Alberta 2012: Jasper National Park

Columbian Ground Squirrel

After spending an hour shopping at West Edmonton Mall, my fiancé Doran and I drove west to Jasper National Park. It’s about a 4-hour drive but seemed shorter than that. We saw an Osprey on a nesting platform by a lake, a couple of unidentified raptors, and several deer near Hinton. The deer were too far from the road to tell whether they were White-tailed Deer or Mule Deer. Once we reached Hinton we could see the mountains looming in the distance. It didn’t take long before we reached the first one, and as soon as we drove around it we saw other mountains ahead of us. We were in the Rocky Mountains!

We reached the park gate and paid the entrance fee. The skies were clouding up, so we didn’t stop to take any pictures on our way in. We didn’t see any mammals on our drive, either, though I was happy to see a pair of adult Bald Eagles were perching in a tree near Jasper Lake.

Welcome to Jasper!

Rather than book a room at a hotel in town, we had rented a cabin at Pine Bungalows two kilometres outside of the Jasper town site. The property is situated on the Athabasca River and surrounded by pine, spruce and fir trees in a protected corridor for vegetation and wildlife. I wanted a quiet, tranquil place where I could be surrounded by nature and, hopefully, see some wildlife.

Our Cabin at Pine Bungalows

Our River Front cabin only steps away from the Athabasca River. Pine Bungalows describes itself as a “green” property and, as such, its rooms do not have internet, microwaves, televisions or telephones. The cabin had a fully equipped kitchen, a fireplace, a full bath, and a heater for those cold mountain nights. I found it charming and comfortable, even though it became quite warm and stuffy during day and the mosquitoes were a problem no matter how quickly we tried to enter and exit through the front door (we had arrived in the midst of a particularly bad outbreak; the park was just now receiving warm, sunny weather after a period of heavy rains).

After unpacking our things we headed outside to check out the river. The water was quite high and milky-looking, and there was no emergent vegetation or gravel sandbars to provide habitat for dragonflies. It was moving swiftly, too, so it didn’t seem likely that I would find any water birds such as ducks, gulls or herons on the river.

The Athabasca River

A gravel trail extended along the bank of the river in both directions, with a number of benches to sit and take in the view.

Bench with a river-side view

We didn’t stay out too long as the mosquitoes were bad and it was past time to make some dinner. As we approached the cabin, I spotted something small disappear behind the back corner. When I went to investigate I found this striking squirrel in front of a large hole leading under our cabin. One of the mammals I was hoping to see was the Columbian Ground Squirrel, but I didn’t expect to find one living under our cabin! A species of the central Rocky Mountains, this ground squirrel is found in open habitats such as sagebrush plains, valley grasslands, openings in coniferous forests, alpine meadows, and along stream banks. As its name suggests, it spends most of its time on the ground, though it sometimes does climb trees and shrubs to obtain buds and fruits.

Columbian Ground Squirrel

The Columbian Ground Squirrel is strictly diurnal and, like the familiar groundhogs of Ottawa, lives in a burrow beneath the ground. The burrow consists of a network of tunnels which may be as long as 20 metres in length and have an average of 11 entrances. These tunnels provide the squirrel safety during the active summer months and a place to hibernate in the winter. I counted three holes disappearing beneath our cabin, but didn’t think to look for others; I also noticed him run to the cabin next door and disappear into a hole there on more than one occasion. Interestingly, this squirrel rarely walks, but rather scurries from place to place.

Columbian Ground Squirrels are only active for approximately 30% of the year, and may spend seven or eight months hibernating. The burrow has a separate chamber (the hibernaculum) located up to 2 metres underground in which it spends the winter in a deep torpor. Hibernation can begin as early as mid-July or as late as mid-August. The squirrels often stockpile a small amount of seed in their hibernacula to provide food when the squirrel emerges from hibernation in early spring, as food sources may still be quite scarce.

Columbian Ground Squirrel

After we finished dinner the sun came out, so I put on some bug spray and headed back outside to look around. The Columbian Ground Squirrel had disappeared, but I could hear a number of birds chirping and twittering in the trees and spent some time trying to identify them. I recognized the sweet trill of a Yellow-rumped Warbler but wasn’t able to locate it; both “Audubon’s” and “Myrtle” subspecies are present in Jasper, and one of the birds I was hoping to find was the western “Audubon’s” race. I spotted one Chipping Sparrow and a couple of Slate-coloured Juncos, and I also found an Oregon Junco flitting about in a tree by the water. It actually stopped moving when it saw me and posed for a minute or two.

Oregon Junco

When I heard the slow, nonchalant call of an unfamiliar chickadee I decided to investigate. I thought it might be a Boreal Chickadee and was surprised to discover a Mountain Chickadee instead! This small songbird looks very similar to its close relative, the Black-capped Chickadee, but has a white stripe over the eye. I found the Mountain Chickadees as elusive as the Boreal Chickadees of Algonquin Park. They stayed high up in the conifers, and showed no interest in the pishing sounds that I made. I was only able to get one decent photo of this life bird during the trip.

Mountain Chickadee

Now that the sun had come out, I took some more photos of the view along the river.

View across the River

Looking upriver we could see Mount Edith Cavell, one of the most well-known mountains in Jasper National Park.

View Upriver

The View Downriver

A little later on, after I had returned to the cabin and was settling in, I just happened look out the window and saw two elk (more accurately known as wapiti) along the gravel path by river. Although I knew they were common in Jasper, I hadn’t expected to find a pair this close to where we were staying – let alone a young calf and its mother! The calf was spotted, like a White-tailed Deer fawn, but was quite large with long, lanky legs.

Wapiti (Elk) Calf

Its mother was larger. In this photo you can see the pale rump which helps to distinguish these mammals from other members of the deer family.

Wapiti (Elk)

The elk were quietly grazing along the path and didn’t seem bothered by three of us taking pictures. Knowing that even these gentle-looking creatures could be dangerous, I kept my distance. Still, I was thrilled. So far Pine Bungalows was turning out to be everything I had hoped for!

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