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.





Waterton’s Big Burn is a Magnet for Wildlife

Mule deer feeding in the burn, in Waterton Lakes National Park.

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…

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

Canada jay painting by JJ Audubon

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!

Canada Geese Corner the Real Estate Market

Canada goose nest on muskrat push-up

We’ve been doing a lot of birdwatching this spring. Now that we’ve passed through the migration phase and much of the courtship phase, it’s time for the nesting phase. And here we’ve got to tip our hats to the Canada goose, a bird that we’ve noticed is willing to nest almost anywhere, even if means claiming real estate that already belongs to some other member of the animal kingdom.

First up is a nest on a muskrat “push up.” I took this photo in May at the Cave and Basin marsh near Banff. Muskrats make push ups in ponds and wetlands in the winter, shoving up mud and reeds above the level of the ice. They are usually meant for one (muskrat, that is), but this top floor reno is very goose friendly.

Next up is a nest I snapped  in April on a beaver lodge in Minnekhada Regional Park, near Vancouver. We like how the goose actually ended up blending in pretty well. This lodge looks big enough for at least a duplex, but geese like a little bit of space between neighbours.

Finally, we’d heard that Canada geese will even try to take over osprey nests, but unlike in the case of muskrats and beavers, the existing tenants aren’t so keen on this. Last spring, at an osprey nest in Charlo, Montana, a pair of geese found out the hard way that not all real estate is up for grabs!

Banding Banff’s Most Beautiful Duck

aquatics biologist and guide Nadine Fletcher releasing banded harlequin ducks

I am holding a stunningly patterned male Harlequin duck just above the fast moving water of the Bow River. When the signal is given, I open my hands and he launches himself downstream to land in the whitewater. So beautiful.On Monday this week, I had the opportunity to help band Harlequin ducks on the Bow River here in Banff National Park. They are listed as a species-at-risk in Canada.

It was a beautiful, warm spring day that unfolded at a careful pace. Herding and netting ducks on a river requires tactical precision and co-ordination.

First you’ve got to string a “mist net” across the river. Then you need to get multiple people positioned, in boats and on shore, to gently move the birds downstream. Finally, at just the right spot, you’ve got to get them airborne so that they will fly into the net – and not over it!

We successfully netted a new pair of birds. Cyndi Smith, our Harlequin banding specialist, took measurements and attached brightly-coloured leg bands. Moments later, I helped release the ducks. When they head back to the west coast for the winter, they’ll become part of an ongoing effort to monitor the population.

After banding… ready to go! Harlequins are named for the male’s patterns which are reminiscent of the Arlequino character from the Italian commedia dell’arte.