December 9, 2013

Grizzly Bears and the Wonders of GPS, Take 2!

In March, we wrote about grizzly bears being fitted with GPS collars during the summer of 2012.  Since then, the 2013 season for bears has fully played out: they woke up, roamed around for a summer and, with a couple of exceptions, they've now all gone back to bed.  Surprise, surprise, there were at least two bears still active in the park on the weekend, even though it was -38 Celsius in Lake Louise!

Here's the four coolest things that the GPS collars revealed this year:

1. EARLIEST WAKE UP: Bear #122 woke up on March 24.  This adult male is one of Banff's biggest bears (about 700 lbs), and he always wakes up early. Unfortunately, his collar is no longer working, but we know that as recently as three weeks ago, he hauled a drowned elk out of the frozen Bow River, dragged it to shore, and was having a late-season meal.

2. SHORTEST SUMMER SEASON: Bear #72, a female who has lived in the greater Lake Louise area for over a dozen years, was active for less than five months this year!  She came out of hibernation on May 4 and denned up on October 1.  Her big news: she was seen mating in June and may have new cubs next spring.

Bear #72 in Upper Consolation Valley

3. LONGEST HIBERNATION: Bear #64, a famous female who lives near Banff, denned from October 12, last fall until to May 3, 2013.  That's six months and 21 days!  During that whole time, she didn't eat or drink anything.  Great weight-loss strategy!

4. BEST USE OF THE GPS TECHNOLOGY: When Bear #138, a young female, went to into her den on November 1, she chose to snooze in Pipestone Bowl, which is adjacent to the Lake Louise ski area.  Since it is popular with out-of-bounds skiers, Parks Canada decided to close the bowl for the winter, so she can sleep in peace.  Without the GPS signal, they wouldn't have known she had denned up there.

We'll keep you posted on the comings and goings of Banff's bear's next year.

December 3, 2013

Skating on Bow Lake

 “Bow Lake is in, and it's like a mirror!”

Those words may not make your heart beat faster, but if you like to skate, this is exciting news indeed.  Bow Lake, along the Icefields Parkway, is one of the park's most accessible and photogenic bodies of water.  Last week, after the first of our winter's cold snaps, it froze clean with no snow.  Lake ice never stays flawless for long, so we put in several days of skating while the opportunity held.

The ice was smooth and thick, reflecting both us and the mountains.  It was also so transparent that it gave us the willies when we skated into the shallower sections of the lake.  We could see right to the bottom, and the fish shot off in front of us as we passed.

Because of the cold and the humidity, small impurities on the lake's surface had given rise to “ice flowers”, delicate and exquisite blossoms of frost.  We ended up splayed out on the ice, like kids, to take in the small scale beauty.

An "ice flower"

Taking in the beauty, up close

New snow fell on the weekend, and now we wait for the next lake to freeze....

November 15, 2013

Fighting Fire with Fire in Kootenay National Park

November seems a funny time to talk about fire, but Kootenay National Park recently released an amazing time lapse video of the Numa Creek forest fire. This fire, located about 30 km from Lake Louise, was started on July 25 by lightning.

Numa Creek Fire, photo by Pam Doyle, for the Calgary Herald
Under certain conditions, Parks Canada has the option of letting fires burn, but they decided to fight this blaze.  It threatened park facilities and the Kootenay Parkway, and maybe memories of the big 2003 Kootenay fires were still fresh in everybody's minds.  The fire, however, was in a difficult to access area with steep slopes, and firefighting was difficult, so when the flames picked up after a few days, the park's firefighters tried a different tack: fighting fire with fire.

This might sound counter-intuitive, but if you ignite unburned areas near the main fire, you can use prevailing winds, and even the convective currents generated by the flames themselves, to steer the fire in the direction you want.

Watch on Youtube to see how it all played out!

October 2, 2013

White-Tailed Ptarmigans Showcase the Changing Seasons

The resident camouflage experts here in the park are hardy grouse-like birds called white-tailed ptarmigans.  They are amongst our toughest critters, as year round, they live at high elevations, usually above tree-line.  In summer, they sport mottled feathers, and blend in with the rocks and lichens of the alpine tundra.  In winter, they are as white as snow, right down to feathers growing out of their feet!

Feathered feet of a ptarmigan in winter plumage.
We've been keeping an eye open for ptarmigan all summer – with no luck – but in the last two weeks, we've seen three large families.  They are a magical sight, as they are in “transformation” mode: new white feathers are coming in, and the darker feathers are moulting out.

September 19: winter and summer plumage in one package.
Their timing is perfect, as the first snows have been falling in the high country, and the landscape is now a cross between rocky and white, just like the birds.

Speaking of timing, our summer hiking season ended  a couple of days ago, and by the photo below, you can see that there wasn't much “summer” left here in the Lake Louise area.  At Consolation Lake on September 30, seven guests earned their ptarmigan merit badges that day – even without the camouflage – for toughing out fresh snow, strong winds, and a 0ยบ Celsius high!

September 30: Ptarmigan merit badge recipients at Consolation Lake.

September 25, 2013

Cone Crop of the Century

If you've been hiking in the Rockies this summer, you've probably noticed something: the evergreens are loaded with cones.  The subalpine fir and the Engelmann spruce in the higher parts of Banff and Yoho parks are covered with cones, and in our twenty plus years here, this is only the second time we've seen this.

Bumper crop of subalpine fir cones ripening in mid-August

It's called “masting”, and has been observed in other tree species around the world. Biologists think that when big mast years, like this one, are paired up against years of almost no cone production, then predators of cones – like squirrels – can never reach a consistent population level where they can eat all the seeds in all the cones.

It's the trees' defence system: starve the squirrels one year, and overwhelm them with food the next.  It guarantees that some of the seeds in the cones will get to the ground to germinate, which is what the trees want.

Fir cones shedding their seeds last week.

The big question is, “how do the trees do it?”  How do they synchronize, between individuals and across species, the big mast years and the years of low cone production?  We haven't been able to find the answer, but if anybody out there knows, we'd love to hear about it.

In the meantime, you can enjoy the crop through photography, and you can watch the red squirrels in their collecting frenzy.  In the last couple of weeks, we've been beaned in the head by cones that the squirrels are throwing down to the ground to collect for winter.

Cones clipped by squirrels for winter storage.

September 1, 2013

The Summer of Fire, Ten Years After

Now that summer is on the wane, and the Numa Fire burning in Kootenay National Park is settling down, we can turn our attention to the summer of 2003, ten years ago, when it felt like much of western Canada was ablaze.

On July 31 that year, a large lightning storm in Kootenay (just south of Lake Louise) started several fires.  Two of them eventually grew into one enormous fire which burned over 17,000 hectares of the park.  It didn't rain for 42 straight days, so every morning we'd wake up to blue skies, but not to the south: behind Mount Temple, the signature peak in the village of Lake Louise, it would look like a nuclear bomb was going off, as smoke from the fires rose to 20,000 feet.

By mid-September, rains and some bold back-burning finally put out the blaze, but since then, life has returned.  We've been watching and photographing the changes in Kootenay, so here's a ten year anniversary montage in images...

August, 2003.  At the height of the 2003 Kootenay wildfires, firefighters take a break after working to save historic Kootenay Park Lodge from the flames.  Photo by park warden John Niddrie.

July 2005. Two years after the fire, the forest floor near Stanley Glacier is covered in arnica flowers.

August, 2007.  Four years after the fire, the Stanley Glacier trail erupts in fireweed.

August, 2013.  Ten years after the fire, young lodgepole pine are now taller than a person near Marble Canyon.

August, 2013.  Burnt trees and pink wildflowers stand in beautiful contrast on the trail through Prospector's Valley. 

August 11, 2013

Bears Caught on Candid Camera

Living in Lake Louise gives us a better chance of seeing grizzly bears than most people, but often we only get a quick glimpse.  It makes us wonder how the bear is spending the other 23.9 hours of its day.  What if you could be a fly on the wall in the day of a bear?  Or how about three bears?  Wouldn't that be great?

Remote wildlife cameras throughout the national parks are the proverbial “fly on the wall.”  We've written about them before, but they are worth repeat posts because of the images they capture.  Recently, Kananaskis Provincial Park released stills from one of their cameras, located at a “rub” tree.  Trees like this are where bears and other animals leave their calling cards.  Think of them like the Post Office for wildlife.  These pictures have since been a hit all over the world, and if you haven't seen them yet, sit down for two very enjoyable minutes.

July 17, 2013

Bear Shows at the Lake Louise Inn

This summer, we've partnered with the Lake Louise Inn to present our bear show “Grizzly Groceries: A Gourmet Tour.”  Thankfully, people aren't on the menu, but foods like buffaloberries, salmon, and carpenter ants are, and these delicacies reveal fascinating stories about grizzly bear biology and conservation.  The shows are open to everyone, so until mid-September, join us on Wednesday nights at 8:30 at the Peyto Room at the Lake Louise Inn, in “downtown” Lake Louise.  For directions or information, call the Lake Louise Inn at 403-522-3791.

Grizzly bear teeth tell you a lot about what they eat!

June 18, 2013

Osprey Webcam Now Broadcasting Live!

Of all the birds here in the Rockies, ospreys are the most willing to put their private lives on display: they hunt for fish over rivers and lakes, and they nest on top of dead trees or power poles, so they're really easy to observe.

Osprey nest on the Bow River Bridge at Castle Junction, Banff Park.
But now you can have an intimate view at the family life of ospreys, courtesy of a webcam near Exshaw, just outside of Banff National Park.  The webcam was installed by the power company Fortis, and went live in early May when a pair of ospreys returned from migration.  Since then, they've spruced up the nest, laid three eggs (between May 8 and May 14),  and taken turns incubating. The real excitement started a few days ago, with the birth of the first chick. Currently, it looks like there's one egg left to hatch, the two newborn chicks are enjoying a post-natal diet of pure sushi!

If you are in Banff or Lake Louise, and want to see osprey in a live setting, our most celebrated pair of  “fish eagles” have a nest on the Bow River Bridge at Castle Junction.  Just take the connector road between Highway #1 and #1A and look at the bridge's western iron girder.

June 9, 2013

Changing of the Bear Guard

Retired human / wildlife conflict specialist Hal Morrison.

We've been living in Lake Louise long enough to see lots of people come and go. Two weeks ago, the town of Field, just west of Lake Louise, hosted a big sendoff for Hal Morrison and his wife Janice.  Hal had been the head of the human / wildlife conflict team in Lake Louise and Yoho for many years, and did a great job of keeping animals – mostly bears – and people safe.  He was a great storyteller too, sharing stories with many of us locals about how bears behave, and how we should behave around them.

Taking over for Hal is Brianna Burley.  She's been working with Hal for the last six or seven years, and therefore has lots of experience with wildlife.  She's also an academic, and is currently working on her Master's degree from the University of Alberta.  Using cameras mounted on locomotives, she's studying how bears get hit by trains, and what can be done to prevent these collisions.

Brianna Burley takes over as head of human / wildlife conflict team.
Keeping people and bears safe is serious work, but every once in a while, the staff get to have some fun.  A few years ago, Hal and Brianna headed up Panorama Ridge to find a radio collar that had come off grizzly bear #72 during hibernation.  Collars are valuable, so they retrieved it by tracking the signal.  They also got a first hand look at a recently vacated grizzly bar den, which is a rare experience in these parts.

Happy retirement, Hal and Janice, and welcome to your new job, Brianna!

May 19, 2013

When will Lake Louise melt?

Spring comes late in the Rockies, and when the lakes start to melt, you know that summer is around the corner.  We've been keeping track of the melting date of Lake Louise for 20 years, and the range is quite surprising.  The earliest “ice off” date we've recorded is May 25, and the latest is June 13!

Lake Louise on May 19, 2013
If you're curious about when the lake will be ice free this year, you can watch from home – the Chateau Lake Louise has installed a web-cam on their rooftop!  It looks down and across the lake, and updates every few minutes for a realtime view of the lake.  As we write (May 19 at 10:30 a.m.), the current photo clearly shows full ice coverage.  You can see the outlines of the half-dozen rinks that were used for the pond hockey tournament in February, and if you look along the right hand side of the lake, the thick white stripe is the cross-country ski trail from earlier this winter.

What's your vote for when the ice will come off the lake?

March 17, 2013

Grizzly Bears and the Wonders of GPS

The middle of March hardly seems like the time to talk bears, especially as it snows and blows among the high peaks of Lake Louise, but the first of Banff's grizzly bears will be awakening any day now.

And for some of those bears, Parks Canada will know the exact moment they emerge from their dens, courtesy of some high tech jewelry.  No, it's not Piaget, it's GPS.

Last summer, Steve Michel, Banff National Park's lead grizzly bear researcher, fitted eleven of the park's grizzlies with GPS collars.  This is the first time this technology has been used systematically in the park, and already, it is revealing more about how bears use the landscape than any past studies.

In 2012, those collars beamed up over 19,000 locations, showing where the bears are spending their time.  Among their favourite places were parts of Banff and Kootenay that burned in wildfires in 2001 and 2003.  These spots have rich berry crops in mid-summer.  Another hotspot was the headwaters of the Cascade River in the heart of Banff's backcountry, which offers secure habitat away from people.

Crossing the Wapta
The most surprising finding from the study was one male grizzly bear who crossed the Wapta Icefield three times!  Steve Michel thinks the bear found it the most direct route from Banff National Park to the Blaeberry Valley in British Columbia.  We've skied up on the Icefield ourselves, and it is the last place we'd expect to see a bear.

By summer's end the GPS collars had revealed the size of each bear's range, how often each bear had crossed the railway (a major risk for bears), and last but not least, when and where the bears went into hibernation in the fall.  The earliest of the bunch went to bed on October 12, and the last of the eleven to den up hit the hay on December 3.

We'll look forward to what the GPS collars reveal this summer.  Watch for an update in the fall.

March 12, 2013

Cross-country Skiing in Lake Louise

Our focus in Lake Louise is guided snowshoeing and guided hiking, but there's another great way to travel around here: cross-country skiing.  It's snowing as I write this, which means excellent conditions for skiing. The season here lasts from November until the die-hards put away their skis in the spring.  We've cross-country skied as late as early May!

Last week, the Calgary Herald sent a reporter and videographer up to Lake Louise, and put together a great piece about the ski trails and the Parks Canada grooming team.  Read about it here and if you want any advice about skiing in our neighbourhood, give us a call or send us a message.  Even though we don't lead cross-country trips ourselves, we'd be happy to tell you about trails, instructors, and ski rentals.

February 28, 2013

The Year of the Cat

Remote camera footage courtesy of Parks Canada
According to the Chinese horoscope, we are officially in the year of the snake, but you wouldn't know it here in Banff National Park.  In January, a family of cougars were caught on the park's wildlife cameras, working their way through a deer they'd hunted on the outskirts of the town of Banff.  And here in Lake Louise, our local lynx and her now ten-month-old kitten have been making a big splash through February.  We've seen them on a snowshoeing tour, there's been numerous roadside sightings, and many skiers have caught a glimpse of them crossing the runs at the Lake Louise ski area.

Photo courtesy of Alex Taylor, Parks Canada
But the best sighting came from our friend Alex Taylor, who works for Parks Canada as a wildlife-conflict specialist. A few weeks ago, while patrolling the TransCanada highway, Alex saw the two lynx trying to get across the road.  He and the highways crew stopped traffic, and then the cats decided to put on a show by going through the fence, rather than climbing it.  The mesh is just over six inches by six inches, and yet these two lynx proved to be real contortionists.  They squeezed their heads through first, then one leg and shoulder, then the other leg and shoulder, and finally, the hips and back legs.

Nadine showcasing the 6.5 X 6.5 inch mesh of the fence
The park gave us permission to post one of Alex's excellent photos.  If you want to see the full sequence of shots, the Parks Canada facebook page is lynx central.

There has been concern about the lynx not being stopped by the fence, but this is the first documented case of them fitting through the mesh. The fencing is very successful at keeping wildlife off the roads most of the time, and in March, 2012, a lynx crossed the highway using one of the wildlife overpasses, another first.

It's truly been The Year of the Cat.  Take it, Al Stewart.

February 4, 2013

Wildlife Crossings in the News

People often ask us “do the wildlife crossings in Banff actually work?”  The obvious answer is yes: tens of thousands of large mammal crossings have been recorded in the park over the past 15 years, and the fencing along the highway keeps most animals off the road.

Wildlife overpass in Banff National Park

A harder question to answer is this one: “Are they cost-effective?”  According to a report by the Miistakis Institute, who study highway safety, the answer is yes. Near Dead Man's Flats, just outside of Banff National Park, a three kilometre section of highway was fenced in 2004, and outfitted with a wildlife underpass. Since then, the number of crashes between cars and animals has dropped considerably, and that means society has saved a lot of money.  Insurance claims are way down, and when people and animals aren't hurt, we are all winners.

Wildlife underpass, Banff National Park

The Miistakis report has inspired the transportation department in Alberta to look at other highways in the province, to see if they are good candidates for fences and underpasses.  If you drive through Crowsnest Pass in southern Alberta, there's a good chance you'll see wildlife-saving measures on Highway #3 in the future.

January 21, 2013

Surprising sights in Lake Louise

Yesterday, our snowshoeing group got a very rare treat.  Just a few minutes into our tour, a female lynx and her 9-month old kitten strolled across the trail in front of us.  They were just far enough away that photos were pretty much impossible, but it was a very exciting moment for everybody.  Apparently, over the weekend, a few more people got lucky enough to see the pair, including wildlife photographer Duane Starr.  He caught the two lynx with his long camera lens.

Lynx sightings are impossible to predict, but fabulous ice carvings are easier to find. The annual “Ice Magic” contest finished up yesterday on the shores of Lake Louise.

This year's entries are excellent, and they should stay in really good condition for viewing for about a week or ten days (weather dependent!).  Come for a visit and see how ice can be turned into art, and don't forget your camera!

January 2, 2013

New Year's Brunch, Wildlife Style

On our snowshoeing tours on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, we got to see two rare examples of how the wildlife were celebrating the season by feasting.

Joel and his group saw a short-tailed weasel dash across the trail with a mouse in its mouth.  It was all too quick for a photo, but on the internet photo sharing site Pixdaus, we found a great shot of another weasel carrying its meal.

In their winter coats, weasels are called ermines, and even though they only weigh 60 or 90 grams (2 to 3 ounces), they can take on prey as large as snowshoe hares.

Photo by Nadine Fletcher

Yesterday, Nadine and her group came across some beautiful traces in the snow where an owl had swooped down, and then plunged into the snow.  It was probably after a mouse as well, and had dug right through the snowpack in pursuit of its meal.  Snow photography is tricky, but the feather marks from both the tail and wings are clearly visible.

Happy New Year!