The trunk of the dead tree looks unassuming. It had withered to a light grey color and there were numerous large cavities along the trunk. If it would not have been for The Pileated Woodpecker landing on the trunk and entering one of the cavities just moments before I would have never noticed the dead tree. I was at the banks of the Whitemud Creek, at a location where I have seen beavers many times in the past. No beavers this time though. Only that Pileated Woodpecker. I waited for a long time, hoping it would come out or at least stick its head out to have a peek. It never came out. I will be returning with my camera, a tripod, a stool and some snacks for a Pileated Woodpeckers stakeout. I have seen many Pileated Woodpeckers over the last year, but I have yet to capture a good picture of one. They are large and conspicuous, but remarkably hard to photograph as they never seem to stay in the same spot for long.
It has been a few weeks since I visited the Whitemud Ravine last. Despite the early sunset and the dusk-like conditions I managed to squeeze in a short walk by the creek. Things were quiet and uneventful. The water level is low and the flow is slow and quaint. I was hoping to spot some beavers but alas had no luck. On the bright side as I was scanning the creek for furry little heads breaking through the water surface the unmistakable call of Pileated Woodpeckers caught my attention. Pileated Woodpeckers are easy to hear but can be tricky to spot. Not this time, an adult came swooping out from the dense forest and and landed on a dead tree trunk, right next to a large oval cavity. Next thing you know it goes inside. That is a first for me, a Pileated Woodpecker nest. I hang around for a while with the camera loaded and ready but the fella never came out. I will definitely be keeping an eye on the cavity in the future to see if I can get some pictures of its inhabitants. Pileated Woodpeckers stay in Alberta year round so chances are that this cavity will be used by them during the winter.
The water level has been dropping in the Whitemud Creek and the flow of the water has slowed down substantially from oily a week ago. It is remarkable how the level of the water and speed of the flow closely reflects the current precipitation regime. As soon as there is a break in the weather, it does not take long for the creek to adjust. On a few occasions I have tried to track the upstream meandering and branching network of creeks in Google maps but once one gets past the airport (about 30 kilometre away) there has been so many bifurcation and the creeks are so small that one is starting to loose track of them. What this exercises has revealed, however, is that the watershed of the Whitemud Creek is quite large and much of of it spans agricultural fields. This probably also means that there is likely quite a bit of fertilizer and herbicide run off ending up in the creek. In addition to this I have also come across several outfalls that flow into the creek… so, yeah…, I would pass on drinking the water or going for a bath.
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.