November 16, 2014

What's with all the Frost Flowers?

One week ago, after a long spell of milder than average weather, it suddenly got cold and clear. Winter had arrived all at once.  For six nights in a row, until last night, we hit -24 degrees C here in Lake Louise.  As expected, our lakes began to freeze, but instead of nice clean ice, which we love for skating, every lake was soon covered in "frost flowers."  They're beautiful, but last winter we managed to skate on lakes that were mostly free of these frost flowers, and we wondered, "why the difference?"

Frost flowers at Vermilion Lake
Well, it turns out that researchers Robert W. Style and Grae Worster have answered that question.  In 2009, they published "Frost flower formation on sea ice and lake ice" in a journal called "Geophysical Research Letters."  Their article showed that the flowers do not form like conventional frost, in which water vapour in the atmosphere condenses and freezes on a cold surface. (This is the normal way you end up with frost on your car windshield.)

Instead, when there is a strong temperature differential between the newly formed ice and the air temperature, moisture sublimates right out of the ice and freezes into frost crystals.  Once the flowers are in place, even if the air itself is very dry, they continue to grow as long as the air temperature remains below about -15 degrees C.

Smooth ice at one of the ponds near Field, B.C.
So the mystery is solved.... or is it?  Today, we went to Yoho Park, west of Lake Louise, and skated on the ponds near Field.  They were clear and smooth.  Where were the frost flowers?

The answer is that it needs to be calm for them to form.  Most places here in the Rockies were dead calm this week, but not Field.  It sits below Kicking Horse Pass, where the cold, high pressure air squeezed through to create a strong local wind. Wind is the enemy of frost flowers. According to the researchers, "frost flowers are typically only seen at wind speeds below about 5 metres per second: at higher wind speeds, turbulence mixes the region of local supersaturation with the drier air above."

If you like lots of math, here's the full story, but frost flowers or not, being outside on our frozen lakes has been great fun.

September 23, 2014

A Fireweed Summer and a Fireweed Fall

This year we had perfect conditions for fireweed, one of the showiest wildflowers in the Rockies.  If you visited in August, you couldn't help but notice their hot pink blossoms, especially in areas where fires burned in 2003.

Now that it's September, the fields of fireweed are the gift that keeps on giving.  In the first two weeks of the month, the leaves turned a beautiful burgundy, and now, in the past week, the seed pods have been splitting open, releasing what might be the lightest and most abundant seed in the Rockies.

Fireweed leaves turning burgundy, with some harebells in the mix.
I did an experiment last week, opening up a seed pod and doing a seed count.  I ended up with 581 seeds, and given that a portion of the seeds blew away in a gust of wind (before I moved the experiment inside), my guess is that there may have been 750 or 800 seeds in the pod.  Each fireweed plant can have several dozen seed pods, and if you start doing the math, that means billions or trillions of seeds produced in the park this summer.

There were 581 seeds in this one fireweed seed pod (plus the ones that blew away).

A field of fireweed going to seed yesterday on the Highline trail near the Plain of Six Glaciers.
North of Lake Louise, there was a fire in early July along the Icefields Parkway, the road to Jasper.  By next summer, the seeds from this year's bumper crop of fireweed will germinate, and in a few years, there will be fabulous roadside viewing.

Happy first day of autumn everyone!

August 12, 2014

Top Secret Burgess Shale Fossil Site

This week has been full of exciting events.  On one of our hikes, we saw a grizzly bear (at a safe distance).  It was a highlight moment for everyone.

The bear was a little too far away for a photo, but a couple of days later, at our lunch stop on the Plain of Six Glaciers Trail, we saw a tremendous icefall off the Upper Victoria Glacier. This time, we all managed to get good photographs.

The biggest highlight of the week, however, was a field trip with some of our Parks Canada colleagues to a newly discovered outcrop of the Burgess Shale fossils in Kootenay National Park.  We're not allowed to divulge its location -- all we can say is that it was a real slog to get there -- but it was a real treat to be in a location where fossils of creatures that have not seen the light of day in over 500 million years are being exposed through careful quarrying.

Sydneyia inexpectans, exposed to sunlight for the first time in over 500 million years

We were shown the day's findings, which included a perfectly preserved Sidneyia inexpectans.  I got to hold it in my hand, and I was blown away by the idea that until that morning, it had been hidden in stone for half a billion years!

Jean Bernard Caron (top right) examining a freshly split open piece of shale

We also got a great site tour by Jean Bernard Caron, Curator of Invertebrate Palaeontology at the Royal Ontario Museum.  He went back and forth between answering our questions, and examining freshly split open layers of shale.  If you are a fossil fan, the ROM's web page is full of great photos of fossils from the Burgess Shale, and animations of the creatures, including my new pal Sydneyia.

Definitely a highlight of my summer.  How many times can you say "that rocks!" and really mean it? 

July 22, 2014

"Clive" – The Salt Loving Marmot

Two weeks ago, we were up at Helen Lake, and after settling in for lunch, a very bold marmot approached our group.  We figured it had been fed by other hikers, but it showed no interest in our food.  Instead, it marched over to one of our backpacks and started licking the straps.

We were all pretty surprised, and stayed still to watch. In very short order, it became clear that the marmot had a major salt addiction.  It visited each of our packs in turn, and then decided to try other options, eventually licking one bare arm and one pant leg.  It was fascinating to watch, because we rarely get close to marmots.  Everyone was so enthralled that we decided to give the marmot a name, just for the day.  One of the guests settled on 'Clive'.

Clive discovers the motherlode of salt  –  hiking pole handles
We figured it was a one time craving, like when you've just gotta have potato chips.

But we were back at Helen Lake yesterday, and so was Clive.  His (or her  – it's hard to tell) addiction had not abated, but this time Clive discovered something even better than packs – hiking pole handles.

We have another trip running to Helen Lake this Friday, on July 25, and we will be on the lookout to see if Clive is still there for another rare close-up encounter.

Clive entertaining our gang of hikers on yesterday's hike

Clive the marmot checks out his namesake backpack

July 9, 2014

Cone Crop of the Century, Part III - The Next Generation

Last September, and again this February, we wrote about the bumper crop of cones on our spruce and fir trees during the summer of 2013.

On today's guided hike up to Yoho Lake, we talked about the ability of subalpine fir to germinate in the snow, and to grow a taproot – up to 3 cm long – right after germinating.  This long taproot allows it to get a foothold in the mineral soil that's under all the leaf litter, and makes the fir superb at regenerating in shady, mossy subalpine forests.

subalpine fir with taproot
Well, talking about it is one thing, but seeing it is another.  A few minutes after our discussion, we found ourselves in a patch of snow, and there they were!  Dozens, maybe hundreds, of little fir seeds from last year's bumper crop, happily germinating and growing their epic taproots.

Then, to complete the story, a few minutes later we stopped for good views, and around our feet were baby fir trees, maybe a month old, sprouting their first needles.  My photo is a bit blurry, but you can see the first two needles, ready to start photosynthesizing.

baby subalpine fir, with its first needles

June 22, 2014

Boreal Toads on the Move

Yesterday we were hiking in Paradise Valley, and we met two boreal toads migrating from the forest towards the creek.  It was a good thing that they were moving, because otherwise they're really hard to see.  Today I realized that I didn't know much about toads, so I thought I should find out a bit more.

It turns out that boreal toads deserve a bit more admiration from us.  They are the highest elevation amphibian in Canada, and to get through winter, they hibernate underground for up to six months, staying below the frost line.  According to researchers, they mostly use the burrows of golden-mantled ground squirrels, sometimes even sharing them with the squirrels!  The burrows need to be deep enough to prevent freezing, so toads will hibernate up to 1.3 m underground.

Life in the mountains is tough, so female toads lay between 5,000 and 15,000 eggs in late spring to keep the whole show rolling.  Since they live so high, and lay so many eggs, boreal toads contribute a lot to high elevation wetlands: the eggs and tadpoles are food for many aquatic critters.  One time in Kananaskis, we saw a huge school of toad tadpoles, and we both thought, “that's a lot of food.”

The tadpoles transform into toadlets in a couple of months, and then leave the water, which might seem weird, since we usually think of amphibians as aquatic, but boreal toads are mostly landlubbers.  They eat bugs in the forest, and only come back to the ponds for breeding.  They can live to be 12 years old.

One final reason to admire boreal toads: they're beautiful, in their toady kind of way.

June 17, 2014

Beavers at Lake Louise.... Inconceivable!

We've lived in Lake Louise for over twenty years, and we've never seen a beaver here.  That's still true, but we now know that one visited our home town last week.

Freshly cut cottonwood alongside the Bow River
We were out for a stroll along the Bow River the other day, and found the proof right beside the pedestrian bridge at the train station: a freshly cut cottonwood.  When we poked around in the cottonwood grove nearby, we found another couple of chewed up trees.

It made us wonder about the beaver who had a quick bite in our backyard.  Was it trying to make a home here, or just passing through?  Both options are possible. Beavers can live in riverbanks, without making dams and lodges, but the Lake Louise area is pretty poor habitat.

It's more likely that this was a youngster travelling through.  Juvenile beavers leave their native ponds at the age of two, and can travel anywhere from ten km to 200 km to find a new home.

Bon voyage, Castor canadensis!

May 23, 2014

Grizzly bears and fire, plus the black bear "mom of the year" award

Last night was all about bears.  We went to Banff National Park's research updates, and heard a great presentation about how much grizzly bears like to spend time in burned areas, as a lot of the vegetarian foods they prefer grow really well after fires.  A young biologist named Charlie McLellan has been putting in a lot of days in the park doing vegetation plots, and putting in a lot of days at the computer looking at where grizzly bears with GPS collars are spending their time.  Last summer, one grizzly spent six weeks in a row a portion of Kootenay National Park that had been burned in a wildfire in 2003.

Buffaloberries yielding bumper crops in Kootenay National Park in 2009,
six years after the big forest fires of 2003.

Heading home at dusk, not far from the town of Banff, we saw our first grizzly of the year, a beautiful subadult feeding on grasses.  We didn't have a camera with us, so we watched for a few minutes through binoculars, and then headed home.

And finally, in the bear department, after the presentations, everybody was talking about the video clip of a mother black bear in Kootenay who did some good quality parenting to keep her young of the year cub safe near Highway 93 South.  It should put a smile on your face!

May 14, 2014

The Ultimate Headbanger

The birdwatching season has begun!  Here in Lake Louise, we're still waiting for the snow to melt, so there's not much around, but at last weekend's community bird walk on the edge of the town of Banff, the keen participants spotted more than 60 species of birds.

On Saturday, our friend Reno Sommerhalder, who is a naturalist with a special interest in bears, took this great shot of a pileated woodpecker excavating a nest cavity in a trembling aspen tree.  The pileated is North America's biggest and toughest woodpecker, and if you look closely at the photo, you can see it spitting out wood chips.  That is one hard-headed bird!

Pileated woodpecker.  Photo by Reno Sommerhalder.

Woodpeckers like the pileated play a crucial role in forests, because their old nest cavities become prime real estate for dozens of other animals, from owls to bats to flying squirrels.

If you want to join in on the Banff Community Birdwalk, there are trips on Saturdays and Mondays through into June, usually starting at 8:00 a.m.  Contact if you want more information.

April 29, 2014

Spring Break, Bow River Style

Every kid looks forward to Spring Break, and we got to enjoy two of them this year in Lake Louise. Schools were out for the official break at the end of March, but the Bow River is doing its "spring break" right now: the snow and ice cover is falling into the main channel, leaving behind beautiful, chunky works of art along the river banks.

This morning, we'd had a hard overnight freeze, so it was possible to walk right on top of the snow -- no snowshoes required!  The early morning sun was illuminating the bright hunks of snow and ice, and the water was as clear as glass. And we weren't the only ones out to take it all in.  The first osprey and kingfisher of the year put in an appearance as well.

The water should run super clear for another week or so, and then the snowmelt will begin, and our works of art will be washed away by the silty runoff.

April 21, 2014

Name That Tune

It's still early spring in the Rockies, but the first birds are starting to show up, so we are clearing out the cobwebs in the parts of our brains dedicated to identifying bird songs.

Today we heard the first evidence that one of our favourite "regulars" is back in town.  If you've been to the Rockies between late April and mid-July, you've probably heard this sound:

Although there are a lot of bird songs out there in the park, most often they go unnoticed.  However, in our time here, we've observed that lots of people are curious about this one.  They'll say, "Who's blowing that whistle?" or "What the heck is that, anyway?"

Male varied thrush singing his heart out

The answer is the varied thrush, which is a relative of the everyday backyard bird the American robin. It's an absolute gem of a bird, with exotic orange and black patterns.

What's singing outside your bedroom window today?

March 31, 2014

Lake Louise Coming to an Envelope Near You!

First, the bad news.  Postage stamps in Canada are going to cost a lot more, starting today.

Now the good news.  The first stamps with the new price feature World Heritage Sites in Canada, including one of the Lake Louise area.  Our friend Jeff Douglas, who works as a guide at the Chateau Lake Louise, is featured in the stamp at the summit of Mount Victoria.  It looks pretty good, but...

... the amazing shot is on the full souvenir sheet.  At the bottom right, Lake Louise is reflecting the golden light of sunrise, and the sky is alive with the dramatic colours of morning.  Click on it to see it at full size.

We tried to buy some at the Post Office, but Jeff has bought out the entire stock! We'll have to wait for the backorder to come in.

March 6, 2014

The Animal Tracks Revealed

The mystery tracks from last week belonged to... a northern flying squirrel!  This is an animal that definitely “flies under the radar” in the Canadian Rockies, as it is completely nocturnal.  We've seen three in all our years here.  Even the tracks are extremely rare, as flying squirrels spend almost all of their time in the trees.

Flying squirrels can't really fly, but they can glide long distances, using a flap of skin between the front and
back legs as a kind of kite.  On average, a flying squirrel can travel at least three times the distance it drops in height, so if it starts up high, it can glide a long distance.  The maximum glide distance we could find evidence for was 45 metres, or 150 feet, from researchers at Mount Allison University.

Flying squirrels in the Canadian Rockies spend the winters feasting on lichen, especially the brown hair lichen you see in our older forests.  For roosting, they use cavities in trees, using the lichen as a bedding material, which sounds pretty clever to us.  When it gets really cold, they will roost together, as many as a dozen flying squirrels packed into the same hole.

Hair lichen, the favourite food
of flying squirrels during the winter
Believe it or not, in the 1950s, you could mail order a pet flying squirrel from “Greeson's Flying Squirrel Ranch.”  This we gleaned from a superb website about flying squirrels, called – what else? –

February 25, 2014

Think You Know Your Animal Tracks?

On yesterday's snowshoeing trip, I saw a set of animal tracks that neither of us have ever seen in over twenty years of skiing and snowshoeing in the Rockies.

What mystery creature left these marks? If you've snowshoed with us, maybe you can figure it out.  Or maybe you just have a brain like Sherlock Holmes.  The first person to get the correct answer will get a major shout out from us (we'll bow down in praise of your tracking skills!).  The tracks started in the middle of a small clearing, then continued for about 10 metres through some brush before ending at a tree trunk. The space between the tracks was about 15 cm, or 6 inches.

If no one gets it by the weekend, we'll leave a revealing clue on our Facebook page.  All will be revealed in one week.

Have fun!

February 19, 2014

Cone Crop of the Century, Part II – How it Happens and Who's Cashing In

In September, we wrote about the huge cone crop in evergreen trees in the Rockies in 2013, especially in spruce and fir trees. We wanted to follow up.

A forester friend of ours sent us a scientific paper on synchronous crops of cones or nuts across entire forests. Cone crops can be synchronous among many species of trees for as much as 2500 km! This can add up to millions of square kilometres in which trees are all doing the same thing!

The jury is still out on how the trees all do the same thing, but the leading theory is the “Moran Effect.” (Have you noticed that theories sound more impressive when you give them a name that ends in “Effect”?)  Patrick Moran, an Australian bloke, showed that some external factor – for example, above average temperatures in May – could stimulate the some kind of identical effect in millions of organisms spread across huge distances.

Male white-winged crossbill
Does anything benefit from a jumbo cone crop here in the Rockies? Well, the trees probably do, as there are more seeds that can potentially sprout into future trees. But the other obvious winners are any animals that eat the seeds in evergreen cones. Squirrels had a banner year.  We saw lots of youngsters, including a litter of four, which we'd never seen before.  And, in the last few weeks in Lake Louise, another species has been cashing in: white-winged crossbills.

These little finches are super charming, and have the most amazing beaks: they look like curved pliers with the tongs out of alignment. So, no good for a carpentry project, but great for opening cones and eating the seeds. You've got to see it to believe it.

Crossbills can gobble up as many as 3000 per day, and when the food is abundant, it will stimulate breeding, even in the middle of winter! Last week, we started to hear the cheerful songs of courting male crossbills, just in time for Valentine's Day. This is a little sample of their love song.

February 10, 2014

Murder mystery in the snow

The crime scene, February 8, 2014.
Nadine was out with a group on the weekend, and found a crime scene in the woods: the skin and fur of a snowshoe hare, as well as some entrails and a few drops of blood.

We went back to the site yesterday, and looked around more carefully.  There were lots of hare tracks, and lots of lynx tracks, but we could finally connect the two when we found a set of tracks from a lynx in full gallop.  We could see where it had switched from a slow stalking mode into a sprint.  It was the proof of the chase.

The lynx must have been going full speed: one pair of tracks were easily eight feet apart, with a snow covered log between the two tracks.  The log was at least two feet off the ground, and the lynx had easily cleared it.  If this were an Olympic event, the lynx would own the podium!  It was an exciting insight into what goes on in the forest when we're not around to see it.

The tracks of a galloping lynx.

The part we never get to see: the lynx and the hare
in the life or death chase.

January 14, 2014

Chasing Ice - Our Favourite Documentary this Season

Every year on the trail, we discover as much from our guests as they do from us, especially about goings-on in the wider world.  Often, there’s a book or a documentary that everyone is talking about, and in 2013 it was “Chasing Ice,” a terrific movie about shrinking glaciers.  Since all the critics have just released their "best movies" lists, here's our choice for the last year.

Crowfoot Glacier, Banff National Park, 1920s

Crowfoot Glacier, 2004
We’ve watched the decline of ice here in the Rockies for over twenty years, and the archival record for Banff and Yoho shows really dramatic changes.  But in “Chasing Ice,” celebrated photographer James Balog and his crew set up time lapse cameras in Alaska, Greenland and Iceland, and you can watch with your own eyes as ice vanishes in the space of months and years.

The movie swings between pure adventure -- setting up cameras in polar and alpine areas takes great courage and chutzpah -- and visual proof of our changing climate.  It is impossible to see this film without being strongly and viscerally affected by its message, especially as it builds to its rivetting visual climax, the largest calving event ever filmed, at the Ilulissat Glacier in Greenland. Spoiler alert: this sequence is the most dramatic moment in the film, and the bigger the screen you can find to watch it on, the better.