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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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

My Christmas Bird Count

        My Christmas bird count was a little blue this year. On a previous post I wrote about what I could expect. Sometimes there is a possibility to see 12  to 14 species and 150 birds and sometimes you can end up with 7 species and less than 50 birds. This year my success was the latter.

       The day was overcast , minus 12 to 14 and light winds. This should have been a good day to count birds. Birds should have been moving and easy to see and count. I was out for about three and a half hours and walked about 7 km. Many of the places that I would stop at before and wait a minute and see 15 to 20 chickadees did not produce.

      Am I disappointed? No. I know that bird counts are only trends. One small area by itself does not hold much weight. I was out doing something I really like and that was the main thing. I will be back next year.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Robin in Red Deer Dec.15

      This afternoon when I parked my car down town about 2:00 PM I noticed a robin in a mountain ash. I was attracted by all the noise house sparrows were making when I noticed the robin quietly going about his business feeding in the mountain ash. This bird looked comfortable and in good health.

      I have seen robins in every month of the year since I have lived in Red Deer. This is the first time I have seen robins in both Nov. and Dec of the same year.

     The Christmas bird count is Dec. 19 so I wonder if some one will see this bird or some other robin. Usually when I see robins in the winter there are usually 4 or 5.

     Use the comments on this blog to tell me if you have seen robins this fall as well.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Pine Siskin Invasion

       Yesterday as I was watching a small feeder I noticed a different bird for a change. At this time of year I have many house finches. I had to take a second look to see that the new visitors were pine siskins.

      Pine siskins are very interesting little visitors. They move in flocks of 20 to 50 and move often. They seem to move off as one ...the whole group flies. They like birch trees and the fine seed of birch. They chatter continuously. In the summer they seem to like my beets.

      These birds are very plentiful some years and then are absent for a few years.
      One time I looked after a feeder which was out in a park. There were a large number of pine siskins in the area that fall. One day I went to the feeder and found it totally empty. There were about 50 pine siskins complaining rather loudly. I think squirrels had been invading. As I put my hands up to open the feeder about ten birds landed on my outstretched hands and about ten birds landed on my cap. Of course, I flinched and all the birds left. The magic moment only lasted a split second but I have never forgotten it. I still like to see the pine siskins visit.

     Use the comments section to let me know of interesting encounters you have had with pine siskins.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Snow Shoe Hares in Bower Woods

      Yesterday I went for a walk through Bower Woods which is a park area in  a ravine made by Piper Creek. This area is heavily wooded with old growth spruce and some poplar. It was heavily grazed before it became parkland in the city of Red Deer. 

     Yesterday I was pleased to see all kinds of evidence of snow shoe hare in the area. There has not been any evidence of snow shoe hare for some years. I know that it's the end of the peak cycle for snow shoe hares and that they peak in isolated areas after the more non fragmented areas. I didn't see a hare but there was all kinds of evidence...tracks, droppings and bark taken off young poplars.

     So I hope this time that one or two are left during the low part of the the cycle.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


       Our Christmas bird count takes place on Sun Dec. 19. Let us know if you would like to count  birds in the Red Deer area and we will assign an area for you to count birds.

        Counting takes place from 9:00AM to 5:00PM. You can walk, run, ride or maybe even fly!!!! You will be given a Christmas bird count tally sheet. Be sure to fill out all the information correctly.

      Afraid to go counting on your own? Birds can be dangerous you know!!! I broke my wrist doing the 1992 count. If you do not wish to go alone you can be paired up with someone. It's always more fun to bird in a group.

     So let's hear from you this week. Come with us and enjoy the Christmas bird count. There is a potluck supper at the Nature Center at 6:00PM. There will be a program at 7:00PM.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Species at Risk in Alberta

       On Nov. 25 Dr Dave Prescott will be speaking on Species at Risk in Alberta: identification, management and outlook. This presentation is open to the public and will be at the Kerry Wood Nature Center in Red Deer.

     Dr. Prescott will present a general overview of how species at risk are assessed and how recovery plans are set up. He will then give a description of the species at risk in Alberta: what they are , why they are "at risk" , what is being done to manage them , and their future outlook. His presentation will focus on the management of endangered and threatened species in the prairie and parkland regions of Alberta.

     Dr. Dave Prescott has a PhD. in Wildlife Ecology from the University of Calgary. He has been involved in management of species at risk and other wildlife in Alberta with Alberta Fish and Wildlife and other agencies since 1994. He has been the Senior Species at Risk Biologist for the Prairies Area of Alberta Fish and Wildlife and Wildlife Division in Red Deer since 2000.

      So join the Red Deer River Naturalists for this presentation.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Joyce Gould on Willmore Wilderness.

      On Nov. 25th Red Deer River Naturalists(RDRN) had Joyce Gould as their speaker. Joyce is with Alberta parks and has spent much time studying the plants found in Willmore Wilderness Park which is a remote mountainous area north of Jasper National Park. Joyce's main background is botany but she took us through most aspects of the park.

      Many people would like to visit this park. There is no road access to this vast area. You must either backpack into the area or take a horse tour.

      Joyce first started with a detailed description of the park location. Then she covered the main  physical features by dividing the park into four main areas. In doing so she showed us the incredible beauty of the park.  This helped to explain why certain plants grow where they are found. She then took us through the main mammals and birds found in the park. Last she came to her area of expertise, the plants.

    Joyce Gould went into detail about the special adaptations plants have so they can survive and thrive at various altitudes and in different soil types. All the time she introduced and described species of plants common to the area.

    Joyce Gould showed a passion for the Willmore Wilderness Park  and shared her great knowledge of plants native to a very beautiful , remote area.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Red Deer River Naturalist's Banquet

        Every September the Red Deer River Naturalists(RDRN) have a banquet with a guest speaker. This gets the naturalist group off to a start for the year and members have a chance to socialize.

       This year our speaker was Ed Struzik who wears many hats but mostly he is a writer and news paper reporter. Ed has specialized on northern issues and he has the experience to back it up. He is an avid canoeist and has canoed most northern rivers. He has managed to get himself on various research projects so he gains a hands on experience.

     Ed began his well illustrated talk with pictures of northern animals, rivers, lakes and topography. He then went on to give a brief history of the arctic and the people. He went to great detail on climate change in the arctic and what might or might not happen to the animals and rivers he showed us in the introduction. He also informed us that the Harper government has been cutting funds to scientific research so that tabs cannot be kept on climate change and studies are not being done so that we can meet the challenges of coping with climate change.

     As a result of his many trips he has some fascinating stories. One that brought the house down was when they put a tag on a beluga whale so that it could be followed. Another story was when he was in a steel cage and had a polar bear try to get into the cage.

    Ed closed with a hope that most things would survive in some fashion. They will adapt. He was also adamant that the aboriginal populations had to be in control for success to occur. The aboriginals have the knowledge and ownership so that it is important for them to succeed.

    Ed certainly informed the RDRN members on a topic which they are keenly concerned about.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Fall Migration Time

       It's still August but the fall migration of many birds is already underway. I find this time of year to be very active for birding as many of the birds we don't see in the summer are now slowly passing through this area.

      This week I have had yellow warblers in my urban yard. I grow a vegetable garden which at this time of year has become a jungle. The yellow warblers have a field day foraging through potatoes, turnips, beats etc. for insects. Later on other warblers will appear. Yellow rumped warblers seem to spend the longest time around my yard. Along with warblers there are many sparrows the go through . I've already had a white throated sparrow. The sparrows also like my out of control vegetable garden. They run around under the heavy foliage. It's tough to bird watch as they are hidden most of the time. That's why they're in my garden as it's rather safe. The bird watching can be done from my bedroom window. Pretty soft eh!

     If you are out in natural areas you will see many more birds slowly passing through. They feed heavily on the many insects which are available.

    Later on we will see the large flocks of ducks and geese as they move south later. It seems like the crows had a productive year as they are now flying in vast groups.

    So take a look around you. You'll probably see something interesting.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Chukars Sighted in Red Deer

       In July of 2010 my friend Mike reported that he saw a chukar near the creek along the Bower Woods subdivision. Three weeks later I saw 2 birds in the same area.

      Chukars are not native to North America but they have been released in the Southern U.S. and have thrived. They are a species native to central Asia. They are the national bird of Pakistan.

     You can check wikipedia for a description of chukars or you can check the Cornell Laboratory site where they also have videos and audio of the bird calls.

      Chukars are a member of the pheasant family and live in arid areas. They are spruce grouse size. They have very vivid markings The head has a noticeable stripe and the wings are heavily barred.

      Now investigating a little further,Judy Boyd  tells me that people from the Bower subdivision started reporting chukar sightings in 2009. The summer of 2010 these birds nested and produced young. It is thought that there was more than one pair. It is also thought that the young did not survive as we had a very rainy June and July.

      Releases of chukars was made in several areas of Alberta in the 1930's but these birds did not succeed. They were seen for several years and then disappeared. Since there were no releases recently, it is thought these birds escaped form a sale of exotic birds which was held near the Bower subdivision in 2009.

    I found these birds to be a rather interesting sighting and always watch when I am in the area to see if they are still there.

    If anyone else has sighted chukars let us know.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Central Alberta Birding Trail

The Red Deer River Naturalists have published the Birding Trail for the City of Red Deer. We are showing you the main page here to whet your appetite. For a free copy and individual district maps, please go to our website,
Central Alberta has good birding locations within and outside the City of Red Deer. We are on the Western side of the Central flyway, so can count of many interesting migrants in both spring and fall. We get a good variety of shorebirds, water fowl, and perchers.
During winter months we usually have Bohemian waxwing, two or three species of chickadees and several species of owls.
Common residents include the black-billed magpie, pileated woodpecker, black-capped chickadee, house finch and others.
Red Deer is the nesting location for at least two pairs of peregrine falcons. You can see one pair live on our website during their nesting season. We usually have several osprey, common loons, and many duck species nesting within the City Parks.
Birders will find Red Deer to be a good location for birding. To get a free copy of our Checklist of Central Alberta Birds, please go to our website.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Red Deer Peregrine Falcons Fledge

         Around the end of April a link was put on this blog to a web cam the Red Deer River Naturalists(RDRN) had put up on the Telus tower in conjunction with Telus and Canadian Wildlife. Many people from around the world have checked in to watch the activities of the peregrine falcons.

         First, they took possession of the nest. They laid five eggs over more than five days. They began incubating. There wasn't much to watch during this phase. Two eggs mysteriously disappeared about mid incubation. Finally, the three eggs hatched over about five days. This left one bird very small. Viewers were constantly worried about the smallest bird.

         Two days ago, July 13, the birds left the nest. What excitement! They are still coming back at night to the nest.

       Now in a few days the web cam will be turned off. We have to think it was a tremendous success. Many people learned about peregrines as well as other topics on the chat line with the web cam. We(RDRN) enjoyed the experience.

      We (RDRN) are left with planning for next year. We hope to be able to put the web cam up again next year with the partnership of Telus. We also want to have a web cam placed outside the box so that we can observe what goes on out side the box. If you have suggestions or comments please make them so that next year can be even more successful.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Early Morning Bird Walk June 4 River Bend

        Today was the last in a series of six early morning bird walks that the Red Deer River Naturalists (RDRN) run each spring. Last week we had blizzard and we cancelled. Today started out as a disappointment because my camera batteries were dead and I was the only one who attended. Other than that it was superb birding.

       This morning was one of those stunning early mornings which had  bright sunlight, warm and calm.
River bend is a part of the river that contains a golf course. Much natural habitat is left along the river bank on both sides. There is a great variety from old growth aspen and spruce to lots of brush and riparian growth. There's even the odd patch of grass.

      When I got to the parking lot at the river bank there were hundreds of swallows catching insects over the river. There is a set of rapids by the parking lot so it's hard to hear much as far as bird calls go, but I could hear killdeer and finally spotted them across the river.

     A real treat was to see a couple of 737's cruising down the river in formation. Well, they weren't 737's but pelicans. Since I was on a high bank the pelicans were flying at eye level. I had spotted them early as their brilliant white flashed against the greenery. I had a good view watching the birds approach and fly down the river. Another treat was to see a chipmunk scurrying around. They seem to have been rather scarce recently

     Birds identified were tree swallows, pelicans, killdeer, mallards, crow, white throated sparrow, cedar  waxwing, house wren, robin, clay colored sparrow,  least flycatcher and yellow warbler. My other disappointment was that I heard or spotted at least another dozen birds that I was not able to identify. Partners help to identify sounds and spot hard to find birds. Some birds today were within 3meters but I couldn't see them because of the dense foliage.

      We started the early morniong bird walks to try and attract birders with little experience. This didn't work. The avid birders were the only ones who attended. So I doubt we'll run this program again. We would appreciate some  suggestionsfor activities which would attract inexperienced birders. So think about it. If you have an idea let us know. We'd like to encourage people some interest in birds to join us and improve their skills.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Dr. Gordon Court: Return of the Peregrine

         The Red Deer River Naturalists(RDRN) were very fortunate to have Dr. Gordon Court give a presentation on the peregrine falcon and it's return from near extinction.

        Historically peregrines have been of interest to humans as they have been used by hunters to hunt other birds. Humans are fascinated by the tremendous speed of a falcon's flight. The peregrine has been clocked at close to 400 km/hr in a dive. Pretty spectacular.

        Gord was a kid in the late sixties when DDT decimated the peregrine falcon population. Today the peregrine has made a remarkable come back so Gord feels that it is a good story. He should know. He was the overseer of the recovery program that was put in place to save the peregrine from disaster.

       In Gord's talk he began with DDT and how it affected the peregrine's reproductive system. He then told us about the recovery and all the good and bad luck involved as no one had done anything like this before. The eggs were not fertile when the peregrine's bred in captivity so they had to use artificial insemination. Much of he technology was learned by experience. Finally enough birds were raised so that they could release some back to the wild. Again this was another of those activities which had never been tried before so everything was experimental. To their surprise the birds migrated and returned the next summer and began breeding. The birds chose cities for nest sites as the tops of buildings provided nesting material...pebbles.

     Gord also gave an in depth description of what peregrines are like . He's an expert as he has raised many. He had an injured bird with him to demonstrate. He fed the injured bird at the end of his talk.

     So we were treated to a fascinating presentation on a very interesting bird.

Early Morning Bird Walk Heritage Ranch May 29

And you can see why!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Early Morning Bird Walk Hazlet Lake May 15

     Today's early morning bird walk took place at a private property known as Hazlet Lake. Hazlet Lake is a shallow prairie lake whch covers about 50 hectares.Water drains in and out of the lake , but its water level flucuates and is low right now because of several dry years. An esker running northeast is on the west side of the lake. Since the soil in the esker is rather poor, very scuby aspen and a variety of shrubs  cover the ridge. This view gives most of the lake and was taken from the ridge.

       This property has been farmed but the land on the ridge was never developed ans was probably used for cow pasture at one time. Therefore much of the property has been undisturbed. The present owner is a naturalist so the area is left to take care of itself except for a small private golf course and a residence.

    All in all it is an excellent bird habitat area . So at this time of year many birds are found and the owner could point out many active nest sites. The picture of the birders is taken from one of the fairways. With a mix of treed and open areas many birds find this excellent habitat.
Our hostess Dorothy, provides a detailed tour of the property.
    So a very rewarding hour from 7:00AM to 8:00AM was experienced by 5 birders. The sky was mostly clear, wind calm and temperature around 12 C.

  We saw northern shovellers, great horned owl, clay colored sparrow, white throated sparrow, white crowned sparrow, chipping sparrow, song sparrow, white breasted nuthatch, tree swallow, starling, black capped chickadee, crow, yellow bellied sapsucker red -winged blackbird, magpie, northern flicker, mallard , cowbird, pigeon,Canada  geese, red tailed hawk as well as a porcupine.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Bower Woods Early Morning Bird Walk May 8

         Today the Red Deer River Naturalists(RDRN) early morning bird walk took place in the Bower Woods. Bower Woods is a ravine where Piper Creek cuts through the escarpment of the Red Deer River to get to the valley floor. Once again the area contains a wide variety of habitat. These areas can be quite large for natural areas which are fragmented. The ravine will be 500m wide and winds through 5km of the city. It's cut by several roads.

        As a result there is varied habitat in this area and a variety of birds can be found. Birding is somewhat of a challenge when you are in the spruce as birds are in the tree tops. This is when you have to listen and identify birds by their calls.

       This morning at 7:00AM it was mostly clear, minus 3C with very little wind. Two of us showed up for this hour.

      We saw American robin, crow, mallard, franklin gull, black-capped chickadee, Red breasted nuthatch, blue jay, house finch, and golden crowned kinglet

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Early Morning Bird Walk May 1

        Our second early morning bird walk of the season took place at the Gaetz Lake Sanctuary. This is an approximately 100 hectare area within the city of Red Deer. It's made up of a wide variety of habitat due to varying soil types. The area is mostly river valley and includes the escarpments. More than half of this natural area has never been developed in any way. There was no logging so there are old growth forests of spruce and aspen. Much of the area is thick brush. Other areas are tangled willow. The center piece of the area are the two oxbow lakes so there is plenty of marsh around the lake shores. These lakes for the most part are very shallow. There may be the odd hole which would be three meters deep.

       So with a natural area which is extremely variable, birding is very productive. This morning the temperature was about minus 2 C. Skies were mostly clear and it was calm. There was fog in the area before we started but it had burned off before we got in the field.

        A new viewing deck has just been completed so this is a view of the west lake taken from a port in the stand.

       Five avid bird walkers showed up this morning. Here's a shot of Judy looking out on the lake. The bird blind is built so that birds on the lake will not be disturbed.

      So our sightings were many and varied. Here they are in the order we saw them. American robin, eastern phoebe, mallard, canvas back, bufflehead, red-necked grebe, cinnamon teal, whitethroated sparrow, Canada geese, black-capped chickadee, Savannah sparrow, Dark-eyed junco, ring-billed gull, pine siskin, common loon, song sparrow, American crow, red-winged blackbird, house finch, tundra swan, northern flicker, yellow-rumped warbler, redhead, lesser scaup, American coot, blue-winged teal, common goldeneye, yellow-headedblackbird...a total of 28. We also saw one poor little old red squirrel. 

     Next week, May  8, we will visit Bower Woods.We will meet in the northeast corner of the Bower Mall parking lot to be ready to roll at 7:00 AM.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Peregrine Web Cam

The peregrines are checking out RDRN's nest box. We have a camera inside so we can all watch what happens. Go to to check it out. The birds still come and go, so if there is "no one at home", just be patient. They will come in eventually.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Early Morning Bird Walk April 24

        Red Deer River Naturalists run 6 early morning birdwalks each spring. Each walk lasts one hour, is local and suited to  birders with limited experience. Today we spent our time in a natural area south of Red Deer College. The area is about 1.5 km long and .5 - .75 km in width. There is a tremendous variety of habitat . There are patches of old growth spruce and aspen. A creek meanders through the full length of the area and has a lush riparian coverage. There are a couple of beaver dams on the creek so it is mostly a series of pondsThere are brushy areas and open grassland. Most of this is the result of widely varying soils.

        This morning at 7:00AM it was minus 2 C, clear and calm.

       We saw 16 different species. It's not just the observance of each species, but what these species sometimes teach you by the performance they put on. Since it's the beginning of the breeding season there are some pretty interesting behaviours. There's a tremendous amount of rivalry between and among mails. One grassy area had 10-15 male robins. Every once in a while one or two of them would chase each other in wild erratic flight. Downy wood peckers were trying to out drum one another. The best example today was put on by two hairy woodpeckers. They conducted a sort of minuet. They pointed their beaks straight out from their body. One would flutter his wings then the other. They would bounce from branch to brach. There were small vocalizations. They never made contact , but kept up the jockeying for position. These two birds taught us something as Judy had read about the behaviour , but we had never observed it.

       We saw  American crows, black billed magpies, Canada geese, mallards, tundra swans, American robins, hairy woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers, northern flickers, black capped chickadees, boreal chickadees, red breasted nuthatches, white breasted nuthatches, eastern phoebes, house finches, ring billed gulls and song sparrows. We also saw one beaver and several red squirrels.

Photo by Judy Boyd
      So it was a very pleasant morning as a good number of species were observed and we learned some new things.

      Next week we visit the Gaetz Lake Santuary. Remember you are welcome to join us. Meet in the Kerry Wood Nature Centre parking lot at 7:00AM.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Junco Visitors

        The other morning as I was delivering papers at 6:30 AM I heard a bird call that was different. Our song birds are just startingr to return to the area so a different call causes me to stop and listen. We haven't heard these calls since last spring. One has to listen very carefully as many of the calls are similar.

        This call was a trill with just a touch of music. I looked in the direction of the call but could only see a crow and the sound certainly wasn't crow. I moved in the direction of the singer. I still couldn't find a bird. I moved nearer again and still no luck, but the singer continued without alarm. I knew I was close to the bird so I just searched the whole tree. Finally, on the tip of a top branch I spied the small suspect...a junco.

      Juncos are very common in this area in the spring. Juncos are interesting in that there is some variation in coloring. Most birds here have dark gray backs , creamy underparts and when they fly the two or three outer tail feathers which are white, flash. Some birds are much browner. At one time they were considered two separate species and called slate colored junco and Oregon junco. The young of the year present another challenge as they are heavily streaked.

      No matter what, when you hear the first junco of the year it is most pleasant.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Wonders of Spring: Canada Geese Return

         Earlier this week  on Mar 15, I was out at 10:30 AM and heard Canada geese calling. It took a minute or so and then I spotted a small flock of geese winging their way north. It's rather striking to hear the geese after the long winter months when the skies have been quiet.

                                       photo Bill  Heinsen                      

So to me the geese returning is a, surprising, refreshing , hopeful. I've had this same experience for close to 70 years , but it always brings excitement as spring is one step nearer and more of our feathered friends will be appearing in the coming days. The very next day , Mar 16 I heard crows and it didn't take long and the crows appeared.

      Many of the geese flying in now will probably continue moving north. They may find an area suitable to feed and rest for  few days. Some no doubt will stay as they identify a past nesting site. When I lived on the Mackenzie delta in the early sixties, the lake ice would be covered with geese long before any amount of thawing took place. The geese remained on the ice for weeks. Aboriginal hunters took advantage of this situation and had a spring goose hunt. Decoys were used and the hunters were camoflaged in white. Many geese were taken at this time for a food source which provided some variety .

      So I'm always pleasantly surprised when I hear the first clear calls of Canada geese returning in the spring.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Innisfail Natural Area

For folks wanting a quiet outing in a spectacular location, the Innisfail Natural Area is a logical place to go. With an area of 160 acres, it is perfect for an interesting evening hike after a hot summer day, or an all-day excursion looking for plants and animals of the region.
Of the three natural areas RDRN for which acts as steward, the others being Butcher Creek Natural Area and Sylvan Lake Natural Area, this one is the most family friendly. That is not to say that care should not be taken; there are water filled holes on the east side that are best avoided. A few ducks and geese may still nest in this wet area, so please try not to disturb them. If you are taking smaller children into this wilderness area, please use caution when walking as there is lots of deadfall.
The Innisfail Natural Area is located east of Innisfail in the NW intersection of on Secondary Highway 590 at Range Road 272. land surrounding the Innisfail Natural Area is private land and cannot be entered except with permission from the owners. There is a small pull-out on SH 590 about 100 metres west of RR272. You may park there, well off the highway. The natural area is designated for hiking only.
Many birds live here so take along your binoculars and try your hand at spotting and identifying them as they go about their major springtime business of gathering food and raising broods. You might be lucky enough to see a nest being built. Late May is a good time to look for birds. The males are at their showiest and loudest as they hunt for mates. You will almost certainly hear the “Cheeseburger” call of the black-capped chickadee and the “Che-bec” of the least flycatcher. Several species of water fowl, red-winged blackbirds, hawks, swallows, flycatchers, robins, vireos, and orioles can be seen and heard.
In the spring green tree frogs make a call sounding like someone running fingers over the teeth of a comb. By late summer, they migrate into the meadows and open shade of the aspen forest.
For the plant lovers, the Innisfail Natural Area is a great destination. We don’t know how many species are there, but they probably number in the hundreds. This is a good area for children to learn to recognize many of the common trees: white spruce, aspen poplar and balsam poplar are the common large trees. But it is the Yellow lady’s slippers (Cypripedium calceolus) that are the show stealers. In late June and early July, they bloom by the hundreds in the more open areas, especially along the east side and in the ditch along the road. Their yellow blooms coupled with the purple shooting stars and white northern bedstraw is a sight to behold. Please do not pick or disturb any of the flowers in the natural area. It should go without saying that collecting of digging up any the plants is not permitted.
Look for the trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides). They are the large polar trees with the white powder on the bark. The leaves tremble in the slightest breeze. Aspen poplars reproduce by cloning. Look for “domes of aspen trees” with a larger old tree in the middle and smaller, younger trees surrounding it. The smaller trees are clones of the older one. This pattern may be difficult to see at first, but once you figure it out, you will see it everywhere aspen poplar grow. Look at the shape of the aspen leaves and contrast them with their cousins on the balsam poplars (Populus balsamifera). In spring check out the catkins on each of the trees. The bark of the two species is quite different. You may also want to look at what other things use the trees for homes, not just birds, but insects, lichens and fungi.
Open areas in other parts of the natural area display a variety of meadow and prairie plants.
If insects are your interest, you will not be disappointed at the Innisfail Natural Area. There are many species of flies, ants, wasps, bees, dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies and moths. And there are mosquitoes; some years they can be very persistent and annoying. Make sure children are well protected from these little bloodsuckers. You will definitely want repellent from May to September.
Several deer and moose also make these areas their homes. The meadows are much drier and as so they support many species that are quite different from those found nearer the wet areas. Stands of almost impenetrable willows surround much of the meadows. Some years, the ant hills in the Innisfail Natural Area grow to over three metres in diameter. Millions of black ants make the hills their home. They in turn attract insect-eating birds.
The Innisfail Natural Area has been under the stewardship of the Red Deer River Naturalists for many years, first with Dorothy Dickson acting as our chief steward, and now Stuart and Grace Little have taken over that job. RDRN needs people to help with the very enjoyable task of acting as a steward of a Natural Area and invite your participation.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Close Encounters with a Merlin

       I have always admired the merlin with its rapid wing beat and exuberant flying patterns. The merlin is a small falcon with streaked underparts,  the male with a blue gray back and female with light brown back. The merlin winters in central Alberta. My residential district in Red Deer usually has a resident merlin for my viewing pleasure.

      A few days ago I had a new exprience with a merlin. A female flew by me at eye level a little more than arms length from me. Super experience.

      I was out about 10:30 AM for a walk. The merlin buzzed a spruce tree on the opposite side of the street. There were several house sparrows in the spruce but they did not flush...just made a racket. The merlin quickly darted over the house and disappeared. So I thought well that's interesting and I resumed walking. I had walked about 10 steps when I heard the merlin coming again. ki ki ki! This time the merlin flew right by me at eye level. I could clearly see all markings.

      What was she up to? After my shock I realized I was standing beside a large spruce tree which had house sparrows in it. I suppose the merlin wanted to use me as post to try and flush the sparrows. The sparrows didn't buy the trick. They squawked but did not flush and the merlin disappeared over the house.

      I'm sure that the merlin caught breakfast shortly as she was intent on scaring something out of the trees where it could be caught.
     Another hunting technique used by the merlin is to get under a flock of bohemian waxwings. The waxwings rise to get away from the merlin. Sooner or later one of the waxwings will tire and drop out of the flock. The merlin hones in on the hapless individual and like a bullet contacts the falling bird and the merlin has its prey.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Gabby and Seth Yates Lynx Presentation

       The lynx is a somewhat mysterious and  misunderstood animal. The lynx is seldom seen as it's habitat is away from human habitation so rumors abound about what this animal . The present lynx popualtion is in no danger. The population has a peak cycle every ten years which coincides with peak snowshoe hare population cycle highs. When the snow shoe hare population crashes,lynx will travel widely in search of their favorite prey. They will also eat other species such as deer fawns although it's not proven that they actually pursue and attack the fawns.

       A super presentation by Gabby and Seth Yates cleared up many of the mysteries when they gave a presentation to the Red Deer River Naturalists on Feb. 25. They  introduced us to an animal with all kinds of interesting characteristics. Gabby Yates is doing research for her Ph.D. She has set up a study area centered at Nordegg Alberta. She wants to collar 20 lynx and study their movement and relate it to the population cycles of snowshoe hare, vegetation and climate. Lynx are tremendous travellers. Some travel up to 2500 km. Why? This information is being related to lynx which are trapped in B. C. and Alberta.

     They have found lynx to have some surprising characteristics. These cats are fairly mild mannered and laid back. They only move if they think you are a threat. When Gabby and Seth find lynx in a box trap the lynx are usually calmly waiting to be released. It's nothing to find previously caught and released animals to be back in the same traps waiting to be released again. They have learned that these box traps contain food . Many excellent photographs and videos  of lynx were included in the presentation.

     These two presenters were bombarbed with many questions which they patiently and fully answered as they have a broad knowledge of this animal. They work closely with Alberta trappers have a srong sense of stewardship and they want to ensure that lynxwill continue to thrive on their traplines. They find trappers and trapping to not be a threat for lynx. Trappers turn in a small piece if hide which the researchers do DNA testing on and as a result are able to identify each lynx and who mit's relatives are . If the lynx has moved in from somewhere else, the DNA gives them an idea where it may have come from. 

      Gabby and Seth also use some sophisticated satellite technology to follow their study animals. New light weight radio collars allow them to track the lynx anywhere in North America.

      I have spent many of my years outdoors in lynx habitiat , but I have never seen one. This presentation gave me a realistic experience with a very important animal in our eco system.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Lepus Americanus Sightings

       One of my favorite little mammals is what is called snow shoe hare or what I like to call the bush rabbit. I know you'll get tired of this statement but here goes. As a child in central Saskatchewan there was still a fair bit of brush left. The natural areas were close together. At times the brush was absolutely crawling with these little guys. Many could be spotted at the same time.

       Most farms at this time had border collie which was used to herd cattle. We had Jack, who was a very good dog for handling cattle. But Jack had a few flaws. Jack thought that the snow shoe hares needed to be herded so Jack went tearing into the brush to herd the rabbits where ever he thought they should go. He ran through the brush yapping at  a high pitch. After a while he would come back totally wiped with a smug look on his face as if to say. "I sure sent those guys packin." He probably chased all of them to the next patch of brush or the rabbits may have played tricks on him by each leading him off the trail.
     Jack also liked to ride on any tractor that moved. If a rabbit jumped out in front of the tractor Jack jumped forward between the tractor fender and engine and proceeded to give chase. The white tailed jack rabbits were too fast for him to herd so he would come back and you had to stop and let him get back on the tractor. One time Jack got momentarily hung up on his great leap off the tractor and fell. The tractor wheel ran over his back end. He yelped in great pain , but a few days later he was recovered and back on the tractor. Luckily the ground was soft so he was not seriously injured. From then on he was not allowed to leap off the tractor.

       I have not seen much of this species for probably 6 to 8 years. I know they go through tremendous cycles , but I don't ever remember going for so many years and not seeing any individuals.

      Today I cross country skied at River Bend Golf course at Red Deer and was surprised to so lots of evidence of snow shoe hares. Their tracks are everywhere and a tremendous number of droppings are present. So it would seem that there is a fair number in that area. The light today was extremely poor and I did not spend much time looking for them.

       Has anybody else seen them this year? Please leave a comment if you've seen them in other areas.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Butcher Creek Natural Area

RDRN acts as a volunteer steward for three natural areas: Butcher Creek, Innisfail, and Sylvan Lake. Butcher Creek covers about 200 hectares of forest and formerly cleared land. Most of the clear areas are reverting to forest. Butcher Creek is a great area for a family outing, especially for those families with teenagers. It is definitely not an area to take small children. There are rare plants, colourful flowers, and birds. It is a perfect place to practice identification of spoor left by animals. Watch the summer field trips pamphlet for possible trips to this incredible area.

Getting to Butcher Creek: Drive west from Bowden on Secondary Highway 587. Go north on Range Road 35 to Township Road 350 and then west. Continue past the "No exit" sign for 0.4 km. The Butcher Creek Natural Area is on the right and marked with a yellow in a tree stating, "Natural Area Boundary". Don’t try to take vehicles into the parking lot as careless use has created very deep ruts in the roadway. Park at the road and walk in. Fires, for any purpose are forbidden in the natural area.

Caution: While no tracks or spoor have been found in the natural area, visitors should be aware that bears and cougars have been seen about 20 km upstream in the Sundre area. We suggest visiting in noisy groups.

Features: From moist, moss-covered spruce woods to dry, open meadows, the Butcher Creek Natural Area contains a wide range of vegetation communities.

Alder and willow thickets are found in the wet depressions, abandoned channels, islands, and on the shoreline. The most obvious flora of the Natural Area is stands of spruce and aspen poplar. By looking more closely you will see a huge variety of plants ranging from mosses to shrubs, orchids to ferns, and fungi to giant trees. Unwooded areas have a variety of prairie and semi-arid loving plants. This natural area will lead the careful observer to discover many common species of plants.
There is bird life but, because of the thick bush, it takes patience to see them. The river is braided as it traverses the natural area. In some times of the year, the river can easily be waded, in other times, especially June, it can be a swift moving torrent and the wise person stays well away.

Getting around: The Red Deer River is the main stream in the Butcher Creek Natural Area. Beavers have and continue to dam creeks and flood large areas. The only practical way to cross creeks is on the beaver dams. Care is advised as the footing can be unstable and the water can be very deep along the upstream sides. There are no developed trails so hikers are required to bushwhack. You will find rubber boots and a walking stick useful when crossing.

Exploring Butcher Creek: There is a large open space immediately to the north of the parking lot. The fence on the east side marks private land, and must not be crossed. This family-friendly area is great for locating plants and insects and hearing birds. Although some rare species have been found here, most plant are very common. Grasses predominate. There are lots of summer blooms to photograph and admire. Removal of plants, including picking bouquets, is strictly forbidden. We strongly advise against trying to cross the swampy area at the north end of the open area. It is extremely rough and may be wet or flooded. The pasture area is the only part of the Natural Area you should explore with small children or without a GSP.

Other areas (please take your GSP with you into all other areas). Walking west on the road you will cross a culvert. Follow the creek north. When you break free from the very thick wolf willow growth, veer westward until you come to a second creek. Follow this creek northward until you come to the Red Deer River. This route is usually dry and can be walked wearing sneakers, definitely not sandals. Creek bottoms in the natural area are very soft, deep mud.

On the way, you may find lots of ant hills (please do not damage them), large spruce trees, and a huge variety of small plants on the forest floor. Birds, especially chickadees and spotted sandpipers, often make their calls from the trees and streams. The Red Deer River affords a great example of stream braiding.

The influence of the Red Deer River is clearly evident in the Butcher Creek Natural Area. Meandering across the flats, the river produces bars and islands. The majority of the site is located on an old floodplain. As a result, there are numerous abandoned channels, some dammed by beavers that have filled with water and others only shallow, moist depressions. Vigourous plant growth and the large size of mature poplar and spruce trees are testimony to how flood waters have successfully replenished soil nutrients.

Once you get to the Red Deer River, there is a wild expanse of thick forest both up and down stream. We do not recommend entering these areas except in groups and never with small children. There are bogs with wild orchids, cattails, sedges and a variety of water plants. The bogs are deep and can be difficult to cross. On the eastern flanks of the Natural Area, the forest is very thick and deadfall may make walking difficult to impossible with detours or backtracking the norm. GPS is advised to find your way back.

For a description of possible hikes in the Butcher Creek Natural Area, visit our website at Go to Programs, Ongoing programs, Butcher Creek Natural area.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Coping with Winter

       Many times I have looked at birds or mammals on a very nasty winter day and wondered how they cope with adverse winter weather. I have found myself being extremely uncomfortable and yet some bird or mammal is bouncing along as if there is no problem.

      Well, birds and mammals do suffer, but there are many adaptations which keep them healthy and warm even in the most inclement weather . Natural Wise will take one small example to get you thinking about how a species copes with nasty winter conditions.

       I will use one species as an example. I've posted on the white tailed jack rabbit  previously on Natural Wise. First, rabbits change color for the winter which provides them with camoflage which allows them to expend less energy fleeing from predators. Mammals and birds consume a tremendous amount of food each day to provide energy which mantains body temperature. Of course, the new white coat of the jack rabbit is an adaptation for winter. There is very fine hair fiber which insolates the body. Longer hair provides protection from wind.

      Each species has some unique adaptations. Some have lower blood circulation to the feet so that less body heat is lost. Some hibernate. Others become very inactive for several hours or days.

      So the next time you see some little critter out on a very inclement day, start to think about what adaptations may be present. Click on for more information.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Ravens Abundant

         On Dec 31 I saw 81 ravens pass over me in the southeast Red Deer area in a 2 hour period. I have never seen so many ravens on a continuous basis. Usually ravens are solitary.

        I happened to be out from 7:45 AM to 9:45 AM. At the early time it was almost dark. I could hear ravens but they were too far away to see in that light. Since I was busy I wasn't paying attention to them. I stopped once and counted 34 fly over in about 2 minutes . I continued watching and counting until 9:45 . I'm not sure how many ravens I missed at the beginning.

       This was a first for me to see so many ravens in one area.