Canada: Song Dog Days

September 2018

Could we ever spend a hour looking through the eyes of a coyote? I think it would overwhelm us. We see the wild in passing, usually from a car these days. The coyote hears it, smells it, lives it. The stories that they could tell!

coyote dog days2 sept 18

It’s the last evening in the park for me. And I could ask for nothing more: a family of coyotes in the fescue prairie west of Riding Mountain, resting and watching, as coyotes do.

And wandering a little.

coyote dog days3 sept 18

Coyotes are omnivorous, just like foxes and bears. Berries are on the menu tonight!

coyote eating berries1 25 sept 2018

Four coyotes? Perhaps more. Certainly three adults and a pup.

coyote dog days4 sept 18

They’re waiting for winter. I’m waiting to travel again. Hard to believe, just eight days and so much wildness. Now we’re bound for Toronto and the long journey home.

I had some concerns about returning here after my long absence, afraid that the old essence had become diluted by relentless over-development and over-tourism. And there are problems, it is true; not on the scale of what Jasper and Banff are enduring, but even the prairie hasn’t escaped commercialism. I was especially concerned at the new road being built in East Block of Grasslands, a highly questionable action that seems to have gone unnoticed by Canadian NGOs. And Canada’s federal and provincial biodiversity protection laws could be tightened up. That is not news. Nor is the bubbling friction between people and large wildlife in some rural districts.

But there is still so much life in the Great Lone Land. Taste of the air or the glow of a lynx’s eyes? Hear it in the coyote’s song and the catch the shadow of an owl on a forgotten farmstead. It is something, intangible and free. Coyote, bears, moose, prairie dogs – they’re still here.

Long may they remain so.

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Canada: Waterside

September 2018 – Canada is riddled with water. Rivers, waterfalls, mountain lakes – frequent material for tourist advertisements, yet quiet corners remain where wild creatures swim.

beaver1 23 sept 2018

Beaver: ecosystem engineer. They’re a hot topic in the UK at the moment because the reintroduction of the closely-related European species has shown a lot of promise, not only for biodiversity but also in reducing flooding of towns. Beavers change the environment, more than any wild animal except perhaps elephants. They slow rivers, create pools, fell trees – creating microhabitats, in other words, which other species eagerly use.

And the beaver’s fans don’t get much bigger than moose! These fabulous ungulates often browse in the marshy habitat created by beavers.

moose3 24 sept 2018

This one is clearly ready for the rut. A moose’s antlers can weigh close to 80lb, one of the heaviest crowns in the animal kingdom.

moose4 24 sept 2018

The weather’s still turning.

lakeside rmnp sept 18

But a woodchuck is still awake. Hibernation hasn’t called him to a winter burrow yet.

woodchuck rmnp sept 18

Canada: Directions to Winter

September 2018

The land is ready. It has dressed in mist.

Roadtrip1 Sept 18

The GPS says we have 700 kilometres to go. I’ve never tried this route before – Val Marie to the wild forests of Manitoba – and yes, the road is long and lonely, but I am not sure we will be the only travellers today. Weather is also on the move: clearing, misting, restless, drifting…

Misty church

It douses living things with dewdrops and runs away down a rolling road, laughing. We shall meet again, I fear.

Endless road

This is Canada, with quiet prairie towns and towering churches.

Canadian church

This is Canada, with prairie potholes adorned with living things.

Prairie pothole Sept 18

This is September, which is supposed to be autumn. Not a chance!

Road lost

Prairie snow. It paints road and field with the same brush, and a fox stands in the grass, wondering.

I’m uncertain too. Contrary to popular belief, prairie is not flat. Approaching a riverside town invariably means descending into a steep-sided valley. And getting out…you get the idea.

It is not as if there is another road. We have to simply continue, down, down, down. So here we are, stranded in the valley of Fort Qu’Appelle between two snow-laced slopes. I wonder how the Hudson Bay Company’s merchants coped with similar weather when this little town was a 19th century trading post. Perhaps they were sensible enough not to try.

Hudson Bay Company Sept 18

There has been much human drama here over millennia. Not much today, however; the snowstorm knocked out the electricity. We debate abandoning our journey in a chilly hotel but cars begin inching up the slope. Onward we go, and winter around dances autumn with glee.

Autumn and winter

It is dark yet bright as we approach the Manitoba hamlet of Onanole. Weather catches its breath. All await the fiery morn.

Sunrise1 23 Sept 2018

Canada: Eventide

September 2018

Out there, where land and sky are greeting. Where wind whips the grass into waves, and light dresses hills in gold.

It is wolf country. Can you hear them call?

For ninety years they’ve been gone, but the deer, I think, are still listening. The grasslands never forget their own.

White tailed deer GNP Sept 18

Things that belong to it: implausible ridges cloaked in sagebush.

GNP sundown2 Sept 18

Ghosts of villages that crumbled under Time.

Old barn Sask Sept 18

Trees that grow grackles like autumn leaves.

Grackles in the tree Sept 18

Shallow lakes the locals call ‘potholes’: scars of past glaciation, now tended by muskrats.

Muskrat Sept 18

And roads that redefine infinity.

Farm gate Sept 18

I’m on one of them. It’s been an eventful 48 hours in Saskatchewan, but now it’s time to turn north.

Canada: Song Dog

September 2018

I’m a lean dog, a keen dog, a wild dog and lone,
I’m a rough dog, a tough dog, hunting on my own!
I’m a bad dog, a mad dog, teasing silly [photographers];
I love to sit and bay the moon and keep fat souls from sleep.
Not for me the other dogs, running by my side,
Some have run a short while, but none of them would bide.
O mine is still the lone trail, the hard trail, the best,
Wide wind and wild stars and the hunger of the quest.

– Lone Dog, Irene McLeod

Coyote, spirit of the prairies. What it is to hear them sing!

Coyote 22 Sept 2018

We live in a strange era where the grey wolf is saluted for its ecological importance, and its coyote cousin is often criticised for having the gall not to become endangered. Not a fair judgement. Science has shown that coyotes, too, are keystone predators who have widespread and fascinating influences on the rest of the natural web.

Coyote1 GNP Sept 18

As for wildlife watching value – well, who could ask for more? Coyotes greeting on wild prairie, ruffled by the wind, shadowed by a passing golden eagle.

Coyotes greeting

Golden eagle sask Sept 18

North America has rewritten the book on wolf genetics, and there will probably be more surprises in the future. Current understanding is that the coyote, red wolf and eastern wolf are all close relatives and ancient North American natives. The grey or timber wolf is a relatively recent arrival from eastern Russia. It would have entered North America through the lost land bridge of Beringia, arriving in what is now Alaska.

It is strange that the coyote did not return the favour and migrate into the old world. We have an ecological equivalent – the golden jackal – but no coyote.

But it’s no hardship to travel to this beautiful land to hear them sing.

Coyote2 GNP Sept 18

Canada: Skylights

20th September 2018

Land of Living Skies – Saskatchewan won its nickname for restless clouds and light. But there is life on that huge canvas. I’ve found nowhere on my global travels that rivals the prairies for sheer abundance and variety of raptors – eagles, yes, both bald and golden, but the prairie has another large hunter that readily turns heads.

Ferruginous hawk GNP 21 Sept 2018

This is a ferruginous hawk, an enormous relative of the British buzzard. For reasons lost to history, the Buteo genus is called ‘hawk’ in North America, which is very confusing to English wildlife watchers. But it is really a buzzard, complete with a 1.5m wingspan and eagle-style feathered legs.

Ferruginous hawks have had mixed fortunes since the prairie was settled and are still listed as a threatened species. Merlins, on the other hand, have increased, and are even found in some cities – but they look best in the prairie.

Raptor2 20 Sept 2018

As undoubtedly does the stunning prairie falcon, a cousin of the peregrine.

Prairie falcon 20 Sept 2018

How many other carnivorous birds have I seen in the Grasslands area over the years? I’ve stopped my fieldwork for a lunchtime picnic and seen golden eagles lazily soar by. Struggled with the identification riddles of Swainson’s hawks and red-tailed hawks. Been watched by snowy owls on icy March mornings. Noted loggerhead shrikes perched on the prairie’s rare bushes.

All these hunters – and coyotes, foxes, black-footed ferrets, rattlesnakes and bobcats – need prey. It is true that rodents do their best to avoid their natural enemies, but nonetheless, they support all the ecological tiers above them. If we want to save raptors, we need to learn to live with Richardson’s ground squirrels and their kin, too.

Richardson's ground squirrel 20 Sept 2018

Meanwhile, pronghorn watch the restless skies.

Pronghorn sky 20 Sept 2018

They are alive. Clouds and sun do not sleep.

Canada: Frenchman

This little river is the prairie to me. Winding ribbon of grey-green water – it is quiet now. Read the land and learn a different story: the mud is churned because bison thundered through.

Frenchman1

Like everything in the prairies, the Frenchman pretends to be subtle when it is not. This small vein is the remnant of a monstrous torrent, one of many prairie rivers fed and bloated by the dying Laurentide icesheet – the icecap that covered most of Canada. Today, the ice has gone and the river has shrunk, little channel in a giant valley carved by its riotous past.

But it remains a wild, surprising place, sweetened by the wind and half-burying its secrets. Never underestimate the drama of the Frenchman River. I spent eight extraordinary weeks here in 2012, running its first ever trail camera project. And to be sure, this is the land of powerful things.

Trail camera photo

Bison crossing river

Bison have a history too. While I was completing my fieldwork, the river uncovered the bones of what was probably a Bison antiquusa 10,000 year old predecessor of the modern plains bison. And of course, as everyone knows, the plains bison itself nearly vanished in our era, but Grasslands National Park has brought them back.

And now I’m back too, watching them breathe under that sprawling, fitful sky.

Bison 21 Sept 2018

I’m looking for old friends, remembering old turns in the road.

Coyote

Coyote GNP Sept 18

Plains garter

Garter snake GNP 21 Sept 2018

And listening to prairie dogs yip.

Prairie dog1

Grasslands National Park is the only place in Canada where these hyper-social ground squirrels still survive. They are a symbol of prairie holding itself together, of an ecosystem relatively intact. Everything here knows the dogs: some species hunt them, some live in their burrows, some simply benefit from their cropped-grass grazing regime.

I’ve been absent six years. It’s not much in the lifespan of a place like this.