Monday, June 27, 2011

Common Grackle

True, the Grackle, is gregarious and a poor but spirited singer (I've been fooled more than once by the Grackle's ability to mimic other birds). While they likely don't garner a big fan club, I still find them fascinating. Part of the reason I suspect is their hardiness and resourcefulness. I was treated to quite an aerial display on a recent outing as pairs of Red-winged Blackbirds aggressively defended they territory among the cat tails against these slightly larger icterids. Here, one stops for a rest on a roadside fence.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Fire Update

For the first time in...while I'm not sure actually, the wildfire hazard level for the region is listed as "moderate" rather than "extreme", aided in part due to the rather heavy rain we've (thankfully) received the past couple of days. This is all welcome news for anyone hoping to get out and enjoy a campfire or backyard fire as I believe the fire ban has now been lifted.

As of last night the status of the Richardson Fire had been changed from "out of control" to "being held". Being held at 613 360 hectares. That's 9 times the size of the City of Edmonton or as I've also been told, it's comparable in size to the entire province of Prince Edward Island.

Even as I type this at this late hour, the rain has started falling again. Not so much fun to work outside in but still greatly needed by our boreal forest.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Horse's Mouth

As I don't have anything particularly noteworthy to blog about today, here is a shot of the mouth of the Horse River from the west bank of the Athabasca where I hiked down to earlier this month.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Marine Park Museum

While Fort McMurray will always be known as the home of the oil sands, for those who live here, it is much more than that. Even without the oil sands, Canada still owes a great deal of its development to Fort McMurray. At one time, Waterways (then a separate community and now a quiet suburb of modern Fort McMurray) was the "end of steel". All goods heading north were sent here via rail and then transferred to ships for transit further north. (Even before this, the Athabasca-Clearwater juncture formed a critical link in the continental fur trade, but I will leave this for another post.)

While a trip in a steamer up the BC coast was the most common way of reaching the Klondike, a trip north from Edmonton through Waterways was another (if less-travelled) way of getting there. Much of the men and materiel sent to construct the Alaska highway in the 1940's passed through here. The area also played an important link in the supply chain for the construction of the Distant Early Warning (DEW Line) Sites and for years barges (until the arrival of regular air service) leaving here supplied the north with everything from mail to meat to building supplies.

Which is why the history buff in me is quite pleased to see that this contribution will be recognized with a future Marine Park Museum. For the past little while (ever since moving here actually) I had caught glimpses of ships along the shore of the Clearwater behind where the Canadian Tire and a condo sit today. I was never really sure what it was until just recently when I had a chance to talk a wander back there for a closer look.

These rail cars will also be part of the exhibit. Back in the day, rail service was available between here and Edmonton, though it was cancelled back in the '80's.

This area was where the docks once stood and if I recall correctly, it is the only remaining shipyard in Alberta. It's so quiet there now it is difficult to imagine the hustle and bustle this little stretch of river once experienced during the formative years of our country.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Red-Winged Black Bird

There's a small green area with a storm pond in it a short walk from the house that seems to be quite the hot spot for red-winged black birds. At least, this is the one area where I have seen them in the greatest numbers. I spent a good hour this past weekend checking out some fierce aerobatic displays as both males and females aggressively defended their territory among the cat tails from invading grackles.

They are intensely loyal to each other with paired off male and female never venturing very far from each other and calling for each other as they darted from cat tail to grassy ground to tree top and back. Generally the zoom feature on my camera isn't the greatest but a little digi-scoping helped.....

...and the brilliant crimson shoulder patches meant that even when I wasn't very quick on the draw, they still turned out quite distinctly against the green background.

Monday, June 20, 2011


A weekend outing in search of a pair of blue-winged teals which I knew frequented a nearby storm pond instead turned out a species I had yet to see....and one that was on my list of birds I was hoping to be able to cross off my list by summer's end. I barely noticed it up an old dead tree and I'm not even sure how I managed to spot it in the first place other than through pure dumb luck but sometimes dumb luck is all it takes. At any rate, I could tell what it was as soon as I saw it by the shape of its beak - a Northern Flicker.

Not the best of photos but the best I could do with my limited abilities.

And with the addition of the Northern Flicker to my life list I've pretty much seen all known species of woodpecker that frequent our portion of the province.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Black-Billed Magpie

They are pretty common birds here and many might see them as a nuisance, but the Black-Billed Magpie was the first bird to grab my attention after I arrived here and they are still one of my favorites. Their white wing markings are quite striking in flight and their long tails give them something of a pre-historic, exotic feel. They are also the only bird I've seen out here so far that don't back down from ravens when it comes to grabbing anything that might be considered food. Definitely adaptable too, as I've seen them in many different environments from out at work, to downtown, to neighborhood lawns, to thick forest, to water's edge.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Your Daily Dose Of Cuteness

Here are a few photos from Gabriel's two month photo shoot. I have to say I'm quite impressed with the photographer's work. And we were pleased to see she had made a picture from the shoot her profile picture for her photography page on Facebook.


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Unfriendly Skies

While this story is getting a little old, I still wanted to throw in my two cents. Seems in recent days an airline stewardess on a West Jet flight inbound from Vancouver created a bit of a stir by asking who wanted to land in Fort McMurray...and who didn't. Normally, this would have died a quick death and not garnered the attention it has except for the fact that a municipal councillor and the Mayor were aboard that flight.

An editorial in a local paper suggested a 24-hour boycott of West Jet on Canada Day to protest the stupidity of the remark. I haven't flown very much the past couple years so I'm not sure what sort of effect that would have but I do find it an interesting idea. I'm sure there will be people who will say the Mayor and others on the flight who were upset should just get over a bad joke but I can understand their frustration with the airliner. I'm sure similar jokes have been made about any number of other places. This community (quite unjustly) gets a lot of bad press by the anti-oilsands crowd and other environmentalists, the bulk of whom have never even been here. Name the last time you saw a positive media story about Fort McMurray on the national level. Pretty tough.

As Lisa had mentioned to be the other day, for the people here just to make a quick buck, perhaps this place will never amount to much in their eyes. We try not to let these naysayers get to us because, with luck, they will be on a plane or a car heading down 63 soon enough. There are though plenty of families (and individuals) who care about this community and are intent on making a home for themselves. I just wish that THESE people's voices would be heard more often.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Bitumont Complex

Bitumont Complex - that is the new name being given to the monster forest fire that has been blazing away the past month to the north of us. A few other smaller fires have now joined in to what was originally being called the McClelland Lake Fire and then the Richardson Backcountry Fire to create a 570,000+ hectare inferno. I was helping load a flatbed yesterday at work and I'm sure I could see it glowing along the horizon because if that odd orangey glow wasn't the fire I have great difficulty imagining what else it would be. Rain is forecast for later this week which hopefully will aide firefighting efforts a little bit. This will be the first substantial rainfall we've had this summer and it is greatly welcomed of course, particularly as the fire had been creating so much heat due to its sheer size that rain clouds have had trouble even forming in the sky above.

Fire fighting efforts include not only the giant Martin Mars but have also gone international with the addition of 40 firefighter from Mexico to support the over 700Canadian firefighters from as far away as Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Fortunately for us here, there has been very little fire growth to the south toward Fort McMurray. Drifting smoke continues to be an issue depending on wind direction. All safe and sound here for the time being and we'll see what kind of relief this coming rain provides us.

Monday, June 13, 2011

American Widgeon

Normally, I hate going downtown, but in this case I'll make an exception as I caught a good view of what I believe is an American Widgeon a couple weekends ago in a man-made pond down in Borealis Park.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Duck Out Of Water

Last weekend's outing to Borealis Park offered me the chance to get a decent photo of a water fowl on land. The ducks here seem to be fairly accustomed to humans but I was still impressed by just how close this guy allowed me to approach.

Two Mallards with a Rock Dove bonus.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Ladies (and Gentlemen), Lock Up Your Daughters!

Okay, perhaps not for a few more years. But don't say I didn't give you plenty of advance warning!

Thursday, June 9, 2011


Once upon a time the Snye was a short tributary of the Athabasca, feeding water into it from the Clearwater. It also separated MacDonald Island from the downtown. During the 1960's a causeway was built connecting the island to the mainland and turning the Snye into an urban marsh. Though the causeway construction was controversial at the time, it has created a nice birding habitat, not to mention a popular place for hockey during the winter months. It also provided me with a chance encounter with a redhead.

I got some fantastic views through the binoculars but unfortunately this sad photo is the best I can do. Its constant diving and my "hit and miss" luck with digi-scoping meant I was shut out on this particular day. This redhead was just playing hard to get.

The Summer of Burning

It seems this burning inferno north of town has grown into quite the monster at over 400 000 hectares. Currently the fire is about 60 km to the north this map here will give you an idea of the extent of the area we're talking about. According to one news report I heard, the blaze is 6 times the size of Edmonton the biggest Alberta fire since back near the end of WWI.

Needless to say we can and do get quite a bit of smoke from the fire drift down the valley and into town here, though some days are better than others. For the most part it hasn't been too bad up here in Thickwood though downtown can be another story entirely. Most days the only hint I get of any problem is a whiff of "eau de BBQ" in the morning along with an orangey-red (and on occasion reddish-pink) sun later on in the day. I tend to notice the smoke a lot more at work although we had a good southerly wind at times this afternoon so things weren't too bad. We haven't had a really bad morning out at site in about a week. I think the worse its been so far was last week when near-by Syncrude was on some sort of evacuation notice from what I was told.

Anyhow, I only mention the fire to reassure anyone who may be wondering. I've noticed the situation getting a lot of media attention the last couple weeks especially. I'm not worried about us here. There's no sense of panic or imminent danger. Unless nearby Fort McKay goes into a full scale evacuation a la Slave Lake I won't get too worried about it. As someone who has never experienced the prospect of forest fires before (trees being in rather short supply in Nunavut) I can only take my cue from those who have experience this sort of thing before and play it by ear.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Sunday in Abasand

I took advantage of some sunny weekend weather to get out to some trails in Abasand. This is a small subdivision on a hill across from the downtown. I had been hoping to get out there to explore for sometime now for many reasons. Firstly, at one point back in the 1930's I believe Abasand was home to a salt mining operation and essentially a separate community from Fort McMurray. Secondly, I was also keen to check out the Horse River, whose terminus with the Athabasca we had seen many times from the west side of the river. Looking across, we could always see people fishing at the juncture of the two rivers and it looked like an interesting spot to visit....if only we could figure out how exactly to get to it. I was also curious to see what kind of bird life might be on offer.

A few reminders of Abasand's past....

I came across this large gravel clearing early in my hike (where I also spotted a couple of white-tail too). Perhaps this is where the old plant once stood. I'd be curious to know.

Juncture of the Horse and Athabasca Rivers. Not the best of pictures granted but I was struck at the difference in water colour between the two...the chocolaty brown of the Athabasca and the tea-coloured Horse River. Finding this spot turned out to be quite the challenge and at one point I was tip-toeing along a very narrow trail along the top of the cliffs mere inches from a 100 foot drop into the Athabasca. But find it I did and the views were pretty spectacular.

Fantastic views from the valley above the river.

I walked along the river for a good couple of kilometers until I couldn't make it any further along the mucky banks.

Sandy cliff faces along the river bank provided some great views.

View of the bridge (3 of them actually) across the Athabasca.

Monday, June 6, 2011


It's that time of year again I season. A big section of Franklin Ave. is dug up for water main replacement I think. I'm not really sure but then I don't get downtown all that often. Thankfully.

Saturday, June 4, 2011


Over the course of the past week, Gabriel has started cooing, laughing and yes, smiling. Its a lot of fun for all of us to be able to interact with him on a new level. The kid definitely has a rubber face. I've never seen a baby with so many different expressions for a 2-month-old. He's a regular Jim Carey for sure.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Forest Fires and Rolling Black Clouds of Death

The above photo was taken about a week ago from around our Thickwood neighborhood and gives you an idea of the smoke from local forest fires can blot out the sun. The photo doesn't quite do it justice though and the sun was actually been a weird pinkish colour from time to time. Though it may look like an evening photo, it was actually taken mid-afternoonish. The latest information I've seen is that the fire (referred to now as the Richardson backcountry fire) is about 65 km north of town and still raging out of control, having now consumed something in the neighbourhood of 360 000 hectares.

The past few days haven't been quite as bad, though I heard it mentioned that ash was seen falling in across the river in Abasand and we had a little bit of fine ash falling here in Thickwood here late this afternoon. (Initially it looked like snow to me as the temperature was quite a bit cooler than yesterday...a good 20 degrees colder with a wind chill of -2 this morning.) Last week, we had a few pretty nasty days with lots of smoke out at site and I had quite the sore throat last weekend though thankfully I'm all mended now.

Yesterday, while we didn't have to deal with smoke or ash out at site, we did experience rolling black clouds which again blotted out the sun. It was just like out of a sci-fi thriller. Late in the afternoon, the wind really kicked up a notch and shortly before quiting time I noticed a black haze in the distance. Now, this by itself is no big deal. A short walk from where I work is the "coke road" which leads up over a hill to the coke pits on the other side. This area is separated from the rest of the plant by a giant earthen dike to prevent excess coke dust from blowing in our direction. (Coke dust isn't something you really want to mess around with.) Anyhow, there are times, particularly in the summer when the wind will pick up, sending clouds of coke dust, regular dust and any other light particulate the wind may catch over the dike. This is what happened.

I noticed a puff of black as I mentioned earlier along with dust from a nearby dirt road heading in our general direction. The wind really kicked up as clouds were moving in and I decided to duck inside our warm up shack. Within seconds the entire scaffolding yard was obliterated from sight. The horizon, buildings, trucks, forklifts, gear out in the all disappeared from view. Without sounding overly dramatic, you really couldn't see ten feet in front of you. I held the door open for a few fellow workers as they came rushing in out of the tempest. While I had seen something the day before while down in another yard. This was pretty crazy stuff and it lasted several minutes before the winds died down and it started to clear up. By then it was pretty close to the end of the work shift so we called it a day and changed for the bus ride home.

Fires, smoke, black choking dust, hot days followed immediately after by late fall-like weather with frost's turning into what could be a very interesting summer here.