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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.

My Favourite Wildlife Sightings of 2022

Hoary marmot

It’s time for my fave animal photos from last year. I always love going through my pictures (all taken on my teensy Panasonic Lumix camera), but it’s always tough to pick the final shortlist. Let me know if you’ve got a favourite from the bunch.

1. Snowshoe Hare
Snowshoe hareI think this one will be hard to beat. I got home from snowshoe guiding on a snowy day last January, and while I was shovelling, I noticed a roosting snowshoe hare beside the woodshed. They often rest in the daytime, and this little cutie decided that this was the perfect spot. The next day, I was doing the dishes and looking out the kitchen window when I realized that a clump of snow underneath my car was… the same little snowshoe hare!Snowshoe hare roosting under the car

2. Yellow-Fronted Bumblebee (Bombus flavifrons)
Bumblebee and glacier lilyThis early bird (er, bee) was out gathering nectar and pollen at the end of May in Yoho National Park. Given the early date, this is a queen bee, born in the late summer of the previous year. She and her sisters are the only bumble bees from a colony that survive the winter, and after hibernating, each of them will try to start a new colony in the spring. Talk about resilience! Plus, if you need proof that bees are important pollinators, this picture is worth a thousand words.


3. Hoary Marmot
Hoary marmotThese photogenic and jumbo-sized squirrels could make my list every year. There’s something endearing about marmots and their big buck-toothed grin. Right now, they are in the middle of almost 8 months of hibernation, making them the deep sleep champions here in the Rocky Mountains (take that, grizzly bears!).

4. Grizzly Bears
Female grizzly bear and cubSpeaking of grizzly bears, sometimes the Lake Louise Ski Area lives up to its billing as a good place to spot bears. I was on the “Grizzly Express” summer sightseeing lift in July when I spotted this mama griz and her cub.

5. Chipmunk
chipmunk stuffing its cheeks with seedsFall is my favourite time to watch chipmunks, because they get really focussed on collecting seeds for the winter. It’s super charming: they harvest and husk grass seeds, then stuff them in their cheeks until they can’t squeeze in any more. These seeds are carried to the hibernation den and piled up until there are a couple of litres (!!) squirrelled (er, chipmunked) away for the winter. They wake up and snack frequently during their hibernation period.

6. White-tailed Ptarmigan
White-tailed ptarmiganOkay, I have to start with the only ptarmigan joke I know…

Q: Why can’t you hear a ptarmigan going to the bathroom?
A: Because the “p” is silent.

At the end of September, you know that winter is just around the corner, and for proof, I like to watch the white-tailed ptarmigan moult from summer brown to winter white. It takes a few weeks, but once it starts, it’s time to break out the long-johns and the extra puffydown jacket.

Five Years of Bison in Banff

Large herd of bison in Banff, 2021

This week marks the 5th anniversary of the return of bison to Banff National Park. On a chilly February 1st in 2017, 16 bison were airlifted into the park’s backcountry, and released into a holding corral in the Panther River Valley.

Since then, it’s been a pretty amazing buffalo journey. Parks Canada’s Bison Blog has done a great job of chronicling the last five years. Here’s my favourite highlights, with all photos courtesy of Parks Canada:

Spring, 2017: ten bison calves are born, the first wild bison to be born in what is now Banff Park since at least the 1870s.

Bison and calves, summer, 2018


Late July, 2018: the bison herd – now 31 animals strong – is released from their paddock into the wilds of the park. There are now free roaming bison in Banff. Hurray!

Bison crossing a creek in Banff's backcountry.


Late summer, 2018: once out of their paddock, the bison herd goes to the last place anyone expected: the high alpine! They spend most of August and September behaving like real Rocky Mountain lovers, hanging out along treeline ridges. These bison are clearly full of surprises already.

Bison on an alpine ridge in Banff in August, 2018


November, 2019: automated wildlife cameras show bison and wolves interacting, with a young bull following some wolves! It’s hard to see the time stamp in these photos, but the wolves and the bison are just a few minutes apart. Eventually, wolves and grizzly bears will learn to hunt bison, and once some of the bison are old enough to die a natural death, many animals will be able to scavenge from their carcasses. On a smaller scale, the fur that bison moult every spring will line the nests of songbirds, and at least 6 species of dung beetles will thrive in bison droppings! It’s an absolute dream scenario for an ecologist.wildlife camera footage of wolves and bison


Summer, 2021: with the addition of more new calves in the last three years, the herd is now made up of 66 bison. Here’s about half the current crew in a high meadow.

Large herd of bison in Banff, 2021

The bison reintroduction project has been a great success. One of the few challenges has been the instinct of young male bison to go on long road trips. In the last five years, two bulls had to be euthanized after travelling beyond the Banff’s boundaries, but, thankfully, the rest of the herd likes to stay put. The result is a thriving population. I can’t wait to see what the next five years will bring!

My Favourite Wildlife Sightings of 2021

Bull elk jousting in the fall

It’s time for my annual lookback at some favourite wildlife encounters from last year. Going through my photographs this week, it’s clear that my luck runs highest in spring and in autumn. Here are seven favourite moments from last year.

1. Mountain BluebirdMale mountain bluebird

In early May, while out for a bike ride, I spied this male bluebird on one of the fenceposts alongside the TransCanada Highway. It’s like a piece of sky took the form of a bird, and flew down from the heavens. The blue that comes into our eyes from the bluebird’s feathers is called “structural colour.” It means that there’s no actual blue pigment in the plumage, only blue light that the internal structure of the feather amplifies and scatters. If you put all of this bluebird’s feathers in a blender, and chopped them up small enough, they’d be white. Crazy, eh?


2. Snowshoe Haresnowshoe hare in new summer coat in May

Usually shy and timid, snowshoe hares occasionally head for the spotlight. This one showed up in my backyard one morning in late May, and grazed on the lawn. The light was so good that I could see white guard hairs that hadn’t fully moulted yet, and the brown iris. I’d always thought that hares had black eyes. It was a joy to observe this animal up close. Normally you see a hare for about 5 seconds while it runs away from you.


3. “Split Lip” the Grizzly BearMale grizzly #136 in May
deneme bonusu veren siteler
If you live in Banff or Lake Louise, you know about the park’s two most famous grizzly bears, The Boss and Split Lip. Officially, their names are numbers (#M122 and #M136), but everyone uses these nicknames. I see them every once in a while, which usually means I’m safely in my car along the Bow Valley Parkway, but this time I was on my bike, and it was pretty unnerving. Split Lip got spooked by a train just as I rode by, and darted across the road into the woods. Since I didn’t know where he was, I backed off. Eventually, he came out of the forest and started walking down the road, right towards me. I don’t think he was interested in me – it was just an easy route for him, but I had to flag down a passing pickup truck to put a metal shield between me and #136. When we passed the bear, he was not even five metres away, with just this little pickup between us.


4. Golden-mantled Ground SquirrelGolden-mantled ground squirrel

This is the most commonly-seen mammal in the park, I think. So much so that you stop even paying attention to them. But this curious ground squirrel showed up on one of my guided hikes in June, and I couldn’t help but snap a photo. Seeing it blown up on the computer monitor, I could really appreciate the long claws and the beautiful midnight black eyes. It was a great reminder to pay attention to the world around us, whether small or big, common or rare.


5. Mountain Goatmountain goat in September snow

Most of the goats I see are perched up high. They are called “mountain” goats, after all. But on a snowy day in September at Lake O’Hara, one of my clients spotted a goat trucking along a trail we’d been on only five minutes before. It was in a hurry, which makes sense. Goats aren’t swift runners or powerful jumpers, so if they’re on the flats, they are vulnerable. Their safe havens are the crags where only goats can go, so when they are between cliffs, they hustle.


6. Pileated Woodpeckerpileated woodpecker on a tree trunk

After the end of my hiking season in early October, I headed down to Kootenay National Park with friends to do some camping. We picked the right spot, because for about half an hour one day, we had the pleasure of watching a giant pileated woodpecker hacking away on stumps and downed logs right beside our campsite. If you ever wondered whether or not birds evolved from dinosaurs, this is the proof you need: it’s Woody Woodpecker meets Jurassic Park.









7. ElkBull elk jousting in the fall
bonus veren siteler

Fall is the rutting season for elk. It runs from late August into early October, but there’s enough testosterone coursing through the system that some elk are still scrapping and posturing in November. That’s when I saw this trio just off the Lake Minnewanka Road. Even from 75 metres away, I could hear the antlers clacking.

Hope you enjoyed the virtual wildlife tour. Let’s see what I find in 2022.

Banff’s Snow Mammals

Least weasel

I used to collect stamps, and I still geek out sometimes when I’m at the post office. Which is exactly what happened last week when I saw a new set of stamps featuring snow mammals. Yes, snow mammals! These are creatures that turn as white as snow for the winter months.

What could be more apropos here in Canada? According to Canada Post, we are “home to more species of mammals that moult from shades of brown or grey to white than any other country in the world.” And I was happy to see that two of the five animals featured – the snowshoe hare and the short-tailed weasel – are found right here. On our snowshoeing trips, we find the tracks of these two all the time, but almost never see them.  Which is entirely the point, I suppose.

Snowshoe hare in early June on the trail to Eiffel Lake.

Come summer, the weasel and hare moult from white back to brown, to better blend in with the forest colour palette. I’ve spotted a few hares in their summer garb, and got lucky with this photo.

Alas, for weasels, including one that ran right through my legs, and another that had a chipmunk in its mouth, I found myself without a camera, so I don’t have a summer photo in my collection.  However, here’s a shot courtesy of Wikipedia.  This photo, by the way, is a least weasel, one size down from the short-tailed weasel. The Latin name of the least weasel takes the idea of snow mammals to a whole other level. What is it? Mustela nivalis, “weasel of the snow.”

Least weasel in its summer coat, and weighing in at all of 50 grams. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

My Favourite Wildlife Sightings of 2020

Western White Butterfly

In November, a pine marten showed up in my woodshed, and when I snuck out the front door to get a better look, it didn’t budge. I had five magical minutes with this creature, in some cases only a couple of metres away from it.

My trusty digital camera was being repaired (in fact, I had to get it fixed twice in 2020), so I have no photos of the marten, but I did manage to capture a few special moments this past year:

1. Northern Hawk Owl

Not an everyday bird, but if you get lucky enough to spot one, it usually puts on a show, perching proudly from a treetop. This was in late January.

2. Grizzly Mom and Her Two Youngsters

This was special: mom and her brand new cubs beside Highway 40 in Kananaskis in early June when the road is closed to cars (but open to cyclists!). Wonderful.

3. Red Squirrel with Nest Material

Another shot from the spring, and another mom, in this case a red squirrel gathering grass for its maternal nest. These tree nests – known as “dreys”, if you’re looking for a new Scrabble word – look like grass volleyballs.

4. Western White Butterfly

The little things are easy to miss in the Rockies, but there’s a lot of beauty in the world of the tiny.

5. Mountain Goat Fur

Okay, so technically not a wildlife sighting, but this shot of moulted mountain goat fur is just the tip of the iceberg. Last summer there was gobs of the stuff draped all over the place, giving a certain atmospheric quality to the landscape.

6. Hoary Marmots Play-fighting

It was WrestleMania at Consolation Lake in July, as three hoary marmots played pugilist among the boulders. Downright entertaining!

Last year, at the end of my post about my favourite wildlife shots, I wrote this: “My New Year’s wildlife resolution is to finally see a wolverine!” Well, guess what? I saw two wolverines in 2020 (no camera either time). Since that resolution was such a success, I want to channel this year’s resolution towards something more globally important. Here it is: I wish for the terrible toll of Covid-19 to end as soon as possible.

May you stay safe and healthy in 2021.

My Favourite Wildlife Sightings of 2019

Female grizzly #142 and one of her cubs

Some lucky locals got to see the Bow Valley wolfpack near the Lake Louise campground on New Year’s Day, and it reminded me that it was time to post my annual “favourite wildlife” stories. From the memory card of my little Panasonic Lumix camera, here’s what stood out for me in 2019:

1. #142 and Her Two Cubs

One of our local female grizzlies, named “#142” (researchers use numbers to identify some of the park’s bears), spent a lot of time near Lake Louise this spring, with her two yearling cubs in tow. She even put in an appearance on the lawn next to the Chateau Lake Louise! I was lucky enough to see her on several occasions, and she was always on the lookout for male bears, who will sometimes prey on cubs. I love her vigilance – she is a very conscientious mom.

2. A Thirsty Black Bear

This young black bear showed up during an early morning birdwatching trip I was leading at Johnson Lake in July. It was very well behaved, and just wanted to get to the water’s edge for a drink. I like the reflection just before the snout broke the water.

3. The Goat Gang

A big herd of goats right beside one of the trails at Lake O’Hara was a show-stopper in July. They were so close that we could hear them grazing. Amazingly, the adult goats were just moulting their winter fur. Remember, this was on July 20! Makes you realize how short summer is around here.

4. A Marmot Family Compact

Hoary marmots live in nuclear family groups, and everybody has got everybody else’s back. I interrupted this family (there were five of them in total) in the rocks near a little meadow beside Temple Lake, and they checked me out to make sure I wasn’t going to eat them.

5. The Humble Bumblebee

Everyone loves the bigger animals, but let’s not forget the little stuff, which makes the world go around. This glorious patch of “river beauty” (a relative of fireweed) wasn’t just a feast for the eyes, it was a feast for the ears: the patch was full of pollinating bumblebees, and this scene literally hummed. Check out the bright orange pollen on her hind legs.  This gal is making things happen!

Here’s to 2020, and whatever nature brings. My New Year’s wildlife resolution is to finally see a wolverine! Well, we’re all allowed to dream a little, right?

The Birds of Summer

adult hawk owl

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!

Meet the “Alpine Five”

herd of mountain goats crossing snow patch in July

You’ve heard of the Avengers. You’ve heard of the Fantastic Four. You’ve heard of the X-Men.

But maybe you’ve never heard of the Alpine Five. In the past week, we’ve been lucky enough to get up into the high country on several occasions, and we’ve seen all five members of the superhero troop that we’ve dubbed the Alpine Five.

These five mammals and birds have figured out a way to live in the highest inhabitable parts of the park, and for us, seeing them all in just a few days is something that only happens once in a blue moon.

From smallest to largest, here are the Alpine Five:

1. The American Dipper, which plunges into cold, fast-flowing streams to feed on aquatic insects.  We watched one last week at Beauty Creek in Jasper, diving right into the rapids and staying under for up to 15 seconds at a time.


2. The Pika, or “rock rabbit,” which stores piles of leaves and grasses for winter, earning it the nickname “farmer of the alpine.” This little cutie was on one of the trails off the Icefields Parkway.

3. The White-tailed Ptarmigan, which matches its feathers to the environment in both summer and winter. This male was on an outlier of No See ‘Um Peak, at about 9000 feet above sea level!

4. The Hoary Marmot, which is a hibernation wizard. They can sleep for eight months of the year, dropping their heart rate and body temperature to unbelievable levels. This one was busy feeding near McArthur Pass, in Yoho National Park.

5. The Mountain Goat, which climbs “free solo” 365 days a year: no ropes! We were charmed by an entire herd at Lake McArthur last weekend. First, they crossed a steep snow slope before arriving at a lush green meadow. Then, the show stopper was two brand new kids, born in June, playing King of the Hill.


Our Favourite Wildlife Moments of 2018

Female grizzly bear #142 and her two young of year cubs

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.