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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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.