One does not have to go far along the Whitemud Creek to see striking evidence of ongoing erosion. In many of the creek’s meanders one the creek is craving out overhangs that result in vegetation clinging to increasingly unstable overhangs of dirt. It appear that the soil is quite loose throughout the ravine and as a result these overhangs collapse on a regular basis. In many of the meanders there are large amounts of trees that have fallen during one of these collapses. Clearly the meandering course of the creek, the loose soil and the never ending industrious work of the local beavers all contribute to the changing landscape. This stands in stark contrast to the various structures humans put in place to mitigate and control the erosion, such as planting fast growing plants, using carpets to hold the soil in place and building large fields of boulders along the outside curves of the creek.
Bokeh balls is the aesthetic quality of blur produced in the out-of-focus points of light of an image produced by a lens. Bokeh balls are particularly common when one is doing back-lit photography. Bokeh balls are fun and I only discover them after having taken the picture and when I am in post-processing, making their presence in photographs unpredictable and serendipitous. In this picture of ice covered leaves of grass shot in back-lit conditions I ended up with multicolored bokeh balls (to the left of the grass).
The Red Squirrels are everywhere. These fellas do not hibernate during the winter, but rather stay active throughout the season. They spend the fall collecting and storing food for future consumption in large. Using tree cavities, underbrush piles, or dens as their own pantries, red squirrels can ensure that the food they’ve gathered for the winter will be kept safely and out of the way of trespassers. Because their food stashes are critical for their survival they tend to be very territorial towards intruders. Confrontation between two red squirrels often entails a lot of tail flicking, chattering, and foot stomping. Even when I walk through the forest and come across a Red Squirrel it often shows its displeasure at my presence with loud chattering, aha sing its ground even when I am very close to it.
There are always ravens down at the Whitemud Ravine. Sometimes you only hear them, but they are typically not difficult to spot as they soar high above the ravine. I do not like the name “Common Raven” as I find it demeaning. Yes they are common as in abundant and easy to find, but they are not common as in an “ordinary” bird. They are undoubtedly one of the smartest bird around in these neck of the woods. They are also capable of an extraordinary repertoire of vocalizations. On a few occasions I have heard sounds in the forest that sounded like whistles or dripping water only to find, to my great surprise, that it was a raven vocalizing.
As soon as I got to the trail head I heard the buzzing trills in the tree tops. It was different, yet familiar. I knew I that I knew who it was, yet could no put my finger on it. As I stood there searching my brain the answer became self-evident. Over the tree tops emerged two dozen Bohemian Waxwings. They flow over-head and landed in the top of a nearby spruce tree. The Bohemian Waxwings are back. True to their name, the Bohemian Waxwings are, well, bohemian. They travel in groups, chattering all the time and enjoy gorging themselves on berries. Occasionally they get drunk on fermented berries. In short, a very bohemian lifestyle fitting this magnificent bird.
In Post 271: A Rivulet of Water I came across a small stream of running water in an otherwise frozen landscape. As odd as this phenomenon was I did not have a good explanation for what caused it, but I theorized: “Is it discharge from a human-made source higher up in the forest? Is it a warm spring? Unlikely, but possible.“. As it turns out I was on to something. As I was doing the research on the geology of the River Valley and the Whitemud Creek for the January 1 post I came across information indicating that there are indeed springs in the Whitmud Ravine. I put the two things together and realized that the rivulet of water in the middle of winter could be coming from a ground water spring higher up in the ravine. This just had to be investigated. Said and done, yesterday returned to the location of the tiny creek. It had snowed during the night and the trail was in pristine untouched condition.
As I made my way up the trail the rivulet was still there, its blackness in stark contrast to the fresh white snow.
I started following the creek upstream. Occasionally it disappeared under the snow and I had to either make an educated guess based on the slope of the terrain from which direction it might be coming from or, if I stayed completely still, I could hear the trickle of water leading me upstream to where it made appeared again. Progressively the rivulet became wider, at times reaching a meter across.
I had been following the rivulet for quite some distance into the forest and up the slope of the ravine when, all of a sudden, it changed color. Quite abruptly it went from black to rusty brown color.
As I continued making my way through the understory along the steep slope the color became more intense rust colored.
I could not resist digging up some of the sediment with my fingers. The substrate was creamy and slippery with the color staining my fingers.
Finally I seemed to have reached the source of the river. I was high up in the ravine now and there were numerous pools of water with thick rusty colored sediment covering the bottoms. The water was no longer flowing and was completely still.
It turns out that this is indeed a spring and the rust colored sediment is tufa, a type of limestone. The tufa forms here because of groundwater springs emerge bringing warm groundwater bubbles up, loses carbon dioxide and goes through numerous other chemical reactions. Calcium carbonate comes out of the water to form stone. Tufa is typically fragile and crumble with your fingers and is often full of trapped moss, sticks and other vegetation. The rusty colored slime is created by bacteria breaking down iron oxide for energy.
On New Year’s Day, superstitious birder-watchers like to say, the very first bird you see is an omen for the future. This is a twist on the traditional Chinese zodiac – which assign each year to an animal, like the Year of the Dragon, or Rat – and it’s amazingly reliable. One year I woke up on January 1, glanced outside, and saw a Black-capped Chickadee, a nice, friendly creature everybody likes. That was a fantastic year. The next New Year, my first bird was a European Starling, a despised North American invader that poops on parked cars and habitually kills bluebirds just because it can. Compared to the Year of the Chickadee, The Year of the Starling was pretty much a write-off.
Fortunately in these neck of the woods we do not get many European Starlings. Ironically the only place where I have seen starlings in Alberta was where I was least expecting to find them, at Elk Island National Park. We do, however, have a lot of Black-capped Chickadees and as it turns out my first bird of 2020 was indeed a Black-capped Chickadee. So while this did not come as a surprise, I am quite content with this well-deserving bird getting the honor of being the first bird of the year and of the decade. I did not take a picture of the chickadees (sorry chickadees)…, after all I see them everyday and everywhere, specially in the winter. Things get better, however. The second bird I saw this year was a flock of Common Ravens. The name “common” really does not make justice to these intelligent and magnificent birds. This was the first picture of a bird of 2020. I would say that a Black-capped Chickadee followed by ravens is a very good omen indeed, if you believe in such things. Things get even more better(er). The third bird of the year was…, drum roll please…, a Bald Eagle! Yes you read that right. I spotted the mythical Whitemud Creek Bald Eagle on my morning walk today. As I came out of the forest, there it was soaring over the tree tops like it was no big deal. Well, it is a big deal. Everyone who has spend some time with the birds down at the Whitemud Creek has hear about The Bald Eagle, but few people has seen it. This was the second time that I spotted it. The first time was a fraction of a second glance of it as it flashed between the tree tops, majestic and serene, yet elusive and mythical. On this windy cold winter day I came across it again. It was soaring high above the creek and was unmistakable. This was the third species of the year and the second species I photographed. A Black-capped Chickadee, followed by a Common Raven and then a Bald Eagle undoubtedly must be a very very good omen indeed, if you believe in such things. It was an exciting morning and my only conundrum is what to call the year. Technically it should be The Year of the Chickadee, but one could also make a case for calling it The Year of the Raven or even The Year of the Bald Eagle (at least photographically speaking). I will, however, to be fair to the chickadees, call it The Year of the Chickadee, which I think holds promise of great things to come in the next 12 months. Long live the chickadee, and the raven and the Bald Eagle!
A walk along the Whitemud Ravine and the North Saskatchewan River is a walk through time. The creek and the river are like time machines revealing past history by carving themselves slowly through earth revealing. The ancestral North Saskatchewan River flowed across the prairies for millions of years within a broad shallow-sloped valley named the Beverly Valley. Parts of that ancestral valley underlie the central part of Edmonton. About 27000 years ago a major glacier from the Canadian Shield advanced over the Edmonton region and ended up depositing thick sediment, completely burying Beverly Valley. The part of the river valley that is presently exposed in the City of Edmonton is only about 12000 years old. It was formed by the re-establishment of the regional drainage following the retreat and melting of the glaciers. This time, however, along a different path that the original Beverly Valley. Over the past 12000 years the North Saskatchewan River has carved down through the sediments deposited by the glacier creating today’s river valley. These days more than 60 million years of time are exposed in the geological records along the banks of the North Saskatchewan River, spanning the age of the dinosaurs to the arrival of man in North America. The signs of the ongoing erosion are everywhere along the Whitemud Ravine and while it may appear to be a slow process there are also signs that occasionally changes can happen in a matter of seconds. Several of the steepest banks along the creek show clear signs of landslides. Judging by the lack of vegetation on the slopes these landslides must have happened recently. Living along the upper edge of the ravine can be perilous as a 1999 landslides took several houses with it down.
The Red Squirrels are rarely far away from the trail in the Whitemud Ravine. Sunflower seeds litter the logs and stumps along the trail, much to the delight of the squirrels, chickadees and nuthatches. Clearly these animals do not consider humans threatening, on the contrary, they associate humans with food. I am not sure if this is good or bad. While feeding wildlife is typically discourage this often refers to large animals that are potentially dangerous like bears and elk in the mountain parks and geese and coyotes in city parks. What could the possible harm be in feeding squirrels and birds sunflower seeds? Edmonton has a bylaw specifically prohibiting feeding wildlife and people have been known to be ticketed in the Whitemud Ravine for feeding the wildlife (presumable for providing sunflower seeds).
The Larch Sanctuary is a 59 acre part of the Whitmud Ravine located on the south side of 23rd Avenue. The combination of coniferous, deciduous, and mixed woods forests provide habitat for dozens of species of mammals and birds, including our largest woodpecker, the pileated woodpecker. Moose, deer, coyote, fox and other small mammals find a home here. Snags provide nest sites for cavity nesting species, shoreline vegetation lines the creek forming sensitive riparian areas, and Edmonton’s only ox bow lake provides important habitat for aquatic species, amphibians, and waterfowl. An oxbow lake is a U-shaped lake that forms when a wide meander of a river is cut off, creating a free-standing body of water. This land form is so named for its distinctive curved shape, which resembles the bow pin of an oxbow. Last time I visited the ox bow lake in the Larch Sanctuary was in the summer and at that point the muskrats were having a ball swimming back and forth across the lake. At this time of the year the lake is considerable quieter, yet still very beautiful in its frozen state.