My name is Ted and together with my wife (Mary) and cat (Titus), we recently moved to the Lethbridge for Mary’s work. While I looked for new employment this fall, I figured it would be a good time to invest in a new community and new people! Hence, Yours Truly, a guest blogger for the OWC.
The southwest portion of Alberta in general, is a place that for me is both familiar and unfamiliar. I am mainly acquainted with areas around Lethbridge and Waterton Lakes National Park but this is small fraction of the much larger Oldman River watershed. There are many other areas that I soon hope to explore such as the Whaleback (considered by some to be the best representative of Montane landscape); Frank Lake (a birding mecca with nearly 200 species recorded); or Police Outpost Provincial Park (go camping with Chief Mountain as a backdrop).
For as long as I can remember, I have always been interested in animals and nature. My earliest experiences and memories of wildlife began on my parent’s small family bison farm. Located right on the edge of the boreal forest (I mean that quite literally), the farm is situated on a large hill complete with its own fire lookout tower. The view north is an expanse of spruce, pine, larch and poplar, punctuated by wet peatlands (aka muskeg). Severed by the mighty Athabasca River, the view stretches towards the horizon and on cool late summer mornings, one can view the river snaking through the forest in a cloak of thick, white fog. The nearest centre of major human activity is a 15 minute drive to a bustling little hamlet called Neerlandia. The local economy is dominated by agriculture and to a lesser extent forestry. Within this context, much of my childhood involved tramping through forest and field, discovering the creatures that inhabited a world quite different from my own. I have fond memories of getting off the bus from school, grabbing a snack and watching the white-tailed bucks rut for their does; or observing black bears forage on oats by wrapping their tongues around the stalks and stripping off the seeds; or standing stunned at the deadliness of a sharp-shinned hawk picking a songbird off the backyard feeder. I grew up with fields of barley, wheat and canola; with balsam poplar, black spruce and trembling aspen; with the occasional bear and many birds; with muskeg and mosquitos. I had little knowledge of southern Alberta and little interest in understanding why some considered the prairies absolute heaven.
The bison herd grazing the pasture, a place I regularly explored
And then I met a prairie girl. When we began dating and we visited her parents near Picture Butte, the drive near killed me every time. The landscape was so dry, plain, brown and just so boring! Why anyone would live here was beyond me. Where were the forested hills? All the trees? The wildlife? However, my attitude soon changed as my interest in nature eventually propelled me into a career as a wildlife biologist. Through my education and work I began to experience the wonder of the prairies and understand why some people absolutely love southern Alberta. My work often involves being outside and however glamorous it can seem, some days are better than others. I recall a field stint near Rainbow Lake (in the far northwest corner of the province), every day for over a week was filled with swarms of mosquitos and blackflies, wading through water up to my knees, and struggling through alder and willow thickets. The experience was an exercise in patience and frustration!
Years later I discovered that working on the prairies had certain benefits, like the wind blowing insects away or the ease in which I could walk for many kilometers. To the outsider, prairie can be vast and open (it is!), yet its unique topography has the ability to hide many things that at times require a perceptive eye. Few areas in the province are as diverse in landscape and wildlife as the Oldman River and it’s tributaries. From the towering Rockies to eroding coulees and sculpted hoodoos; from giant cottonwoods and weathered whitebark pine to tiny flowers and spiny cacti; from soaring eagles and dancing sharp-tailed grouse to owls that live underground; from herds of wapiti and solitary “swamp donkeys” (aka moose) to racing “speed goats” (aka pronghorn); from roaming grizzlies to shy prairie rattlers; the area is an ecosystem of natural wealth.
A common sight in southern Alberta, a lone cottonwood tree surrounded by canola
We, Homo sapiens, are also part of this ecosystem (for better or worse) and depend on its natural wealth for clean water, medicinal resources, carbon sequestration and pollination to name but a few. Some argue that humanity needs to be separated from the rest of nature and there is some truth to this sentiment in certain situations. However, I would counter that we actually need to get more acquainted with wild animals, plants and landscapes, for two reasons: 1) We need to learn to share – with non-human species, with people and with future generations; and 2) As we become more urbanized and disconnected with the natural world we forget the many kinds of birds and trees; we forget where our food comes from or the make up of healthy soil. So perhaps going for a walk and breathing in some fresh air is a good initial prescription to some of these issues.
The Oldman River watershed holds a lifetime of new adventures for all of us to experience. I hope to share with you the different areas I discover, as well as some of the critters that inhabit them. In doing so, I hope this encourages you to get outside, whether its re-discovering your backyard or taking a multi-day trip into the back country...and besides, its good for you.
A morning coffee at Alderson Lake in Waterton Lakes National Park
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
An experienced wildlifer, Ted has a wide array of knowledge about wildlife and environmental issues. A reluctant birder (because there are certainly “cooler” hobbies), birds are nonetheless an increasing interest and a Big Year is not out of the realm of possibility. He has been fortunate to work and play with many different species and even better people. This is his first OWC blog post.