Thursday, June 21, 2012

High Waters

With all the rain we've had lately Maxwell Lake is filled to overflow levels. This means water is going out both ends of the lake. It flows east towards the Robb Rod and west over the beaver dam and down Happy Creek. The beavers have their dam fully repaired and the water level is where they like it. Unfortunately, that level floods the gravel trail at the west end of the lake to a depth of several centimetres. Just enough to get wet if you have low shoes. A little more gravel to raise the trail is once again in order. I think it settles a bit year over year and needs to be replenished for that reason.

These boys have figured out how to get across the flooded area without getting wet. In fact they were having a lot of fun!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Mourning Cloak Butterfly

Every spring I look forward to the first appearance of my favourite butterfly - the Mourning Cloak. It's usually one of the first species to appear because it is one of only a few butterfly species that overwinters as adults. All they need is a few sunny hours to awake from a form of hibernation and make their first appearance. The newly emerged butterflies seek a mate and then the females lay eggs on tender green leaves as they start to appear. Willows and members of the poplar family are favourite host plants. Then the adults die and we have to wait until later in the summer to see this spectacular butterfly again.

The name is an English translation of the common name for this species from Germanic languages. The English themselves call Nymphalis antiopa the Camberwell Beauty. Mourning cloaks have been out for a few weeks already this spring but it took until today before I met up with one while I was carrying a camera and had an opportunity for a shot.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

April Showers Bring... Grebes!

The ice came off Maxwell Lake around midweek, which is a little later than average. Maxwell is usually ice-free before other area lakes, so early migrating waterfowl always find it an attractive stopover. Friday evening April 27 was a special event - 3 grebe species were on the lake. There was a group of 25 red-necked grebes, all tucked in and resting after probably a long flight. Scattered around in singles were 4 horned grebes. These birds were all diving for dinner. Once came up with a large leech that it proceeded to batter and toss for several minutes before it went down the hatch. The last grebe was a single bird that rarely shows up in this area - a pied-billed grebe. It was close to the red-necked grebes, which made me think it might have been migrating with them. I think this is only the 3rd record of pied-billed grebe that I have on Maxwell Lake in 25 years.

Unfortunately I didn't have a camera with me. I went back the next day and there were just 2 red-necked and 1 horned remaining. The first photo is of the two red-necked grebes. Amazingly, the horned grebe had another leech - what are the chances of seeing that on 2 consecutive days? This time I got a grainy photo from long distance. You can clearly see the leech curled in a reverse J dangling from the bird's bill.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Tracks in the Snow

This photo was taken last month along Pinto Creek north of Hinton. Although it had snowed since the critter that made the tracks passed by the story was still pretty clear. The tracks were made by a river otter. Two clues are distinctive. First, the track clearly shows a pattern of a few jumps followed by a long groove. This is typical otter behaviour. Otters never run if they can slide! The otter took a few strides then slid on its belly. Second, the track leads directly to a hole in the ice, which the otter used to access the underwater world that holds the fish it depends on for food on a year-around basis.

River otters regularly visit the Beaver Boardwalk. Unfortunately they always seem to time their visits to when I'm not there. I get about 2 reports a year from Boardwalk users saying they saw an otter. Lucky them! Otters are uncommon in the Foothills area and not many people are fortunate enough to spot one.

Barred Owl Nestbox

Another experiment in assisted housing is underway at the Beaver Boardwalk! Using plans from a barred owl research program I built a nestbox in the hopes of attracting a pair of house-hunting barred owls. The box is made out of 3/4 inch pressure-treated plywood screwed together and chained to a big white spruce tree. Barred owls are cavity nesters but they don't make cavities. Also they are pretty big - much too big to fit into a pileated woodpecker hole. So they have to find a large natural cavity to nest in. In our area a study some years back by Lisa Takats Priestley found them nesting mostly in large balsam poplars or aspens with natural cavities formed by large branches falling off or the trunk breaking to expose internal rot in a chimney cavity which is open to the sky. I hope the pair that lives in the Maxwell Lake area will eventually find their new option and decide to move in. I don't expect much action this year as I believe the pair has already found a nest site.

The photo shows me posing with the installed box about 20 m up a big spruce tree. I'm not going to disclose the location because owls need their privacy, but I'll keep watch and if a pair moves in I'll let folks know and offer guided tours on request.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Another Sign of Spring

Pussywillows have been out for a few weeks and now the aspen buds are starting to burst in Hinton - fuzzy catkins are starting to grow. This early sign of spring is welcomed by black bears, who have been out wandering for a week or more already. Black bears climb aspen trees to feast on the catkins early in the spring because they are one of the first palatable and nutritious foods available to hungry bears. So if you see a bear up an aspen tree at this time of year you have a pretty good idea of what it is up to.

First Beaver of 2012

An evening walk on April 3 resulted in my first beaver sighting of 2012. This animal and one other were on the ice at the lodge. It looks like they chewed a hole in the ice to get out for a little fresh air. One of the animals spent about 5 minutes enlarging the hole and the sound of those powerful incisors chiseling ice was pretty loud in the still evening air.

Maxwell Lake and Happy Creek are still locked in ice and the lake level is still low from when it was lowered last fall to make it easier to relocate a section of the boardwalk. As winter releases its grip the lake will rapidly refill. A few warm days should get the water flowing.