Alberta 2012: Elk Island National Park

Great Spangled Fritillary

After leaving Astotin Lake, April and I drove over to the Amisk Wuche Trail. We chose this one as it is only 2.5 km long and has a diversity of habitats, including floating boardwalks crossing small beaver ponds, and aspen, birch and spruce stands. Amisk Wuche is the Cree Indian name for Beaver Hills.

We had barely gotten out of the car when I spotted a large blue darner flying about the parking lot. He was circling the area between the car and the washrooms quite low to the ground, apparently hunting bluets. At one point I thought he was going to land on the roof of the rest room building, but instead he attempted to perch on a blade of grass. Darners perch by hanging vertically from a twig or other vertical surface; he was so heavy he caused the blade of grass to bend.

I was able to get a good look at the thorax and identified him as a Variable Darner based on the long, thin stripes. The Variable Darner is the most common mosaic darner in the northern prairie region and prefers marshy ponds, lakes and slow streams, particularly those with thick sedges or cattails. The Variable Darner has a black cross-line on the face, noticeable in this image:

Variable Darner (Aeshna interrupta)

Then he shot off in pursuit of something, turned around, and flew over to April’s car. He tried to perch on the bumper, and when that didn’t work, he landed on the ground directly beneath the bumper. I could see then that he had finally caught a bluet. He looks massive compared to the hapless damselfly in this photo:

Variable Darner snacking on a bluet

We left the parking lot and started walking along the trail. It proceeds through the woods at first, with a large pond to the right; then the trail crosses the water on a floating boardwalk. We saw a couple of Red-necked Grebes on the water and a half-dozen Red-winged Blackbirds in the vegetation surrounding the pond. I looked for Yellow-headed Blackbirds (one of my target species for the trip) but didn’t see any.

Boardwalk at Elk Island

There were lots of bluets in the vegetation next to the path, but without a magnifying lens to see the shape of the claspers I didn’t try to catch or identify any.

Bluet sp.

It was a warm day, so many butterflies were flying, including a couple of White Admirals, one blue species, one crescent, and a couple of fritillaries. I recognized this Great Spangled Fritillary based on the size and the large cream-coloured band on the underside of the hindwing (not visible in this photo).

Great Spangled Fritillary

I also recognized this Haploa moth resting on a leaf in the shade. I photographed a Confused Haploa moth once before in Ottawa, and this looked quite similar; I suspect this is Leconte’s Haploa Moth (Haploa lecontei), but according to, the range of this species extends only as far west as Manitoba.

Haploa sp.

After leaving the water the trail winds through deep forest for a while. We didn’t see many birds in the woods other than a few Black-capped Chickadees and a robin, but we heard Red-eyed Vireos and at least four different Tennessee Warblers singing. By the time we finished the trail, April was able to recognize their distinctive three-part song.

Woodland Trail

This violet caught my attention…

Violet sp.

…as did this other Haploa moth. I saw quite a few spreadwing damselflies in the vegetation as well, but all the ones I saw appeared to be females and thus difficult to identify.

Haploa sp.

The trail crosses another pond, though this one was small and devoid of waterfowl. On the other side of the boardwalk, however, a large number of wildflowers were blooming and we spotted another four or five fritillaries. Most appeared to be Great Spangled Fritillaries, a species which is also common in Ontario.

Great Spangled Fritillary

This one appeared to be smaller and a lighter shade of orange in colour, so I spent some time trying to get enough photographs to be able to identify it. With fritillaries, it is best to get photos of both the upper side and lower side. I sent my photos to Ross Layberry, one of the co-authors of The Butterflies of Canada (the first and still the best comprehensive guide to all the butterflies found in Canada) and a friend from the OFNC butterfly group; he identified it as a Mormon Fritillary – a lifer for me!

Mormon Fritillary

We saw plenty of pink Fireweed in bloom, but the butterflies shunned it. When I saw this lovely moth feasting on the blossoms at about eye level I was pleasantly surprised.

Police Car Moth (Gnophaela sp.)

We didn’t see much else on our walk back to the car. However, we were unpleasantly surprised when we realized that the car had a flat tire. We had driven only as far as the main road before we realized what the flapping noise was; we parked it on the side of the road and then April called her husband, who told us he would bring us a tire repair kit. In the meantime, we had about 40 minutes to wait and wandered around for a bit. I decided to check the vegetation along the road, and found this pretty meadowhawk. The yellow tint at the base of its wings intrigued me, as did the amber-coloured veins in the leading edge of their wings; some western female Cherry-faced Meadowhawks have this golden colouration, which is likely what this is.

Possible Cherry-faced Meadowhawk

April had walked in the other direction, and called me over to view a mammal swimming in the pond next to the road. It was a muskrat, another mammal for my trip list!


We also saw two Blue-winged Teals, three adult female Buffleheads, and three juvenile Buffleheads swimming in the water. In fact, during this trip I didn’t see a single male Bufflehead, which was a disappointment given how close some of these birds were to shore.

Bufflehead chicks

Cedar Waxwings and Red-winged Blackbirds were also present; we watched a female Red-wing feeding her young on a cattail stalk right in front of us.

Red-winged Blackbird

On my way back to the car, I found some neat odonates in the vegetation, including this male Northern Spreadwing (identified by the shape of the claspers)….

Northern Spreadwing

…and this male Cherry-faced Meadowhawk. This species is very similar to the Ruby Meadowhawk, and in Ontario the two cannot be accurately distinguished without a careful examination of the claspers and secondary reproductive organs. Further complicating matters in the northeast is that these species sometimes hybridize with each other and with White-faced Meadowhawks. Identification is easier in the Canadian prairies, as Ruby Meadowhawk isn’t found in Alberta, leaving no doubt as to this fellow’s identity!

Cherry-faced Meadowhawk

There were still plenty of darners flying around, and when I saw one land on a tree trunk I edged closer for identification. This is another Variable Darner, and unlike the previous one I photographed, the thin stripes on the thorax were broken into two long dashes. This one, too, is snacking on a bluet; you can see the abdomen protruding beneath the lower right wing close to the darner’s body.

Variable Darner

April’s husband arrived in the van while I was photographing the dragonflies, and in short order he had the hole in the tire patched up and the tire inflated. He drove the car while April and I followed him back to Sherwood Park in the van, and there were no further incidents with the tire. I spotted a few more magpies and Black Terns along the highway, and even a small falcon hovering over a field. Elk Island National Park is definitely a place I’d like to return to, if I ever make it out west again. Next time, however, (assuming there is a next time without out any car problems!), I’d like to take some of the back roads home so I can search for hawks and falcons hunting in the fields.

We went out for dinner afterward, and spent a couple of hours talking and catching up. On my way back to the hotel, however, my “nature attention deficit disorder” kicked in again as I spotted a California Gull sitting on top of a streetlight in the parking lot. I was glad he was willing to pose, even if the light was awful (the clouds had rolled in by then; they were calling for rain all day on Sunday), as this was the only other California Gull I photographed on my trip.

California Gull

The bison, the dragonflies, and all the great birds made our trip to Elk Island National Park a success and a terrific start to my Alberta vacation. I couldn’t have asked for better weather or better company!


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