Monday, February 27, 2017

Mousing Around

Trip Date: February 2017



I've been spending a lot of time in Weaselhead Flats Natural Area lately, searching for owls and other wildlife to photograph. The park is easily accessible from my home in southwest Calgary and offers a superb alternative when driving to the mountains isn't possible. The park is home to a variety of wildlife including beaver, muskrat, deer, moose, bobcat, squirrel, rabbit, mink, black bear, and some 200 species of birds. There is also a healthy population of coyotes that roam through the park. These members of the wild dog family live a semi-urban lifestyle and can often be viewed throughout the entire park and sometimes beyond its borders. If you'd like more information about Calgary's urban coyote population please refer to my previous story titled, Calgary's Song Dogs.

This is how motionless the coyote was standing when I first saw it
Over the Family Day long weekend I was strolling along the Regional Pathway in the southern portion of the park searching for the elusive Barred Owl that had been seen regularly over the past few weeks. The park was unusually quiet, especially for a long weekend, and it felt like I had the entire place to myself. Unfortunately it was pretty quiet on the wildlife side of things as well. Other than the ever-present and ultra-chatty Black-Capped Chickadees and the odd White-Breasted Nuthatch, I hadn't seen or heard anything else. Feeling a bit defeated I started making my way back to the parking lot knowing the owl had eluded me once again. I was walking along the fence-line that separates the Weaselhead from the land of the Tsuu T'ina Nation when something caught my eye through a stand of Poplar Trees. Perched motionless on a low snow drift was a solitary coyote. With my luck suddenly changing I grabbed my camera and cautiously moved to a better vantage point so as not to spook it. To my surprise the coyote didn't even glance in my direction, instead opting to remain completely still for several moments. It took me a minute to realize what was happening, but then it dawned on me, this coyote was hunting (known as mousing) for small rodents beneath the snow.

Listening intently for rustling beneath the snowpack
I had seen this hunting tactic on television from coyotes and foxes, but had never witnessed it in person before. With my camera at the ready I watched and waited as this beautiful coyote slinked silently across the snow, pausing every few steps while listening intently, and then it happened! The coyote reared backwards, like cocking a gun, and leapt into the air with all four paws becoming airborne. During the landing the coyote drove its fore-paws through the snow's outer crust and eventually buried its entire head into the drift. Anxiously I waited for the coyote to reemerge so I could know if it had been a successful hunt. As if on cue the coyote withdrew its head from the snow with the hindquarters of a rodent (most likely a pocket gopher) dangling from its sharp teeth. The coyote looked directly at me as it took two bites and swallowed the rodent whole. I was thrilled to have witnessed such a spectacle and was glad I captured it with my camera. The coyote then moved behind a small incline beyond my line of site. I was just about ready to move on when a second coyote caught my attention further across the field. Moments later a third one appeared from the trees and the original had come back into view, so I was now watching three coyotes all mousing at the same time.

Cocked back and ready to pounce
Leaping into action!
Airborne
Nailed the landing headfirst into the snow!
Feasting on the spoils
Time for round two?
The entire sequence of events truly amazed me. Here we have an animal using its keen sense of smell and hearing, hurling itself into the air targeting a barely audible rustling sound an unknown distance away. If that doesn't sound challenging enough the coyote also has to determine the speed and trajectory of the unseen scurrying rodent, all while taking the thickness of the snow crust and overall depth of the snow into consideration. After all of these variables have been considered you'd be forgiven if you assumed that this hunting style would be widely unsuccessful, but it's quite the contrary. During the winter when caloric intake is of the utmost importance coyotes won't waste precious energy on ineffective tactics. I witnessed three separate coyotes attempt six different hunts (two each) in approximately half an hour and as a group they were successful during four of those attempts. Granted this is a very small sample size, but it would seem as though coyotes are pretty adept at using this style of hunting.

This is the second coyote I spotted
I missed the pounce, but it was a successful hunt
This time I captured the pounce...
...and the landing...
...but the rodent lived to see another day!
This coyote was looking at me as I was looking at it
I won't soon forget this memorable experience in the Weaselhead and I hope to witness something similar in the near future. I encourage you to get out there and enjoy this wonderful wilderness park for yourself. You never know what you might encounter while you're there!

Here's the third coyote I saw that morning
Time for some action
Sticking the landing, but this rodent was on the move
It took a second pound from this coyote before catching its prey
Enjoying its well-earned breakfast in the tall grass
One last look before disappearing into the nearby trees
For more information about the Weaselhead Flats Natural Area please visit the Weaselhead/Glenmore Park Preservation Society website. You can also connect with them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. In addition you can view some awesome photography (including a few shots by yours truly) on the Weaselhead Photography webpage. Lastly, there's also a slideshow available here that contains all of the above photos and more from this unique encounter. See you outside!

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Weaselhead Flats

Trip Date: January 2017



The Weaselhead Flats Natural Area is a vast tract of wilderness that borders the western end of the Glenmore Reservoir and connects North Glenmore Park with South Glenmore Park. The Weaselhead comprises 237 hectares of wilderness sandwiched between the city and the Tsuu T'ina Nation. The park's name is still a mystery, but is likely named after Chief Weaselhead, the leader of the Tsuu T'ina Nation at the time of European contact. The Weaselhead officially became a park in the early 1980's, but not before surviving a colourful history.

Weaselhead Trail Map including Oxbow Trail (3.1km), Weaselhead Trail (2.0km), Jackrabbit Trail (4.1km), Meadow Trail (1.1km), Delta Trail (0.8km), Viewpoint Trail (0.2km), and the Regional Pathway.
First Nation groups were the original settlers of the modern-day Weaselhead. In the Blackfoot language the area is called 'moll-inistsi-in-aka-apewis' or 'Elbow Many Houses' in reference to the multiple and changing river courses through the flat river plain. This flat valley provided excellent shelter for many First Nation groups during the harsh winter months.

A panoramic shot of the Glenmore Reservoir
The Elbow River (originally known as the Swift River) originates at the Rae Glacier in Kananaskis Country west of Calgary. It meanders east over the landscape before eventually joining the Bow River near downtown Calgary. Sam Livingstone, an early Calgary pioneer, first settled in the area that is now the Glenmore Reservoir and gave the name 'Glenmore', which is Gaelic for 'big valley', to the whole area. In 1933 the Glenmore Dam was completed to ensure a consistent supply of fresh water for Calgary's citizens. This major interruption in the Elbow's flow created the Glenmore Reservoir and the Weaselhead Flats as we know them today began to take shape.

The Elbow River meandering through the Weaselhead before reaching the Glenmore Reservoir
Between 1908 and 1998 the Weaselhead, in conjunction with Harvey Barracks and Sarcee Training Area (the later two are again part of the Tsuu T'ina Nation), were leased from Tsuu T'ina by the Canadian Armed Forces and used for military training exercises. As a result the Department of Defence continues to work closely with the City of Calgary and the Calgary Police Service to locate and recover any unexploded explosive ordinance (UXO) that may still be present in the area. During the devastating floods of 2013 a lot of soil and vegetation was washed away uncovering previously buried unexplored ordinance, prompting officials to close the park until a thorough search could be completed. Although the chance of discovering UXO is considered remote please follow these guidelines in the off-chance you stumble across something.

Exploring one of the many trails in the area
Today where the Elbow River enters the reservoir there is a wide river delta that is home to a large variety of flora and fauna. A paved pathway that circles the entire reservoir is a popular destination for many Calgarians. There are also numerous trails dissecting the Weaselhead for you to explore. The park is home to more than 200 species of birds, both migratory and permanent residents, as well as a plethora of mammals, including beaver, muskrat, deer, moose, coyote, bobcat, squirrel, mink, rabbit, and even black bear.

A Blue Jay snacking on nuts and seeds provided by a generous park visitor
This coyote is sporting a healthy winter coat
A brightly-coloured male Pine Grosbeak enjoying a few sunflower seeds
Outdoor enthusiasts love the recreation opportunities provided by the Weaselhead and allow many folks to stay closer to home instead of venturing outside the city for running, biking, hiking, paddling, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and wildlife viewing. One of my favourite things about the park is once you disappear into the Weaselhead for an afternoon of exploration you won't even feel like you're in the city anymore. As Calgarians we're pretty lucky to have numerous green spaces within the city limits and the Weaselhead is one of those special wilderness settings just begging to be explored!

Christine and I on one of our many bike rides through the park
For more information about the Weaselhead Natural Area please visit the Weaselhead/Glenmore Park Preservation Society website. You can also connect with them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. In addition you can view some great photography (including a few additions by yours truly) on the Weaselhead Photography webpage.

A flock of Bohemian Waxwings perched at the top of a tree
A female White-Tailed Deer watching me closely

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Fifth Annual Christmas Tree Hunt

Trip Date: December 2016



It's hard to believe our annual tradition of cutting down our own Christmas Trees has reached the five-year mark already. I won't bore you with all the permitting information again, but if you'd like more info about how to get your own permit please visit my previous post titled, The Search For The Perfect Tree. We ended up back in the same area as last year, but that was on purpose. We remember seeing several good looking trees after cutting ours down so we wanted to see if they were still out there. Plus the Sibbald Lake Day-Use Area is perfect for the post-hunt bonfire.

We lucked out with another gorgeous day with the exception of a strong wind. We geared up on the side of the road and headed into the bush in search of the perfect tree. Christine and I were the first ones to find ours this year and it was likely the fullest tree we'd found to date.

What this year's tree lacked in height it made up for in fullness!
Christine and I with our Christmas Tree
After all the trees had been cut (in record time I might add) we headed over to Sibbald Lake for lunch cooked over a bonfire. As soon as the food was pulled out about five Whiskey Jacks, also known as Gray Jays, appeared as if from nowhere. The newly anointed National Bird of Canada waited patiently up in the trees until there was unattended food available.

Whiskey Jack
Gray Jay
Devin and Gabe playing outside
As you can see Kola is built for the outdoors!
The end of another successful hunt
The fully decorated tree looks pretty good in our living room
I'm so glad this has become an annual tradition and I don't see it stopping anytime soon. Until next year...

Monday, November 28, 2016

England

Trip Date: November 2016



The final leg of our trip was through the English countryside. We flew from Ireland to Birmingham where we rented a car and headed for the Cotswolds. It was hard to believe that we were finally on the home stretch of our trip, but there was still lots to see so we were definitely excited about that. 

The Union Jack is the flag for the United Kingdom
England is the largest country in the United Kingdom and has a population of almost 55 million people. The capital and largest city is London, where we started our vacation, and the official language is English. The land that is now England has been inhabited since the Upper Palaeolithic period or as far back as 50,000 years ago. Not wanting to state the obvious, but the island of Great Britain is filled with a rich and colourful history.

England (dark green) as part of the United Kingdom (light green)
Our first destination was Stratford-Upon-Avon, Shakespeare's birthplace, but we needed to make a quick stop in the town of Warwick to see Warwick Castle. Warwick Castle is what I picture when I think of a medieval fortress. We arrived too late to tour the inside, but were treated to some great views from around town. The castle was originally built by William the Conqueror back in 1068, but was redone in stone sometime during the 12th century.

Warwick Castle along the River Avon
One of the towers in Warwick Castle
As previously mentioned we were headed for Stratford-Upon-Avon which is the birthplace of arguably the most famous writer in the English language; William Shakespeare. We arrived after dark and wandered around the town, ultimately arriving at the Holy Trinity Church where Shakespeare's grave is located. The church was closed and his tomb was inside so we just toured around the outside before moving on.

The Holy Trinity Church
Christine standing next to our Citroen Cactus!
A Jester Statue in Stratford-Upon-Avon
This is the home where Shakespeare grew up
We were on the road again early the next morning as we wanted to make several stops along the route to Burford. First up was the mysterious Rollright Stones near the village of Long Compton. The Rollright Stones are a collection of three monuments; the Whispering Knights, the King's Men, and the King Stone. The three monuments range in date from about 3,500 to 1,500 BC and each had it's own purpose. 

According to legend the names of the Rollright monuments are derived from a King who met a witch who challenged him:
"Seven long strides shalt thou take and if Long Compton thou canst see, King of Englad thou shalt be." 
Off went the King, shouting, "Stick, stock, stone as King of England I shall be known!" 
On his seventh stride the ground rose up before him in a long mound. The witch laughed and cackled, "As Long Compton thou canst not see, King of Englad thou shalt not be. Rise up stick and stand still stone, King of England though shalt be none. Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be and I myself an eldern tree." 
The King became the King Stone and his men the King's Men stone circle. The Whispering Knights were members of the King's army that were behind the rest of the group secretly plotting against the King before happening upon the scene and being turned to stone themselves.
The King's Men stone circle was a gathering place for Neolithic People approximately 4,500 years ago and is built from natural limestone boulders that were found within 500m of the circle. It was built in the Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age and archaeologists assume there were about 105 stones standing in a circle that would form a complete barrier. Today there are only 77 stones remaining.

The King's Men
The King's Men Stone Circle
The Whispering Knights are believed to be the remains of an ancient burial chamber
It's believed that the King Stone was erected to mark a Bronze Age cemetery
We made a brief stop at Stow-on-the-Wold, a picturesque English town with a lot of character. We even caught the Remembrance Day procession as they made their way from the centre of town to the church for the ceremony.

Market Square in Stow-on-the-Wold
We stopped for lunch in Bourton-on-the-Water, which is known for it's stone bridges over the River Windrush. The sun was shining and the fall colours were still present, making for a beautiful afternoon in town.

The River Windrush flowing through town
One of many stone bridges
Bourton-on-the-Water
Sometimes domestic ducks like to hangout with wild ducks. This domestic duck was looking for handouts with all of his wild cousins!
Christine and I have a pretty big adventure planned for 2017!!
Me, Christine, and Sarah enjoying the day
Our final night in the Cotswolds was spent in the small town of Burford. It was very small so there wasn't much to see other than St. John the Baptist Church. We did manage to find a few pubs that evening though!

St. John the Baptist Church
It's always a little creepy to me when the cemetery is in the front yard of the church
After one night in Burford we were on the road again and headed for Bath, a city known for its Roman-built baths. The entire city became a World Heritage Site in 1987. We spent most of the day exploring the city and touring the ancient baths.

The Abbey Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, or more commonly known as Bath Abbey, was founded in the 7th century
Pulteney Bridge crosses the River Avon and is famous for having shops built across its full span on both sides 
Over 2,000 years ago the Romans built the finest religious spa in norther Europe around Britain's only hot spring. Originally built in 70AD, the Roman Bath complex was used for public bathing and religious ceremonies for hundreds of years. Today the entire area is an important historical site and one of the most popular tourist attractions in the United Kingdom. The steaming hot water still fills the Great Bath everyday as it did all those years ago.

Entrance to the Roman Baths
The Great Bath with Bath Abbey in the background
This is the Sacred Spring and was off-limits to bathers
Our last attraction of the trip was one I was most looking forward to; Stonehenge. No other historical site carries as much mystery and intrigue as Stonehenge. This prehistoric monument is believed to have been built between 3,000 and 2,000 BC, but no one knows for sure what its true purpose was. The entire site is set within the most dense complex of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments in England, including several hundred burial mounds.

Sarah and Christine walking towards Stonehenge
Stonehenge
The Heel Stone
Prehistoric stone monument
Sarsen Stones and Blue Stones
Me with Stonehenge in the background
The final selfie of the trip!
I think it's pretty evident that we had a great time on this vacation. Christine and I had always wanted to see the United Kingdom, but it wasn't very high on either of our lists (for whatever reason), so we were more than pleasantly surprised with how much there was to see and do. We were there for two weeks and covered plenty of ground, but I feel as though we just barely scratched the surface considering how much history there is. I enjoyed my time in all three countries (England, Northern Ireland, and Ireland) and would gladly return to any of them for some additional exploration.