Red Deer River Naturalists

The Red Deer river Naturalists are a group dedicated to learning about and preserving natural history. They have regular programs with speakers and many field trips.


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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Christmas Bird Count is a Comin

        Christmas Bird Count happens at Red Deer Dec. 20 this year. So it's comin up pretty soon!

         How does the bird count work? This area has been divided into zones. When counters register they can request a particular zone or be assigned a zone. Since 1969 I have done Kin Kanyon BowerWoods most of the time. When my children were young they came with me. Several times I have had other birders accompany me. The odd time I have been asked to cover an extra area. The area I cover is most suitable to walking so I spend about 5 hours combing the area.

       The area is heavily treed so birds are hard to spot. One has to rely on sound in many cases. Sometimes you find a forest opening that the chickadees are crossing . Chickadees are usually in flocks of approximately 20. You count them as they fly across the opening. If one flies back you have probably counted it. Black backed woodpeckers clearly show that they are in an area by the sawdust at the bottom of dead spruce trees. However, these birds are very quiet and extremely hard to spot. I know that I will find about 8 species in the area. If I find a couple of extra species that's a bonus.

      So you see a day of winter birding is full of challenges and surprises. The pot luck meal and entertainment we have in the evening is a most fitting close to a very pleasant day. So don't be shy. Come and join us. If you would like to go with an experienced birder, that can easily be arranged. Phone the Nature Center to register. 346-2010

Monday, November 16, 2009

Magic of Jack Rabbits Turning White

      From the time I was a little guy on the bald Saskatchewan prairie,one of the more important  times of year was when  the rabbits turned white. For a small kid it was always an amazing transformation.

      At times the white tailed jack rabbit was extremely numerous. Farm activities scared up many rabbits. Jack rabbits find the crops excellent cover which also provides ample fresh food. In the winter tracks and droppings were everywhere. However, my favorite time was the fall and watching the gradual change in color. When they were totally white it seemed that marked the onset of winter.

      With the abundance of white tailed jack rabbits in Red Deer one can again follow the gradual change in color. On my paper route yesterday a rabbit was resting comfortably under a shrub just meters away from the mail box. I have passed this old boy(girl) before and he(she) does not flush from the comfortable scrape even though I am less than a meter away. So yesterday I went home and got the camera to show you that he(she) is about 95% white.

     So one of my joys of the fall season is complete. It can be winter now.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Island School of Evolution

This is my first offering for Natural Wise and I should warn you that it isn't going to be the normal Central Alberta nature story. Keith suggested an article about nature's response to the end of summer, but unfortunately I'm not the sort of person who looks forward to the coming cold. My natural response to the end of summer was to jump on a plane for Maui. One would think that a tropical island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is totally different from Alberta, but the laws and patterns of nature still apply despite the obvious differences in geography.

Another alien species observed on a Maui lava flow

There are some useful things that an island like Maui can teach an Albertan. Europeans arrived in Hawaii and western Canada about the same time and from a naturalist's point of view, the results have been strikingly similar so far. The climate on Maui is surprisingly diverse, ranging from very wet on the windward north-eastern shores to near desert in the rain shadow of the 3000 meter-high Haleakala volcano. At sea level the temperature hardly changes, while at the summit the temperature swings wildly and frost and snow are regular occurrences.The few plants and animals that found their own way to these new islands quickly evolved and diversified to exploit habitats that were largely free of natural controls and competitors. If Charles Darwin had come to Hawaii instead of the Galapagos, he would still have had plenty of inspiration for his theory of evolution. It's interesting to note that Hawaii's terrestrial ecosystems evolved without mammals (except for one endangered bat), reptiles, amphibians, or even ants or mosquitoes. Unfortunately, the original natural habitats of Maui and the other islands are largely gone.

Standing at the edge of the Haleakala Crater (3000 meters A.S.L.) looking towards Vancouver

After humans (Polynesians and then Europeans) discovered these young islands, hundreds of new species began to flood in and evolutionary hell broke loose. These days native plant communities can only be found in the most rugged and inaccessible valleys and even these small remnants are being invaded, degraded, and replaced by alien plants and animals. It is said that 75% of extinctions in the USA have been endemic Hawaiian species and many more are sure to follow.

Maui is both fascinating and intimidating for an amateur naturalist because you can find almost anything from almost anywhere. Alien species arrive almost daily, and profound ecological relationships are developing that range from symbiotic to lethal. Many species are brought in intentionally, but even more arrive uninvited and unannounced. After only a couple of centuries the plantscape is almost completely changed and it will continue to change at incredible speed.

A chameleon hanging out in an outdoor cafe near Kula. Maui is a long way from Madagascar.

Let me offer one small example of adaptation that I noted during my short stay on Maui. On the very first day I was shocked to see numerous Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) feeding on the white flowers of an unfamiliar (nearly everything was unfamiliar) bush that liked to climb on the larger coastal trees.
How did monarchs get here and how did they survive? I knew that adult monarchs are not particular about the flowers they feed on, but the caterpillars can only eat Asclepias milkweeds or their close relatives. Perhaps something interesting was going on.
While there are nearly a thousand native Hawaiian moth species, there are only two native butterflies, the Kamehameha (Vanessa tameamea - a close relative of our Painted Lady), and the Blackburn's Blue (Udara blackburni). After purchasing a local field guide, I was able to figure out part of the story. The bush that the adults were feeding on was called Noni (Morindra citrifolia), a "cultural plant" probably brought by the Polynesians a thousand years ago. More to the point, there are at least three milkweeds introduced to Maui that the young monarchs could be eating: a brightly colored garden plant from the West-Indies; a roadside weed with lemon-sized fruits from Southern Africa; and a more distantly related bush from south-east Asia called crown flower.
Monarch butterfly feeding on Noni flowers

Along with more monarchs and breathtaking tropical flowers, I also observed a few non-native birds for the first time. These included Java Sparrows, Common Mynas, Japanese White-eyes, Northern Cardinals, and Red-crested Cardinals.
Some Cardinal-like birds that I didn't see were Red-whiskered and Red-vented Bulbuls. They are still fairly rare on Maui, but they are quite common on the island of Oahu, and that is where something very interesting is happening to monarch butterflies.

Red-whiskered Bulbul (Wikopedia Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)

The following was gleaned from The White Monarch ( Monarch butterflies are seldom bothered by birds because they are full of foul-tasting milkweed toxins. However, Bulbuls, insect eating birds originally from Asia, are not deterred by this chemical defense. What's more, Monarchs that feed on Asian crown flower bushes contain significantly less poison. Perhaps Bulbul predation is selecting against the monarchs' flamboyant black-on-orange colour scheme and favouring a rare and more muted black-on-white pattern. Although the Bulbuls only escaped on Oahu in the 1960's, between 1% and 10% of the local monarchs are now white!
So what does it all mean? There were a couple of lessons that I took home with me. The first is that "Mother Nature" isn't always very motherly. She is just as likely to be heartless and unfair. Life's first and foremost rule is "adapt or die". This means that the naturalized alien species of Hawaii are just as vulnerable to predation and competition from new aliens as the endemics.
The other lesson is that isolated islands are very useful models for explaining what happens on continents. On an island, the effects of alien species tend to happen much more quickly and those effects are also much easier to observe and understand. The ecological dramas that are playing out in the Hawaiian archipelago are examples of our own situation. The same social, economic, and historical factors apply and we have an opportunity to learn from the ongoing Hawaiian experiment.
While it's true that Maui is still a beautiful and pleasant place to go on vacation, most of the "natural" beauty you see is an illusion. Maui is far from an unspoiled jewel and the attractive alien species that thrive there now are vulnerable to future invasions of alien weeds, vermin, parasites, and diseases. The same is true of Alberta but the process of change hasn't gone as far or as fast.

Rickrack Banksia from Australia growing in a Maui garden. Many of the exotics cultivated in Hawaii are endangered in their native habitat.

We can also learn from the people of Hawaii and the way they are adapting to alien species. As in our own society, the attitudes and reactions range between chauvinism, denial, resignation and activism. The island model holds true with conservation efforts as well. On Maui the alien species issue has moved farther and faster than it has on the continent. More people are aware of alien species and they are doing more to manage them. Despite Hawaii's small population, they have some world-class programs to study, monitor, and manage the problem. For example, the Hawaiian Ecosystems At Risk (HEAR) site is a gold mine of information and ideas for conservationists the world over.
Islands show us that all the processes of evolution are still going on. Extinction and replacement can happen very rapidly, but sometimes adaptation can also happen rapidly. We live in very interesting times.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Steve Herrero

      Steve Herrero showed us the old pro he is when he gave a super presentation Oct.22 at Red Deer College. He started his talk by showing what bear behavior was when bears were truly wild and finished by speculating on their future. He showed us how we spoiled the bears by our behavior as tacky tourists and our pathetic waste disposal of an earlier age.

     His study of bear behavior was impressive for the tremendous detail of all behaviors. He showed us that black bears are mostly bluff except in a small minority of cases. The grizzly behaves differently so give grizzlies a wide berth. We learned about bear feeding habits and how this gets them into trouble.

    As always he showed a great sense of humor when describing bears. His close encounters include every detail.

    He finished by giving us a prediction or his hope for bears in the future. As always habitat and fragmentation are keys to bear success.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Golden Eagles and Bear at Kananaskis, AB

I had the opportunity to go out to Kananaskis October 11 and 12th to help with the Golden Eagle count (fall migration 2009) at the Mount Lorette eagle watch site. Bill Wilson and I counted 236 Golden Eagles on Sunday. Cliff Hansen and I counted 69 on Monday. By the way, the temperature at the site on Monday morning was -19.5C. Below is a picture of a juvenile Golden Eagle that Cliff was able to take at the site. I also include a shot of a Water Dipper by Cliff Hansen. One of the many Dippers that stay at the site year-round as the Kananaskis River here does on freeze over in winter.

I thought I would also share a encounter that one of our fellow "eaglers" had on October 8, 2009 at the eagle watch site 4 days earlier. Joel gave me permission to share his story, I added the bear:

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Snowshoe Hare

I’ve been noticing a few hares (Lepus americanus) in our neighbourhood over that past few years, but nothing like this summer. During my evening stroll, I can see as many as six hopping around the swings in a local schoolyard. It will be interesting to see how many of them survive the winter.
Checking my old copy of Soper’s book, The Mammals of Alberta, (1964), I find that the snowshoe hare follows on average a 9.6 year cycle. I’m thinking that this year must be at or near a population peak. Soper says that the variation is remarkable: in low years, “it almost completely vanishes from the scene; conversely, at the peak the total population at times is almost unbelievable.” It is reported that in the peak of 1912-1914, the “woods everywhere were infested with hares”; another writer estimated a population of “several hundreds in a 30-acre woodlot.”
Once the peak is reached, the die-off is dramatic, occurring in the space of a few months to a couple of years. As this happens, other populations, especially lynx, follow suit.
How can a population increase occur so rapidly? I guess the expression relating to breeding like rabbits is true. They can have several litters per year. Presumably the inevitable die-off occurs when the population reaches a critical mass that is unsustainable by the existing food supply and the proximity of individuals creates a situation where diseases can spread easily. The resulting surge in predator populations may also be a factor.
For many years, we have had a resident snowshoe hare in our neighbourhood. It’s presence is mostly detectable in the winter months. First thing in the morning there are a new set of tracks in the backyard. The route it follows seems consistent. First a visit to the area under the bird feeders, then down to the spruce tree at the end corner of the yard, and finally along the fence to the front yard, and leaving to explore the neighbouring yards.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Crow Migration

Crow migration has always been of interest to me. Crows are much maligned for some of their nasty behaviors. Crows are aggressive, noisy and rob other bird nests often flying off with hatchlings dangling from their beaks. As a result many people find crows obnoxious and tend to ingnore them if they can.

However, to me , the migration is quite spectacular. For starters, the vast numbers are impressive. At Red Deer in the evening a straggly line of crows fly from a south easterly direction all evening. There is much cawing and vigorous haphazard type of flying. As this procession carries on for hours, I sometimes think that they are flying a continuous route where they fly around a triangle of 20km or so. What do you think of this idea?

The next morning with the first light the crows begin flying again. This time they move south east. They are absent during the day as they have probably found fields which are a rich source of food . This process carries on throughout September. In the last few days of September the numbers suddenly dwindle as they have started their migration south. A few stragglers remain for a week or so . This morning at 6:30 AM a few crows could be heard. There was very little light at this time and I could not see the crows.

Many may people may choose to ignore the crows, but I find they put on a spectacular display of fall migrating behavior.

Now does anyone else have a favorite migration? email

Monday, September 28, 2009

Discoveries About Bears

Dr. Steve Herrero will be presenting a lecture and slide show about bears in Alberta.

This will take place in the Margaret Parsons Theatre at Red Deer College, Red Deer, Alberta Oct. 22,at 7:30 PM. Tickets are free and you get them from the Kerry Wood Nature Center ph 403-346-2010.

"Discoveries are often delightful moments as you may see the world around you in a new way. Sometimes this new view is very satisfying. This has been the case regarding some of the research my colleagues and I have done on bears..."

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Robins, Robins, Robins

Photo by Judy Boyd

At this time of year in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada there are robins all over the trees , shrubs and in the air. They are also crazy as they are chasing one another, yapping continuously and running into windows. What's happened to this mild mannered bird that we see in our yards in spring and summer? Natural Wise will tell you a little about these birds.
We will have to back up a bit. I like to hike above the tree line in the Rocky mountains. What's the most common bird you see? You guessed it. The robin. I also lived on the Mackenzie Delta which is above the arctic circle. Robins nested there . Now with global warming there are reports of robins nesting at Sachs Harbor on Banks island which is 450km north of the Mackenzie Delta. These two places are separated by the Beaufort Sea which is filled with ice. We usually think of robins being a garden variety bird, which they are, but they are also very widely distributed. They can easily nest on the ground. I have found ground nesting robins around Red Deer when they are less than 5 meters from trees.

Now back to Red Deer. Robins have come down from the mountains and the North. We now have a population of robins composed of mostly young of the year. Robins usually have two successful nests a summer. The area has plenty of food...ripe berries which are high in sugar content. So these young free wheelers are full of energy and feisty. They chase each other with abandon.

Most of these birds are preparing for migration south. Some go very far south and some stop where there is a rich food supply. Some robins stay here . We usually have robins in our Christmas bird count. I have seen robins in early Feb. at minus30C. They appear to be huge birds as their feathers are fluffed up to keep them warm.

So on their way south with good food and many competitive and aggressive friends , robins end up doing some pretty crazy things. What a sight to watch!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Natural Wise Inauguration

We are pleased to introduce Natural Wise to you. Natural Wise is a blog set up by The Red Deer River Naturalists based in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada. We hope to be able to publicize a wide variety of news, views and information about natural history.

We have a number of writers and photographers who have experience and skill and are able to produce blogs of interest.

We hope that you will make a habit of following Natural Wise once we get going. We look forward to your comments and suggestions.