Walking along the shores of a waterway or waterbody, you’re sure to spot fascinating wildlife in Alberta wherever you look. The Bow River, Elbow River, North Saskatchewan River, and Athabasca River provide habitats, food, and water to an abundance of animals.
Check out five of the most popular beaches in Alberta on Swim Guide
What we put into the environment often ends up running into our waters, where it affects the homes and food and water sources of many animals.
If you go to the water and see pollution, wildlife, people, or anything else noteworthy, take a photo and submit it to Gassy, our new photo submission tool. Taking photos is a key step in documenting what’s happening in our waterbodies.
When you submit photos to Gassy, you become a citizen scientist by helping to build a database of vital water health information.
Read on to find 24 things you might see by the water in and around Alberta, from different animals to different types of pollution, and learn how pollution affects our waters and those who depend on it for survival.
Great horned owl
Amphibians and reptiles
Boreal chorus frog
Red-sided garter snake
North American river otter
Other things you might find by the water
Animal droppings and used dog poop bags
Plastic and other debris, like face mask and gloves
Tim Hortons cups
Beer cans and bottles
Mallards are one of the most common birds you’ll see by the water. Nothing to get excited about, right? Wrong. These unsung heroes help create healthy and diverse wetlands.
Mallards forage for seeds in a wide variety of ecosystems, from marshes, to ponds, to swamps, to lakes. Mallards eat seeds in one place (like the shore of a lake) and poop them out somewhere else (like a distant wetland).
As they eat and poop, and eat and poop, mallards spread seeds from place to place. Wetland habitats tend to be fairly isolated, so seed dispersal is especially vital for their continuing health and diversity.
The good that mallards do for wetlands is amplified by how common they are in so many different areas.
How to find a mallard:
Chances are, you’ll come across a mallard whether you’re looking for one or not. But if you’re having trouble, look for them near parks, ponds, rivers, or lakes.
Would it even be summer without the squawking of gulls? Ring-billed gulls are another common bird you’ll see almost anywhere. You probably know at least two things about ring-billed gulls: they seem to be everywhere, and they’ll seemingly eat anything.
Safe to say, these birds are not picky eaters.
Ring-billed gulls play a key role in ecosystems as predators, prey, and even scavengers, eating up food that would otherwise go to waste. Although they’re not an endangered species, ring-billed gulls are at high risk of being entangled in plastic or swallowing it, especially because they often feed around garbage or litter.
How to find a ring-billed gull:
Look for ring-billed gulls around rivers, ponds, reservoirs, lakes, but you’re just as likely to find these hearty birds in parking lots or other urban areas.
Blue jays are easy to recognize from to their loud, harsh calls and vibrant hues of blue. Blue jays have brains as well as beauty. Blue jays have great memories, which comes in handy when they’re gathering and storing acorns to be eaten later.
No memory is infallible, however, and sometimes a blue jay forgets where an acorn is buried or doesn’t return to eat it for another reason. Just like that, blue jays become unintentional gardeners, planting oak trees and helping oak forests spread.
How to find a blue jay:
Look for blue jays on the outskirts of forests, especially near oak trees where they gather acorns.
Downy woodpeckers are small compared to most woodpeckers. In fact, they’re not much larger than black-capped chickadees, making them North America’s smallest woodpeckers. Downy woodpeckers eat insects from trees with their sharp beaks and long tongues.
Downy woodpeckers eat lots of codling moths, which post a threat to fruit trees, and bark beetles, which can infest trees. They also eat pests like corn earworm, apple borers, and tent caterpillars.
How to find a downy woodpecker:
Listen for these birds hammering away on trees or other hard surfaces to mark their territory in both forests and residential areas.
With their ear tufts, huge yellow eyes, and “whoo-hoo-ho-o-o” call, Great horned owls seem like something out of a fairytale. If you’re a snake, mouse, or rabbit, a great horned owl seems more like something out of a nightmare.
Great horned owls are one of the most common large birds of prey in Canada, using their exceptional hearing, sight, and powerful talons to scoop up dinner.
These prolific predators have a diverse diet. They eat insects, amphibians, reptiles, rodents, birds, and mammals. They even prey on animals as big as skunks and geese!
With their voracious appetites for a great many things, these owls help regulate other animal populations, creating a balanced ecosystem.
How to find a great horned owl:
Look for great horned owls in wetlands, forests, grasslands, and even urban areas, especially in the evening or at night.
Peregrine falcons are the fastest diving bird in the world and are often considered one of the best hunters in the falcon family.
Like great horned owls, they keep animal populations (especially birds) in check. They also eat up many of the small animals and insects that harm farmer’s crops.
Peregrine falcons are near the top of the food chain. But rather than make them safe, this position actually makes them susceptible to consuming large amounts of the pesticides that accumulate in the bodies of their prey. This can affect their reproduction abilities or even be fatal.
Though peregrine falcons were once listed as endangered because of DDT pesticide poisoning, DDT was banned in the 1970s, and peregrine falcons populations have recovered.
How to find a peregrine falcon:
To spot a peregrine falcon, keep your eyes to the sky. These predators often perch on high vantage points so they can scope out their next meal. Look for them in open areas around rivers, marshes, or valleys.
You might have guessed it from the name, but belted kingfishers are excellent at fishing. These extraordinary birds can gulp down fish the same length as they are, tossing the fish into the air and catching it in their mouths in an impressive display.
Unsurprisingly, belted kingfishers are quite at home in the water. These agile birds have been known to dive under the water’s surface to hide from hungry hawks.
Belted kingfishers are at the top of both freshwater and saltwater food webs. They eat fish, mollusks, crustaceans, and amphibians, keeping their populations balanced.
How to find a belted kingfisher:
Since so much of a belted kingfisher’s diet comes from the water, you’ll likely find these birds near waterbodies like rivers and lakes. They often visit waters that are fish-filled and clear, where they can easily spot their catch of the day.
There’s a good chance you’ll hear a boreal chorus frog before you see one. Listen for their long, ascending croak, which sounds like when you drag your fingers over a comb.
Boreal chorus frogs help to control insect populations, while also being a food source for other predators, like reptiles and birds.
Because of their semi-permeable skin, boreal chorus frogs are sensitive to water pollution. This makes them an indicator species, meaning their health reflects the health of their habitat. Indicator species provide valuable data for scientists.
How to find a boreal chorus frog:
Look for boreal chorus frogs in or around wetlands, swamps, marshes, ponds, or shallow lakes with little to no current. You may even spot them in flooded fields or roadside ditches.
Candian toads have rough, thick skin covered in wart-like bumps. These warts and parotid glands release a toxin that irritates the eyes and mouth of prospective predators.
Still, some predators are not deterred.
Canadian toads are a delicacy and important food source for hognose snakes, raccoons, and skunks. Hungry predators aren’t the only threat to Canadian toads, however. Their populations have declined in southern Alberta, likely due to wetland drainage, drought, and resulting habitat loss.
How to find a Canadian toad:
Canadian toads prefer wetter habitats than most toad species. Look for them on the outskirts of prairie wetlands or near rivers, lakes, ponds, or other standing water.
Red-sided garter snakes are common, harmless snakes that are the most widely distributed reptile species in North America.
They’re low-level predators, which means they are important as both predators and prey. They are eaten by birds of prey and mammals, and they eat invertebrates, insects, amphibians, and small fish.
Unlike many other species, these snakes can eat amphibians that have toxic chemical defenses.
How to find a red-sided garter snake:
Look for these snakes in wetlands, marshy, shrubby, or rocky areas, as well as fields and forests. You may spot them slithering under leaves or tall grass, or hear the rustling sound they make as they move.
What’s that swimming over there? An otter? Too big. A beaver? Too small. Meet Mr. Muskrat, a semi-aquatic rodent that basically looks like a greatly overgrown field mouse.
Muskrats are named for the two musk glands located underneath their skin near their behinds. These glands secrete a pungent substance that muskrats use to mark travel routes and attract mates.
When muskrats munch on plants in wetlands, they’re influencing the plantlife that grows there. When they eat older vegetation, it allows new plants to grow, assisting with plant regeneration.
How to find a muskrat:
Muskrats can be spotted in wetlands, swamps, marshes, and slow-moving rivers, ponds, and lakes. They like vegetation like cattails and bulrushes and they’re most active around twilight.
Don’t let the cute and cuddly appearance of North American river otters fool you–these notoriously playful critters are also proficient predators. Even the slipperiest fish, mollusk, or snake is no match for their sharp teeth and claws.
Not only do North American river otter diets help keep other populations under control, they are also, like boreal chorus frogs, an indicator species. North American river otters are sensitive to pollution, and their habitats need to have good water quality for them to thrive.
And because they are near the top of their aquatic food chain and eat so many other animals, researchers are able to determine what contaminants are present in the water by examining otter poop.
How to find a North American river otter:
Look for North American river otters in streams, rivers, marshes, ponds, and lakes. If you’re lucky, you might see these fun-loving creatures joyfully sliding down a muddy riverbank.
With their long front teeth and flat, rudder-like tails, beavers are unmistakable. They’re also the largest rodent in North America. Far from a pest, though, beavers help create and maintain healthy wetlands by building dams.
Wetlands are a critical habitat for many creatures. Beaver dams also slow the movement of the water (which helps control floods), and reduce the effects of droughts.
Beaver dams even improve water quality by removing Nitrogen and Phosphorous fertilizer runoff from waterways and make water less turbid.
How to find a beaver:
Look for beavers in streams, rivers, marshes, wetlands, ponds, and lakes. Listen for their trademark tail slap, which sounds a bit like someone doing a cannonball. This tail slap may be used to warn other beavers about danger, frighten away a threat, or even to play.
White-tailed jackrabbits are actually hares–not rabbits. They’re one of the largest hares in the world. You can recognize them by their enormous upright ears and fluffy white tails.
A white-tailed jackrabbit’s tail may actually be the only thing you have time to see as it bounds away from you. These critters can leap 30 feet in a single jump and run up to 35 mph!
Swift as they are, white-tailed jackrabbits provide food for larger animals. They also influence the plantlife where they graze.
How to find a white-tailed jackrabbit:
Look for white-tailed jackrabbits in open fields, pastures, shrublands, or grasslands. Since they are nocturnal creatures that feed in the evenings, look for them after sunset.
These masked, bushy-tailed bandits need no introduction. You’ve probably seen one rifling through your trash can or scurrying across the street and dusk.
Racoons eat more than the leftovers in your green bin, though. They often feed in aquatic buffets, dining on crustaceans and mollusks, keeping those populations in check.
A racoon’s diverse diet also includes nuts, fruit, and berries. When they poop out the seeds from last night’s dinner, they’re helping ecosystems by spreading the seeds so new plantlife can grow, similar to how mallards do.
How to find a racoon:
Racoons are adaptable critters that can be seen everywhere from forests, to urban areas, to waterways. You can look for them near rivers and lakes (while they’re looking for a snack).
Porcupines are known for their beautiful but dangerous quills. Common to popular belief, they can’t shoot their quills at you, though these long, stiff hairs are still an excellent defense mechanism against predators.
Although porcupines are sometimes considered a pest, porcupines are important food for a variety of predators, such as fishers, badgers, bobcats, coyotes, and eagles. They’re also important to ecosystems because of what they eat.
One of the staples in a porcupine’s herbivore diet is dwarf mistletoe, a parasite that harms trees. It can inhibit tree growth, ruin its wood, and even be fatal. By eating dwarf mistletoe, porcupines are helping trees stay healthy.
How to find a porcupine:
Porcupines tend to live in rocky dens, but you can also look for them in shrubby wetlands, forests, or near rivers and lakes when they venture out for food. If you’re in an area without much ground cover, you may spot a porcupine in a tree.
Coyotes look like a cross between a dog and a wolf. Although they resemble German shepherds, coyotes are distinguishable by their long legs and snouts, large, pointed ears, and yellow eyes.
As a top predator, coyotes help ecosystems with keeping populations balanced. They eat rodents and rabbits, which benefits farmers’ crops and helps control disease spreading. They also increase bird diversity by eating the predators that tend to raid bird nests, like racoons, skunks, opossums and foxes.
How to find a coyote:
Coyotes inhabit open areas, like prairies, though they’re resourceful and adaptable creatures that are just as at home in urban areas. You’re most likely to see them in the evenings, when they hunt.
White-tailed deer are shy, graceful, and agile creatures. They have good eyesight and hearing, and they can run as fast as 30 miles an hour. They’re also strong swimmers.
Like coyotes, white-tailed deer are a keystone species whose grazing affects what kind of vegetation is present in an area. They are also a food source for bobcats, coyotes, wolves, bears, and people.
How to find a white-tailed deer:
White-tailed deer can thrive in a variety of habitats, such as swamps, farmlands, brushlands, and forests. You might see them feeding before dawn and for a few hours after, or late in the afternoon until dusk.
Watch your step! But before you hold your nose and look away, think of animal droppings as little hints of who has been here before you.
You can tell a lot from animal droppings, like which animals are present in the area, where they go, what they’re eating, and even if they’re sick.
With enough practice, you can learn to identify scat and find out who you’re sharing your favourite trail with.
Does the poop look like chocolate covered raisins or almonds? It might have been left by a white-tailed deer. Is it ropey and packed with bones and hair? Beware! There may be a coyote nearby. When coyotes do their business, they mean business–they tend to poop where it will be most visible in order to mark their territory.
What do used dog poop bags by the water tell us?
Rather than indicating that wildlife is present, dog poop bags near the water indicate that careless pet owners are present. Leaving your pooch’s poop on the ground can spread disease. Leaving your pooch’s poop in the ground in a bag spreads disease and creates plastic pollution.
Aways pick up your dog’s poop and dispose of it in the garbage. You can even take it one step further by using biodegradable bags.
Blue-green algae is a naturally occurring cyanobacteria that occurs in fresh or saltwater. When blue-green algae reproduce, harmful blue-green algae blooms can occur.
Blue-green algae coats the water with brown, blue, or neon green scum. It will often smell strong and bad.
Blooms are most prevalent in late summer and early fall, but they can appear earlier in the summer if there are higher temperatures than normal, water level changes, and an excess of nutrients from fertilizers and sewage runoff entering the waterway.
Blooms can be deadly to the creatures that swim, drink, or fish in the affected water, such as fish, birds, deer, livestock, and even pets.
Learn more about blue-green algae on Swim Guide with these articles:
5 ways to protect yourself from blue-green algae
What you need to know about algae this summer
Six types of beach pollution you need to know about
Plastic debris, like water bottles, straws, or disposable cutlery often end up in the water. Plastic never fully decomposes. It breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, but never truly disappears.
What do face masks and gloves by the water tell us?
During the Covid-19 pandemic, there are increasing amounts of face masks and gloves scattered along shorelines. They can end up around or in the water because people have flushed them down the toilet (which you should never do!). When combined sewer systems overflow, the things we flush can end up in the water. Other times, masks and gloves end up by the water because people have simply discarded them on the ground.
When we enjoy the water, we must respect the natural space and all of the creatures that call it home. Animals can ingest or become entangled in plastic. Birds can mistake bottle caps for food, and since the bottle caps can’t be digested or excreted, they starve to death.
Always leave the beach either in the same condition or better off than it was when you arrived. Picking up any plastic or other litter you find by the water is a small act that goes a long way in preventing wildlife deaths due to plastic pollution.
Tim Hortons cups are a Canadian icon. But what does it say about Canadians that there are so many of these cups littering our parks, green spaces, and waterways?
Cups and lids from Tim Hortons are one of the types of pollution most often found in shoreline cleanups in Canada. So many Tim Hortons cups end up on the ground that, along with plastic water bottles, it’s been one of the first types of pollution that we’ve trained our AI system, Gassy, to recognize.
Aluminum cans and glass bottles are fully recyclable. So it’s something of a mystery why so many of them end up littered along the banks or rivers and the shorelines of lakes.
The broken glass or sharp aluminum edges from beer bottles or beer cans can injure both people and wildlife.
The plastic rings from six packs of beer also pose a threat to animals, since it’s all too easy for them to get their necks or appendages tangled in them. This can lead to suffocation or other injuries.
Golf balls may seem like an unlikely culprit for pollution, but photo after photo of golf balls are submitted to Swim Guide’s pollution reporting feature every summer.
Although the golf balls themselves don’t necessarily harm wildlife, their polyurethane elastomer shells, and cores of zinc oxide, zinc acrylate, and benzoyl peroxide are toxic to aquatic life. When the balls break down, these substances are released into the water.
In the Great Lakes region, water lovers are collecting golf balls from the lakes, and it’s not too hard to find eco-friendly, biodegradable golf balls for sale online.
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