Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Aspen leaf flush

Nature sometimes acts pretty fast. This morning I drove to Edson for a meeting. By the time I returned in mid-afternoon leaf flush on aspen trees was obvious. No sign of green in the morning, and I was looking for it. Of course the fact that today was an extraordinarily warm day probably had something to do with the accelerated appearance of leaves. The thermometer at my house said +27 at 5:00 PM.

Leaf flush isn't even. Only some trees are turning green, and often they are in clumps. The clumps are actually clones - all genetically identical with a common root system. Each clone has it's own clock. Some turn green a week or more before their neighbours. It's the same pattern in the fall - some clones turn golden earlier than others.

On my drive I noted a common loon on a roadside lake and a rough-legged hawk soaring over the highway. Those are both first observations of the year for me.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Wood frogs quacking

The unseasonably warm weather of the past few days has the spring wood frog chorus going in full quack. That's what they sound like - more like a duck than a frog. I counted about 150 mostly males serenading themselves and a few females along the south shore of Maxwell Lake in the largest group. Other males were calling individually or in small groups all along the shore and in the beaver pond right beneath the observation tower. Only a few males were clutching females, and there were no egg masses. This means that the main breeding period is still to come. As the water continues to warm the evening chorus will continue to swell.

An adult bald eagle flew over the lake while I was there, and 3 Wilson's snipe swirled down to roost in the dry sedges at dusk. Robin song filled the air, along with a few dark-eyed juncos and a solitary red-winged blackbird. There aren't many birds back yet, but those that are were busy establishing their territorial claims. I wasn't alone appreciating the fine evening - I counted 74 people in the hour and a half I was there.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Gray jay nest

Yesterday while on a run I heard gray jays making a big commotion in the forest ahead. I slowed down and then stopped to watch 2 adult birds harassing a raven perched in a nearby tree. A few minutes later the raven, obviously having had enough of the frantic jays, flew off. The jays settled down immediately. Within another minute they both flew to their nest, giving away the location high in a spruce tree. I couldn't see the nest very well because of obscuring branches, but I did see the adults carrying food to the nest and carrying away fecal sacs, so I know there are young in the nest.

Gray jays are among the earliest nesting of our local birds. Often the dark fledged young of the year accompany their parents about the same time as migrants arrive and start building nests. The photo with this article was taken by Dan Strickland and it illustrates one of the risks of nesting early. Gray jays are very tough birds. I was thrilled to see this first ever, for me, gray jay nest.

Vandal hits nestbox

I thought about it. I knew better. I did it anyway. I put a nestbox on a living black poplar because I didn't want to prune limbs from a nearby spruce tree. I thought, it's pretty unlikely the beavers will come all the way down to this end of the lake just to cut down one little tree. Ha! A lot I know. As you've guessed by now, the beavers cut down that poplar. They chopped up the tree and ate every last bit of the twigs and bark. Donna LeLacheur called today and said she and Jodi Archibald had fished the waterlogged box, still attached to the remains of the beaver's feast, out of the lake and would I like to come and pick it up. Thanks for helping out and yes I would. The box is now at home drying out before I put it up again. And this time it won't be on a deciduous tree!

The waterfowl have returned to Maxwell Lake. This evening there were a pair each of American widgeon, bufflehead, and common goldeneye on the lake. The goldeneye and bufflehead are the target species for the nest boxes. It's ironic that the ducks arrived on the same day the vandals struck. Oh well, these vandals were just after a square meal. Or maybe they don't like ducks for neighbours.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Lots of beavers

Maxwell Lake is almost completely ice-free and the beavers are enjoying their freedom after a long winter cooped up in the lodge. Both adults and a long yearling (almost 2 years old) were in the main lake this evening, and 4 short yearlings (approaching their first birthday) were near the lodge. Three  young girls followed one of the adults down the channel toward the lake and they were thrilled when it swam under the bridge at their feet. The picture with this post is that animal after it climbed out for a look just above the bridge. It's just diving back into the water.

At the lodge the youngsters were clipping and noisily munching on green shoots from the sedge clumps at the edge of the pond. Three of them were engaged in this activity right below the pond tower. The light was too poor for good photos. I got lots of blurry shots that could be called abstract or artistic if one was in a charitable mood. I deleted them. The light was good enough for video though and I got a couple of short videos that were pretty good.

This evening also marks the arrival of the first singing male red-winged blackbird of the season, and I heard 2 wood frogs calling from 2 separate locations. With a few more warm evenings the frog chorus should start to build quickly.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

An early spring flower

Catkins of poplars and willows have been in bloom for several weeks now. I found new blossoms of the prairie crocus in Jasper on March 28, but those spring pioneers don't grow at the Beaver Boardwalk. The flower in the picture is from the Canada buffaloberry, a low deciduous shrub of dry habitats that's common in the Boardwalk area. The showy but very small yellow flowers aren't open at the Boardwalk yet but the flower buds are swelling and should open soon. This picture was taken today on a warm open slope about 20 km west in Jasper National Park.

Sheperdia canadensis has many common names, including buffaloberry, soopalalie, soapberry, and foamberry. Male and female flowers appear on separate plants. While it's easy to miss the tiny flowers, the clusters of shiny red berries that appear in summer are hard to miss. I'll cover them in a future post.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Return of the geese

OK, the photo doesn't show geese, but read on... Last night the mercury dropped to -9 and today was raw, windy, and cold. Much of the beaver pond and about half of Maxwell Lake had been open water but now a thin clear sheen of new ice covers all but the middle of the lake. Spring is still pushing ahead. At dusk a single honk heralded the arrival of a Canada goose pair, who glided in and landed on the ice near the lake tower. I 'm sure they will check out the waterfowl platform. There's been a crow checking it out plenty lately - the black bandit shown in the photo. I think it's been having a feast on the grass seed I spread a few weeks ago. Or at least that's what it seemed to be eating. I hope it doesn't get all of the future greenery.

At the west end of the lake two beavers were having supper along the shoreline. They have been back in the lake and actively cutting fresh willow shoots for almost a week now. Pussywillows seem to be a favourite.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Beaver close up

Open water is still in scarce supply at the Beaver Boardwalk, but every day a little more appears. This evening a large adult beaver surfaced from under the ice right beside the boardwalk and posed for this portrait. Then it climbed out of the water and ambled up the dam to cut a willow shoot, which it dragged the rest of the way up the dam. After towing the branch to the lodge the beaver submerged with it's supper, which was no doubt shared with others inside.

Six people were fortunate to see this display of calm nonchalance within a few meters, talking and taking photos all the while. I got a couple of great video clips as well as some good stills. I'm going to set up a YouTlube account and post some of the better videos soon.

Woodpecker stripes

Many people know that denuded tree trunks and piles of bark scales on the ground at the end of winter are the work of woodpeckers, but have you ever noticed the striped scaling pattern on living pine trees created by the king of the scalers, the three-toed woodpecker? This photo, taken yesterday, shows fresh horizontal stripes created by methodical exploration for the larvae of bark beetles. I know they're fresh because the bark scales were  on top of last fall's needlefall. Close examination of the pattern shows a shallow irregular furrow created by the bird's bill striking sideways blows. I've often watched three toed woodpeckers working industiously across and up and down tree trunks. In this case bark beetle galleries and chambers were hard to find, indicating that the woodpecker did a lot of work for little reward.

Once one knows what to look for, pine stripes are actually fairly common in our local forests. For some reason stripes are usually only on one side of the tree, and that side often faces an opening.

This second photo shows what happens when a woodpecker locates bark beetle larvae under the bark. The stripes merge to form large patches, and if you look closely you can usually find larval galleries and chambers with missing larvae - clear evidence that the woodpecker got a meal. Three toed woodpeckers spend the winter finding and feasting on bark beetles that have attacked dead or dying trees. Evidence of their work is everywhere at this time of the year.

And soon, the sound of drumming will announce the start of the woodpecker breeding season. More on that in a future post.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Pileated woodpecker sighting

This afternoon I went back to check out the pileated woodpecker excavation I found on March 28. I don't think the birds have done much since, but I'll keep watching. I also checked a tree used for nesting a decade ago for new sign, because pileateds often reuse old nest trees. Sure enough, there were a few handfulls of fresh chips on the ground. Another one to watch.

Yesterday Diane Renaud saw a pileated woodpecker chiselling holes in the roots of a dead black spruce beside the boardwalk on the upstream loop. The bird was after carpenter ants, which is both the favourite food and diet mainstay of our largest woodpecker. Fresh excavation sign is all over the boardwalk area, which is another sign that the local pair of pileated woodpeckers will nest somewhere in the vicinity this year. During the nesting period pairs pick a nest site and then don't go too far away until the young leave the nest. Lots of sign in an area during the nesting period is a sure indication a nest isn't too far away.

A Raven's Nest

My running route this afternoon went to the top of the Just Giver trail west of Happy Creek, which is where I spied a bundle of sticks in the forked top of an aspen tree that wasn't there last year. Whacking the trunk with a stick rewarded me with the silent exit of an adult raven. Likely the pair is incubating eggs right now. It will be interesting to watch the progression of the raven family over the nesting season.

Ravens, red-tailed hawks, northern goshawks, ospreys, and bald eagles are the main builders of large stick nests in our area. Raven nests are often near openings, sometimes in isolated trees. Goshawks and red-tails are more secretive, locating their nests below the top of the canopy in denser forest. Ospreys and eagles make massive nests, often in the open near water, that they add to year after year.

Other big birds, especially our 2 largest owls, use old stick nests for their own nests - great gray owls and great horned owls are the likely opportunists. You never know what might be on top of that platform. Several years ago a researcher studying American marten sometimes found his radiotagged animals loafing on stick nests on warm days. A nice private breezy place. What more could a snoozy marten want?