For the third (and probably final) instalment of my reflections on 2019’s adventures I thought I’d mention my favourite wildlife sighting of the year. Unlike the hundreds (and maybe thousands) of flowers admired over the past 12 months, our wildlife sightings have been much rarer. (Provided the mosquito encounters are excluded…!) While we had nothing to match last year’s grizzly bear at breakfast, we did have a few wonderful encounters and sightings.
Bear sightings are always a treat, and this year we saw only three – one on the Callaghan Valley road in July, and two from the Whistler gondola on our descent from the Roundhouse in August. And what different bears they all were! One was black, another cinnamon, and the third had a spectacular blond mane. Our nearest grizzly encounter was following some fresh paw prints in the mud in September.
Pikas are another favourite animal to spot, and we had a great sighting in Manning Park where a couple of them were bold enough to venture out onto the boulder field on which we sat eating our lunch and admiring the view over the lake. Later in the year we were surprised to hear and then see pikas on the Mount Seymour trail. Neither of us can remember seeing them before on the North Shore, so that was a nice treat.
Other sightings included a pair of mountain goats in the distance on the way up to Wedgemount Lake, a weasel on Nub Peak, and we watched a sea lion devouring what looked to be an octopus near Lighthouse Park.
But our favourite moments, the ones that really stood out over the year, were the two prolonged encounters where our presence was tolerated or even accepted. To that I’ll also add two moments where we heard wildlife at night, but otherwise saw no sign.
- The first encounter was with a dipper, that small unremarkable looking bird that flits around mountain streams, bobbing on a rock and poking its head below the surface of the rushing water with ease. We have no photos of this moment as it was just too good to worry about grabbing the camera so I’ve included a photo from a different dipper sighting back in 2014. (It was also late in the day and the light was dim.) It was our final night of our Mount Assiniboine trip and we were at the edge of Bryant Creek filtering some water for the next day when Maria pointed across the stream to the small grey bird perched on a rock. We stopped our filtering and stood watching as it continued its feeding. The dipper bobbed, dipped its head under the water, dove under the water, emerged on another rock, swam across a pool, all the while finding plenty of morsels in the tumbling waters. We watched, transfixed, for the two or three minutes it took to work the 5-metre stretch of water in front of us, all the while either ignoring us or unaware of us as we stood motionless at the water’s edge. Only when it disappeared further up the creek did we resume our own task.
- The second encounter was also with a bird, one that we’ve seen quite a few times, but never like this. Ptarmigan are the masters of camouflage. In the summer, their mottled feathers blend in with plants and shattered rock, sometimes so well that we’ve been steps away from them and only noticed them at the last minute. On a few winter hikes, we’ve seen their prints in the snow, but had never actually seen any in their white, winter plumage. Until now. On our way back from our visit to the Wedge glacier, we passed a small snow patch that I completely ignored. But then Maria told me to stop and look down to my right: lo and behold there was a stationary white-tailed ptarmigan doing an amazing job of blending in to the snow around it, the few remaining summer feathers on its head betraying its position. Their ability to disappear in plain sight means they’re not usually in a hurry to fly off, and so it was that we were able to stop long enough to take a nice series of close-up photographs, and watch the bird as it stepped slowly across the snow. While I could have sat down on the trail and watched it for much longer, we didn’t want to stress it out too much, especially at this time of year, and so we moved on. What an amazing sighting!
- The final encounter was not so much a sighting as a hearing. Again, our time in the Canadian Rockies proved fruitful. On the third night of our trip we were lying quietly in the tent when, from behind us, a sound echoed through the forest that we both recognized instantly: elk! A series of short, nasal squeaks that instantly took us back to our week in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado way back in 2001 when we heard young elk calling to (or perhaps being called to by) other members of the herd. Normally hearing a noise at night immediately puts me on edge as I try and work out its source, but the sound of the elk was such a nice surprise that all I could do was perk up my ears and listen for more. It helped that I could identify the calls, and knew that they were not from an animal likely to try and get into our tent! The following night we heard the elk again, and soon after a more distant sound: high-pitched howling and yipping. At first I thought it might be wolves, but that was really just wishful thinking on my part. It was a pack of coyotes, thankfully much further away than the elk. They continued for a few minutes before falling quiet and moving on.
A very honourable mention must go to our very first moose sighting as we sped along Highway 1 in Banff National Park. Even at 90 km/h, the plodding gait and distinctive profile of the huge male was obvious. We were absolutely over the moon, but it was over in a few seconds and we were left marvelling at the sight of it.
So of those few encounters, we have pictorial evidence of only one. Perhaps we’ll have better luck in 2020!