Thursday April 9, 2020 was a cold and extremely windy day! It was miserable outside, but it wasn't snowing! Why would I venture out on such a day? Well, the 50 nest-boxes at the Meeting Creek Linear Park did need to be cleaned out, as bluebirds had already been seen in central Alberta for more than a week. The Buffalo Lake Nature Club usually does nest-box clean outs in the autumn, but that didn't happen. Now with the COVID-19 virus and subsequent restrictions, I found that cabin fever was driving me to do something useful where I would have no problem social distancing. The great outdoors, club duty and the bluebirds called to me.
At 9:15 AM, I parked at the entrance to the Meeting Creek Linear Park, located on the west side of the little hamlet of Meeting Creek. It was less than an hour drive from Alix, where I reside. The gate was locked and I had the code, but the snow was still too deep for driving along the berm. I had come prepared and jumped onto my cross-country skis, lifted my arms, and let the wind blow me along the hard packed snow drifts. I was grateful that the wind was behind me. The -2*C would not have been too bad, if it wasn't for that wind. As it was, my hands were pretty cold, especially when I took my mittens off to make note of the nestbox contents.
It was interesting for me to head off down this old rail bed as I had not been here before. The rail bed bends gently to the right as it heads north and west of Meeting Creek and the grade is perfect for easy skiing. It would be a nice stroll or bike ride in another season, as well. The scenery was very parkland, with a little bit of badland on the right and the meandering Meeting Creek to the left. There are some beautiful large boulders covered in lichens and several crow's nests at eye level. The rail berm has open areas interspersed with both young trees and old forest, with pasture beyond the narrow tree linings. If I were a bluebird, I would happily set up a home here.
The first two nestboxes were on the left, with Box 3 and 4 placed on a rustic lookout on the first old train trestle. It really is a noteworthy wooden structure, which I was able to view from above and below. Above, because that's where the nestboxes are positioned. Below, because the wind rolled my mitten over the edge! Yes, I must confess that I did say a bad word, and then manoeuvred my way around the edge of the trestle and underneath it to retrieve my mitten.
Luckily, the water underneath was still frozen. I did get some snow in my ski boots as the drifts were pretty deep. I was not the first person to clamber underneath, as evidenced by the geocache frozen into the soil.
After a few minutes of skiing, I began to warm up and enjoy the solitude and my task. I was surprised to come upon a point of interest sign explaining old concrete foundation blocks. Over 100 years ago, these blocks had supported a tank which held water for the steam trains that used to travel this route.
I skied along, numbering the boxes as I went. The boxes were built by Elmer Gross, who is now 92 years old. Elmer's nest-boxes can be found throughout Stettler County and in previous times he managed a trail of over 800 nest-boxes, though he had built many more. The Meeting Creek Linear Park nest-boxes are an early version of Elmer's, where the hinged lid opens for viewing and cleaning. Elmer always looked to improve his box styles and features and was a master at salvaging wood and the straps that served as hinges. These particular boxes were installed in the spring of 2011 by Richard Gaffney and Bob Willis. Subsequently, Richard has moved to Calgary and spends the winters in Arizona. Bob continues to act as Executive Director for the East Central Alberta Heritage Society. Members of the Buffalo Lake Nature Club assist in managing the boxes. The club also manages the nest-boxes along the Big Valley, Rumsey and Rowley Linear Parks.
Here at Meeting Creek, I found evidence that four of the nest-boxes had likely housed bluebirds, while the majority had been used by Tree Swallows and House Wrens. I did find bluebird feathers in two of the wren nests, so they had definitely been in the area. Unfortunately, three young bluebirds were found dead under a House Wren nest. Several House Wren nests were found on top of Tree Swallow nests, where the young of both species had fledged successfully. Two of the boxes had squirrel nesting material in them. All but one of the boxes were in good condition.
The East Central Alberta Heritage Society has strategically placed an outhouse near Boxes 31 and 32. There are two large picnic tables tucked in the trees at this same location.
To traverse the rail bed to Box 50 and back was a round trip of 5 km. By the time I was heading back, the wind had diminished, it was +6*C and the snow was getting soft. I came upon a little muskrat that was scurrying about as if it was looking for something. Maybe it was looking for spring! There was only snow, ice and frozen ground on this day, but finally the wind had died down. I was back at my vehicle by 1 PM and really enjoyed my lunch. Then it was time to head back to the reality of the 'stay home' directive. As a good omen, about two miles to the west of Meeting Creek Linear Park, a bluebird flitted across the road. The miserable-weather morning was turning into a pleasant spring afternoon, and the nest-boxes are ready to welcome the returning birds.