Winter Wildlife Near Calgary 2014

by Dr. Robert Berdan

January 21, 2014


In spite of Calgary's rapid growth it still amazes me how much wildlife lives within and near the city. In winter wildlife might be easier to spot, but it also harder to find or at least it seems that way. It doesn't seem to matter whether it's a cold overcast day or a blue sky day, though blue sky days definitely feel more cheery.



Pronghorn antelope next to the Trans-Canada highway near Suffield. Nikon D300s and 300 mm f/2.8 lens



On Thursday Jan 16 I headed out east to photograph pronghorns with fellow photographer and wildlife specialist Dr. Wayne Lynch. Wayne wanted to photograph some pronghorns for a calendar and I was happy to just get away from my computer. We stopped in Dinosaur Provincial Park first, photographed some deer, then headed to Suffield military base where we stopped for gas and then turned around to photograph pronghorn antelope on the north side of the highway. We spotted several herds but it was difficult to approach these speedsters on the open prairie.


Pronghorns (Anticapra americana ) are the fastest animals in North America and can sprint up to 90 km\h. In comparison a white tail deer can only hit about 40 km\h. Today the only natural predators the antelope have are coyotes

which are able to catch young and sick animals, but have no chance catching an adult. The question arose why are these animals so fast. Turns out Wayne had written an article and his research suggests that it is because of predators in the past living over 10,000 years ago. Up until about 200 years ago there were wolves, grizzly bears and cougar on the prairie. However, observations from Yellowstone National Park suggest that wolves and grizzly bears rarely prey on pronghorns. However, before 10,000 years ago there were other predators including the American lion, American hunting hyena, giant short faced bear, American cheetah and Studer's cheetah (Lynch 2011 - see full reference below).

Apparently the memory of past predators that disappeared still haunt the prairies and it is thought that this why the pronghorn antelope still run so quickly. As a photographer you need a big lens if you want to capture closeups of these wary animals. I used a 300 mm f/2.8 lens while Wayne used his 600 mm f/4. They seem to ignore cars and trucks, but as soon as we stopped or got out of the car we had their attention.



Pronghorns in south east Alberta in winter by Robert Berdan ©


In winter pronghorns often live in groups of 30-40 but can sometimes reach herds of a 1000 or more. They feed on grasses and sagebrush over the winter and in parts of Alberta, sage brush comprise as much as 70-90% of their diet.



Pronghorns from the same area photographed in summer.



We spotted numerous coyotes in the adjacent fields but they tend to be shy and keep their distance.



Coyote tracks frozen in ice along the road in Dinosaur Provincial Park


Dinosaur Provincial Park Near Brooks Alberta

In summer Dinosaur park is full of tourists and mosquitoes, but in winter you can have the place pretty much to yourself.

The unusual landscape is best photographed when the sun is low on the horizon and the shadows accentuate the shapes and forms of the terrain The badlands topography is largely the result of rapid erosion by water that occurred following the last ice age. It's also known for its concentration of fossils and dinosaur bones.


Ice covered road in Dinosaur Provincial Park




Mule deer surrounded by sagebrush next to the road in Dinosaur Park.


Mule deer in Dinosaur provincial Park by Robert Berdan ©


Along the river there is a large grove of old cottonwoods, this mule deer was milling about and feeding on
sagebrush. Nikon D300s and 300 mm f/1.8 lens




Mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) have large ears like a mule and a small tail with a black tip. Mule deer consume a wide variety of plants, and their preferences vary widely geographically as well as seasonally, but they primarily browse on woody vegetation and eat relatively little grass. In winter, these deer forage on conifer (especially Douglas-fircedar,Taxus yewsjuniper), and twigs of deciduous trees and shrubs (esp. aspenwillowdogwoodserviceberry, and sage) (source Wikipedia) .



I see you - a young mule deer hides behind shrubs in the Badlands. In situations like this it is often better to use
manual focus as the camera and lens will tend to focus on the brush in front of the animal.




Young mule deer embrace


Mule deer family in Dinosaur provincial park by Robert Berdan ©


Mother and two young mule deer feed on sagebrush


Mule deer in Dinosaur provincial park by Robert Berdan ©


Mule Deer in Dinosaur provincial Park




Mule deer in light passing through the hoodoos




Mule deer in warm light


Dinosaur park in winter by Robert Berdan ©


The geology and topography is accentuated by the low angle of the sun and patches of snow


Winter landscape in Dinosaur park by Robert Berdan ©


Typical winter landscapes from Dinosaur Provincial Park


Mule deer Dinosaur Park by Robert Berdan ©


Mule deer on the hillsides in Dinosaur Provincial Park



Mule Deer - Nikon D300 & 300 mm f/2.8 lens from the road.




Dr. Wayne Lynch in front of Dinosaur Provincial Park



We saw several Ring-necked pheasants (Phasianus colchicus) alongside the road into Dinosaur Provincial Park.




This pheasant took flight when we stopped the car and I managed to capture a few shots of him. The Nikon D300 does a
wonderful job tracking large birds in flight. Nikon D300s and 70-200 mm f/t2.8 lens.


Saturday, January 18, 2014 Banff National Park


Wild Wolf. Nikon D300s and 300 mm f/2.8 lens - Highway 1A Bow Valley Parkway in Banff National Park, AB

Wolf photographed along the Bow Valley Road in Banff on Saturday January 18 about 10:00 am near the Muleshoe,
This wolf crossed the road in front of us and there was a second black wolf as well that ran back into the bush. On close inspection I could see the wolf was wearing a radio collar. Fortunately we were driving slowly and had time to stop and take a few pictures before he disappeared. Wolves have also been spotted near the hillsdale meadows further down the Bow Valley Parkway, but in my experience it's pure luck whether or not you will see them. The biggest danger to wolves in Banff National Park are cars so its important to drive the speed limit or slower and be wary that animals such as wolves can pop out in front of you.


Sunday January 19, 2014

On Sunday, I took out two bird photography enthusiasts that wanted to see and photograph snowy owls. I mentioned to them that while I knew where the owls often hang out that this year they were more difficult to find then normal. Still we headed out and spotted a total of 6 snowy owls, though most were too far away to photograph. We spotted one Great Horned owl in a tree in the Irricana area along with one snowy, the other snowy owls were spotted near Mossleigh, south of Calgary. At the end of the day as the sun was setting, we found one cooperative snowy owl that posed on a fence pole and both my guests captured some beautiful photos of the owl.


Great horned owl in flight by Robert Berdan ©


Great Horned Owl in flight, 70-200 mm f/2.8 lens. Irricana area.



Great horned owl in tree by Robert Berdan ©


Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) - initially he was invisible as he sat next to the tree trunk. Nikon D300s & 70-200 mm f/2.8.



Photographers approach a snowy owl by Robert Berdan ©


Most of the snowy owls we spotted on Sunday, Jan19 were on the ground and often in the middle of the field. Here, my

friends try to approach a snowy owl, but the birds were skittish and flew off. Just finding a snowy owl when they are on the ground is a challenge as they are perfectly camoflauged.


Male snowy owl in flight by Robert Berdan ©


Male snowy owl photographed near Mossleigh, AB south of Calgary 300 mm f/2.8 lens Nikon D300. Snowy owls
arrive in the area about mid October and stay until the end of March depending on the weather.


Earlier in the morning we also saw a red fox near the road (TWP 262) as we drove east , but it was about an hour before sunrise still too dark to photogaph and our cameras were still packed in the back of the car. What I really like aobut heading out on the prairies is that there are no crowds like we experienced in Banff National Park, in fact Lake Louise was so full with the winter festival we couldn't drive up to the lake. The mountains are spectacular for sure, but the prairies offer tranquility and one is less likely to run into other tourists or photographers for that matter. RB



Photography Tips for photographing Wildlife East of Calgary

1. In winter it is important to check the weather and road reports before heading out .

2. Telephoto lenses such as 70-300 mm focal length or longer are essential if you want to capture wildlife.

3. While driving down the back-roads keep your eyes out for sharp-tail grouse, gray partridges and pheasants.

4. Consider using a fast ISO speed such as 400 even on sunny days if you want to capture fast flying birds.

5. Dress in layers so if it warms up, you can peel some layers of clothing off.

6. Bring a friend along, the more eyes you have the more likely you will spot the wildlife, a pair of binoculars is also
    also a valuable tool to help you find owls.

7. If you are looking for snowy owls, check out the various web sites for recent sightings and one thing I do is to keep a record of  where I have seen owls in the past as they seem to revisit the same areas.



Map showing where we photographed Wildlife


Map of wildlife east of Calgary


Calgary to Brooks is 235 Km and takes about 2 and half hours to drive via the Trans-Canada Highway


Links To Additional References



Dr Wayne Lynch - Fueled by Phantoms - The pronghorn has performance to spare, Conservation Magazine - Fall/Winter 2011 pages 16-18.



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