Thursday, 21 September 2017

Prairie Tour

    Beauty and wonder are everywhere, including the vast prairie of southern Alberta. We took a drive to see what we could see last weekend.
Once comfortable prairie home overlooking the land, can you imagine the lamplight welcome

     The first thing that grows on us as we travel is the distance and the size of the prairie. It is not flat, it may seem so, but it undulates and dips and rolls and then is cut by a dry coulee or shallow river and dotted with duck-dabbling potholes, small lakes and waterfowl filled wetlands. It is anything but featureless, or boring if you see.
     I often think of the pioneers and immigrants that settled western Canada and the USA who traveled across this expanse in a wagon drawn by oxen or horses. Some people went mad by the distance. For weeks they bumped and rattled and banged across the land.They came upon obstacles such as creeks, gullies, hills, bumped over rocks, forded rivers and were buffeted by wind, thunderstorms, blizzards and feared grass fires and bison. With great optimism, one foot in front of the other, they forged ahead to a lonely homestead somewhere beyond the next hill. Often their homes were made from the sod they lived on and eventually, perhaps, a small house with a wood floor. We have to remember as we travel along our modern highways at 60 miles an hour that they were lucky to cover 10 or 15 miles per day. We also have to remember that it is not so long ago, barely 120 years that Alberta was beginning to be settled and much of it in the past 70 years. My grandparents settled in Heart Valley in 1927.
Dreams, aspirations and hard work abandoned to relentless prairie elements

     I have an aunt of my Mother who left Gosper County, Nebraska in 1898 or so with three or four kids in a Red-River cart drawn by oxen headed for Wetaskiwin, Alberta, about 2300 kilometers, to join her oldest sons on their farm. She made it on her own and I can't imagine what her experiences must have been.
     Now, all we can do is admire the land and wonder about past dreams and lives as we speed past old homesteads, tumbled down log homes and barns and old school sites left, today remembered only by a metal plaque. Faded white churches and groomed graveyards dot the prairie landscape reminding us of and commemorating brave and adventurous pioneers who worked hard to build our country.
Pumpjacks, gas wells, train tracks, fence lines, and cattle all compete with native Pronghorn Antelope

    This weekend was a reminder of the durability of the place and the wildlife we watched as well as the continued trials of living on this vast land. We see so-called progress wherever we look. Gas wells, train tracks, fences and invasive cattle graze where once herds of buffalo wandered. Small herds of Antelope compete with the cattle and struggle with barbwire fencelines. Huge grass fires that are so troublesome and tragic for modern-day residents were once a natural rejuvenation of the prairie grassland.
Human-caused prairie fire killed cattle and destroyed homes and property.
     Let's enjoy the beauty that is still here despite our best efforts. The wildlife can adapt if given the chance. We see antelope grazing in harvested wheat fields and geese, grouse, and larks enjoy nothing better than a harvested field of peas or wheat.
Watchful antelope, a good looking buck watching over his harem
Curious White-tailed deer with Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes fly over antelope at smokey sunset.

      We enjoy the richly coloured sunset caused by smoke from forest and grass fires to the south and west of us.
Mule deer trail through prairie buckbrush toward early evening

     It is a good land, a resilient land, a rich land but it requires care. There is very little real prairie grassland left. It must have seemed easy to early pioneers; just stick the plow in the ground and plant your seeds. They worked the vagaries of weather, desolation, and isolation. Neighbours and friends were valuable assets, bartering labour and goods, and building communities. Piles of rocks and abandoned homes are stark reminders to us that it may not have been so easy after all.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

First Combine

      Remembering past experiences is often fun, or traumatic, depending on our perspective.
On our tour this past weekend I came across a restored John Deere 25A combine pulled by an AR tractor. This combination has been restored and is displayed by Battle River Implements at Killam, Alberta. This is the same model combine that my family first purchased in about 1963 or 64. Ours was pulled by a John Deere model 70 instead of the AR.
John Deere Model 25A
     Up front, at the bottom of the table in front of the canvass roller, there is a small square hole to drain rainwater from.It is covered by a small metal plate, to hold grain from leaking out, held on with a 1/4 inch bolt requiring a 7/16 wrench to tighten. My job was to put that plate in place every morning. I was often accused of not tightening bolts enough and losing things. One day I tightened it and then made sure it was tight by giving a little more effort, but then snapped it right off.I recall to this day the one-sided, irrational discussion there was about this broken bolt.
     If you look between the elevator, just to the left of the reel, and the hopper, I used to fit in there. It was my job to crawl up in there to hold the end of the grease gun hose to make sure all fittings got grease while the old man pumped the grease gun. Once again, there were several discussions about holding the hose straight, cleaning the nipple, getting all the nipples and is the grease coming out yet? and so on.
     Our combine had a small engine on the side which ran the combine. There were ropes tied to the seat of the tractor which were pulled to lift the reel up or down. A lever was used to lift and lower the six-foot table. No hydraulics on these machines. One of my jobs was to ride behind the 25-bushel hopper to spread out the grain so we could travel maximum distance before emptying it. We had to be very careful when emptying the hopper as the truck had to be very close as the auger spout did not stick out very far beyond the combine. Plenty of hand gestures were used to get this accomplished without scraping any valuable green paint off onto the old Ford 3/4 ton. When the truck was full, after about 3 hoppers, we shoveled the grain into the bin by hand.
     I recall a particularly wet autumn when we were harvesting fescue. Many times the whole unit got bogged down in wet fields and needed to be towed out. A troop of kids ran behind the unit filling in the muddy ruts before they either filled with water or froze in place. The big idea was finally stumbled upon by someone to the dread of my dear old mother. She was to drive the mighty BR tractor towing the 70 and combine. The thought was that if we used a long enough rope, she would be through the mudhole and on firm ground by the time the big unit got there and she would be able to pull everything through without getting bogged down.
     Now, we have to remember that the BR has maybe 30 horsepower and the 70 has about 60, so there is not great strength here, or traction, That BR could not have broken a doubled up binder twine.
     We did, however, have a cable, maybe 50 feet of it with two hooks on so that was attached to the unit. All started well, until the first soft spot. Mother was tightened right up and of course, she spun herself down to stuck. Some long-range discussions were held. Joe had to back his unit up to pull mother out. Joe could not back anything up, especially if there was a joint in the middle. The coordination required to back the tractor-combine combination up at the same time as Mother got into reverse and backing required loud 50 foot-commands that caused more noise and smoke than the two tractors and combine produced together. This is actually where global warming began.
     Eventually, all was untangled and moving forward harmoniously, until the end of the field where a sharp, left-hand corner was required. Mother got there 50 feet ahead of Joe, and she turned without looking back; I think she spotted and was distracted by some choke-cherries ripening at the edge of the field. She began to pull the 70 sideways well before the corner threatening to pop the front tire with the taut cable. Gutteral German commands frantically wafted across the fieldscape demanding order in the field. I don't know how this crop ever got harvested that year without murder committed in the fescue.
     For some reason, however, I do still look at this combine with affection. There are more stories to be told and I'm sure the combine could tell even more if it could. What a huge difference to the modern harvesters of today.
John Deere Model AR tractor with 25A combine. 60 years ago this was modern grain harvesting equipment

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Local Excitement

     We really don't have to travel far from our homes in Alberta to see exciting wildlife if we spend a bit of time. A bit over a month ago I went for a walk from my home in the center of Sherwood Park. Here is a small storm-water lake where there are several species of birds that mate, have babies and some just like to hang around. Countless Canada Geese nest and raise their broods as well as two pair of Red-necked Grebes, mallards and Common Golden-eye. In the bush and brush Magpies, Crows, Red-winged Blackbirds as well as various song birds including Robins, Sparrows and Warblers. The whole process of raising bird families is a fascinating study of behaviour, territory, love, devotion and diligence, caring and protection. Human mammals don't have exclusive rights to emotions according to birds. A pair of White Pelicans surprised me one morning and I had to run back home for my camera talking to myself all the way about always carrying the camera. "Serve you right if they fly away before you get back," I muttered. How many times have I missed a great opportunity for a good photo by not carrying the equipment, even on a short trip?
Preening Pelicans

     Two weeks ago we took a drive to the north-east part of Alberta where we had not explored before. Fay, my reliable critter spotter cried out, "An owl! I think." As I turned the truck around to go back we watched along the fenceline in the bush and sure enough, a Great Grey Owl sat watching us. I managed a couple of quick shots before another vehicle came along and we had to move.
Great Grey Owl

     Right in the town of Bonneville is a large wetland lake alive with the cacophony of bird calls. We were immediately attacked by a pair of Black Terns that were protecting their three precious eggs laid on a shallow mat of old cattails. I was promptly bombed by an accurate "crap bomber" who shot a white streak across my eye-glasses.
Black Tern with Eggs

     A little further down the boardwalk we noticed what appeared to be a dead muskrat laying on top of a pile of reeds, then two more. I was becoming alarmed about what was happening to the furry critters when one suddenly moved in Fay's binoculars. "It's alive!" she exclaimed and sure enough,with a bit of time each dozzy muskrat woke from their siesta and went about muskrat business.
Muskrat Pretending to Sleep

In the distance, on a floating reed island a very large flock of Franklin Gulls were packing sticks and reeds, darting in and out of sight with frenzied activity. Through shimmering heat waves we could see hundreds of nests and scruffy looking babies crying for food and attention. Grebe sand ducks also paddled and dove and dipped while American Coots called and darted in and out of reedy cover with tiny red-beaked black babies in tow.
Over there a muskrat dragged a freshly peeled cattail to a reed platform for it's snack.
Muskrat Feeding on a Cattail

     Yesterday I took a short, half-hour drive to Elk Island National Park to relax for a couple hours. Within a few minutes I stumbled upon a young American Bittern trying to hide amongst the cattails.
American Bittern Hiding

 This is one bird that has teased me with its distant booming call but I could not see it well enough to photograph. This day was my lucky day. I spent over an hour with it as it made its way to various cattail perches to groom and preen. It is no wonder that they are difficult to photograph. When they stand still they hide in plain sight behind a cattail or down amongst the old, bent-over mat of decaying reeds.
Young American Bittern Stepping Out

     Take a drive or take a walk and be sure to take your camera or binoculars with you. You never know when or where you will see some of Alberta's interesting wildlife.
Mule Deer Doe

Monday, 29 May 2017

Bird Photography Time

      Spring time in Alberta is always a welcome relief from long cold winters. Ice and snow disappears, daylight hours overpower dreary darkness, leaves flush and birds arrive from extended winter holidays. Geese are generally the first to advertise their arrival with loud honking and beating wings. Before dawn, I am awakened by an amorous robin trilling promises of love, devotion and fat worms to all sweethearts who can hear. In the nearby pond I can hear frogs cricking, red-necked grebes chortling and mallard drakes quacking their best pick-up lines to seemingly deaf hens. The real call of spring for me is the red-winged blackbirds territorial declaration overpowering the muttering of black American coots.
Red-winged Blackbird

     While out walking, I enjoy watching the interesting lives of the familiar residents and am thrilled when I get to see some new visitors. My faithful Leupold binoculars help with the details and nuances of bird identity but my memory is not always good enough to transfer to a guide book, so I try to get photos for ID clarification. I have found this endeavour to be very challenging and a way to add interest to a nice walk wherever I am that day. There are birds to be found on every trail and even if walking for a short distance, I can find interesting birds to watch. The everyday lives of even the most common birds is a fascinating study of lives, not unlike our own, only at high speed.
     Mates choose nesting sites with all the care that we do. They want the best neighbourhood, closest to good food, away from potential danger and a safe place for the kids to play and forage. No human family is as protective as mother goose and gander. Watch the grebes as the busily fish and forage for their new chicks and mate while she sits on her nest. With a quick call, the parents change places, allowing the brooder to groom, preen and forage. Never are the little grebes far from watchful parents.Mallard hens monitor their clutches as the ducklings paddle furiously to keep up while learning to catch their dinners.
     It amazes me how quickly the young birds change. We must not forget that they have to be big and strong enough to migrate south within about four months or less. Everyday the geese change from cute, yellow down to greenish-grey pin-feathers to the magnificence of adult plumage. Each bird has their own unique colouring, reasons unknown and cute/ugly to anyone but their mothers.
Doting Mother Goose

     While out bird watching or photographing their lives, we must be mindful and respectful to them.
It is not cool to disrupt their lifestyle as every waking moment in summertime is devoted to growing strong enough to migrate and to surviving a constant threat from predators. Baby birds are favourite food to many predators such as eagles and hawks, fish, mink and otters, magpies and ravens or crows. If photographers find a nest and spend too much time there, predators will also find it and eat the contents. If we flush the guarding parents they may abandon their clutch to try another place or time. Every time the birds are frightened away they are using fat reserves required later in the season or they are prevented from foraging to build up those reserves.
Preening Pelican

     We have to take care of ourselves too. Nobody wants to get mugged by an irate goose as they are very powerful and fearless. Watch the body language of the birds to see their reactions to your presence. If you are in a city park, you will be able to get closer than if you are on a wild lake. Wear comfortable clothing of muted colours and move slowly. Sit down to enjoy the ambiance of the place and you will find that wildlife will calm down and carry on with their normal activities. Nothing likes to be stalked. They see us as predators stalking for food that they do not want to become.
     There are many websites that help and guide us to ethical bird watching and photography.
     Get out and enjoy our natural world. Take your kids and teach them as well as the birds in front of you are teaching their broods.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Alberta Spring

      What a relief, spring has sprung in Alberta. No matter that the past winter was not too bad and certainly not as bad as it can be, the long frozen darkness is finally lightening and greening.
Canada Goose Splash-down

     Canada geese have been back from their winter holiday for about a month or so and a few hearty mallards with them. Now, with the greening trees I see most of the regular summer time birds are back with mates and building new nests. On my regular walk around the storm water Broadmore Lake, I can hear Red-necked Grebes calling as they gather nesting material.
Red-necked Grebes Gathering Nesting Material
Mallards are tipped, wigwam up, feeding on invisible-to-me duck snacks. There is a Common Golden-eye with an unusual rusty coloured cheek patch resting on the island shore line. There is another Golden-eye couple paddling and diving as they bond and get to know each other. There was even a Common Merganser pair resting on the island among several nesting geese. Magpie squawked a warning over it's covered nest while it's mate warmed their precious clutch of eggs.
Dry Island Provincial Park Buffalo Jump
       Most of all, I enjoy watching the countryside green up. With the warm sun coaxing leaf buds, then fully flushing trees with bright and fresh leaves, the drab greys and tans are highlighted with brilliant greens.
Birch Catkins

Willow and Birch catkins, Black Poplar sticky-buds and fresh leaves along with bunches of Trembling Aspen groves greening blotches on the river breaks and bottom lands bring renewed optimism to the land. This morning I could smell rain in the air blended with pungent poplar sap to refresh the cool air. What a great time of the year.
Sticky, Pungent Black Poplar

Friday, 5 May 2017

Leupold Binoculars

     A pleasant surprise came in the mail yesterday. A brand new set of Leupold 10x42 binoculars. I couldn't wait to open the package and try them out. They are fantastic; crystal clear with my eyeglasses on and without. They are light weight and comfortable to use.

     A month or so ago, I sent my old set to The Korth Group at Okotoks, Ab. on the advice of their sales rep Troy Flasch, who I met at the Edmonton Sports show. I had my previous set of Leupold Binoculars for about a dozen years and they have seen some tough use in all climates and weather conditions. I am a wildlife watching guide that has worked at Knight Inlet Lodge in B.C.'s temperate rainforest and enjoyed a Norman Carr safari in Zambia where I watched my first leopard. Those binos hung around my neck in Yellowstone and the Yukon as well as a full season with Polar bears and Beluga Whales at Lazy Bear Lodge at Churchill. I have struggled to identify thousands of birds and wondered at the delicate details of a grizzly's chin whiskers and dexterous lips. Weather has never crossed my mind when using them. Torrential downpours in the rainforest and the heat in Zambia or the frigid temperatures and snow of Northern Manitoba or Albertan winters have never caused me to hide those Leupolds in the safety of their protective case.
Leupold BX-2 Cascades 10x42

     I try now to purchase the best equipment that I can afford and these binoculars priced in the 500.00 to 700.00 range work very well for me. Believe me when I say that I have tried several different brands of cheaper glass only to be disappointed with foggy lenses, eye strain and fuzzy viewing. I am very careful about who I pass my binoculars to. People can be very careless and drop them or set them down in a puddle of mud or smear the lenses with their sticky fingers. I also hate to miss the action that occurs at the exact moment you pass your binos to a guest or wife. They should have their own set if they are going wildlife watching.
Leopard in the Grass

     Most good equipment comes with "Lifetime Warranty." Most manufacturers give you a booklet of fine print which details myriad ways for them to avoid paying out on this warranty. The most common issue used is human use. If you use your equipment you will probably damage it eventually, unless you only go to the opera. I would like to thank Troy at the Korth Group and Leupold for replacing my well used binoculars. I will continue to use my equipment to enjoy spotting and studying our fantastic wildlife viewing opportunities.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Movie Stars Move

     It requires a lot of work to move movie stars, even though they are not divas. Nothing but the best for them including fresh bedding, secure trailers, cautious drivers, nutritious food and plenty of fresh water. They get sweet treats, fresh air and even though we try to travel incognito as best we can, they do get visits by many fans.
Betty enjoying a cool bath

     Some bears require their own transportation and don't like to share accommodations or trailers. Ursula and the black bear we know as Barney prefer their own company while Betty and Whoopper like each others company but do need their own separate beds and cages. Each bed has been stuffed with fresh, dry wheat straw that the bears spread with giant paws to their own specifications and comfort.
Zeke enjoying a walk and good scratch

Along with the bears we are accompanied by four skunks, two porcupines, two American Bulldog pulling champions and a superior acting snooty black cat.
Loaded Skunks

     We are moving from Discovery Wildlife Park at Innisfail, Alberta to the Papanack Zoo at Wendover, Ontario, about an hour south east of Ottawa. Papanack Zoo has been recently purchased by new people who vow to improve conditions for their animals. Their animals are very well fed and look to be in great shape. It is not perfect but with hard work from dedicated, caring staff improvements will happen.
Whooper loading his trailer

     Ruth LaBarge is Mother Bear to this family of stars. She has raised and trained them from before their eyes were open. Ruth has been training animals for more than 40 years. She is gentle and very caring while using positive reinforcement and treats to extract bear's true desire to do good work. Ruth trains other animals as well. She has had cougars, horses, dogs, porcupines and skunks as well as other bears that have passed on. Her kids were raised around animals of all types and their Sunday outings often included hunting for baby skunks in old dumps or searching for baby porcupines. They raised, trained and showed horses for many years and travelled the USA and Canada doing shows or movies.
Ruth told me about chasing a skunk one time in hopes of capturing it. "I had a system," she explained, "but someone forgot to tell the skunk." She grabbed the skunk as it was running away and it "shot me a full load, right in the face. I had to ride home in the back of the truck, Tomato juice did nothing and there were no commercial solutions to de-skunk me. I finally washed myself in gasoline and it took several days before I didn't stink too bad."
Ruth and Skunk entering Ontario

     Whoopper is the largest bear standing eight feet tall and weighs about 1400 pounds. He is a dedicated and versatile actor with many movies and commercials to his credit. Anchorman, Last Trapper, Grizzly Falls as well as Samsung Washing Machine, American Express and many more commercials.

     Betty is Whooper's sister born in 1998 and she stands about six feet six inches weighing about 850 pounds. She also has many movies and commercials to her credit such as Anchorman, Grizzly Falls, Dr. Doolittle and Budlight, Pepsi and Rice Krispies.

     Ursula is the oldest bear born in 1993. She stands about seven feet tall and weighs about 1000 pounds. True Heart, Vikings, Ethan Allan Furniture, Twinkies and many more commercials are amongst her many credits.
Ursula enjoying final rest under her favourite tree

     Bonkers is the gentle Black Bear standing about six feet and weighing around 650 pounds. He starred in Jungle Book, Gentle Ben, Brokeback Mountain and General Hospital.
Bonkers being bribed

     Each of the professional bears has many talents including snarling, teeth showing, standing on marks, throwing things, some can be ridden, some can be hugged or sat beside.

     We loaded onto our trailers with the setting sun on March 31. Early next morning we headed east into an Albertan big sky sunrise. By the end of the day we had travelled more than 1000 kilometres to Moosomin, Saskatchewan. After feeding and watering everyone settled down for a fast sleep. The following day we travelled through water logged Manitoba where large snowdrifts were still piled into shelter belts and along the shady side of buildings. Some silt-laden rivers are roaring bank full  north toward Hudson Bay.
Good Friends

     After another long day travelling more than one thousand kilometres we pulled into one of Ruth's friends riding stable at Thunder Bay, Ontario. All critters were fed and watered and bedded down. A fine kitchen racket accompanied great food and some drinks. Every bed and couch was filled by sleeping drivers and navigators. In the morning a few good friends showed up to have photos taken with some of the menagerie. We toured the stable and admired many spectacular show horses. It was late morning before we headed toward Cochrane, Ontario. The fourth day we finally ended up at the Papanack Zoo after supper. After travelling more than 3500 kms. everyone was happy to reach their destination. It is a big and diverse country that we drove through; Rolling and flat prairies, Canadian Shield and forests interspersed by rivers, lakes and potholes as well as small towns, cities and diverse peoples.
Bobble head bear enjoying Canadian scenery

     The bears were very happy to get out of their mobile homes to roll in a mud puddle and explore their new digs. They don't seem to mind where they are at as long as Momma Grizz is nearby.