Alberta 2012: Last Days in Jasper

Great Horned Owl

Our last two full days in Jasper were busy with family. My sister’s wedding was on Saturday, and most of the guests were arriving Friday. I awoke at 5:30 a.m. on Friday to the sound of something walking on the roof and several crows and a magpie squawking loudly. The footsteps sounded heavier than the Red Squirrels I’d seen sitting up there, so I decided to get up and investigate. It was already growing light, but when I went outside to check I didn’t see anything. A moment later I heard the crows rush off and land in a nearby tree. I followed, and was startled to see a young Great Horned Owl sitting in a tree right about eye level!

Although it was just as large as an adult, I knew it was a young bird because its head was still pale and it lacked fully developed “horns”. A second owl was also in the area; I caught a glimpse of it flying off with the crows in hot pursuit, still shrieking in alarm. I was left alone with this juvenile, who watched me warily before flying off to another perch.

Great Horned Owl

After that I went back to bed to catch some more sleep.

Later that morning, I was walking along the river when I noticed this fledgling Dark-eyed Junco on the path, eating the seeds of a dandelion. We very rarely see juvenile Dark-eyed Juncos in Ottawa, as they breed much further north and west in coniferous forests. Though it doesn’t look anything like the adult it will become, it has the same pink bill.

Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco fledgling

After breakfast Doran and I returned to Cottonwood Slough on Pyramid Lake Road. It was recommended to us by the people at the Information Center our first day in Jasper, and I had read online that it is supposed to be excellent for birdwatching – though few of the websites I’ve found provide any details as to just what makes it such a good birding spot. A relatively short trail circles the slough, passing through a montane forest, so I thought it would be good for water and woodland species, if not any of the western specialties I was hoping to find.

Cottonwood Slough

The first thing we noticed upon our arrival was the bugs. As soon as we got out of the car, the mosquitoes descended upon us in force. Fortunately there were a few dragonflies around to help combat them, though none followed us around like the friendly Racket-tailed Emeralds and Chalk-fronted Corporals back home. I was pleased to come across a male Hudsonian Whiteface resting in the vegetation. This is a species I don’t often see in Ottawa, and I was thrilled to finally get a decent photo of one.

Hudsonian Whiteface

I was able to photograph another whiteface a little further along the trail, this one a probable Crimson-ringed Whiteface. A few darners were hunting along the trail as well, but as they didn’t land I was unable to identify any of them.

Probable Crimson-ringed Whiteface

The trail on the south side of the slough was not terribly productive for birds. It traveled through fairly dense forest at first, with a few side trails leading to the water. I heard one Song Sparrow and a couple of Common Yellowthroats singing in the vegetation surrounding the slough and saw one female Ring-necked Duck on the water. We came across a couple of clearings in the forest, and in one such clearing I heard a bird singing that I didn’t recognize. It refused to show itself, so I had no clue as to what it was.

Toward the back of the loop the trail crosses over two creeks. At the second one we startled a large toad sitting on the bank beneath the bridge. It plopped into the water without giving me a chance to raise my camera.

Cottonwood Slough Trail

There were more birds on the northern side of the slough. I recognized the song of a Swainson’s Thrush spiralling up into the trees, and was pleased when I actually saw two among the trees. As I only see these birds in Ottawa during migration, it was a treat to hear and see the Swainson’s Thrushes on their breeding territory. A tailless Lincoln’s Sparrow chipping at me from the undergrowth was another happy surprise. I also saw a couple of Least Flycatchers, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, two Yellow-rumped Warblers (both with the white throats of the Myrtle subspecies), a robin, a Chipping Sparrow, and three ravens. We heard several Pine Siskins flying over and the mournful call of a Common Loon.

The trail rose in elevation until we were well above the slough. From this vantage point I saw seven mallards, a couple of unidentified ducks, and a muskrat swimming in the water. I also saw some blackbirds fly into the reeds at the water’s edge but couldn’t identify them at that distance. A couple of riders on horseback passed us on the trail, and from the amount of manure present on the north trail we guessed that it was popular with riders. There seemed to be fewer dragonflies in this area, though I did spot an emerald with bright green eyes flitting about a wooded area.

Cottonwood Slough

From the top of the hill the trail proceeds down into an open deciduous area. We found some wildflowers here and with them a couple of fritillaries.

Great-spangled Fritillary

We had to walk along the road to get back to the parking lot on Pyramid Lake Road, and on the way we saw a few Cedar Waxwings and three juvenile Bufflehead ducks swimming in the water. The Cottonwood Slough area is beautiful, and it would have been a wonderful outing had there been more birds and if we hadn’t been too busy slapping away the mosquitoes. They were particularly bad on the trail south of the slough, where clouds of the bloodthirsty insects drove us to near insanity.

On Saturday we returned to Pyramid Island for my sister’s wedding. The sky was overcast, and there was a cool wind blowing off the lake, but at least it kept the mosquitoes at bay! The ceremony was lovely, though short, and then it was off to the Jasper Park Lodge for the photographs. A funny thing happened on the way there – the wedding party was traveling in a caravan of about six or seven cars, and one of the party in the lead car had brought his three- or four-year-old son. On the road to the lodge, the boy urgently needed to answer a call of nature, so the caravan pulled over on the side of the road while he pulled down his pants and relieved himself a few steps from the car. Well, several cars and a tour bus driving in the opposite direction mistook our caravan for a “bear jam” and, hoping to spot a wild animal, pulled over as well! I’m sure they were all perplexed as to why so many people had stopped to watch a little boy urinating.

Sadly, the next day we had to leave. On our way to my sister’s hotel we stopped at the “Welcome to Jasper” sign at the north end of town to take some photos.

Welcome sign

While Doran was taking a few pictures of the sign, I spotted a dragonfly resting on the ground. I was happy when I recognized it as a Variegated Meadowhawk.

Variegated Meadowhawk

After eating breakfast with my sister and the remaining wedding guests, Doran and I began our journey south through the park to Calgary, where we would catch our flight home the following morning. We weren’t in a rush, and stopped at the Valley of the Five Lakes for a quick walk when we saw the trail sign.

Valley of the Five Lakes Trail

The trail proceeds through a lodgepole pine forest before crossing Wabasso Creek. We saw a vole dart across the path and a chipmunk scurrying about; although he didn’t sit still long enough to get a great photo of him, I was able to identify him as a Least Chipmunk.

Least Chipmunk

The trail descends to Wabasso Creek before rising again and circling the five lakes. Although beavers are supposed to reside here, I didn’t see any. Of course, it was too late in the morning for them to be active. I did hear an interesting bird singing in the wet thickets in and around the water but wasn’t able to locate it. This was the second birdsong I heard that I didn’t recognize.

Boardwalk over Wabasso Creek

There were some good views of the surrounding mountains along the trail. I took a couple of photos of Whistlers Mountain with the upper tramway station visible on top.

Jasper Tramway station on Whistlers Mountain

In this picture you can see just how precariously the tramway station perches on top of the mountain and how steep the ascent to the summit really is!

Whistlers Mountain

On other other side of the boardwalk the trail passes an open field full of wildflowers. I spotted a Mormon Fritillary nectaring on some yellow flowers and a Long-horned Beetle feeding on some yarrow.

Mormon Fritillary

Long-horned Beetle

A couple of Black-capped Chickadees and Yellow-rumped Warblers were flitting about in the trees on the slope leading away from the creek. These were the only birds I was able to identify; I also saw a thrush in the dense vegetation on top of the ridge but didn’t get a long enough look to identify it. Given that we didn’t have a lot of time, we only walked around one of the five lakes. It was small, and I didn’t see any waterfowl. If we had had more time I would have loved to walk around all five lakes as this is supposed to be one of the better trails for seeing bears and wildlife. One thing I noticed about Jasper National Park is that there aren’t really any short trails!

The only dragonflies I noticed on our walk were some darners. I was able to find only one perching; unfortunately he is facing the wrong way for me to identify him. I love the colour of his eyes.

Aeshna sp.

We returned to the car, and continued on our way south on the Icefields Parkway. More photos to come!

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