Autumn colours at the Larch Sanctuary

Last weekend, I joined some fellow EALT volunteers for the Volunteer Appreciation get-together and hike through Larch Sanctuary. Most, including Google Maps, know the natural space as Mactaggart Sanctuary (and, there’s even a sign calling it Mactaggart), but it is, in fact, Larch Sanctuary.

It’s a beautiful area and well worth the bus trip. There are lots of trails maintained only by their regular use, dense trees, friendly fellow hikers, and wildlife (we saw a hawk flying high above us and plenty of squirrels and birds). And, if you’re looking for a good workout, this is a good place to start. We were only there for a 1.5 hour meander, and we still did the equivalent of 34 floors (according to my Fitbit).

Oh, and, it’s officially autumn. Edmonton mostly turns a dusty yellow in the autumn, because we lack the glorious tree and shrub species I’m used to from back home, but there was still a fair amount of colour at the Larch Sanctuary. I’ll definitely be going back again.

Spider web
Autumn colours
Caught in the web
Autumn colours
Autumn colours
Ox bow lake
Autumn colours

Data collection with EALT

This weekend I assisted with data collection at the Edmonton Area Land Trust’s newest property, Boisvert’s Greenwood (for those not familiar with French, that’s Greenwood’s Greenwood, ha!). It’s a lovely forested area surrounded by farmer’s fields and virtually untouched, aside from a dugout, a few buildings, a trail, and a patio by the dugout. The donor’s husband had used it as a little get-away and kept it mostly untouched (he didn’t even allow hunting on it).

Our task was two-fold:

  • Feed the local mosquito population (seriously! I don’t remember the last time I used as much bug spray or got as badly bitten)
  • Gather information about the property (plant and animal species, as well as a few GPS marked reference photos)

I was in charge of noting the GPS locations for reference photos and a few landmarks. I also helped with plant identification and took a bunch of pictures (technically, they were for myself, but I always share them on EALT’s Flickr group pool).

It was a really nice day, but the humidity and thick undergrowth (which hide all the fallen trees) made walking through the property difficult and tiring work, once we veered off the trail. Worst was when we were passing a particularly wet spot where the mosquitoes were out in full force. We all stopped to reapply copious amounts of bug repellent, which mostly helped. In the end, we hiked about 8 km and gathered lots of useful information. Also, I took a whole bunch of pictures. Here are a few. The rest can be found at the bottom of my EALT Flickr album.

Horsetail & unknown shrub (?)
Northern Pearl Crescent (ID not verified)
Macoun's buttercup

Weeding for wildlife with EALT

I had another field day with the Edmonton Area Land Trust (EALT) this weekend. This time, we headed to Golden Ranches. It started of as a bit of a chilly day with thick clouds overhead, but once we got working, we warmed up and eventually the sun came out in full force (luckily, it came with a stiff, cool breeze to keep us from getting too hot).

We started in a location that I thought looked familiar, but it took me a few minutes to remember where we were. We were in the same location that I helped weed late last summer. At the time, I had estimated that the tansy patch was about half the size of my apartment. That’s a lot of tansy! And, what a difference! There was still lots of tansy, but much less then there was last year. And, the parts that we cleared (we only got about half of it done last year) had much smaller and younger patches of tansy. It was really gratifying to see the improvement we made.

Tansy, in case I haven’t told you a million times, is an invasive species and one of the main weeding targets at the EALT sites I’ve worked on so far. Tansy is also smelly and a pain in the neck to weed. This early in the season, we only have to worry about pulling the plants as the seed heads haven’t even started to form, yet. After a day of pulling tansy by hand, my hands are red and sore (despite wearing good protective gloves), the muscles in my forearms and shoulders are sore, and I look like I got in a fight with a kitten.

I was wearing long sleeves, but in the warm sun, I pulled my sleeves back. The stalks of tansy are tough and dried out after the winter. When weeding the plants, they tend to get tangled in your hair and poke you in the eye if you don’t break them off. But, then you get your arms scratched up like I did.

Ah, well. It was worth it. We got a lot of work done.

We also saw a lot of cool things, including a cluster of the same mystery red insects I saw at another site last week. The insects, for the record, look to be nymphs of a the stink bug (identification provided by a member of the Albertabugs listserv). Someone also found a deer skull. It was larger than the one I found at the other site last week and there was some discussion regarding whether or not this might be a moose skull, but after a bit of searching and using this skull supplier’s webpage as a reference, I’m fairly confident that this is a deer.

(Click each picture for a much bigger and better copy on Flickr. It’s worth it, especially for the damselfly picture.)

Damselfly, possibly Taiga Bluet
Possible nymphs of a hemipteran (see description)
Wild vetch
Canada anemone
Cocoon, species unknown
Large deer skull

Weeding for wildlife with EALT

This weekend I went out for my first field day of the summer with the Edmonton Area Land Trust (EALT). We headed out to the Glory Hills property to weed invasive species (specifically Canadian Thistle and Common Tansy). This is the first property I visited last year and it was a mess. There was a lot that had to be weeded and large sections of the pond’s shoreline was weed-whacked (seems extreme, I know, but anything to stunt the invasive species is helpful). Later in the year, they ended up doing a controlled spray because there was so much tansy.

It seemed a lot better this year, which was really gratifying to see. It helps drive home the fact that our hard work helps. By cutting down (or, better yet, pulling out) the tansy and thistle now, we’re either reducing the amount of individual plants in the area or reducing the likelihood of them growing to maturity and spreading more seed.

It’s a beautiful area and it was full of life. There was bird song from every direction, including various song birds, red-winged black birds, and loons. I even saw some ducklings swimming to their mother (and then saw seagulls diving at them and carrying off one of the ducklings – circle of life and all, but still sad to see). In one area on the the little peninsula, the trees were thick with at least 2-3 species of bees buzzing  overhead in the willows. We saw plenty of evidence (read: poo) of rabbits and deer, and I even found a deer skull.

There were big spiders scurrying in the dried grasses and at least 3 species of recently hatched spiders. A multitude of beetles were crawling all over the plants, including one that was clearly feeling the effects of spring (we saw dozens of couples mating). And, I found what I thought were very new ladybugs, but in retrospect I was just being dumb (bugs don’t grow the same way that people do) and when I got home and was able to zoom in, they clearly weren’t ladybugs. They appear to be some sort of beetle, but I haven’t figured out what they are, yet.

And, stinging nettle. OMG, that damned stinging nettle. It was so uncomfortable, but it appears that washing the affected area (my forearms) and treating them with our friend Solarcain will appease the stinging nettle gods. If you’re never suffered through stinging nettle, it’s like being constantly stung by tiny invisible jellyfish over and over again. It does not go away until you treat it.

Irregular leaves
Deer skull
Mystery beetle
Mating season

Animal tracking with EALT

This weekend I joined EALT on a morning of animal tracking and snowshoeing at their Pipestone Creek property. Unfortunately, we were also looking for evidence of off-road vehicle use (which is prohibited, as the property is protected and only meant for foot traffic). We were lucky, because the snow was deep, but mostly crusted over with the recent thaws and freezes. But, we also had some snow at the end of last week, so we were able to see fresh tracks.

We started finding tracks almost immediately and even had one animal encounter, when a vole, disrupted by all of us noisy humans, scurried across one volunteer’s showshoes.

Most of the tracks we saw where rabbits, mice, voles, squirrels, various canine species (coyotes and dogs, which people bring with them on hike through the property), and a deer. We also saw a few raven tracks and heard the occasiona bird. But, we didn’t see much wildlife as we were too noisy (it’s really hard to be quiet while snowshoeing on crunchy snow). And, we saw lots of trails down near the creek, but we weren’t able to get close enough to see if it was people trails or deer trails (probably both). Unfortunately, we also saw that off-road vehicles were being used along the creek, so we know some people aren’t aware of the restrictions.

The snowshoeing itself was great. Except for a few places, the snoe was strong enough to support us, but there were some areas where a number of us had trouble. All I can say is that walking in knee deep snow in snowshoes is really hard, especially when you don’t know when you will or will not break through the snow. I tripped a couple times and did some yogi worth lunges on occasion in the process.

Bird (possibly a raven)
Quiet field
Rabbit and mouse
Possible squirrel tracks

Christmas Bird Count 2013

This year I participated in the Christmas Bird Count (2013 results not posted yet). Contrary to its title, it does not happen on Christmas Day, it just happens around Christmas. I have limited knowledge of the different bird species and can only pinpoint a handful of species with any degree of certainty (black-capped chickadees, blue jays, etc.), but I figured it would be worthwhile to just go ahead and try it out, especially as I knew I could be pared up with some birders. I did use a list of bird species seen in Edmonton in the winter (City of Edmonton Bird Checklist, by the Edmonton Nature Club; notes frequency by season, etc.) to review some of the birds that I might see, but most of it didn’t stick. So, other than being pretty good at spotting and counting birds, I wasn’t a huge amount of help.

Fortunately, the person I was with, Doug, is an experienced birder and was able to at least narrow down the birds to a small collection of possible species, which made it easy for me to whip out my book and confirm our guesses.

It was a nice way to spend a Sunday morning. The weather was lovely, though the sidewalks and trails were a bit icy from the previous day’s freezing rain. We didn’t see a huge number of birds, but we did see a couple cool ones.

Here’s what we saw:

  • Black-capped Chickadees
  • Ravens (pretending to be crows)
  • Pigeons
  • Blue Jays
  • House Sparrows
  • A White-Breasted Nuthatch
  • A female Downy Woodpecker
  • Pine Grosbeak

I can’t help thinking that I’m missing a species.

Doug also helps with bird banding in warmer weather and offered to let me know when they head out so that I can join them. I’m ridiculously excited about the idea of helping as it would involve holding live wee birds in my hands! Stephanie, from EALT, also mentioned owl banding (possibly Northern Saw-whet Owl – which are damned cute! – but I didn’t think to write it down at the moment) where you get to hold an owl. I might die of cuteness overload!

I should mention that it was Stephanie who told me about the Christmas Bird Count. She’s been a great source of information and volunteer opportunities.

Female Downy Woodpecker
Male Pine Grosbeak
White-breasted Nuthatcher

Not a bird, obviously, but I thought I’d share. We have a whack of Jack Rabbits in the area. 

Bathroom break!

And, here is an out of focus picture of me pretending to look like a proper birder (check out the old school teal bathroom paint!).

Pipestone Creek

I was out with EALT again, last weekend. This time we went to Pipestone Creek, which is at the North-West end of Coal Lake. We were installing signs to let people know where the restoration areas were (i.e., where the baby trees are) and that they aren’t allowed to use off-highway vehicles (snowmobiles, 4-wheelers, etc.). The property is open to the public for day use, as are all of the EALT properties. In order to maintain it and avoid further damage, only foot traffic is allowed.

The property isn’t huge, but there are a lot of really lovely views to stop and admire. It’s a beautiful area, even at this awkward time of year, when plants are dead or dying, but there’s still a lot of green around to make all the dead things look really pathetic.

My one regret is not taking more care when I took pictures. There was a blazing yellow sun that made a lot of the pictures I took look kind of crappy, which is too bad because there were some beautiful views overlooking the creek.

Blazing sun and thistle


Aspen grove

Autumn colours

One last field day*

*By “last”, I really mean the last one of the summer, if you think that summer ends when school starts (I prefer to think that summer extends at least a little bit into September). We’ll probably have at least one more day out in September and may even have a day or two more in the fall. Also, we’re having a volunteer appreciation nature walk this week, which will be fun.

Anyway, I joined a small team of other people to help with winding up barbed wire (which is dangerous for wildlife – something I explained in my last post) at the EALT‘s Glory Hills site. It’s a beautiful site, but so, so, so overridden with tansy and Canadian thistle, which are invasive species that EALT is (slowly) trying to get rid of. Where possible, EALT tries to use the slow process of cutting back weeds each year to get rid of them. The theory is that if we make it hard for them to thrive and spread (example: by cutting off the flower heads so that seeds can’t spread), the weeds won’t thrive and the native species will find it easier to take over. At another site, this has meant that we cut and bagged flower heads, and then pulled the plants out (as much as possible – though sometimes we had to admit defeat and just cut them as close to the ground as possible). In other cases, we’ve had someone with a weed whacker mowing down large stands of the weeds. Both these help, because the plants don’t have enough time to recover and seed before the end of the season. So, if nothing else, they don’t spread as much. It’s a small victory, but it’s safer for the plant and animal species in the area.

Glory Hills is, as I said, suffering with a few too many weeds. Because of this, spot pesticide spraying was done (this means that they targeted the weeds and tried to avoid other plants). So, there are some pesticides in the area, but the whole property wasn’t inundated with pesticides (as is often the case in commercial spaces). It’s unfortunate to have to use pesticides, but sometimes it’s the only way to get a handle on an invasive species problem, especially when resources (staff and volunteers) are limited. And, in the grand scheme of things, it should help (the tansy was already looking pretty sickly) and it was only a small portion of the whole property (very small).

The rest of the property is thriving and the whole property is full of life: plants and wildlife abound. EALT has some infra-red sensor cameras on the property (funded by the ACA), which have already taken pictures of a few deer (including fawns) and which might have some new gems (we swapped the cards this weekend, and one had a lot of pictures on it … hopefully not just blurry night time pictures or more deer butts). And, I took my camera with me to catch a few pictures of all the lovely plants and bugs and such.

Unknown mushroom




Burdock (non-native)

Burdock (non-native)


Spotted touch-me not

Spotted touch-me not

More volunteering

I’ve been volunteering with the Edmonton Area Land Trust (EALT) all summer (missing only one site management day and one farmer’s market booth day) and each time I head out with them, I end up having a great day and getting a few pictures. Not to say that it isn’t hard work, because it can be (essentially, it’s as hard as you want it to be, which for me, generally means that I end up sweaty, exhausted, and thoroughly impressed with my ability to get that much done). Earlier in August, we headed back to their Golden Ranches property. I think I mentioned before that there is a bunch of property there that’s jointly managed. EALT has the majority share of 3 lots, but there are 10 lots all together (this PDF  shows the lots) and they are managed by: Strathcona County, the Beaver Hills Initiative, the Alberta Fish & Game Association, the Alberta Conservation Association, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, and Ducks Unlimited.

The first time we went there, the fields were full of flowers in full bloom, which meant that the lot was buzzing with activity (butterflies, bees, and birds galore). It was a little less lively this time, as it’s later in the year and part of the lot is still hayed (something that will continue for another few years). It was much easier to get around as we didn’t have to fight through ankle deep tangles of alfalfa the whole time. Instead, we only had to fight thought plants at the sections we were working in: waist high thistle and grasses nearly 6 feet tall. For the record, walking through waist high thistle is no fun, even with thick jeans on.

This time I got to flex a few leadership muscles by helping the coordinator with the safety talk (her poor throat gave up near the end) and leading a small team to a giant patch of tansy to weed, while she managed the group dealing with the barbed wire fences. This was all because I’ve been out with them a few times, so she knew that I knew what I was doing. The one thing I neglected to do was to take pictures of the giant patch of tansy before we tackled it and after we’d fought with it for a few hours. It was huge. I’m pretty sure it was at least 300 square feet / 27 square meters (which is about half the size of my one bedroom apartment). We managed to cut the flower heads off and pull out about a third to one half of the plants. We cut the heads off to prevent seeds being distributed, and we ended up with 2 full garbage bags of just flowers. It was pretty impressive.

In the afternoon, we helped the team working on the fences. Barbed wire fences are dangerous for wildlife (and people) because they can get caught up in it: it’s hard to see and the barbs will catch. According to EALT staff, loads of animals die because of barbed wire. She mentioned that a study in the US suggested that something ridiculous like one animal (ungulates?) per every four miles of barbed wire fencing dies each year (don’t quote me on this – yesterday was a long day, so I may not be remembering what she said perfectly). Even if only half that many died each year, that’s still a hell of a lot of unnecessary deaths. The standard is that the fence should be no taller than 40 inches (so deer and such can jump over them, even when running for safety) and no shorter than 18 inches (to let fawns and other smaller critters pass under it). For some of the EALT sites, they’re trying to remove *all* of the barbed wire (the posts can stay) and at others they are focusing on removing the top and bottom strands.

Anyway, it was a good day, made better by the fact that the coordinator was nice enough to drop me off at the nearest transit center when we got back to the city.

Canadian Thistle

Canadian thistle: an invasive species, but a lower priority at Golden Ranches, so we mostly ignored it

Purpler aster

Purple aster, a personal favourite

Barbed wire fence is a hazard, so we were removing the wire

Barbed wire fence


Grasses that were taller than me


Grasshopper … who was far too ware of me and kept trying to not be photographed by circling the tansy stem or hiding behind leaves)

Weeding for Wildlife

Yesterday, I volunteered with the Edmonton Area Land Trust (EALT) to help with a Weeding for Wildlife / Wind up the Wire event. We went to their Golden Ranches property, which is jointly managed by a number of organizations, including the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

Path through the field

Weeding for Wildlife involves removing invasive plant species to stop them from taking over and to allow native species to thrive. We were focusing on removing some patches of tansy. The organization had already surveyed the area, so we knew where to go. It was just a matter of taking off any flower heads (to be bagged and removed from the site, to avoid spreading seeds) and then pulling the plants (roots and all, if possible). Wind up the Wire involves removing old barbed wire fences, which can block free wildlife movement. The staples/nails attaching the wire and the wire must be removed from the site because they are dangerous: wildlife can get tangled in the wire or cut on the rusty barbs. Neither job is particularly easy, but it’s really great being out of the city, in a natural habitat and doing something that makes a difference. Of interest to nerdy people, there were also two extra volunteers who are plant experts: they were identifying grasses and sedges to ensure a complete record of the plant species on the property.

Blue-eyed grass

Blue-eyed grass

I helped with the weeding, because I love plants and, frankly, I couldn’t remember if my tetanus was up to date or not (working with rusty barbed wire without up to date tetanus would be a mistake; I checked when I got home, and my shots are up to date). On the way to the first patches we wanted to tackle, we saw a doe, so we had to be careful to watch for a hiding fawn (the doe hides the fawn while she’s out foraging), as we don’t want to disturbed the wildlife. We didn’t see any fawn, but, while doing data collection in June, the EALT staff found a fawn; they took a quite picture, but left it undisturbed. Later, we walked to another patch of tansy on the other side of the property. It involved walking through tangled alfalfa and other flowers, which was really hard on the legs.

Alfalfa, and White / Dutch, purple and Sweet clovers

Alfalfa, and White / Dutch, purple and Sweet clovers

Frankly, I’m surprised that my legs aren’t really sore this morning. It’s a beautiful field, but it’s hard work trudging through it. Nonetheless, we got a fair amount of work done. We had to leave one cluster of tansy because we found a swallow nest with chicks. The whole point of this work is to support wildlife and native plants, so we always leave nests undisturbed, as much as possible.

Baby sparrows (we made sure they were left undisturbed)

Baby sparrows (we made sure they were left undisturbed)

It’s work, sometimes even hard work, but it’s so great getting out of the city (especially as I rarely leave the city because I don’t have a car) and spend sometime in natural areas. The projects are long term – the wire may be removed permanently, but plants spread so weeding will be a long term project. But, that’s ok because every bit we remove now is a little less, which means native species can thrive. And, in the meantime, look at all the amazing and beautiful things we saw: butterflies, flowers, and baby birds.

Greenish Blue Butterfly

Greenish Blue Butterfly (sitting on the developing tansy flower heads I wanted to bag – I had to give it a few gentle nudges before it was willing to fly off)

We also spent the day listening to bird calls and songs, including a Red-Tailed Hawk (who doesn’t love the sound of a hawk!), sparrows (I can’t remember which we heard, but it sounded a bit like Nelson’s Sharp-Tailed Sparrow – one of the other volunteers, a birder, explained the difference between their calls, but I don’t recall the details), etc. We even saw some adorable Bufflehead ducklings.

unknown butterfly

unknown butterfly

At the end of the day, I had a chance to visit a store that I didn’t even know existed until I looked up out meeting spot (we car pool to the sites): The Wildbird General Store. It’s an amazing little treasure, especially if you love birds. They have: seeds of all sorts; bird (and bat) houses; bird themed gifts; bird magazines, and books, CDs, and DVDs; birding gear (hats, binoculars, etc.). I’m not planning on becoming a birder any time soon, but I like the idea of being able to identify birds I see (especially if I get pictures of them and post them online), so I took the opportunity to ask for advice about bird books for beginners. I left with 2 bird books, a plant book, a pamphlet about a local nature group they thought I might be interested in, and a magazine they gave me as a gift “for stopping by”. If you have even the slightest interest in birds or want a bird friendly garden, I highly recommend you visit these guys!

Going to start working on learning some birds and local plants

These are the three books I bought. Lu recommended a couple of bird books, but I opted for these ones. And, this is supposed to be one of the better plant books for the area.

One last thing: The other people weeding were the EALT’s conservation coordinator, who is lovely and a great source of information, and a fellow volunteer who shared a lot of information, especially about butterflies. I’m grateful for her shared knowledge, because I knew essentially nothing about butterflies, but picked up just enough to have a better appreciation of them, not to mention enough knowledge to identify a few of the ones I took pictures of.

European Skipper?

European Skipper