The Visitor

Our resident great gray owl showed up about suppertime the other day. To our surprise, instead of perching in a nearby tree or on the garden fence rail, he chose the ladder just outside our front window.


Great grays put to rest the idea that owls only appear at night. These owls are often seen during the day, especially morning and late afternoon. This one also seems to enjoy the sun. His regular roosts were in shade, the ladder in full sun. At times he seemed to be sunbathing, occasionally closing his eyes and drifting off to wherever owls go when they doze.

A short nap

The facial disc — the largest of any raptor — funnels sound to the ears. Covered by feathers, the ears are asymmetrical — the left one is lower than the right. This unusual placement, together with the large facial disc, provides excellent directional hearing.

Watching the watched


Great grays eat mainly mice and voles, though one particularly wet and soggy spring a young one sat in our garden eating worms.

They have excellent hearing. One source says: “Great gray owls can locate the sound of a moving mouse under snow 18 inches deep at a distance of 50 yards or more … .”

Something moving in the grass?

Owls have feathered feet which protects them during the long cold winters.

Checking out the equipment

Each of the owl’s four toes is tipped with a long talon or claw. The outer front toe is able to swivel from front to back. When flying and sometimes when perching three toes point forward and one back. This owl sat with just two facing front.


Take off

Back on his regular perch in a nearby poplar, the great gray blends in well. The species name, nebulosa, means misty or foggy, probably referring to the feathers that help camouflage it.


Great gray owl   Strix nebulosa

Shy Violets

The excitement of finding a Calypso orchid was enough to make my day. But the surprises weren’t over — just a few feet away was a scattering of white violets. I’d walked right by them without even noticing.

The dainty blossoms stand almost vertical, rather than face-up, and so seem to disappear into the undergrowth. Unlike many violets, the top two petals fold back and the two side ones come forward giving a wimple-like appearance to the flower.

These perennial violets are widespread across Canada and the northern US, favouring damp, cool woods.

Dainty lady of the forest

Dainty ladies of the forest

White violet/Kidney-leaf violet   Viola renifolia


Deep in the woods this week I found a delightful sight — a single Calypso orchid in a bed of moss. This is only the second time I’ve found this little flower on our place and each time it has filled me with joy.

I saw my first-ever Calypso decades ago in Yoho National Park. Until then I assumed that all orchids were hot-house beauties, unable to withstand the rigours of outdoor life. They couldn’t possibly survive a Rocky Mountain winter. But survive they do.

Luckily, as one park staff person said at the time, they bloomed before most tourists arrived otherwise they would suffer at the hands of flower pickers. These little orchids are delicate — picking the flower is often enough to pull up the bulb-like corm and then the plant will most likely die. It doesn’t transplant well either as it depends on special fungi in the soil.

Calypso produces only a single pair of leaves

Calypso, named for the sea nymph in Homer’s Odyssey, is also known as Venus’s slipper and fairy slipper.

Each plant produces a single flower

So far I’ve found 3 orchid species in the woods — last year it was pale coralroot and spotted coralroot. This year, Calypso.

Pick the flower or pull up the bulb and the plant will die

Orchids in the woods? Wonderful!

Calypso   Calypso bulbosa

Ghost Moose

I discovered this bull moose among a stand of cottonwoods, nibbling willow twigs. This is a ghost moose — so-called not for his ability to blend into his surroundings but for the damage imposed by moose ticks.

From a distance he seemed okay. You might not notice the problem but if you’ve seen it before you recognize the symptoms — scruffy hide, mangy looking, malnourished, slow-moving — a general something’s-not-right look about him.

Tick-infested bull moose

Although moose ticks latch onto other ungulates including white-tailed deer and bison, moose are the victims of choice and suffer the most. Young ticks climb onto the moose in fall where they remain all winter. Come spring the blood-filled females drop to the ground to lay their eggs.

Moose are relatively helpless when it comes to removing ticks. Scratching and rubbing remove some, but doing that breaks off the dark hairs of its winter coat, leaving only the white base growing close to the skin. If enough of the winter coat is rubbed away the moose can appear white as a ghost.

This moose has rubbed his chest almost bare and scraped hair off his shoulders. Patches of white hair are visible behind that.

Chest skin rubbed bare

He’s not badly off according to British Columbia’s Wildlife Health Program. He’s suffering from “mild hair loss” affecting only about 5-25% of his winter hair.

Tick-infested bull moose

Moose ticks (also known as winter ticks) can bring the strongest moose to its knees and shove it into a drawn-out painful death.

Tick counts on moose can reach astonishing numbers — 50,000 or more ticks per animal. One paper suggested counts as high as 75,000. Such loads have severe consequences — not the least of which is anemia from loss of huge amounts of blood. Moose also spend more and more time “grooming” instead of eating. If enough hair is rubbed off hypothermia may set in.

Heavy tick loads also affect ongoing health. Young moose calves who come through their first winter with a load of ticks may simply die. Older animals go into the next breeding season weak and rundown, leading to less healthy calves.

A vicious circle. And one not easily broken. Depending on where the moose live — from BC or Alberta to Maine or Minnesota — other factors come into play. A series of dry summers and warm winters in Alberta during the 1990s lead to about a 30% die-off in certain populations during the winter of 1998-99. In Maine the problem is compounded by lungworms.

Moose and ticks have lived together a long time but recent changes — including climate change — may be affecting the moose’s ability to cope with increasingly heavy parasite loads.

Note: Some provinces and states run submit-a-tick programs to monitor the types of ticks, especially those carrying disease such as Lyme disease. If you live in Alberta you can submit ticks here.

Moose   Alces alces
Winter/Moose tick   Dermacentor albipictus