Alberta 2012: A Day of Rain

American White Pelican

I woke up the next morning to the sound of rain. It wasn’t a nice, light rain either, but a steady downpour as heavy as it was unrelenting. This did not bode well for my plans to go birding and bug-hunting with April and her 8-year-old daughter Hope after lunch, and I wished I could send the clouds to eastern Ontario which badly needed the rain. (Edmonton, as it turns out, did not; the rain resulted in flooding in parts west of the city which we noticed the following day on our drive out to Jasper.)

By the time Doran and I were ready to go out for breakfast, the rain had lightened considerably. The magpies were in their usual spot in the grass along Broadmoor Boulevard, and they didn’t seem to pleased with the weather, either.

Black-billed Magpie in the rain

After getting some breakfast at Cora’s we headed into Edmonton to take some photos of Rexall Place (formerly Northlands Coliseum) and the Wayne Gretzky statue. While driving along the highway I spotted a Swainson’s Hawk sitting on a streetlamp above the road. Fortunately it was facing traffic, or I wouldn’t have seen the dark bib characteristic of this species. This was my fourth lifer of the trip so far.

The rain was pouring down again by the time April and her daughter picked me up. Hope loves wildlife, especially bugs, and was excited to meet me as she doesn’t know anyone else who loves nature. I told her that dragonflies and butterflies were my favourite bugs, and showed her my dragonfly field guide (I had brought Dunkle’s Dragonflies Through Binoculars on the trip with me as it covers all the dragonflies of North America). We stopped by a nature store in Sherwood Park to wait out the downpour. April picked up a couple of bird feeders for her yard and a basic insect guide and some binoculars for Hope. Once the rain let up again, we headed out to look for wildlife.

We stopped at a large pond just off Anthony Henday Drive, but there was no real path to the water and the rain had rendered the whole area a sodden, muddy mess. Although I could see waterfowl on the pond, I couldn’t identify any as the sky was so dark and the light was terrible. I pointed out a Savannah Sparrow singing on a fence post and found a bluet and European Skipper sheltering in the grass. Those were the best bugs of the day, unfortunately for Hope.

As the area was impassable April drove us over to the Heritage Hills wetland in Sherwood Park. This award-winning natural storm water system was specifically designed with wildlife in mind. The system consists of a couple of connected water bodies with foot bridges, waterfowl viewing platforms, stilling ponds to allow silt to settle out, walking trails around it, and even a fish ladder. Back in the 1990s the developer decided to preserve this natural area in an embellished form rather than excavating it and building more lots. It hired biologists to determine how to enhance the wetlands while also turning it into a functional storm water drainage system. The result was this beautiful chain of ponds inhabited by ducks, cormorants, grebes, terns, rails, herons, swallows, shorebirds, blackbirds, pelicans, and many other birds and beasts.

Red-necked Grebe in the rain

When we arrived I was awed to see a Red-necked Grebe swimming toward us. It caught a fish right in front of us, then slowly swam away. We saw a muskrat as we crossed the bridge, and as we followed the path around the pond we saw two Double-crested Cormorants perching in trees with their wings spread, trying to dry out, and a Wilson’s Snipe flying overhead. Two Black Terns were hunting gracefully over the water, while a House Wren sang its bubbly song from the trees that provided a buffer between the wetland and the houses surrounding it.

Then we noticed a large, white bird in the middle of the pond. It was another American White Pelican! Eagerly we hurried down the path to try to get closer to it. The heavy rain had caused the water to overflow onto the gravel trail, creating large puddles on the path, some of which were 10 to 15 feet long. Hope was wearing rain boots, and I was wearing my brand new waterproof hiking shoes, so we were able to keep our feet dry as we walked through the water in our attempt to get closer to the pelican (they were the only part of me that stayed dry that day). April was not so fortunate but was at least wearing shoes that dried out quickly.

American White Pelican

We found a viewing platform right near where the pelican was fishing, and I spent some time trying to photograph it in the rain. The pelican fed by plunging his head in the water and tipping up like a dabbling duck, and succeeded in catching several small fish.

American White Pelican

Four more pelicans flew in and circled above the lake, but they either landed on one of the adjacent ponds or flew off somewhere else. Two female Buffleheads also flew in and landed close by. However, the pelican was the star of the pond, and swam quite close to the platform where we were standing.

American White Pelican

The American White Pelican is one of the largest birds in North America. It breeds on isolated islands in lakes throughout the west, and often hunts for food in groups in shallow water. Several pelicans may fish cooperatively, forming a circle to concentrate the fish, and then dipping their heads under simultaneously to catch them. Pelicans also feed on crayfish, tadpoles, and salamanders.

American White Pelican

We left after the pelican began moving away. The rain had soaked through my jacket by then, and we were all ready to call it a day. Even though we didn’t see many insects, Hope enjoyed watching the pelican and said it was her favourite bird. On our way out we saw two male Ruddy Ducks close to the bridge where the Red-necked Grebe had been fishing. This is another bird I find difficult to get close to, as they inhabit large bodies of water like the Moodie Drive quarry pond and eastern sewage lagoons in Ottawa.

Ruddy Duck (male)

I convinced my fiancé to return to the Heritage Hills wetland with me the following day. The sun was attempting to shine, so the light was better, but the puddles on the path were worse where we entered the park. The water was above the level of my shoes in some places, so my feet got completely soaked. On our walk we spotted a couple of Killdeer walking through the water along the path and a Black-crowned Night Heron flying overhead. We also spotted a Purple Martin house in one of the backyards overlooking the ponds and saw several martins foraging for insects above the water. At least one Black Tern flew by, a Wilson’s Snipe was winnowing overhead, and a single Sora called from a cattail-infested corner of the pond. A group of about 20 Canada Geese swam toward us as we were crossing one of the bridges, then decided to clamber up onto the bridge and block our path.

On the water we saw two American White Pelicans, though we weren’t able to get as close to them this time.

American White Pelican

I counted three Red-necked Grebes, also all very distant.

Red-necked Grebe

The only water bird that I was able to get close to was this female Ruddy Duck. Of course, the sun was in the wrong spot to get any decent photos.

Ruddy Duck (female)

Although I was fascinated by all the water birds that lived in the wetland, we didn’t stay too long as we were planning on visiting West Edmonton Mall and then driving out to Jasper. The Heritage Hills wetland is a beautiful spot, and I would seriously love for Ottawa to consider implementing similar wetlands/storm water management ponds that provide beneficial habitat for all creatures.

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