Alberta 2012: A Quiet Evening

Black-billed Magpie

After our trip to Hinton we spent a quiet afternoon at our cabin. I spent an hour or so trying to identify the bugs I photographed in Hinton but wasn’t making much progress, so I decided to walk around the Pine Bungalows property to see if I could get some better photos of the Mountain Chickadees. However, when I heard a couple of Black-billed Magpies calling from somewhere nearby, I went looking for these birds instead as they are not as common in Jasper as they are in Sherwood Park. I knew they had been hanging out somewhere along the road beyond the laundry, and it didn’t take me long to find four of them, perhaps a family group, foraging on the ground beneath the trees.

The light was perfect to set off the beautiful blue tones of their feathers. Ranging from teal through purple, the iridescent colours of the Black-billed Magpie makes it one of the most beautiful corvids in North America.

Black-billed Magpie

The Black-billed Magpie is a common resident of open woodlands and thickets in the foothills. It nests along watercourses and other areas with trees and shrubs, but feeds in open areas. This species is not migratory, but may occasionally wander during the post-breeding season. They are found year-round from Alaska and the Yukon Territory in the north, southeast to Kansas, and northeast to the Rainy River district of Ontario near the Manitoba border. While the Black-billed Magpie population has declined throughout the Great Plains due to the slaughter of bison and targeted eradication, this species is adapting and can now be found in many suburban areas. Although they are protected in the United States, they are not in Canada where they are still killed in some areas as pests.

Black-billed Magpie

After leaving the magpies I made my way to the river, where I found this beautiful Western Wood Lily growing near the water. A fritillary fluttered along and landed inside the lily, but I was too slow with my camera to capture the moment.

Western Wood Lily

Then I startled a large bird foraging in the grass next to the trail. It flew up and landed in a tree close by, showing off its flashy white rump. At first when I realized it was a Northern Flicker, I didn’t think anything of it as this is a common species in Ontario during the summer. However, I quickly changed my mind when I saw a flash of red feathers and hurried over to take some pictures. There are two subspecies of flickers in North America. While the Yellow-shafted Flicker is common in the east, Red-shafted Flickers are found only in the west. The Yellow-shafted Flicker (Colaptes auratus) has yellow under the tail and underwings, yellow shafts on its primaries, and a red bar at the nape of its neck. Male Yellow-shafted Flickers also have a black mustache. The Red-shafted Flicker (Colaptes auratus cafer) has red under the tail and underwings, red shafts on its primaries, and lacks the red bar at the nape of its neck. Males have a red mustache.

Originally considered separate species, these two subspecies are known to interbreed where their ranges overlap and are now considered one species by the American Ornithologists Union. One of my goals for Alberta was to find a some of the different subspecies of common eastern birds (such as the “Oregon” Dark-eyed Junco and “Audubon’s” Yellow-rumped Warbler) in case these subspecies are ever split into full-fledged species in themselves. I’d already found an Oregon Junco; now I had a Red-shafted Flicker!

Northern Flicker (Red-shafted)

From there I decided to take a walk up the main road to the highway. I’d noticed some flowers growing along the roadside and wanted to check them out for butterflies. There I found a Four-spotted Skimmer hunting in the vegetation next to the road (the only one from my trip) and a couple of Long-horned Beetles in the yarrow. Although I’m not sure which species these beetles are, I thought their yellow colours were quite pretty.

Long-horned Beetle

Long-horned Beetles Mating

I also chanced upon a few Mountain Chickadees but wasn’t able to get close enough to take any photos. They completely ignored my attempts to draw them in, instead flitting away to the tallest branches of the conifers growing in the area. I gave up and returned to the roadside, where this fritillary – identified for me by Ross Layberry as a Northwestern Fritillary – proved to be more cooperative, sipping nectar from these delicate flowers. This species is found mostly in dry open meadows and hillsides in the prairies and dry open forests of aspen, spruce, fir, and Douglas-fir in the aspen parkland and British Columbia. According to the Butterflies of Canada online, the Northwestern Fritillary is a relatively small fritillary, with a bright orange upperside and thinner black markings than most fritillaries. The wing margins are usually orange, not filled with black, while the underside of the hindwing is a washed-out reddish brown with the colour appearing uneven, tending to be concentrated in patches around the silver spots; the pale-yellowish submarginal band is wide. I was just happy to have photographed the underside of this butterfly showing its distinctive reddish colour.

Northwestern Fritillary (Speyeria hesperis)

After dinner Doran and I went for a walk along one of the trails leading to Lac Beauvert. I had wanted to hike the Valley of Five Lakes trail, but our map was misleading and we ended up at the Old Fort Point Summit trail instead.

View from Pine Bungalows Entrance

The trail offered little of interest and was flooded in parts due to the heavy rainfall earlier in the month. The mosquitoes were bad, too, so we just walked up to Lac Beauvert then turned around. A couple of sulphurs caught my attention, including this Queen Alexandra’s Sulphur resting on the ground. The Queen Alexandra’s Sulphur (Colias Alexandra) can usually be identified using a combination of the following traits: the hindwing underside is quite greenish with no row of dark spots; the hindwing underside has an unbordered, silver discal spot; and the upperside is bright, cold-yellow with no trace of orange. It is one of the larger sulphurs, with a wingspan of about 42-57 mm.

Queen Alexandra’s Sulphur

Although there were plenty of flowers near the parking lot, I didn’t see any butterflies nectaring on them.

At Lac Beauvert we saw the Jasper Park Lodge across the water. A couple of people were canoeing across the beautiful green lake, while a pair of loons swam away from them. The only other birds I noticed were some Chipping Sparrows along the trail, and a Northern Flicker calling somewhere in the woods.

Lac Beauvert

We headed back to our cabin after that, ready for what the next day would bring!


2 thoughts on “Alberta 2012: A Quiet Evening

    • Thanks Suzanne! These guys were as common as crows and just about as easy to photograph. If you think about that, good photos of crows aren’t all that easy to get because they are cagey and don’t allow you to approach too closely, and the light has to be right to capture any depth or detail of their plumage. I was quite happy to get these photos of the magpies!

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