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, 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.