Garry oak ecosystems: more than just an oak tree

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a garry oak tree with its mottled bark

Since moving to Canada and specifically Vancouver Island, I’ve learned a lot about the Pacific Northwest and its environments, ecosystems and geology. One of my favorite ecosystems and landscapes is the garry oak meadow or the garry oak ecosystem. As the name implies, the foundation of this zone is the garry oak tree (Quercus garryana). An ecosystem, however, by definition is not just a tree. Its a whole community of all the creatures living in the area and how they interact.

These meadows are unlike anything I grew up around out east or many places I’ve seen since. I think that’s why I like them so much; not to mention they are so full of life (especially birds)! Southeastern Vancouver Island is one of the only places in Canada to have the garry oak ecosystem. In the U.S., garry oaks are found along the western edge of the Cascades in Washington and Oregon and into northern California. The garry oak is the only native species of oak in this region.

Living in a rain shadow area with dry summers, the garry oak is drought-tolerant and fire-resistant and prefers well-drained soil (GOERT). The tree are often successful in areas with shallow soil and rocky outcrops; most remaining modern garry oak ecosystems are rockier sites (ICOR, University of Victoria).

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a garry oak stand in the summer

Because there is a variety of sub-environments in a garry oak ecosystem like woodlands, savannah, meadows and vernal pools, there is the potential for high biodiversity. Much of the Greater Victoria region was naturally a garry oak ecosystem, but with European colonization much of the landscape was lost for development in the last 200 years (see map). With the loss of much of the garry oak habitat with European settlement, some species like the Western Bluebird and Lewis’s Woodpecker became extinct on the island.

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Black-tailed Deer thrive in garry oak habitat

 

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Map of Greater Victoria with previous garry oak ecosystems in 1800 (green) and those remaining in 1997 (red). Map by Lea, T., Horth, D., Richards, D. and T. Brierly, retrieved from GOERT.

One of the best things about garry oak ecosystesm (okay, I’m biased) are all the birds! Birds are abundant in these areas during all four seasons. Common birds I see are Anna’s Hummingbirds, Spotted Towhees, sparrows (particularly Golden-crowned, White-crowned & Song), a wide variety of warblers, Red-breasted Nuthatches, woodpeckers, Bald Eagles and Turkey Vultures flying overhead, swallows (Barn and Tree) and Bewick’s Wrens. Invasive birds in garry oak meadows are European Starlings and House Sparrows, both of which displace native cavity nesters.

Garry oak commonly co-exist among Douglas Fir trees and Arbutus trees (Canada’s only broadleaf evergreen tree). Other common plants in garry oak meadows I have learned are camas, fawn lilies, Henderson’s Shooting Star, wild rose and buttercups. Scotch broom (or gorse) and English ivy are two of the top invasive culprits taking over.

Some places to see a variety of intact garry oak ecosystems around Victoria includes: Mt. Tolmie, Uplands Park, Beacon Hill Park, Mt. Douglas and Little Mt. Douglas, Francis King Park and Fort Rodd Hill. Many of the Gulf Islands have beautiful areas of garry oak habitat as well.

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garry oak grove in early autumn at dusk
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garry oak meadow in the winter

Resources
Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team
University of British Columbia Geography Department
University of Victoria Geography Department

Finding salmon in Goldstream River’s annual salmon run

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We went to Goldstream Provincial Park last weekend to check out the salmon run and the waterfalls (now that its rained a decent amount around here!). Goldstream Park is particularly noted for its 600 year old Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar trees, the popular hike up Mount Finlayson and, of course, the annual salmon run in the autumn.

 

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First, we stopped briefly at Niagara Falls on Niagara Creek (though why it is named this I don’t know!) which was looking very nice after all the rain. Its much less impressive in the summertime during our usual drought.

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Niagara Falls, Goldstream Provincial (BC) Park

Then, we headed off to Goldstream Falls, a much less-visited and quieter area with a longer walk to access the falls. Along the way, I heard and then spotted a Pacific Wren among the brush. As we walked along the rushing creek amid the green trees, a spot of blue moved through the branches and landed on a mossy tree branch. A Belted Kingfisher – she remained still long enough to photograph; a rare occurrence for the birds I like to call hummingbirds of the sea (okay or lake or stream) because they move so fast.

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Goldstream Falls

I’d hoped to see some Bald Eagles and other raptors (or even a bear!) at the riverside waiting to feast on salmon, but mostly it was gulls and ravens. At Goldstream Falls, a surprise awaited us. In the pool below the cascade were hundreds of salmon who made it to their destination!

 

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Salmon gathered in the pool at Goldstream Falls

They reached the end of the road. Some of them were trying to leap up the waterfall and continue upstream but to no avail! I wonder if it is discouraging to them to know they are going to become nature’s buffet but I suppose they are unaware…Check out the jumping salmon on video at Goldstream Falls below.

 

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Orcas in the Seymour Narrows at Ripple Rock in Campbell River, BC

Last week, I mentioned my first ever whale sighting as well as my first orcas, but I didn’t elaborate on the orcas yet. Up in Campbell River in July, my partner and I decided on a hike to Ripple Rock which overlooks the famous Seymour Narrows, a narrow shipping passage connecting Johnstone Strait in the north to the Strait of Georgia in the south.

It lies east of Vancouver Island and was once a dangerous passage due to shallow rocks lurking out of eyesight below the water’s surface which caused tidal eddies to form. There were many shipwrecks there until the undersea rocks were blasted in 1958 and is said to be the largest non-nuclear explosion in history.

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View of Seymour Narrows from Ripple Rock: Menzies Bay to the right, narrows to the left.

Today, the hike to Ripple Rock is an enjoyable seaside hike through coastal forest. We were told that whales are commonly seen from the top, but did not dare to believe we would have such luck.

But when we reached the top, we hardly even took in the view when we saw them…a pair of orcas, their tall dorsal fins distinguishable even from a distance off in the water coming from Menzies Bay on our right. I could not believe our luck! Just the day before, I saw my first whale ever and now, here were two orcas swimming down the channel in front of me. This time, I had a chance to grab my camera.

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Two orcas in Seymour Narrows near Campbell River, BC

 

Slowly, they made their way closer to us and for a time, they seemed to be hardly moving at all; as if they were having fun just floating in the current. The pair moved further off closer to Quadra Island and then all of a sudden, another pair turned up right in the water in front of us!

 

They were so close we could hear them breathe. This orca stayed floating almost still in the water below us for a while, before he suddenly disappeared beneath its dark surface. I will never forget what it sounded like, seeing the way they moved through the water so effortlessly with grace.

 

I always dreamed of being able to see whales from land, not because I don’t like boats because I love them, but because I never want to pay for a whale watch tour again. It feels wrong stalking them and tracking them the way they do; I’d rather see them for free, for real and by my own luck. And I finally did. I’d hoped to see wolves on our trip, but I never expected to see whales…note the plural! Somehow, that weekend was full of the magic of seeing whales and to me, Campbell River will remain in my memory as a hub for whale sightings. I feel so lucky we had the chance and the right timing to see these magnificent creatures.

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Seymour Narrows from Ripple Rock with Quadra Island across the passage

An unforgettable experience seeing my first whale near Quadra Island

This summer, something very exciting that I will never forget happened… I finally saw my first whale. I say finally because I’ve been hoping to see one for a long time. I’ve been lucky enough to go on a few small vessel ocean cruises in New Zealand and I also went on a whale watch tour there, but I never saw a whale on any of those trips!

Back in July, this all changed when I took a weekend trip up to Campbell River. The first day there, we decided to head over to Quadra Island for the day. Quadra Island is one of the Northern Gulf Islands which lie between Vancouver Island and the mainland of Canada and BC. Its a short ferry ride over from Campbell River across the Discovery Passage to Quadra Island.

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Looking back toward Campbell River from Quadra Island

When we were about midway across the passage, all of a sudden off to our port side we saw it…a whale! We saw a small dorsal fin and a bit of body sticking up above the water. We watched for a few moments, fascinated, then it dove down and we saw the underside of its tail before the whale was submerged in the water once more. The underside of the tail had some white on the outer edges.

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Looking east toward the mainland of BC from Quadra Island:

Not being well-versed in whale identification, I am still unsure if it was a humpback or a minke as the dorsal fin and tail both look similar at least to me for the fleeting moment I watched. I did not get any photos, but I will remember it always! There is just something so special and amazing about whales. The very next day, I saw my first orcas (photos forthcoming), so it seems Campbell River is a bit of a hotspot for whale sightings…

There’s more to see than whales, too; Quadra Island and Campbell River are beautiful with wonderful views like this one below of the Coast Mountains of mainland BC.  Quadra Island especially had some lovely birding spots and good opportunities for seeing shorebirds and lots of bald eagles in Campbell River.

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Another view east of the mainland of BC and the Coast Mountains from Campbell River. Mt Doogie Dowler is the distinct peak to the centre-left at 2076m.
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Bald Eagle spotted on Quadra Island

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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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.

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

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.

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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.

 

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.

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

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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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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

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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

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.

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).

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.

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).

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.

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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!

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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.

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?

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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.

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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!

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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 the montane & thermal springs provide habitat in Banff’s iconic Bow Valley

The Bow Valley of Banff NP, which today provides a rich habitat we are familiar with, was once covered by glaciers and ice 20,000 years ago during a period of time known as the Last Glacial Maximum. Glaciers carved through the mountains, creating a U-shaped valley with a flat bottom and steep sides. These glaciers disappeared from the Bow Valley by about 13,000 years ago, beginning the development of today’s modern montane valley (Reasoner and Huber, 1999).

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The Bow River Valley on a rainy day in  Banff, AB, Banff NP viewed from Tunnel Mountain. The Vermillion Lakes (discussed below) are on the far right of the photo.

Canada’s oldest national park (established in 1887), Banff lies in the heart of the Rockies and the town of 8,000 residents sits in Bow River valley. The Bow River is sourced from the Bow Glacier, part of the Wapta Icefield and flows into Bow Lake before joining the South Saskatchewan River. The Bow Valley provides important montane habitat for a wide variety of wildlife, from birds and small mammals like squirrels all the way up to grizzly bear and elk.

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American Red Squirrels were commonly seen on forested hikes darting quickly among and up the trees, and were sometimes very noisy. Perhaps they were announcing potential predators (probably us humans) in the area.

With wetlands, grasslands and open forest, an alpine montane ecosystem like the Bow Valley lies below the subalpine zone and is generally warmer and snow-free in the winter, providing habitat for a large range of animals (Parks Canada). Unfortunately, the montane is also an area humans prefer to occupy, putting constant pressure on wildlife in the region.

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The Vermillion Lakes lie within the Bow River valley and provide habitat for many species. Birds I watched here included the Red-Winged Blackbird, Northern Shoveler, Buffleheads, Common Merganser, Canada Gees and Mallards.
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Northern Shoveler at the Vermillion Lakes, Banff NP.

Across the Bow River from the Vermillion Lakes, the Cave and Basin National Historic Site marks where the Banff Thermal springs were discovered and the location of the original baths. The water from the thermal springs provides a niche habitat for species not found elsewhere in the area, including killdeer, garter snakes,  introduced tropical fish and the endangered Banff Springs Snail (Parks Canada).

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The cave where Banff’s thermal springs were discovered at the Cave and Basin National Historic Site.

In the wetlands and lake below the cave, we were lucky to spy what we thought was a beaver in the water. Now I am not sure if it could be a muskrat. We spied his body moving through the water and then he climbed up on shore and began eating some twigs for a while before eventually moving away out of sight.

 

 

 

 

Around the town and the Bow Valley floor, Columbian Ground Squirrels were a common sight. Unlike tree-dwelling American Red squirrels, these ground squirrels dig burrows underground where they spend winter. Without the lush, warm habitat of the Bow Valley montane or the microclimate of the hotsprings, none of these animals would thrive in the cold Rocky Mountains.

 


References
Ecoregions of Banff National Park, Parks Canada
Reasoner, M.A. and U.M. Huber, 1999. Postglacial paleoenvironments of the upper Bow Valley, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada. Quaternary Science Reviews 18.
Thermal Waters, Parks Canada

Some things I have to say about the Yellowstone bison incident

I am posting this with a level of trepidation. Its long, I warn you, and full of my opinions and thoughts in a somewhat negative light in a slight departure from my usual posts.

In the wake of the bison incident at Yellowstone National Park and my recent experiences in the Canadian Rockies NPs, I feel like I must say something. I’m disgusted and distressed at the behaviour these two people displayed. Picking up a bison calf and putting it in your car is completely uncalled for. It is against the advice, rules, and laws of the National Parks to even approach wildlife.

The correct course of action in this instance, if they were that concerned about the bison, is to call the Park Rangers and notify them to take care of it. The same action you would take if sighting a bear is to report it to the professionals.

While some people are outraged the calf was euthanized, the Park Rangers really did not have much choice.  What people do not understand is that baby animals are very impressionable and easily imprint onto humans in their early days. Once imprinted, it is very hard to take back and make them wild again.

If the calf had been abandoned by its mother, it would have died slowly on its own and likely ended up as someone’s meal. That is the truth of it and that is the way the ecosystem works. Predators and scavengers have to eat, too.

But, to be totally honest, I am not all that surprised as much as I am outraged. Human actions led directly to the calf being euthanized, which they intended to “save.” Too many times do human actions (or lack of action in some cases) cause similar incidents. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve read about bears being euthanized for becoming habituated with humans, getting into garbage that wasn’t properly secured by people who should really know better.

It reminds me of the people who recently tried to rescue an abandoned bear cub only to have it euthanized by B.C. Conservation Officers. The correct protocol would have been phoning a wildlife rehab center, telling them about the situation and if the rehabbers decided to try to help the bear, they could have taken care of it professionally. Wildlife rehab is really better left to the professionals. I have volunteered with a wildlife rehab center and trust me, it takes a lot of expertise to do it right. Unfortunately, there is a high failure rate.

I am also not surprised after some behaviour I witnessed while visiting the National Parks in Canada’s Rocky Mountains recently. All of it was rooted in selfish and lazy human behaviour and make me lose a little bit more faith in humankind. Here they are…

Continue reading

Bighorn sheep in Kootenay National Park

Our first major stop on our Canadian Rockies trip was in Kootenay National Park in BC, on the western side of the Canadian Rockies following the Kootenay and Vermillion Rivers. This park is probably a lot less famous than its eastern cousin, Banff National Park because it features fewer amenities and day walks and more backcountry opportunities.

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The Vermillion River in Kootenay NP.
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While hiking to Marble Canyon, we looked up to see a Red-Tailed Hawk flying overhead.

We took a short stop to see the emerald waters of Olive Lake where there is now a grizzly bear sow and her cubs foraging nearby, closing off the area. I can’t blame her; with the water nearby and lots of lush vegetation, its certainly great habitat for raising young.

Walking along the lake, we heard varied thrush singing its buzzy song high up in the trees and saw a kingfisher dash among the trees on the edge of the lake. I was pleasantly surprised to see both species living here, having no experience birding in the Rockies before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. This was the first of many emerald and other brilliantly coloured lakes we’d get to enjoy on our journey!

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Olive Lake, Kootenay NP with patches of snow still clinging to the ground.

Just outside the southern edge of Kootenay NP lies the town of Radium Hot Springs, renowned for its slightly radioactive hot springs. We did not visit the springs, but we did see the town’s resident bighorn sheep, which was an exciting surprise.

They grazed on grass around the town much like our urban deer in Victoria. This was only the second time I’ve ever seen bighorns. When we travelled to the southwest USA, I kept reading about them and how elusive they were and how seeing one was rare. And yet, here they were walking around the middle of a town in BC!

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Bighorn sheep in Radium Hot Springs, BC.

They haven’t always frequented the town, however. Bighorns typically migrate down to valley bottoms during the winter to escape deep snow and find reliable food sources. Their preferred habitats are grasslands and open forest and they require steep rocky terrain as escape routes from predators.

Due to the prevention of forest fires in recent years, forests in the area are more dense and widespread. Forest fires are a natural phenomena and once provided much-needed grasslands to species like the bighorn sheep. The bighorn sheep learned that the town of Radium Hot Springs and the surrounding area provides perfect grazing opportunities and they now spend their winters there.

However, there has been promising efforts underway to restore bighorn habitat in the park through prescribed fires.

bighornsheep
Bighorn sheep in Radium Hot Springs, BC. Just one example of how humans shape and influence the ecosystem with forest fire intervention.

As we continued north, we climbed upward in elevation as well until we reached the Continental Divide and the boundaries between Kootenay and Banff National Parks. The Continental Divide is the boundary between drainage basins: here, between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans which also happens to be the Alberta-British Columbia border. This was the first of many times we crossed the Continental Divide on our journey through the Rockies. After entering Alberta, we had more time to explore Banff National Park.

continentaldivide
The continental divide at the Kootenay/Banff NP boundaries, also the British Columbia/Alberta border.