A morning in Banff

May 12, 2011 • 4:52 pm

It’s not morning any more, but it was a good one. The meetings here don’t start till this evening, and even then it’s just registration and a social, so I took the opportunity to explore.  First I got Canadian money, and remembered that the one-dollar coins have a loon on the back.  They’re called “loonies” (the two-dollar coins are called “toonies”).

On the front side, Queen Elizabeth has aged:

Flush with loonies, I had a late breakfast at Coyote’s Southwestern Cafe: huevos rancheros and coffee. The coffee was excellent, the huevos rancheros (fried egg, salsa, chiles, cheese, black beans, sour cream, and avocado on a blue corn tortilla) were good but overpriced, and service was mediocre. I won’t eat there again.

After breakfast I wandered the streets, checking with the rangers about the endemic thermophilic snails in the hot springs.  The springs are temporarily closed, but I may be able to get access by calling the ranger in charge.

To reward myself for due diligence, I bought some ice cream at the highly regarded Cows on Banff Avenue. I had a chocolate cheesecake cone, which was good but expensive ($4.25 for one scoop!).  A sign in the window quotes a travel site’s list of the ten best places in the world to get ice cream, and Cows is ranked #1. I strongly disagree.  My choice would be Christina’s Homemade Ice Cream in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which has the absolute best flavor in the world:  burnt sugar. If you’re ever there, try it. (I rank Berthillon in Paris [marron glacée is sublime] and Dr. Mike’s in Bethel, Connecticut as tied for #2, but I’ve never explored the gelatos of Italy.)

On the advice of readers, I took the gondola up Sulphur Mountain, and it was absolutely spectacular. At $31.00 for the round trip, it’s not cheap but it’s well worth it.  The cable car goes up to a viewpoint near the peak, and the ride is long and gorgeous. I had an entire gondola to myself:

At the top you’re greeted by a 360-degree view of peaks, lakes, and the town of Banff far below.  It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.   Here’s a taste, with Banff at lower left (click to enlarge).  The Banff Centre, where I’m staying, is the isolated group of buildings on the small hill in the “centre.”

Oh, and on the walk home I saw this cute bird. Now for a biologist I’m abysmally unable to identify birds. Can an alert reader enlighten me?

86 thoughts on “A morning in Banff

  1. Gorgeous view! And that’s a Red-breasted Nuthatch you have there, sir 🙂 Sitta canadensis… possibly a female since I don’t see too much red coloration on the breast. Definitely not the White-breasted, though, as they have only the black cap and no eyestripe. Nuthatch was always my favorite at the birdfeeder (yours is sitting in the typical head-down pose, too;-)

      1. A quick note on nuthatches – there are 3 species in North America (Red Breasted, White Breasted and Brown) and they are the only 3 species of bird in NA that demonstrate that behaviour of coming down a tree head-first. If you see the behaviour, it’s a nuthatch and most of the ID’ing work is done…

      1. I wonder what adaptations there are to the nuthatch vestibular system to enable it to do that & not feel dizzy…?

        1. They don’t spin around, just face downward on the tree usually– so I don’t imagine they’d be affected any more than they would while flying. Ravens, for example, can fly upside-down. Nuthatches, when they aren’t actively looking for food under the bark, usually have their heads stretched up.

    1. I’m gonna have to disagree. The head on that bird is way too blue to be either a red-breasted or white-breasted.

      Amusingly enough, all I had to do was Google “banff” and “nuthatch” to find this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l6fXTMvLDd8

      It’s still not quite as blue as Dr. Coyne’s bird, but it’s a much better match. Apparently they call this a “Rocky Mountain Nuthatch.” It’s hard to find info on it on Google, but it’s clear that it’s a subspecies of white-breasted nuthatch, scientific name: Sitta carolinensis nelsoni.

      So apparently it’s a familiar species after all! Just an oddly-colored variant.

      1. Sorry, Tim, but the above photo and the video you linked are both female red-breasted nuthatches, Sitta Canadensis. The black eye line and white eyebrow are diagnostic. The blue-gray cap is typical of females and juveniles of the species. /bird pedant

        1. Yeah – I’ve seen them with breasts that are brick red to almost greyish with just a hit of red. Ignoring colour, markings, etc, it’s a RBNH, just by silhouette and posture alone.

      2. The bird in that video is mis-identified– it’s a red-breasted. None of the White-breasted (of which the Rocky Mountain subspecies is one) have that eye-stripe. S.c.nelsoni basically looks like the common white-breasted (black cap, white face, no eyestripe), but: (from Wiki) “Smaller than nominate, darker grey upperparts, darker cap, less contrast in wings”. No eye stripe. The Red-breasted has that distinctive eye stripe (as does the European nuthatch S. europaea).
        The Cornell Lab’s page has a good series of photos. Scroll down to the photos, then click on the right arrow ’til you get to the photo of the male and female red-breasted together at a feeder. The female has the grey head and is generally paler, and most likely what Jerry found.

    2. I love nuthatches (especially the Brown-headed!). Unfortunately I am not the only one in my house who loves them. I recently found my missing White-breasted Nuthatch ornament behind the couch where it had been secreted by the cat when she was done playing with it. The distal end of the retrices are snapped off but otherwise the ornament is in pretty good shape after having been a cat toy.

  2. re: Bird:

    Clearly a nuthatch (the head-down posture gives it away). I’d say a red-breasted Nuthatch (looks similar to the Kleiber in German).

  3. The Canadian Rockies are absolutely stunning. Obviously. There is so much to see.

    If there’s any way you can get to Moraine Lake or Lake Louise early in the morning,(7:30am) before the crowds arrive, you should do so. Mitsaya Canyon on the Icefields Pkwy was really cool.

    Enjoy. Your pictures remind me that I should go back there sometime soon. For anyone else thinking of going out that way on a budget, the Hostel in Banff is fantastic. As are the Wilderness Hostels. I wanna go right now.

        1. Very good! The Barnes quote from a 1978 play I saw at the RSC (in London) with Anthony Sher in 1985, also refers to the Alps I think.

    1. Bring a sweater…but agree that it’s absolutely gorgeous.

      It’s do-able as a day trip from Calgary if you’re in that neck of the woods.

  4. As my personal fortunes rise and fall, going to Banff, esp by train from Vancouver BC appears, then fades. Been this way for forty years!! Thanks for the pictures, Jerry. They revive my moribund desires.

  5. This entire thread makes me feel inferior. Dr. Coyne has eaten ice cream in Paris, and actually uses this as a basis of comparison, and Yokohamama can apparently speak German and identify birds. Absolutely confirms my fear that I should stick to martinis and naps.

    1. ‘S okay. You ‘n me can do the whole ‘preciation thing.

      Someone had to do the ‘preciation thing, right?

  6. Yes, thank-you very much for taking us along on your Canadian voyage, Professor Coyne. I think you have the journalist gene.

    I also experienced a vicarious thrill munching down that avocado-laden breakfast of yours (mmmMmmMMMM!), and I even paid the tab in invisible loons.

    Great stuff!

  7. Thanks so much for your WEIT.

    And the photos of Banf confirm that I want to go there, too.

    The Red-Breasted is most likely a female since the breast and belly are very pale. Agreeing with other commenters.

  8. Here in Northampton, MA there’s a wonderful ice cream shop called Herrell’s that has, among many flavors, burnt sugar and butter. I get it every time (often with the freshly-made chocolate whipped cream).

    1. No way! I’m down in NoHo from time to time, since it’s not far from Southern VT. (and I like going to The Dirty Truth) I will definitely be getting some of this ice cream and chocolate whipped cream this summer! Thanks for the tip, Jeff.

  9. OMG – I live in Calgary, go to the mountains all the time, in fact I just got married in Canmore which is a town 10 minutes from Banff, last summer. Excuse my ignorance but what am I missing in Banff this weekend? Is there some conference you will be at which is open to the general public?

    1. It’s the annual meeting of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evoution. Mostly for professionals, though I’m sure anybody could walk into any of the talks or symposia.

      1. I wish I could make it out to Banff this weekend to check it out and maybe meet you. Your book changed my life, I am obsessed with science and evolutionary biology since I read it. So cool that you are at this! Anyway, enjoy! Banff is amazing, I have lived next door to it for over 15 years and still go there at least a few times per year. I agree with the previous commenter who said if you have time, go to Moraine Lake (an hour’s drive West from you), it is one of the most breathtaking places in Canada, just google image it and you will be convinced. this is also the perfect time of year to go. aside from that, the locals go to ‘The Rose and Crown’, at night … a great pub on banff avenue.
        wow I never realized I was so proud of where I live ….

  10. *Now for a biologist I’m abysmally unable to identify birds.*

    A biologist with no bird identification skills? I’m shocked! Shocked, I say!

  11. Well to Canada and our prices!!! Why do you think we are always running across the border to do our shopping? We pay more for almost everything up here. Have you filled up your gas tank yet? If you thought ice cream and breakfast was expensive, wait……

    1. There’s a variety of reasons for the cost discrepancy. Corporate taxes are lower in Canada, meaning consumers have to pay more; shipping costs are higher over the mountains; road maintenance for the same space with 10% of the population; universal healthcare isn’t cheap etc…

      All in all, most things are still less expensive than western Europe.

  12. I used to think Canada had high prices, then I lived in Australia. The prices would shock you.

    One day I so want to go to Banff. Maybe next year if I can manage. I Need to go visit the family in Canada soon anyway.

    I really want to go as I’ve never been to the west side of Canada and I’ve known too many people who have either lived in that area or visited. They all gush about the place and for good reason.

    As for ice cream, (man I wish I could eat it more often) the gelatos in Italy are quite amazing and that’s not even going to the ‘best’ places. I’ve only been to Rome so far. I’ll have to check out that one in Paris the next time I’m there.

    1. Try Norway – or ‘No-way’ as the English call it. In Australia the 2 most expensive places I know are the capital Canberra and Perth (in Western Australia), but they’re nothing like Norway.

      1. Haven’t been to Norway yet. Plan to get there one day. People say the same thing about Finland too.

        Speaking as a person who has lived in Australia for 8 years I can tell you there is no cheap place here. Doesn’t exist. (except for maybe in the middle of nowhere) Food, rent, housing, cars, etc, all expensive and continue to go up.

        There are more expensive spots than others but in general Australia is an expensive country.

        1. I live in Perth, Australia, and I wouldn’t call it expensive. But then again, I’ve also visited Norway, and I didn’t think it was expensive either (just hand over the plastic card, it’s not ‘real’ money …). Although, I was shocked at having actually paid the equivalent of $22 for visiting an aquatic centre in Trondheim.

          I’ve visited Banff. I remember a souvenir shop in the main street where you can buy polished pebbles. I went overboard and bought a lot of the round magnets (great fun making chains and elaborate towers). Wish I’d bought more.

          1. Let’s see – a pint of lager in Perth (Australia) was about $5 vs $14 in Norway.

            I agree with Nick though; Australia as a whole is pretty expensive (at least compared to the USA in general). Also, with the relatively low number of skilled workers in certain professions in Australia and the low unemployment rate, I actually find it’s much cheaper to manufacture products in the UK – and sometimes manufacturing is even cheaper in Norway!

            1. What’s left of the Australian manufacturing industry is too expensive by far. We’re going to suffer pretty badly as our dollar stays above the US. It’s not looking too good with certain industries.

              I’m heading to Europe soon and looking forward to cheaper everything! Can’t wait. 🙂

      2. Now I’m a bit disappointed; why has the Queen aged in Canada, but not in Britain? I mean, all monarchs age, even the king of Sweden; he’s a bit bald on the newly minted coins. But not in England, is that so? No ageing Queen, not at all.

        1. >_> I have no idea why this comment ended up here. I attempted to comment on the post itself! Haha, obviously I fail at this whole commenting thing xD

  13. Great update! If you’re planning to tweet a lot I suggest using the #csee hashtag – there’s at least a few of us here on the twitter verse.

  14. Ah, the gelati – you have to try them. I was in Venezia recently and there’s this meringue gelato (though I can’t remember the name). There is also a ‘fior di latte’ which looks similar to the meringue and it’s also good. The dark chocolate gelato is awesome, then there’s the yoghurt (which is nothing like frogurt), and of course the pistacchio. Pistacchio is not cheap so even in Italy there are a lot of fakes – a genuine pistacchio would be a brownish-green color of course and not a bright green. All in all I think I saw close to 20 different flavors of gelati.

  15. Hey WEIT (sorry, don’t know your real name),

    Again, love your posts (and now your photos, too).

    As a Canadian, I just have to make one small comment: The general consensus as I grew up is that the back of the coin is the face. It’s funny, I’ve never thought of the front to be the Queen. I dont know why that is.

    Anyway, I’ve never been out west, so perhaps it is different there.

    Enjoy your stay!


      1. Well played, Dominic

        I don’t like the idea of the Queen on the front of our money. Plus the date and amount are on the reverse?

        I’m going to go against the evidence on this one and stay stuck in my ways – let’s hope it is the only time in my life! lol.


  16. “I had a late breakfast at Coyote’s Southwestern Cafe: huevos rancheros and coffee.”

    Yeah, the first thing I do in Canadia is head for a mexican restaurant, ’cause you can’t get that in Chicago.

    The spousal unit will take Italian Gelato over Cows any day, but, of course, you have to go to Italy for that. She does like Cows, though, and she’s the ice cream freak in the family.

    I am very pleased with myself in that I inwardly said “nuthatch” immediately. I love going new places and observing their wildlife.

    1. Well what else would he do, have an authentically ethnic Candadian breakfast?

      Well yes I suppose he could have had poutine…But I think of that as more a “try it once because you’re supposed to” thing than a meal, especially breakfast.

        1. Yes – it’s not really considered to be a particularly Canadian dish. When a Canadian says “bacon”, we generally mean the stripey strips of side bacon, and what Murricans call “Canadian Bacon, we call “back bacon” (or peameal bacon).

  17. IDK. I think Tubby’s in Wayne Maine is the best ice cream. Especially after a day at the beach.

  18. Glad you are enjoying the scenery and hospitality in Banff. If you are a candy nut, go to Moore’s on Banff Ave. Every kind of candy you know, remember and forgot… including a Toblerone bar the size of a 4 X 4… you could build a deck out of them.

  19. If you’re ever in San Francisco, you should try Humphrey Slocombe’s ice cream. Unusual flavors but not just a gimmick. I’m nowhere near as traveled as you but they have the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted.

  20. I am deeply offended at all this palaver about “the best ice cream.” No such thing. All ice cream, barring some, is good, and some is even better, but the way in which that some is better varies.

    A far better ideology for guiding one’s appreciation of ice cream is to assume, for starters, that it’s all good.

    I’m not sure, but this may be an example of the moral relativism so strongly decried by christers.

    1. I disagree; there are a lot of awful ice creams out there. Basically they put in loads of Elmer’s Glue (polyvinylacetate, or PVA – same as ‘slime’ except for the chain length of the molecules) and you can taste the acetic acid. I don’t know if the acetic acid is essentially a contaminant or from partial hydrolization of the PVA. Others are adulterated and don’t taste right, for example fake pistacchio which uses artificial almond flavor + artificial green coloring. How almond flavoring + green = pistacchio is anyone’s guess, but that’s what crappy ice cream makers do.

      1. I go by the simple statement that taste is relative to one’s personal idea of what is good.

        For example, in Finland they have salted black licorice ice cream. (amongst other salted black licorice stuff) Now I’m not overly fond of black licorice (let alone the salted variety) and the Finns tell me the stuff is great, but there’s simply no way I’m going to eat it.

  21. (Joke to be spoken aloud)
    Q. What do they have on a “Looney?”
    A. Queen Elizabeth with a loon on the other side.

    Q. What do they have on a “Tooney?”
    A. Queen Elizabeth with a bear behind.

    1. “Officially” it may be a toony (‘cos its worth $2) – but unofficially is a moony because the queen’s on front with a bear behind

  22. Lucky man!

    I’m sure a Canadian has already told you about the $2 coin by now.

    $1: Loonie
    $2: Moonie: It has the queen in front and a bear behind(!)

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