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Sunday, 14 September 2014

Canada Part I: Chipmunk, Bald Eagle, Sunrises and too many tourists...

Part I of my trip to Canada. This post is made up entirely of writing directly, if edited slightly on occasions, from my journal. I hope you enjoy it!
29th July 2014
A red maple leaf brands each side of the passenger plane. Lightning and thunder blows across the skyline. Flashes of white light fill Heathrow airport. Canada Bound.
A violin plays. Three Australian lads walk past cracking up at each other. A Japanese lady poses for a photograph, slapping her belly firmly before pulling a smile. I am sitting under a tree in Banff Avenue. The sun beats down ferociously, air temperatures reaching 34 Celsius. I have just hiked to town from my campsite for the week, along The Hoodoos trail.
Bow River; walking the Hoodoos Trail
Ground squirrels scurry along the sides of the trails. Least chipmunks, smaller and more cautious in their movements, keep to the more overgrown and shaded areas.
Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel; bold and curious
Upon reaching Bow Falls, an American Robin collected insects as the crystal water rushed through the heavily scented forest. A large red-breasted thrush, the American Robin has plenty of insects to choose from, forgetting insect repellent, I soon found out as mosquitoes devoured my exposed skin. What could be grey fox tracks and deer prints were pressed into the riverside track i stumbled across after taking a wrong turn... two lessons were learned very quickly today. Wear insect repellent. Get a good map. 
American Robin; A red breasted thrush 
Now I have had my 'only a dollar, all summerrrr' iced tea from McDonalds (or is it 'All summerrrr, only a dollarrr'!?) and my sweat laden shirt has dried, I head out through the marshes to Vermilion Lakes.
Meadowhawk/dragonfly in the marshes
Vermilion Lakes; Mount Rundle overlooks the lakes
Bald eagle! The majestic and imposing size of this beautiful bird, as it circles, wings spread, soaring across the lakes and up above the craggy mountain peaks. I am filled with elation as the bird fades into the distance beyond the ridges.
Bald eagle soars above Mount Rundle
Back in town, a black billed magpie checks me out for food. Hopeful. As water is the only thing on the agenda for me today. How much do these differ from the magpies back home? I struggle to spot any major difference. The same intelligence sparkles in their eyes.  Later that evening, a large deer galloped through town and into someone's garden. A regular sight apparently! 
Black billed Magpie
30th July 2014
I join Tanya, Sam's friend, for a hike up Stoney Squaw mountain. A densely forest covered mountain, tens of thousands of moth flutter about the forest floor, spiders feasting on the unlucky ones caught in their webs. Bright orange lichens adorned the boulders and rocks, vivid lime green lichens cling to the trunks of the trees, while a khaki, almost beard-like, lichen hangs from the branches. Lichen are an amazing partnership formed between fungus and algae. The fungus hosts the algae and the algae photosynthesises, providing energy for both. They are extremely hardy, surviving in the extreme colds of the poles and the heat of the desert. Living thousands of years, some individual lichens are thought to be the oldest living organisms on the planet. Their presence in an ecosystem tends to be a good sign of air quality and a healthy environment. And these forests are inundated with them! 
Lichens; the fungi-algae A-Team!
What I am enjoying immensely, is the inability to identify a lot of the birds and wildlife I encounter. It's like the slate has been wiped clean and a whole new set of animals introduced. Which gives me a chance to appreciate every encounter as a new and exciting one, even for common animals. Although, the animals fill very similar niches to those back home, and as such, tend to be exotic variants of familiar species back home. With some pretty great sounding names thrown in as well (Junco and chickadee!).

Gray Jay
Red breasted nuthatch
Dark-eyed junco
31st July 2014
At 2,200 metres above sea level I sit, exhausted. I'm at Sanson peak, the summit of Sulphur mountain. Never have I seen such a vast area of forest, as the trees run across the entirety of the valleys, almost peak to peak, with the only bare patches being the alpine tundra. An ocean of pine. A dark blue tinge sits across the dawn valley. I started this hike at 5:40am, making the most of the early morning. Shards of sunlight cut across the valley as it rises from behind the peaks. Ravens bellow in the silence. Golden mantled ground squirrels scamper around my feet, a lot bolder than the chipmunks. 
Sunrise over Banff; the campsite sits beyond Tunnel mountain in the centre
I love adventure. Something that is apparently hard to come by specifically in this part of Canada. It felt amazing this morning. Alone. The first to summit by 6:50, with a spectacular sunrise across some of the most amazing views I have ever seen. I reached Sanson peak alone. The animals felt personal and truly wild. As I stare out over the vast wilderness below me, the pines, the jagged peaks, the powder blue waters of Bow River, I hear a clap. Followed by another clap. Then a squeal of delight, and a continuous clapping, as the Japanese woman, clearly astounded by the view, proceeded to slap her hands together for at least two minutes. Doesn't sound long, but give it a go. Clap for two minutes continuously. Or do it in the ear of someone enjoying a picnic in the park. Or someone busy at work. This was only the beginning. Invaded by the hoards of people that sat their arses on the gondola and walked the fifteen minutes to the final peak, any adventure, any solitude, any moments of peace, all gone. 
Sulphur Mountain Peak
This reaffirmed my disappointment for the town of Banff. A menu of trails for tourists, providing easy access for the masses. Which, hypocritically, I have spent doing for the most of this week as a tourist, but I would never choose to if I had the choice. Yes, the scenery is spectacular, and the wildlife accessible. But it is the McDonalds of The Rockies. The Starbucks of the mountains. Great, but cheap, commercialised, and not what I personally enjoy. Clearly thousands do, but if you are after adventure, or a feeling of connecting with the wilds of Canada, immersing yourself in the wonders of nature that this part of the world holds, don't spend it in and around Banff. A town run by tourists on work visas, for tourists on holidays.

Banff; the great juxtaposition - McDonalds in the foreground, backed by a great alpine tundra 
Like the front line of an army, people line up alongside the fence, wielding their cameras. A hoary marmot casually makes its way along the escarpment. I feel guilty that I am part of this. Although it does not seem to mind, I can not help feel uncomfortable by this mass intrusion of its habitat. Disheartened, and my left foot in agony (achilles tendon issues!), I am going to get the gondola down and find somewhere else to go. These are not the encounters I had envisioned. 
Sod the gondola. I'm descending the otherside of the mountain. It's a long trail that will take best part of the day, but I'm only here once. Prepare yourself left foot. 
What a great decision. Coming down the trail to the rear of Sanson's peak was a delight. Isolated and wild. Finally I was alone! Pika, a small-ish rodent, can throw its voice to avoid the attention of predators but still communicate. Everytime I thought I was facing the right way to get a photo of one, it would scurry away from the corner of my eye. Lots of hoary marmots! These are the largest ground squirrels in North America, and are known for their 'whistling' alarm calls. I sat still on the rocks on an escarpment, and soon enough, a hoary marmot lay a few feet away basking in the sun. The marmot fell asleep, while I took a few snaps and admired its beauty.

Pika, the great voice thrower!
Hoary Marmot; 'whistler' the largest ground squirrel in N America
Being alone, I could sit and be quiet, undisturbed. Which allowed a few chipmunks to gain my trust in a fairly short space of time. I sat and watched as the chipmunk first poked its eye above the rock line. Then the rest of its head followed. And then a paw. Eventually it was out, and scurrying around merrily searching for food. Chipmunks have food pouches in their cheeks, allowing them to carry and store lots of food at once.
Least Chipmunk; shy and cautious
A crashing and breaking of branches in the trees above reminded me that this is prime bear territory and I should be careful. I keep loose change in my pockets, which rattle and prevent my movements from being quiet and shocking a bear. 
A belted kingfisher, larger and more robust than the kingfishers of home, flew along Bow river and perched up on a dead tree near the marshes by Cave and Basin. This is the origin of Parks Canada. This sulphur underground thermal pool was discovered and a decision was made that is was worthy of protection. In it lives a species of tiny snail that exists only in the seven underground pools on Sulphur mountain, and nowhere else on Earth. 

Belted Kingfisher
1st August 2014
Sitting in the library with bird ID books and some wifi to send messages home to the family, I discover which birds I have been seeing and what else I can expect to see. This morning I climbed Tunnel Mountain at sunrise, and sat and ate breakfast (blueberries and cereal bars) overlooking Banff and the ranch that Sam works. A red tailed hawk soared above the forest, similar in shape and size to buzzards back home, but with a buff underside to its tail.

Sam's Ranch middle bottom from Tunnel Mountain
Sam and I enjoy a disastrous meal of banacon on our campfire in the forest. What survived the scorching flames, tasted delicious. The crackling of the flames, the glowing warmth, and the smokey air. Topped off with a beautiful sky full of stars. Tomorrow, we plan the next stage of the trip. North along the Icefields Parkway. Glaciers, lakes, and hopefully bear await us.
I hope you have enjoyed Part I, thank you for reading! Part II includes our first bear sighting, the oldest and highest teahouse in Canada, and some apple crumble. Mmm. Keep your eyes peeled for the next installment! 
As it was Vulture Awareness day last week, here is a photo of a King Vulture from ZSL London Zoo!

King Vulture
Check out this clip of a vulture taking on a jackal: Vulture vs JackalIt is a shame this was not back on over the weekend; A brilliant documentary about vultures by Charlie Hamilton James.