Alberta 2012: Pyramid Lake

Greenish Blue

The next morning Doran and I drove into town to check out the Information Center. I was looking forward to visiting the store as I wanted to purchase some maps, brochures and checklists for the various trails and wildlife species in the park. Normally I order these in advance to figure out the best trails to see wildlife and where to find specific species, but their online store has been down for the last six months. This was a source of frustration to me, as I had had much happier experiences ordering from Algonquin Provincial Park and Point Pelee National Park.

To say that the Information Center was a disappointment is an understatement. The only checklist they were able to provide me in the store was a bird checklist. At the information counter I asked the girl if there was a naturalist or park interpreter available, but there wasn’t – apparently the naturalist is at a different location in the park each day. So I asked the girl about the best spots to find birds. She had a bit of an accent which I couldn’t place, so when she looked at me and asked what I meant, I said, “Birds. Oiseaux.” She clearly wasn’t French and didn’t understand my translation. Instead, she thought I was saying “Bears” and pointed out a few places on the map where they had been reported. Finally Doran made a flapping motion with both hands, and she turned to ask the other fellow at the counter about birds. He recommended the trails around Cottonwood Slough and Pyramid Lake. I thanked them, but I didn’t bother asking about good places to find western butterflies or dragonflies.

Visitor’s Center

Doran and I drove over to Cottonwood Slough just outside of town. We stopped next to the water, not realizing that we had driven past the parking lot, and saw a small trail leading down to the slough. It petered out in the grass, and there were no birds on the water anyway, so we headed back to the car. There were a couple of trails running parallel to the road, so when we found a parking lot at the end of the road we parked there. We took a couple of pictures of Pyramid Mountain, one of the easiest mountains to recognize in Jasper National Park.

Pyramid Mountain

Pyramid Mountain is part of the Victoria Cross Range located northwest of Jasper town. Of the 19 peaks contained within this range, six are named after Canadian recipients of the Victoria Cross. The peaks of Mount Kerr and Mount Henry are visible to the left of Pyramid Mountain.

Pyramid Mountain

The road was gated at the north end. A couple of trails disappeared into the woods, but large puddles at the entrance and the swarm of mosquitoes that had already gathered around us deterred us from entering the woods. We took a walk along the gravel road beyond the gate, which parallels Pyramid Lake until it crosses a stream. I thought the stream might be a good place to find some birds and dragonflies, so we set off into the sunny morning.

Road along Pyramid Lake

It quickly grew hot, but the mosquitoes still continued to swarm around us so I didn’t dare take off my long-sleeved jacket. We saw a few darners hunting along the road, but none ventured close enough to relieve us of our persistent entourage. A few wildflowers grew next to the road, and I began to see some butterflies. When I spotted this one flying quite low to the ground, my first thought was that it was a new species for me; something I had never seen before. It looked like an Arctic Skipper (Carterocephalus palaemon), a species I normally see in the spring in Ottawa, but was too big. Arctic Skippers are tiny….so tiny that I am always amazed by just how small they are when I first see them in the spring. When I checked the John Acorn book “Butterflies of Alberta”, however, it said that the Arctic Skipper was distinctive and might only be confused with one of the checkered skippers, none of which are orange.

Carterocephalus mandan

Although I had misgivings, I labelled it as an Arctic Skipper. Then, in a discussion with Ross Layberry, he advised that Norbert Kondla had theorized that there were two or three similar species in Alberta. While there is only one species of Carterocephalus in North America according to “The Butterflies of Canada” (the Old World species palaemon, subspecies mandan), DNA work suggests otherwise, and Norbert Kondla and others have identified visual differences as well. Ross sent Norbert my photos, and Norbert Kondla stated my butterfly was not an Arctic Skipper, but Carterocephalus mandan.

Carterocephalus mandan

Further along the road we encountered a couple of sulphurs and a fritillary. The sulphurs seemed quite orange in flight compared to the ones in Ontario, so I stopped to photograph them whenever they sat still long enough. Sulphurs rarely perch with their wings open, so all I saw was the underside of their wings. If they did, I would have seen the diagnostic bright yellow patch at the base of the wings and a large, orange band along the outer two-thirds of the Christina Sulphur.

Christina Sulphur

Another sulphur that I saw was the Clouded Sulphur. This is a common butterfly in Ontario, with no orange on the upperside of its wings. It has a double spot on the hindwing and a series of small black dots near the wing edge.

Clouded Sulphur

We heard a few birds on our walk, but only saw them as small shapes fluttering among the treetops. Dark-eyed Juncos and Golden-crowned Kinglets were singing and foraging for food, while a Common Raven called in the distance. A Red Squirrel chattered at us as we walked by, but we saw no other mammals.

When a dragonfly landed on the road in front of us, I became interested. Darners and emeralds do not perch on the ground, so I knew it was either a clubtail or a skimmer. A look through the binoculars revealed a stunning pale green and yellow beauty; the widely-spaced blue eyes identified it as a clubtail, but the pattern reminded me of a female Common Pondhawk.

Pale Snaketail

This was a terrific find, as the checklist I was using for Alberta (Field Checklist of Dragonflies and Damselflies of Alberta, Montana, and Wyoming) indicates that only four species of clubtail are resident in Alberta: Pronghorn Clubtail, Boreal Snaketail, Pale Snaketail, and Brimstone Clubtail. That made identifying this dragonfly relatively easy as a Pale Snaketail, a species that is found only in the west.

Pale Snaketail

Shortly after photographing the snaketail we reached the creek.

The view from the creek mouth was beautiful; looking back the way we came we could see Pyramid Lake in front of Pyramid Mountain. While we were standing there taking in the view, three female Common Mergansers flew in and landed on the water.

Pyramid Lake

I spotted another Pale Snaketail resting on the gravel by the bridge and spent some time trying to photograph it. You can see the colours better in this photo: the pale blue eyes, green thorax, and black and yellow abdomen.

Pale Snaketail

At that point Doran and I turned around and walked back to the parking lot. The map we were using didn’t show where the trail went, but if we had kept walking we would have reached the Palisade Lookout in 9 kilometres.

On the way back I spotted a duskywing butterfly. When I checked John Acorn’s “Butterflies of Alberta”, I learned that there are only three duskywing species in Alberta: Afranius only occurs in the southern part of the province along the U.S. border, and Dreamy (a species I am familiar with in Ottawa) lacks the white spots along the forewing. This left Persius Duskywing, which was later confirmed for me by Ross Layberry. Duskywings are part of the skipper family; interestingly, the only two skippers I saw on my trip were both located on the road to the Palisade Lookout.

Persius Duskywing

This Greenish Blue butterfly was smaller than the duskywing, and looked a lot like the blues we have back home. The small black bar on the upper forewings helped me to identify this western butterfly. Although the Greenish Blue was the most common blue that I saw on my trip, none of them appeared greenish to me.

Greenish Blue

On our way back to our cabin we stopped in at Pyramid Island. The island is accessible by a footbridge, and was to be the location of my sister’s wedding on Saturday. There is a short loop trail on the island, and we walked around it without seeing much other than a couple of baby Ruby-crowned Kinglets being fed by a parent and another fritillary. The scenery was breathtaking.

Pyramid Island

The only dragonflies I saw near the lake were a few large darners skimming above the water. I’d have thought there would have been more with the emergent vegetation near the shore.

Pyramid Lake

Although there were more bugs (both biting and non-biting) than birds, we both enjoyed our walk. Pyramid Lake is a beautiful spot; no wonder so many people choose to get married here!

Pyramid Lake

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