Category

Wildlife

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.

 

The Travelling Wolverine

wolverine

If you look up “mystery” in the dictionary, it should just say “wolverine,” based on how hard it is to find one. Nadine finally got lucky last summer and saw a trio of wolverines near Moraine Lake, but I (Joel) am still waiting for my first sighting after 26 years in the Rockies. One day I hope to be close enough to get a photo like this (thanks, Wikipedia!).

But that doesn’t mean I’m striking out completely.  Every year or two, I see tracks, and some of them are so fresh that you wonder if you’ve missed the mythical beast by hours, or only minutes…

Two weeks ago, on a backcountry ski trip just outside of Banff park’s western boundary, we got up early to ski over to the Campbell Icefield, and in the beautiful low-angle morning sunshine, there were fresh wolverine tracks.  Based on the snow we’d been getting, they were hours old, tops. But what was really impressive is where they had come from, and where they were headed: this wolverine had climbed up out of the Valenciennes drainage, made treeline, crossed about 4 km of the Campbell Icefield (at 2500 metres above sea level!), and then headed due south down towards Waitabit Creek.

There was no break in the tracks — it didn’t look like the animal had even stopped for a rest! But that’s all part of being a wolverine. Here in the Rockies, a male can have a home range of over 1500 km2, so being a travelling wolverine is the norm.

We should soon be finding out more about wolverines here in the park.  PhD student Mijam Barrueto is about to begin a multi-year study, using automated cameras and barbed wire hair traps to capture both pictures and DNA from these enigmatic animals. Stay tuned!

 

Mystery Tracks near Bow Lake

porcupine tracks in the snow

On the weekend, I took my friend Mark up to Bow Lake to go snowshoeing. It’s a dramatic spot, and there’s always at least a few wildlife tracks around. We saw traces left by snowshoe hares, white-tailed ptarmigans and pine martens, but there were also the signs of some other creature…

The mystery trough…

We found a trough in the snow, with pigeon-toed tracks running down the middle of it. Whatever left the tracks behind had to be relatively slow, and relatively heavy, and at that elevation, there’s only one creature that fits the bill: a porcupine.

I have to admire this one. We were at almost 2000 metres, and the snow was 165 cm deep. That’s one tough porcupine. I’m sure it is looking forward to spring, when it can switch from eating bark and the needles of evergreens to much more digestible leafy plants.

 

 

 

 

Outta my way – I’ve got a date with some salad!

The bug that says, “Spring is Here!”

closeup of a snow crane fly walking on the snow

Spring is just around the corner, but last week we saw the official harbinger of this change of the  seasons. We saw a snow crane fly.  That’s right, even though it was below freezing, we saw an insect.  Just to remind you of how amazing this is, insects are cold-blooded, so when the temperature is below 0 degrees C, that’s usually the end of the line for any insect that’s out in the cold.

But snow crane flies are different.  They produce glycerol (a sugar alcohol) in their blood, which makes them tolerant of below zero temperatures… But not too far below zero!  If the temperature falls below about -7 or -8 degrees C, they risk “flash freezing.”

And this is why they are a harbinger of spring.  For most of the winter, our temperatures sit well below -7 or -8 degrees C.  It’s only when it starts to get warm that they can be out and about.

If you are out on snowshoes or skis at this time of year, watch for what looks like a spider walking across the snow.  Snow crane flies have to walk everywhere, because they are wingless.  This may seem unimpressive, but they’re pretty speedy: they can cover over a metre a minute (which is pretty good when you’re only 8 or 9 mm long).

Pretty soon our first migratory birds are going to show up, and our ground squirrels will pop out of hibernation, but until then, let the snow crane fly call out, “spring is here!”