Tag Archive: Canada


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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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?

 

 

Cliffhanger

Don’t try this at home. Suspended upside down, this cliff swallow latches onto its superbly engineered nest before entering the small opening by doing a pull-up with its legs!

Cliff swallow wings WM

Cliff swallows build elaborate, gourd shaped nests with downward facing entrances to shield their young against predators and the elements. Historically they would build these nests on cliffs, but with so many bridges and houses providing perfect 90 degree angles, they are now found in many towns and cities. Each nest typically requires between 900-1400 round trips to bring back enough mud pellets to complete their designs.

Cliff swallow mothstache WM

These colony nesters are considered by some to be pests due to the noise and mess they can produce. However, they more than make up for these slight annoyances by keeping the local insect populations in check. Each swallow can consume between 800-1000 mosquitoes per day, which not only keeps the pesky insects from biting us, but it also limits the transmission of West Nile virus and other mosquito transmitted, blood borne pathogens. Two very good reasons to find ways to co-exist with these birds and other insectivorous species.

I took these photos during the summer. By now these birds will have made it down to their wintering grounds in South America, not unlike many Canadians during this time of year.

Toad Time

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.

Western Toad ss wm

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.

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!

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

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

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.

Curious Lynx

Lynx slink WM ss

One more photo from the amazing, wild lynx encounter! Which lynx photo do you prefer?

Here, Kitty Kitty

Lynx frontal cropped WM ss

Traveling the Alberta back roads has its perks! This beautiful lynx calmly strolled along the shoulder as I tried to contain my excitement long enough to get a few photos!

It came within 10-15 feet of us and not once did I hear its footsteps. The only sounds were of the very concerned red squirrels high up in the trees.

Red fox carrying hare WM

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.

Play Time

Grizzly cub and mom playing WM

A grizzly bear mom takes a break from eating dandelions to play with one of her tiny cubs born earlier this year.  With the grizzly bear population threatened in Alberta, it’s been great to see at least three grizzly sows in the Rockies with new cubs this year.

Caribou lone, mountain profile tree WM

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.

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.