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

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.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Back Seat Action

     I drove away from the ritzy downtown hotel with my elderly guests and within about thirty seconds, I could fell movement from the back seat. There was some groaning and grunting as well as heavy breathing. Then there seemed to be sounds of exasperation and impatience but being the gentleman I am, I did not look back to see what might be happening.
     I was driving a happy couple to their fifty-fifth wedding anniversary celebration at a posh hotel in downtown last night. On the way to their celebration, she nattered on about the weather, the news and other polite subjects. I asked, “What was your wedding day like?”
      She was pleased to recall in her mellowed but obvious English accent: “It was 1961 when we were married in the Lake District of England and it was a beautiful day, sunny, warm and everything was perfect. Then we honeymooned in London. The hotel was grand, we went to the opera and a show and just wandered downtown. We ate delicious food and it was all very nice and we had a grand time.”
     I picked them up after their supper a little after nine and they both slid, or shall I say manoeuvred themselves into the back seat of their sedan, a favoured position for lovers as I can recall from my youth. He is right handed so he took the passenger side and she took the seat behind me, the driver. He wore his grey suit with dapper red tie and she wore a beautiful, but modest, knee high dress with red jacket and accompanied jewellery. He is of medium height and slightly overweight complete with thin comb-over and she is a tall, slender, beautifully coiffed and sophisticated proper English lady.
     As I drove I could hear their frantic but excited directions;
Peter, “Can you help me darling? Can you find it? Pull it out."
Jean; “Yes, here it is.”
Peter; “Lift it up, that’s it.”
Jean; “Can you point it over here dear.”
Peter groaning; “Twist it round?”
Jean impatiently; “Can you feel the slit?”
Peter excitedly; “Oh yes, here it is. Can you lift up a bit? Oh damn, I missed.” More grunting and thrashing around.
I drove on with a grin on my face. I can just imagine the frustration of it all in that tight backseat, and at their age.
Jean: “Come on darling, try again.”
Peter; “Lift up and twist it round. Pull it sideways, that’s it, I can feel it, aahhh, there it is if I can just push a little harder. I can almost reach it now.” More grunting and heavy breathing and the car is shaking.
Suddenly there is the sound of a “click” and a sigh of relief. “There it is, we managed it. We got the seat belt attached.”
     I smiled with relief as I was about to pullover to give them a hand.

     What were you thinking?

Monday, 1 August 2016

North Saskatchewan River Trials

          Last week I heard about a heavy oil pipeline breech that occurred along the North Saskatchewan River in Western Saskatchewan. This spill is not that large in comparison to others but is estimated about 250,000 liters, equal to about two and a half rail cars or seven B-train truck loads. The main problem with this spill is that it is close to the water intakes of several cities and towns downstream. Water had to be shut off for the cities of North Battleford and Prince Albert. This is a major disruption to businesses and life-styles of the people in these cities and smaller towns. It may be weeks before these water systems get back to normal. 
North Saskatchewan River Near Oil Spill Location After 6 days

     I drove out there to see for myself what it looked like. I stopped at three different places along the river, within a few miles of the leak. This is a slow paced, meandering river, about 200 to 300 meters wide and dotted with islands and gravel and sand bars. It is silt laden and at this time the river level has dropped from the higher levels of a week ago due to heavy rain and warm weather melting snow pack in the mountains. I could not see any evidence of an oil spill. The oily sheen on the water shown on television reports is not apparent to me now. If I did not know better I would not have believed that a heavy oil spill had happened just upstream. There are still many people working on the river with boats, booms and equipment of all sizes and shapes trying hard to recover as much oil as possible.I could not see any oil on the beach or smell any in the air. Husky oil is taking this spill very seriously.
Oil Booms, Men and Equipment Working to Clean Up Oil Spill

     I don’t know the size of pipe that allowed the oil into the river or the pressure that the oil moves through it. I don’t know how far from the breech that a shut-off valve is located so whatever is in the pipe still has to drain through the break once the valve is shut off. You can imagine how much oil might be in a pipe that is 36” or so in diameter and several miles from a shut off valve. All of these stats will come out in the investigation into this incident.
Abraham Lake in Winter

      The North Saskatchewan River begins its prairie meandering from the Eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, drip by drop from the Rocky Mountain Icefields and snow pack. It is fed by numerous tributaries as it flows through the foothills and then into Abraham Lake backed by the Bighorn Dam. From this dam the river continues its eastward trek through Rocky Mountain House, past Devon then through Edmonton. It is contained within a major river valley as it continues eastward into Saskatchewan and through North Battleford then through Prince Albert before joining with the South Saskatchewan River, about 1400 kilometres from its source. The combined rivers eventually flow into Tobin Lake and onwards to empty into Lake Winnipeg which empties into Hudson Bay through the Nelson River system.

      The trials of this river system began over two hundred years ago with the fur trade, exploration and settlement by the British and Hudson Bay Company. The river systems that flow into Hudson Bay drain more than one third of Western Canada and were the main highways and exploration routes toward the riches of the new land. Fur was the hot commodity of the day especially beaver. Beaver were almost wiped out due to high demands of the European fashion trade. Beaver pelts as well as other furs such as wolf, lynx, and weasels were traded for beads, colourful cloth, steel knives and axes, as well as muskets and powder which quickly had the natives reliant upon these modern conveniences.  Missionaries followed the fur trappers to isolated regions in their attempts to convert and educate native people to Christianity. Alcohol was added to the trade goods over time which did no good at all for the traditional way of life for the native tribes.
Westhazel School 1912 to 1958
About 150 years ago the first settlers surged across the broad prairie landscape after escaping Europe in search of free land and resources. Farmers turned over the rich and diverse prairie in hopes of growing wheat. Spectacular forests were laid flat and turned into lumber and railroad ties. As the railroad expanded westward it carried floods of people searching for a new way of life far from the ravages of crowded England and Europe. There was little thought given to the changing landscape. Within a few years Bison herds were totally wiped out to make way for cattle and fenced farmland. Less than a hundred years ago oil was discovered at Turner Valley in Southern Alberta and then after the Second World War it was discovered at Leduc, on the breaks of the North Saskatchewan River in central Alberta. Since then there has been a constant and determined race to find and extract as much oil and gas from the prairie and forested landscape of Alberta, Northern B.C. and Saskatchewan as possible. Once the oil and gas has been found, it has to be transported by truck, rail or pipeline to be refined and then distributed to end users. In Canada it would be almost impossible to find anyone who does not use oil products. Heat for our homes, fuel for our cars directly or through the use of plastics, paints, preservatives, clothing and almost anything else you can name. Oil products are also one of our main exports and tax bases which fuel our vibrant economies and consumeristic lifestyles.
Rail versus Pipeline
     Forestry is another of the main industries which we depend upon for employment and taxes. Vast tracts of Boreal forest is harvested along the upper reaches of the North Saskatchewan River and its tributaries. There is an ever increasing demand from the forest from home builders and pulp and paper. Lumber, raw logs and pulp is exported around the world on the backs of trucks, rail and shipping. In order to supply these demands, roads are bulldozed into the wildlands and blocks of timber are cut down, dragged out then trucked to mills for manufacture. As more and more timber is harvested, companies expand into steeper and more rugged terrain. The more ground opened up, the more strain is put on the landscape, the creeks and rivers as well as the critters that live there. 
Foothills Cut blocks Planted to Singular Species Pine

Harvested trees are replaced with planted trees but much of the rich natural diversity of the original forest takes years to be restored. In some cases, newly planted cut blocks are sprayed with herbicides to reduce grassy competition.
Slash Pile Waste to be Burned

     Agriculture is another one of the main industries that feed our insatiable economy. Farms are getting larger as margins get smaller so there is tremendous incentive to produce as much as possible from every arable acre. Low areas are drained, bush land is cleared and any native prairie land is plowed under in the attempt to grow grain or feed livestock. Artificial fertilisers are spread in greater volumes and more herbicides are sprayed to kill any weeds that may compete with the growing crop. Pesticides and fungicides are sprayed as well to kill off any voracious predator of our canola, wheat, corn or peas.
Agriculture and Oil Mixed Land Use

     In agriculture we have exchanged a very diverse mix of plant life for a singular crop which is great for the farmer but not always the best for our landscape. Pesticides reduce the good bugs as well as the bad ones. Honey bees are one of the good bugs that are harmed by pesticide spray.
Sprayer Tracks into Wheat Field. No Weeds or Bugs Allowed

     Each of our main industries occurs on the drainage system of the North Saskatchewan River. Forestry occurs in the upper drainage region of the river. Many of the tributaries that drain into the main river contain large tracts of land that have been logged off. The loss of the mature forest causes rainfall to run off quicker, snow melt to happen faster and the land heats up more causing the small streams and creeks to warm up faster. Warm water holds less oxygen than colder water resulting in stress to bugs and fish living there. Extraction roads and creek crossings result in greater siltation of the small water courses with the faster runoff of rain and snow melt. More access to the land adds stress to wildlife trying to survive in the busier land. Caribou, for example, require old growth forest, are stressed by loss of suitable habitat to wander through while searching for unique food and stress competition from other ungulates and predators such as black bears, grizzly and wolves. Our government is now out in the forest shooting wolves from helicopters and setting poison baits in the hope of reducing predatory pressure upon dwindling caribou herds. They should be reducing resource development in caribou habitat and allowing forests to regrow before more land is opened to resource extractors.

    All-terrain vehicles are now exploring the back country where they could never get to before. With more access roads being built, ATVs can easily expand their range. They cause noisy disruption and stress to wildlife that are always on high alert to the dangers humans present. ATVs are also one of the major causes of landscape degradation due to rutting, mudding, stream bed disruption, erosion and access in winter time for wolves to caribou and sheep habitat on snowmobile trails.
ATV Rutting. These ruts are knee deep

     Oil and gas extraction occurring within the river drainage system require cut lines and roads to open access to miles of back country that was previously wilderness. Road and pipeline right-of-way’s reduce forest cover and increase traffic to sensitive wildland habitat. Erosion, access and stream bed destruction all add stress to the landscape including the river itself. Every year we hear about a pipeline that has spilled major quantities of raw oil into a muskeg, a river or onto the landscape somewhere. These spills are very difficult and expensive to clean up. There is no way to recover all the oil spilled into any of the watercourses. The spilled oil is extremely toxic to wildlife living in and around muskeg, lakes and rivers.

     I cannot imagine how they would clean up such a spill in the winter time. It would be impossible to clean up under the ice and snow covered stream. We are not sure about how differently the oil reacts to icy cold water in comparison to the warmer water in mid-summer. As the oil slick moves downstream, it will continue to affect each watercourse it flows through. Codette Lake, Tobin Lake are both reservoirs that are created by dams on this river near the town of Nipiwan. Both lakes are lined by resorts and are great fishing destinations. As this oil slick continues downstream it will continue to impact and add to the cumulative stresses of the countryside, the people and wildlife that live in the region.

     I have to ask myself how much more can the river take? What happens if a large spill happens upstream of Edmonton? This large city cannot shut off the water intake for very long before it becomes a major hardship to over one million inhabitants. Edmonton is threatened by possible spills from rail way or trucking accidents. It is threatened by pipeline breech or refinery accident. Every day, the river itself as well as the lakes it flows through are threatened and polluted by increased siltation and chemicals washed into it through storm drains. People who pour paints and chemicals or medicines and cooking grease into drains or who wash their cars on the driveway threaten the health of the river, one small drop at a time.

     Farmers add tremendous chemical loads to the river through runoff from fertilised and sprayed fields. Fertiliser loads in the river add to increased algae levels in lakes it flows through or into. As the land heats up, so does the river and lake water temperature which promotes algae and weed growth which uses up valuable oxygen required for fish. Chemical pollutants flowing into the river also add to the toxicity of the river water requiring more cleaning before human usage.

     The North Saskatchewan River contains about 10 species of fish including the rare Lake Sturgeon which some anglers are now catching with some regularity. They do have to be released but how much stress can they take? How much fish can we safely eat that are caught in the river?

     Let us consider the cost of human exploitation to the land itself. What value do we put on pristine wilderness and plentiful wildlife? How valuable is it to us to be able to show our grandchildren a clean landscape where we can see a grizzly bear or a caribou? How can we rate or compare the value of our life to the life of the other creatures of the land or the health of the land itself?
Wild Horses in Clear Cut. Can we not all live in harmony?
Are corporate profits and stock holders share values really more important to the future long-term health of the earth? I know that we have to make a living but do we need to extract all of earth’s resources immediately to appease our insatiable money greed? Can we not slow down and rebuild or restore the habitat that we are damaging before we move on to the next project? How many companies do we see use the land, remove the resource then claim bankruptcy leaving their environmental damages in their wake? It seems that they are playing a game and never had any intention of reclaiming their damages. There are now thousands of abandoned well sites and mines scattered across Western and Northern Canada that nobody will clean up until the government may do some. Is the North Saskatchewan River, or any other river, going to be able to handle the increased requirements on it to feed our growing population as we pave over more pristine forest and farmland? I fear for its future.
North Saskatchewan River Bridge at Ft. Saskatchewan
What is the value of clean water and land?