November 28, 2011

Grizzly bear turns out to be an elk-aholic

Now that we've had temperatures of minus 30, and a couple of big snowstorms, you would think that hibernating grizzlies would be far from our minds.  But bears have a way of commanding attention even when they're not around!

While we were away in October, a grizzly bear managed to either hunt an elk, or find an elk that had died up around Bow Lake.  A couple of tourists found the cached carcass – luckily while the bear wasn't around.  What they found was a pile of vegetation and leaf litter in a 15 x 15 foot square that almost completely covered the animal.

We've heard of bears guarding animal carcasses before, but more commonly they just hang out beside their meal, keeping away intruders until they finish eating.  This is the first time we've heard of them hiding food like this.

When the park service  heard about the cached elk, they decided to move it to a safer place away from people.  One of our friends in the warden service took some pictures as they uncovered the elk for transport.  It was like an archaeology dig!

Enjoy a glimpse into the private dining room of one of the icons of the Canadian Rockies!

September 12, 2011

Recipe for Whitebark Pine Success

Do you have an interest in gourmet food?  Do you care about nature?  Of course you do!  Which is why the whitebark pine deserves your attention.  This tree is found at windswept treeline locations in the Rockies (that's the nature part), and at this time of the year, it produces cones full of high fat pine nuts (that's the gourmet part).  They are not the same species of pine nut that we eat, but Clark's nutcrackers, red squirrels and even grizzly bears love them, and as a result, stands of this little known tree are biodiversity hotspots.

Unfortunately, whitebark pines are in trouble, having been hit hard by both mountain pine beetle and a non-native fungus called white pine blister rust.  In the US, the species has met all the criteria for being listed as an endangered species, but because the Fish and Wildlife service is so strapped for cash, they have refrained from putting the tree on the endangered species list.

So why not support both nature and the gourmet feeding habits of our local wildlife?  Shell Canada has a grant program  for environmental projects across the country and is currently running an online voting campaign to decide which grants they'll fund.  There are lots of proposals in the running, but only the top vote-getters will receive money, so to cast your ballots for one of North America's most amazing trees, go to:

The site requires you to submit an e-mail address and a very limited amount of info, but if you jump through their hoops, you earn ten votes that you can apply to a good cause.

September 2, 2011

A Plethora of Pikas

On virtually every hike we've taken this week, there has been a plethora of pikas preparing for winter!  Their cute faces peer out from rocks everywhere you turn.

It’s been a good summer for pikas, one of the Rocky Mountain’s most unique creatures.  This diminutive member of the rabbit family — it looks like a hamster — inhabits rock piles in the high country.  They don’t hibernate, but remain active under the rocks and snow.  To survive, pikas collect grasses and leaves for winter food.  Studies estimate that a pika will make about 11-12,000 trips to amass their stash!

Like a farmer, the pika turns its harvest into “hay” by drying it out and storing it under large rocks.  Pikas are built for cold temperatures and this week, someone has turned a switch on the weather.  In one week we've gone from late summer to full-on fall.  Now that it has cooled down, pikas have become very active laying in their stores for the challenging winter to come.

August 22, 2011

The Marmot Who Cried Wolf

A wise sage once said, “Listen to the marmot, and you will see everything.”  Well, maybe I just made that up, but I have learned that the alarm call of the marmot is a great way of finding animals like hawks, eagles or bears.  And last week, it helped me (Joel) find a pack of wolves.

I was hiking down from Packer's Pass in the Skoki district, when I heard a marmot whistling on the far side of Ptarmigan Lake.  The whistling was insistent, so after about a minute I plunked myself down on the trail and got out the binoculars.  At first I thought it was a false alarm, but then I spied an adult black wolf.  Was it alone?  No, a little further away, having a break, was the rest of the pack, including six wolves born this spring.  What luck!

They were a long way away, but my timing was good, because the whole gang serenaded the wilderness with a big group howl, and then all nine wolves began travelling east towards Baker Lake.  I'd heard they were efficient travellers, and they proved it by covering almost 1 km in very short order.  I took some footage with the zoom on maximum, so even though they are in the distance, you can get a taste of what travelling wolves look like.  Enjoy.

PS: I saw another two wolves later in the week, right on the Lake O'Hara Fire Road.

August 4, 2011

Taking a Walk on the Wild Side

It's rare for Nadine and me to get a day off  together in the summer, but two days ago the stars aligned, and we went for a walk on the wild side, going beyond the end of the formal trail into one of the many great valleys in the Lake Louise area.  It was a very memorable day.  The wildflowers were great, we got to walk along the top of a long and serpentine moraine crest, and we enjoyed a close-up view of one our favourite hanging glaciers.

But what we'll probably remember most is our turnaround point at the top of the valley.  We were planning to right to treeline, but our forward momentum was halted by a close encounter with grizzly #72 and her two cubs.  We'd been making plenty of noise, but we came over a little rise and there they were, feeding on the lush grasses and plants in the meadow.  I snapped a couple of quick shots on my maximum telephoto, and then we retreated.  From 150 metres away, we enjoyed about five minutes of binocular time watching three of the most famous citizens in all  the Lake Louise area.

They were beautiful.  It would have been great to have Harry Potter's invisibility cloak, so we could watch them some more, but we felt these bears needed to be on their own, so we quietly slipped away.  It was a day to remember.

July 23, 2011

A Bird in the Hand

Banding station and coffee!
On Monday this week, I (Joel) got up at 3:45 a.m. This is not something I particularly like to do, but if you want to volunteer to band birds, sleep deprivation just comes with the territory. I slipped out of the house at 4:00, drove to the banding site, and in the pre-dawn shadows, fellow volunteers Peter, Jen and I prepped the site for a morning of banding.

Banff's banding station is located along the Bow Valley Parkway, and volunteers like me have been collecting data there since 1999. Six times a summer, from mid June until early August, a series of nets are set up for six hours at the site. Every half hour, the nets are checked, and we gently release the birds from the mesh and bring them over to our master bander, Greg, who identifies, weighs, sexes, and ages our feathered friends. Greg fits each bird with a numbered metal band, and then releases it.

Greg banding a warbling vireo

So why go through all the trouble? Well, for one, if you love birds, it's great chance to see them up close. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, as the expression goes, and I believe it. On Monday, we caught a hummingbird, and it's bill was dusted with pollen from the flowers it had been visiting. Wow!

It's also great to watch the sun rise on the peaks, and hear the dawn chorus of birds singing.
Northern waterthrush

But mostly, I like to bird band knowing that it's part of a long-term continent-wide science project that monitors the health of bird populations. It's one of the biggest citizen science projects going on in Canada and the USA.

If you want to know more, check out the website for MAPS (Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship), and you might find you want to hold a bird in the hand as well.

July 11, 2011

A Year in Wildlife

Banff National Park has recently posted a fascinating video that chronicles the animals (of all sorts!) that have passed in front of a remote camera over the last year.  Wildlife dominates in summer and people dominate in winter.  It's an amazing look at who's out there!

We're not sure where the camera was located, but our best guess in the Redearth Creek fire road, which is now a trail used for hiking-biking in the summer and cross-country skiing in the winter.  It is also close to the low elevation prime wildlife habitat in Banff.

July 7, 2011

Lake Louise is a Royal Destination

At Lake Louise, the combination of bright sky, glacial ice, dark forest and emerald green water has attracted many tens of millions of visitors.

Historic Skoki Lodge
Two names can be added to that list.  Last night, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, William and Kate, spent the night at Skoki Lodge, an historic backcountry lodge across the valley from Lake Louise.  They got a special flight in by helicopter, and did some hiking in this lovely backcountry destination.  The presence of this world famous couple will no doubt put Lake Louise in the spotlight for a few days, but it is not such an unusual occurrence here.  Lake Louise has been a royal destination since the 1890s.

Princess Louise Caroline Alberta
First off, many of our place names come from the royals.  The peak behind Lake Louise was formerly known as Mount Green, but during the Diamond Jubilee for Queen Victoria in 1897, it was renamed Mount Victoria.  Once known as Emerald Lake, the body of water fed by Victoria's glaciers was renamed Lake Louise, which is fitting – Princess Louise was one of Victoria's daughters.  Louise's middle name was Alberta, which is now the name of our province

Second, Kate and William are also not the first royal visitors here.  Edward, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) visited in 1912, and since then, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip been to Lake Louise.

It's been a beautiful couple of days here, so let's hope that William & Kate had a good time away from their busy schedule.

June 11, 2011

In Praise of Willows

Yesterday, while leading a group up towards Yoho Pass, I (Joel) came across an interesting sight: a pile of what appeared to be toothpicks on the ground at the base of a willow bush.  On closer inspection, the “toothpicks” turned out to be willow shoots that had been stripped of their bark by a vole or mouse.

It was the fourth time in the last few weeks I'd seen willows used as food by animals.  In mid-May, on the way from Jasper to Lake Louise, I watched a black bear munching pussy willows by the banks of the Sunwapta River.  And not just any old munching: this was a sit down meal!  The bear parked itself right beside the bush, and pulled the branches towards its mouth.  One by one, the pussy willows disappeared.  When the bear finished, it walked over to the next willow, plunked itself down, and started all over again.

A couple of days later, our first rufous hummingbird of the season arrived in Lake Louise, and it too was drawn to the pussy willows.  As one of our earliest blooming flowers, pussy willows keep hummingbirds going until other species of plant come into bloom.  There's a willow just outside our front door, and it was a treat to watch our resident hummingbird use it as his local restaurant into early June.

Speaking of “Chez Willow,” the latest diners to visit have been migrating warblers.  The first ones showed up about a month ago, but in the last two weeks, we've seen a pulse of Wilson's, orange-crowned and yellow-rumped warblers come through, and they've all been busy catching insects at the willow thickets.  The bugs go for the pussy willows and the fresh leaves, and the warblers go for the bugs.

Here's to the humble willow.

June 2, 2011

Making a Find in Banff National Park

On a snowshoeing trip this winter, I (Nadine) and two fun-loving young Brits headed up Bath Creek near Lake Louise.  Poking around on the edge of the riverbed, we were looking at some pine marten tracks when I realized that the tracks disappeared into a hole that was framed by peeled logs - intriguing!

Refocusing, I could see the outline of the log cabin ruins beneath the snow.  A quick reconnoitre and we found another cabin footprint nearby.  I was not surprised to see them as that area was home to railway building camps in the late 1800s and some light logging in the early 1900s too.

But I was curious if they were already on the list of ruins that the national park archeologists were aware of.  Every once in awhile I'd read about new "old cabin" discoveries in the paper - ruins found when people were in unusual places in the park.

So I contacted the park archeologists in Calgary to see.  They had me double check the inventory and sure enough... they weren't listed.  After a few back and forth emails, it was confirmed!  We were the "discoverers" of these two cabins.  Very exciting!

Unfortunately we didn't take pictures that day, so this is a photo pulled off the internet that is something like what we saw.

At some point, I'll join an archeologist on a return trip to document the cabins.  But most importantly,  what a treat it was to provide at least one set of guests with an unusual and satisfying national park experience!

May 19, 2011

A Big Birthday in the National Parks

Today is the 100th anniversary of Parks Canada, the oldest national park service in the world.  How big a deal is that?  Well, Canada Post issued a stamp to mark the event, the Royal Canadian Mint put out a commemorative silver dollar, and the two of us woke up this morning and realized that we've been living and working  in the national parks for 20% of that time!

We both started our naturalist careers (in 1991 for Joel, and 1992 for Nadine) with what used to be called the “Dominion Parks Service,” and we still work part time for the park now.  Being “parkies” was a very formative part of our lives.  It's where we learned the interpretive craft, where we fell in love with Rockies (and each other), and where we met many people who feel the same way about the environment as we do.

For these reasons alone, we feel grateful for the presence of the parks, but it's also a good time to think about what an incredible set of places are protected in our 42 national parks – from Arctic islands to the southernmost point in Canada, and from coast to coast.

And that's something worth celebrating.  So raise a glass for the parks, and if you want to know more, here's a link to Parks Canada's centennial website.  They've got lots of special events planned for the summer:

May 9, 2011

A Trail Guide Celebration

As hiking guides, we are expected to know the trails like the backs of our hands.  But we were once newcomers here and had to find our way around for the first time, just like most visitors to the Rockies.  And for that, we have hiking guidebooks to thank.

Joel with Brian and Bart
We're not the only ones to give thanks.  A week ago, I (Joel) joined at least 100 people who attended the opening of a new exhibit at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies that celebrates hiking guidebooks.  If you own any of the main hiking books for this neck of the woods, you might recognize the names of the authors who were in attendance – Graeme Pole, Don Beers, Kathy & Craig Copeland.  Also present were the duo who started it all 40 years ago: Brian Patton & Bart Robinson.  The first edition of their  “Canadian Rockies Trail Guide,” hit the shelves in 1971 (at $3.95 a copy!), and eight editions later, it has sold almost a quarter of a million copies.  For a regional non-fiction title in Canada, this is astounding – it's like “The Da Vince Code” of the Canadian Rockies.

Eight editions on display
Having known Brian since my first year in Banff, and Bart for a dozen years, I couldn't miss going to hear the stories of how they got inspired, how they met, how they hiked hundreds of trails, and how a new publishing house was created just to get their book to press.

On display at the Museum until the end of May is a collection of the best hiking guides of the Rockies (including the rare early editions), plus Brian & Bart's famous measuring wheel (which looks like a bicycle wheel crossed with a divining rod).  This wheel has rolled over several thousand miles, giving all of us grateful hikers the very first accurate distances for all the trails in the parks.

Happy Birthday to “The Canadian Rockies Trail Guide.”

April 21, 2011

Hiking in the Lake District

We have just spent a week hiking in the Lake District, in very good weather!  What luck!  We were surprised by how the landscape can change from gentle-pastoral to rough, remote and rugged in a short distance.  Although the peaks don't have the immediate drama of the Canadian Rockies, they are still very impressive.

Another surprise - you don't have to do the biggest, highest fells (mountains) to have a varied and interesting hike.  There are three "levels" to the Lake District:  the valley floor, filled with farms; a mid-level that involves about 10-1200 ft of elevation gain, usually encompassing field, ghyll (ravine), beck (stream) and forest; and then the large, open broad slopes of the mountain tops that require 2-3000 feet of elevation gain.  These can be wonderful hikes in good weather.  The range is so small that a carefully chosen central hike often nets views of all the highest peaks:  Scafell Pike, Sca Fell and Hellvelyn.

We did one of these bigger hikes on a crystal clear day.  A hike on a long ridge that included Starling Dodd, Red Pike, High Stile and High Crag.  It was fabulous and also netted us our first views of red grouse and one of the most spectacular bird behaviours out there.  We witnessed sky larks singing for their mates - an energetic song, done on the wing, as they climb higher, and higher... and higher - until you can't see them anymore!  It's amazing, especially when it's unexpected.  We didn't know to look for it, but it happened right under our noses.

Red Pike from High Stile.  It looks like nothing, but it was a big climb to get there!

High Crag from High Stile.  Helvellyn is way off in the background.
We recommend the Lake District - in good weather.  April seems to be the month benefiting the most from climate change and we are almost glad that we have to take our vacation then.

March 6, 2011

A Day Out with a Wolverine Researcher

Last week, I (Joel) received an invite to participate in a new park wolverine research project, so given our recent interest in wolverines, I said “sure.”  Since November, 2010, over 50 research sites have been set up in Banff, Yoho & Kootenay Parks, each one complete with bait, motion sensitive cameras, and barbed wire (to catch wolverine fur for DNA analysis).

Ben removing old beaver carcass
Each site has to be checked once a month, and it was time for lead researcher Ben Dorsey (who is also our neighbour), to head into an area called “Skoki” to check on the site there.

It's a lot of work to carry all the equipment to these sites and to collect the data, so Ben took along me and Kootenay park warden Brian Chruszcz to help him out, and we learned that field research is not for the weak. It took two days in total, and almost 40 km on skis, to get to and from the site. Thankfully, we stayed in one of the park warden patrol cabins overnight, which was a real blessing, since it dropped down to -26 overnight.

At the research site, we retrieved a frozen beaver carcass from a cache that had been flown in at the beginning of the season, and took it to the bait site. It must have weighed 35 pounds! At the site, the previous beaver carcass, which was nailed to a tree, had been heavily scavenged, but before we could replace it, we needed to know if a wolverine had done the eating, and left any hair samples. So we downloaded the photos from the motion sensitive camera, and played through them. Unfortunately, wolverines were not in the slideshow, but there were beautiful photos of lynx and pine martens, and they'd managed to feast on as much of the beaver as they could get at.

Ben & Joel hauling new bait into place.
It was starting to get dark, so we worked fast: Ben attached the new carcass to the tree, we replaced the camera's batteries and memory card, re-strung the barbed wire around the tree trunk, and left behind some very stinky lure (called “Gusto”) to give the bait that certain “je ne sais quoi.” Wolverines make their livings by using their noses, so the hope is that this month, one of them will find the feast, and leave us some DNA in return.

Why do all this grunt work? Well, not much is known about this rare and elusive animal here in the Canadian Rockies, and we need good data if we are to look after all the wildlife found in our national parks. The study is planned to last for two winters, and it should give us our first accurate census of wolverines, tell us where they hang out, and determine, through DNA work, whether highways are a barrier to their movement.

It was disappointing not to see any evidence of wolverines, but the trip was highly instructive. You see, we were completely worn out after two days on the trail. But wolverines cover about the same distances we did, every day of the year. I tip my hat to them.

February 24, 2011

Avalanche at Emerald Lake

Emerald Lake, next door in Yoho National Park, is one of the places you may have explored on your trip to the Rockies.  If you've hiked or snowshoed with us along the shore of the lake, you may remember the  really big open avalanche slope that runs from mountaintop to lake.

For most of the year, it's a pretty benign and peaceful spot.  You can stand at the bottom and look up at a sea of wildflowers in summer or a carpet of smooth snow in winter.  But on February 12, it came alive!

A really big snow slide carried snow and trees out onto the the lake with so much force that the ice fractured into hundreds of pieces.  Thankfully, it happened in the middle of the night.

The locals had never seen anything like it.  Some friends from Field sent us these pictures.

Next summer, it will be interesting to see how the forest in the upper part of the avalanche slope has been transformed!

Slide debris

Broken ice and open water - the lake was busted wide open!

February 15, 2011

Banff inspires new generation of wildlife overpassess

We've been living in Banff long enough to have seen a couple of generations of wildlife overpasses being built. They cost a lot of money, but have been a success in connecting the landscape on either side of the highway for wildlife - in bridging what some conservation groups called "the Berlin Wall for wildlife."  They are not aesthetically pleasing, but they get the job done.

Now, the design competition featured in this Calgary Herald article has proposed new construction techniques that both look more interesting, and, cost less. It's exciting to see! The pictures of various designs included with this article are well worth a moment to look at.

February 4, 2011

Winter for Wolverines

Ski touring today with friends, on a windy bench at treeline, we saw only one set of tracks: wolverine!  They had to have been fairly fresh because we could still see the occasional clear paw print despite what was fast becoming a blizzard.

We've already written one Facebook post about all the wolverine "things" that have recently appeared in our lives -- a book and TV documentary -- and here's another: Wolverine Watch.  Our neighbour, Ben, is one of the lead researchers.  We hope to go out one day with him to help put stinky beavers on the sides of trees, or to check the remote cameras he puts up to capture any animal that investigates.

Ben showed us some incredible shots he's already got.  They should be up on the Wolverine Watch website soon.  Meanwhile, the website is a place for us locals to add our sightings using an interactive map.  I just entered my first one with these tracks today!

Wolverine research is notoriously challenging because of this animal's amazing ability to move with ease in mountainous terrain.  We don't know a lot about wolverines in the Canadian Rockies.  This citizen science and research project should help Banff National Park get a better handle on one of our most elusive predators.

January 8, 2011

First Snowstorm of 2011

A big snowstorm on January 6 & 7 has added about 20 cm of snow to the landscape around Lake Louise.  Every tree is coated, and the mountains look spectacular.

Today, we headed up the Icefields Parkway to Bow Lake to explore.  The winter canvas included afternoon sunshine on Dolomite Peak, fresh snowshoe hare tracks, and the robin's egg blue of the Crowfoot Glacier.  The big boulders along our route were draped with snow, and looked like sculpted marshmallows.

The new snow will freshen up all our snowshoeing trails, and has wiped clean all the existing animal tracks. Any tracks we see now are fresh for 2011.

Happy New Year!