Barred Owls in the evening woods

Barred Owl

On a lovely summer evening last week, I went for a walk in a nearby park and had quite a pleasant surprise. Amid the heavy foliage, I saw a large bird swoop down from the trees across the path before me. I heard them before I saw them: a pair of Barred Owls.

Barred Owl in the trees. With their striped brown and white plumage, they blended in well with the trees.

I have not seen owls since seriously starting birding, so I was quite excited! I last saw a Barred Owl about two years ago in my backyard. Now I wonder if they could have been the very same owl; they were typically have a small home range, staying within the same 10km radius (Cornell). They may be nesting in the area as I’ve seen them a few times since. I managed to keep quiet to avoid disturbing them, but I think my efforts were wasted as I am sure he knew I was there as he peered down at me.

“Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” is a common call of the Barred Owl

He looked around, seeming to be on alert. If he had ears, I imagine they’d have been twitching and moving around like a cat’s. The two of them swooped down from the trees a few times, and once flew right over my head from behind. I didn’t hear a thing and had no idea it was there! For a moment, I felt like a little mouse. They must have no idea what’s coming when an owl swoops down to prey on them. Like other owls, Barred Owls fly silently in the night using their keen eyesight and hearing to hunt small animals from mice and squirrels, to small birds, reptiles and amphibians (Cornell).

The Barred Owl on alert at dusk, his head rotating in almost every direction.

The Barred Owl’s range spread to the Pacific Northwest in the 1960s and ’70s where they now compete with the smaller Spotted Owl for habitat and resources. While Barred Owls are displacing many Spotted Owls in this region, the two species even occasionally inter-breed and hybridize (Seattle Audubon; Audubon).

a silent hunter, the Barred Owl

Despite these challenges, both the Barred and Spotted Owl face habitat loss due to deforestation and the loss of old-growth trees. I hope the two will be able to co-exist peacefully someday.

The end of April in the Canadian Rockies: bighorn sheep, elk and moose

Looking at the calendar, its hard to believe it’s already August and it was four months ago now that I went on my big trip to the Canadian Rockies. Our trip to the Rockies was beautiful and energizing, inspiring and inviting. Despite loving the seaside life, there is really something special about the Rocky Mountains. Each time I’ve visited them, I have come away a little bit awestruck. And after being devastated by the death of my beloved cat Sidney, this trip re-invigorated something in me again.

Crocus blooming in April in Jasper National Park

Not only did I see my very first grizzly bear in a lucky sighting that could not possibly have gone better, but I saw two grizzlies in one day! This is an experience I will never forget. Among glacial landscapes and turquoise lakes, waterfalls and canyons were more exciting wildlife sightings.

I’ve recounted part of our final day in Jasper National Park – our second grizzly encounter. After seeing the second grizzly, we began to make our way back to town from Lac Beauvert when we saw a group of bighorn rams beside the Athabasca River. These were the first rams I’d seen on our trip thus far and their curved horns are incredibly impressive. Before this, I’d only seen ewes and juveniles all the way back in Radium Hot Springs, BC.

Now that it is August, it will be rutting season and the rams will battle for mating rights in the autumn. I can only imagine that would be quite a sight to see with their large, powerful horns. But back in April, this pack of rams were living peacefully together.

Bighorn Sheep ram along the Athabasca River, Jasper NP, AB

Not far away along the highway, we also saw elk (or wapiti) before the end of the night. We’d seen many elk around the mountains earlier but I hadn’t yet had a chance to stop and photograph them properly. So this time, we did. Elk are some of the most commonly observed animals in the park and also the most dangerous! Bull (male) elk will attack humans if approached too closely, especially during mating season. They are an important prey species for wolves, coyotes and cougars as well as the occasional black or grizzly bear.

Female elk in Jasper NP, AB

Female elk, Jasper NP, AB

The other highlight of our trip was another big animal sighting…a moose. On our first day in Jasper, we headed out to hike Maligne Canyon and see Medicine Lake on the way. Amazingly, my partner spotted this moose across the river hidden in the brush while he was driving. Immediately, we turned around and headed back to get a closer look.

Medicine Lake, Jasper NP. Medicine Lake is a geological wonder. The water is so low because it sits over a series of caves and sinkholes, into which the water drains before eventually coming out in the Maligne Canyon.

Maligne Canyon, where the hidden waters of Medicine Lake finally re-surface amid the limestone walls of the Palliser Formation.

Sure enough, just on the side of a river, in a most peaceful place surrounded by bare branches and tall conifer trees, there she was. A moose. It doesn’t get much more Canadian than this.

A moose along a riverside in Jasper NP, AB.

We watched her ever so quietly from afar while she ate, the rush of the river the only sound in our ears. Nearby, a squirrel scurried among the rocks and pebbles on the riverbank. But to me, all else was still and quiet and all that mattered was this moose, this huge, solitary herbivore alone in the woods. She reminded me of a giraffe the way her tongue wrapped around branches to eat. It’s probably silly, but being a vegetarian, I sometimes feel a little bit of extra love for my fellow herbivores.

Despite my hopes, I never dreamed we would see a moose. This was, by far, one of my most memorable and cherished wildlife sightings in my entire life. I feel blessed to have been able to see her so peacefully in her natural habitat, wild and free, the very picture of Canadian wilderness. She was so beautiful. I will remember her forever.

A beautiful moose in Jasper NP, AB

Observing all the animals we did on this trip was incredible. You can’t help but feel something stir in your spirit in a connection with nature watching animals like these and I feel so thankful to have gotten to see each and every one.

While we are lucky to have been left our national parks thanks to the foresight of our forefathers and foremothers, do we still have that foresight today? Will we continue what was started by Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir and Ansel Adams even John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and respect their legacy? I hope so.

Three mule deer in their native habitat (unlike our urban deer) in Jasper NP

Birding highlights of the Canadian Rockies Part 2: Vancouver to the Columbia River Valley

Following my overview of some birds I saw on the Canadian Rockies trip I took in April, part 1 was the birds I saw in and around the parks themselves. Part 2 is what I saw en route from Vancouver to the Columbia River Valley including some birds and other sights. Driving from the chaos and traffic of Vancouver, we took the scenic route through the Coast Mountains via Whistler on the Sea-to-Sky Highway past Stawamus Chief and Mt Garibaldi.

Shannon Falls near Stawamus Chief (below) south of Squamish, BC

Standing out above Howe Sound and the highway, Stawamus Chief is a granite monolith akin to Half Dome in Yosemite. Nearby Mt Garibaldi is a 2,678m high stratovolcano. It is the northernmost volcano of the Cascade magmatic arc which also includes Mt. Rainier and Mt. Baker (Mathews and Monger, 2005).

Stawamus Chief

Mt Garibaldi

Coming down from the snowy Coast Mountains and onto the flat dry interior, we arrived at our halfway point – Kamloops, BC. As part of a semi-arid region reaching down to the deserts of Nevada, it is a stark contrast to the green west coast.

It certainly brought back memories of the Nevada and Utah desert with prickly pear cactus, sagebrush, Ponderosa Pine and yes, even rattlesnakes (Yep, rattlesnakes in Canada). Along with these geographical changes came some different birds, including the Black-billed Magpie and the yellow-shafted Northern Flicker.

Kamloops, BC sits on the confluence of the North and South Thompson Rivers in the semi-arid interior

Black-billed magpie, Kamloops, BC

yellow-shafted Northern Flicker, Kamloops, BC

East from Kamloops, we headed toward the Selkirk Mountains and Mt Revelstoke, passing through Glacier National Park and the Monashee Mountains via Roger’s Pass to come out at the Columbia River Valley. This valley is one of the few remaining mountain valleys where natural wetlands remain today and it is incredible. I could have stopped here for a few days to explore its rich wildlife. We passed more osprey nests along the river than I’ve ever seen in one area before!

Our first significant snow of the trip in Glacier National Park. We stopped to have a play for a bit. This is more snow than we’ve seen in all of our Victoria winters combined.

In the valley, we stopped at Reflection Lake just south of Golden, BC for a break and some dinner cooked on the camping stove. It was a lovely site to watch birds, with lots of American Coots, Canada Geese, Mallards, Buffleheads, Song Sparrows, Marsh Wrens and Red-winged Blackbirds. It was a lovely and refreshing stop to watch the birds in the late afternoon as the sun began to fade behind the snow-flecked mountain peaks. That night, we would finally reach the Rocky Mountains proper, in Radium Hot Springs and Kootenay National Park.

American Coot at Reflection Lake

a Song Sparrow at Reflection Lake

Looking west toward the Monashee Mountains at Reflection Lake outside Golden, BC

Next up is the final Birding highlights of the Canadian Rockies Part 3 – heading home from Jasper to the Fraser Valley.


References
Mathews, B. and J. Monger, 2005. Roadside Geology of Southern British Columbia.

Related posts:
Birding Highlights of the Canadian Rockies Part 1: the mountains and valleys

Birding highlights of the Canadian Rockies Part 1: the mountains and valleys

As it is already August and I haven’t yet written anything on the birds I saw on my trip to the Rockies in April, I thought I would do so now in a short, fun post of mostly photos of some birds from the mountains and valleys of the main National Parks we visited (Yoho, Kootenay, Banff and Jasper).

Red-tailed Hawk soars high above the Paint Pots in Kootenay NP, BC

On a lovely hike to Wapta Falls in Yoho NP, a stirring in the bushes on a trail spooked me. Fearing a bear or some other large animal, I turned back to see this lovely Spruce Grouse much to my relief and surprise (and embarrassment that he scared me)! This was a new bird for me and I was quite happy to watch him hang out on the edge of the trail.

Spruce Grouse on the trail to Wapta Falls (below), Yoho NP, BC

Wapta Falls, Yoho NP, BC

The trail to Wapta Falls is a good hike and it was a good alternative to Takakkaw Falls, which was still closed for avalanches back in April.

At Lake Louise, I delighted in watching a Clark’s Nutcracker among the Whitebark Pines and the people. To me, these birds are a symbol of the Rockies and I had high hopes of seeing one on my trip. Luckily, this one did not disappoint!

Clark’s Nutcracker at Lake Louise, Banff NP, AB

At Athabasca Falls in Jasper NP, I saw an American Dipper hopping on the rocks along the river below me. I’d only ever seen one of these before on the Qualicum River on Vancouver Island, but at the time I didn’t know what it was. So, I like to count this as my first official dipper sighting. The dipper hunts underwater in fast-flowing streams and rivers and are North America’s only true aquatic songbird (Cornell).

American Dipper at Athabasca Falls (below), Jasper NP, AB

Athabasca Falls is a must-see stop for any trip to Jasper NP and even in April, there were many tourist buses parked up. Its a short walk from the parking lot to see the main falls and along the limestone potholes below.

Athabasca Falls, Jasper NP, AB

En route to the beautiful Maligne Lake in Jasper NP is Medicine Lake. Medicine Lake is a very interesting geological feature on the Maligne River: there is no channel visible at the surface draining the lake. This is because the water drains out through the ground beneath it through sinkholes and limestone caves until it re-emerges in Maligne Canyon (Parks Canada).

Medicine Lake, Jasper NP, AB

Many of the trees surrounding Medicine Lake are blackened, crispy ghosts of a forest that once stood along this strange lake until a wildfire claimed it last summer. Among the charred remains of the forest, there is life. We spied a Bald Eagle nest in a tree just off the very left edge of my photo above. In the photo of the nest, you can see all the dead trees in the background.

Fire-scarred landscape at Medicine Lake, Jasper NP, AB

Bald Eagle nest shows life among death at Medicine Lake, Jasper NP, AB among wildfire damage from July  2015

Our second try hiking the Valley of Five Lakes in Jasper NP after turning around for a grizzly bear was quite a success. Its a beautiful walk past lovely little kettle lakes, and as we’d started later than we planned due to our grizzly sighting we stopped for lunch on the way.

Barrow’s Goldeneye (male, breeding plumage) on the Valley of Five Lakes Trail, Jasper NP, AB

As we sat beside the crystal clear waters of the first lake, a Pileated Woodpecker hopped down between the rocks to my side. He looked a bit curious about us, but he got on with his drinking and had a little bit of a bath and graced me with these photos before he flew away to a nearby tree. I just love these guys and seeing one up this close was such a treat!

Pileated Woodpecker at the Valley of Five Lakes trail, Jasper NP, AB

Stay tuned for Birding highlights of the Canadian Rockies: part 2 which will include some birds from the BC interior and other regions west of the mountains.

 

Thursday morning birds are calling: will you watch and listen?

I’ve been feeling anxious energy lately, between a changing schedule, Amber needing vet care again and other life things. I decided its partly because there haven’t been enough birds and nature in my life lately. So, I decided to remedy this by going for a nice walk this morning.

There is nothing more relaxing and refreshing to clear the mind than taking a walk outside, getting fresh air and listening to the chorus of sounds around you.

I went to scout on the bald eagle nest nearby, but no one was home. I haven’t seen any chicks as yet, though I don’t know if I should expect any this time of summer or not. They appeared to be prepping their nest, but even without bald eagles, a lovely walk was still to be had.

I continued on down to a rocky beach through a tree-lined path with the smell of ripening blackberries and the sea in the air. When I got there, the tide was low and the sunlight glistened and twinkled on the water, the sun still low in the eastern morning sky. I heard birds singing and chirping in the trees behind me. I must be the only person who goes to the beach and then turns around to look back at the land where I came from.

My rocky shore destination this morning, though this is a photo taken in the mid to late afternoon another day. Today, I felt like just enjoying the view without snapping photos.

The tree-lined path was enveloped in shade from the gentle morning sun. On my way back up, I stood quietly listening, breathing and saw my fog of breath as if it were the middle of winter! It was definitely cooler and felt humid in the shade. I breathed out a few times like a little kid in the winter does, immensely amused by the fog in the middle of the summer.

As I walked the path, a scurrying in the leaf litter brought my attention to a Spotted Towhee. I often expect to see these spotted sparrows when I hear rustling on the ground as they rummage through the leaves for insects to eat. The sun peaked down through the trees just right, effortlessly lighting up his black, white and rufous plumage for this photo.

Spotted Towhee commonly heard rustling in leaf litter like this.

To my right, I heard another bird singing. I edged slowly closer, trying to take the quietest steps a bumbling human like me can. I waited patiently and soon, a Bewick’s Wren hopped down the branches of a tree. He was singing his lovely little song with his tail up and his white stripe distinguishing him across his eye. I paused to watch and listen and smiled, appreciating his appearance. I didn’t manage to photograph him before he moved on, but here is one I saw a while back in my backyard. Sometimes the experience and the watching is better than snapping a photo.

These are the only photos I’ve managed of a Bewick’s Wren. The lighting isn’t great, but that’s okay. Its more about seeing the bird than acting like paparazzi. Though I love getting nice photos of birds, especially new  species, its not what I’m in it for. After all, I still just use a point-and-shoot; nothing fancy.

After my walk, I feel happy. I feel lighter and calmer. There is no denying the calming and healing effects of nature. Its even backed up by scientific studies that say walking in nature is good for your brain. I believe it! Let this be my reminder to you to get out into nature regularly and enjoy the simple things and the living things and the beauty around you.

Immerse yourself in the blue sky, the green grass, the swishing trees, the singing birds. Even if just for a few minutes.

Grizzly bears, fear & why they’re important to protect

Back in April, I went on a big trip to the Canadian Rockies for the first time. Looking at the calendar, its now July and somehow I’m still blogging about it.

Anyway, on our last day in Jasper, we had a very exciting sighting: my first grizzly bear. It was an incredible experience for the end of our trip. But later that day, it got even better…

We decided to do a picnic dinner at Lake Annette that evening in celebration of our final night in the Rockies. Lake Annette is a lovely kettle lake formed by a remnant block of glacial ice which melted and formed a lake following glacial retreat.

As we had not explored much of the eastern side of the Athabasca River valley yet, after eating, we went on a short tour of the area to complete our Jasper experience. At Lac Beauvert, we gazed into the crystal clear water reflecting the snow-capped mountaintops, the Fairmont Lodge perched on the edge of the lake in picturesque style as we reflected on our trip.

Lac Beauvert, Jasper NP, AB

We walked along the lakeside a short distance. Between swatting away mosquitoes, I gazed up and saw in the distance, between two trees, the great hulking brown shape of our second grizzly bear of the day. After the reactions of those we told about our first sighting, we thought we’d never see another, but here he was. Quietly grazing before us on the lush green golf course. He was big and beautiful.

Grizzly bear on the Fairmont Golf Course, Jasper NP, AB

Feeling quite a bit braver after our first experience, but still respectful, we decided to walk just a little closer to watch. In the quiet evening, we watched the bear from afar, grazing the manicured golf course grass much like a black-tail deer back home on Vancouver Island. The perfectly manicured grass down in the warm valley must be incredibly irresistible after a winter spent hibernating.

Grizzly bear, also known as the brown bear, in Jasper NP, AB on the Fairmont Lodge Golf Course

Watching this bear was beautiful and I felt lucky to be able to do so. Once, grizzlies were widespread across North America. Today, 20,000 remain in Canada, mostly in British Columbia. They are not the fierce carnivores they are often made out to be; only 15% of their diet is meat, which is often in the form of carcasses. The rest of their diet consists of berries and other plants (Parks Canada).

Grizzlies (also known as brown bears) are an important part of the ecosystem and are an indicator of ecological health. They help disperse seeds throughout their habitat and when they dig in the dirt for food, they bring up nitrogen, tooTheir return to areas in their previous range is wonderful news. Because habitat fragmentation is a serious threat to grizzly populations, the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative aims to preserve wildlife corridors in what remains of the pristine Rocky Mountains.

Not only are they beautiful and fascinating creatures, but they also, like every other animal, have an important role in the ecosystem. While they are protected in Alberta and in national parks like Jasper, but park and provincial boundaries can only do so much. In BC, grizzly bear hunting is still, embarrassingly, legal. Even protecting grizzlies in Alberta can’t stop poachers.

People’s attitudes toward grizzlies are mixed. I was afraid of encountering one until I actually did. Somehow facing it seemed to help. I prepared myself for the possibility by learning what to do if you encounter a grizzly and more about their behaviour. I think people are fearful of what they don’t understand or are not educated about, bears included. Only by educating ourselves about grizzly behaviour and survival needs can we learn to live in peace with them.

How you can help grizzlies
Join PacificWild to Stop the Trophy Hunting of Grizzly Bears
Sign a petition to end grizzly hunting in B.C.
Support the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative to protect grizzly habitat from fragmentation
Educate yourself and others on living with grizzly bears peacefully

Grizzly bear lucky to be in Jasper, AB where grizzly hunting is banned.


Resources
Bear Safety, Parks  Canada
Bear Conservation Strategy, Parks Canada
Grizzly Bears, Parks Canada
The Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Initiative

Summertime nest observation: Osprey, Bald Eagles and Great Blue Heron

Summer is in full swing here in Victoria – the cicadas are buzzing, the flowers have bloomed and many birds are caring for their young. Last week I was quite lucky to stumble upon a few new nests, as well as checking up on the old ones.

These are exciting times at the Osprey nest I’ve been watching on and off. Around mid-June, the chicks hatched and on June 22, I saw three wee heads poking out from the nest! I’m so excited to be watching them thrive and grow throughout the season this year after only discovering the nest late last summer.

Three little Osprey chick heads poke out from the nest while mum watches over

All the pair’s hard work repairing and working on the nest starting in April has certainly paid off. Three chicks also hatched last year, but only two fledged.  So far, this year’s three are doing well and I am very hopeful for them!

Last week I went to watch to find lots of action underway! A third Osprey was in the area, seemingly agitating the mother who continuously called out and eventually gave chase to the intruder. A third Osprey had been sighted periodically throughout the pair’s courtship and nest-building; I wonder if this was the same one.

Dad-Osprey finally returned to the nest area and settled on a nearby light-post. Soon, he was swooping and diving and calling loudly in an impressive flight display chasing off the third osprey, and the happy family was safely tucked into their nest once more.

Dad returning to the nest area

Dad setting off to chase away the third Osprey

Osprey family all tucked in the nest

My second visit last week saw more activity – lunchtime! Mum and babies were calling out hungrily from the nest until dad swooped in with lunch – fish, of course! It must be very hard work fishing for four family members and yourself. Its no wonder only two chicks fledged last year.

Patiently waiting for lunch

“Fish again, dad?”

In a setting entirely different from the sports field, but still not far from human activity, I found a Bald Eagle nest hidden up a tree.

Bald Eagle nest

So far, I have seen no chicks, but it looked like they were busy building up the nest in preparation and giving it lots of attention. I’ve only ever once before seen a nesting pair of Bald Eagles, so I am very excited about this!

Carefully placing a branch in the nest (above) while their mate looks on, presumably supervising the nest-building

I really hope to see chicks here in the future. Bald Eagles are a rare creature out east where I grew up, but B.C. is home to a huge population of these sea-eagles. Sometimes I find it funny that I have seen far more of them here than I have in its iconic home to the south, the U.S. I saw one fly low over my backyard the other day; something I have never seen before and will not soon forget!

Bald Eagle pair at their nest

On the weekend, I spotted an Osprey nest at another sports field. Its so interesting that Osprey do not seem to mind the noise and boisterousness from the games going on below. I didn’t spy any chicks from the angles I could view from, but here’s hoping there are some more on the way!

Another Osprey nest found at another sports field.

Finally, I observed a Great Blue Heronry which used to house many more nests in the past until the nests were decimated by bald eagle predation.  It appears to be bouncing back, though, with a number of nests hidden in the boughs of trees with tall herons perched atop branches looking every bit as graceful as they are in the water.


Unlike Osprey, Great Blue Herons are incredibly sensitive to human disturbances and will abandon nests as a result. However, their chicks are also vulnerable to predators like bald eagles. While Bald Eagles and Osprey tend to mate for life, Great Blue Heron pairs remain together only for the season and will seek other mates in the following years.

Despite their differences, all three of these birds rely on fish as a huge part (or the only part) of their diet. That means the success of each species is intrinsically linked with the health of the ocean. While individuals may thrive in an ideal nesting site or decline from human disturbance or predators, as a whole, how will they survive challenges like dwindling fish from over-fishing, plastic pollution and ingestion or toxic chemicals moving up the food chain?

Did you notice the common link between these challenges are humans? Only we can change our habits, our behaviour, our society, in order to protect the environment from ourselves. Next time you reach for that plastic bottle of soda at the store, order fish for dinner or put pesticides on your garden or lawn, think about the impact of your actions and choices. Think about the Osprey, think about the Great Blue Heron. Remember Rachel Carson and DDT in Silent Spring. Think about the ocean. It belongs to all of us, human and creature alike, and as such each one of us is responsible for its well-being.


More reading and resources
Overfishing.org explains what overfishing is, why it is a problem and what you can do to help.
Participate in a Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup to remove garbage and debris from the coasts. Remember it is always better not to pollute, litter and use single-use plastics in the first place.
Observe a nest at OspreyWatch and log your observations to partake in citizen science.
Seven ways you can reduce ocean pollution right now

Birds at the rocky coast: a variety of species from Auklets to Vultures

Going down to my the rocky coast and nearby beach is one of my favourite places to go for a walk and watch birds. Last  week while near the shore, I heard a high-pitched “kill-deer kill-deer” repeating over and over. Carefully gazing among the rocks, I spotted the Killdeer at last. I find they blend in so effectively and move quickly, sometimes making them hard to spot if you aren’t paying attention.

Killdeer very dutifully watching over its baby

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement. It was a Killdeer chick running around and eating and being watcher over by its parent. What a tiny chick, he looks too small for his long legs, but soon enough he’ll grow into them. Killdeer typically lay 4-6 eggs per brood (Cornell), so I wonder if the others hatched successfully as I only saw the one. They live on Vancouver Island year-round (Sibley, 2016), but I’d never know it as I see them far more often in the spring and summer.

Killdeer chick exploring the algae-laden rocks exposed by low tide

Further along, there were a number of non-native European Starlings, from juvenile to fully-fledged adults with their iridescent plumage.

European Starling

I went through pages and pages of my Sibley guide and lots of googling photos before I finally identified the Juvenile European Starling. I would never have guessed these were the same birds, from drab gray to a beautiful glossy black that shimmers green, blue and purple in the sunlight. I’d love to see a molting juvenile halfway between each later in the season.

Juvenile European Starling

As I moved a little further from the coast, perched in a nearby tree was a Brown-headed Cowbird. They just have lovely blue-green sheen to their feathers and a distinct brown head, thus their name.

Brown-headed Cowbird

House Sparrows chattered and scurried about on the ground and perched in trees. Just like European Starlings, House Sparrows were introduced to North America and found great success in this opportunity, becoming especially common birds in urban areas. They often have a bad reputation because they take over nesting areas other native birds would use, such as Purple Martins and Tree Swallows (Cornell). Even so, I enjoy watching them flit about.

House Sparrows

House Sparrow at a nest box potentially taking over a potential nest site for native species like Tree Swallows.

Moving back toward the water again, I spotted an interesting diving bird floating on the surface who periodically dove underwater for minutes at a time. I spent a while sitting and watching this aptly-named Rhinoceros Auklet with his funny little horn. This was my first ever auklet, who just happened to be the largest of western auklets, living along the west coast of North America year-round (Sibley, 2016). Despite this, I was immensely surprised and excited to see one!

Rhinoceros Auklet

Then I began to worry about the little Killdeer chick when I saw a large bird overhead, but breathed a slight sigh of relief to see a Turkey Vulture hovering above. As they primarily scavenge for food, I’m hoping a tiny Killdeer wouldn’t attract this raptor’s attention. Turkey vultures have to be one of my favourite birds to watch; they are simply amazing.

Turkey Vulture

First, they are HUGE with wingspans up to 6 feet (Sibley, 2016)! Second, I will never stop being fascinated by the way they hover and tilt, rocking unsteadily back and forth on their powerful wings as if floating on thermal updrafts high up in the sky. Finally, they are a crucial part of the ecosystem by cleaning up when they eat rotting carrion. Their biology is fascinating in that they can digest these carcasses without getting sick (Cornell). How clever is nature to have created such a well-working system?


References
House Sparrow, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Killdeer, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Sibley, D.A., 2016. The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, Second Edition.
Turkey Vulture, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Watching warblers, new sparrows & spring babies

My first spring as an official birder went by quickly, each day longer than the last and I’ve been striving to get out more. I am slowly learning new birds as I encounter them. I enjoy taking it at a slow, unhurried approach.

In April, I saw my first warbler while out on a walk. I was struck by the muted yellow, almost olive green, colouring and the decidedly happy song it was singing out. It took me quite some time to identify as the Orange-crowned Warbler. This little bird has quickly become something of a favourite of mine. Seeing as green and yellow are my favourite colours, I suppose its not surprising.

My very first Orange-crowned Warbler sighting and identification. They rarely display the orange crown of their namesake, but this one appears to have a slight hint of orange.

Since that day, I have now had the joy of seeing it countless times and even learned its happy little song. Despite their name, their orange crown is not commonly visible, and they are said to be the “drabbest” of warblers, though I find them beautiful (Seattle Audubon).

MAH05529

Populations tend to be more grey and varied in colour in the east of their range and more fully yellow in the Pacific populations (Cornell; Sibley, 2016). They are a summer bird on Vancouver Island and in much of western North America all the way up to Alaska, though they can be spotted year-round up the coast of California through Oregon (Sibley, 2016).

While not entirely new to me, the White-crowned Sparrow is one I am recently confident of identifying. I have seen them before foraging on the ground, but I’ve now seen them enough times to know how to recognise them in the future. White-crowned Sparrows live year-round on Vancouver Island, so are more familiar to me (Sibley, 2016). Sparrows are tricky, and I am learning new types slowly. I love the bold white and black crown of these sparrows.

White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow with an inchworm

Another sparrow new to my eyes is the Chipping Sparrow. With a distinct rufous-colored crown, grayish breast and black line through the eye, this is a fairly distinct sparrow. Chipping Sparrows are only on southern Vancouver Island during the summer while they can be seen year-round in parts of Mexico and the southern U.S. (Sibley, 2016).

Chipping Sparrow pair (juvenile left, adult breeding plumage right)

Chipping Sparrow (breeding plumage)

While admittedly not entirely new to me, I first remember seeing a Killdeer and knowing what it was late last summer, this is still a new one to share with you. Because they nest on the ground, their young are vulnerable to predators, but the Killdeer have a clever defense mechanism. Named for the sound of their call, the parent will fake a wing injury and call out loudly to distract predators away from their nest. They will continue this acting effort until the predator takes the bait.

Killdeer with distinctive black double-band around their chest and red eyes.

While they are part of the same family as plovers, killdeer are not restricted to living near the shore (Cornell). I was quite surprised to see a killdeer at the Athabasca Glacier in Jasper National Park in late April! I had no idea they could live so far from water and so high in altitude. I guess I never studied my range maps close enough!

Killdeer blending in well with its surroundings at the Athabasca Glacier, Jasper NP, AB. He blended in so well I only spotted him after hearing its call.

While not new to me, spring of course brings those who are new to the world! I am so pleased to have seen this doe and her pair of fawns in my backyard. The doe is a regular visitor and I can only hope both of her fawns make it successfully to adulthood with their mother’s care. Its tough being a deer in an urban environment with hazards around every corner.

Black-tailed deer doe and fawn

Mealtime for mom and baby. Nursing must be hard work for mom, so she has to keep full, too!

One of my favourite parts of spring are watching ducklings and goslings. I look forward to seeing them each year and wind up spending some time trying to scope them out. How  can anyone not love these fuzzy little yellow-green goslings as they follow mum and dad around?

Little Canada Goose goslings

They soon start to grow up fast into mini versions of their parents with pale plumage but still haven’t developed their chinstraps.

Canada geese adult pair and juveniles being led across an open grassy field

Tiny yellow ducklings paddle along staying close to mum, peeping and exploring and learning how to be a duck. Soon enough, they’ll start venturing further away from their mother and start families of their own!

Mallard mum and ducklings on a pond

These older four juveniles huddle close together for safety and warmth still under their mother’s careful watch. Soon, the babies will all be grown and I’ll have to wait until next spring to see more ducklings, goslings and fawns. Until then, I shall enjoy all the adult and new birds and other animals!

Mallard mum and four juveniles


References
Killdeer, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Orange-crowned Warbler, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Orange-crowned Warbler, Seattle Audubon Society
Sibley, D.A., 2016. Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, Second Edition.

How glaciers carved Lake Louise & the Rockies: what remains today

Everywhere, the Canadian Rockies are scoured and marked by the power of ice. We have these powerful glaciers to thank for much of the beauty we now enjoy. Banff NP’s Lake Louise at 1,731m elevation is one example of one such famous site created by glacial erosion.

The Victoria Glacier above the head of Lake Louise, feeds the glacial lake with meltwater.

Above the head of the lake lies Victoria Glacier, a valley glacier, which feeds Lake Louise with beautiful blue-green meltwater (Britannica). Years ago, the Victoria glacier probably once extended much further into the valley while only a fraction of it remains today.

The end of the trail approaching the head of Lake Louise. Beyond this point the trail crosses avalanche paths. It appears not everyone heeded the warnings; see footprints litter the snow just beyond the sign.

The mini-avalanche we witnessed at Lake Louise still roared and crumbled despite the small size of the collapse. I still wouldn’t want to be anywhere near it! These falls must happen regularly based on the debris pile at the bottom. Spring is avalanche season in the mountains.

You can get closer to the  Victoria Glacier on the Plain of Six Glaciers trail, but the latter part of the trail was closed to us (like a few others on our trip) due to potential avalanches. In fact, while we walked along the frozen lake, we witnessed a mini-avalanche on the opposite shore.

Lake Louise still frozen in late April.

Even when frozen, the lake’s waters are blue because it is a glacial-fed lake. As glaciers grind up rocks above the lake, fine glacial silt is created and deposited into the lake by meltwater. The sediment is then suspended in the lake as it slowly settles to the bottom and the sunlight reflects off the sediment is what gives it such rich hues.

As we walked along the lake, Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels scurried along the edges of the frozen lake while Clark’s Nutcrackers were unperturbed by tourists, seeking out an easy meal.

The small Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel, commonly confused with a chipmunk!

Clark’s Nutcracker, not at all bothered by the noisy tourists.

While much of the ice that once existed is now gone, glaciers still persist in the Rockies high in the mountains and down alpine valleys. At 2,800m elevation, the Columbia Icefield exists today due to the buildup of the annual fall of 7m of snow; the accumulation of snow over time forms the icefield (Parks Canada).

Perched along the Continental Divide, the approximately 215 square kilometer icefield is a major source of freshwater in North America (Gadd, 2008). The Athabasca River, the North Saskatchewan River and the  Columbia River are all sourced from the icefield, their waters eventually reaching the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, respectively.

Part of the Columbia Icefield in Jaser NP, AB. The Snow Glacier is the lumpy looking snow on the right of the photo. To the left of the glacier is the Snow Dome at 3,456m elevation which lies directly on the Alberta-British Columbia border.

From the top of the Icefield, seven valley glaciers flow downward, one of which is the easily accessible Athabasca Glacier. The Athabasca Glacier is currently retreating although it once reached as far as where the Icefields Visitor Center stands today (Gadd, 2008).

The Athabasca Glacier, Columbia Icefields, Jasper NP, AB.

While glaciers are mighty erosive forces, they also deposit incredible loads of sediment. By studying the erosive features and deposits left behind by glacier, geologists can determine how far the glacier extended in the past.

athabascaglacier

The Athabasca Glacier valley with some glacial features labelled. Glaciers scour through rock, leaving behind characteristic round-bottomed and steep-sided U-shaped valleys as opposed to rivers cutting out V-shaped valleys. (Click for full size image)

The Athabasca Glacier valley where the U-shape of the valley is clearly seen. Lateral moraines are piles of rock debris deposited along the edges of a glacier as it recedes. Here, they mark where the glacier extended much wider into the valley than it does today, almost outlining the glacier’s previous boundaries.

The rocky debris in the foreground of the photo (a recessional moraine) was deposited as the glacier retreated from a former position further into the valley; the land where I stood taking this photo was once covered by ice as recently as the early 1800s (Patton, 2014). A glacier retreats when melting occurs faster at the toe than snow and ice can accumulate further up on the glacier. Basically, it is like simple math. If what goes in (snowfall) is less than what goes out (melt), the glacier retreats.

The North Saskatchewan River flows from the Rocky Mountains east toward Lake Winnipeg, its waters eventually reaching the Atlantic Ocean at the Hudson Bay via the Nelson River (Jasper NP, AB).

Freshwater is a critical resource not only for human survival, but flora and fauna of all kinds, and the Columbia Icefield is an important resource for all living things besides its simple beauty. The melting and building of the Columbia Icefield impacts what happens downstream in the Columbia River and as far away as the Arctic Ocean where the Mackenzie River (the largest and longest river in Canada) empties into its seas.

All things in nature are inter-connected. Wildlife is wild. When will more people realize this? Animals and plants do not recognize park, provincial or national boundaries. Wolves and bears protected within the park boundaries wander out where they are hunted and killed because legislation permits hunting these animals. Pollution does not stop at the border with Alberta because it is from British Columbia. Invasive species from the U.S. do not stop at a border crossing with Canada to get their passport stamped and approved. When will people work together as stewards and take responsibility for our impact, both positive and negative, on this earth before it is too late for everyone, including ourselves?


References
Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier, Parks Canada
Gadd, B., 2008. Columbia Icefield, Athabasca Glacier in Canadian Rockies Geology Road Tours, pp. 335-342.
Lake Louise in: Encyclopedia Britannica
Patton, B., 2014. Icefields Parkway Driving Guide in Parkways of the Canadian Rockies.