Different species of spiders create different types of spider webs. The spider web type that probably come to your mind first is the classical spiral orb web design. This type of web is created by spiders in the Araneidae family, aka as orb-weaving spiders. With 3122 species these are the most commonly found spiders across the world. Many orb-weaving spiders build a new web each day. They tend to hide during the day and become active during the evening hours when they consume the old web before spinning a new web in the same general location. As a result the webs of orb-weaving spiders are generally clean and free of accumulated debris. This spider web that I came across on an early morning down by the Whitemud Creek was covered in morning dew. Tiny water droplets were strung up on the silk fibres like bright pearls strung on a sting. The ability of spider webs to collect water is unique and difficult to understand. For example, human hair cannot do this. As it turns out a recent study showed that the water collection ability of spider silk is an artefact of the microscopic structure of the silk. As far as we know the ability for spiders silk to collect water does not seem to serve any biological purpose. On the contrary, when the spider silk is wetted it reduces its ability to capture prey, an obviously bad thing from the spider’s perspective. One cannot deny, however, that morning dew captured on a spider web is a very photogenic effect that we humans probably enjoy more than the spider itself.
Along the trail at the Whitemud Creek one can find Low-bush (Viburnum opulus) and High-bush Cranberries (Viburnum edule). Calling these shrubs cranberries is misleading as they are more closely related to elderberries than to the true cranberry. They produce a stone fruit called a drupe (a drupe is fleshy fruit with a central stone like core containing one or more seeds), like a cherry, whose acidic flavour resembles that of the cranberries. The fruit have a tangy musky odour and not a favourite food of birds. During the winter, when other sources of food are scarce, the berries often become survival food for birds such as waxwings and robins. Both the Low-bush and High-bush Cranberry shrubs are native to North America and can be found in thickets along shorelines and creeks, swamps and forest edges. Both species appear identical, except one of the grows low (up to 2 m) and the other species grows high (up tp 4 m). It is left to the reader to deduce which one is which.
All of a sudden last week foam started to appear in the Whitemud Creek. Large floating rafters of yellowish foam floating down the creek and getting stuck in the vegetation along the shorelines. Most people’s first reaction is probably that the foam is due to pollution. While pollution can certainly cause foam in fresh and salt water it turns that foam also can be created through natural processes. These so called foam lines are often found on streams and river surfaces when water is strongly mixed with air, for example at water falls where rocky substrate have fast currents passing over its. Foam lines are common in streams with brown water which contain high levels of dissolved organic carbon from decomposing algae and other plant matter. Much of the foam is formed after snowmelt and after prolonged heavy rains. The Whitemud Creek fulfills all these criteria, we have had large amounts of rain this summer, the water level is high, the current is strong in the creek and the water is murky brown. Things always change at the creek, from it being frozen in the winter, ice floes and water-ice slurry in the spring, high water levels during the spring melt and during the rainy summer to low and clear waters during the end of the spring and before the rainy season.
One reason many of the inhabitants at the Whitemud Creek are so comfortable around humans might be the regular treats they receive from us. On any given day it is common to find sunflowers seeds strewn along the trail, placed on stumps, logs and bridge railings. I am a bit ambivalent about this practice. One one hand, it allows adults and children to easily view the squirrels, voles, chickadees, nuthatches and other inhabitants, which clearly serves an educational purpose. On the other hand, sometimes when wildlife associates humans with food bad things happens. I can see this being a valid concerns when feeding (on purpose on inadvertently) large animals such as coyotes, bears and elk, but squirrels and small birds? What harm can a chickadee possibly do? In all fairness, if you will be feeding wildlife, sunflowers seeds are probably the most nutritious foodstuff you could offer them. I am sure there are additional aspects one could discuss, e.g. how does feeding affect survival, breeding success, population dynamics and interactions between animals. Apparently you can be fined if you are found feeding the wildlife at Whitemud Creek. There are stories of the RCMP and park rangers handing out tickets to sunflower-carrying offenders. This fella, however, looked quite grateful for a sunflower seed snack and was not about to issue a ticket.
A mushroom walks into a bar. The bartender said “We don’t serve your kind here”. The mushroom replied: “Why not? I am a fun guy.” Once you wipe the cringy grin off your face we can move on. We have received a lot of rain this summer (daily and nightly) and as a result of this three things have happened, (1) everything has been growing like crazy and many of the smaller trails down at the creek are overgrown and inaccessible, (2) the mosquitoes population has exploded and one is surrounded by a cloud of thirsty females every time one ventures into the forest and (3) the forest is full of fungi fruiting bodies aka mushrooms. Although I tried to identify this mushroom I came up empty handed. It’s a mushroom, nuff said.
Red-back Voles are common inhabitants of the northern forests. Just as the name suggests the fur on their back is reddish brown. There are two species of red-back voles in Canada, the Northern Red-back vole (Myodes rutilis) and the Southern Red-back vole (Myodes gapperi). Studies have shown that the Northern Red-back Vole occurs north of latitude 60°N and the Southern Red-back Vole south of 60°N with virtually no overlap between the two species in North America. Edmonton is located at 53°N and the 60 parallel North constitutes the border between Alberta and the Northwest Territories. This means that most likely this is a Southern Red-backed Vole. This fella did not seem to be particularly shy. It just continued to munch on its snack while I was taking pictures only a few meters away.
Well, I don’t actually know if the beavers are back…, I do know, however, that at least one beaver is back at the Whitemud Creek. The last time I encountered beavers at the creek was over three months ago back in mid-April (See Post No. 020). At that time there were beavers galore in the creek and then they just vanished. There is obviously much more to this story, but I’ll save that for a different day. What matters is that it appears that a beaver has somehow found its way back to the creek. A few days ago I caught a fleeting glimpse of one individual doing the rounds in the creek. I just barely managed to snap a picture of it. It is a good thing I did, otherwise I probably would have been second guessing myself, questioning myself if I really had seen what I thought I had seen or if my eye or brain were just playing tricks on me. I am intrigued about where this beaver came from. Did it swim in from the North Saskatchewan River or did it come down from an upstream location of the creek? My suspicion is that it came in from the North Saskatchewan River, but I have no idea how to prove that. I have to admit that while it was super exciting to spot a beaver at the creek again, it did not come entirely as a surprise. A few days earlier I saw the writing on the wall in the form of a freshly felled poplar bearing the unmistakable signs of a beavers handywork.
So here is a bit of a stumper. I came across this waterfowl sitting on a log in the creek the other day. It was alone and the question that immediately came to my mind was “What is it?”. My hunch is that it was an immature Common Merganser, given the spiky hairdo, white belly, overall grey with a hint of reddish-brown on the head. What makes me second guess myself, however, is the bill and the legs. Both these appendages are red to brownish-red in Common Merganser. On this individual, however, the colours were nowhere close to that. On the other hand though, the bill and leg colours are brightest on adult males and are progressively duller the younger the individual is. Comparing this individual to other Common Mergansers I have seen and online images online + cross referencing with reported sightings at this location in eBird does not leave many other options available. It is interesting that while one typically relies on unique species specific field marks when identifying birds, birds can be as variable in appearance as humans and sometimes you come across individuals that only partially fit the search image. It is in situations like this that being able to take a picture of the birds is invaluable, particularly afterwards when you start questioning your observation. While today’s picture may not stand up to the scrutiny of pixel peepers it does serve its intended purpose, to document an individual and aid in its identification and, lets face it, being shot at the 35 mm equivalent of 1008 mm there are few other camera set ups that could pull this of. Yes you could probably shoot it at 600 mm on a full frame camera and then crop in post-processing and end up with an image with a higher resolution…, or you could get a Nikon P1000 and take the cash you save and go on a photo safari to <name of your choice of a far away exotic location>. For me it is a easy choice, travel always trumps hardware. Let’s put it this way. When you are old and gnarly reminiscing about your birding heydays, what’s will you remember? Will you fondly remember you top of the line equipment and massive 600 mm optics? Or will you remember that epic birding trip you did with you family to <name of your choice of a far away exotic location> where you scored n lifers (where n is a very large number) and created memories to last a lifetime? Nuff said!
Another Cedar Waxwing post (there was a previous one recently here). It is hard to resist these photogenic birds with their punky hairdo. They are easily found down in the Whitemud Ravine during the summer as they seem to like to hang out by streams and ponds. They are sociable and tend to be seen in flocks. This individual was down at a small pond together with 3 of its mates. Cedar Waxwings have a bit of a reputation for enjoying munching on berries (such as Mountain Ash berries) that are overripe and have begun to ferment. As it turns out, fermented fruit has the same effect on birds as it has on humans. I guess by this measure they would be considered the party animals down of the creek. So there you have it folks – humans get their fermented fruit on Whyte Ave and Cedar Waxwings get it down by the creek. On this sunny summer day, however, these particular waxwings were on their best behaviour.
Perched on a dead branch jutting out over the pond was an Eastern Phoebe with its distinct big-head and white “scarf” around its neck. Phoebes belong to the Tyrant Flycatcher family and with their short beaks they specialize in catching flies and other flying insects. The Tyrant Flycatchers are a family of passerine birds occurring throughout North and South America. It is considered the largest family of birds, with more than 400 species. That could be a challenging and unique side hobby to birding – a Tyrant Flycatcher Life List + it would take you all across the Americas in your quest. I could live with that. The Eastern Phoebe did not stay put for long. All of a sudden it took off. It made a short u-shaped flight, presumably to catch a snack, before returning to the same perch. With the amount of rain we have been getting this summer there is no shortage of mosquitoes so any critter that preys on these pesky critters is in my good book.