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

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

Back home in BC and observing some familiar backyard birds

Even though I love travelling and its often energizing and inspiring to me, I also love returning home. Besides those comforts of home, its good to be back near the ocean again, to be around familiar birds again and, of course, to see little Amber again.

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Amber in a favored spot, likely watching the birds, too.

Though not technically in my backyard, before I left, I had been watching the osprey closely. They were appearing to have begun settling in and were spending more time at the nest despite some unwelcome visitors, including a third osprey and bald eagles.

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Osprey, the sea-hawk (male), keeping watch over the area. He stayed here for a long time, possibly keeping watch out for that third osprey or other threats.

I saw them mate a few times and hopefully the female will lay eggs soon. I finally learned how to distinguish the male from the female osprey: a female has brown speckling across her breast where the male is fully white. I’d been puzzling over this for some time.

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Osprey in flight

My backyard is full of both familiar and new birds and spring activity. Where months ago, I’d seen a Pileated Woodpecker in a tree in the backyard numerous times, I heard a pecking on the tree and looked up. Instead of a woodpecker, I spotted a little Red-breasted Nuthatch in the very same tree.

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Pileated Woodpecker

I then regularly spotted the nuthatch in the tree. I wonder if perhaps he was using an old nesting cavity from the woodpecker? He seemed to be working hard every day, though, so maybe he was building his own. I love watching these little nuthatches scurry up and down the tree trunks as if gravity didn’t exist.

Its exciting to spot new birds and explore new territory, I also find a great joy in seeing regular visitors and observing their behavior and patterns. I like getting to know the locals.

 

The Bushtit was a new bird for me and was tricky to photograph as she looked very busy out gathering nesting materials before the threaten of looming rain came in the afternoon. I found her challenging to identify because of her rather non-descript, or drab, plumage.

 

Not only birds, but other animals are preparing for and taking care of young as well. I watched this Eastern Gray Squirrel nimbly climb from the ground, up a tree trunk, then across tiny branches across to another tree only to hang upside-down in order to dine on some flowers. She’d seemed to plot out the safest path to her food-source, avoiding exposing herself on open ground for too long. She was very efficient about it, which is not at all surprising considering this invasive species has found great success here.

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Eastern Grey Squirrel foraging in the trees

I am sure spring will bring other interesting wildlife and beauty, birds new and old alike, and greater opportunity to get outdoors with longer and warmer days. There is much to look forward to!