One of the great joys of traveling is happening upon a lovely little location that A) you didn’t know existed, and B) far surpasses your expectations. I realize of course that this may be a bit circular as one typically doesn’t have expectations about a place one doesn’t know exists, but you get the gist of it. One such place for me on my journey from British Columbia to Maine was a small park by the name of Beauvais Lake Provincial Park, located in southern ranching area of Alberta, Canada. I was on my way to Waterton Lakes and Glacier National Parks from the spectacular Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, and I decided en-route that maybe I would break up the drive into two days rather than one long day. I stopped in the nearby town of Pincher Creek to load up on supplies, and then made my way to the park.
I paid a visit to the ranger station to get some maps and information about this mystery park. I was surprised to learn that despite being largely surrounded by ranches, the relatively small park hosts an impressive diversity of large fauna, including moose, elk, mule deer, black and grizzly bears, mountain lions and bobcats, coyotes, foxes and occasionally wolves. In addition, the park is a birding hotspot, and the lake and surrounding wetlands provide breeding habitat for a number of exciting birds such as sandhill cranes, common loons, trumpeter swans, yellow-headed blackbirds, osprey, and red-necked grebes. The ranger wished me good luck in my wildlife-finding ventures, and I continued on to the campground to select a spot for the night.
After I had set-up my tent, I grabbed my camera, binoculars and bear-spray and took-off to do some exploring. It was late afternoon by that point, but I still had hours of daylight ahead of me with the summer solstice only a few weeks away. The wet meadows were brimming with wildflowers; brilliant blue camas and white bog orchids in particular caught my attention with their long, spiky flower stalks. Blue flowers like those of the camas are generally pollinated by bees and butterflies (the flowers often reflect extra brightly in the UV range, which many insects can see), and white flowers like those of the bog orchid are typically pollinated by moths. It may seem counterproductive for a plant to target only one or a few types of pollinators, but having some specificity in who pollinates which flower type can increase the chance that an individual pollinator will transfer pollen between flowers of the same species.
I watched the pollinators fly from flower to flower, carrying with them the makings of the next generation, before resuming my hike. I explored the north side of the lake, but there was a lot of human activity there, so I headed towards the west side, which was decidedly quieter. I had been alerted by the ranger that some areas of the park were closed due to an aggressive black bear that had staked a claim near the outflow of a stream along the west/southwest corner of the lake. White suckers (a type of fish) were spawning there, and the bear had found this bountiful food source to its liking and was defending it against any perceived competition or threats. Apparently one ranger had been charged by the bear and been forced to use her bear spray. I guess it worked, but the park had taken the wise precaution of cordoning off a large section around the spawning site. Most of the west side was still open, however, and a dirt road traversing that side provided access to the lake’s edge and the associated wetlands.
As I began walking down the road, my progress was opposed by a gang of posturing, swaggering, hissing Canada geese. The flock was composed of both adults and juveniles, and the adults were making a great show of how seriously they took their parental responsibilities. The young birds, meanwhile, were much more interested in eating, and were quite content to plop down and pluck at grass mere feet from me. Eventually, the parents succeeded in herding the youngsters off to the side, thereby allowing me to pass with just a few residual hisses aimed in my direction. Soon after navigating the goose gauntlet, I noticed a bird floating low in the water a few meters offshore. A look through my binoculars quickly revealed that the submarine act was being performed by a red-necked grebe. These handsome birds are members of the Podicipedidae (grebe) family, which exhibit several interesting traits. Grebes are primarily underwater foragers (but click here for coverage of a short paper I wrote on pied-billed grebes foraging on land) and they use their feet to propel them after fish and aquatic invertebrates. This foot-propulsion system is facilitated by having the feet located way back on the body (to provide more thrust) and by having broad, flattened toes that fold in when drawn forward through the water (to reduce drag), and that spread out wide like paddles when pushed back against the water. Grebes also consume their own feathers (or those of their parents if they are young), and while the reason for this behavior is not wholly clear, there are a few possible explanations. One is that the feathers provide protection for the stomach and intestine against puncture by fish bones. A related option is that the feathers help collect bones and other indigestible materials into pellets which are then regurgitated. A more recent proposal is that the feathers slow down the passage of food items, enabling the grebes to more fully extract nutrients from their food. These are not mutually exclusive ideas, and it’s very possible that feathers provide all three services.
Grebes are also good at controlling their buoyancy, and the individual I watched was keeping a very low profile as it swam—just like a submarine’s periscope traveling through the water. And I soon realized why; it was swimming with a small fish in its bill that was destined for the mouth of a recently hatched chick. The new chick was perched on the back of the attending parent, who was sitting on the nest. Grebes build floating nests made of mud and aquatic vegetation that are anchored to living reeds or cattails. As the adult with the fish drew close to the nest, the chick wiggled around in anticipation, straining to get closer to the food. The small fish was delivered to the gaping mouth, but in all the excitement of the moment, the chick dropped the fish. The parent patiently picked the fish up and again offered it to the squirming chick, who proceeded to drop it again. This happened a few more times before the chick finally succeeded in gulping down the tiny minnow. Once the food was safely down the hatch, the parent zoomed off in search of more food. I sat down and watched the action at the nest for 30-40 minutes, but the sun was fading by that point, and I decided I would need to return the following evening to capture some images under better lighting conditions. I returned to my campsite, ate a quick dinner, and turned in for the night.
The next day I rose at dawn and got out to explore more of the park. I had seen on the map that there was a small pond located about a mile away, so I headed there in the hopes of seeing some moose. I struck out on the moose, but the birding was fantastic. When I arrived at the pond I was inundated with birdsong; red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds called from cattails, while soras (a small rail) winnied from unseen haunts. A family of sandhill cranes stalked the far side of the wetland, while blue-winged and green-winged teal dabbled in the pond and quacked softly. A northern harrier soared low over the wetland and ignited an angry plume of blackbirds in its wake. After birding for a few hours, I returned to camp for a late breakfast.
While I sat at the picnic table eating my bagel, a pair of evening grosbeaks materialized from the forest. It was a male and female, and the female quickly dropped to the ground, disappearing from view. The male remained perched about 10-15 feet up and seemed to be keeping watch. Curiosity got the better of me, and I snuck closer to see if I could figure out what the female was doing on the ground. It turns out she was bathing in a pool of water, and when she saw me, she took off and rejoined her mate. I backed away, and after a few moments, the two of them flew down to bathe and drink together. When they had finished their morning ablutions, they returned to the low branches of some nearby aspens, and began preening. This went on for some time, and the male allowed me to get quite close to watch his act of self-maintenance. He drew wing, body, and tail feathers through his massively thick bill, straightening and aligning the barbs and barbules in each one. Feathers work kind of like Velcro, and one of the purposes of preening is to make sure the Velcro is all locked in place. Once the grosbeaks were happy with the state of their feathers they flew off into the forest, uttering a few parting calls as they left.
I too disappeared into the forest for much of the day, emerging in the evening to revisit the grebes. The action continued much as it had the previous day, with one parent hosting the chick on its back while the other searched for food. There were a few additions to the scene, however. A California gull had shown up at the lake that day, and it made a number of low passes over the grebe nest, hoping to catch the parent unawares. With only one chick to watch, the parent at the nest was able to keep its sharp bill squarely between the gull and the nestling. The other parent, meanwhile, was preoccupied with some other intruders. The gaggle of Canada geese from the day before were milling about in the water, and they were too close to the nest for that parent’s comfort. The grebe would sink below the waves, and launch an underwater attack on the geese. Essentially this consisted of the grebe sneaking up on the geese from below and then poking them in the butt with its bill. I may have derived the slightest bit of satisfaction at the geese getting some of their own medicine.
In between sneak-attacks, the grebe diligently hunted for food for the chick. It brought a smorgasbord of food items; many small fish, a large leech, insect larvae, and the occasional digestive aid (feather). At one point, the parent at the nest decided the nest needed some reorganizing. It awkwardly got to its feet and beginning moving bits of vegetation around with its bill. The chick, which was still perched on the adult’s back, was not at all happy at this turn of events, and let the parent know. It pecked at the back of the adult’s head, grabbing some of the feathers and giving them a twist for good measure. This act of belligerence seemed to go unnoticed by the parent, who continued the redecorating for a few more minutes before settling back down on the nest. With the world beneath it stable again, the chick ceased its attack on the back of its parent’s head, and returned to its comfy nook under the wing feathers. I stayed until the sun’s rays were hidden by the reeds, and left the grebe family in peace.
There was one more place on the opposite side of the lake I wanted to explore before it got dark, so I quickly made my way over there and headed out on an overgrown trail as the sun dipped below the horizon. The trail took me onto a small peninsula that jutted into the lake, and I followed the path hoping it might lead me to some interesting animals. The path did not fail in that regard. I had completed half the trail and was on my way back to the car when I noticed movement in the long grass just off to my side. It was something small, and I paused, hoping I might catch a glimpse of it. Then I noticed that there was grass moving in another spot, and another, and another. Then a small shape burst onto the path and before I could register what I was seeing, it had bounded down the trail and vanished into the grass. And when I say bounded, I mean it covered 4-6 feet in a single leap. I looked around me and there was movement everywhere; I felt like I was under attack from a pack of miniature velociraptors. Small shapes darted past me on the trail, while others dangled from branches a few feet off the ground. Finally, I realized what was happening; a squadron of meadow jumping mice had descended upon me and were scouring the area looking for food. Jumping mice are aptly named, but they are also excellent climbers, and use their very long tails to help with balance when off the ground. I watched this merry band of marauding mice for about 10 minutes as they jumped about me, and climbed bushes and grass stalks, and finally, when it was just about too dark to see them, I returned to my car and drove back to my campsite.
I left the next morning, but in the short time I had spent at Beauvais Lake, I had seen over 90 bird species, watched intimate parenting and preening behavior, and spent time with a magical rodent. Not bad for a little park I’d never heard of and only stopped at on a whim. It’s a place that’s now locked in my memory, and one that I hope to return to soon.
Next week: View from the Balcony: A Return to Illinois
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About the author:
Loren grew up in the wilds of Boston, Massachusetts, and honed his natural history skills in the urban backyard. He attended Cornell University for his undergraduate degree in Natural Resources, and received his PhD in Ecology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has traveled extensively, and in the past few years has developed an affliction for wildlife photography.