South of the 23 Avenue, as it crosses the Whitemud Ravine, the Whitemud Creek splits into two, the Whitemud and the Blackmud Creeks. Right along the confluence of the two creeks there is a large meadow covered in tall grass and purple Cow Vetch. Last time I was there it was a hot sunny afternoon and the meadow was buzzing with grasshoppers. With every step, hundreds of grasshoppers were flushed out of the tall grass around my legs, jumping in all directions simultaneously. As I was making my way through the tall grass the possibility of ticks making a meal out of me did cross my mind. I have yet to find a tick in Alberta and I certainly hope it stays that way. The last time I had an intimate encounter with this bloodsucking parasite was about 30 years ago in central Sweden, when, after a day of portaging a canoe, to my horror I discovered a tick in the warm moist nether regions. By the dim light of a flashlight we ended up having to carve out the beast at night in our tent. Ever since that incident I have a healthy aversion to these critters. To play it safer, I decided to stay on the trails that meander through the meadow, rather than walking in the tall grass. I could hear lots of song birds, but this late in the afternoon most of the were skulking among the leaves and were difficult to spot.
There’s is a strip of meadow between the parking lot at the Whitemud Creek and the MacTaggard Sanctuary. This time of year it’s all pretty with flowers in bloom, bumblebees zipping between the flowers and thousands upon thousands of grasshoppers jumping around in the hot afternoon sun. Last week the meadow it was covered in a sea of purple flowers. Of course clueless as I am about botany I had no clue what they were. They were, however, not hard to identify once had access to Internet. It’s the Cow Vetch (Vicia cracca), also known as Tufted Vetch, Bird Vetch, Blue Vetch and Boreal Vetch, and although it is beautiful there are skeletons in its closet. It is native to Europe and Asia and an invasive species in North America where it is considered a weed. While the flowers are much appreciated by bees, bumblebees and butterflies, cattle like likes to munch on it and (allegedly) budgerigars have a particular fondness for the seeds it is a fast growing colonizing species and often dominates disturbed habitats before native plants have a chance to become established. Cow Vetch is in the family as peas and has climbing stems with noose-like branched tendrils that wrap themselves around other plants, often strangling smaller plants.
I have seen my fair share of Pileated Woodpeckers in my lifetime, including some spectacularly destructive individuals that went to town on trees with such vigour that the wood chip went flying. It is always a treat to come across one these birds. They not only spectacular and impressive birds, but also quite noisy. The distinct sound when they work on a tree and their vocalizations, reminiscent of a hysterically laughing monkey, can be heard far and wide. The one thing I have not managed to do in the Pileated Woodpecker department, however, is to take a good (or at least half descent) picture of one. I have numerous out of focus and fuzzy photos that would perhaps qualify for the crap bird photography page, but they are definitely nothing to write home about. The best place to see Pileated Woodpeckers in my neck of the woods is down at the Whitemud Ravine. I regularly see them flying around and most dead standing trees have evidence of their busy work, but I have yet to snap a picture of one in action.
This weekend we had the first two days this summer without rain. It has been a wet summer with daily thunderstorms and serious downpours. As a result the water level in Whitemud Creek is unusually high with part of the creek having fast flowing and frothing whitewater. Parts of the swollen banks have overflowed and inundated vegetation that normally would be on dry land. There seems to be a break in the rain, but now the “arctic heat” has moved in. With temperatures soaring to 30 °C this heat wave is unusual in that it did not come in from the south, but rather from the Northwest Territories, which have been under a heat warning the last few days. The last few days I have been out looking for birds during the hottest part of the days, either mid day or late afternoon. Needless to say, the timing has been completely off and I have not seen much as far as birds go. I think we are looking at some early morning nature walks this weekend to try to remedy the poor timing and get back into the groove of things.
I had dropped off my teen at practice, there was a break in the never ending rain and I had 90 minutes to myself. Dark clouds loomed at the horizon so there was no time to waste. I raced as fast as it was legal to the nearest birding spot, which happened to be the MacTaggard Sanctuary. The MacTaggard sancturary straddles the Whitemud Creek south of 23rd avenue. I have been here once before, about three weeks ago at which point I was almost eaten alive by the mosquitoes. (See Post No. 078) With the copious amounts of rain we have received over the last few weeks the mosquito situation has not improved. With the trail covered in mud and mushrooms sprouting all around in the soggy leaf litter I set out with my sights set on the oxbow lake situated in sanctuary (See Post No. 075 for an explanation of what an oxbow lake is). I never made it to the lake. First I got sidetracked by a fleeting glimpse of an American Goldfinch. I spend some time trying to get a better look at it but to no avail. Then I spotted a Pileated Woodpecker perched high up on a dead tree. As I was watching it another one landed on the same tree. You simply do not walk away from a duet of Pileated Woodpeckers, so I spend quite some time checking out these cool fellas. They were flying too and fro between trees and seemed to have a jolly good time together. Once I decided to move on something in the corner of my eye caught my attention as I hiked over a bluff overlooking the creek. I stopped and scanned the creek and the dense riparian vegetation below me. It took a while, but then I saw them. Five magnificent and regal Cedar Waxwings were playing hide and seek in the thick riparian vegetation with an occasional foray out into the open over the creek. Cedar Waxwings have been on my birding wanna-see list ever since the beginning of the year. Way back on March 29 my very first Project 366 post was about Bohemian Waxwings (See Post No. 001). I ended seeing lots of Bohemian Waxwings along the Whitemud Creek as the winter petered out. The almost identical Cedar Waxwings, however, evaded me.., until today. The two species look almost identical and the physical differences between them are subtle. While Bohemian Waxwings are bigger and chunkier than Cedar Waxwings, for the uninitiated noob (like me) that does not really help. The key distinguishing feature for me was the orange under-tail of the Bohemian Waxwings versus the white under-tail of Cedar Waxwings. Today’s Cedar Waxwings brings my AB Big Year total to 115 and my Life list to 163. The last month has been a bit of a dry spell in terms of spotting new species as the birding has been a bit of hiatus in favour of a focus on bison. Hopefully the Cedar Waxwings are a sign of being back in the swing of things.
Another nature walk and another muskrat sitting in the bath going to town with its vegetables. It seems that every time I come across muskrats they seem to be eating. Maybe they are just more conspicuous when they are eating…, or maybe they are just always eating, just like human teenagers. I imagine one would have to chomp down quite a bit of vegetables to get your daily nutrient requirements. Just like me, muskrats are facultative herbivores which means that they prefer to eat plants but, if necessary, can also consume animal such as fish, frogs and insects. The other day as I was out by a lake with some young ones we spotted a muskrat swimming around and, too my surprise, not eating (but it was probably looking for food). When the kids saw it they immediately identified it as a beaver. To be entirely honest, the first time I saw a muskrat I also mistook it for a beaver. The muskrat is like the lesser known cousin of the superstar beaver in that everyone recognizes a beaver (even if they have never seen one) while few people recognizes the muskrat (even if you might be looking at one). Perhaps the easiest way to tell these semi-aquatic rodents apart, particularly if it is your first time seeing one, is the tail. Beaver with its tell-tale flat and paddle-shaped tail while the muskrat has a long, skinny tail with flat sides. If you can see the tail there really is no way of mis-identifying a muskrat for a beaver. In the picture below you can clearly see the long skinny tail of the muskrat. Once you become a more seasoned muskrat aficionado you realize that there are a few other distinguishing characteristics as well. Perhaps the most obvious difference (if you know about it) is the size difference. Beavers are huge weighing in at between 35 and 60 pounds while muskrats are puny in comparison topping out at about 4 pounds. Another difference is that with muskrats you can usually see its whole body when it is swimming while with beavers you typically only see their large wedge-shaped head. While I have not seen a beaver at the creek for a while the musk rats are out in full force.
As I crossed the pedestrian bridge across the Whitemud Creek a lone female Common Goldeneye (Bucephalus clangula) was swimming around in the creek eyeing me curiously. Common Goldeneyes are medium-sized diving ducks where the females are brunettes with a piercing golden-yellow eye. There are two species of goldeneyes, the Common Goldeneye, which as the name suggests is more common, and, the more rare, Barrow’s Goldeneye. While the males of the two species are easy to tell apart, the females are more difficult to distinguish as they appear nearly identical. According to Sibley the Barrow’s Goldeneye female has a darker brown head than the Common Goldeneye which does not help me at all since I did not have the two species next to each other for comparison. Perhaps the best distinguishing characteristic between the females of the two species for someone like me that has only seen a handful of these species is the bill color. According to Sibley the female Barrow’s Goldeneye has a “usually mostly yellow” bill while the female of the Common Goldeneye has a “usually mostly black” bill. Looking at the picture I would say that her bill is definitely in the category “mostly black”; ergo, it is a Common Goldeneye.