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January 2024

My Favourite Wildlife Photos of 2023 – The Triumph of the Small


I saw some big creatures this year: grizzly bears, mountain goats, even a rare lynx, but what consistently caught my eye were smaller animals, often right beside the trail. These close encounters were rewarding for the beauty revealed in fur and feathers, and for the behaviours exhibited. In the order that I crossed paths with them, here are my favourite five…

1. Least chipmunk
Least chipmunk feeding on a juniper berryChipmunks are certainly cute, but if you watch them closely, they have an interesting approach to berries: they’re only interested in the seeds. It doesn’t matter if it’s a wild strawberry or a buffaloberry, they don’t eat what we think of as the “good” part – the fruit portion of the berry – they just eat the seeds. I watched this one on the Rockpile trail at Moraine Lake in May. It would grab a juniper berry off a bush, munch through the tough skin and pulp until it found the seed, and then throw the rest of the berry to the ground.

2. Violet-Green Swallow
Violet-green swallow in BanffWhen people talk about “wildlife,” they usually mean mammals, but mammals aren’t always easy to find. However, if you include birds in your definition, you are sure to see ‘wildlife” in the park every single day. Add binoculars or a zoom lens into the mix, and your bird sightings will wow you!

I spied this male violet-green swallow in June in Banff, and was impressed by its vivid metallic green back. I was glad that it parked itself for a few moments, as they are really hard to photograph in flight: they can rip along at up to 45 km/h. No wonder their Latin name is Tachycineta thalassina. Tachycineta is from the Greek “tachos,” which means speed.

3. Columbian Ground Squirrel
Columbian ground squirrelAt the beginning of July, in a meadow below the Victoria Glacier, near Lake Louise, a wary ground squirrel and I tried not to move as we observed one another. When you get close to Columbian ground squirrels, you really notice a beautiful, dappled pattern in their fur. They’re definitely worth a second look.

Here’s the wild part: even though it was only early July, this one was more than halfway through its brief summer above ground. They are hibernation champs, spending seven to eight months of the year asleep.

4. White-tailed Ptarmigan
White-tailed ptarmigan near Mcarthur Lake, Yoho National ParkOver the years, my go-to destination for ptarmigans has been Lake O’Hara, where I’m lucky enough to see them pretty much every summer, especially up at Oesa, Opabin or McArthur. This one, in early August, seemed utterly unperturbed as we crept by on the trail. Just look at those feathers!

5. Pika
Pika grazing on the Rockpile at Moraine LakeEarly September means a final trip to the alpine salad bar for pikas. This one grazed amid the hustle and bustle at Moraine Lake, allowing me and my hiking group a wonderful close-up. I especially like the long whiskers.