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Elk the Buglers - Two Subspecies to View

It has been said that the reverberations of several bugling elk in the autumn stillness of a mountain valley is one of nature’s most exciting experiences. British Columbia is home to two subspecies of elk (also known as wapiti), Rocky Mountain Elk (Cervus elephus nelsoni) and Roosevelt Elk (Cervus elaphus roosevelti).

Roosevelt Elk are found primarily on Vancouver Island, with the largest concentrations occurring in the Campbell River area. One of the better places to watch for these large mammals is along the highway in the Elk River valley portion of Strathcona Provincial Park.

Rocky Mountain Elk are found mainly in the Kootenays and the northeast regions of the province. The largest concentrations of this subspecies occur in parts of the East Kootenays. During the winter and spring months, the best viewing locations are in the Columbia River marshes around the communities of Golden, Radium and Invermere, as well as along the highways through Mount Robson Provincial Park, Yoho National Park and Kootenay National Park.

Elk are social animals, living in small groups of up to 20 or more cows, calves and yearlings. These groups remain apart from the smaller groups of bulls, except during the fall mating (rutting) season. Within each group there are dominance hierarchies that are established by various threats and displays, rather than serious fighting.

The middle of September roughly marks the beginning of the rutting season when bull elk become more active and aggressive. They are seeking the cow groups with the goal of establishing harems of several cows that will be jealously guarded. It is during this season that approaching too closely has increased risks for viewers.

Most cows are bred from mid to late September, with calves born in late May and early June, after eight months of gestation. Most cows produce just one calf, as twins are rare.

The antlers of elk bulls are shed between late February and early April. New antlers begin growing in April and reach their full size by early August or early September.

For more information on the ecology, conservation and management of elk, contact any office of the Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks for a copy of the publication Elk in British Columbia.


Drive Carefully - Wildlife on Roads

During the winter months, habitats near many highways and major roads are utilized by large mammal species, including deer, elk, bighorn sheep and moose. This is your cue to drive extra carefully.

A sure sign that the road you are travelling is visited by these big critters is the presence of 2 m high wildlife fencing along one or both sides of the road. However, wildlife will be found along highways and roads in many places where this fencing is not installed.

A collision between wildlife and your vehicle may have terrible results. A deer, elk, sheep or moose may be seriously injured or killed, but your vehicle will also receive some significant damage. You and your passengers can be injured or killed and your vehicle will likely suffer significant damage.


Wild Animals Dangerous? - Dumb Things Humans Do!

We’ve all seen it – supposedly intelligent humans approaching seemingly passive wildlife. While this activity may appear to be safe, the consequences can be truly tragic – for both wildlife and you!

Yellowstone National Park is world famous for its scenery and wildlife. In fact, far too many park visitors believe that the 900 kg (2000 lb) bison, 450 kg (1000 lb) elk and other wildlife are tame and can be approached closely.

On a recent visit to Yellowstone, the editor observed this phenomenon first hand.

    Everywhere you went in the park wild animals were easily observed. One minute you would be driving along the road, then the brake lights of a vehicle (truck, car, camper or motor home) ahead would go on and every vehicle within sight would suddenly pull over without warning. Vehicles would be haphazardly on and of the narrow two lane road with people quickly getting out of their vehicles, cameras and binoculars ready, all wondering what had been spotted.

    On one such occasion, a mother black bear and two cubs were visible across the grassland. A few people had stopped at a large pull-out to watch. It became evident that the bears were heading in a direction that would take them across the road. This produced a mad dash of vehicles down the road. When the bears appeared at the roadside ready to cross, there were already many vehicles and people on the road.

    Fortunately, mom and young cubs crossed without incident as cameras clicked madly and videos whirred. This group of people had enough sense to stay on the road, leaving a reasonable buffer between the foraging bears and the road edge.

    On another occasion, this roadside ballet took place along a curved stretch of road with open pine forest on both sides. The wildlife sighted was a pair of elk. The female was wandering along slowly with a large racked male a few yards behind.

    There was a crowd of people getting out of vehicles that were parked all over the road. As the two elk walked slowly along, only about 10 m from the edge of the road and spectators, two middle-aged women decided that they needed to get closer as their cameras did not have telephoto lenses. Off they walked into the forest behind the male.

    The bull elk wasn’t going to take this intrusion lightly. He turned quickly, lowered the recently polished points of his antlers at the women and charged. He stopped a short distance from the startled ladies, but they didn’t get the message. Click went their cameras again!

    He stood about 1.4 to 1.6 m (4.5 to 5 ft) at the shoulders, taller than either woman. Again he lowered his antlers, pointing them directly at the intruders and took a half-step lunge forward. After three or four such lunges, he was within 3 to 4 m of the women. But they still didn't get the message. Finally a voise from the road said "Ladies, I think that you should slowly walk backwards and leave him alone". They did and the bull elk turned and walked away after the female.


Majestic Moose - Three Subspecies

There are an estimated 170,000 moose residing in British Columbia. But did you know that there are three subspecies of moose?

Travellers will most likely encounter the Northwestern Moose (Alces alces andersoni) which has the widest distribution of the subspecies. It is found throughout most of the province except the extreme southeast and northwest corners. While the Northwestern Moose is generally absent in the area west of the Coast Mountains, it may be sighted occasionally near tidewater at the heads of several inlets from Bute Inlet northward. It does not occur on the Queen Charlotte Islands or on Vancouver Island. Some of the highest densities are around Prince George and on the east side of the Rocky Mountains northwest of Fort St John.

The Alaskan moose (Alces alces gigas) is the largest of the subspecies and has the darkest body colour. Some of the highest densities occur around Teslin and Atlin lakes.

The third subspecies, Shiras’ Moose (Alces alces shirasi), is the smallest of the subspecies. This moose has also been called the Yellowstone Moose and the Wyoming Moose. The Flathead and Elk river valleys provide the best places to see this subspecies.

As the largest member of the deer family, an adult bull weighs between 450 and 600 kg and an adult cow weighs an average of 340 to 420 kg. An adult moose stands about 1.65 to 1.90 m high at the top of the shoulders. Its long, slender legs that seem out of place with its large body, allow for easier passage through fallen timber, muskeg and deep snow.

Moose are easily identified from other ungulates by their overall size, shoulder hump and a large overhanging lip. They also have a characteristic long flap of skin that hangs from the top of their throat. This flap is called a dewlap or bell.

Moose are thought to be the least social British Columbia ungulate. As with most hoofed mammals, the sexes live apart for most of the year. The males are generally solitary while the females live only with their offspring until the young are one year of age. In cases where the female fails to give birth the following year, the young calf may remain with its mom for another year.

Despite their large size, moose are primary browsers. It is estimated that an adult moose requires up to 19 kg of food each day. Their diet varies seasonally with twigs of deciduous trees and shrubs consumed in winter. During spring and summer moose feed on new shoots and leaves, terrestrial herbs such as Fireweed, and wetland vegetation such as horsetail and various pond weeds.

For more information on the ecology, conservation and management of moose, contact any office of the Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks for a copy of the publication Moose in British Columbia.


Empty Nest - Note Worthy

Now that the trees and bushes have lost their leaves, it is an excellent time for you to look for empty nests. While some birds make a new nest every year, some species reuse their old nest. A few new twigs or branches and a new lining may be all that is needed.

When you find a nest take a closer look at the handy-work of our fine-feathered friends. But please, do not destroy old nests.

Many naturalists use the winter months to record the location and details of larger nests, especially those thought to be used by raptors. In the spring months, these nest sites are revisited to see if the nest is being used and by what species. This inventory is useful to the Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks in on-going efforts to protect nest sites.

Large birds frequently utilize man-made structures, both wood and metal. On your next drive, take a closer look at hydro poles and towers. You may see a Red-tailed Hawk or Rough-legged Hawk perched high above or the remains of a nest.

In early spring you might like to place short pieces of string in your bushes and low tree branches. Clean dryer lint is also a great prize, but remember to put it out in a location where it will remain dry until collected by a nesting bird.


What About Feeders? - They're OK

If we shouldn’t feed wildlife, then what about bird feeders? Well, there is a difference between feeding wildlife, especially mammals, and putting out feeders for birds.

Putting “natural” type foods out for wild birds does not train them to approach people or vehicles for food. Nor does it put them at significant risk, provided that you place your feeders so as to reduce cat predation, and that you keep the feeders clean and stocked.

It is not true that birds with access to well stocked feeders will depend solely on this food source. Wild birds still spend considerable time foraging for natural foods. Feeder food will be used to supplement their diet, not replace it. During especially cold periods and when natural foods are scarce, feeder food may help them survive until their natural foods are more abundant. These times will include when the ground is covered with snow and early morning feedings when their energy levels are low.

When feeding your wild friends, be sure to keep food dry or it may become moldy. Some molds and fungi produce toxins that kill birds.

When putting food out on your feeders, never include bread (fresh or dried) since it will satisfy the bird‘s hunger but provide no nutritional value. It is better to put nothing out than to put bread or similar products. Choose sunflower seeds, suet, millet, niger seed, dried corn, wheat, rolled oats or berries. Regardless of the time of year, clean water is important too.


Avian Mysteries Revealed - Puzzling Questions

The world of birds is full of interesting mysteries. Over the years many researchers and amateur birders have worked to find answers to some of those puzzling questions.

In the current issue of Birder’s World (December 2000) are the answers to two such mysteries. You will be fascinated by the questions and their answers provided below.

When birds roost in large groups in a tree, don’t the birds on the lower branches get pooped on?

    Yes, it happens. While this may be unpleasant for us to contemplate, it can actually be somewhat hazardous for the unfortunate recipients. The chemicals in bird excreta can reduce the water repellency of feathers and thus cause heat loss. Often, the dominant birds in a flock get the highest perches in a communal roost tree, leaving their underlings to receive unwelcome deposits from above and attacks from ground-based predators below.

    Considering the liabilities for some members of the flock, why would birds roost communally? Although it may seem that a large, boisterous group of birds would be highly conspicuous to predators, these roosts are often located in relatively safe places, such as in isolated trees or under freeway overpasses. Even in less secure locations, it is likely that some members of the roost will always be awake to alert the others of intruders. As a result, individual birds probably have a higher chance of survival as a member of a group than if they were alone – even those that are not among the high and dry.

From a Michigan birdwatcher who is enjoying the first ever White-winged Crossbill at his feeder:

I have noticed that his upper mandible goes to the left and the lower one to the right. Is this the same on all crossbills? (editor’s note: mandibles are part of a bird’s bill)

    No, it’s not, but your visitor’s mandibles are crossed in the most typical way for this species. In White-winged Crossbills, the lower mandible is about three times more likely to cross to the right than to the left. This is not the case with red Crossbills, however; their lower mandibles are as likely to cross to the left as they are to the right.

    Crossbills (the generic name Loxia is from the Greek, meaning “crosswise”) possess among the most recognizable bills in the avian world. In both species, the upper mandible always curves down, and the lower mandible always curves up. These well-adapted birds do not have crossed bills at hatching, but develop them shortly after fledging. They use their unique bills to pry open cones, then extract the seeds with their scoop-shaped tongues.

    Why would there be a difference in the ratio of right-to-left mandible crossings in the two species? White-winged Crossbills can usually remove cones from trees and manipulate them, or the cone scales are already open, so they are not limited by the orientation of their bills relative to the scales on the cone. Red Crossbills, on the other hand, leave cones on the branches and therefore cannot always position themselves in the right spot to be able to pry all the scales open. Half the Red Crossbills (say the ones with lower mandibles curving right) could open parts of the cones accessible to their bills, then the other birds (with the left-curving mandibles) can come along and forage on the parts of the cones left untouched by the previous birds.

    Both crossbill species do have something in common: If the lower mandible crosses to the right, the bird will usually hold the cone it is feeding on in its left foot, and vice versa.


Bird Tracks

Vaseux-Bighorn National Wildlife Area

    Located on both sides of Vaseux Lake between the communities of Okanagan Falls and Oliver, the Vaseux-Bighorn National Wildlife Area is home to many California Bighorn Sheep. They live in this area year round, but are more easily observed from September through March when they are frequently found on, or near, the highway. Visitors travelling through this area should drive carefully and watch for sheep at all times of the day and night. View from your vehicle and do not approach these wild animals.

Grand Forks to Christina Lake

    A great place to watch for large mammals is along Highway 3 from just east of Grand Forks to Christina Lake. From November through March watch for Mule Deer, White-tailed Deer and California Bighorn Sheep. A high protective fence has been installed along the north side of the road to keep these critters off the highway. This herd of bighorn sheep was transplanted to this area and is doing very well. Be sure to drive this stretch of highway with caution during the winter months.

Field, Yoho National Park

    Located along the Trans Canada Highway (Highway 1) between the communities of Golden, B.C. and Lake Louise, Alberta. From about the middle of October to early June, this small community is visited by elk wintering in the valley bottoms. Watch for these large mammals along the highway as well as around, and in, Field. On the rocky slopes of Mount Field, located just northwest of Field, watch for Mountain Goat throughout the year.