Alberta 2012: Butterflies and a Bull Elk

Christina Sulphur

After leaving Pyramid Lake we drove back to our cabin to get some lunch. Doran wanted to relax afterward, but I couldn’t sit still so I decided to explore the grounds of Pine Bungalows.

Our co-inhabitant, the Columbian Ground Squirrel, was sitting in front of his burrow at the back of the cabin when I checked. There was a pine cone on the ground in front of him, and although he tried to look nonchalant, I figured he had been trying to eat the seeds inside for there was a flake on one of his eyes. These squirrels are larger and much calmer than the American Red Squirrels that also call Jasper home. Although the one under our cabin sometimes darts away when he sees me, other times he just sits there. Fortunately today he decided to allow me to look at him.


Columbian Ground Squirrel

When he turned sideways, I could see the lovely gray and gold pattern on his back. This is the most striking squirrel I’ve ever seen, and I wished we had them in Ontario!

Columbian Ground Squirrel

After leaving the squirrel I went down to the river to see how far the path went. I had walked all the way to the end of the cottages when I found a damp patch next to the water. A few butterflies were resting on the ground, obtaining nutrients from the damp soil. There were three blues in the same area, and two of them were the now-familiar Greenish Blues.

Greenish Blue

Greenish Blue

When they open their wings, you can see the dark bar on the upper forewing and the deep blue colour of their body.

Greenish Blue

The third butterfly had a lovely pattern of orange spots on the underside. This is a Northern Blue, a species found across Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific, although it is absent in the southern part of Ontario and Quebec. I have never seen one before, and was happy to add a new species to my life list. Typically found in sandy coniferous forest areas, this butterfly can be abundant in its range.

Northern Blue

A little further along I spotted a sulphur feeding on the tiny flowers that grew along the path. This Christina Sulphur was identified for me by Ross Layberry. It prefers open areas such as meadows, sagebrush flats, coniferous forest openings, power-line cuts, prairies, and along roadsides where legumes are found. This species and Queen Alexandra’s Sulphur were considered to be one species until about 20 years ago. However, differences in geographic distribution, habitat preferences, female wing pattern, and male ultraviolet wing patterns led scientists to re-categorize them as separate species. A usually fairly common species, the Christina Sulphur has a flight season lasting from May to September, with numbers peaking in July in most of its Canadian range.

Christina Sulphur

While I was photographing the butterflies someone told me that there was a bull elk just outside the Pine Bungalows office. That captured my interest, so I set aside my plans to explore the river trail and headed back up the road to the main office instead. There is a grassy area between the road leading to the cabins and the front office, and there I found the elk, casually strolling along as though he were a paying customer out for a leisurely walk.

Bull Elk

He was big, too, standing taller than my 5’3 height, with a beautiful set of velvet-covered antlers. The antlers of a male elk may extend up to 4 feet above its head, giving some individuals a total height of 9 feet!

Bull Elk

Bull Elk

I kept my distance and was careful not to make any sudden, threatening moves. When he decided to spend some time eating the grass next to the building, I sat down on one of the large rocks by the road and took some pictures and some video.

Bull Elk next to the Pine Bungalows office

The proper name for North American elk is “wapiti”, a Native American word that means “light-colored deer.” While they are in fact related to deer, elk are much larger than most of their relatives. A group of elk is called a gang. In the summer they occur in high, open mountain pastures, while in the winter they are found on the lower wooded slopes or dense woods where they feed primarily on woody vegetation and lichen.

Bull Elk next to the Pine Bungalows office

I took a short video of him feeding, just to commemorate the experience; and what a fantastic experience it was to see this handsome creature so close!

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