Sunday, 30 December 2012

A Look Back at the Mammals of our Big Year

Mammals were a wonderful complement to birds while doing our big year.  They were the source of some of our most memorable moments and also of some of our greatest frustrations.  With one day to go, we are at 76 mammals … enough to help us reach our 500 target but a little below expectations.

Our mammal highlight of the year was undoubtedly our Polar Bear sighting near Repulse Bay in Nunavut. We were out in a boat and our guide, Steve, spotted the bear onshore on a hillside. Steve said that a bear will normally disappear when they see humans but this one went down to the shore and swam toward us. When the bear got close, it jumped up onto the ice and gave us spectacular views. Phil was feeling pretty smug as he took a wonderful shot with his compact camera while Ray and I had to do with close-ups of the bear’s head.

Polar Bear
Polar Bear swimming along side the boat
The other mammal highlight that sticks out in my mind is finding the Vancouver Island Marmot on the slopes of Mount Washington on Vancouver Island.  This animal is one of the world’s rarest and most endangered species though captive breeding programs have had some success.  The ski hill was a known location for the marmot but some knowledgeable experts gave us little chance of seeing it.  With four scopes scanning the slopes, eventually one darted out from cover and gave us all decent looks.
Red Squirrel - the most common mammal
The best provinces for mammals were Alberta with 36 species and BC with 33.  Alberta could have been even better had we driven the Banff-Jasper Highway as this is one of the best places I know of for mammal viewing.  We did see mammals in every province and territory; Newfoundland had the fewest with just 2 species.  46 species were seen in only one province/territory – BC had 16 species and Alberta 13; New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and the Northwest Territories did not have any unique species.  The mammal seen in the most regions was Red Squirrel (11/13) followed by Muskrat (8/13) and Red Fox (6/13).

During the year, a couple of people commented upon hearing our mammal total that they didn’t think there were that many mammals in Canada.  "The Natural History of Canadian Mammals" by Donna Naughton includes 215 species in 10 orders.  If one were to do a mammal big year for Canada, I think 100 species is possible without resorting to trapping them.  However, unless you are a nocturnal and patient person, I don’t recommend doing just mammals.
Following is a brief rundown by order on the mammals we saw and didn’t see this year.

Order Didelphimorphia: New World opossums (0/1)
We expected to see an opossum in southern Ontario but had no luck on a pre-dawn walk nor on any night drives; we didn’t even see any road kill.

Order Primates: humans (0/1)
Of course we saw thousands of humans but all seemed to be of the domesticated variety (though I know of a one or two with a wild streak!). If we were one short of our target, we might have had to count this one!

Red-tailed Chipmunk showing off his red tail
Order Rodentia: rodents (29/70)
We did very well with the squirrels and marmots family (22/23), missing only the Southern Flying Squirrel.  However, we did poorly with voles and lemmings (2/24).  The population of these small animals is cyclical and we appeared to have done our big year at a low point in the cycle.  In Nunavut, we talked to a Peregrine Falcon researcher who had been out in the field every day for three months and he had seen only a couple voles and lemmings.
American Pika
Order Lagomorphia: pikas, hares and rabbits (7/9)
We had expected to get most of the lagomorphs and missed only Arctic Hare and European Hare.

Order Soricomorpha: shrews and moles (0/25)
We knew these little guys would be tough but thought we might come across one in some leaf litter.  We met a mammologist who studied shrews and when we asked him how we could find one, he replied, “you won’t”!

Little Brown Myotis
Order Chiroptera: bats (2/20)
The two bats that we did see, Big Brown Bat and Little Brown Myotis, were both at known roosts in Alberta.  We did try for some other species at known locations but came up empty.  White-nose syndrome is a fungal disease that is decimating bat populations and may have been the reason that there were no bats in a cave that we explored in Nova Scotia.
Order Carnivora: cats, dogs, bears, seals, weasels, skunks and raccoons (19/39)This order had some of our most wanted mammals – Polar Bear was a success story but, apart from some Cougar tracks, didn’t see any of the wild cats. We did see a feral cat which we aren’t counting but that is another species that we were keeping in our back pocket. If you’ve been following the blog, you know that we worked hard to see Striped Skunk and American Badger (i.e. many unsuccessful searches). As a team, we never did see Long-tailed Weasel or Gray Wolf though other family members did!
American Mink
Order Perissodactyla: horses (1/1)
We were pleased with ourselves when we tracked down some wild horses west of Sundre (about  a 2 hour drive from Calgary) on a full-day outing.  A few weeks later, we were quite surprised to see one on the roadside on the outskirts of Penticton which got us wondering why we had gone after them in Alberta.
Order Artiodactyla: deer, bison, sheep, and other even-toed ungulates (11/12)
The animals in this order graze out in the open so we expected to get most, if not all of them.  We missed Muskox, mainly because we didn’t venture into its main territory.  We did fly over its range but cloud cover negated any opportunity to see this Arctic mammals.

Fallow Deer
Order Cetacea: whales, dolphins and porpoises (7/37)
We put a lot of effort into finding these sea mammals with only moderate success.  Our trips included two off the west coast of Vancouver Island, three from Brier Island, one in the St. Lawrence River and numerous ferry trips on both coasts.  The biggest problem was the way whale watching companies operate – once they find a whale, they tend to stay on it and don’t care if they don’t see any other species.  This happened to us three times, first with a Gray Whale sighting in the Pacific, next with a Humpback Whale in the Bay of Fundy and finally with a pod of Minke Whales in the St. Lawrence River.  Our biggest miss was Killer Whale which we did see but the ferry was in U.S. waters at the time.  One other thing about whale watching, you very seldom see much of the whale, usually just the spout, the back and then the tail.

Tail of a North Atlantic Right Whale
We had high hopes to see Narwhal and Bowhead Whale in the Repulse Bay area but ice kept us from venturing more than three kilometres from the village.  Walrus and Bearded Seal were also good possibilities if not for the ice.

A final bit of advice before doing a mammal big year – do your homework!  There is not the same network of amateur information as exists for the birding world so you would do well to develop some contacts within academia.  We went in cold not having done too much in the way of actively looking for mammals – it would be well worth it to develop some expertise before jumping into a big year.
As for the best spots to view mammals in Canada, I suggest the mountain national parks (Banff, Jasper, Waterton and Yoho), Vancouver Island and southwestern BC, whale watching trips from Brier Island, the Dempster Highway in the Yukon Territory and wherever you can afford to go in Nunavut.

Good mammaling everyone.




1 comment:

  1. These are awesome Brian, and whole concept is turning me green with envy. Maybe you guys are interested in archiving your observations online in an open source community database? If you are, check out

    Here for example is the photo fieldguide/checklist for Canada:

    Cheers, Matt