Category: Saskachewan


Sharp-tailed Grouse

A male sharp-tailed grouse proudly displays his dominance around a lek in rural Saskatchewan.

Sharp tailed grouse throat display WM

While they aren’t the biggest or flashiest grouse species, their stomping dances are some of the most entertaining to watch.

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This wild, male burrowing owl which was was not baited, called or otherwise enticed to come perched right next to me, gave me several opportunities to get some unique images. The owl decided I was nothing to worry about and picked up one leg as it gazed in my direction. Soon after, it relaxed its head and neck creating a crease of feathers under its beak, giving the otherwise grumpy looking character the appearance of having a smile.

Burrowing owl art WMOften the deciding factor of whether the public and governments give money for wildlife conservation comes down to looks. Charismatic wildlife like bears, rhinos and big cats get a disproportionate amount of resources while birds, reptiles and amphibians, fish and the bottom of the barrel invertebrates struggle to even be noticed.

Here’s hoping that the burrowing owl, with all of its personality and character can get a federal recovery strategy to go along with its listing under the Species At Risk Act (SARA).

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!

The 4am wake up call to make it into Grasslands National Park for sunrise was worth it for a view like this!

Prairie sunrise fog trees clouds WM

Fire Chicken

Sharp tailed grouse profile WM

Rarely do wildlife and great lighting come together, but we got lucky over several days in Grasslands National Park. On one of our early morning drives in the park we were rewarded when this female sharp-tailed grouse or fire grouse walked out into the gorgeous morning light and seemed to pose for her photo. If only wildlife photography was always this easy!

Bison Grasslands Fog Panoramic WM

Few places in Canada offer the peaceful solitude, natural beauty and diversity of species as Grasslands National Park. I tried to capture the magic of this place during our visit last week. With the help of a  lone bull bison gazing down into the Frenchman River Valley on a foggy August morning, I got the photo I was looking for. (click on the image for the full size)

If you are ever in Saskatchewan this park is one of the gems of the province and certainly well worth the detour.

Rowling badger baby WMFeeling completely at ease, this young female badger played around in the grass right in front of me on another spectacular evening in Grasslands National Park. Hard not to like badgers when they are this cute!

With that, my trip to Grasslands has come to an end. It was an amazing week with memories to last a lifetime. No doubt I’m sure to be back soon!

Chorus frog and prickly pear cactus wmSomeone loses an eye!

This little chorus frog (no bigger than a few centimeters) saw me coming while on my search for short-horned lizards and fearing that I might be a predator, headed straight for cover by hopping into a cluster of prickly pear cactus plants. Flirting with disaster, it easily maneuvered itself between the spikes in a perfect defense strategy for most would be predators. I quickly snapped off this photo and then left it be so that it could carefully extract itself from the precarious situation.

Short horned lizard looking back WMBelieve it or not, there are! A  grand total of 7 native species of lizard live in Canada so while we won’t win any lizard biodiversity awards we at least have a few hardy species that deserve respect for being able to survive here.  Not only that, but the one I was searching for, the greater short-horned lizard, has the unique ability to shoot blood from its eye!

Finding any of these lizards can be challenging at the best of times but compounding things is that this species is a master of camouflage, only a few inches in length and unfortunately, critically endangered due to habitat loss.

Never one to be deterred by long odds, I set out to find one. The searching process involved slowly walking along south-facing, rocky hills in a slow and meticulous manner while keeping my eyes fixed on the ground immediately in front of my feet. Only when the lizard is about to be inadvertently stepped on will it bolt from cover.  Thankfully, my good luck that week continued and this one scurried from cover shortly after starting the search.

They don’t view humans as predators so I didn’t have to worry about getting a squirt of blood in my face while I photographed it! They save that secret weapon for foxes, coyotes and other would be predators. By rapidly increasing the blood pressure around their eyes, it’s believed they rupture a small blood vessel causing blood to shoot as far as 2 meters. The would be predator understandably becomes startled and distracted long enough for the lizard to run for cover,  or if it was already picked up, the blood is known to be mildly noxious causing the predator to drop it!  If that wasn’t enough they also have the ability to inflate their bodies with air to become a sharp, spiky balloon. With these remarkable and effective survival strategies, all they need from us is to curtail the destruction of their habitat and they should be able to survive for generations to come.

The evening before we headed into Grasslands National Park I quickly flipped through a prairie dog book written by one of the leading experts in the field (Dr. John Hoogland), who has been studying them for over 30 years. In it he describes that while prairie dogs are known to routinely get eaten by a whole host of different predators it is extremely rare to witness a predation event. In fact, his team has only seen about a dozen in the 30 year period!

Having seen neither of these species before, would it be too much to ask to see something like this on my first day?  I didn’t think so!

Badger on the hunt WM

So with this little tidbit of information in my head I didn’t get too excited when I saw this badger eying up a prairie dog burrow.  I was happy enough to just see her and her daughter pop their heads out above ground from time to time. But as time went on and they continued to work in tandem to isolate a series of prairie dog burrows my thoughts started to shift. Maybe today I was going to get a chance to see something pretty rare?  The badgers certainly seemed determined.  They continued to dig under the hot, mid-day sun. One stayed down in a prairie dog burrow they were excavating while the other worked to prevent any backdoor escapes by plugging the adjoining burrows with dirt.

Badger filling burrow in WM

Taking turns they alternated between underground digging and above ground burrow patrol making sure that all the other burrows remained packed down and listening for any sounds of the prairie dogs beneath them.  When the mom was out doing her patrols she suddenly changed from relaxed to on high alert. She must have heard the muffled sounds of a prairie dog barking out alarm calls because she focused all of her attention on the ground next to one of the plugged burrows.

Badger licking lips WM

She carefully moved around the mound and stood motionless for several seconds before gently scratching at the ground with her back foot. She did this for a few seconds and then cocked her head and listened for a response. This was repeated several times and I suspect it was used to pinpoint the location of the prairie dog. Once she determined it was within range she launched herself at the entrance, flinging dirt into the air at an almost unbelievable rate as she quickly closed the gap on her prey.

Dirt flying badger dig WM

After about 30 seconds the dirt stopped flying and there was a pause in the action. In my mind I figured she had caught a prairie dog and was likely eating it within the burrow. After all, I knew that the odds of actually seeing a predation event were slim to none! With these thoughts going through my head I started to relax my grip on the shutter release and I started readjusting the settings on my camera. I should have been more patient because as soon as I lost my focus she came bolting out of the burrow with a prairie dog clenched in her jaws! I fumbled with my camera as she started running towards the open burrow 15 feet away! I knew I had less than a few seconds to get a photo and I madly tracked her with my camera, firing off frame after frame before she disappeared out of sight.  Thankfully she gave me just enough time to get the photo below!

Badger with PD in mouth crop WM

I sat in the car dumbfounded with what I had just witnessed. I scrolled through the images checking  to make sure I had captured a bit of the action but I didn’t have much time to rest. Within a few minutes the mom was back out and heading towards the burrow she had just pulled the prairie dog from. She briefly stopped to look in my direction, which was when I noticed the blood tinged right ear. She also had a cut on one of her toes so the prairie dog must have put up a bit of a fight. In the end it was no match for the badger duo.

Badger mom bloody ear WM

She repacked the burrow with dirt to prevent any remaining prairie dogs from escaping and rejoined her daughter for dinner. Over the next few hours the badgers ate their hard fought meal in the confines of the burrow. It wasn’t until they had finished that they both emerged and relaxed at the entrance.

Badger mom and daughter WM

Luck continued to be on my side and for the next three days they made this burrow their temporary home. Each night they would emerge to play with one another and go on hunting expeditions but I never saw another successful hunt.  I guess I shouldn’t have expected to but it was hard not to have increased expectations after a first encounter like this one!

Garter snake head grass WMThere aren’t many places in Canada that you can find snakes easily so it was nice to see at least a few every day we were in the park.  They have to be very hardy to tolerate the long, cold winters here and camouflage is equally important to surprise their prey and avoid predators.  Unless they bolt from cover or are out moving around it can be incredibly difficult to find them.

This garter snake crossed in front of me while I was driving and I had to slam on the breaks and swerve to avoid hitting it. I got out to make sure I hadn’t hit it and found it happily slithering along the grass on its way to a marsh.

Garter snake moving away WM

Backlit mule deer WMA mule deer exhales as the sun’s rays highlight its frame in beautiful golden light on another spectacular morning in Grasslands National Park.

 

I went to prairies with the goal of seeing and photographing animals I had never seen in the wild before. The list was longer than I care to admit but included burrowing owls, prairie dogs and badgers. While I knew the first two would be very easy to find, badgers were suppose to be a bit harder.  Little did I know in grand fashion I would check all three off the list in one morning!

The first part of the morning we were treated to a beautiful sunrise while photographing a great horned owl, burrowing owls and later on prairie dogs as they woke up and left their burrows to eat. By about 11am we decided to drive down the road to see some other sights but we didn’t get far. Within about 15 minutes we pulled into a parking area next to a prairie dog colony and lo and behold a badger was resting at the entrance of a burrow!! Over the next several hours we were treated to amazing scenes of a badger mom and her daughter that included them hunting prairie dogs in broad daylight!  But that story and the accompanying photos are for a different post! This is merely an introduction!

Here the daughter looks around her surroundings after helping to excavate a prairie dog burrow.

Badger looking back WM

A true sign that she was not the least bit concerned about me and my clicking camera was when she started to play right in front of me! She rolled around in the grass, jumped up in the air and snapped at invisible objects!

Badger baby mouth open WM

At one point she circled around the burrow and came within 10 feet of me before getting distracted by a leopard frog that leaped out in front of her. She briefly chased after it before the next distraction happened; a prairie dog not too far away. With her tail raised up in the air she sprinted off towards it as it squeaked an alarm call and vanished down the burrow.

Badger side lighting WM

This is just the tip of the iceberg of the badger extravaganza that day, so stay tuned for more including the story and rarely seen photos of them hunting prairie dogs!

Prairie rattlesnake raised up WMIn the grand scheme of things not many people like or tolerate snakes, especially venomous ones like this prairie rattlesnake. Even in national parks they have a hard time since anyone with a car and a dislike for them can easily make quick work of them. This one was out doing what snakes do and basking on the road. Fearing that it would either get intentionally or unintentionally run over, we used a long pole to safely move it off the road. At the time it wasn’t too happy about the helping hand but if it knew the possible alternative it might not have been so defensive or made such a rattle!

I think it’s almost impossible to have a bad day if you spend any time watching prairie dogs! To me they are the comics of the prairies.

They can just be sitting around their burrows looking out on the world and they still make me laugh.

PD Budda 2 WM

It looks like this one is creating a new fashion trend by combining a corset with oversized and saggy pants!

You would think something as mundane as eating grass wouldn’t be very entertaining but somehow they manage!

PD grass mouth WM

If that doesn’t get you smiling they become a little less subtle by doing what is called a jump-yip!

PD jump yip 2 WM

A jump-yip is a very creative term scientists use to describe when they jump up on their back legs (sometimes falling over in the process) and make a yipping noise at the same time!

If one didn’t know better they might think they are praying to a higher being and given all that they go through on a daily basis they really do have a lot to worry about. You see prairie dogs just aren’t cute little comedians, they are also a keystone species of the prairie ecosystem. They are the exclusive food of the endangered  black-footed ferret and on the menu of coyotes, red and swift foxes, badgers, owls, hawks, and snakes. That’s not to mention the occasional human that shoots them or runs them over! While trying to avoid all of these predators they are constantly clipping and eating the grass, flowers and bushes to get fat enough to survive the winter. In the process they create a fertile, biodiverse, natural garden that other species like deer and pronghorn thrive off of.  The burrows they build are converted into homes and hiding places for burrowing owls, ferrets, badgers, leopard frogs, prairie rattlesnakes and black widow spiders. Without them several species would die out and over a hundred more would be affected by their absence from the landscape.

Sometimes the pressure of being so important to so many gets too much and they collapse into a heap called the prairie dog pancake!

PD pancake WM

Through it all they still make sure to show their loved ones how much they care about them, even if  it’s not always appreciated!

PD kisses 1 WM

So the next time you see one, spend a few minutes watching them. I’m willing to bet that at the very least you will come away with a smile on your face and hopefully like me, an increased appreciation for all they do for the prairie landscape.