One of the most common sounds in the forest along the Whitemud Ravine is the distinct chattering noise made by the Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). Red Squirrels are solitary and territorial rodents that use their vocalization to announce their presence and defend their territory. In the fall they collect spruce and pine cones and hoard them underground in a central storage depot called a mídden. The midden is the main source of food during the winter and allows the squirrel to remain active throughout the winter. Because of the importance of these food caches they readily defend their territory from other squirrels that dare venture into it. Their address in the forest is permanent as individual squirrels stay in their territory for their entire lives. We came across this Red Squirrel that was perched on a branch along the trail making a cacophony of chattering sounds. As we walked past it it just ignored us and continued its noise making. Clearly this was the head of this territory and no squirrel or human should not even dare to think otherwise.
The sun was out today and by noon is was getting quite hot. Going birding at noon on a hot day is probably not the best timing, but sometimes you just have to take what you get. As we were about to enter the shaded forest around the creek I noticed a crow in a tall snag. It was not moving and was perched in peculiar posture. As I zoomed in on it it still did not move. I shot several pictures of it and it was completely frozen, with its head turned up and its bill slightly open. It almost looked as if it was panting, except I was not able to see any panting motion. Once I came home I did some research. My hunch was that it could have been a form of thermoregulation to cool down and avoid overheating. Apparently birds do pant to keep cool and get rid of excess heat. The behaviour is referred to as gulag fluttering where the bird rapidly flaps membranes below the bill to increase evaporative cooling. Looking at videos of gulag fluttering confirms that the beak is partially open the way the crow had it and one can usually see the fluttering in the throat right below the beak. While it is possible that this crow was doing gulag fluttering I did not see the fluttering movement of the skin. I was quite far away though and, at the time, I did not know to look for it.
This time of year, middle of summer by central Alberta standards, any open meadow at the Whitemud Ravine has lots of Red Clover (Trifolum pratense) covering it. The bumble bees seem to like it and apparently all parts of the plant are edible, but can cause bloating and apparently should not be eaten in the fall as the plant accumulates alkaloids. It is native to Europe, Western Asia and northwestern Africa, but has been introduced to various part of the world and is now common through the americas. It has a pretty flower and is quite photogenic. This picture was taken on an embankment by the creek, which can sort of be seen in the blurry background.
As we were approaching the parking lot at the Savage Centre by the Whitemud Ravine my teen suddenly said “That looks like a Giant Hogweed”. His words made me stop in in my tracks. The statement was remarkable in the first place? How would a run of the mill teen know of Giant Hogweed? Secondly, Giant Hogweed has not been found in Alberta (yet) and finding its here would be unprecedented and very bad news indeed. Giant Hogweed (Heracelum mantegazzianum) is native to Eurasia. It was introduced in North America as an ornamental plant and soon started to throughout the continent. As if that would not be bad enough, the really bad news is that it is that the weed is highly noxious as the sap causes severe burns, blistering and scarring and even blindness if it gets in the eyes. There is plenty of graphic images online of the horrific damage the plant causes to skin (Google it at your own risk). It is considered as one of Canada’s most dangerous plants and has, to date, been found in the Atlantic provinces, Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia. According to Alberta Agriculture and Forestry the plant has not been found in Alberta yet and all plants reported as possible Giant Hogweed in Alberta have turned out to be Cow Parsnip. The plants belong to the same family and look very similar. The Giant Hogweed is sometimes even referred to by the name Cow Parsnip. The key difference between the plants though is that Cow Parsnip is harmless. We learned a lot that afternoon as we carefully inspected and photographed the plant. I still don’t know, however, where my teen learned about Giant Hogweed.
As we made our way along the Whitemud Creek I was struck by how much everything everything has changed since the last time I was here, about six weeks ago. Edmonton has received lots of rain over the last month and the vegetation has grown like crazy. Locations that had an unobstructed view of the creek six weeks ago are not completely overgrown with dense shrubbery and understory. The Great Horned Owl family (mom, dad and two chicks) have move on and it appears that their cavity now is uninhabited. The Least Chipmunks are out in full fore scurrying around along the creek wherever one turns. We also saw quite a few Dark-eyed Juncos that were quite curious about our activities. Although we spend some time looking (and listening) for Pileated Woodpeckers it was not until we got back to the parking lot that a large individual made a bee-line across the parking lot and into the forest. As soon as it was out of sight it let loose it’s characteristic vocalizations that sounds like a hysterically laughing monkey.
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