February 17, 2018: As I stare out the window at an all-day blizzard, and daydream of Spring around the corner, my mind drifts to new life and ducklings, and trips over this memory of a humorous encounter from two days before Mother’s Day, 2015.
There’s a spot on the southwest side of Michaelbrook Marsh, where, if we leave the open playing field and sneak through the long grass, and carefully make our way around the wild roses, we can observe a log that often hosts a Great Blue Heron using it as hunting platform. More likely, though, it’s occupied by bale of Western Painted Turtles.
On this day in May, however, approaching very cautiously, I was delighted to find a mother Hooded Merganser and her chicks sitting between a pair of turtles. Fascinated, I recorded the scene. When I got home, my imagination took over, and this fantasy played out. And, while admitting that I speak neither Merganserese or Turtleian, I’m confident that this is what was happening….
So the turtles were acting as guards, lookouts, really. Mom was busy just watching over her babies. Boyfriend Pete is, as is the Hoodies’ custom, nowhere to be found at this time.
Among the chicks, most, as is normal, were simply sunning and being good.
But Georgetta and Herman (on the right) were restive, the brother, in particular. Click any image below to enlarge it in a new tab.
A couple of days later, this incident apparently forgotten, I observed the chicks having a ball in their bathtub, making as many bubbles as they possibly could….
I recently published a piece on the Great Blue Herons I encounter on my beat. This is an update with photos from the mid January into the beginning of February 2018.
We’ve had a mild winter (so far) compared with last year’s.
January 2018 much warmer than January 2017, esp. first half! Great news for herons!
A quick note about Sir Ralph, the subject of this piece, originally written for a response to a post on my Flickr site by a Texas colleague who expressed admiration for this bird struggling with our harsh Canadian climate:
On Sir Ralph of Thomson & Michaelbrook Marshes and Belmont Ponds
“Like many of us Northerners (aka Canadians, esp. the BC variety), he finds ways to enjoy every season, and here, in Kelowna, considers winter less “rigorous” than “stimulating.” Since this winter has been much milder than 2017, he has no trouble feeding himself as there has been some open water somewhere in the Marsh throughout.
And now, still in the first week of February, with the RWBlackbirds already back, staking out their territories, there is continuous open water — I estimate the Marsh to be 95% ice free. Although it may snow overnight and melt during the day, Ralph prefers this climate to Coastal rain. His prodigious plumage protects him and promotes his claim to regal status….
As you can see in a later post, he even engages in thespian pursuits when the muse seizes him…. Recently, he performed scenes from Richard III, not because he’s in any way like Shakespeare’s arch-villain, but because he’s versatile enough to play roles from villainy to virtuousness, a virtuoso in fact!
Next to Kessie, the resident American Kestrel, Ralph is one of the most likeable denizens of the fen, even if he rarely smiles (see photo below). He’s got the same dry sense of humour that my dad passed on to me….”
December 2017 ended with a promise of a repeat of January’s frosty days. Turned out to be hollow. Here’s Ralph on December 30:
By January 20, the Marsh had changed radically:
At the end of January, we caught up with Sir Ralph in the smaller of the two Belmont Ponds that he also frequents (as well as Michaelbrook which is still quite frozen at this time). While there was only a little open water under the bridge over the very short connecting creek, he was surveying his options very carefully.
He was smiling as if he had inside info about an early Spring…. Time will tell.
He can make himself look tall and slim, but sometimes, methinks, he over estimates his “invisibility”….
Two days later, I visited Belmont again, where I found Sir Ralph indulging his passion for the theatre in a marvellous presentation of scenes from Shakespeare’s Richard III….
If you’re just looking for information on Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias), I very much recommend this website: it doesn’t have my photos, of course! heron conservation
Published December 20, 2017: Title to be sung to “🎶 If I had a hammer…🎵.” Click here to open a performance in a new tab. Ignore the brief delay while it loads….
Actually, the title should say, “If I had a dollar — ever’ time some’un asks me— if I’ve “seen the heron” —, I’d be able to buy — that new lens that I covet!” (Repeat.)
But that’s much too long a title.
I wrote about Great Blue Herons(Ardea herodias) in my piece on water birds of 2016. In this post, however, I want to give the GBHEs their own place to shine, with a retrospective of some of the fascinating individuals I’ve been privileged to met….
NOTE: Click any single image to enlarge it in a new tab….
On “my beat,” I see numerous GBHEs, many with features of appearance (that can sometimes betray me!) and idiosyncrasies that enable me to recognize them, even, Gob fordib, to name them. The one I know best was already named by the residents on Belmont Pond — “Ralph.” Nobody really knows if he’s a Ralph or a Ralphina, but that’s the burden shared by all herons I know….
In the three years we’ve been here, I’ve discovered that Ralph is the calmest, most photographable of the GBHEs in the area. I encounter him in other locations besides Belmont Pond, including Thomson Marsh’s West Pond, and Michaelbrook Pond. Other herons also frequent these locations, but regal Ralph stands out, so much so that I’ve taken to calling him Sir Ralph of Belmont.
I think this is Ralph, because I’ve watched him move from this location to Belmont and from Belmont to Michaelbrook and from there back to West Pond. Other herons, of course, may share these locations, so then I have to fall back on Ralph’s calm demeanour which sets him apart from most of the others I observe. However, since I don’t want to strain my credibility, I’ll drop the naming aspect and focus on the photos….
So here from my growing, indeed, groaning, Great Blue collection are some favourites marked with the dates (yrmmdd) when I stole their souls:
Herons in Belmont Pond: As long as there’s some open water in either of the two Belmont Ponds (connected by an intermittent stream) we’ll see herons. The young ones sometimes take a while to catch on to the mystery of Hard Water….
Click any of these photos taken two monthslater to enlarge them all…
Different ice and a big stretch…
Trying to levitate, perhaps?
Sticking his neck out…
and walking the walk….
The juvenile below photographed in a similar pose to 151122 bird, almost two years later, — struggling with soft water….
Five days earlier, near the same spot:
171216: Yearling Noogye watching the large Belmont Pond freeze….
On high perches and in flight:
Capturing herons in flight is always a bit of challenge, but rewarding when you succeed….
Click any of these photos from 150922 to enlarge them all…
Neck bent; not at the destination yet….
This tree looks suitable….
When gliding towards a landing, or making a short takeoff and landing, GBHEs often stretch their necks out like the ones below:
Click any image to enlarge them all and read the full captions….
161101: Sentinel of Michaelbrook with a splash of late Autumn colour.
171216: Sentinel of Michaelbrook awaiting snow….
161225: Thomson Brook North: Wary of the Hawks.
Winter GBHEs are no less discriminating…
And finally (“Whew!” you say), a few portrait shots:
And most recently, from December 30, 2017, in Thomson Marsh, West Pond….
NOTE: If the cursor changes to a hand over any photo, click to enlarge the image in a new tab.
On our very enjoyable visit to my cousin’s farm near (tent-caterpillar-free) Maryfield SK, which I mentioned in Part 3, we also enjoyed a special moment with these little guys:
Eventually, I got too close, I guess, and Francis disappeared with the the others. I thought I should have a look around the back side of the granary, and, as I moved carefully in that direction, who should come round the bin, but Francis, as happy to see me as I was him — maybe not, but the backlit shot here is a memory I’ll keep alive as long as can!
It’s hard to say why this felt like such a blessing. Of course, they’re cute, but they can be a pest on a farm or even an urban environment. I often used to see them in Sapporo, where I lived from ’89 to ’02. In the spring of 1990, I’d had a delightful encounter with a family of Hokkaido fox kits near the top of an urban ski hill not far from where I lived.
Since returning to Canada from Japan in 2002, I hadn’t seen any foxes in BC or elsewhere. It was just a coincidence that this summer, my cousin was not keeping chickens as she often does, so she and her husband were enjoying the foxes, too, and told me where to look for them. This is a memory I’ll cherish as long as I’m able to!
The next day, we pushed on — across the border into Manitoba where we hoped to do some birding around the village of Melita and to camp in the Turtle Mountain Park before visiting Whitewater Lake the next day. Then we’d be on our way to Winnipeg.
Well, the birding was okay, no caterpillars to contend with. Not fantastic, but okay. Turtle Mountain, however, turned out to be so much less than I’d imagined all through my youth when I looked south from the Trans -Canada Hwy on our regular visits from our home near Winnipeg to Moosomin where my grandmother lived, and the farm which Alec and Iris took over in the 1950s. My research with Google Maps indicated that there was a decent road from west to east through the Park. That did not pan out. So, enough said; what’s a little wasted time?
We headed north to Boissevain, a town I’d long known of but never visited, in hopes that we could camp there. When the campground proved quite unsatisfactory (I’ll spare readers the details), we thought we were stymied. Once again, ended up at Subway for dinner where we enquired of one of the employees as to where we might find a decent camping spot. He immediately and strongly recommended a place that hadn’t even come up on our searches, a spot called William Lake Provincial Park. We decided to have a look. It turned out to be one of our favourite camping spots of the summer. Not that we have many photos to show for it! Fortunately, Nana took some with her iPhone.
Some of its features couldn’t really be illustrated with photos: June 2 — no caterpillars!Clean heated washrooms with showers and hot and cold water! Wonderful morning birdsong —particularly a lovely House Wren that really didn’t want to pose for pics as it foraged among the oaks. Free firewood! And we had the place almost entirely to ourselves…. Until the next morning (Friday, June 2) when, as we were leaving, we found the gate that had been dark and unstaffed the night before, now processing a line of cars coming in. As the exit was closed, I went in to pay for our night’s stay, only to be informed that we would also be charged the $5 day pass fee for Friday, as well. I explained that I didn’t that was reasonable, and I was “let off this time”…. Good ol’ Manitoba. (BC did away with day passes several years ago….) If they had simply rolled the five bucks into the camping fee, we’d never have minded. Funny how that works: don’t nickel and dime me; in fact, I’ll give you a dollar if you don’t!
So, off we went, backtracking to Whitewater Lake, which also turned out to be a mild disappointment. Although it’s quite large, there’s a long spit that stretches out from the marshy shores and has an observatory gazebo of sorts at the end. Unfortunately the road/walkway out to it had been washed away recently and we couldn’t get to the end. While we saw birds including Western Grebes, a Cattle Egret, and other waders, gulls, and more, they were generally too far away to get decent shots.
There was also a small domesticated herd of bison on the shore in the distance. And, as usual, the gusty wind that helps account for the lake’s name was less than wonderful!
So, back to the plan: drive across southern Manitoba through places I’d know of nearly forever but had never to my recollection ever visited: Killarney, Cartwright, Crystal City, La Riviera, Pilot Mound, Manitou, Morden, Winkler, Carman, each with it’s own claim to fame that I’m not going to go into here….
If the surprises of the day, to this point, had been less than memorable, what happened in Killarney, a town of 2200 with its strong pretence of an Irish heritage, was not only remarkable, but wonderful. I’ll get to why in a moment.
First, though, this bit from Wikipedia:
“The Town of Killarney was officially incorporated in 1906 [KAR —about the time my grandfather began homesteading near Moosomin, SK]. An Irish land surveyor named John Sidney O’Brien named Killarney Lake (before that, it was called Oak Lake by the aboriginal people) after the Lakes of Killarney, in Ireland. Legend has it that as he sat on the shore of the lake, homesick for his native home, he took a bottle of “Good Irish” from his pack and, pouring it into the water, christened the lake Killarney. The “Irish”-ness of the community is often used as a tourist attraction with things such as green fire engines, Erin and Kerry Parks, Little Irish Downs, and many other good Irish-themed attractions used to play up this theme. Killarney, Manitoba does not have any actual connection with the town of Killarney, Ireland. Most of the people who originally settled the region were from the Scottish Highlands, the English or were Mennonites or Hutterites of Central European extraction.”
What will stick in my mind most, however, are the images of this clean, charming, progressive town. Although Highway 3 allows one to bypass it, that would be a great mistake. My advice? Turn off the highway, and drive towards Killarney Lake, not “man-made,” but certainly human-enhanced. Stop at Erin Park and look for Blue Jays, Grackles, and lots of other birds.
Enjoy the families playing in the park and its fabulous Water Bucket Splash! I’d never seen one of these; instead of simply shooting a video, I took bursts of the bucket filling, then dumping its contents over the delighted children. The process takes much longer than this animated gif indicates — we miss the wonderful suspense…. When I got home, I rued my “mistake” until I found software online that allowed me to make this image. Turns out my blog doesn’t allow me to upload videos anyway!
What blew us away, however, were the White Pelicans, a bird I’d long wanted to photograph! We have ’em in BC, of course, but they’re only rarely seen at either The Coast or in the Okanagan Valley. I had no forewarning that I’d see them here, so the surprise was truly thrilling. Our first look came at Erin Park where we saw them at a distance both in the lake and in flight. It never occurred to me that I could get better shots than the ones below, so I happily accepted what the lake was serving.
First views: click any photo to enlarge them all….
Pelicans erythrorhynchos arriving….
Landing, er, watering?
Youngster or done breeding?
Ready to breed….
An even better surprise lay in store, however. We got back into the Murano to go uptown and find some lunch. First, we had to cross the bridge. And there they were: the main flock — so close in some cases, I could barely fit them into my viewfinder. Took a jillion photos and still managed to leave some great shots wanting to be taken, like a conflict in which a Red-winged Blackbird objected defiantly to a Pelican cruising too close to shore. Nana urged me to capture the moment — it went on for several minutes — but after getting the shots below (and a whole lot more), I figured I could come back after lunch and likely find this behaviour again. I was wrong. I know, I know! I should always take my wife’s advice!
The closeups: Click any photo to open it, enlarged, it in a new tab.
And, of course, there have to be more flight shots! Click any photo to enlarge them all….
Pelecanus erythrorhynchos in flight – one!
Five! Enough already!
Many of these shots were less than perfect. If I lived in Killarney, I’d be down here every day honing my skills and working the light! I think, now that I’m home and looking more closely at the map, that there are probably several other parks and ponds I’d be checking out on regular basis. Will I ever get the chance? Time will tell….
(The last part of Day 10 is included in the follow-up post….)
From the thrills of Grasslands National Park, it was a half-day’s drive to our next planned stop, Moose Mountain Park, near Kenosee Lake, Saskatchewan, not far from where my grandfather and later my uncles had farmed from 1905 until the 1970s. As it turned out, we wouldn’t stay on Moose Mountain, but continue on to Moosomin where my Uncle Alec and Aunt Iris live now, and where I had lived from 1946 to 1950.
We chose to continue along Hwy. 18 and to enjoy the sparsely populated flat lands. Stubble from last year’s crops lay unplowed, and, as I was to learn from Uncle Alex, not about to be; back in my youth it would have been yearning for burning. In our times it will most likely be seeded over directly by equipment like that shown below in an earlier post.
Unfortunately, as we took few photos on this stage of the trip, I’ve had to link to/borrow some Internet images to illustrate highlights of this day.
At Mankato, we decided to change our route and head north to Hwy 13, which would take us across to Weyburn and through southeastern Saskatchewan’s oilfields.
At Lafleche, a small village that celebrated its centenary in 2013, where we bought some pastries at a small cafe-general store, we discovered that our left front tire was leaking air. We’d had a similar problem before much earlier in the Spring — a slow leak that could be “fixed” for several days by simply adding air. When we couldn’t find a place in the village with an air pump, we headed back to the highway. And there we found a huge implement repair/machine shop, Jason’s Agri-motive Parts Supply, staffed by a single employee, a gentleman who insisted on putting the air in himself and refused any payment for the service.
As we continued east, it wasn’t long before the tire warning light lit up again and we realized we had a bigger problem than we’d assumed. We managed to reach Assiniboia, 45 km from Lafleche, a welcome change from the tiny hamlets we’d been driving past.
Assiniboia is a thriving town of 2400 whose commercial district along the highway stretches over a kilometre and includes all kinds of farm and travel-related businesses. We found a Subway for lunch and a Kal Tire* to repair the tire (which they did right after their lunch break, with great efficiency and good humour. While we did not take the tire guy’s invitation to visit their “world famous art museum,” he made it sound very impressive. We left this town with in high spirits and a great appreciation of the progressive side of small town Sask., even though we didn’t expect to be able to fulfill his farewell “See you again!” We’ll remember this bustling place. (Curiously, Wikipedia’s write up of Lafleche is more than 12 times as long as Assiniboia’s, even though both are about the same age and Assiniboia has had an exciting history. The decaying, old villages seem to be all about remembering. The newer, burgeoning centres are much more about growth….
* I knew Kal Tire as a BC company only. Finding one out here was a great surprise, so I looked the company up on Wikipedia, where I discovered: “Kal Tire was started in 1953 by Thomas J. Foord and Jim Lochhead with the goal of servicing the commercial logging operations that operated in the Okanagan Valley around Vernon, British Columbia and Nakusp, British Columbia by building customers’ trust. Kal Tire was named after Kalamalka Lake, the prominent “Lake of Many Colours” landmark in Vernon. The company is still based in its birthplace of Vernon. Since 1953, Kal Tire has expanded steadily. Kal Tire comprises 165 company-owned branches, 49 independent associate dealers, 11 mining/industrial/commercial locations, 10 retread facilities, one OTR plant and four distribution warehouses. The business covers a market that includes British Columbia, Alberta, Yukon, Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Northern Ontario, parts of Southern Ontario and Quebec, as well as mining operations in Mexico, Argentina, Chile, South America, the United Kingdom, Ghana and Australia.” Who knew?
Pardon the digression. From Assiniboia we continued onto Weyburn, a much larger city of nearly 11,000, a regional centre in the heart of Saskatchewan’s oil country.
Weyburn can promote itself. It was of interest to Nana and me for it’s “famous people,” including, according to Wikipedia:
• Pat Binns - former premier of Prince Edward Island
• Graham DeLaet - professional golfer
• Shirley Douglas - actress; ex-wife of Donald Sutherland and mother of Keifer
• Tommy Douglas - Baptist preacher, politician, recipient of The Greatest Canadian award in 2004, strongly associated .....with Canadian socialism and the introduction of medicare in Canada
• Eric Grimson - former Chancellor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
• Brett Jones - professional football player
• Guy Gavriel Kay - writer
• Trenna Keating - actress
• Brendon LaBatte - professional football player
• Jackie Lind - Emmy Award-winning casting director.
• W. O. Mitchell - writer
• Mark Steven Morton - writer
• Humphry Osmond - medical researcher
• Derrick Pouliot - professional hockey player
• Dave "Tiger" Williams - former professional hockey player
Many of these names are familiar to Canadians of a certain age, like yours truly. We stayed long enough for the driver to take a short nap in a pleasant park. I’ll remember it as a quiet, almost sleepy town, but that’s on me, not the local government and Chamber of Commerce….
We continued east through the still active oil fields surrounded by farmland, somewhat behind schedule, but still with plenty of sunshine, towards our first camping experience since the near washout at Waterton Lakes. Past tiny villages — Forget (probably For-zhay, originally, not For-get, but now more the latter than the former), Kisbey, and Arcola to Carlyle, a town of 1500 at the foot of Moose Mountain Provincial Park. After “dinner” at a DQ, headed north on Hwy. 9 for the short drive up into the pond-pocked park.
On the screen door of the campsite office, I noticed a rather large number of caterpillars. Inside, as I enquired about the campground, another man came in and engaged in a rather heated discussion with the office attendant about the threat of the tent caterpillars, which, I learned for the first time, were not only ravaging this park, but had spread across the prairie provinces. According to the man, who had just driven down from Yorkton, 165 km north,and which we would visit on our way home from Winnipeg, Moose Mountain park was about to be destroyed by these “worms” if the park didn’t do something! —spray — immediately! The attendant explained that she didn’t make policy, that she was sure the park authorities were dealing with the issue, and that she would pass his comments on to them. In the meantime, I had reluctantly decided we didn’t want to be dealing a carload of tent caterpillars for the rest of our trip.
Moose Mountain Provincial Park and the Village of Kenosee Lake are taking precautions against the invasion of the forest tent caterpillar.
Joan Adams, Parks Manager at the Moose Mountain Provincial Park, explains that the park and village had an aerial application of Bacillus thuringiensis (BTK) in order to keep the bugs at bay.
“They did the whole park and the village on Friday.”
She adds that BTK is a bacteria, not a chemical.
“It’s absolutely not a chemical. We don’t allow chemicals to be sprayed in the park. And it has no effect on anything but the caterpillars, so even if a bird comes and eats the caterpillar, it wouldn’t affect the birds. It doesn’t affect humans or pets or wildlife.”
And the spray has seemed to work so far.
“We were told to expect a moderate to severe infestation but the spray from all accounts, has really helped to knock the numbers down. It’s not going to get them all and we’ve been told that it’s a one to three year cycle and last year was the first year that we’ve ever had tent caterpillars in the park. We still have some but I was just in the campground and it’s actually looking pretty good in there.”
She adds that campers can also prepare for the caterpillars as well. “If campers are going to come, there lots of homemade applications like oil or water mixed with a little soap. If they want to bring a spray bottle when they are in their campsite and they see some, go ahead and spray them just like you would at your residence or at your cottage.”
So much for birding in this area! Even birds don’t like to eat these larvae! Soooo, we called Uncle Alex and Aunt Iris to tell them we would be arriving in Moosomin a day early. They very graciously invited us to stay with them. Family hospitality at its finest! Nana was greatly impressed. (Staying with family, in many cases, just doesn’t —can’t —happen in the small homes of urban Japan, and she had no rural family connections for comparison. My guess, however, is that many of the farm folk I knew of in Hokkaido would have responded in a similar fashion). Fortunately, my aunt and uncle have a spacious two bedroom apartment. We had, as I wrote in Part 3, a wonderful visit with them — despite the fact that their part of Moosomin was also plagued with creepy-crawlers trying to invade their condo!
While we were visiting Grasslands National Park, we stayed in Val Marie atThe Convent Inn, a fabulous, unpretentious bed and breakfast/inn, which we had learned about from a fellow birder/photographer from Vancouver, Debra Herst.
We greatly enjoyed our visit and are extremely grateful to Debra! Ironically, although we knew that she was travelling to Winnipeg a week or so ahead of us, we were greatly surprised to see her at breakfast on our third day. Turns out we had just missed each other, the afternoon before, at Two Trees, a small park-within-the-Park just southeast of Val Marie. We had seen Barn Swallows, Bobolinks and few other familiar birds there, but had completely missed some of the ones Debra had found, including a Great Horned Owl with two ready-to-ledge offspring. Debra gave us precise instructions on where to find them, and we shared where we had seen Chestnut-collared Longspurs the previous evening — on a route that she might have bypassed. She ended up getting great CCLO shots that dayon her way west while we returned to Two Trees for one of best days of birding on our entire trip! You can see some of other birds we photographed on the previous post — Part 5….
It was the GHOWs, however, that were, among many great moments, the most memorable! Here are some shots that illustrate why:
What made this find so special? After all, we see Great Horned Owls frequently at home, Not long before we left, I photographed a mother and owlet at the golf coursewhere my eldest son works. This, however, was the first time I’d seen an owlet on the ground.
When we found the pair of youngsters, they were both well up in branches of separate trees. One was more hidden. After getting some decent shots of the more open bird, and of the mother some distance away in a dead tree, I wandered off following some of the song birds that had made themselves noticeable (see previous post — part 5). Nana, however, stayed nearer the owls’ habitat at the west end of park.
Several minutes passed as I pursued orioles, a thrasher, and an unidentified warbler, (later ID’d as a juvenile Blackpoll). Soon Nana and I were at opposite ends of the park. Then I noticed her beckoning, rather seriously, for me to come back to where she was. She was quite concerned about Henry who had somehow managed to find the grass. Whether he had fallen, or was testing his flying skills, we don’t know. He did not seem injured, but he had clearly become vulnerable. While we didn’t want to harass him, or interfere with Nature’s plan, I did want to use my telephoto to capture the moment. Nana used her iPhone to make a short video. And here are the photos:
Nana was quite worried about the little guy, especially when he took to running, well, waddling, around, and once when he tried to slip outside the enclosing hedge and into the open grasslands, I helped turn him back into the trees and waited. Eventually, he discovered that, to some extent at least, he could make his way back up into trees. Here, he climbs a snag:
When we left, we trusted that Nature would take care of everything as Nature does. Perhaps owls are raised here every year. If you’re out that way in May, you might want to have a look. We’re certainly going to remember our experience for as long as we have memory!
NOTE: Any image on which the cursor changes to a hand can be enlarged in a new tab simply by clicking it.
Although we were excited to see the mammals of the grasslands (and there were a lot we didn’t see, like badgers, skunks, and others) it was the birds that we came here for, primarily.
So here, without fanfare are some of our favourites from this special region presented in alphabetical order.
Although I had seen this species before (not sure how long ago), this was my first opportunity to photograph it. I like the shot above, even though, he’s hiding. We eventually got more open looks when we reached Winnipeg, MB.
Barn Swallows have been a nemesis bird for me for several years. I see lots of ’em, but they’re always, it seems, on the wing. At Grasslands, I had two special opportunities to view them up close and posing, and I’m reasonably happy with the photos I got. (After returning to Kelowna, I finally found a place where, for a week or so each summer, I should be able to get BASWs, especially juveniles, taking a breather and availing themselves to photographers….)
NOTE: Any image on which the cursor changes to a hand can be enlarged in a new tab simply by clicking it.
Birdwatching/photography was a major reason for travelling to the Prairies, a bucket-list journey, if you will. In Saskatchewan, our main objective was to appreciate whatever Grasslands National Park, near the small village of Val Marie, had to offer. We expected to observe lots of “lifer” species and to get special looks at many others as well as four legged critters. We were not disappointed!
Let’s begin with the four-leggers: Pronghorns (Antilocapra americana) and American bison (Bison bison).
For a discussion of Pronghorns, right click on the image below to view the photo in a new tab and read the description on my Flickr post: It’s worth a look….
We would revisit Pronghorns, and a buck, in particular, on our return home through southern Alberta.
I was very surprised at how difficult it was, under grasslands or prairies light, to photograph bison. No problem getting “pictures” — just good ones!
“Wallowing is a common behavior of bison. A bison wallow is a shallow depression in the soil, either wet or dry. Bison roll in these depressions, covering themselves with mud or dust. Possible explanations suggested for wallowing behavior include grooming behavior associated with molting, male-male interaction (typically rutting behavior), social behavior for group cohesion, play behavior, relief from skin irritation due to biting insects, reduction of ectoparasite load (ticks and lice), and thermoregulation.
In the process of wallowing, bison may become infected by the fatal disease anthrax, which may occur naturally in the soil. The bison’s temperament is often unpredictable. They usually appear peaceful, unconcerned, even lazy, yet they may attack anything, often without warning or apparent reason. They can move at speeds of up to 35 mph (56 km/h) and cover long distances at a lumbering gallop.
Their most obvious weapons are the horns borne by both males and females, but their massive heads can be used as battering rams, effectively using the momentum produced by 2,000 pounds (900 kg) moving at 30 mph (50 km/h). The hind legs can also be used to kill or maim with devastating effect. At the time bison ran wild, they were rated second only to the Alaska brown bear as a potential killer, more dangerous than the grizzly bear. In the words of early naturalists, they were a dangerous, savage animal that feared no other animal and in prime condition could best any foe (except for wolves and brown bears). The rutting, or mating, season lasts from June through September, with peak activity in July and August. At this time, the older bulls rejoin the herd, and fights often take place between bulls. The herd exhibits much restlessness during breeding season when the animals are belligerent, unpredictable and most dangerous….”
While we were watching, along with denizens of the Black-tailed Prairie Dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) colony, we were treated to an unexpected visit from a Coyote (Canis latrans). Again, although I remember the difficulty of trying to get well defined shots, the thrill of the moment still lingers.
We would see Bison again in Winnipeg, but in a large field, not on an apparently* open range…. (*Actually enclosed by unseen fences. This is a very large park!) And there I got a closeup that I, at least, quite love:
The Black-tailed Prairie Dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) deserve a lot more space, of course, but for now, a few photos will have to suffice. Perhaps I’ll come back and add more info later. They are fascinating rodents that are being carefully weaned back to prominence as their significance to the grasslands ecosystem becomes more clearly understood and appreciated.
Prairie Dogs should not be confused with Richardson’s Ground Squirrel, commonly called Flickertails or gophers which are also found int Grasslands National Park:
Click any photo to enlarge it.
Click any photo to enlarge it.
Click any photo to enlarge it.
Finally, we very few deer on our trip. There was one particularly poignant moment, however, when a deer suddenly sprang up from a ditch. There was something else, too, much smaller that I couldn’t see at first. As the deer bounded away, I tried to stay focused on second critter which eventually turned out to be a very young fawn:
For our own memories, am providing a quick overview of routes here, and separate posts of our birding highlights.
So, the routes. Keep in mind that we never drove one continuously. There were always some stops along the way.
After a late start, under sunny skies we drove across the Prairies on a rather conventional route rather than the more southerly one envisioned in the planning stage. A rather uneventful day. Decided to take a motel at Medicine Hat, a town that did not impress us in any way. I’d avoid it if I ever drove east again.
Crossing the border from Alberta into Saskatchewan was as Uninspiring as our entry into Alberta had been magNIFicent. The brown and yellow sign on Canada’s Trans-Canada Highway simply noted the fact of crossing; no words of welcome. So uninspiring we didn’t even take a photo of it. Its message: “Saskatchewan, Naturally.” ‘Nuff said.
A few km east, we came to a tourist booth with lots of empty shelves and less-than-awesome employees. Apparently BO is not a disqualification to work there. What a contrast to the outstanding reception tourists receive when entering Alberta from BC. Sorry to be so blunt, but we were mildly shocked. Definitely not the kind of introduction a province should be proud of.
We turned south onto Highway 21 and headed for Maple Creek, which turned out, sadly, to be another dismal little village where even the Subway employees were unpleasant. Again, a palpable contrast to the friendly folks who’d served us at this chain in Waterton Lakes, (and those we’d meet later in Boissevain, Manitoba).
We continued south to Cypress Hills Provincial Park. Unfortunately, I had mixed this place up with Fort Walsh, an historic park accessible by a less travelled road and, at this point, behind us. Messed up my route. So that’s on me. CHPP, however, although it gave us a great view to the west, continued our dismal impression of this middle Prairie Province.
Click images below to enlarge:
View westward from CHPP Lookout.
A big deal if you live on the flatlands!
No need to go on about this. We had chosen to get away from the main roads and the larger towns, and we were beginning to see the downside for a province so large in area and so small in population! Saskatchewan is 94% the size of Texas, yet has a population of less than 1.1 million, a pittance compared with the Lone Star State’s nearly 28 million! (Hell, all of Canada is less than 37 mill!) Not very many people to maintain roads and services in such a vast area. And it showed.
That said, Saskatchewan is a paradox. It’s rich in natural resources, especially oil and gas and potash, as well as farmland.
While we saw lots of wealth, we also saw lots of poverty, depending on the community and region. We met some great people, too. All told, however, it’s not a place I would ever choose to live in. And I’m not even going to discuss here the tent caterpillar invasion plaguing the southeastern corner (and much more, we discovered later)!! While we saw signs of these pests in each of the Prairie provinces, they were worst in south eastern Saskatchewan. In the southwestern and Grasslands National Park sectors, however, we were still blissfully unaware of what we were heading into. More caterpillars in Part 6….
Of course, the best part of visiting Saskatchewan was visiting my uncle Alex and Aunt Iris, both in their 80s and going strong! Their hospitality was amazing. Our gratitude to them is boundless!
Another special family highlight was our visit to the farm of my cousin Michaelene and her husband Dwayne whom we met for the first time. Hadn’t seen M. since she was a teen! The farm and the equipment to operate it is ginormous! And they’re the most down to earth folks you could ever care to meet. I’ll write more about this in a later piece….