Time for amphibians to get some love. This grumpy looking character is a boreal toad (Anaxyrus boreas boreas). They range along the west coast from Alaska down to Mexico.
A common myth is that they have warts along their backs that are contagious. However, these ‘warts’ aren’t warts at all, but large glands that secrete a bitter fluid that causes numbness and irritation in the mouth of their would be predators. An important point to remember if you touch one and forget to wash your hands!
Like many other amphibians, their numbers have declined significantly throughout their range, in part due to the introduction of chytrid fungus, habitat loss and pollution. I photographed this guy near Meziadin Junction in Northern British Columbia, where their populations are still relatively stable.
Even in the USA, where their numbers have plummeted, it’s not all bad news for these toads. The first evidence of successful, natural breeding of translocated toads occurred in Colorado last year, giving hope that over time and with protected species status, they can be re-established throughout their historical range.
Those were the first two options that came to my mind as I crested a hill in Northern British Columbia and saw this creature far off in the distance.
Thankfully, it stuck around long enough for me to get closer and as it moved out into the open it became clear that it was a red fox (Vulpes vulpes) with an unusual coat. I’m not sure if the experts would call this a silver, black or cross fox? There are 8 genes responsible for coat colour in foxes and depending on which genes have dominant or recessive coding, there can be over 80 different colour combinations.
Maybe just a coincidence, but I’ve only ever come across red foxes with unusual coats when I head further north. This one seemed almost as curious about me as I was of it, giving me this questioning look before we both moved along.
When you think of the Alaskan Highway what comes to mind? Probably beautiful landscapes, mountains, camper vans and occasional wildlife sightings along the shoulders. How about a feisty beaver walking down the highway?
With no water in sight and no easy escape route from would be predators, the last place I expected to find a beaver was on a high elevation portion of the Alaskan highway in Northern BC.
Maybe it was the lure of fresh Aspen trees off in the distance or a predetermined rendezvous with another beaver, whatever the case, this one had decided to set out down the road.
As I came around the bend I had to slam on my brakes to avoid hitting it. Of course my next reaction was to pull over, grabbed my camera and start taking photos. After all, who would believe me if I said I saw a beaver walking down the Alaskan Highway?
After taking the above photo, I got out and tried to coax it off the road, but the plan didn’t really pan out the way I had drawn it up. Instead of leaving the road the beaver sat down and silently sized me up. It wasn’t budging and if anything it seemed more determined than before to stay put on the tarmac.
After sizing me up, the beaver stood and slowly stalked towards me. Then, with an unexpected and surprising burst of speed, it lunged forward as it let out menacing hiss. I had to quickly jump back to avoid being chewed on, but a new plan came to mind.
I used the beaver’s fighting spirit to lure it off the road and into the nearby ditch just as a car came around the corner. I can only imagine what they were thinking when they saw the beaver walking behind me alongside the road!
The morning after photographing Fire Fox the same fox, now several miles from where I first found it, was feasting on a snowshoe hare. After burying a few mouthfuls to lighten the load, it neatly folded the rest into a bundle and made the long journey back to the den to serve breakfast to its family.
I came across this gray wolf in Muncho Lake Provincial Park in Northern British Columbia.
If you spend any time photographing wild wolves, they make it clear from their body language if they are relaxed with you around. This 2-3 year old wolf (based on body size and teeth condition) could have cared less that I was just a short distance away. It kept its ears forward, jaw relaxed and pace at a slow trot, paying no attention to me while scanning the clearings for any caribou or stone sheep.
The entire sighting was over within a few minutes as it disappeared into the trees, but like with any wolf encounter, it left me with an adrenalin rush that kept me going for the rest of the day.
A determined chipmunk precariously balanced on the branches of a willow before it plucked the buds and scurried down the tree to safety. I took this photo earlier this spring near Toad River, in northern British Columbia.
A horde of mosquitoes descends on a stoic stone sheep in Northern British Columbia. With every spring comes the masses of biting insects in the north. As someone who is a mosquito magnet, I couldn’t imagine having to put up with this after surviving a long, harsh winter. Just taking this photo made me feel itchy!
If I told you that for the past few years mountain caribou have been captured by nets, sedated and loaded into helicopters and then flown to either awaiting transport trailers or large enclosures on the sides of mountains you would likely think I’m pulling your leg. I wish I was, but for the past several years dedicated teams composed of First Nations personnel, wildlife biologists, fellow veterinarians, and countless others have being doing just that in order to try to conserve some of the most critically endangered caribou herds in British Columbia.
Past and current caribou conservation measures in the province include everything from limiting human access to caribou habitat, predator management and caribou translocations. Talks continue to occur to establish a captive breeding program so that there is a source population for dwindling herds, but while those plans are still in the preliminary stages other intensive caribou conservation initiatives are being implemented. The most recent includes what is termed ‘maternal penning’ of caribou.
Maternal penning involves taking wild, pregnant caribou and placing them in large enclosures in their native habitat for about 3 months. During this time they are protected from predators, given lots of lichen and other high quality caribou food and provided with a safe place to give birth to their calves. Disturbances from people are kept to an absolute minimum so caribou are not conditioned to human presence. The calves are born in May-June and kept in the enclosure for the next 1-2 months until they are strong enough to easily keep up with the herd and to be able to outrun predators like wolves and bears. At this point the mothers and calves are released back into their natural habitat and monitored to track calf survival. Previous application of this technique in the Yukon showed promising results and so the technique was adapted for use in the mountainous areas of British Columbia.
A few months ago maternal penning projects were undertaken for two declining herds in BC. One was in Revelstoke and another near Chetwynd. The later is a unique initiative spearheaded by the West Moberly First Nations in partnership with biologists and the provincial government. The West Moberly first nations have suspended their treaty right to hunt caribou for the past several decades and have recently used this treaty right to drive the process of caribou recovery in their native lands. They created their own caribou recovery plan that met the requirements of the Species at Risk Act, which in turn has led to the maternal penning project that was implemented earlier this spring.
It is too early to say whether all of these efforts will pay off, and some may argue that the resources put into mountain caribou conservation would be better spent elsewhere. In my opinion caribou are just a symptom of much bigger problems that will need to be addressed sooner rather than later. While governments decide on what to do to combat climate change as a result of habitat destruction and pollution, those of us on the front lines will continue to try to treat the symptoms until the bigger issues are finally addressed.
If you’re interested in learning more about mountain caribou click on the below links for additional details.
Mountain caribou herds facing extinction
Alberta government sells off caribou habitat to industry
US government downgrades mountain caribou federal status despite continued declines
Revelstoke caribou rearing in the wild
Captive breeding of mountain caribou
Putting it mildly, mountain caribou as a whole are not doing well. Several of the southern and central mountain herds are down to less than 50 animals! In fact, these two populations were just listed as endangered by COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada). The northern mountain population was listed as ‘special concern,’ which is one step away from threatened status.
On my drive up to a conference to discuss current research on caribou I was lucky enough to come across some of these iconic animals along the way. This bull was hanging out near the border between BC and the Yukon, where many bulls were feeding on plants in the valley bottoms. Unfortunately, in the near future sightings like this may become exceedingly rare.
Next week I will post on some of the intensive conservation measures being undertaken to try to save this species.
After a busy few months I’m starting to get back on track with my photography. I took this photo earlier this month in northern British Columbia near the Yukon border. It was more spring like in the Yukon than in Calgary, so that was a nice, pleasant surprise!
Ironically, it seems every time I’m on this road there is a caribou connection. The first time I drove this section it was to complete a long distance transport of a herd of caribou from Fairbanks, Alaska to Fort St. John BC, so we only stopped for fueling up and short breaks. This time it was because I was presenting at the North American Caribou Workshop in Whitehorse, Yukon and I decided to drive rather than fly. It was a great trip with lots of wildlife sightings, including numerous caribou along the way.
Over the next month or so I will post a few photos from the trip. I hope you enjoy them!
I was recently a naturalist with Classic Canadian Tours to the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary on the North coast of B.C. The park is the largest remaining intact coastal temperate rainforest in the world, can only be accessed by boat or float plane and was specifically set aside to protect grizzly bears and their habitat. About 50 grizzly bears call this park home, which is the about the same number that live in all of Banff National Park. That may not sound impressive at first, but the Khutzeymateen is 16 times smaller in area than Banff! As such it has one of the highest concentrations of grizzly bears in North America and if you time it just right the bears are on almost every beach that you come across.
They come down to the huge estuary almost everyday at low tide from late-spring to mid-summer to feast on crabs, clams, sedgegrass and whatever else they stumble upon. In the 2 hours we were in the park we came across 7 grizzly including a mom and cub that play fought along the shore as we watched from the boat! On the way to and from the park we also saw breaching humpback whales that had just started to return from the north to feed on the abundant herring, lounging harbor seals, stellar sea lions, bald eagles fishing for the salmon and countless other coastal bird life. It was an incredible day of wildlife viewing!
To give you an idea of the habitat I chose this photo of the rainforest and one of the many rivers feeding into the estuary. A grizzly bear appeared at the edge of the river and seemed to be checking it out for any returning salmon. In a few weeks the bears will be farther inland feasting on all the spawning, dead and decaying salmon trying to put on as much fat as possible for their long winter sleep. A truly very unique place.
If you are interested in seeing the Khutzeymateen but can’t afford to be away for very long or the expense of a multi-day trip, Classic Canadian Tours has day tours from both Calgary and Edmonton that are sure to sell out again in 2014. Dates will be announced soon so stay tuned!
A bald eagle cries out as it effortlessly soars through the air near Prince Rupert, B.C. Once back home, with the help of Photoshop I created this image by keeping the eagle in colour while making the rest of the image black and white. I love the eye-catching effect is has and it turns the image into something more like art than traditional wildlife photography. Sometimes it’s nice to do things a bit differently! Please click on the image for the full size and let me know what you think!
Fireweed blankets the floor of a burnt forest in Kooteney National Park in British Columbia. The plant is not named because of its association with previously burnt landscapes, but because in autumn the leaves turn a brilliant red-orange colour resembling flames.
On a recent trip to British Columbia for work, a colleague and I stopped in Radium for a quick pit-stop to take some photos. This was one of my favourites.