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.
American Kestrels are one of my favourite bird species. Colorful, tiny and fierce, they hold the distinction of being both North America’s smallest falcon and the only hawk species to nest in cavities. Historically called the “sparrow hawk,” this species is declining across much of its range. Thankfully, they still seem to be fairly common in Central Alberta, where they are usually seen perched on power line wires or poles that bisect open grasslands and parklands. Their hunting method – hovering into the wind – is very distinctive, and the adults can be easily differentiated by their plumage: the males have blue-gray wings and a more colourful head pattern than the females.
Many years ago, I built and set out several kestrel boxes near our Rimbey-area farm. I was thrilled when one pair took up residence, offering me the opportunity to watch the adults and see the nestlings up close. More recently, I have appreciated the opportunity to check boxes with other kestrel enthusiasts.
How ugly the young are when first hatched, and how quickly they grow. Unique among birds, nestling kestrels have a very creative way of disposing of their feces; they back up, lift their tails and squirt it on the roof and walls of the cavity! I remember being shocked and surprised to open up a box with week-old chicks. I was taken aback by both their cute-but-ugly faces and the smelly fecal wallpaper they were creating inside the box.
Although kestrels will take the odd songbird, they eat mostly grasshoppers, beetles, dragonflies, spiders, butterflies, moths and small mammals. Interestingly, they can use their ability to see ultraviolet light to track voles and other small mammals by following urine trails. If hunting is good, they will cache surplus prey in/on hiding spots such as bushes, grassy clumps, tree limbs and cavities. Because of their small size, they often fall prey to larger hawks and owls.
American kestrels are migrants, usually arriving in Alberta each spring in April and then departing in October. Overwintering records are rare, so I
was grateful for the opportunity to watch and photograph a lone male kestrel that decided to hang around a subdivision south of Calgary a couple winters ago. Residents in this subdivision fed a large population of house sparrows, so this bird decided (either by choice or because of some ailment) that it would just stay behind and avail itself of easy pickings. Each day, it took a sparrow or two and, according to the bird watchers in the area, thrived for the entire winter.
If you are interested in setting out nestboxes for American Kestrels, the Alberta Conservation Association has an excellent downloadable booklet with all the details (http://www.ab-conservation.com/downloads/educational_materials/brochures/nest_box_guide_and_instructions.pdf).
I am intrigued by muskrats. Over the past several years, I’ve enjoyed observing and photographing these busy little rodents. Fall is a good time of year to go muskrat watching, as their population is high and they can be seen busily preparing for winter.
Muskrats have been in the national news recently, as animal rights groups are questioning the Canadian government’s decision to proceed with an order to kill 12,000 of these remarkable little animals so their fur can adorn RCMP winter hats. Animal defenders point out that muskrat trapping can be cruel and that an alternative insulating material could easily replace the muskrat fur on RCMP hats.
My most recent muskrat encounters, both interesting and poignant, have been at Ellis Bird Farm (EBF). Following an onsite meeting not long ago, I ambled with a binocular-toting bird watcher friend down to the dipping pier. We were pleasantly surprised to count six muskrats. What a delight it was to watch them swim by, come out of the water to retrieve grass stems to eat, and even sit beside us and groom themselves. But I was surprised the bird watcher declared that one of the muskrats was swimming with an apple in its mouth!
I immediately knew the source of the apple: about eight years ago, we planted a small apple orchard on the hillside by the Wetland Centre. The orchard produced a good crop this year, some of which ended up on the ground. The deer, the resident snowshoe hares and even the muskrats have discovered this candy store.
After watching a sparring match between two apple-loving muskrats, my friend went up to the orchard and retrieved a few more apples. She placed them on a little mud patch beside the pier and, within seconds, two muskrats were seen racing to claim the prize. The winner set upon the apple with relish and promptly slurped it down. I was thrilled to be able to photograph the action.
A few days later, I returned to the pond (with a few apples in my pocket) to see if the muskrats might still be active. As I rounded the corner by the apple orchard, I came face to face with Albert, our resident male Great Horned Owl. In his talons was a freshly killed muskrat.
Albert flew west with his heavy load. He landed in one of the large poplar trees and draped the muskrat over a sturdy branch. I slowly approached him and, for a few long seconds, we held each other’s gaze. I’m not sure what he was thinking, but I found myself pondering the visceral reality of life and death. And I fretted about the possibility that we had inadvertently set up the perfect muskrat-killing system by planting an apple orchard at a perilous distance from the pond.
It is my hope that the owls will spare a few muskrats so they can continue to grace our wetlands. I have proposed that we plant additional apple trees closer to water, so the fruit can fall into the tall and protective shoreline grass. I also look forward to offering the opportunity for our visitors (onsite and online via webcams) next season to watch and appreciate these fascinating and industrious wild neighbors.
UPDATE: I visited the pond yesterday (October 20) and there were TWO muskrats dining on apples. Let's hope that they are a breeding pair so we can have more little muskrats enjoying apples next year!
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