Where the wild things are

Camping fees be damned — an urban safari awaits within city limits

About 10 whole minutes into a mid-afternoon walk through the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary and having seen nothing but a lone ground squirrel I had a thought likely not uncommon to those suffering from urban attention deficit — nature is an unreliable and far too secretive killjoy.

Then in short order some very special things started to happen — a pair of Canada geese walked by shepherding their newly hatched fuzzy goslings to the river’s edge. Then catching a flicker of movement from the water I peered in and observed several schools of minnows swimming about.

Not bad.

Moments later after crossing a small footbridge I heard a rustling coming from the nearby shrubs and saw a white-tailed deer regarding me.

All I needed was a bluebird on my shoulder and I would have been in a Disney cartoon come to life.

About 25 minutes and a couple of mallards a red-breasted robin a starling (I think) a common merganser (a.k.a another kind of duck) and yet another deer later it was time to split and head back to Fast Forward Weekly’s offices in the industrial wasteland of east Ramsey.

Total travel time to Eden and back including my walkabout: one hour (it would have been 40-45 minutes had I driven but I cycled there).

The lesson: Calgarians needn’t battle highway traffic this summer en route to fulfilling their wildlife fix — there are plenty of places to conduct your own urban safari right here in the city.

“At the bird sanctuary it’s kind of an interesting time of year right now — we’re noticing that a lot of the animals are coming back and their minds are on… other things because it’s the springtime” says Tanya Hope a naturalist self-professed “bird nerd” and educator with the city’s Parks department. “We have noticed that there has been a lot of deer and usually they’re a little more secretive [than now].”

In other words: them critters are randy and out in full force.

“What’s great about Calgary is that we have such diverse habitats through all of the city parks which means you can see some really unique things depending on where you are” she adds. “We’re fairly lucky — we have a 700-kilometre network of pathways which is one of the most extensive in North America.”

As such we further grilled Hope about some of the hotter spots within the city for catching all of this nature in action.


Hope in particular is enamoured by the offerings of Griffith Woods Park at the southwest edge of the city by Discovery Ridge. Here the Elbow River flows unimpeded by damming which she says makes it an ideal spawning ground for rainbow and cutthroat trout (note to anglers: there’s no fishing here — you’ll have to learn to appreciate nature without killing it).

In addition Griffith is largely a coniferous forest (mainly white spruce) a relatively rare thing as far as prairie landscapes go meaning you’ll find some creatures entirely unique to this area including boreal chickadees brown creepers and perhaps most impressively the pileated woodpecker (that’s the one that looks like Woody from Saturday morning cartoons).

“They’re very striking — they have this large crest of red on top of their head and black with white [bodies]” says Hope of the ’peckers. “They make massive holes in the trees — usually lower on the tree which is odd because you’d think they’d be higher up to avoid predators but these woodpeckers are so big they don’t worry about that.”


Situated a little further downstream at the mouth of the Elbow — the only delta in the city — this gorgeous natural area like Griffith Woods Park borders the Tsuu T’ina Nation giving a multitude of creatures a well-travelled corridor between the mountains and the city. If you’re going to see a black bear in the city outside of the zoo it’s likely to be here (just last fall Fish and Wildlife officers had to contend with one of these big beasts that had ambled out of Weaselhead into neighbouring Lakeview).

Although such occurrences seem to happen every few years in the grand scheme of things they’re relatively rare. As Hope points out given how popular the area is animals in the vicinity tend to be a little more secretive.

Nonetheless there are a couple of species here that you won’t find elsewhere in Calgary including the 13-lined ground squirrel which looks similar to a chipmunk but as its name suggests dwells in earthbound areas rather than in the trees (and yes it has 13 stripes).

A little more exciting are the area’s cliff swallows; Hope says next time you’re there take a look under the pedestrian bridge on the pathway that acts as the gateway through the flats between North and South Glenmore Park. You’ll see gourd-like structures made out of mud hanging underneath the span — these are the swallows’ nests.

These “acrobats of the air” as Hope calls them are particularly fun to watch as they eat and drink “on the wing” — catching insects while in flight and swooping down across the surface of the water for something to wash down their meals.

Other creatures to keep an eye out for: beavers common loons tundra swans and all three species of hummingbird.


“A lot of people don’t think that Nose Hill has a lot but that’s not true. A lot of wildlife hang out in the coulees: deer coyote hawks” Hope says of the city’s high plains which she just happened to have visited the day before we spoke. “We saw a red-tailed hawk flying over which is pretty cool. Those are the ones…. You know the scream of all the birds of prey in movies? It’s a red-tailed hawk every single time. They’ve got that classic [she makes a hawk sound just like you always hear in the movie].”

Other birds of prey seen in the area include northern harriers and Swainson’s hawks.

But if you’re into the smaller cuter critters the park has an abundance of little mammals — which in turn accounts for all the predators. Among those that call the hills home: mice voles porcupines and Hope’s favourite the true gopher.

“I know what you’re thinking — gophers are everywhere” she says. “But what most people call gophers are actually Richardson ground squirrels. These guys — true gophers — instead of having an open hole they cover their hole over so if you see a patch of brown or black dirt — kind of like an anthill with no ants coming out of it — that’s where their holes are. They’re very secretive and nocturnal but you’ll see these little patches of dirt everywhere.

“They do look different — they’re chocolate-y brown and have chubby chubby cheeks and their teeth stick out of their mouths — typical rodent teeth that are orange. You’d have to have patience to see one of those — they’re very very shy.”


Yes there are lots of birds at this 36-hectare reserve but as previously mentioned there’s much much more. The IBS’s official animal tally is as follows: 270 species of birds 21 species of mammals 2 species a piece in the amphibian and reptile camps and 27 species of butterfly.

“Inglewood is a very special place because it is a protected area within the city so we do tend to get a lot of wildlife living here and we also have a reserve on the site where we don’t allow people so they have a safe place if they want to go there” explains Hope. “Often the time that you come will determine what you see — a lot of people come first thing in the morning when you might see a little bit more. Certain animals are active at different times so things like beaver are what’s called crepuscular which means they’re active at dawn or dusk. Porcupines are nocturnal… so it’s just where the animals are in their day that you might see them.”

In terms of wildlife exclusives Hope says one of the creatures common to IBS but not usually found elsewhere in the city is the wood duck.

“You look at them and think ‘really you’re a duck?’ They’ve got a red beak and helmet-shaped head that’s green — they’re very striking” she says.


Calgary’s newest park is a man-made wetland with a specific eco-engineering purpose. Before storm water runoff from the eastern part of the city is discharged into the Bow River it passes through here where it’s naturally treated and filtered by the area’s vegetation.

On paper given its prefabricated origins that doesn’t sound like the most idyllic of spots yet a very special visitor has made an appearance in just the last couple of weeks — the white-faced ibis.

“They’re beautiful long-legged shorebirds. They’re about two feet tall beautiful red with green iridescence and a long curved bill” says Hope. “They’re usually seen by Frank Lake in Southern Alberta so it’s kind of exciting that they’re here. That’s probably the only place you could see them in the city.”

Although that concludes Hope’s top spots we could go on and on. In total there are 7800 hectares of parkland in Calgary not including the embarrassment of natural riches that is Fish Creek Provincial Park.

There are skunks foxes muskrats white-tailed prairie hares and even the occasional moose not to mention tiger salamanders along the riverbanks and Peregrine falcons and osprey in the skies.

Really if there’s a patch of green somewhere chances are that’s where the wild things are.

All it takes to enjoy it says Hope is a bit of patience.

“The more space that you give them the more likely you are to see them” she says. “Being quieter helps — I know that can be challenging if you’re out in a group. And sometimes just going to a spot and waiting — the animals will kind of get used to you and come out.”

Thanks to Alexandra Phillips of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Society for her additional help.