We enjoyed a magical few hours in late June at Frank Lake, a very rich wetland located just east of High River. The lake has a boardwalk and viewing area, making it very accessible for bird watchers and photographers. We arrived in the evening, just as the setting sun bathed the lake in a warm red glow. Much to our surprise and delight, a pair of Eared Grebes with two young were feeding in the shallows within a metre of the boardwalk. They were very tame, so we were treated to a wonderful wildlife viewing experience. We returned the next morning, which was even more interesting because another adult grebe with a larger baby was also feeding. It was a photographer’s dream to be able to capture these fascinating little birds going about their daily routines.
Eared Grebes are small water birds that nest in shallow lakes across Central Alberta. Once a pair has bonded (a process entailing elaborate courtship activities, which I have yet to see), they work together to construct sodden nests by heaping vegetation into a floating mound that is attached to cattails or other aquatic vegetation. Interestingly, incubation starts with the first egg, so the young hatch at different times.
Like all waterfowl, baby grebes are able to swim after they hatch. However, since they are not yet waterproof and cannot feed themselves, they spend the first few days of their life being brooded on their parents’ backs. They enter the water to defecate and splash around before clambering back on.
Each parent takes turns carrying the young on their back while the free parent hunts for small aquatic invertebrates to bring back to the “mother ship.” As the young age, the parents will encourage them to become independent by rising up in the water and flipping them off their backs. Once the young are about 10 days old, the parents divide the brood (usually only 2) and then cease parental care when the young reach 20 days of age.
Young grebes are garishly colored, with black and white stripes and bold pink blotches of skin on their forehead and around their eyes. The adults are beautifully attired, with a yellow upsweep of feathers and piercing red eyes. With legs attached at the backs of their bodies, they are expert divers. Unlike most waterfowl, they have lobed, not webbed, feet.
I highly recommend a trip to Frank Lake to see these and other interesting bird species.
For years, I have been hoping to find a pair of nesting Sandhill Cranes. They are quite common in the west country during the breeding season but their nests – usually tucked into the middle of a swamp – are notoriously difficult to find.
On May 31, a friend and I stopped by the observation tower at Medicine River Wildlife Centre. How surprised and delighted we were to spot a Sandhill Crane sitting quietly on her nest a mere 100 m from the tower! The nest location was inaccessible from the shoreline, but clearly visible and ideal for observation and photography from the tower, so I shared the location with a few other photographers.
While away for the following weekend on a trip in Saskatchewan, a visiting photographer advised that, on the morning of June 3, one colt had hatched. She was able to get some superb photos of both adults and the first colt on the nest sitting beside the remaining egg. Reluctant to leave the prairies behind (we were on a quest to find Burrowing Owls), we nevertheless decided that the crane hatching was not to be missed. So, we hurriedly packed up and sped back home.
We arrived at the tower in the early evening and watched the nest until dusk. The male did not show up, but we were able to see the colt jump around on the nest and attempt to clamber up on its mother’s back.
We were back at the blind at 6:00 AM the next morning, joined by a few keen photographers. We huddled against the wind and the mosquitoes, and our efforts were rewarded at about 8:00 AM when we saw the male amble towards the nest. As he approached, the female slowly rose up, revealing the second colt. One of the colts caught an unexpected ride up on her back. It stood up between her wings, let out a squawk and then tumbled down onto the nest. The male kept his distance, watchful and wary.
To our surprise, the two colts didn’t take kindly to each other. An energetic tussle ensued, with each trying to throw the other off the nest. The adults seemed nonplussed about the scrimmage, which eventually ended in an apparent stand-off.
We watched the new family for another four hours. The young eventually jumped off the nest and swam awkwardly through the shallows to a nearby clump of swamp grass, where they were fed by the adults. Thereafter, we caught only occasional glimpses of little rusty heads moving about in the long vegetation. The female returned to the nest a few times, once standing atop it as if examining something, but usually to dig through the vegetation for apparent morsels.
Around 9:30 AM, she returned to the nest with both the colts. After clambering back up onto the nest mound, they pressed their way under her wings and had a half-hour nap. By 10:00 AM they reappeared when Mom stood up. The three of them then left the nest to rejoin the male. By noon they had moved off quite a distance from the nest area, so we bid them adieu and packed up our things.
What a memorable nature experience we were privileged to witness!
Yesterday was a purely magical spring day. Grandson Tyson, now almost five years old, is obsessed with butterflies and frogs. With his handy little net, he spent at least an hour racing around the yard trying to snag one of the dozens of Milbert's Tortoiseshells that were feeding on the willow trees. Bree, who is two, is frightened of anything that moves. Thankfully, by the end of the afternoon we had cajoled her into liking lady bugs and butterflies. Spiders will take a bit more convincing.
We wandered down to a small pond in our back woodlot, savouring the warmth and earthy spring smells. The pond was at first quiet, so we checked around the shallows for frog egg masses. There were no eggs to be seen, but as we stood quietly by the shoreline, one Wood Frog started croaking. Then another and another. And then a few Boreal Chorus Frogs chimed in. Within minutes, a beautiful spring symphony filled the air.
As we stood in awe of the sounds, dozens of frogs appeared at the water surface. We soon counted at least 30 pairs of beady frog eyes poking out from their watery world. Most fascinating is that we saw at least 10 Wood Frogs hopping their way from the woods to the water. Wood Frogs overwinter beneath leaf litter, so we were witnessing their spring travels to the breeding pond.
These frogs were so intent on mating that they paid us no heed. As Tyson hunted the shallows (he netted 12 frogs!), I laid on the wet cold grass to watch, marvel and photograph the activities. How fascinating it was to see the air sacks pop suddenly from the males' backs as they croaked their prowess to the females. And everywhere, love was in the air: some couplings (the males climb on the backs of the females and release their sperm as the females lays her eggs) were quite civil affairs, with one male sitting quietly on one female for a few minutes. Other trysts seemed to be much more energetic and raucous, and sometimes involved many writhing individuals. I saw matings that involved the male blowing his air sacs, leaping about, and engaged in (I assume by all the splashing and movement) some amorous underwater acrobatics.
I hunted in vain for the Boreal Chorus Frogs. These diminutive green frogs sing loud, lusty arias, but they have mastered the arts of both ventriloquism and invisibility. Finally, I noticed one little green spot among the brown cattail litter. There, staring back at me, was a beautiful little individual. I was able to snap a few pics before it hopped out of sight.
Only when the sun began to set and hunger set in did we reluctantly say goodbye to the frogs. What a privilege it was to spend three glorious hours enjoying a front row seat at the most engaging, beautiful and wonder-filled symphony ever!
Alberta has four species of chickadees. The most common and abundant species, the Black-capped, is found across the entire province and is a faithful patron at backyard bird feeding stations. The less common and more habitat-specific species is the Boreal Chickadee. This brownish version of the Black-capped prefers coniferous-dominated woodlands so is seldom seen in open or prairie areas. The Mountain Chickadee is well named because its range is restricted to the mountains and foothills. It resembles the Black-capped but is easy to identify because it sports a distinctive white eyebrow. The fourth species, the Chestnut-backed, is a rarity in Alberta. A bird of the west coast, these buff-colored chickadees occasionally nest as far east as the Waterton area.
Imagine the surprise among the Alberta birding community when a Chestnut-backed Chickadee photo was posted on Facebook by Tom McDonald of Grande Cache in early January 2018. Up until that point, there were only 15 documented records of this species in the province. Then, on January 7th, three individuals were identified at the feeders of Stan and Keltie Masters near Water Valley. I was lucky enough to be able to see and photograph these birds (shown here).
The Masters live in a unique area of the province where all three "regular" species occur. What a thrill it was to see all four of Alberta’s chickadee species all at one feeding station.
Who knows where else these chickadees might show up, so be sure to keep an eye on the chickadees that come to your feeders.
The four species shown are Chestnut-backed (left) and (below) Black-capped, Boreal, Mountain Chickadee.
My last column for the Red Deer Advocate ran in March, 2018.
The following is what I had penned as my farewell.
This will be my final column for the Red Deer Advocate. Instead of writing a column with supporting images, as I have done since November 2010, I have been asked to submit monthly photos with short captions. I have greatly enjoyed penning these columns over the years and I appreciate the Red Deer Advocate for giving me the opportunity to share my writings with Central Alberta readers. I will continue to share my passion of nature photography in this paper and will continue to write a monthly blog, where more stories and photos (including of this Great Gray Owl) can be enjoyed: myrnapearman.com/blog.
My thanks to Maureen Hills-Urbat, who lives in the foothills northwest of Cochrane, for sharing these amazing videos!
Don Auten of Ponoka has captured these unique and rare flying squirrel images using a remote camera system. Thank you, Don, for sharing these remarkable images!
Northern flying squirrels are among our most interesting wild neighbours. Although they are quite common in Central Alberta, their nocturnal lifestyle means that they are seldom encountered by humans. Some bird feeding enthusiasts report seeing them dining at their bird feeders after dark (they love sunflower seeds) and there are reports of them taking up residence in bluebird or duck nestboxes.
One fellow bluebird trail operator reported getting a very vicious bite last summer when he put his hand into one of his bluebird boxes to check the box contents. The box contained a flying squirrel family—Ma was determined to protect her babies! A fellow naturalist has also documented the fascinating noctual activities of flying squirrels with the use of a thermal imager. The squirrels, which show up as red dots on the imager screen, can be seen leaping great distances between tree branches.
Despite their name, flying squirrels can’t actually fly. Rather, their patagia (unique membranes that stretch between their front and back legs) enable them to glide with ease. Apparently, they have been recorded gliding up to 100 m. They bob their head up and down and from side to side before launching themselves and, once airborne, steer with their forelegs and use their flattened tail as a rudder.
The flying squirrels’ large ears and huge, black and glossy eyes enable them to navigate easily in their night world. They are omnivorous, dining on nuts, seeds, berries, insects and tree buds as well eggs and nestlings. Gregarious by nature, they will often roost with other individuals in a roosting cavity.
Several years ago, I found the tail of a flying squirrel in my yard, the only piece left of an individual that had likely been killed by a neighbourhood cat. I remember stroking the flattened tail, amazed at how incredibly soft and delicate it was. More recently, I’ve had the opportunity to encounter flying squirrels in natural cavities and nestboxes. It is incredible to be able to gaze into those massive black eyes!
I have spent a few interesting hours over the past weeks watching and photographing birds on mountain-ash trees. Although I’ve known about these ornamental trees for decades, it wasn’t until these photo sessions that I really appreciated how much they brighten up our winter landscape and support biodiversity.
Despite the name “ash,” these trees are not related to the ash family, but rather belong to the Sorbus genus of the Rose family. Called rowan in Europe, the species’ mythological and folkloric roots stretch back millennia. Their bitter berries, which contain high amounts of Vitamin C, were commonly used for medicinal purposes and the bark was used to make an astringent.
Three cultivars are commonly grown in Alberta: American, European and showy mountain-ash. All grow to moderate heights and are tolerant of a wide variety of growing condition, traits that make them ideal for most backyards.
Mountain-ash trees offer beauty throughout the year: their white cluster-like flowers burst forth in the spring and the bright orange or red berries (called pomes) that follow will persist into the fall and winter. Because of their nutrition and persistence, the pomes provide an important food source for a variety of winter bird species.
Although Bohemian waxwings are the birds most often see gobbling mountain-ash berries in the winter, many other species will also dine on them. I have seen pine grosbeaks (shown here) and house finches feast on the berries, and a quick reference search indicates that many other species will as well: cedar waxwing, ruffed grouse, common grackle, European starling, American robin, northern flicker, Townsend’s solitaire, purple finch, yellow-rumped warbler, hermit thrush, evening grosbeak. The seeds are indigestible, so birds are responsible for “planting” mountain-ash trees far and wide.
Mountain-ash berries are subject to fermentation if they freeze and then thaw. Not surprisingly, there have been many reports of inebriated birds staggering about and flying erratically after consuming fermented mountain-ash berries. Despite this risk, I highly recommend planting a mountain-ash tree or two if you would like to attract winter birds to your yard.
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