Feeling Small On The Grassland Timbergulch Trail
Our aim on the third day at Grasslands National Park was to see the sunrise, so Bob and I were up at 4:30 a.m. We grabbed a packed breakfast so that we could eat on the road.
The morning broke damp and grey but we pushed on. En route to the Park’s entrance near Val Marie, a couple of Ring-necked Pheasants burst from the long grass at the side of the road taking us by surprise.
Slowing to take a couple of snapshots of the Pheasants and later a Pronghorn Antelope delayed our progress, but we figured there was no reason to make haste since the sky was socked in with clouds.
Once in the Park, we were happy to espy a lone Bison, one rejected from the herd, grazing quietly a few hundred feet off. We spent extended minutes observing it, and the sky started to brighten up.
Pulling up for a look at a Prairie Dog Colony, Bob and I noticed a very unusual sight far across one stretch of the grassland.
A person was perched atop a very tall ladder overlooking the landscape. We went to investigate.
As we walked across the plain towards the Prairie Dog Colony, keeping a close eye for Prairie Rattlesnakes, a Long-billed Curlew emerged out of the tall grass.
It promptly took flight.
It turned out that a Park’s employee, Lisa, was monitoring the Dogs, doing a count as the families came out of their tunnels for the day. The Prairie Dogs were slow to present themselves that morning because it had rained and was cold, 42° F. Lisa knew without looking that we were approaching from behind because the Dogs started emitting their alarm calls.
Once at the Timbergulch Trailhead, we downed our packed breakfast, and smiles dawned on our faces when we realized our hike would be under clear skies.
Timbergulch Trail is a 17.8-kilometre long trail. Bob and I planned to walk to an overlook at the midpoint of the trail to see the herd of Bison on an opposing plateau before retracing our steps. This decision was based on the fact that trail markers are often difficult to locate because many get pushed over by the Bison.
Bob and I were reveling in the fact that Timbergulch Trail provides a true prairie experience, that of walking through untouched grasslands.
The trail passes through three prominent coulee bottoms created by glaciers. These lush areas attract the Bison, so we were hoping for a closer view than the one we had earlier. Accumulated moisture in Timmon’s Coulee had the soil damp and boggy so care was taken to keep our boots dry.
We were encouraged when we happened upon a wallow where Bison had recently spent some time rolling in the dirt. Mud is a good way for them to put a barrier between their skin and biting insects.
We, ourselves, had to do constant checks for ticks while hiking, and for good reason. We found several on our clothing.
In addition to looking for Bison, I also took interest in the vegetation. Flowers such as this Pale Comandra dappled the grassland. The wealth of knowledge possessed by early Indigenous people had them using the leaves of this native plant to treat colds and breathing disorders.
As we climbed our way out of the coulee, it was remarkable how small we felt there in the land of big skies and rolling grasslands. Striving to reach the top of each new hill, it seemed like we’d never get there.
Another interesting wildflower that caught our attention was Goat’s Beard. A perennial forb in the rose family, the plants take advantage of the moist areas in the coulees and gulches. Local indigenous people would’ve cooked the roots of this plant that are said to taste like oysters. One of the alternate names for this wildflower is wild oysterplant.
In Police Coulee, not a trail marker was in sight keeping us on our toes as we navigated up the next rise. We were still in hopes of spotting a Bison.
Finally, off in the distance, the dark silhouette of an animal gave us our first confirmed Bison along the trail. Since our aim was to reach the look-off across Timbergulch Coulee, we just kept slugging ahead. The sun was blazing down on us, and it had been quite sometime since we’d eaten breakfast.
As we neared the plateau above Timbergulch Coulee, it was with delight that we spotted a tree and a small body of water.
Drawing our eyes skyward was the call of a Ferruginous Hawk that circled above us as we drew nearer the tree.
Like an oasis in the desert, the pond nourished a whole host of shrubs and wildflowers around its periphery. The trampled appearance of soil at one end of the water hole betrayed much activity by Bison drawn to the pond for a drink. We were grateful for the bit of shade.
Persisting in flyovers and alarm calls, the Ferruginous Hawk convinced us that its mate must be sitting on eggs in the nest or perhaps fledglings had already hatched.
Characteristic of a nesting pair of Ferruginous Hawks, the nest occupying the lone tree was large, likely having been used for many years. Materials are added annually adding to its bulk.
Continuing onward and upwards, Bob and I finally mounted the plateau that afforded a view of the plateau on the other side of Timbergulch Coulee.
Far in the distance, on the other side of the Coulee, was the herd of Bison grazing peacefully. Where hundreds of thousands of Bison used to roam the prairies, Grasslands National Park is now home to a small herd of 400 animals.
The year of our visit, 2019, a Park employee told us that they expected 137 calves to be born to the Bison that season. I was a bit saddened to learn that a cull is carried out on a regular basis to keep the herd a manageable size.
By 11:30 a.m., an afternoon thunderstorm had begun to form, so we hastened our steps back in the direction from which we came. A light sprinkle dampened our clothes but passed by quickly.
After sitting a spell to eat our lunch and enjoying a magnificent view, Bob and I trod on and were rewarded with closer views of two Bison.
Recumbent in the grass for sometime, the two Bison eventually stood up and moved around.
Trail markers were almost more difficult to pick out on the return leg of the hike. While scrutinizing the landscape for the yellow sign “posts”, we stumbled upon this beautiful lichen-encrusted rock with old fencing wire still wrapped around it. Perhaps it had been a marker used in the past.
Taking us by complete surprise was a Mule Deer that broke free of the vegetation in Police Coulee. It bounced its way out of view covering a shocking kilometre or two in a matter of a minute.
At the end of our hike, Bob and I deposited our cameras and gear on a picnic table near the trailhead. A thorough tick check turned up 6 of the wee beasties on our clothing bringing to a dozen the total that we removed on that outing. We were lucky that none found their way to our skin.
Exhausted and fulfilled, Bob and I continued our tour through Grasslands National Park.
Given the almost daily afternoon thunderstorms, vernal pools seemed to exist all along the roads near Val Marie.
A family of American Coots in one such roadside pond entertained us for an extended period of time. In total, there were 6 fledglings demanding the attention to be fed by the adults.
It was interesting to watch 2 of the adult Coots in what appeared to be a mating ritual. Flashing their white rumps, each Coot seemed to be in competition with the other. Perhaps they were contesting the territory.
We were so excited to score a Lifer at the same pond.
Yellow-headed Blackbirds often show up in Ontario as wanderers, but here they were in significant numbers. This male is a prime example of its species.
Yellow-headed Blackbirds nest in reeds close to water, and males will aggressively defend their territory.
It is not uncommon for one male Yellow-headed Blackbird to mate with numerous females, but interestingly, he will only help feed the fledglings in the first nest established in his territory.
Bob and I made a swing by Sand Lake on our way back to our lodgings, but not before making some other notable bird sightings.
A Horned Grebe had taken up residence in yet another roadside pond.
And a Common Nighthawk delighted us with several flybys. Satisfied with our day, we looked forward to a new destination the following day.
Frame To Frame – Bob and Jean