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.
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.
Next 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.
Later 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.
Needless to say, it was a great week of owl photography and one I won’t soon forget!
A grizzly bear steps out of the shadows in the Canadian Rockies.
The 4am wake up call to make it into Grasslands National Park for sunrise was worth it for a view like this!
Yellow Lady Slipper, named after Aphrodite’s slipper was in full bloom in Banff National Park last weekend.
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.
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.
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.
After 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.
No 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!
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!
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.
Deciding that the intimidation factor wasn’t having the desired results, it made a quick retreat!
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.
After several minutes the hawk soared over to another meadow and the owl relaxed. With the coast clear, it flew off low to the ground.
This 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.
There are two things that are pretty common in Yellowstone during the spring. Almost everywhere we went we saw herds of bison and large flocks of mountain bluebirds, all of them searching out areas in the park where the snow had either completely disappeared or was just about to. The spring thaw and green-up was in full swing which made for prime feeding grounds. The bison were chomping down on tiny stems of green grass wherever they could find it and when that wasn’t available or was covered over in fresh snow, they resorted to winter-killed, high roughage stalks of grass. Bison have lots of character and this one seemed to want to go for a hillbilly look and I must say, pulled it off better than anyone else I have seen try.
It wasn’t until watching the bluebirds for some time that it became clear they were relying on by-products of bison to help them survive the first few months of spring. In March and early April there aren’t as many insects to feed on. But as it turns out, buried within and under old bison patties are lots of overwintering insect larvae. With their keen eyesight, the bluebirds snatched these insects up as they emerged from the dried-up dung. Other times they would use the piles as perches to get a better vantage point to spot their next meal.
As the saying goes, one person’s trash is a another person’s treasure! To some, this might diminish the image of these beautiful birds, but without them we would suffer even more from the torture of biting flies, mosquitoes, ticks and other pesky insects. So for me it adds another level of appreciation since doing all of this dirty work and still looking good can’t be easy. With that I will end on a high note with one last photo that showcases just how spectacular and stunning these birds really are.
Whether scratching an itch, trying to remove flies and ticks, showing off during the rut, or just for fun, bison seem to get lots of enjoyment and satisfaction from rolling around in the dirt. This youngster spent several minutes having a great time getting dusted up before racing off to rejoin the herd.
It will be great to see these beasts back in Banff National Park in the near future.
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.
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.
After 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.
After 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.
Each 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.
In 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.
If 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.
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!