Last Sunday I went on my first bike field trip down to the Whitemud Ravine and through the river valley. It takes a bit of practice to bike, and, at the same time, be ready to bird and take pictures. Where do your keep your binoculars, camera and notebook while biking? You want this gear to be accessible yet out of your way while biking. Hanging the binoculars and camera around your neck does not work so well when on a bike. Still working on the logistics of that, but I am looking forward to doing more bike birding, or nature biking during the summer. The first critter I encountered when I arrived at the ravine was this diminutive Least Chipmunk (Neotamias minimus) scampering through the understory. He was bit apprehensive of the large critter staring at him and making weird noise (that would be me) yet too curious to just run away without checking out what the commotion was about. The Least Chipmunk is the smallest species of chipmunk and the most widespread in North America. These chipmunks are diurnal (primarily active during the daytime), which is probably a good idea considering the nearby Great Horned Owl family.
The female Great Horned Owl down at the Whitemud Ravine has now been holed up in her tree for 2 months (that’s 60 days folks). There is reliable intelligence (i.e. picture evidence) showing that her eggs now have hatched and that she has at least two adorable fuzzy chicks. I went down to check out the new family on Mother’s Day (last Sunday). It was a beautiful and sunny spring day and lots of people were out on the trails. The trail was busy with adults and kids walking and biking, dogs taking their owners for a walk and the occasional mandatory fitness buffs. I was surprised to find no other birders or photographers were at the nest site. Mom owl was in her nest, with her tail feathers sticking out. Dad owl was nowhere to be seen but the occasional hooting from inside the forest provided reassurance that he was around. I set up my gear and got to try out my new ultra-portable tripod, the JOBY GorillaPod 3K Video PRO with the Nikon P1000. As my mode of transport was my bike I did not want to pack the full sized tripod. The GorrillaPod performed commendable and had no trouble managing the hefty P1000. Of course a lone photographer with a camera pointed skyward attracts attention and it was not long before I had quite a gathering of spectators squinting against the bright sky trying to figure out what I was photographing. Everyone gets super happy and impressed when they are told about the nest with Great Horned Owl mom and her chicks. Owl mom seemed to be sleeping until an overly excited dog came running down the trail, barking and yapping like its life depended on it. Immediately a big yellow eye appeared in the nest scanning the horizon watchfully. She owl did not move a feather but her ever watchful eye was keeping close tabs on our activities below. I did not see the chicks that day, but I spend a long time at the nest taking photos, watching for the dad (which I never spotted, only heard) and talking to people about the owl family. Today’s photo was shoot through the emerging foliage. Your can see a few fuzzy green blobs of leaves bursting out after a long winter.
It was not until I saw my first Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) that I even knew there was bird with this name. In my “pre-Phoebe” days Phoebe was a synonym for Lisa Kudrow in the sitcom Friends. The Eastern Phoebe is an unassuming small songbird, and if it would not have been hanging out on a fence I would likely have completely missed it. I managed to snap a picture of it before it flew of into the shrubbery. One can clearly see distinct “peaked head” which is due to the bird rising its feathers on top of its head. Based on submitted observations to eBird the Eastern Phoebe is at the eastern margin of its range here in Alberta, with the main part of its distribution being in central and eastern parts of the continent. We saw this bird at the tail end of our central Alberta tour with the Edmonton Nature Club during Global Big Day of Birding on May 4. The phoebe was the first bird we saw as soon as we pulled into the parking lot at Big Knife Provincial Park. It became bird #146 on our life list and #97 on our AB Big Year list.
The Ring-billed Gull is perhaps the most ubiquitous gull in these neck of the woods (Alberta, Canada and North America). Sometimes it gets a bad rap as it tends to hang out where people either have food (Granville Island outdoor plaza in Vancouver comes to mind) or where we dispose of our trash (think landfills). It has no problems stealing your hotdog if you are inattentive to your hotdog. These gulls are intelligent, highly social and opportunistic. Any animal with these traits is bound to be successful and deserves our respect and admiration. They are also quite beautiful if you just take your time to look at them. This handsome fella was swimming around in Heritage Wetlands Park in Sherwood Park the other day.
The secret is out, someone saw one of the Great Horned Owl chicks peaking out of the nest the other day. I am obviously talking about Edmonton’s own celebrity owl family down in the Whitemud Ravine. Last time I was down there, four days ago, mom owl was still in her cavity. I did not see any chicks but mom was peaking out of the nest and she seemed to be “higher up” in the nest, perhaps indicating that there are growing chicks below her. While this is exciting news, I am a bit concerned about the well-being of this celebrity family. Just like any celebrity family, they are under close scrutiny of the public with eager paparazzi nature photographers and birders watching their every move. There always seems to be photographers at the nest. To anyone regularly trafficking the trail it would be completely obvious that there is something interesting hiding in the trees. So far, everyone seems to be mindful and considerate of the feathered family, but it only takes one bad apple to cause irreparable harm. There are good reasons why eBird does not allow the publication of the exact location of owl nests. Owls are vulnerable to disturbances not just from humans but also from other birds. For example, owls are commonly harassed by other birds. If other birds, such as crows, ravens and other raptors, get alerted to the presence of the owls they could start harassing them or even prey on the young. Perhaps one could view all the nature loving photographers and birders as standing on guard around the family, making sure they are not bothered by anyone with ill intentions. I know that I will be back at the nest, carefully and mindfully observing the family from a distance.
The water level at out local creek in the Whitemud Ravine was high for most of March due to the snow melt. Now that the snow is gone the water has receded substantially leaving areas along the bank, that previously were submerged, exposed. We came across the following tracks on a recently exposed sand bank along the shore. Due to recent erosion when the water level had been high we were unable to actually get down on the sand bank to have a closer look at the tracks. The tracks were large, though, and were leading from the water’s edge. The only two possibilities in terms of who could have made them are either a beaver or a musk rat. The tracks were far too big for a muskrat and they were missing the markings caused by the tell-tale muskrat tail, which leaves a beaver as the only plausible candidate. As we were pondering these questions guess who emerges out of the water? No one other than a beaver him/her self. As the beaver slowly waddled up on the bank it left exactly the same tracks behind it. I almost wish the same thing would happen everything you find animal tracks in the wild. After spotting animal tracks, you take your best shot at identifying them and then comes the “answer key” walking along leaving exactly the same tracks.
Encountered the first butterfly of the year down at the Whitemud Ravine yesterday. Actually, I saw quite few of these little guys. These are Compton tortoiseshell butterflies (Nymphalis vaualbum) and is usually one of the earliest butterflies to be seen in the spring. This species is circumpolar around the Northern Hemisphere and, hence, is found across Canada south of the tundra. Nature is slowly waking up after a long winter but this far north everything is happening much later compared to locations further south south. We still have to see any signs of greenery. Any day now I hope. Things are likely to pickup speed during the last two weeks of April.