Friday, 27 January 2017

Beauty of Hoar Frost

     As a reward for suffering through several days of depressing fog, the sun threw back its foggy blanket revealing a crystalline coating of white brilliance covering the landscape. Every blade of grass, tree limb, fence line or machine was covered by a thick white garland of hoarfrost. Each icy crystal glistened as the sun reflected off each facet, In some places it seemed too thick and heavy to be true. The whole country was covered by it, like a blanket of snow, but not. The land looks clean and bright after the dullness of the past few days. Optimism abounds once again. The land is coming back to life as the sunshine predicts warmer weather, bad news for the hoar frost. Already I see crystals falling ground ward, nudged on by light breezes that are helping to warm the land. By days end, all branches and stalks are free of their frosty covering, revealing their true skeletal formations.

Sunburst Through Aspen Forest

      I marvel at the beauty as I travel down one of the frosty roads in Elk Island National Park looking for elusive bison or deer.
Every Tree is Lined by a Thick Coating of Hoar Frost
I spot a couple of bison as I travel down the highway. They are still in the fog but it is lifting and the fence is very well defined by a thick coating of frost.
Peering Through the Fence at Grazing Bison

Further into the park I see a Mule Deer doe with a pair of last springs fawns. They are browsing and resting amongst frosty willows.
Mule Deer Doe Browsing
If I Lay Still You Can't See Me Cud Chewing
I leave the park travelling the back roads through farm country. Even the old machinery and buildings have attracted a thick layer of frost.
Horse Drawn Dump Rake
Tractor Drawn Wheel Rake
     The beauty of the frosty landscape is a wonderment of beauty seen a couple times each year. It is rare enough in this region to be enjoyed and marvelled at each time it happens. I do not always have the time to get out to enjoy it at the right time, but this was pretty good. We live in a beautiful world.


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Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Weekend of Owls



     Owls have always been a mysterious fascination for me. I think that it may be because of their mysterious lifestyle.
     Over the past few days I enjoyed photographing several snowy owls as well as one Great-horned owl. I also spent time just watching them as they sat, all-knowing on their varied perches. Most of the snowy owls sat on tall roosts such as power-poles, barn roofs or fence posts. Two sat in the field, half buried in snow. Perhaps they had caught their mousy meal already and were waiting for me to move along so they could enjoy their lunch in peace. Each owl sat motionless with hooded eyes, with only their head swiveling to show life. They can turn their heads a full circle, or 360 degrees but rarely do so. Most often they swivel up to 270 degrees or a ¾ turn. Humans can only do 180 degrees maximum. Owls can also do a full 180 degree tilt up and down, Their eyes do not move in their socket like ours do. Less body movement makes owls less likely to be noticed by potential prey.
Male Snowy Owl

     When the hungry owl spots a meal, they lift off very quickly and glide down on muffled wings to silently grab their unsuspecting prey. Mice, shrews, lemmings, squirrels, voles, rabbits, hares, ducks, as well as smaller birds are all potential prey. They hunt from perches or by gliding over open fields and meadows or ponds. Some hunt in the forest as well. The great-horned owl often take prey such as squirrels, grouse and hares in forest landscapes. Owl nests have been known to contain pet collars as well, so mind your small dogs and cats when walking or playing outdoors. They all have tremendous eyesight and hearing as well. We used to watch Great Grey owls swoop off the tops of poplar trees and plummet into two feet of snow after invisible mice rustling around in their snow covered lairs more than 50 meters away. The great grey could pin-point and grasp that mouse using only mouse-rustling sound directed into their facial disc ears.
     One owl sat on the peak of a granary while a pigeon, a potential meal, sat watchfully in the auger hole of the neighboring granary, hoping not to become the meal.
Snowy Owl on Granary While Pigeon Watches

     Snowy owls have been quite common over the past few years far south of their normal range. This southern irruption is due to healthy owl populations in the far northern nesting grounds. Come winter time, they have been migrating south in search of food on the prairies and even along the sea shore. While down in more populated regions of the country photographers and owl watchers have enjoyed great viewing and photo opportunities which may also put some stress on the birds. Generally, they are quite skittish if we get too close to their roost. Some will tolerate us within 50 to 100 meters or so but many will flush when you get that close so they are using up valuable body fat and calories needed to survive. It is a good idea to allow them to relax and watch from a comfortable distance. Use good binoculars or a telephoto lens to get closer looks. 

Snowy Owl Watched by Cows

     Generally, males are whiter than females and the older they get the more white they are. Older adult males will have very little black barring in their plumage.
     I also enjoyed spending time with a young Great-horned owl that likes to hide out in my brother’s windbreak. His lighter colored plumage indicates his young age but not sex. Unlike the day-time hunting snowy owl, the Great-horned owl prefers hunting at night or in early dawn or dusk. The GHO prefers to roost and sleep the day away from pestering crows, magpies or threatened song birds. He may also carry part of his latest meal to his roost for a snack later in the day. I once saw one carry half of a snowshoe hare to his day time roost.
Great Horned Owl Roost

     While out hunting for owls or other birds there is always the chance of seeing other wildlife and spectacular scenery. This weekend was no exception. Several herds of deer were together, accompanied by bucks in hopes of catching a doe in heat. It is past the rutting season but there may be a chance that a doe did not catch the first time in heat.
Mule Deer Watching

     We also enjoyed a welcome Chinook as its warm wind swept across the prairie. The temperature warmed up by more than 20 degrees overnight after the snowstorm and chill of the past few days. We could see the clear blue Chinook arch hanging above the mountains to the west chasing the grey cloud cover east. Wind picked up causing drifting along fence lines and ditches as well as chasing snow snakes across the highway.
Chinook Arch to the West

      Owls are beautiful and magnificent predators and rare birds to see, so enjoy it when you do. Take time to enjoy the scenery and other wildlife, especially when the weather is so pleasant.
Relax yourself and enjoy the experience of owl watching.


Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Another Moosey Day

     The snow is very crunchy as I walk through the mature aspen forest. It is a crispy -4 degrees and the fog is just lifting with a promise of blue skies and light wind. Hoar frost clings and sparkles from every branch and rose bush thorn. I am hoping to photograph a moose in the hoar frost. Got to have a goal, eh?
Frosted Ginseng

    As I head southeast down the trail the sun tries to peak through the fog and into the forest depths. It is low at this time of year; never clearing the tree tops and glares right into my eyes and camera lens. In the distance I can hear a loud tap, tap,tap on a dead tree. I pause as I try to locate the tapper.
Tapping Pileated Woodpecker

     Eventually a Pileated woodpecker is revealed. It is a large, colourful bird with a very distinctive flight pattern that I recognise as it dips and dives toward a new tree. They are often very skittish. I wander on and enjoy the morning. It is so peaceful and quiet except for my crunching shoes in the snow. I will never sneak up on a moose with this racket. Even a bison hears me and takes off .
Watchful Wood Bison

     I enjoy many of the plants that are frosted heavily and eventually wander onto a ridge overlooking a small lake. It is dotted with muskrat push-ups and still has a narrow strip of open water. I watch in the distance as a pair of bald eagles fly beyond the horizon. I enjoy sitting here on the edge of a well used buffalo wallow overlooking the scenery absorbing the peacefulness of the world in this quiet spot. It is hard to imagine that 20 miles away is a big city with over a million people struggling for survival.

Frosty Lake Shore
     Here is a different kind of survival, a more basic type of life and death survival of the fittest and the aware. Even though I am in Elk Island National Park, the wildlife don't know what that means.They rely upon their natural wits to survive and I am a potential predator to them. I am not natural to their world. They may be familiar with my shape but I am not a natural addition to their forest habitat. I am noisy, I am clumsy, I stink and I look and act oddly. I point my large eye at them which makes them nervous. They all pay particular attention and monitor my where-a bouts and actions. All I can do is walk slowly and try not to appear too predatorial. They know I am here.

     I leave the viewpoint heading back into the forest. It is a very mature aspen forest that is heavily browsed by moose,deer,elk and bison. There is very little chance for new aspen to grow beyond the reach of the tall browsers. Most of the underbrush consists of raspberry canes, rose bushes and cropped off aspen. Plenty of sunlight penetrates the thinning aspen as they mature and get blown over. They are tall for this region; probably 70 feet or so. Most aspen around here is the Parkland type that grows very short and stunted. There are plenty of rotten snags and blow-down which I climb over. They provide nice resting spots for tired legs and aching back also.
Watchful Cow Moose

     As I walk I pause and watch often. I see a cow moose in the distance, just her head poking through the trees watching me.

Rutting Bull
A little further there is a bull watching but he is distracted by something else. It is a cow that must be in oestrus. I watch him as he is not letting her get too far away. She must not have caught during her first heat and is now coming on again.
Browsing Bull

     I see a pair of antlers and a moose lying on the edge of a small marsh. He is watching me carefully as I approach. I am sure he is the same moose that I saw and photographed a week or so ago. He is very tolerant but I take my time getting to a blown down tree upon which I sit. He has a hole through his right antler which I recognise. He gets up and begins his noon time lunch. For half an hour he browses upon tender aspen shoots and then he casually lays down and begins to chew his cud. I am only a few feet away but he is unconcerned. I snap a few more pictures and then take my leave with thanks. I am honoured to have this opportunity once again. I am humbled by his acceptance of me in this wilderness setting. Thank you.
At Ease

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Monday, 14 November 2016

Moosey Type of Day

     I thought I was treading softly and quietly through the grass and bramble shin-tangle toward a couple of bull moose that are browsing about 200 meters away in the mature aspen forest but I wasn't. Within a few steps, they take off at a brisk pace and out of sight. I carry on with faint hopes of possibly catching up but fail to see another until I almost step on him. He is suddenly standing right in front of me having been aroused from his afternoon slumber in a quiet grassy hollow. We stand stock still and analyse each others intent and then relax.
     I cautiously step back a couple of steps and snap a couple of photos while he stares me down with mild curiosity. Wanting to appear harmless and relaxed, I sit down on the wet ground and take a few more photos after adjusting my camera. He turns his back to me and stares off into the forest, ears cocked to what only he can hear. I move a couple of steps away to a fallen aspen tree and sit down more comfortably. His ear flicks in my direction and I can see him surreptitiously watching me from the back corner of one eye.
Browsing Bull Moose

     The sun is bright and warm for the 13th of November here in central Alberta  instead of cold and snow covered as it should normally be. The aspen forest has long lost its leafy foliage which lay matted on the ground, silenced by last nights rainfall. It is mid afternoon and the autumn sun sits low in the southern sky with a slight whisper of breeze wafting my scent directly toward the bull. Deep in the distant forest, I hear a woodpecker tapping his exploratory notes on a dead tree as the bull begins to munch his cud.
Bull Moose

     I take out an apple that I carry for my snack and begin chewing on that. He turns around to face me as if I invited him to afternoon lunch. He steps closer to me and begins to nip off some tender shoots of aspen about 10 feet away. I bite and chew as he nips and chews like we are taking tea together. Never have I been in such privileged company. For over an hour we dine and chat as the sun slowly settles toward the south western horizon. I have an hour to walk out of the bush so I finally bid him good-bye thanking him profusely for his gracious company. This is one of those unforgettable days that I am so thankful for. It brings us down to what is really important and meaningful in our busy lives. Two diverse species, possible predator and prey sitting down for lunch without fear enjoying each others company.