The Transients (and locals) at the park
Time to raise a family at the park.
A beautiful September morning at Cottonwood Park's replica bridge.
The winter wonder land.
Faces by Elmer (not this one)
Cottonwood Island Park is located a short distance from the confluence of the Nechako and Fraser rivers along the banks of the Nechako and its trails are part of the Heritage River Trail system. As the name implies it is overgrown with gigantic cottonwood trees, which thrive in this location. During the 1980’s the City of Prince George developed the original trails and bridges on a shoestring budget, and they served their purpose well for quite a number of years. I myself used to come through the park on many occasions, either with my mountain bike or on one of my extended runs and enjoyed the surroundings very much, Then, after a couple of harsh winters with ice dams on the Nechako River and extreme run-off from the snowmelt in the spring, some of the bridges were washed out and the trails close to the riverbank fell victim to erosion. The one remaining bridge left from the original development was smashed by a falling cottonwood tree and subsequently removed by city crews. The Park lost its attraction, and very few people visited it. Then, after several years of disrepair, one of the lost bridges was rebuilt. It pays homage to the old Cameron Street Bridge, which had been replaced with a more modern structure. Unlike the original bridges it was well engineered with proper abutments and the annual spring floods in mind. It is now the focal point of Cottonwood Island Park. Now people could walk one loop in the park instead of walking in and then walking back the same way and the park became more popular again.
Then, in the fall of 2017, work began on another bridge further upstream to span the slough, which divides the park. Construction was completed in the following spring and now all trails can be used to their full potential.
I had been coming to this place since its inception, more in some years than in others, but I found consistently enjoyment there. This is my attempt to pay homage to a place I have grown fond of over the years. I will show the flora and fauna as it changes with the seasons. Not all animals are there all the time or even year after year. Some will surprise and others will make me smile. That is why this place will always have a special place in my heart.
The question in my mind was where to begin this adventure. There are four quite distinct seasons in the park and every single one has its highlights.
There is the spring where migratory birds visit during their stopover to points further up north. It is an ever-changing menagerie where resident and migratory birds intermingle, and the resident mammals get ready to raise a new set of offspring, plants are flowering, and the park becomes fragrant with the different smells. The Park floods from the melting snow in faraway mountains, allowing the plants to grow.
Summer has its own attractions. Those who live here or decided to stay are raising their offspring in the sometimes-sweltering heat.
In autumn the leaves turn into many different colours and many of the spring visitors are back on their stopover going south.
And then there is winter with its freezing temperatures, heavy snows and cold breezes. Those who stayed behind will have to wait it out until spring rolls around again. It is a continuous circle of life in an ever-changing environment which supports all life in the park, even the mosquitoes.
Spring It is early March and the days have been getting longer now for two months. On a sunny day the sun has now more power and it is now actually enjoyable to be outside, at least when it is sunny. At the Canoe Launch parking lot mallard ducks have been staying for most of the winter, especially when there is open water around and for the most part there is.
Squirrels get active again. They don’t really hibernate, but when it gets really cold, they stay in their dens to avoid the cold. During a morning walk I happened to come across these two squirrels, which were constantly squabbling with each other. I was in no rush and decided to watch them for a little while. And then these rodents started to get entertaining and luckily, I caught the whole kafuffle with my camera. And of course, like usual, it is all about food. And so, the chase continues to this day.
Just watch these next two individuals. It is a little later in the season, but the game is still the same. Nobody wants to share, so the stare-down and the squabble that follows is all too familiar to the knowing observer. These fights appear harmless enough to the onlooker, but some individuals show the scars from their encounters with one another.
As cute as they are these rodents are on the lower end of the food chain. Yes, they are very fast an agile but one moment of not paying attention can have disastrous result for any individual. This squirrel’s luck had finally run out and the raven enjoys its meal. Shortly after this photo was taken it flew away with what was left of the carcass, perhaps to feed its young. Ravens are not the only predators in the park. We will meet them one by one as we progress in our story.
At this point in the season foxes make their appointed rounds as usual, always on the lookout for some morsels to eat. But now the snow has started to slowly melt and as the temperature keeps rising new guests arrive for a stopover.
Ducks and geese on their way to their northern breeding grounds come to rest for a few days and feed before moving on to their final destination. The air is filled with the quacking. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, whole flocks of ducks rise into the air, fly a couple of rounds just to return to the open water once again. Something must have spooked them.
Further along the way other birds are surviving the cold. Woodpeckers can be heard digging their pointed beaks into the soft, decaying wood of cottonwood snags for their choice of bugs and their larvae, which spent their winter burrowed in the hope of survival. No such luck today. Chickadees feed on the sunflower seeds people have placed in several locations and the squirrels are helping themselves too. Other birds join into the free-for-all. They are mainly migratory which have chosen the park as a stopover just like many of the ducks.
As March turns into April the snow is almost gone and only clings to the shadiest of places but with the climbing temperatures it also will be gone soon. The river has risen considerably from its winter level. Fed from the melting snowpack the water level changes with the temperatures: low on cold days and high on hot days. The sun is now more powerful and coaxes the trees into budding. The odd leaf of grass shows itself and the pussy willows are in full bloom. Bears show their faces around the park, usually in the early morning. Hungry from the long hibernation one of them climbed up the tall cottonwoods in search of some food: leaf buds. He and several of his friends live on an island, which is part of the park and located in the middle of the Nechako River, but inaccessible without the aid of a boat.
New arrivals show up daily. During a snow shower in early April seagulls return to their summer stomping grounds and entertain me with their aerial acrobatics and fly-bys. Their numbers swell daily now. They prefer the sandbanks in the Nechako River where they can be seen flocking together. Opportunistic feeders, they will get into anything that promises nourishment. Another visitor decided to drop by. It is an American Coot. it doesn’t trust me today and takes off. With his disproportioned large body in relation to its wings he must take a run to gain airspeed and splashes its way clumsily across the water. After what felt almost like an eternity, it finally gets airborne, and I caught the entire sequence with my camera. The next day it felt more secure and modelled for me sitting on a root. The large, padded feet are a great help when navigating soft ground and equally helpful when getting a running start.
Another visitor to the park is a Scaup, another variety of duck. I had encountered them on some small, secluded lakes in the Prince George area, but never in Prince George itself. And, as I had thought they were gone after a few short days.
American widgeons arrived in late March and stay for a while longer, but eventually they will leave too for points north, where they will raise a new brood. Farewell for now, but I am sure they will be back the following year.
The Goldeneyes are year-round residents of the park they have been posturing and competing for mates since March. After the female Goldeneyes had their choice and picked their mate the new couples will spend some time together and the males will defend his mate from any other potential suitors. It is simply fun to watch.
Common mergansers arrive. They are staying for the summer to raise their brood. The battles between the males to get the females attention are quite fierce.
As the seasons progress, we will revisit the common mergansers again and watch them as they raise their young. Meanwhile the hooded mergansers are arriving as well. Smaller than the common merganser they are just as fierce. One of my earliest encounters with this little duck took place the morning after I just had received my 50 – 500mm telephoto lens. As I walked up to the slew, I heard a splash. When I investigated the source of the noise, I noticed a hooded merganser with a fish in its bill. I witnessed as the duck carefully maneuvered the fish in a more advantageous position and avoiding the loss of said fish at all costs. Once the victim was positioned just right the bird proceeded to swallow it whole. The whole thing had only taken a couple of minutes and then the fish was gone. After all its friends had left the duck was sitting on a log in the water, digesting its meal. Was he too heavy to fly after that big meal? I will never know.
I did not believe my eyes when I spotted Wood Ducks in January and February, but apparently, they seem to spend their winters at Cottonwood Park. Now that spring has sprung, they are of course, involved in the courting business just like everyone else, which sometimes makes for some comical situations. Once everything is settled, everyone is getting along just fine.
Harlequin Ducks usually just stop very briefly by the park, perhaps for some nourishment. Then they are gone as fast as they came.
The foxes are still around and make their appointed rounds. Once the park gets busy, they disappear for the rest of the day. Toward the end of April their heavy winter coats look shaggy as their fur adapts for the warmer temperatures to come.
Mallards can be seen year-round in the park and their quacking can be heard all over. As described earlier, whole flocks of them rise for no apparent reason and then settle down again. Now that the ice has melted away, they like to say further away from the human users of the park. They find themselves the more secluded areas of the park where they build their nests and raise their young. While the females are raising the family the drakes put on a show.
Snow Geese are also among the many transient visitors to the park. They arrive around the end of April and stay only for a couple of weeks before heading further north to be with their own kind in large colonies.
Canada geese have started arriving at the end of March, but by the end of April only the ones which will stay until late fall are left. They do nest in the park as well, some of them in the strangest places. This is the first time that I witnessed a Canada Goose set up a household in a tree stump three metres tall with its mate looking on from another perch nearby. This will evade the foxes, at least for now. Eventually they must come down, but that is still I the future.
There are many resident birds in the park. Ravens are calling the park home year-round, and so do the magpies. These shy birds provide a lot of entertainment if one knows where to look. I once observed a couple trying to build a nest together. Both partners worked quite feverishly to get their home in time. There was a lot of coming and going, sticks were placed in just the right spots, just in time for the big event, raising a family.
I was quite surprised when I spotted Great Blue Herons in the middle of winter, but they seem to have found a home in the park year-round. This particular individual was spotted in early April with its winter plumage still intact. We will see more of them later.
There used to be an eagle’s nest directly in the park, but one frosty February morning several years ago the branch on which it was built broke off and the entire nest ended up on the ground. There were photos in the paper along with an article lamenting the nest’s loss. The eagles built a new nest across the river on the island. They have their privacy now, They stay in the park year-round and are seen frequently sitting on top of their favourite trees across the Nechako. But they come still over for an occasional visit.
Other visitors to the park are the Ospreys. They live off-site on top of a tall light standard in an abandoned sawmill site. But their favourite fishing holes are located in the park, and they can be seen frequently either carrying a fish from one of their outings or hovering overhead trying to snatch one from the waters of the Nechako or Fraser Rivers. On occasions they will get robbed by the eagles of their fruit of their labour, because that’s what eagles do.
Between the end of April and the end of May a host of transient birds appear in the park. They are also on their way to other faraway places. The American Goldfinch is one example. I caught this particular individual “posing” for me. But, how it always is these shy birds, despite the use of a long lens they get eventually nervous and seek greener pastures with less people around.
After the arrival of May the buds on the trees are turning into leaves and the air is filled with intoxicating smell of flowers as all the different plants offer their nectar to the bees and other insects in exchange for the pollination so they can produce the seeds necessary to procreate. The river has now risen quite high and flooded the low-lying parts of the park. Most ducks and geese have left now but the ones, which stayed behind now move in amongst the trees. They prefer the tree cover away from the prying eyes of the eagles to raise their families.
With the arrival of June, the water level starts to drop slowly. Most of the snow in the mountains has melted and the run-off has found its way downstream. The flowers and their smells begin to fade, and the temperatures keep climbing. Most furbearers have traded their heavy winter coats for a much lighter one. Beavers start working on their dam again to keep some of the water behind. Summer must be just around the corner.
June is a month of transition for the park. The flowers and the intoxicating smells emitted by them slowly fade and the plants now expend their energy transforming the flowers into fruits or more precisely seeds. They procreate too. The temperatures had been rising throughout May and they will continue until they reach their highest values in July and early August. These are the dog days of summer.
Foxes can be seen during the early morning hours scavenging in the park for whatever they can find. The ducks and geese, which stayed and did not make the trek further north, are now busy raising their families. This is also a prime time for viewing ospreys. They are busy feeding their young with fish they pull from the cool waters of the Nechako River. Its waters have receded now and there are just some slow-moving pools of water left in front of the Canoe Launch parking lot, ideal for the two-legged users of the park to have a refreshing dip in the cooling waters. This is the peak season for the park, where people come and seek refuge in the shade between the trees. Everything is dry. And it is also the peak of fire season.
There had been a Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic over the last twenty years in the forests in the Central Interior and the Cariboo Regions of British Columbia. It devastated large tracts of land. Most of the beetle kill was harvested, but for some of the timber it was too late to be of any commercial value. Thunderstorms and lightning strikes set the forest ablaze and, depending on the wind direction, smoke from these fires is blown to the park, filling the air with its foul stench. As firefighting efforts progress this is brought under control eventually and people and animals can breathe easy again.
By mid-August the major summer heat wave is over, and things are back to normal again. The ducklings and goslings, which survived the dog days of summer have molted and now look more like their parents. And the foxes have started to grow their winter pelt. For now, it is still short but as the season progresses it will continue to grow. The first leaves are turning yellow and as August turns into September the fruits of all the flowering shrubs have ripened. As the early morning daylight recedes morning fog is a distinct possibility. It usually burns off quickly once the sun comes out. This is the time when bears can be once again spotted in the park. They are feeding on the berries, which are now abundant in the park. Hibernation is just around the corner, and they have to build up their fat reserves if they are to survive the winter. The foliage on the trees and bushes has now turned to colour and has started dropping to the ground. Fall has officially arrived.
By mid-September autumn has arrived. Morning fogs are quite common now and the walkways in the park are littered with leaves. Migratory birds arrive and depart again on their way south, but things don’t seem to be as urgent as in the spring. The fox’s fur has been growing steadily and is quite thick now. Squirrels are busy now gathering food for the coming winter and the birds, which will stay for the winter, have added some more plumage to their bodies. By October it starts raining more, but, on occasions when the sunshine prevails, one can enjoy a beautiful Indian summer.
By mid-October the first snowflakes appear, a foreboding of what is to come in the not-too-distant future. They won’t be sticking around, at least not yet. Most of the leaves have now fallen from the trees and cover the park’s floor and as November approaches things start to freeze. In the shady areas of the park snow can now be spotted amongst the trees and by mid-November snow will cover most of the park. Most of the migratory birds have left now and only a few stragglers are left behind. They will leave eventually. And then there is the first major snowfall blanketing the park and the temperatures drop dramatically. Old man Winter has taken up reign in the park for the next few months.
The Park is quiet now. Only the hardiest of people venture now into the park. A thick blanket of snow covers now its floor. The bears are now in hibernation and will not leave their dens until spring. Daylight is now at a premium. The foxes are now wearing their winter coats. They can be spotted now and again roaming in the park, looking for the elusive snowshoe rabbit.
I have also personally witnessed a coyote frequenting the park, which was an adventure all by itself. I was out Christmas Eve morning to see if there were some animals to shoot. I had been out several mornings before and besides the obligatory bird and squirrels there was nothing exciting happening. But this time was different. As I got out of my car, I spotted a coyote just a short distance away from me. The temperature out was a "cool" -22 degrees C and my camera had not yet acclimatized to these conditions. My aperture was stuck at F22, nice for detailed landscape shots with great depth of field and low shutter speeds but utterly useless for shooting moving wildlife, especially in these low light conditions I encountered that morning. I moved quickly to some trees close by which I used for a rest for the camera. That's why the first two photos are a bit blurry. The rest of them were really blurry and are not included in this write-up. The coyote was moving away from me and disappeared in some cover. Then I spotted a fox working its way carefully along the brushes edge, stopping and sniffing before advancing carefully. As a side note I would like to mention that by now my camera was now acclimatized to the cold and worked properly. I changed position to get closer to the action. The fox had advanced further than I had thought he would. By now I had all but forgotten about the coyote. Much to my surprise he re-appeared in my viewfinder behind some cover behind the fox. Coyotes will kill and eat foxes and I anxiously was waiting for the drama to unfold. Suddenly the fox froze in its tracks and remained motionless for a moment as if he knew that something was up. Then the coyote broke cover and the chase was on. As the animals disappeared in a dip in the landscape, I thought that the coyote would prevail but to my amazement they both emerged from the depression in different spots. There was not to be fox on the coyote’s menu that morning. He stayed around for a while and posed for me. He even did some jumps and a shake-a-paw. Meanwhile the fox watched those going-on from a safe distance. Finally, they both grew tired of my company and moved on to bigger and better things and perhaps to meet again in the distant future.
There were also some reports of wolves in the park, but they have eluded me consistently. There is very little open water now on the Nechako River, and the resident mallard ducks frequent whatever water there is available, but I have witnessed some wood ducks mixed in with them on occasion. January and February are traditionally the coldest two months of the year, but by mid-February one can see the light at the end of the tunnel. There is more daylight now, the foreboding that spring is slowly approaching. Very slowly. But even then, there can be surprises, as the following outing shows.
My breakfast, a chorizo omelet stuffed with some salsa and some cheese along with some fried potatoes had been good but now the great outdoors was beckoning me to come out and play. After getting dressed appropriately (the outside temperature was -20 C) I grabbed my camera, checked the battery charge and jumped into my Subaru. The drive to Cottonwood Park was a short one like usual and the parking lot was empty except for one station wagon whose owners were just disappearing on the other side of the bridge crossing the slough. Low patches of fog were drifting about aimlessly across the frozen Nechako River and the sun had just started to rise. I started my walk across the bridge along the ploughed walkway. Then I heard some voices coming toward me. It turned out to be the owners of the station wagon who were returning. Was it too cold for them? I did not care and kept going. The snow made crunching sounds under my boots and there was a cold breeze biting into my face. Even squirrels were not out in the cold. I now approached the first “viewpoint” along the way. The fog was quite thick across the riverbed, but the sun made a valiant effort trying to burn it off which made for some interesting lighting effect. I squeezed off a few frames before moving on. It was too cold to stay in one spot too long. Crunch, crunch, crunch. I grew concerned that the noise the snow made under my boots alarmed animals of my presence, but I just kept going. There were no other sounds and the thought that there were no animals out today had crossed my mind when I saw some movement just ahead of me in the thick brush. All I saw was a head with two tufty ears from behind. Was it a lynx perhaps? I had seen them before, but it did not quite look right. I brought up my camera. Even In full zoom it was inconclusive. And then it turned its head. No, it was not a lynx but a great horned owl that stared back at me. Its face was blood stained and some fur was stuck to it, covering its right eye. I took several shots before changing my position. I kept alternating between shooting and position change to get a better angle, when I noticed someone approaching from the other direction. I tried to motion him to stop but he did not notice me until it was too late. The owl flew up into a nearby tree from where it watched us suspiciously. I now had a chance to examine the owl’s quarry. It had been a rabbit whose life had come to a gruesome end by the sharp talons and beak of the owl. Right now, there was nothing to see here so I kept going along the trail. Once out of visual range I stopped, waited for a few minutes and then headed back. Just as I had hoped the owl had reclaimed the rabbit’s carcass and was feeding on it. There were also several magpies hanging out now, looking for some leftovers. There was now a clear line of sight to the owl, and I spent some more time with it. Once I thought that I had worn out my welcome I thanked the owl for posing for me and moved away. I hoped she enjoyed her meal.
When I returned approximately an hour later the rabbit was all but gone. Only some fur and some blood stains marked the spot where it had met its demise.
Soon it will be March and the whole thing will repeat itself once again in the continuing saga of life in Cotton Wood Island Park.
I have never met Elmer, but he has an everlasting presence in the park. He is the wood carver behind the faces, which are carved in the thick bark of some of the cottonwood trees in the park.