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.
Yesterday I went for a nature walk to a part of the Whitemud Creek that is located south of the 23rd Avenue. I have not been to this location previously and I just happened to run some errands in this neighbourhood so I decided to “kill two birds with one stone” and squeeze in a short nature walk in-between errands. As it turns out this part of the creek flows through the Mactaggard Sanctuary, a 104 hectares nature sanctuary, part of which was donated to the University of Alberta in 1980 by Sandy A. Mactaggard, a developer and philanthropist. The sanctuary has a interesting history, which also explains why it is called a “sanctuary” and not a “park”. There is a video where the late Mr. Mactaggard tells the story behind the sanctuary. In short, the sanctuary used to be located outside of Edmonton when Sandy Mactaggard originally purchased the land for housing development, but only after promising the previous owner of the land that he will preserve it to benefit the citizens of Edmonton. The purpose was not to turn it into another park, but rather keep it pristine and let it remain the way it always had been. That is why it became a sanctuary. The trails along this part of the creek are more untamed and rough with less traffic.
I did not have much time for my nature walk so I had to move quick and as a result did not get much birding done. My main aim was to find a large oxbow lake situated in the sanctuary and do some preliminary scouting to figure out how to access the lake. Oxbow lakes are often enveloped in dense vegetation and can be difficult to find and access. The benefit of this is that many animals use these lakes for raising their young. I did not have any trouble finding the lake as the trail briefly passes right along side of it, but just as I suspected most of the lake is surrounded by dense vegetation. Accessing the more remote parts of the lake (the ones where the trail did not go) proved, however, to be even more difficult than I had anticipated as the entire outside rim of the lake is surrounded by a high and very steep bank (almost like an overgrown cliff) and there was not obvious way of accessing the shoreline. There is a trail, the Mactaggard sanctuary loop trail, that loops around the lake ascending the steep bank. Although this quick exploration gave me some ideas of how one might be able to access some of the more remote parts of the lake, I did not have time to look into the feasibility of any of these possibilites. That will have to be another excursion. On a different note, the mosquitos were voracious and I did not bring any repellent so, this is a reminder to myself not to forget the repellent next time.
Something was definitely moving along the water’s edge, we just could not immediately focus in on it. It took us a while to adjust our eyes and calibrate our brain to pick up the small stealthy bird scurrying around on the sandy shore on the opposite side of the creek. It was a small shorebird with spotted underparts and sand brown upper parts. If it would not move around it would be nearly impossible to see against the sand and pebbles along the shoreline. I have not seen many shorebirds in my life and this one was definitely a new one. While it was working the shoreline for a morsel to eat its tail was continuously bobbing up and down. Ultimately, this is what gave it away…, it was a Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius, Lifer #162, AB Big Year #114). The Spotted Sandpiper is a true American as it can be found from the Canadian high arctic during the boreal summer down to the shorelines of Chile during the austral summer.
The very first bird we spotted as we arrived at the oxbow pond down at the Whitemud ravine was a male mallard that was snoozing on a log. The log was covered in lush greenery with the mallard cosy like a bug in a rug in the greenery. It was very idyllic and looked quite comfortable. Oxbow ponds are unique habitats where the water is still and stagnant compared to the rushing water in the creek. There are rumours of numerous oxbow ponds along the Whitemud creek. So far I have found two, both almost entirely covered with thick riparian vegetation making them surprisingly difficult to spot although they are only steps away from the trail. This particular oxbow is the largest one I have found so far and is bound by an old beaver dam at the north end and a wall of accreted sediments on the south end. Groundwater and seepage from the west side of the ravine feeds the oxbow, as does spring and surface runoff. Other than seasonal fluctuations in the water level the water is completely still in these pond.
It has been raining over the last few days, but this morning there was a break in the weather so without further ado, we went down to the Whitemud Creek to check out what we could find. On a whim we decided to take the trail along going south along the Whitemud Creek from Snow Valley. Usually we stick to the northern section, but I have been curious for a while now to check out some oxbow ponds in the southern section. Right off the bat we saw a subtle movement along the water’s edge. Something tiny and well-camouflaged was scurrying around on the muddy bank. A closer look revealed that it was a small shore bird that was definitely a lifer. After a bit of studying Merlin and discussions back and forth we reached a unanimous verdict, it was a Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius, Lifer #162, AB Big Year #114). The identification was unmistakable, the spotted under parts, orange bill and bobbing tail as it walked around along the water’s edge. That was a great start to a pleasant morning nature walk. The sandpiper was a welcomed bonus, but the real reason we went to this part of the creek were the oxbows. We did find two oxbow ponds nestled among the vegetation along the trail. We did not have the time to explore them today, but now that I know where they are I am looking forward to coming back and spend some more quality time exploring them. Todays picture shows a wide meander in the Whitemud Creek, this is how oxbow ponds are formed. When a river or creek creates a wide meander like this neck of the meander progressively becomes narrower until it is only a land bridge. Sooner or later the river cuts through the neck, e.g. during high water flow regimes during the spring melt, cutting off the meander and forming an oxbow lake. Oxbow lakes are U-shaped and become free-standing bodies of water with very little or not flow and provide a unique habitat quite different from the habitats along the fast flowing water in the main creek.
Monday after school we grabbed a quick snack, out gear and headed right down to the Whitemud Ravine. After a weekend of birding out of town we were antsy to check in on our Great-horned Owl couple. The female is in a large tree cavity sitting on eggs while the male is always on guard in a nearby tree. The eggs are predicted to hatch any day now. Well, they were still there. Nothing new and no indications that the eggs have hatched. Other than mom and pops owl, there was not much bird action along the creek. The lack of birds was, however, more than made up by beaver action. There were beavers everywhere. Swimming in the creek, sitting on the banks and waddling along the shore. We stopped counting at ten beavers and instead focused on trying to shoot pictures instead. Unfortunately it was an overcast day and the sun was getting low so our bridge camera had trouble with the low light. The photos turned out blurry no matter how we sliced it. Either the shutter speed was to slow or the ISO was to high. Even without the pictures though it was quite a show. Some of the beavers were “muzzle wrestling”, they swam up towards each other, their muzzles side by side and then they pushed each other around in the water. The interaction was not overly aggressive so I am not sure if these were hostile or friendly encounters. On our way back to the car we managed to track down a rumoured porcupine sitting high in a pine tree. We have heard stories of this fella from other birders but we have never managed to track him/her down…, until today. Clearly the porcupine did not want to be disturbed so we took a few grainy pictures of his spiky derrière and called it a day.