely either a non-breeding male or a female. Once males reach their breeding age (2 years) their appearance changes a black head and white body. Nonbreeding males and females are tricker to tell apart. None of the information online provided any clues as how to tell them apart. If in doubt, consult your Sibley! According to Sibley, adult nonbreeding males have a white stripe on their wing, which can clearly be seen in this picture. So there you have it folks, it’s a lonesome bachelor. Just a bit downstream there were several merganser couples swimming around romantically in the murky water. I guess this fella either did not get lucky this year or is not ready to commit, not that male merganser commit much as they do not help the female to care for the eggs or young.