On the Road: A day for the birds

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The heat ripples coming off the ponds were driving me crazy.

It was 19C at Barons and the combination of the heat, the cool air over the ice that remained on the ponds and the light wind made the air shimmer. Through my long lens, everything I was aiming at looked like it was swimming.

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And a lot of it actually was. The pintails, mallards, wigeons, geese and swans that were paddling around were in constant motion. But with the heat ripples, I just couldn’t get anything in focus.

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My pal Mike — if only we had different names! — had told me a lot of the earliest migrators had returned down his way, birds like swans and ducks, so I figured I’d head out and look for some of them myself.

The morning was bright and clear, a little bit chilly but pleasant, and I could see the bright snow-covered mountains off to the west as I drove along. The countryside around me was bare and brown, the fields puddled with water from the recently melted snow. The last of the drifts in the ditches and behind the windbreaks were the only patches of white around.

But it didn’t take long to find others. I’d barely turned off the highway when I saw brilliant patches of white flexing their wings

Trumpeter swans recently arrived from the south relax on a meltwater pond near Mazeppa, Ab., on Tuesday, March 19, 2024.
Trumpeter swans recently arrived from the south relax on a meltwater pond near Mazeppa, Ab., on Tuesday, March 19, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Mike wasn’t kidding about the birds being back. Here, right beside the road, were around 50 huge white swans. They were a mix of trumpeter and tundra swans, both on their way to summer nesting grounds, far to the north for the tundras and a combination of foothills and boreal forest and plains for the trumpeters.

Taking advantage of the temporarily full ponds here in the south, they’d paused on their long journey to rest and relax while waiting for things to thaw a bit more further north.

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And they had a gorgeous morning to do it. It was around 8C when I found them and the sun was shining brightly. Behind them rose tan-coloured stubble fields and beyond that, the snowy mountains. Through my long lens I could see the little yellow teardrops on the tundra swans and the pink on the beaks of the trumpeters.

Goldeneye drakes and a tundra swan on a meltwater pond near Mazeppa, Ab., on Monday, March 18, 2024.
Goldeneye drakes and a tundra swan on a meltwater pond near Mazeppa, Ab., on Monday, March 18, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

And they weren’t the only birds there. Among them were ducks just arrived from the south, wigeons and pintails, and a few that were probably locals that had wintered here like mallards and goldeneyes. And Canada geese, of course.

All of them were talking. The geese, naturally, were the noisiest but I could hear the peeps of the wigeons and pintails, the quacks of the mallards and chortle of the tundra swans. The trumpeters weren’t quite as talkative but I could hear the occasional bass rumble of their voices, too.

I spent a fair while watching them and taking pictures but I figured if there were birds here on this one smallish pond, then there had to be more further along. So I left them to enjoy their morning and headed on south.

A trumpeter swan tries to relax around noisy mallards and wigeons near Mazeppa, Ab., on Monday, March 18, 2024.
A trumpeter swan tries to relax around noisy mallards and wigeons near Mazeppa, Ab., on Monday, March 18, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Frank Lake east of High River was still mostly frozen over but I could see birds sitting on the ice at the south end. Close by, another melt pond held Canada geese and maybe around 200 pintail ducks. The geese just paddled around but the pintails, much warier, took off and winged away nearly as soon as I stopped.

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Despite that, the day was looking really great. Lots of sun, lots of warmth, lots of birds. So I continued on.

Pintails flying near Barons, Ab., on Monday, March 18, 2024.
Pintails flying near Barons, Ab., on Monday, March 18, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Nearly every little puddle I passed had at least a couple of birds on it. And near Brant, I found a fox. It was right beside a den it had dug in the middle of a field, into which it dropped almost as soon as I stopped. Gotta remember that for later in the spring.

A fox stares back from its den in a field south of Heronton, Ab., on Monday, March 18, 2024.
A fox stares back from its den in a field south of Heronton, Ab., on Monday, March 18, 2024. Mike Drew/PostMedia Mike Drew/Postmedia

There were more swans near Ensign, these ones paddling around in a huge body of water that had spread out from a cattail-filled slough onto the surrounding fields. These ones were also a combination of tundra swans and trumpeters.

Both birds are huge but when you see them side-by-side, you realize just how much bigger the trumpeters are. They are, after all, North America’s heaviest bird. And they are spectacular.

Trumpeter swans and mallards on a meltwater pond near Mazeppa, Ab., on Monday, March 18, 2024.
Trumpeter swans and mallards on a meltwater pond near Mazeppa, Ab., on Monday, March 18, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The usual cadre of ducks swam with them and I managed to get a couple shots of the pintails before they all took off. The wigeons mostly stayed among the cattails while the mallards and Canada geese — there are always Canada geese — paddled around and made noise.

Canada geese and pintail ducks south of Frank Lake near High River, Ab., on Monday, March 18, 2024.
Canada geese and pintail ducks south of Frank Lake near High River, Ab., on Monday, March 18, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

There were fewer ponds in the hilly country south of Ensign and therefore fewer birds but I was sure I’d find more around Clear Lake west of Stavely. And had it not still been frozen over, I likely would have.

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There was no open water but the ice had to have been melting. According to the thermometer on my dash, it was now 15C and getting warmer.

The roads were thawing for sure. Ruts had formed by passing vehicles and in places the gravel was so soft it felt like I had a flat tire. But the gophers seemed to be enjoying the soft ground. All of them had muddy faces, paws and bellies.

There were several meltwater ponds in the fields east of Barons and Carmangay but fewer birds than I would have thought. It wasn’t until I hit one of my favourite ponds north of Barons that I found some more flocks.

Canada geese and tundra swans near Barons, Ab., on Monday, March 18, 2024.
Canada geese and tundra swans near Barons, Ab., on Monday, March 18, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Both of the ponds I stopped at had been nearly dry last fall but now they were almost full again. The one to the north had a couple of hundred swans and geese on it while the shallower slough to the south was covered with pintails and wigeons.

And there were killdeers, too. I’d heard these little plovers at nearly every pond I stopped at but I hadn’t yet seen one. Here at the shallow slough, though, there were dozens of them along the shore and on the muddy edges of nearby fields. So nice to see them again!

A killdeer forages in a field by a slough near Barons, Ab., on Monday, March 18, 2024.
A killdeer forages in a field by a slough near Barons, Ab., on Monday, March 18, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Keho Lake, unfortunately, was a bust. I hadn’t expected it to be ice-free but I was really hoping the shallower bays and nearby sloughs along the south shore might have been. Alas, they were not. The only open water I could see was near an island. And there, there were lots of birds.

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All-white birds. Hoping some of them might be snow geese, I put on my longest lens for a look.

And that’s when the heat ripples raised their shimmering heads.

Still-frozen Keho Lake near Barons, Ab., on Monday, March 18, 2024.
Still-frozen Keho Lake near Barons, Ab., on Monday, March 18, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The air was swimming around so much I could barely tell the birds from the ice. I could hear them so I knew there were gulls on the water and maybe some swans. Could have been a few snow geese, too. But they were so distorted by the ripples they might as well have been a flock of snowmen.

So I continued on, rolling around the east end of the lake and back west again along the north shore. There was a thin strip of open water along the steep banks with a few mallards splashing around and I did manage to snag a shot of a partridge flying away but until I was near the far end again, I saw nothing else.

There, though, was a slough with birds on it so I aimed my lens. Yeah, I tried, but the ripples made it impossible to focus. But while I was aiming I heard a sound I hadn’t heard in months.

A meadowlark was trilling somewhere in the tall brown grass. I managed to find it and take a terrible picture just to prove I saw one but it was so nice to hear that voice again!

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I swung back to the ponds north of Barons but by then it was 19C and the heat ripples were even worse so I shot a bit of video and moved on.

A female mallard takes off from a pond east of Stavely, Ab., on Monday, March 18, 2024.
A female mallard takes off from a pond east of Stavely, Ab., on Monday, March 18, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

OK, I know it sounds like I’m complaining about being out on a beautiful day but really, I’m not. I was enjoying every second of driving along with the windows down and a warm breeze on my face. I was even enjoying the sweat that was trickling down my torso under a completely unnecessary winter coat.

It was glorious.

Ducks and geese on a slough near Barons, Ab., on Monday, March 18, 2024.
Ducks and geese on a slough near Barons, Ab., on Monday, March 18, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The westerly breeze had picked up a bit and the few times I’d flown my little drone, it wanted to buck once it was maybe 30 metres off the ground. But the sloughs looked pretty cool from above. Back at Keho Lake I’d put it up to get a picture of the ice cover and now I had it in the air again to shoot the patterns of breaking ice in a small slough — another that had been dry five months ago — and the colours made by the water.

And as I was flying, I kept hearing a buzzing around me. It was bees. A bit up the road there was a set of hives and the bees were out enjoying the warm day, too.

Busy bees east of Claresholm, Ab., on Monday, March 18, 2024.
Busy bees east of Claresholm, Ab., on Monday, March 18, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The day was wearing on so I drove back past Ensign and put the little drone up again to get a high-angle view of all the water — just a few swans left there for some reason — and then continued on toward Herronton. Just past there, I found a silly cow out wading in a pond.

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A cow wades through a meltwater pond west of Mossleigh, Ab., on Monday, March 18, 2024.
A cow wades through a meltwater pond west of Mossleigh, Ab., on Monday, March 18, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

And just beyond her, the last swans of the day. A quartet of them were by a little puddle right beside the road so I stopped and aimed my camera. A minute or so later, they took off in a flurry of white wings and water kicked up by their big black feet.

They were aimed southward as they rose into the air and I wondered if maybe they knew the same thing as I did. I knew that the next day, Tuesday, was the first official day of spring. But I also knew a major snowstorm was on the way. That was the reason why, in fact, I’d gone out on Monday in the first place.

Tundra swans take off from a muddy field west of Ensign, Ab., on Monday, March 18, 2024. Mike Drew/PostMedia
Tundra swans take off from a muddy field west of Ensign, Ab., on Monday, March 18, 2024. Mike Drew/PostMedia Mike Drew/Postmedia

Maybe, like me, they were trying to dodge the nasty weather and heading south to avoid the storm. Or maybe — much more likely — they just happened to take off in that direction.

Either way, I’m sure they’ll weather it well. And once it’s done and the snow melts, there will be even more puddles for them to splash around in.

But none of that negates the fact that Monday was, barring the heat ripples, a fantastically gorgeous day. And no doubt the harbinger of many more to come.

Because, despite all this moisture-giving snow, it truly is springtime in southern Alberta.

Meltwater in a field west of Vulcan, Ab., on Monday, March 18, 2024.
Meltwater in a field west of Vulcan, Ab., on Monday, March 18, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

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