Category: Alberta


Grieving Marmot

While scientists struggle to objectively test and quantify animal intelligence, thoughts and feelings, I think most people will agree that intuitively animals are capable of many of the attributes that previously were thought to separate us from the rest of the animal world.

A recent example for me was when I came across a hoary marmot that had been killed on a road. The adult female was still lying on the pavement, so to limit the potential of other animals meeting the same fate, I moved the body a short distance away. As I was about to leave I noticed a young marmot watching me from a nearby rock crevice.

Marmot dead kit approach BW WM

I moved back to not interfere and watched as the young pup approached its deceased mother. The pup tentatively approached the body and after an initial assessment it frantically tried to pull its mother into the burrow.

With the body weighing several times more than the pup, it wasn’t strong enough to get it completely inside the burrow and after several minutes of trying, it gave up. However, instead of leaving, it started licking its mother’s face and intently staring at her.

Licking mother BW WM

Marmot dead kit eye stare BW WM

This was repeated a few more times before the pup stopped and came out of the burrow to sit next to the body. Over the next several minutes it rested on the mother while glancing down at her.

Mourning marmot BW WM

It sniffed her paws and laid on her chest.

Marmot kit in arms of dead marmot BW WM

About an hour after the pup had found its mother it turned away from the body and slowly moved off to another burrow.

Mourning marmot 2 BW WM

As I left the area I starting thinking more about what I had just witnessed.  I realize that my observations are subjective and I can’t say with any scientific certainty that the marmot was grieving the loss of its mother. However, what is scientifically known is that the portion of the brain responsible for intense emotions and grief is present in all mammals, not just in humans. Scientists have reported mourning in other social animals including elephants, great apes, dolphins and domestic dogs to name a few. Furthermore, recent research involving the prairie vole, a small rodent that forms strong, monogamous bonding with a mate demonstrates that they enter a grief like state at the loss of their partner and can even succumb to depression during this period of loss.

Hoary marmots are also highly social rodents.  Pups spend the first two years with their parents and siblings before they go off and form their own families. They are known to recognize individuals, greet and groom each other, engage in play behaviour and spend the winter hibernating as a family. Therefore, intuitively it just makes sense that they would experience some level of mourning at the loss of a close family member. Proving it scientifically will be difficult, but I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

What do you think?

 

 

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Like many, owls are one of my favourite groups of birds to photograph. Early this summer I had an awesome week with 3 different species ranging in size from tiny to tall, endangered to numerous, with all of them having the common theme of putting on a great display of flight for me.

It started off in Grasslands, with the charismatic, endangered burrowing owl that came to hunt insects right next to where I had set up my gear.

Burrowing owl flight forward WMNext stop was Banff and my good owl luck continued with the first animal I came across being an impressive great grey owl. It was conveniently perched right next to a roadside pullout, and didn’t seem bothered at all by the traffic. Despite being so visible, most people didn’t even see it as they drove past! He’s an image as it hunted for a vole in the grass.

GGO flight motion feathers eye WMLater that same day I got a tip about a northern pygmy owl hanging around the area. Sure enough, after a bit of waiting I spotted this tiny little owl. It flew directly into a tree cavity before I could get a picture, so I waited for its exit. I barely had time to prepare. It seemed to almost shoot out of the cavity, and as I held the shutter release button I wasn’t sure if I was quick enough. It wasn’t until I got home and downloaded the images that I found this one.

Northern Pygmy owl flight cropped WMNeedless to say, it was a great week of owl photography and one I won’t soon forget!

Backlit Bear

Backlit griz version 4 WMA grizzly bear steps out of the shadows in the Canadian Rockies.

Photographing wildlife in their natural environment can be very frustrating with many hours sitting and waiting with no results to show for it. Often times there may be beautiful light but the animals are not around and other times it’s the reverse. On the rare occasion when both light and wildlife come together, the hours of patience seem worth it.

This red fox had just returned to the den to deliver a freshly killed rodent to the hungry kits and as the kits ran off with their meal, the adult sat down and stared at me. Up until then it had been mainly overcast, but as it overlooked their territory the sun briefly broke through the clouds and created a spotlight of soft light just long enough for me to get this photo. Gotta love it when everything comes together like that!

Foxy Vixen WM

Yellow Lady Slipper, named after Aphrodite’s slipper was in full bloom in Banff National Park last weekend.

Yellow_Greater_Lady_Slipper_spider_WM[1]I’ve spent countless hours hiking and exploring off trail areas in Banff and this was the first time I have come across this stunning orchid in the park. These orchids are common throughout Canada but are becoming harder to find in certain areas as more people illegally pick the flowers, collect the seeds or try to transplant the entire plant to their backyards. Since this orchid relies on several highly specialized soil fungi to survive, transplants or trying to grow them from seed are rarely if ever successful. Plus few people have the patience to wait over 7 years for the plant to mature enough to produce flowers.

For those that aren’t terrified of spiders, have a closer look and you will see a crab spider, which relies on stealth and potent venom rather than a web to ambush and paralyze their prey. Pollinating insects have to climb into the goddess of love’s slipper to get to the pollen, making these flowers perfect hunting grounds for these spiders. This little spider had just caught lunch when I came across the plant.

Frisky Grebes

Spring is in full swing in Alberta and the migratory birds have returned to their breeding grounds.  This includes the eared grebes, which are well known for their elaborate courtship dances.  Once paired up, it doesn’t take long to get down to the business at hand.

The first task is for the pair to build a small floating platform of vegetation and mud anchored to underwater plants. This platform needs to be large enough to allow the female to rest on it and sturdy enough to hold the weight of both birds.

Eared grebe female mating platform WM The female then crouches down onto the platform and tries to catch the attention of the male. This particular male seemed to be a bit slow and needed a few hints before he clued in.

Eared Grebe presenting to male WMAfter figuring out the not so subtle clues from the female, he quickly swam over, leaped up onto her back and precariously balanced while copulation happened.

Eared Grebes mating WMNo more than a few seconds later, the male used his large, lobed feet to paddle his way forward over the head of the female and back into the lake. Not the most graceful technique but given that they are the most abundant grebe in the world, it seems they have things figured out!

Eared Grebe pair WM

Northern Lights photography has been my Achilles heel for the past few years. I either saw great displays but did not have my camera equipment or I stayed up late and waited with my gear but the lights did not materialize. Finally everything came together this week in Banff National Park. It was worth the wait and lack of sleep!

Nothern Lights version 2 WM

Great grey owls are the tallest owls in North America, and yet they weigh about half as much as snowy or great horned owls. They are in essence giant fluff balls and need to always be on the lookout for potential predators. I found this great grey owl on a recent trip through the Rockies. Surprisingly, it was out hunting during the middle of the day, when many of its potential predators were out and about. It was on high alert for large raptors and when it spotted a circling red-tailed hawk, it immediately went into defensive mode. It locked its eyes on the hawk, fluffed itself up and tried to appear as intimidating as possible.

GGO high alert WMDeciding that the intimidation factor wasn’t having the desired results, it made a quick retreat!

GGO launching into flight WM

Heading to the ground allowed the owl to both hide under the bushes and provided camouflage. Any attack from the hawk would allow the owl to roll over on its back and use its talons to fend off the raptor. If you’ve ever come across an injured owl or hawk on the ground, you’ve probably experienced this same strategy first hand.

GGO on ground WMAfter several minutes the hawk soared over to another meadow and the owl relaxed. With the coast clear, it flew off low to the ground.

GGO flight exit WMThis process was repeated a few more times, but with the spring rodent supply being so plentiful the easy prey must have outweighed the hassle of putting up with the pesky hawk.

Spring has sprung in the mountains!  Several of the frozen lakes are starting to thaw and within the past week Canada Geese have returned and the Tundra swans have stopped in on their long migration north.  Tundra swan and Canada goose WM

With only limited options for food and open water, this swan made sure the goose gave way when it came over to investigate the open shoreline.

Tundra swan icebreaker WMAfter gobbling up all the available food the swans went searching for other options. Unable to break through the ice, the smaller of the two birds waited for the other one to lead the way. The larger bird would heave itself up onto the thin ice and use its body weight to break through. Occasionally the smaller of the two would nudge the bigger bird forward until they eventually reached the next feeding area.

Tundra swans take flight WMAfter about 40 minutes of feeding and preening they started nodding their heads and making soft calls to each other.  Their heading nodding increased and the chatter grew louder as they built up their motivation to take flight. Between now and May they will fly 6000km to their breeding and summer feeding grounds in northern Canada and Alaska. It’s always great to see them when they pass through Banff.

For those familiar with the Bow Valley Pack of wolves in Banff National Park, it has been a very unusual winter. At this time of year with luck, persistence and knowledge of wolf movements, it’s not uncommon to come across the pack of wolves that frequents the Bow Valley.

BVWPEach winter they travel throughout their territory between Banff and Kootenay National Parks. This winter the pack appears to have splintered with what appears to be only a few juveniles remaining. No concrete information on what has happened to the breeding adults (known locally as ‘Faith’ and ‘Spirit’) has surfaced, but with no sightings of them over the past several months the most likely explanation is that they are no longer alive. Both were getting up in age with each estimated to be around 9 and 11 years old.

FaithIn Spirit’s case, his canine teeth were worn down almost to the jaw line and after most hunts it was not uncommon to see him and Faith limping around for several days or weeks. Only three wolf pups were born in 2014, down from their usual number of 6, which was another indication that their time as the resident pack in the Bow Valley was coming to an end.

SpiritIf indeed they are no longer alive, it will take a while before a new wolf pack moves in and gets established. Time will tell, but for the moment it seems the wolves of the Bow Valley are in a state of flux.

Sunshine

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year Pika WM

May your year be full of awe inspiring landscapes, remarkable wildlife sightings and an even greater appreciation for the natural world!

All the best,
Owen

Ramcicle WMIt’s big horn sheep rutting season in Alberta and the big rams are at their most impressive. Covered in snow and ice, this ram was filling up on minerals, with some of them sticking to his lower lip, before heading up the mountain to battle with the other rams for breeding rights.

Rocky Mountain Moose

It’s relatively rare to see moose in the Rockies. I see more wolves and bears than I see moose, but late fall and early winter always seem to be good times to run into them. You would think it wouldn’t be hard to  find them when they weigh around 500kg and stand about 2.5 meters tall at the shoulder, but this bull was only given away by his prominent set of antlers while he bedded down during a snow storm.

Moose antlers snow fall WM

Two other similarly camouflaged bulls were resting nearby, but when they got up and started moving towards the larger bull it didn’t take him long to get their attention. He stood up, flattened his ears and strutted over to them.

3 male moose standing WM

Bull moose will posture before ever sparring and the smaller bulls quickly realized they had no chance, put their heads down and got out of his way.

Moose retreat WM

Satisfied with his work, the big bull turned and had a look at me. I had placed myself next to a large tree just in case I needed to make a quick escape, but I guess he didn’t feel I was even worth trying to scare off since he just turned around and went back to feeding on willows. I was just fine with that!

Bull Moose Antlers WM

Drunk Bohemians

It’s the weekend and the holiday season is in full swing!  For many that means having a few drinks and while we may think we are unique in the animal world for liking to consume alcoholic products, sometimes overindulging and getting ourselves intoxicated, there are many other species that do the same thing. Sometimes on purpose, sometimes by accident!

Waxwing morning frost WM

Take these Bohemian waxwings for example. Recently we treated several of these birds that came into the wildlife hospital with various injuries related to trauma. In early winter and spring it is common to come across large numbers of these birds on the ground, unable to fly and appearing drunk. They are in fact drunk!  Many berries ferment on trees and in Alberta a good example is mountain ash, a favourite of bohemian waxwings. If they don’t overindulged they are usually fine, but if they get a little carried away, they consume enough alcohol that they start falling out of trees!

Waxwing Frozen Berry WM

Some get picked off my cats and other predators, some recover soon enough to fly away and some try to fly but end up hitting windows, cars, buildings, etc. That’s the most likely reason why we had a handful come into us earlier this fall. We put them through our recovery program, which consisted of fluids, pain killers, rest, and a diet of non-fermented berries. They quickly sobered up and after several days, any lingering sore muscles, aches and pains were gone and they were ready to rejoin their flocks. Not too different from many people during the holiday season I would say!

Waxwings feeding WM

Bow River Magic WM

What better way to start the day than with a view like this?

Have a great day!