Whale Tales!

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Ocean Light II

In August we boarded the Ocean Light II, a 71 ft sailboat for a one-week trip off the northern tip of Vancouver Island with the primary objective of photographing marine mammals.  It was our first time exploring this remote region but we had booked the trip two years in advance to insure we were going at peak season and had the best opportunity to catch some action so we could tell some tales of our own!

We were NOT disappointed!!!

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Area of exploration

This patch of ocean had a lot of activity!   Within the first twenty four hours we had seen a plethora of life, including a variety of birds (click here for our dedicated post on the bird action).

One of our favourite shorebirds are black oystercatchers.  Despite their name, they seldom eat oysters and instead forage for limpets and mussels which an oystercatcher can easily and quickly pry open with the sharp jabs of their bill tips.  The birds are also known to “sneak up” on open mussels, quickly stab their beaks between the shells, sever the muscle and quickly swallow it.

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Black Oyster Catchers

Another favourite are the cute harbour seals lounging on the rocks.  Harbor seals come in brown, silvery white, tan, or gray.

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They tend to stick to familiar resting spots, generally rocky areas where they are protected from adverse weather conditions and predation, near a foraging area.

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And now for the star of the show!!!

We had hoped to see a breaching whale, but never dreamed we would be blessed with a “serial” breacher!!!  This particular individual gave us an amazing show, repeatedly breaching over 8 times!  As massive as they are, a breach happens lightening fast and trying to capture it on film or video is a challenge!  Here are some of the best in show!

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Breach #1

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Breach #2

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Breach #3

Humpbacks are very acrobatic, often breaching high out of the water and then slapping the water as they come back down. Sometimes they spin 180 – 360 degrees around while breaching. Scientists do not know why wales do this — it may be purely for play, a form of communication or may be used to loosen skin parasites.

We managed to get a fantastic video (filmed in slow motion 4K video) doing a 360 degree spin!  We hope you enjoy it as much as we did!

 

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Breach #4

 

At least 3 different species of barnacles are commonly found on both the flippers and the body of the humpback whale. A humpback whale can have up to a thousand pounds of these barnacles attached to it!  It is also home for a species of whale lice called Camus boopis.

They can also swim on their backs with both flippers in the air.

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Whale swimming on its back doing pectoral slaps

 

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Tale Slap

If the whales were the star of the show then Northern Vancouver  Island gets the People’s Choice Award for best set.  The scenery was truly breathtaking and sometimes it was difficult to know what to concentrate on.

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We hope you enjoyed our “Whale Tale” and thought we would leave you with a little teaser of what Part II will feature.

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Can anyone guess what creature this is???

Marcy & Ray Stader
StaderArt

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The Icefields Parkway – Beyond the Glaciers

The Icefields Parkway, in Alberta’s Canadian Rockies, is one of Canada’s national treasures.  We spend a lot of time in the mountains every year and the 232 km road stretching through the heart of The Rockies is always one of our favourite areas. Of course, the Columbia Icefields (the largest icefield in the rocky mountains of North America) is the namesake attraction along the parkway, but beyond the glaciers and ice, this magnificent journey through Banff and Jasper has a lot to offer those in search of beautiful landscapes and wildlife.

As you start driving the Icefields Parkway from the south end near Lake Louise, within 3 km you will come across a little gem called Herbert Lake.  It’s easy to miss because there are no signs for the lake and there isn’t a proper place to pull over with  your vehicle, but it is very much worth making the effort to check out – especially when you have a picture perfect morning with fog hanging over the lake like we had on this day.

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Herbert Lake

Love bears???  The parkway contains  prime bear habitat for both black bears and the mighty grizzly bear.  If you want to see wildlife, early (very early) morning always gives you the best chance.  One morning we came across this massive male grizzly bear eating dandelions along the road.  We watched him for about 15 minutes and he made direct eye contact with us several times (which is why we always photograph from the safety of the vehicle).  Grizzly bears can reach 48 km/h from a standing start and can cover a distance of 100 m (327 feet) in 6 seconds!

This is one of our most memorable encounters because he was a BIG male, the lighting was perfect and the dandelions added a soft, dream-like component!

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Field of Dreams

On a good weather day, your neck will need a massage at day’s end from all the jaw-dropping scenery, so make sure you book yourself into a spa ahead of time!  At an altitude of 1920 metres, and at the headwaters of the Bow River, the scenery around Bow Lake is exquisite.  This particular day was so beautiful we didn’t get past Bow Lake  which is located about half way up the Parkway, as we were in search of a colony of pikas that live in the rocks nearby.

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Bow Lake

The Pika is the smallest member of the rabbit family which lives in rocky areas where the climate is cool.  These guys are really cute and they make a very high pitched “eeeep!” sound – that’s usually your first clue they are in the area.  Getting a good photograph of one of them requires a lot of patience sitting in one spot motionless, waiting for them to get comfortable enough to go about their daily business, like grabbing a mouthful of grass and taking it back to the den!

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Pika

This is merely a small taste of what the Icefields Parkway has to offer and we’ll be sharing more images from this amazing part of the world in the near future.

Thanks for reading!
Marcy & Ray Stader

StaderArt

The Great Bear Rainforest – Our Favourite Wilderness Area

The Great Bear Rainforest

The name alone conjures up a vision of a wild, remote wilderness – a rugged, ruthless landscape where bears rule supreme…

From all of our adventures in Canada to date, the Great Bear Rainforest is our favourite wilderness area –a precious jewel in Canada’s crown. It has everything:  incredible landscapes, wildlife, ocean, mountains and solitude. It’s as close to perfect as we could ever imagine.

The Great Bear Rainforest is one of the largest remaining tracts of unspoiled temperate rainforest left in the world – about 6.4 million hectares, most of it is only accessible by boat.  In October of 2015 we embarked on a 7 day adventure into its heart, aboard a beautifully appointed 71’ ketch-rigged sailboat named the Ocean Light II. The trip was lead by Marcy’s mentor, renowned wildlife photographer Brad Hill.

It is difficult to describe, in words, our experience in this impossibly spectacular part of the world. Perhaps the best way is to simply reveal the images captured in this pristine environment.

 

Spirit Bear
(Kermode Bear, White Bear, Ursus americanus kermodei)

Is the Spirit Bear a myth?  Nothing more than a tall tale passed down from generation to generation in the Pacific Northwest among the indigenous people?  We were keen to see if it really existed with our own eyes.  We were not disappointed!

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Gentle Spirit

The Spirit Bear is not a Polar Bear.  It is a subspecies of the American Black Bear with a double recessive gene living primarily in the Great Bear Rainforest.  Fewer than 400 Spirit Bears are estimated to exist and we were lucky enough to see four!  This beautiful female, along with her two black cubs, posed for us for over an hour. She is probably one of the calmest bears we have been in the presence of to date.

Grizzly with Three Cubs

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Follow the Leader

One of the things that we love about this place is the incredible diversity of life!  This mother grizzly had her cubs marching to her tune (for a while anyway) through the beautiful estuary.

Little Rascals

Three Rascals

Of course, cubs will be cubs and these three little rascals were often diverted for play, which sometimes visibly annoyed mom but sure made for some great photographic opportunities.

Bald Eagle

Eagle in the Mist

Eagle in the Mist

The Great Bear Rainforest definitely lives up to its name in the regard that there is a LOT of rain but it can made for some beautiful and moody landscapes like this eagle, perched in a magnificent tree, as it surveyed the area searching for its next meal.

Harbour Seals

Don't Mess with the Seals

Don’t Mess with the Seals

The seals aren’t bothered by rain (it was pouring), they just want to be left alone to laze on rocky outcrops…

Humpback Whales

Teamwork

Teamwork

It surprised us to learn that the narrow channels between islands are actually deep enough for humpback whales to traverse and they can often be seen bubble feeding.  The whales coordinate efforts by blowing bubbles in a big circle underwater and flashing their pectoral fins to scare the krill into rising towards the surface in a tight ball so they can feed.  It is an amazing display of teamwork!

Solitude

Solitude

Through the mist and the rain a solitary humpback waved goodbye… We will return!

 Marcy & Ray Stader

StaderArt

 

A Wolf, a Mink and a Sparrow – Life is a Journey, Not a Destination…

Our Incredible Day in Banff National Park

As usual we were up at the crack of dawn and eager to go hiking in Banff National Park in hopes getting our fitness back and shedding a few of the extra “postre” pounds we put on in Panama.

We hopped in the car and were going to make a beeline to our destination…until we rounded a corner and came upon a wolf lying in the middle of the road.

16A_6410-1(Gray Wolf – female)

At first we were concerned she was injured–she had her head down, eyes closed and was unmoving.  Then, as she slowly raised her head, we realized she was merely content and basking in the early morning rays of sun that hit the tarmac.  To encounter a wolf so calm and undaunted by our presence has never happened before (they are always on the move and in a hurry to get away from people).  Usually we have to work very hard to track a wolf in the Rocky Mountains but this time she presented herself on a silver platter.  We sat for several minutes watching each other until she slowly got up and ambled away.

 

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Driving slower now, our senses heightened, we became mindful of our surroundings and left our usual sense of time and urgency behind us.  Seeing a serene pond, we decided to stop and appreciate some loons that were swimming gracefully nearby. While standing on the bank a mink suddenly popped out and scurried between us into the shelter of a grassy mound.  We even engaged in a conversation with some adventurous travellers from New Zealand for an hour.  It was definitely an unusual day…

 

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Finally arriving at Lake Minnewanka several hours later than intended, we began our hike. Normally we’d be marching down the trail trying to make up for lost time or commenting on how “boring” flat hikes are, but not this time.  We appreciated things more, including  this little squirrel.  This little guy was not the usual “twitchy” type.  It was so content munching on a mushroom it didn’t seem to mind us watching and even posed for us.

 

16C_1274-Pano-1.jpg(Two Jack Lake and Mount Rundle)

The weather was nice and the scenery lovely.  There is something about spring in the Rocky Mountains. While stopping to enjoy the view, we heard chirping sounds and spent a further 30 minutes trying to ID a Tennessee Warbler and photographing White-Crowned Sparrows.

 

16B_1276-Edit-1-2(White-crowned Sparrow)

We actually didn’t complete the entire hike we had originally intended, but looking back at the day there is no doubt it was the journey, not the destination that lead to a fulfilling day in nature’s playground.  It was a good reminder that sometimes we need to stop and smell the roses. Which is exactly what we did on the way back!

 

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Marcy & Ray Stader

StaderArt

Sharp-tailed Grouse – So you think you can dance?

Move over Calgary Stampede, there’s a rival to your claim of being the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth!

When we were offered a rare invitation to witness Sharp-tailed Grouse at a lek in southern Alberta, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity.  A lek is an open area where male birds carry on courtship behaviour each spring.

As this location is on private land we are not permitted to disclose the location of the lek to protect the species, but we can certainly share the experience!

Males arrive at the lek very early – around dawn.  As spectators, we had to get up at 4:15 am in order to arrive on location before sunrise so as not to disturb the birds once they start the courtship rituals.  We carefully made our way to the site and used a blind to remain hidden from the birds.

There were about 30-40 male Sharp-tailed Grouse at the lek and they were “dancing” all around the site.  Heads down, tails up, wings outstretched and stamping their feet rapidly – about 20 times per second !  We can see where all the native dancers at the Stampede got their moves from!  When you hear, and see, 30-40 grouse doing this simultaneously it is truly an amazing act of nature to witness.  Their feathers rattle, they inflate their purple neck sacks, and they make very interesting cooing and gulping sounds at the same time–much like festive Macarena dance!

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(male courtship dance at first light)

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(head down, tail up, and gyrating!)

The males were competing for dominance, as only the dominant male (or two) out of the whole group, will be selected by the females to sire the next generation.  The males faced off in head to head battles (often striking one another) until the matter was settled.

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(males facing off for dominance)

Eventually about 3 females arrived and that’s when the males really ramped up the jigging and shaking!  The females walked around slowly perusing the wares on display, selected the male that had the best moves, made quick work of the business at hand, and carried on.

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(female arrives to evaluate the dancing – note the abnormal “crossbill-like” beak)

Our lek experience lasted about 3 hours and eventually, when it was evident no more females were coming, the males became quiet and still (probably exhausted from the effort).  Just a silently as they arrived, they all flew off.

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(closeup of a male – nice eyebrows!)

It was an awesome outdoor show, one we have never been privileged to witness before!  We never cease to be amazed at the variety of wildlife and birds right here in Alberta.  We think the Sharp-tailed Grouse know how to dance 🙂

Marcy & Ray Stader

StaderArt

Great Horned Owls… In Our Yard!!!

We moved to an acreage near Spruce Meadows about two months ago.  The very next morning, while enjoying our morning coffee around 5:30am (yes, we are “early birds” lol),  we heard a soft “hoot hoot hoot” nearby.  We recognized the sound as a call from a Great Horned Owl  – we were thrilled!

Over the next few weeks this owl remained elusive. We often heard it in the wee hours of the morning but never saw it.  Then one morning something changed– there was an answer back — there were TWO owls communicating with each other!  Needless to say we were pretty excited and wondered if they had a nest somewhere nearby — although we searched we couldn’t find it.

Finally last week we had our first sighting!  We were sitting down to dinner when a large bird flew low along the back fence-line and then swooped up and landed on the very top of a 45 foot tall spruce tree.  It was dusk but we managed to snatch a few photos of the owl while perched on this high vantage point as it began its evening hunt for food.  OUR dinner got cold while all this happened 😉

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(on the tree top in low light at dusk)

This morning we were walking outside when two owls flew out of a spruce next to the house and and landed in another tree about 150 yards away.  They were perched in plain view, with good light, and we were able to capture a few good photos of this lovely owl couple 🙂

16C_0495-1(this appears to be the smaller of the two which would indicate it is the male)

16C_0571 copy-1-2(if we’re right about the male, by default this would be the female.  Any comments?)

Now the big question is… do they have a nest in the tree and do they have young ones?  We intend to find out (without bothering the owls, of course).

Stay tuned…hopefully we’ll have some photos of cute owlets soon!

Marcy & Ray Stader

StaderArt