Tag Archive: Banff National Park


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!

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Bison Bathing

Bison dust bathWhether 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.  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

Bow River Magic WM

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

Have a great day!

Pileated woodpecker 2 WM

 

Have you ever wondered how a woodpecker can repeatedly bash its beak against a tree and never become concussed or even just a little bit disorientated?

New research shows that woodpeckers like this pileated woodpecker I photographed in Banff National Park earlier this summer experience forces of 1500 g’s while pecking bark off trees to get to the tasty insects.  To put that in perspective, the highest g force roller coasters are rated at only 5 g’s. Fighter jet pilots experience a maximum of 12 g’s and the highest short-term g force a person has every survived was just over 200 g’s. Nowhere near what a woodpecker experiences repeatedly throughout the day and never seems to suffer any harmful effects.

Pileated woodpecker motion WM

So what makes this possible? A few of the adaptations woodpeckers have include an elongated upper beak and beak internal structure that diverts the impact energy away from the brain or absorbs any excess in the spongy bone sitting in front of the skull. The energy diverted by the beak travels to the hyoid bone that wraps around the entire skull of woodpeckers and serves as a seat belt for the brain.  Lastly, to prevent the brain from sloshing around, woodpecker brains are tightly packed against the skull with reduced cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) to prevent any movement.

To figure out how these adaptations help the woodpecker keep pecking at upwards of 20 pecks/second, researchers used CT scans to determine that they are able to deflect almost all (99.7%) of the impact to their heads through the rest of the body. What little remains is dissipated as heat in the beak and skull so that it never reaches the brain. This also explains why woodpeckers take frequent breaks from pecking on trees to let their heads cool down before their brains overheat! Pretty remarkable stuff with potential applications for helmet design to prevent concussions in people!

Certainly a group of birds with impressive adaptations. One day these birds might help save a lot of people from suffering brain damage and while we shouldn’t just care about nature for its benefits to us, it does provide one more reason to appreciate, preserve and learn more about the natural world.

 

Wild Pup

Wolf pup black 2014

Wild wolf sightings are always thrilling, but seeing and photographing wolf pups takes it to a whole new level. Finding them is the first challenge. Getting any decent photos is the next. I positioned myself next to a small clearing and silently waited, hoping one of them would come out into the clearing. Luck was on my side that day and I managed to get a few decent photos of this little black pup, no more than 3 months old before it trotted off to join its siblings as they explored their surroundings.

Grizzly mom and cub mountain landscape wm 960

One could be forgiven for thinking that even the grizzly bears in Banff take a break from their daily routines to appreciate the mountain scenery. While I will never discount the fact that other animals can appreciate their surroundings, what’s more likely is that this bear is smelling the air for any potential threats or food options.

I took this photo last month near one of the most popular places in Canada; Lake Louise.  Bear 138 as she is known to park biologists, was feasting on one of the only spring food sources available to the bears; dandelions. Imagine how many dandelions a 150-200kg lactating grizzly bear would need to eat to produce enough milk to feed her two cubs?  Needless to say, it’s a staggering amount. When they enter their hyperphagic state later this month, they eat about 35,000 calories a day.  To put that in perspective, the average person eats about 2000 calories daily!  Almost all of these calories are from berries, with a single bear eating between 200-300,000 berries per day to put on enough fat to survive the winter. That’s the equivalent of you or I eating 63 hamburgers daily! Yet these bears suffer no heart disease or complications association with high cholesterol.

This only touches the tip of the iceberg of all the interesting adaptations of bears, but I hope you agree that these are amazing animals and deserving of our respect and protection.

 

Super Moon

Supermoon July 2014 wm

 

Tonight is the first super moon of the summer. The moon’s orbit is closet to the Earth, making it appear larger than other full moons. As a result, tides will be larger and people will on average get about 50 minutes less sleep.

I took this photo last night on my drive back from the mountains. There were enough smoke particles in the atmosphere from a nearby wildfire to give the sunset a purplish hue.  Along the Trans-Canada Highway, many people pulled over to take pictures and appreciate the celestial event.

If you want to see the real full moon tonight, head outside just as the sun is setting, when the moon will be closest to the horizon and warmly lit by the sun’s rays. This is when it will appear the largest and when the light levels are balanced enough that you will get a great picture. If you happen to miss it, two other super moons in August and September will give you lots of chances to see it. Enjoy!

Happy Canada Day!

Beaver tail slap water splash WM

What better image to highlight this day than one of Canada’s national animal making a splash? Happy Canada Day my fellow Canadians!

Hoar frost three grasses horizontal WMWith temperatures hovering around -25 degrees Celsius last week, getting out into the mountains was a bit more challenging, but the extra effort always pays off in one form or another.

Pine marten looking back WMWhile pine martens are relatively common in coniferous forests in western Canada, they aren’t often seen since they’re primarily arboreal and when they do come down to the ground, they rarely stay in one spot for long.  These weasels are out all year-long, but are generally not as active in winter. They hunt pretty much anything they can sink their teeth into including ground squirrels, snowshoe hare, fish and birds.

This little guy was out bounding through the deep snow looking for breakfast. He stopped a few times to watch and listen for any prey, which gave me just enough time to get a few photographs of him before he disappeared back into the forest.

Grizzly snow WMAn adult male grizzly bear plows through 10 centimeters of snow in minus 10-15 degree Celsius temperatures. While the females and young cubs are already tucked away in their dens, these big males are still out looking for food to pack on the pounds so they can compete against the biggest males for breeding opportunities in the spring.

For the past several years I have tried in vain to get a good photo of a grizzly bear in snow. I have run into them as late as December, always either really early in the morning or late at night. All of that changed when this bear lumbered out of the forest in the middle of the day. He wander back and forth following the tracks of a pack of wolves that had been in the area earlier in the morning. Most likely he was trying to determine if the wolves had made a kill. Being the biggest predators in the Rockies, they will follow wolves and steal away their kills through brute force but on this day the bear came up empty handed. With his nose covered in snow, he plodded along weaving a route back and forth through the forest before giving up and moving on.

Angry Birds

Osprey aerial fighting WM

Well not really, more like hungry birds! These two osprey are siblings that successfully fledged this year. They took to the skies to practice their maneuvers and to compete with one another for the best waiting spot. It takes a few more weeks after fledgling before they are proficient at hunting on their own so the parents would return with fresh fish to give to them. It was always first come, first serve and once one had a fish there was no way they were going to share it!

Heavy Breathing

Elk exhale antler grass WMWith the  annual elk rut in Banff National Park taking place around the town site, many of the elk end up with ropes, plastic bags and other items tangled up in their antlers. Some require sedation to remove the items, while less severe entanglements like this one can be left alone.

The new antler-wear didn’t seem to bother this elk, but he had bigger concerns. Due to his young age and relatively small rack he was relegated to the sidelines and needed to stay out of the way of the larger, much more powerful and battle harden males.  After narrowly skirting around one, he took a few minutes to catch his breath before wisely deciding to move off into the forest.