Monday, June 27, 2011

Foam on Wascana Creek

I'm not the only one asking questions about those curd flotillas that have been cruising down Wascana Creek this month.

The day after I posted about the foam — and the pelicans swimming in and out of the billows (Regina: Weir Opens, Foams Wascana Creek) — CBC News did a story, too: Foam on Wascana Creek Not Risky: Biologist.

Pelican in Wascana Creek foam - photo by Shelley Banks
Pelican beside curds and billows of foam, June 22, 2011. 
Please don't tell me this is normal!  © SB

The CBC story explains that the iceberg-like blobs are "actually agitated cocktails of phosphorus and organic matter." It goes on to report that the University of Regina's Peter Leavitt says it's not necessarily bad that large blocks of foam are flowing down the stream, even if the phosphorus is coming from agricultural runoff.

However, Leavitt also told the broadcaster that there was an "unbelievable amount of phosphorus" in Wascana Lake, and he indicated that phosphorus-rich water supports algae growth.

You know what that means. Summer heat = thick green water, stench rising...

Dog owners, take note: some algae are toxic.   


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Regina: Weir Opens, Foams Wascana Creek

The City of Regina opened part of the weir under the Albert Street Bridge this morning. The force of water churned islands and cliffs of foam along the south side of Wascana Creek.

As I watched not long after noon, six pelicans paddled through the surreal suds, bobbing through what looked like chunks of Styrofoam — and amazingly, their legs were strong enough to keep them moving forward against the power of the rushing current.

Foam in Wascana Creek - photo by Shelley Banks
Several pelicans drift (middle, in front of high foam). © SB 

Pelicans in foam in Wascana Creek - photo by Shelley Banks
Close up: Forth by bridge. © SB 
Despite the towering froth — or perhaps because of the slower eddies where it settled — the pelicans stayed on the south side, paddling along the shore, weaving out through chunks of foam, then up over lacy swirls of froth to the Albert Street Bridge, and back again.

Strange to me, but they didn't seem bothered at all by the suds that billowed behind, beside, around them.

But how would I know how pelicans really feel?

My logic is that if they didn't like the foam, they'd fly away — but perhaps they stayed in these snow-white meringues unwillingly because the rewards of food there were so great. I mean, they liked the food enough to endure the foam.

But what are these thick bubbly drifts? Are they safe and natural?

Pelicans in foam in Wascana Creek - photo by Shelley Banks
Swimming through islands. © SB
The Alberta Environment publication, Foam on Surface Waters (a very easy read — with pictures), says it can be natural and neutral, the result of soluble organic material, the same substances from plants and trees that cause the tea-brown colour of the water. Some of these dissolved compounds are "surface-active agents," or surfactants. These lessen the surface tension of the water, and when the water is vigorously mixed and air is churned in, bubbles form — and bubbles build up to create foam.

It's the same process that creates bubble baths.

Pelicans - bird bubble bath? - photo by Shelley Banks
Bird bubble bath © SB  
So frothy stuff is common when fast moving water (with chemicals from decomposing plants) thrashes through rapids and churns over dams.

But are billows this white and this high really natural? Or are other elements involved?

Foam goes on to say that the synthetically produced surfactants used in household products (detergents, shampoos and toothpaste) can also be released in surface waters, and, yes, create river foam.

And a 2006 Washington Post story about foam on Virginia's James River suggested the culprit in that case could be pollution — phosphorus from sewage plants, manure-laden farm runoff, suburban lawns and others watershed sources.

But others say river foam is harmless. That's what a city engineer from Moose Jaw (a city so near Regina its water must be the same) told the local paper last year. A natural occurance, caused by organic phosphates from plants and grasses, he said.

So synthetic or natural, soap or decay, pollution or organic?

Whatever the origin on this foam, I can only wonder at the pelican's apparent acceptance, and even — or so it looked today — enjoyment of it.

Pelicans submerged in foam - photo by Shelley Banks
Is this really safe? If so, relax, and count the pelicans!  © SB  


And why was the weir opened? Yesterday, in announcing the plan to remove part of the weir — aka, a small dam — the City of Regina news release said Wascana Lake was two feet higher than normal, the result of spring melt combined with the 50 mm of rain that fell here on Friday. As the flow moves downstream, the City warned there will be fast flowing water and undertows. Residents were reminded to stay safe and keep children and pets away from the water.

I stood on the bridge for these shots...

And so, a note on perspective: Given how far above I was (see first picture), and the fact that I was looking down on the birds and the creek and the foam, these images will show the foam as lower/smaller than it actually was. (Just in case anyone thinks I played with camera angles to make the billows so high...)  


Update: A day later, CBC News discovers the foam. See: Foam on Wascana Creek Not Dangerous?
Update: August 29, 2011: Wascana Creek Polluted and at Risk?


Saturday, June 18, 2011

Hips, Spines, & Secret Places of the Earth

Grasslands National Park, SW Saskatchewan: This land curves to the horizon — hips, spines, bellies of the Earth open and exposed. No trees, no buildings. Only wide, lonely rolling to the edge of sight.

No, look closer  — secret places still conceal, Earth's creatures safe, protected.

Antelope. Bison. Prairie Dogs. Deer. Rattlesnakes:

rattlesnake sign, Grasslands National Park - photo by Shelley Banks
Right. Now I feel safe... © SB 

Grasses, yes, but no suburban lawn. Here prairie fox-tail swishes, flashes in the slanting sun:

Grasses in Grasslands National Park - photo by Shelley Banks
June evening. Wind. Prairie fox-tail grass. © SB 

Walk until the prairie drowns in deep green-shadowed coulees:

Grasslands National Park  - photo by Shelley Banks
The land rises and falls. Near the West Gate. © SB

No need to believe — you know that sky goes on forever, blue until the end of light:

Fence - Grasslands National Park - photo by Shelley Banks
Old fence: Sticks inserted into wire. © SB 

Grasslands - with sagebrush. Grasslands National Park - photo by Shelley Banks
Grass, sage, distant hills,  © SB

Ah, southwest Saskatchewan. So beautiful, so soft after Spring's excessive rains. This land reminds me of the north – Yukon, Alaska, far above the tree line where Earth's swells and curves are also bare, exposed, and magnified by summer light. 


Monday, June 6, 2011

Gosling Crossing: Wascana Park

Canada geese with five goslings cross the road in Regina's Wascana Park
Gosling Crossing, Wascana Park © SB 
The cars ahead stopped as soon as they turned the corner. I pulled into a parking spot and we all waited for the geese to meander to the other side, sniff the grass — and then run back across the road to the lake.

Who knows what birds think? It's a riddle or a joke: Why did they cross the road? Were they training their young to explore? Just bored? Or trying to stop traffic?

Back when I was a newspaper reporter in another city with many geese, there was a time when photos of geese crossing the roads in that city's park were so frequent that rumours sprung up that at least one newspaper photographer kept stuffed ones in his trunk, ready to pop out in front of cars whenever he needed a quick picture.  

These ones, I know, are real. I saw them cross the road, then cross back to the other side.


Sunday, June 5, 2011

Canada Goose — Eight Goslings in her Wings

Wascana Park, Regina, SK: While other Canada geese ran away from leashed dogs, and after excited children with pieces of bread, one goose nestled on the shore of Wascana Lake and sheltered eight large goslings under her wings. Her mate stood guard beside her.

Canada goose with goslings under her wings
Canada geese with goslings sheltered under wings. © SB 
It was a cold afternoon, and the goslings may have been seeking a warm place, more than a hiding place.

One gosling that had been away with the mass of teenage birds on the beach, fearlessly scrounging bits to eat, ran back and joined the group before these first two pictures here were taken.

The mother tipped a wing, and the young one clambered under her feathers. (Before that gosling arrived, all young heads had lifted when she hissed at another goose that came too near. See bottom image. I counted; there were at least seven before the last one climbed in.)

These goslings looked silky soft, more like puppies or seals (or penguins!) than awkward, angular, adult Canada geese.

Here's a close-up of the little ones under her wings:

Close-up of Canada goose with eight goslings under her wings
At least eight goslings under this Canada goose's wings. © SB


These birds on the beach reminded me of a Psalm — and I realized, hardly for the first time — how male-centric the language in the Bible is... so I have amended the line below to the proper female spirit:
"She will cover you with her feathers, and under her wings you will find refuge."  Psalm 91: 4, New International Version, with gender-appropriate fix.

Hissing Canada goose, with goslings arching their heads up to watch
Count the goslings! I can see seven, but there might another © SB
Earlier, when an approaching goose had alarmed her, she had stretched out her neck and loudly hissed. The goslings, clearly misunderstanding that she was reacting to signs of approaching danger, all popped up their heads to see what was going on. As soon as she calmed down, they nestled back to sleep. (The two pix above were taken after this and have one more young bird under her wings.)


Saturday, June 4, 2011

Fewer Goslings to be Seen in Wascana?

The local paper reports there will be "significantly fewer"#1 goslings in Wascana Park this summer. Perhaps so, but the ones I saw this afternoon remain significantly cute.#2

Canada geese with dozens of goslings in Wascana Park, Regina
Geese take turns on guard duty while goslings feed. © SB
#1: The Leader Post said today that the late snow melt and heavy flooded delayed and destroyed many nests along the banks of the Wascana Lake and on Goose Island, a major breeding area. (I'd no idea where GI was until I checked Google maps; clearly, it's not someplace you can stroll over to.) On April 6 last year, the paper said, there 35 goose nests on the island; this year on that same date, no nests because there was a foot of snow — and then the banks flooded.

#2: These Canada geese know where the easy food is. And so the largest cluster on the lakeshore is beside the most popular parking lot. I couldn't sort out the families, and the cheeping babies ranged dramatically in size.

My copy of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable says when people use the phrase "silly goose" it's because of "the alleged stupidity of this bird"; but these birds are actually very alert and very canny.

And, significantly cute.



Girl on bicycle, to friend cycling behind her: "Look! They're so tiny, but they still have wings!"

(Silly goose!)

Families of Canada geese pecking for food in sand in Wascana Park
Several families of geese and goslings peck for food in sand. © SB  


Map of Wascana Park



Lost Gosling on Pine Island, Wascana Lake

Pair of Canada geese, seen through spring blossoms
Pair of geese — parents of 4 (or is that 5?) goslings. © SB
When I first saw the geese, they looked to be alone.

Then the female stood up and four yellow-green goslings ran out from under her wings.

Champions of camouflage, down feathers melting into short new grass.

The goslings ran beside their parents, pecking for food on the edge of Pine Island, a slice of land so insignificant in size, I never knew it had a name until I searched a map for another name.)

A family walked down to the water — a man with a stroller, and a child running beside them.

I pointed to the goslings.

"There's another," the man said. "She's taking its picture." And he gestured back towards a women, maybe his wife, on the other side of the island.

Pair of Canada geese, with four goslings
Geese with four green-grass goslings © SB

Yes, this island in Wascana Lake is small by human-scale perspective, but even though I know that birds and animals have different perceptions, from one end to the other still seemed an impossible gap for a recently hatched, still fluffy gold-green gosling.

It can't be from the same family, I thought, walking to the bridge to go back to my van. It must be with another pair.

And then, I saw it, alone on the wood-chip-covered path, cheeping softly, almost inaudibly.

It ran after another pair of geese, but they had older goslings, one of which ran up to the chick and batted at its head.

For a few minutes, the tiny gosling lay down on the road, pecking at dirt and bark. It was chilly by the lake; my fingers were red and cold, and I started to wonder what might happen if the bird did not find warmth. 

tiny gosling, alone on the road
Alone on the road. © SB
Then an adult goose appeared at the top of the rise, up from the slope where the other pair had been feeding with their four goslings. The goose waited. The gosling hopped closer, until they were side by side, and then it ran down the hill to join the other four identically sized and coloured goslings.

When I left, the seven — two adult geese and their five goslings — were patrolling the edges of the island.

The wild will find their way. (At least, sometimes, it feels reassuring to believe that.) 

Canada goose with five young goslings
One of the geese, now with all five goslings,  © SB

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Pelicans in Wascana Creek, Regina, SK

Eight pelicans float in Wascana Creek, Regina, SK
Part of the flock of 15 pelicans in Wascana Creek © SB

I went to the south side of Wascana Creek today to watch the pelicans. There were 15 in the creek when I walked down, with another five or six wheeling in the sky. These are awe-inspiring, huge birds — and much easier to photograph from the lower shore.

Five pelicans swim towards the weir under the Albert Street Bridge, Regina, SK
Waiting for the signal to feed at the weir © SB 

Their symmetry of movement intrigues me. They float in lines, often facing the same way. They bob together, feed together — are they hunting together when they submerge at the same time? Coralling prey?

Magnificent birds.

In the first video below, a pelican breaks away from its group to fly, then one lands into the group that floats by the weir. In the second, the birds feed, their orange throats swelling with... fish? here? I wonder...




Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Pelicans at the Albert Street Bridge, Regina SK

Three pelicans surfing at the Albert Street Bridge weir in Regina, SK
Three noon pelicans at the weir
west of the Albert Street Bridge, Regina, Saskatchewan. © SB 

Today, seven pelicans fed at the weir west of the Albert Street Bridge in Regina, Saskatchewan.

While one group drifted downstream, the remaining trio floated close to the bridge, heads bobbing in unison, necks stretching underwater — for food flowing from Wascana Lake to Wascana Creek?

View of Albert Street Bridge and water rushing over the weir, Regina, SK
Albert Street Bridge © SB
Three pelicans feeding, Wascana Creek, Regine, SK
Pelicans   © SB 



I do not understand the pelican's unified-head-bobbing syndrome! Any ideas why the pelicans engage in this delightful dance would be welcome! 


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