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.

 

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.

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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.

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