On the Road: A cute little owl on a warming day

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What a cute little killer!

It was tiny and brown with big yellow eyes and it was scanning the beaver meadow from the branch of a willow. It glanced one way, then another, always looking downward before flying off in short, staccato wingbeats to land on the next perch and look around again.

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And then, suddenly, the glancing stopped and the stare stayed fixed on a spot in the yellow grass among the willows. A second later it dropped from the branch and disappeared.

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I’d headed south and west a few hours before, rolling through hills around Diamond Valley and on through Longview. The day was forecast to be warm but it had yet to fulfil that mandate and, from the looks of the clouds off to the west, it looked more likely to turn snowy than stay sunny.

But the sky to the south was filled with those glorious chinook clouds so, if nothing else, the wind that had yet to make it down to ground level would likely be fairly balmy.

As it clearly had been the day before.

Though the morning was cold, I could see plenty of evidence that it had been warm fairly recently. There was water running over the ice in Stimson Creek and frozen puddles in the ditches. A little east of Pekisko, there was a stream of runoff water still flowing though where it slowed down, it was frozen over with thin, milky ice that trapped the flooded grass below.

Runoff aimed this grass downstream and then froze over top of it near Pekisko, Ab., on Monday, March 11, 2024.
Runoff aimed this grass downstream and then froze over top of it near Pekisko, Ab., on Monday, March 11, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

That runoff was kind of the reason I’d come down this way. For one thing, I was curious about how much snow there was in these grassy foothills. Unlike the country a bit further north, here on the western side of the Porcupine Hills and along the valleys leading down toward Chain Lakes and beyond, the country is more open, way more prone to grass cover than trees.

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As a result, snow comes and goes over the winter. The chinook winds that were presently piling up those gorgeous clouds are here more able to gnaw away at the snow than they can among the trees. So I was curious to see how much snow there was and how quickly it was melting.

Chinook clouds over the Porcupine Hills south of Pekisko, Ab., on Wednesday, March 13, 2024.
Chinook clouds over the Porcupine Hills south of Pekisko, Ab., on Wednesday, March 13, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

At the moment, it wasn’t melting at all. But if the chinook made it down to the ground, it soon would be. So I kept on heading south.

The Stimson Creek valley was fairly snowy. And from Pekisko on south, as the land rose, the more snowy it became. Stopping to take pictures of an eagle, I watched it fly away over a snow-packed spread of diamond willows and on toward drifted ridge tops across the valley. Closer to Chain Lakes, the snow was fairly deep and at Meinsinger Creek, the little stream that flows out the north end of the valley, I saw another eagle so I dropped down along the road to see if I could get closer.

A bald eagle flies near Pekisko, Ab., on Monday, March 11, 2024.
A bald eagle flies near Pekisko, Ab., on Monday, March 11, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

This one was sitting on top of a snow-covered beaver house but as I drove by it watched me as intently as I watched it so, rather than spook it, I drove past and headed up the far side of the valley to turn around for another try.

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And met some ranchers about to move some cattle.

Cattle in the Meinsinger Creek valley south of Pekisko, Ab., on Monday, March 11, 2024.
Cattle in the Meinsinger Creek valley south of Pekisko, Ab., on Monday, March 11, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Pleasant folks, they graciously consented to a few pictures as long as I stayed out of the way so I turned around and headed back across the valley — the eagle had flown off, as I suspected it would — and parked up the hill to wait for them to start moving the herd.

The chinook had now made it down to ground level and the wind was gusting across the snow, sending little spins of it flying. But in the 20 minutes or so that I spent waiting for the ranchers, the temperature rose from -3C to 5C and water was beginning to run down the road.

The ranchers got the cattle gathered and pushed them along the creek bottom through the now-mushy snow and past the open water behind the beaver dams. In another 10 minutes they had gone by, the sounds of the cattle and working dogs blending with the coughing gusts of the chinook as they made their way to the next pasture.

Moving cattle along Meinsinger Creek south of Pekisko, Ab., on Monday, March 11, 2024.
Moving cattle along Meinsinger Creek south of Pekisko, Ab., on Monday, March 11, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Chain Lakes was, of course, still frozen over but as I made an attempt to go down below the dam to check out the open water on Willow Creek, I had to turn around. I probably could have made it to the creek but the snow on the road had turned to thick slush on top of ice. Getting down the hill, not a problem. Getting back up, maybe not so much.

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But the roads were good further south so just past Riley Road I turned west into another creek valley.

There was less snow here, though not by much, and what there was of it was melting in the combined heat of the sun and the chinook wind. Little rivulets were running down the slopes from the drifts and in places it puddled up in tea-coloured pools with willows nearby. I don’t know if willow stems get brighter as winter wanes and spring approaches but the ones here in the valley were absolutely glowing in reds, yellows and oranges.

Bright willows along Chaffen Creek south of Chain Lakes, Ab., on Monday, March 11, 2024.
Bright willows along Chaffen Creek south of Chain Lakes, Ab., on Monday, March 11, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

In fact, they were the reason why I kept going up the valley. I knew there were beaver meadows farther up and there would not only be colourful willows there, I was sure I’d find plenty of bright white catkins starting to puff out along the stems.

I also thought I might see a bluebird. It was a little early, true, but I have seen them in mid-March before. So as I drove slowly along I was watching for small birds perched on the willow branches.

And I saw one. But it wasn’t blue. It was brown.

It was perched like a bluebird and it was roughly the right size but neither the colour nor the shape was quite right. Even though it was just a speck among the branches I could see it was more boxy, the head more square than pointed. And when I got my long lens on it for a closer look, I could see it wasn’t a songbird at all.

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It was an owl. A pygmy owl.

A tiny pygmy owl on the hunt south of Chain Lakes, Ab., on Monday, March 11, 2024.
A tiny pygmy owl on the hunt south of Chain Lakes, Ab., on Monday, March 11, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Pygmy owls aren’t particularly uncommon but they are hard to find, at least partially because of their size. Even though they are owls, birds in the same category as great greys and great horned owls, they are minuscule in comparison.

They’re bigger than a sparrow but smaller than a robin and camouflaged much better than either of them. And though they are, unlike most of their cousins, daytime hunters, they usually like to sit among tree branches on the edges of meadows to watch for prey. Unless you see them move, you won’t likely see them at all.

This one, though, was right out in the open. And as I looked through then lens it flew off. Gone, I thought. But then it landed bit closer.

I followed. It flew off again. And landed bit closer again.

By now, it was close enough that I could easily see its oversized eyes and taloned toes, its un-owl-like long tail and even the little ear tuft feathers.

So cute! And so deadly.

A tiny pygmy owl caught a vole nearly as big as itself south of Chain Lakes, Ab., on Monday, March 11, 2024.
A tiny pygmy owl caught a vole nearly as big as itself south of Chain Lakes, Ab., on Monday, March 11, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

As I watched it glance around I saw it suddenly tense up and lock its gaze on a spot in the grass. It bobbed up and down a couple times and then dropped groundward and disappeared.

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Oh well, I thought, I guess it’s gone. But at least I got a couple pictures.

But then it flew up to the low branches of a willow even closer by. I aimed my long lens at it, focused on the one eye I could see between the branches, shot and was about to switch to video mode when it took off and headed toward a stand of spruce across the way.

Gone for sure now, I looked at my pictures on the back of the camera to see if I had anything in focus. And that’s when I saw the vole.

Being lost in those eyes, I hadn’t even noticed it. But when it dropped off that branch it must have grabbed the vole and there it was, nearly as big as the owl itself, trapped in its claws.

Cute little killer indeed!

A tiny pygmy owl caught a vole nearly as big as itself south of Chain Lakes, Ab., on Monday, March 11, 2024.
A tiny pygmy owl caught a vole nearly as big as itself south of Chain Lakes, Ab., on Monday, March 11, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Well, that pretty much made my day. I stayed around the beaver flats for a bit, taking more pictures of the willows and their catkins and then headed back down the valley as those snowy clouds I’d seen over the mountains earlier began to drop a few flakes.

Bright willow catkins south of Chain Lakes, Ab., on Monday, March 11, 2024.
Bright willow catkins south of Chain Lakes, Ab., on Monday, March 11, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

They followed me back down the valley and along the south fork of Willow Creek but nothing stuck and it was actually quite pleasant lying beside a little runoff stream that was trickling down to the creek. The wind chilled me a bit after I stood up, dripping with meltwater and recently thawed cow flop, but the patterns in the thin ice over the flowing water made the chill worthwhile.

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Pretty patterns in the ice along Willow Creek south of Chain Lakes, Ab., on Monday, March 11, 2024.
Pretty patterns in the ice along Willow Creek south of Chain Lakes, Ab., on Monday, March 11, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia
Pretty patterns in the ice along Willow Creek south of Chain Lakes, Ab., on Monday, March 11, 2024.
Pretty patterns in the ice along Willow Creek south of Chain Lakes, Ab., on Monday, March 11, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The snow was heavier at the top of the ridge between the Willow Creek forks but within a couple of kilometres I was out in bright sunshine again. On this side of the Porcupine Hills there was almost no snow at all. Bare brown and yellow grass covered the hills and the few runoff streams I found were on their last trickle. Gophers were running everywhere and cattle stood like statues against the sky.

A gopher — Richardson's ground squirrel — pauses to look around in the bare grass in the Porcupine Hills east of Chain Lakes, Ab., on Monday, March 11, 2024.
A gopher — Richardson’s ground squirrel — pauses to look around in the bare grass in the Porcupine Hills east of Chain Lakes, Ab., on Monday, March 11, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

There was still snow in the high country but down along the creek itself, nothing. And not much water flowing over by Pine Coulee Reservoir either. Pretty clouds, though. Feathery.

Cattle on the bare grass in the Porcupine Hills east of Chain Lakes, Ab., on Monday, March 11, 2024.
Cattle on the bare grass in the Porcupine Hills east of Chain Lakes, Ab., on Monday, March 11, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I still had owls on my mind as I drove through the hills west of Nanton so I headed toward a couple places where I thought they might be nesting. I found bald eagles on the way, two in one tree and a third flying high, and dozens of pairs of little partridges that ran through the muddy stubble fields.

A pair of young bald eagles perch in a poplar west of Nanton, Ab.,on Monday, March 11, 2024.
A pair of young bald eagles perch in a poplar west of Nanton, Ab.,on Monday, March 11, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The first nest was empty but the next had an owl sitting on it. Great horned owls nest pretty early so she had likely been there for a while. And she seemed totally indifferent to my presence, barely glancing down as I sat there with my camera aimed.

I was thinking about that pygmy owl as I looked into those big yellow eyes. Two birds so similar, yet so different. One, big, the other barely the size of the first one’s head. But both owls, just the same.

Such is nature.

The snow I’d outrun earlier now beginning to fall again, I left the owl — and the day — behind and splashed down the slushy road toward town.

A great horned owl on its nest west of Nanton, Ab., on Monday, March 11, 2024.
A great horned owl on its nest west of Nanton, Ab., on Monday, March 11, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

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