October birding around Victoria on a wonderful weekend

Between work, shorter winter days and looking after both my foster kitten and Amber, I’ve not had much time for birding lately. Its unfortunate because I find great peace and contentment in getting outside for a walk, whether I see interesting new  birds or familiar old ones.

Back in October, however, I had what I called a birding jackpot of a day out birding followed by a second good day of sightings. After a brief lull of not getting out birding like the one I am stuck in now, I was pretty excited about my days out.

harlequinduck
Harlequin Ducks

It must be winter up north already because my first exciting sightings included some familiar friends from last winter: Harlequin Ducks! There was a a whole group of males in breeding plumage as well as a few females not far off from the rocky coastline. Later in the day, I got a very up close look at a pair in a little, less visited cove (one of my favourite spots) and was truly struck by their beauty.

 

Not far from the group of Harlequin Ducks were four Grebes, but one of them looked distinctly different than the other three. I think the trio were Horned Grebes in non-breeding plumage who where reminiscent of a trio of Horned Grebes I saw in the same spot earlier this year looking spectacular in breeding plumage. The fourth Grebe I suspect was a Common Grebe, but I can’t say for sure. I’ve not had enough experience with grebes to know for sure.

I saw a couple of Anna’s Hummingbirds about and two of them posed long enough for me to photograph them. Flitting among the driftwood and in between rocks was a lovely little Song Sparrow that no one else seemed to notice amid the spectacular views of Mt Baker and Haro Strait. That’s all right with me: I quite like having the birds all to myself.

With the arrival of some of our wintering birds like Harlequin Ducks, I was surprised to find Cedar Waxwings still hanging around, fluttering between treetops in big groups with a couple of American Robins among their number.

Posed on a rock above the water, I was delighted to see a Great Blue Heron not far from a Belted Kingfisher who didn’t stick around for long before speeding away with its distinct song. Only a few moments later, a Northern Flicker landed in its place as a Hooded Merganser swam into the little inlet. Away off on a rock-island was a group of sleeping Black Oystercatchers – the biggest group of them I’ve seen in this area yet! That day also brought me regular year-rounders like Spotted Towhees, Dark-eyed Juncos, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Bald Eagles, Common Ravens and Canada Geese as well.

The second day of my weekend, I felt really lucky again! I went off to Whiffin Spit in Sooke and the first thing I saw was a pack of sea lions hanging out offshore together! I could even hear them loudly calling among one another. There were juvenile European Starlings still hanging around along with Brewer’s Blackbirds. I saw my first Black Turnstones of the season and Harlequin Ducks gathered together on the gentle waves.

sealions
Sea lions rafting together offshore at Whiffin Spit.

I feel I’ve come a long way in the last year, not only as a birder but in my life as well. Many of these birds took time for me to identify last winter! I even remember mistaking a Spotted Towhee for an American Robin but was incredibly confused because they didn’t look like the robins I remember out east. I’ve learned so much in the last year, but there is still so much to learn, which is one of the many joys of birding!

I started with some easier bigger birds, like  herons and osprey, then worked on shorebirds at the beginning because they tend to stay still longer. Over the summer, I tried to focus on songbirds and practiced my photographing on chickadees and House Sparrows whenever I saw them.

Now my goals are to learn gulls, as I have completely neglected them so far because “they all look the same to me.” (How embarrassing…) However, I know I will learn the small differences in time if I take the time to learn.

Finding salmon in Goldstream River’s annual salmon run

goldstream

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.

 

goldstream2

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.

niagarafalls
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.

goldstreamfalls
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!

 

salmon
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.

 

MAH00587

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.

seymournarrows
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.

orcas
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.

seymournarrows2
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.

quadraisland
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.

quadraisland2
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.

quadraisland3
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.
baldeagle
Bald Eagle spotted on Quadra Island

A sunny summer getaway to the Gulf Islands: Pender Island

The Gulf Islands lie between the mainland of BC and Vancouver Island in the Strait of Georgia and are one of my favourite summertime retreats. While they are a popular summer destination, but are equally as nice in the spring and autumn, especially during the rainy season elsewhere; these islands lie in a nicely protected rain-shadow and thus receive significantly less rain than the adjacent coasts.

This chain of islands is usually split into two sub-divisions: the Northern Gulf Islands east of and the Southern Gulf Islands. The Southern Gulf Islands contain parts of the Gulf Islands National Park, as well as privately-owned land and other provincial and regional parks. The islands are serviced by a number of ferries from either Vancouver Island or the mainland.

penderisland
Looking across the water back at Vancouver Island from Thieves Bay, Pender Island. Orcas and other whales have been seen from the shore here before as they pass through the Strait of Georgia, though we did not have any luck.

This summer, my spouse and I rode the ferry over to Pender Island from Swartz Bay for a weekend and camped at the brand new Shingle Bay campground on North Pender Island. It was a nice campground surrounded by trees right on a beach, although it was completely full!

beltedkingfisher
A Belted Kingfisher greeted us as our ferry arrived at the Otter Point terminal.

At our campsite, we watched lots of Canada Geese swim by and Black-tailed Deer rustled in the bushes and climbed out along the shore. To my delight, there were nesting Purple Martins we watched in the morning and evening as they chattered away in their high-pitched peeps to one another. There were nest-boxes attached to what I think were the posts that were the remains of an old dock.

I was so excited to see the martins as they are definitely one of my favourite birds! I remember seeing them on Sidney Spit last year and I’d been hoping to see them all summer season. Being swallows, their diving aerial acrobatics are a joy to watch and their squealing and chitter-chattering calls are a happy sound to my ears! Not to mention the brilliant blue-violet plumage of the males. Purple Martins can be seen on many of the Gulf Islands’ coasts, where their recovery continues in saltwater habitats over the last 30 years. Hopefully, we will see a greater return of Purple Martins at freshwater sites in the coming years.

Elsewhere on Pender Island, there are lots of smaller community parks among the patches of the National Park that are also worth visiting! I saw a number of Pacific Wrens at one of these as well as a large variety of birds at the George Hill Community Park, which was a hidden little gem of a walk with a surprisingly lovely view from the top. On this short but lovely walk, I saw my first American Goldfinch, Song Sparrows and Olive-sided Flycatchers as well as many Spotted Towhees, Dark-eyed Juncos, White-crowned Sparrows, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, American Robins, warblers and more!

Pacific Wren (upper left), Song Sparrow (upper right), Olive-sided Flycatcher (bottom left) and an American Goldfinch (bottom right) seen on Pender Island. Click images for larger view.

Back by the sea, Brooks Point Regional Park is an interesting stop at a rocky shoreline with a lighthouse and views of Vancouver Island, Mt Baker and the Strait of Georgia.

BrooksPoint
Brooks Point Regional Park on South Pender Island looking towards Saturna Island

One of the highlights was hiking Mt. Norman, the highest peak on Pender Island (North or South) at 244m. The hike is short, but steep and not all that scenic until you reach the nice viewing platform at the top upon which you can look out south across Bedwell Harbour, Pender Island and Vancouver Island.

mtnorman
The view from Mt. Norman, Pender Island: Bedwell Harbour & North Pender Island (foreground) and Vancouver Island (background).

We later stopped at Hope Bay on North Pender Island and had lunch by the sea in the sun. Looking out on the water, a river otter swam by and climbed up onto a dock in the sun.

It was, as always, a delight to watch the otter as he rolled around and laid with his belly up, scratching his back on the dock and looking over at us every time we made a sound. Clearly, he knew we were watching him. Above the otter were more Purple Martins! They chattered and swooped and dove and I could have watched them all day if I had the time. Unfortunately, I did not and we headed back to Vancouver Island with warm, sunny memories of the wildlife and beauty of Pender Island.

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.

overlanderfalls
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?

blackbear
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)!

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

 

cinnamonteal
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.

swan
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).

americancoot
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

 

ruddyduck
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.

birdalveilfalls
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.

crocus
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.

medicinelake
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.
malignecanyon
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.

moose2

 

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.

muledeer
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.

lacbeauvertjasper
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.

grizzlybear1
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.

 

 

grizzlybear4
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

grizzlybear5
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.

killdeer
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!

killdeer2
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?

goslingscanadagoose
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.

canadagoose
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!

duckmallardduckling
Mallard mum and ducklings on a pond

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

Mallard mum and four juveniles

References
Killdeer, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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

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

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

lakelouise
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.

lakelouise2
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.

 

 

lakelouise3
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.

lakelouise4
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.

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

athabascaglacier
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).

athabascaglacier2
The Athabasca Glacier, Columbia Icefields, Jasper NP, AB.

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

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

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

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

jaspernpp
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.