Summer sun, sand & shorebirds at Sidney Spit

I took my annual summer trip to Sidney Spit a few weeks ago and it was just as good as it always is. It was nearing lunch time so I set off for the beach on the far side of the island and had a picnic, watching the gentle waves lap the shore and listening to their gentle rush upon the sand.

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Looking east from Sidney Spit on Sidney Island, BC with a BC Ferry en route in the centre. The feathery wispy clouds were incredible the day I was there.

The water is so clear and cool it was refreshing to dip my toes into the shallows. Nearby, in the trees behind me, I heard the loud call of a bird. It was a Bald Eagle. We would meet again later on my trip…

The tide was quite low when I arrived, though it was making its way back up with each passing moment, so after lunch I immediately set off for the spit itself. I was hoping to see some shorebirds, and I eventually did, but I also saw a few surprises.

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Looking north up the spit; the west side is sandier than the east side.

Passing a little tidal pool of leftover water, I heard a Killdeer‘s piercing cry. He was scurrying among the dead trees and rocks by the water’s edge. As I continued along the spit, the sandy bar narrowed and gave way to cobbles and rocks one the outer, eastern side of the island. Far ahead of me, I could see a huge mass of gulls gathered together, but closer was a group of Black Oystercatchers.

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Black Oystercatchers foraging in the tidal zone.

Usually I see them in pairs, never in such a large groups as this. I presumed they were together for either breeding or in preparation for migration. Either way, I gave them a very wide berth and tried my best not to disturb them.

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A Pelagic Cormorant offshore the island.

I made my way back down the spit, enjoying the many different cormorants flying overhead and a Pigeon Guillemot diving offshore. Meandering through the forest on my way to the lagoon, I listened to the wind in the trees, gently rustling leaves and the chit-chat of Chestnut-backed Chickadees in the firs. Bushtits also chattered among their flock in the lower branches of small trees and bushes.

I also passed across an open field along the way where Barn and Tree Swallows dove and swooped and a White-crowned Sparrow sung out from a tree. There is such a wide variety of habitats packed into such a small, walkable space here; one of the reasons I love visiting.

Coming down to the lagoon back into the bright, hot sunshine, I was rewarded with a flock of shorebirds at last. I sat and watched them for a while, scurrying along the sand and dipping their beaks beneath the sand to pull out prey. As one gave a shrill cry, they all up and flew away, perhaps spooked by a nearby Osprey who was out fishing. Soon after the peeps flew off, a great splash sounded and I looked over in time to see an Osprey hit the water to catch a fish.

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Flock of sandpipers down at the lagoon.
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Mixed flock of Least Sandpipers and Western Sandpipers.
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Least Sandpiper (middle) and a Western Sandpiper (left). My best, educated guesses – I don’t feel strong with my sandpiper ID yet.

Eventually, when I had my fill of watching these little shorebirds I don’t often see, I made my way back uphill through the trees to the dock. Along the way, I heard a familiar call. The juvenile Bald Eagle I’d heard while I ate lunch was perched in a tall tree overlooking the beach. I imagine he may have been begging his parents for food even though he certainly looked big enough to be taking care of himself, he was probably still learning how to hunt.

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Juvenile Bald Eagle

Back at the docks, I enjoyed watching some of my very favourite birds…Purple Martins. There are a number of nest-boxes on the docks, which I hope is helping their populations recover. I got to watch a female martin capture an insect on the wing and return to the nestbox to feed her young. I only saw the tiniest smidge of a baby’s head popping out from the box, where I hope and believe he was safe until he’s ready to fledge.

Gulf Islands National Park: a day at Sidney Spit

One of my favourite day trips from the Victoria area to get out into nature is to go to Sidney Spit. This spit is part of a larger Sidney Island, owned in part by the government and privately, and makes up a part of the Gulf Islands National Park. I love it because its a short drive and ferry ride away from the city and once you get there, its pure peace and quiet and nature. Three of my favourite things.

The park can be explored fully on foot in a day (overnight walk-in camping is also permitted) and there are lots of different habitats and wildlife to see, particularly birds. I’d last been here a few years ago, back when my beloved Sidney was still alive. I loved that she had an island with her name.

Setting foot off the wooden dock, upon which Purple Martin nestboxes perch, you can turn left and head for the spit or you can turn right and head toward the woods and lagoon. We always go left first, unable to resist the lure of the sandy spit stretching out into the sea and the call of the shorebirds foraging and flocking there.

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Sidney Spit, sand stretching north out into the Salish Sea

At low tide, you can walk out quite far along the soft sand strewn with shells, edged with pebbles and barnacles. In small pools of water leftover from high tide, a flock of Semipalmated Sandpipers scurried around in the shallow water, frequently probing their bills into the sand to find prey.

In a deeper puddle on the far side of the spit, two Great Blue Herons squabbled with each other briefly before deciding there was space enough in the pool for them both. There were quite a few herons to be seen. I imagine it would be a great spot to raise young with lots of tall trees nearby to nest in and long stretches of shallow water for hunting.

A short way up the spit, a pair of Killdeer flitted among rocks and logs and a Black Oystercatcher pair scuttled around in the pebbly shore exposed by low tide.

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Killdeer at Sidney Spit, Gulf Islands National Park
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Looking back toward the ferry dock and south along the spit and back toward the grove of trees. To the right of the trees is the lagoon.

Going back south down the spit brings you to more sandy beach edged with trees. The shade is welcome on a hot sunny day and not far offshore, we spotted a family of at least 6 river otter playing and swirling in the water. I liked to imagine the parents were teaching the young how to fish while having fun.

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River Otter playing at Sidney Island

From there, we take an inland path across a grassy field near the campground and then onto a forest path to the lagoon. A Bald Eagle soared overhead above the field, probably scoping out a mouse or rabbit, some unsuspecting prey. In the lower branches of a tree, a White-Crowned Sparrow sang his familiar tune.

Coming out of the trees where we saw a few squirrels, we come downhill and out to the lagoon which looks back toward the spit and the ferry dock. At low tide, there’s a wide expanse of mud stretching out with a little tree-covered island (at high-tide) in the middle. Great Blue Heron hang out here, too, and one was perched in a tree while we were there. A number of Purple Martins and Tree Swallows swooped about, catching insects on the fly, only occasionally landing long enough for me to photograph.

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Purple Martin at the Sidney Spit lagoon

With its sandy beaches, lagoon, trees and fields, Sidney Spit makes for a good day out or overnight camp to see a variety of landscapes and wildlife. The wealth of different birds and other animals is one of my favourite things about visiting Sidney Spit. There is so much to see in a small area and it makes for a great day spent hiking and exploring easy trails. I will be sure not to wait so long before visiting again!

Birding highlights of the Rockies Part 3: Jasper to the Fraser Valley

After leaving Jasper, we headed south out of the Rocky Mountains and back toward home, leaving the most exciting parts of our trip behind. The trip home seemed somehow less scenic to me, but perhaps it wasn’t actually less scenic, it’s just that I had been spoiled by the beauty of Jasper National Park and our incredible grizzly bear and moose sightings there.

However, there were still some nice surprises in store for us. Near Mt Robson (the tallest peak in the Canadian Rockies which was conveniently shrouded in cloud for us), we went to see Overlander Falls on the Fraser River. During the annual salmon run, those salmon who do make it past Rearguard Falls downstream only find the end of their run here at Overlander Falls.

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Overlander Falls on the Fraser River near Mt Robson, BC

When one thinks of the salmon run, the first image that come to mind (after salmon) is of a bear. While well before the salmon run in April, just outside of Mt Robson Provincial Park we spotted a black bear on the railroad tracks below the road. Many bears die in situations like this, often foraging along the brush eating plants like dandelions (a particular favourite of the black bear). I feared for the bear’s safety, but honestly did not know what to do or who to call…I sincerely hope this bear made it off the tracks alive. The problem is being addressed in the National Parks, but what about all the other kilometers of railway stretching across Canada in prime bear habitat like this?

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Black bear on the railway near Mt Robson, BC

My copy of The BC Roadside Naturalist, which I’d carefully studied in preparation for (and along) this trip, recommended a stop for birding opportunities at Cranberry Marsh, just outside of Valemount, BC . To my surprise, this stop was above and beyond my expectations. It was a good-sized marsh with nice walking trails and a viewing platform absolutely teeming with birds and other wildlife. There was so much to see at once, I could hardly take it all in! In fact, after 13 days of photographing the National Parks, my camera only reached its memory capacity at this stop…(much to my distress!)

There was a pair of Ring-necked Ducks and a pair of Cinnamon Teals, both a first for me at the time, as well as a Barrow’s Goldeneye pair. The Cinnamon Teals were especially sensitive to our presence and I hope we didn’t disturb them too much. While they all share a similar habitat, Cinnamon Teals and Barrow’s Goldeneyes are predominantly western birds while Ring-necked Ducks can be seen all across North America (Sibley, 2016). Interestingly, Barrow’s Goldeneye often lay their eggs in other cavity nests of other ducks or goldeneyes and the chicks are very independent from the minute they hatch (Cornell)!

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a pair of Ring-necked Ducks
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Barrow’s Goldeneye pair, Cranberry Marsh

 

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Cinnamon Teal pair, Cranberry Marsh

Overhead, a stark white bird with a long neck flew gracefully above the marsh. At first it puzzled me until I realized what it was: a swan! I couldn’t determine what type in the semi-overcast lighting that still made me squint, but I am content with that. I have not seen swans flying overhead like this very often, though it must be either a Trumpeter or Tundra with the black bill.

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swan, Cranberry Marsh

Like Reflection Pond back near Golden, BC, there were lots of American Coots swimming along with its funny little head bob. Despite their appearances, they are more closely related to Gallinule and Rails than ducks. They eat plants and insects by both dabbling and diving and build floating nests in shallow water, commonly in marshes (Cornell).

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American Coot, Cranberry Marsh

Also enjoying the quiet marsh waters was a Northern Shoveler, of which I’d seen my first just the week before in Banff. They are dabbling ducks with long bills who happen to form monogamous pairs, a rarity in the duck world (Cornell). Meanwhile, overhead, a Bald Eagle soared above, likely looking for a meal in the flourishing marsh below. Cranberry Marsh was not only home to many birds, but also beavers and moose (whom we did not see), muskrats and squirrels.

We stopped in Kamloops halfway again (more briefly this time) and headed out early the next morning for home. Along the way, I saw my very first Ruddy Duck! This was at a wetland managed by Ducks Unlimited south of Kamloops along the more scenic highway 5A to the Coquihalla. I was so excited to see these diving ducks with their brilliant blue bills I’d seen so many photos of but never seen in person. My first sighting did not disappoint as this male was sporting his extra-bright blue bill for breeding season. Don’t be fooled by their cute colours, though, according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

“Ruddy Ducks are very aggressive toward each other and toward other species, especially during the breeding season. They are even known to chase rabbits feeding on the shore.” – Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ruddy Duck Life History

 

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Ruddy Duck (male), Cranberry Marsh

From here, we zipped along the Coquihalla Highway (nicknamed “the Coq” by locals) with its speed limit of 120km/h through the Coquihalla Pass and meeting the Fraser River at Hope, BC, the site of the largest landslide in Canada (the Hope Slide). We stopped at Bridal Veil Falls not far from Chilliwack, BC for out last scenic stop before reaching Vancouver, the ferry and finally, home with the mountains and glaciers far behind us with the sea and sun waiting before us.

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Bridal Veil Falls, which eventually joins the waters of the Fraser River

References
American Coot, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Barrow’s Goldeneye, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Cannings, R. and S. Cannings, 2002. The BC Roadside Naturalist.
Northern Shoveler, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Ruddy Duck, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Sibley, D.A. 2016. The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, Second Edition.

Related posts:
Birding of the Canadian Rockies Part 1: the mountains and valleys
Birding of the Canadian Rockies Part 2: Vancouver to the Columbia River Valley

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

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.

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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).

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Stawamus Chief

 

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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.

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

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!

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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.

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American Coot at Reflection Lake
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a Song Sparrow at Reflection Lake

 

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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).

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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.

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

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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).

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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.

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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).

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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.

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.

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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!

 

 

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.

 

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

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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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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.

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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.

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

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Respecting the bear in Jasper National Park: my first grizzly bear sighting

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If last week was kind to animals week, this post is appropriately timed although I believe in always being kind to animals every day. Mutts Comic strip, May 4, 2016 by Patrick McDonnell. (From: Mutts Comics)

My partner and I are by no means experienced hikers in bear country. A few years ago, we lived in New Zealand where, well, bears don’t exist. In fact, the biggest danger while hiking there is the ever-changing maritime or alpine weather. I’m from the east, where suburban sprawl has all but pushed out the black bear and seeing one is extremely rare.

Needless to say, Canada is quite a change for us in that regard. I have really only been hiking in bear country in these recent years, but we educated ourselves on what to do to prevent encounters and what to do if you do see one. In the last year and a half on Vancouver Island, I’ve seen four black bear – two from a vehicle and two while outside working. Each was from a distance. The parks recommend staying 100 yards from bear. Obviously its always a good idea to give any wild animal space.

Black bear on Vancouver Island from a great distance. See the small, black spec on the far shoreline? This was my first black bear sighting on the island and my only documented one, shot in the days before I had a camera with higher zoom. It was actually a mum with a cub nearby.

Despite all the education and these experiences, I still get nervous when going out in bear country and going to the Rockies is like stepping into their backyard. I admit, it scares me. We prepare ourselves, we make noise, we watch for signs of bear activity in the area and that’s all you can really do aside from never leaving your house.

It was still a crisp morning when we started the trail, having arrived earlier than many others. I was hoping to see some birds and maybe a beaver, both of which were a good possibility where we were heading. I never expected what we did see only 15 minutes down the trail… a grizzly bear.

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My first grizzly bear sighting, easily distinguished from black bear by its hump on the shoulders

I think my heart might have stopped for a minute as I exclaimed for my partner to stop and pointed out the bear in the distance. She looked absolutely huge in the distance on the opposite hill. Once I got over the surprise, I took a photo and we watched in awe for a few minutes. My partner said I was surprisingly calm, but I think everything I’ve read may have helped. Its not a bad idea to educate yourself about something you fear.

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Grizzly bear, notice her collar

It was the ideal sighting because we were far away (hundreds of meters), we did not take the bear by surprise, and she was easily visible in the wide open area on the opposite slope from our position. When we yelled and made some noise, she didn’t appear to notice, she was merely grazing on vegetation. However, she was standing very near to where we could see the trail lead and I’m not going to push my luck. So, we decided to respect the bear and turn back. We hadn’t come far and we could return later once she’d moved on.

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This is a zoomed out view of where the grizzly was from our position. She was on the other side of the boardwalk just next to the bare tree on the left of the middle. I took this photo when we returned later.

After reporting our sighting to Parks Canada, we were informed she is a “people tolerant” bear and others we encountered on the trail decided to go onward anyway. Because she had a GPS tracking collar and unique ID, they were able to locate her and knew which bear she was. As it turns out, when we returned to the trailhead later on, no one else reported seeing the bear, even a woman who had been behind us by about 5-10 minutes and was really hoping to. So she must have been just moving through, but you never know where a bear might be headed and it doesn’t seem smart to me to knowingly head toward one.

We finished the rest of the hike the second time sans bear sighting. It was our last day and we considered our ideal grizzly bear sighting quite the highlight of an amazing trip! It was certainly very memorable. Seeing something I’d been dreading and fearing turned out to be an amazing experience, seeing this most wild of wild animals, the very symbol of the wilderness.

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Kettle hole at Valley of the Five Lakes, Jasper NP, Alberta. Kettle holes are formed during glacial retreat when blocks of ice get left behind. These blocks of ice later melt and form kettle holes.
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Valley of the Five Lakes, Jasper NP, Alberta