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Joel Hagen

The Birds of Summer

As winter takes hold, we’re seeing the last of our fall migrants. It reminded me to look back on wonderful summer of birding. Here’s what showed up in the binoculars, and what I managed to capture on the trusty Panasonic point and shoot:

Common Loons at Emerald Lake

Emerald Lake is our most reliable local spot for nesting loons, and this summer’s pair raised a single chick. The youngster was a real crowd-pleaser, especially in the first few weeks it took to the water in its fluffy down coat.

Greater Yellowlegs at Lake O’Hara

Some people can’t believe how short summer is around here. (Trust me, it’s short – a couple of days ago I skated on Moraine Lake… on October 11!). Sometimes the proof is in the birding. You can mark the beginning of autumn when you see the first shorebirds migrating south. This Greater Yellowlegs was already on his way to the southern US or Central America… on July 20!

Hawk Owls on the Hawk Creek trail

Seeing a Hawk Owl makes for an exciting occasion. Seeing a whole family is a once in a lifetime moment!. At the end of a long day on the trail, we heard the gang before we saw them. Hawk owls make an amazing sound. I can’t describe it, just listen to this. The light wasn’t great for photography, but still, nothing compares to the intense gaze of an owl. The shot above is one of the adults, and the one below is one of the youngsters.


Harelquin Duck at Lake O’Hara

Harlequin Ducks are famous for living in whitewater, both in the fast streams of the Rockies, and in the surf zone along the rocky west coast. True to her whitewater roots, this gal was motoring right up through the current of Opabin Creek.

Spruce Grouse near Temple Lake

Feathers like this are nature’s high art. And sometimes these grouse are as bold as brass. Remember, I’ve got a point and shoot camera: I’ve gotta get close to fill the frame with feathers. This one didn’t budge as we crept by on the trail. We could have touched it…

Common Raven at Sentinel Pass

There’s nothing common about the Common Raven. Bold, cheeky, playful, tough, and just downright interesting. Plus, they carry hints of green, purple and navy blue in their iridescent feathers. Stick around for winter, and you might see a rare pair of Ice Ravens!

A Month of Amazing Mushrooms

As August comes to a close, and the rain comes down today, we have to be grateful for the extra precipitation this month, as it has led to one of the best mushroom displays we’ve had for years. The fungi love the moisture, and we’ve seen species that are totally new to us.

Sculpted Puffball, Calbovista subsculpta

It started just over a month ago at Lake O’Hara, with a spherical mushroom that looked like a geodesic dome, and was the size of a baseball! We checked in with the Alberta Mycology Society, and were told that it’s a Sculpted Puffball, Calbovista subsculpta.

That was the beginning of the floodgates opening – this month we’ve seen mushrooms that are purple, orange, green, red, and a hundred shades of brown. They’ve been as big as dinner plates, and as tiny as tapioca pearls.

What follows is a photo album of some of our favourites. If we know what they are, we’ve labelled them, but if we’re in the dark, which we are for most of them, do not let their anonymity distract you from their beauty.

Giant Shingle Tops, Sarcodon imbricatus

A species of slime mold, once considered a kind of fungus, but now classified independently.  They can out-weird even the weirdest mushrooms: slime molds can move!

Sun Dogs and Supermoons

The full moon is tomorrow, and it reminds me of the astronomical wonders I saw a month ago, on a backcountry ski trip.

First up was a “Supermoon.” This is a full moon that coincides with the moon’s closest pass of the year to Earth. Tomorrow’s full moon will be a supermoon as well (50,000 km closer to Earth than the full moon this coming September), and it should look amazing!  Supermoons are noticeably bigger and brighter than regular full moons. I snapped this shot a few days before the moon was full, as it cleared the peaks near Mistaya Lodge.  When my ski mates and I looked up and saw it, we all said, “wow,” as it looked so impressive.

Along with the moon, we were treated to a solar light show as well.  February was one of our coldest on record, and when it’s that cold, for weeks in a row, we often get lots of sparkly ice crystals in the atmosphere.  This is the result:

Holy diffractionation, Batman!

All those ice crystals are reflecting and refracting light from the sun. The big circle around the sun is called the 22 degree halo, and the bright spots on the right and left are nicknamed “sundogs.”

But there can be more than just that, and a month ago, we got the whole show.  There were things I’d never seen before: the Parry arc, the parhelic circle, and the coolest thing of all, an upside-down rainbow way up above the sun called the circumzenithal arc. It looked like a giant happy face:

I had to look all this stuff up to understand how it worked. If you want a rundown of all the pieces of the puzzle, this Smithsonian article is really good.

There’s also a lot of good diagrams online, and since I love history, I found a reproduction of the first diagram to illustrate the physics of all this bending and reflecting light. It was drawn by polar explorer William Parry in the 1820s:

Happy moon watching tomorrow!

My Favourite Panoramas from 2018

I love panoramas, as they are so good at capturing the scale of the Rockies.  Here, from February to November of 2018, are my top ten favourites.  It was really tough to pick just ten.  I hope this brings back memories of the Rockies for you, no matter what season you’ve been here.

February: Pipestone Canyon, which I can snowshoe to from our house!

March: Dolomite Peak, on a ski tour from the Icefields Parkway.

April: Glacial “erratics,” near Bow Lake. These things are as tall as two story buildings.

May: Balsamroot in bloom, in the Columbia Valley just west of the Rockies. When we want to get our first hit of spring, this is where we go.

June: Athabasca Glacier, in Jasper National Park. This is an outing with Athabasca Icewalks, and I highly recommend the experience:

July: Upper Paradise Valley, a splendid jewel between Lake Louise and Moraine Lake.  That’s Mount Temple on the left.

The same July day: The Giant Steps, in Paradise Valley.

September: Incomparable Lake O’Hara.

September: Nadine and friend Adriana, above Spray Lake in Kananaskis Country, on our way to the Windtower.

November: Our friends Josee and John, skating on Two Jack Lake near Banff. 2018 was an exceptional skating season.

Our Favourite Wildlife Moments of 2018

I (Joel) usually carry my little digital point and shoot camera with me while hiking and snowshoeing.  It’s amazing what you come across out there in the park.  Here are my favourite wildlife shots from 2018.

White-tailed ptarmigan. In February, while snowshoeing in Yoho National Park with guests from Germany, we came across a white-tailed ptarmigan feeding on willows in a meadow. A shaft of sunlight came through the trees as it reached up for a bud.


Grizzly bear and cubs. In all the years of living here, we have only rarely seen grizzly bears while we’ve been out hiking in the park.  Imagine my surprise when I was out for a walk on the shore of Lake Louise in June, and in a field of dandelions right beside the Chateau Lake Louise, there was a grizzly bear mom (bear #142, for those who want to know) and her two young-of-year cubs.  Parks Canada staff had cordoned off the meadow, and I (along with several hundred other astonished visitors) got to watch them feed and play.  It was a magical experience.


Harlequin duck. This is one of Banff’s most beautiful birds.  Nadine’s brother and niece were visiting from Ottawa, and we were all out for a paddle on Moraine Lake.  This drake was roosting by the shore, and didn’t budge as we quietly drifted by.


Hoary marmot. This big guy poked his head up out of the rocks on the shore of Katherine Lake, at Dolomite Pass.  He seemed curious, so he wandered our way, giving me a rare close-up of the jumbo-sized teeth sported by these big ground squirrel.  And their feet look really neat up close as well!


Clark’s nutcracker. Visitors often see these birds at parking lots or popular viewpoints, mooching for food.  You forget how regal they look.  I spied this one at the Little Beehive, right near treeline.


Columbian ground squirrel. This was a truly funny moment.  On the shore of Lake Agnes, in July, we came across a juvenile ground squirrel (born in the spring), and a very annoyed looking adult.  We’re guessing it was mom or dad, and it was belting out the high-decibel “chip” call that these animals use to sound the alarm.  It must have been loud even for junior, who shut its eyes in response.


Porcupine. I was hiking on my own in August, coming home from a giant day hike in Paradise Valley, and I almost stepped on this porcupine.  I don’t know who was more scared.  It scurried a few steps into the woods, then turned to face me.


Pika. For me, it was the year of the pika: They kept popping up while we were hiking, and since they’ve got the market cornered on cute, I had to put this one in the mix.


Mule deer. In October, just after our season ended, we headed down to Waterton Lakes National Park, which had seen a major wildfire in September 2017. We watched a herd of deer feeding in the vegetation growing back after the fire. The phoenix was rising from the ashes.

And as we say goodbye to 2018, that’s a good place to end.  Happy New Year and all the best for 2019.





The Amazing Mystery of the Bicknell’s Geranium

October 7, 2018

Part two of our report on last fall’s big fire.

Photo by Edwin Knox

Nadine and I, along with our old friend Edwin, are walking through charred aspen groves on our way to Lakeview Ridge. All around us is a forest of young aspen shoots as high as our knees, sometimes as high as our waists! It’s an exuberant and joyful explosion of life.

Buffaloberry growing back from a taproot that survived the heat of the fire.

We are in the middle of a forest burned in 2017’s intense Kenow Wildfire. About half of Waterton’s vegetated landscape was scorched in the fire, but in the Canadian Rockies, plants are built tough! Lots of species are adapted to come back from these moments of destruction.

The aspen are joined by buffaloberry bushes, sprouting from their deep rootstock. In a year or two, once the bushes start to yield fruit, they will become a key source of food for black bears and grizzlies.

Western showy aster going to seed

And there are fields and fields of western showy aster. It’s got a great Latin name, Eurybia conspicua, and boy, is it ever conspicuous! There are millions of plants and their puffy seed heads are sporting billions of seeds.

Among these familiar sights, however, is a plant that none of us have ever seen. It’s everywhere, growing close to the ground, and we three “park experts” are in the dark.

You can see why this geranium is nicknamed a “crane’s bill.” Photo by Edwin Knox

At dinner, we go to work to figure out the story behind the mystery plant. First we use Job Kuijt’s epic plant guide to Waterton to discover that our mystery plant is called Bicknell’s Geranium, AKA crane’s bill.

Then it’s off to the internet, where we learn that the seeds of the geranium physically explode out of those crane’s bill seedpods in autumn. They can then stay dormant in soil for centuries, and will only germinate after a fire.

In one study, from the Boundary Waters area of Minnesota, seeds in a 270 year-old forest sprouted after a fire. In a greenhouse test, almost all of the seeds germinated after 10 minutes exposure to temperatures of 65-100° C (150 to 210° F).

The leaves of the beautiful Bicknell’s Geranium. Photo by Edwin Knox

This plant loves fire! So why had none of us seen it before? Well, once the other plants and trees start to recover, the Bicknell’s geranium disappears. In some forests, it can cover 25% of the forest floor the year after the fire, but in three to five years… it’s gone.

But it’s not really gone. It leaves behind seeds, and they wait for the next fire, even if it is hundreds of years away.

The forests of Waterton look ravaged, but life will return…

Waterton’s Big Burn is a Magnet for Wildlife

October 7, 2018

Nadine and I are standing above Galway Creek, on the eastern edge of Waterton, with our old friend and long time park warden Edwin Knox. In front of us, in the shaded snow, is a tableau of wildlife tracks. There are dozens of mouse tracks, and moving up in size there are the footprints of pine marten, wolf, deer, and most impressively, grizzly bear.

Grizzly tracks on the left, mouse tracks in the centre, and marten tracks on the right.


The bear tracks look very fresh, and lead to two big digs in the hillside. “Oh, yes,” says Edwin. “It looks like it’s after the hedysarum.” We peer into the hole, and sure enough, we can see the severed stalks and fresh greenery. In the dirt behind, there are unmistakable claw marks where the bear has scooped out the sweet roots.

Freshly dug up Hedysarum sulphurescens. The bears go for the roots, not the greenery.


We are visiting Waterton, where I used to work, for the first time since a ferocious wildfire – the “Kenow” Fire – tore through the park last September. We wanted to see for ourselves what the fire had wrought, and what had happened since. Before getting to our wildlife track bonanza, we’ve already seen the tracks of moose, elk and coyote, all in a section of the park that was completely consumed by flames.

Nadine & Edwin look out over last September’s burn.


Before the day is done, we will see a pair of moose courting in the burned-out timber, and a deer happily browsing on the vegetation that sprouted this summer. It is a picture of resiliency and recovery, with wildlife thriving in a landscape that was blackened one year earlier.

Next week, part two of this story, in which the we make (at least to us) an amazing discovery…

Autumn Art

Today marks the first official full day of autumn, but fall comes early to the Canadian Rockies. We’ve been experiencing it for weeks. If you need proof, we’ve had lots of snow so far this month, there are fall colours everywhere, and Jack Frost has left his mark.

But for me, the best piece of proof that fall has arrived comes from seeds. In September, our plants throw themselves into the task of making seeds: in a frantic effort to beat winter, they create miniature templates of themselves, and send them forth into the mountains. My favourites are the species that defy gravity, producing extremely light seeds wrapped in gossamer fluff. When these seeds are dry, and the wind gets to them, they head skyward, to journey for miles, or dozens of miles.

Yellow dryas


This fall, I made a concerted effort to photograph some of these seeds, as they are things of beauty. Enjoy the show.

Happy autumn, everyone!

Willow at Bow Lake


River Beauty


Cotton Grass

Canada Day and July the 4th are for the Birds!

Canada’s national holiday was on July 1, and tomorrow, July 4, is America’s Independence Day. How can we say that these two holidays are for the birds?

Let us give you three reasons:

1. the Gray Jay, one of our favourite birds here in the Rockies, has recently been given its old name back: the Canada Jay. This was the name used from the early 1800s all the way through to the 1950s. Even celebrated bird artist John James Audubon used it in his 1840 publication of The Birds of America. In May of this year, the American Ornithological Society officially approved the name change, giving Canadians something to celebrate. So happy Canada Day, Canada Jay!

2. South of the line, today is the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which had originally been enacted by both the U.S. and Canada in 1916. This act made it illegal to hunt migratory birds (except for game birds). It also stopped the killing of birds for feathers, made it illegal to collect their eggs, and even made industries who killed birds accidentally change their ways. The Act is probably responsible for keeping a dozen species from going extinct. Unfortunately, like a lot of cross-border legislation these days, it is under threat, but its accomplishments are definitely worth celebrating.

3. It’s the “Year of the Bird,” as declared by National Geographic. As bird lovers, we can get behind this, and it turns out we all should. Thomas Lovejoy, “the godfather of Biodiveristy” said, “If you take care of birds, you take care of most of the environmental problems in the world.” Amen to that.

Happy holidays, everyone, and happy birding!

Ice Walking at the Athabasca Glacier

Midway between Lake Louise and Jasper is one of the wonders of the Canadian Rockies, the Athabasca Glacier. A literal river of ice, it flows down from the Columbia Icefield towards Highway #93, and is a must-see destination in the Canadian Rockies.

Last week, on a field trip sponsored by our Interpretive Guides Association, I got to join Master Guide Peter Lemieux and fellow interpreters on an ice hike all the way up to the top of the glacier, where it tumbles off the Icefield in a series of ice falls. What a spectacular place, and what a unique experience!

A pool of mysterious “cryoconite,” made of wind-blown dust and microbes.

We passed millwells and crevasses, ice-scraped bedrock and sub-surface ice tunnels.

Along the way there was so much to look at, from the mysterious “cryoconite” deposits on the surface of the glacier to the massive side moraines that showcase what a beast the Athabasca Glacier was in the 1800s.

Peter and his dog George led us across the ice surface, chopping the occasional step, offering the occasional hand, and stopping to share stories of the changes he’s seen at the glacier over the 30+ years he’s been leading trips there.

Most shocking is the speed at which the glacier is receding. Peter stopped at one of the metal research poles in the ice, where, at the end of May, he’d put a piece of yellow tape around the pole where it came out of the ice. In less than a month, the ice surface was melting away quickly, and he said that the glacier will lose 5 – 8 metres of ice from its surface this summer. It was a powerful reminder of climate change in the Rockies.

The piece of yellow tape by guide Peter’s hand was wrapped around this pole in late May, right at the surface of the ice. In less than a month, almost a metre of ice had already melted away.

The highlight was getting to the icefall, where chunks of ice the size of houses cartwheel down from the icefield above.

All in all, a top-notch experience, and highly recommended: