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.

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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.

Canada: Whispers in the Grass

20th September 2018

Weather: whatever it is doing, the prairie knows it. You just have to hope that the roads can withstand it.

Prairie road 20 Sept 18

South of Assiniboia, lonely grid roads flanked by black-eyed susans roll towards remote border huts on the US border. Vaguely I recall fighting the selfie-snapping crowds at tourist hotspots in Banff – this is the other Canada, the raw Canada: stark, blunt and unforgiving, with a gruff charm all its own.

Hoodoo 20 Sept 2018

It carves human beings who venture into it, whittling us with rain and wind. In turn, the native people of this land once carved petroglyphs into its bones.

Petroglyph

For a place so open, its secrets are subtle. History is a matter of tipi rings and extinct lakes, but also written within flesh and bone. Once upon a time, so the story goes, pronghorn were pursued by the lightning-fast American cheetah. Like the vast majority of North American mammals, the cheetah became extinct at the end of the last ice age, but its prey has survived, its incredible speed now redundant.

Pronghorn are not deer or antelope but distant relatives of giraffes.

Pronghorn 20 Sept 2018

Cheetahs were hardly alone in the Pleistocene prairie: lions, sabre-toothed cats, dire wolves and short-faced bears also roamed. Today, the most visible predators are a bewildering array of raptors.

Raptor 20 Sept 2018

And what would the grasslands be without the sweet song of the meadowlark?

Meadowlark 20 Sept 18

The skies are still uneasy. Mule deer roam amidst droplets.

Mule deer 20 Sept 2018

If you go the prairie, you adapt to fit in with its moods. The road to the park is too dangerous in these conditions. We watch the vast sky fade into night over Val Marie, and hope for sunshine with the sunrise.

Canada: Skylines

September 19th 2018

This is Canada: a canvas for small things.

Yellow butterfly

American red squirrel Spruce Lakes MB 19 Sept 2018

Autumn food

This is Canada, where the sky can swallow your thoughts. There are no trees here, or very few, just the raw horizon furred with autumnal grass, and the sky above it reinvents itself almost every minute of the day.

Prairie sundown 19 Sept 18

Six years was too many. I don’t even know how many times I’ve been to Canada – 15? 20? – but for a variety of reasons this wild and perplexing country dropped off my radar after 2012. Coming back, remembering the sky, grateful for the air that is still flavoured with the crisp northern bite.

We landed last night at the heart of Canada, in the historic if climatically-challenged city of Winnipeg. There are no easy roads to the village of Val Marie; this time we’ve chosen to drive from the east, some 850 kilometres.

Prairie, prairie, prairie: mostly arable farmland these days, although just occasionally you catch glimpses of its glorious wildlife-filled past. Say ‘Canadian wilderness’, and most people visualise the western mountains or boreal forests – but the prairie held far higher numbers of wild things, once. Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan protects the best habitat left, but on the way there, there are many surprises.

The Souris River, for one. At 700 km, it is small by Canadian standards, but is still longer than England. Like most of the prairie landscape, it is a nod to past glaciation – its basin was once filled by the now-extinct Lake Souris.

Souris River1

Canadian royalty, for another.

Bald eagle 19 Sept 2018

After a full day of driving, we still have many hours to go. Pulling into Assiniboia, we are greeted by a great horned owl perched on the grain elevator.

Great horned owl grain train 19 Sept 2018

Looking for rodents attracted to wheat being transferred to the grain train, no doubt. Some wildlife takes full advantage of its human neighbours.

But many other species need wilderness proper. Tomorrow, we’re back on the road and turning south east.

Foxes, Cats and Occam’s Razor

Cat fox2

Or: why Sherlock banished emotion while solving mysteries.

Foxes have been in the news again, which is one of those things I dread. It is a mystery of the universe how a very small and mostly harmless carnivoran morphs into a ginger Cerberus whenever it encounters the tabloids, but to summarise:

  1. The UK has about eight million pet cats (RSPCA estimate). Sadly, on any given night, some of them are statistically likely to die, especially if they are permitted to roam outside unsupervised. The great outdoors is not safe for cats. There’s cat flu, feline immunodeficiency virus, garden pesticides, and most of all, the motor car.
  2. Foxes, which for countless millennia have consumed carrion left behind by wolves and lynx, readily scavenge on these dead cats.
  3. Somewhere along the line, an animal rights group examined the bodies and concluded that a very nasty human psychopath was beheading, mutilating and dumping cats to torment their owners.
  4. Social media spread this theory like wildfire. The awards for catching the Killer grew higher. Sensational claims spread on and on and on, including that the Killer had started stabbing foxes as well (quite how he hand-caught an animal that can leap over a six foot fence, run at 50 km/h, and will bite in defence if cornered, was never explained).
  5. Our beleaguered police got dragged in and spent years, and unknown thousands of pounds of taxpayer’s money, and discovered…that foxes scavenge dead animals.

As a fox advocate and ecologist, this sad episode is one that I could have done without. The media immediately leapt on the idea that foxes are hunting cats, which is not actually what the police said. The post mortem evidence quoted clearly shows that the causes of death were blunt force from a vehicle and the ‘mutilations’ (actually, innocent scavenging) took place afterwards.

For what it is worth: a healthy adult cat is at no risk from a fox, which is primarily a predator of voles, earthworms and berries, after all. Kittens and very elderly cats may theoretically be more vulnerable to all the risks of the outdoor world. But every day, millions of cats encounter foxes, and the normal outcome is for the two species to ignore each other – check out my video here. However, cats can and do attack foxes on occasion.

As a scientist, the lack of objective thought truly bothers me. It should have been obvious from the outset that something was very wrong with the Cat Killer theory. A five minute conversation with a mammologist would have confirmed that foxes and dogs have carnassial teeth that leave cutting marks similar to knives. The logical implausibility of the Killer evading so many CCTV cameras, pet owners and police officers should have rung alarm bells.

As a human being, I feel real anger that hundreds of pet owners were persuaded that their beloved animals suffered a miserable end at the hands of a violent criminal. Can you imagine if your grief was intruded on by a suggestion that a human monster had done this terrible thing to a living creature that you loved?

Facts, matter.

Testing evidence with cold-headed objectivity, matters.

People are often accused of wanting to believe that things are better than they are. But it is surprising how often we choose to believe that they are worse. In defiance of all evidence, many Americans and Canadians still believe that fishers are wanton cat killers (spoiler: they’re not). In various parts of the world, verifiably harmless animals such as little Andean mountain cats, aye-ayes and magpies are all considered to be bad luck, and sometimes are killed for it. I can name a town in British Columbia that shot five black bears one summer not because they were threatening anyone, but, well, it’s better to be afraid.

Sometimes – just sometimes – it isn’t.