On the Road: Bad weather has its charms

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I headed south to try to avoid the worst of the wind.

I had originally planned to go north for a bit, check out the tamarack bogs up around Caroline, but when I looked at the forecast I saw there was going to be rain and wind gusts to around 80 km/h. Not the best scenario.

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To the south, though, especially the area around Willow Creek Provincial Park west of Stavely, things looked a little better. Environment Canada predicted winds of around 50 km/h. It was still going to be rainy and cold but that sounded a lot better so I headed that way instead.

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But the park, apparently, didn’t get the memo.

Having sluiced my way through the snow and slush the week before, I wasn’t all that anxious to go out in the bad weather again. But at least it was raining instead of snowing and bad weather does have its charms so I decided to give it a go.

This time, though, I tried to stick to better roads. The muck of the previous week wasn’t anywhere near as much fun to drive through as it sounds like so I stuck to pavement as far as I reasonably could. But paved roads tend to be busier which makes it hard to pull over if you see something interesting so I was back on the muddy gravel again by the time I hit the Porcupine Hills.

And almost immediately saw something interesting.

A momma great horned owl was on her nest in the crook of a poplar limb and she really didn’t seem to enjoy being there. The north wind was blowing hard and though the rain had backed off for the moment, from the look of her plumage it had only just recently stopped. The feathery horns that give these birds their name were flattening against her head in the gusts and she had her body angled to protect her eyes.

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Her babies — there were at least two — had their heads tucked under mom’s wings, really the only protection they had. Almost as big as mom herself, they made for a very crowded nest, one that was cold and wet and getting rocked by wind gusts.

Yeah, mom looked pretty miserable.

A great horned owl endures the blasting wind and rain to shelter her babies on a nest west of Cayley, Ab., on Wednesday, May 8, 2024.
A great horned owl endures the blasting wind and rain to shelter her babies on a nest west of Cayley, Ab., on Wednesday, May 8, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

And the weather was getting worse. By the time I hit the Mosquito Creek valley west of Nanton the rain had started again and the wind coming out of the northwest was blasting it sideways. The shorelines of sloughs — sloughs that were dry just a couple months ago — were covered with white foam kicked off the churning water by the wind while the few ducks on them kept to the scant shelter of the weeds along the lee shore. Out in the middle of one grey puddle, a mother goose sat on her nest, a nest that was even more open to the elements than the owl’s had been. She glared at me as I shot my pictures while behind her, taking advantage of the nest as a windbreak, an avocet tried to take shelter.

A mother Canada goose glares from her nest while an avocet stays out of the wind behind it south of Nanton, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024.
A mother Canada goose glares from her nest while an avocet stays out of the wind behind it south of Nanton, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Down at Pine Coulee, just a few kilometres further on, the wind and rain was just as strong but the angle of the coulee offered a little bit of shelter and I found a trio of bald eagles taking advantage of it. They were tucked under a sandstone ledge when I first spotted them but they quickly took off as I stopped. With their broad wings flapping, they flew straight along the slope below the lip of the coulee but as soon as they rose above it the wind blew them nearly backwards. At points they were actually hovering, their wingbeats just enough to equal the wind and hold them in place.

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A young bald eagle rides the wind above Pine Coulee south of Nanton, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024.
A young bald eagle rides the wind above Pine Coulee south of Nanton, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Frantic wingbeats weren’t enough to hold the flock of chipping sparrows I saw further down along the Pine Coulee Reservoir, though. Their little wings were no match for the gusts and they blew around like scraps of brown paper until they dropped down into the grass or behind the shelter of a cutbank. They never stopped singing, though. Nice!

A chipping sparrow shelters from the wind along the shore of Pine Coulee Reservoir west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024.
A chipping sparrow shelters from the wind along the shore of Pine Coulee Reservoir west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The reservoir itself was a lot more full than the last time I’d seen it but it still had a long ways to go to get back to its former level. And the water that was in it was roiling in the wind.

Out among the waves there were geese and a few ducks. Swallows, too. They were swooping low over the waves hoping to catch wind-blown bugs.

A pintail drake swims with a pair of shovelers on a windy slough south of Nanton, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024.
A pintail drake swims with a pair of shovelers on a windy slough south of Nanton, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

And there was a loon, first one I’ve seen this year. The wind and waves didn’t seem to bother it at all as it paddled along riding the swells and dipping into the troughs.

A loon swims in the wind-turned waters of Pine Coulee Reservoir west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024.
A loon swims in the wind-turned waters of Pine Coulee Reservoir west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The sharptail grouse I saw didn’t seem to care about the weather, either. It was at the edge of the Willow Creek valley pecking at the new growth around the rose and saskatoon thickets as if there was noting going on at all. Its feathers were wet from the rain and ruffling in the wind but it didn’t seem to care.

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A sharptail grouse in the rain along Willow Creek west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024.
A sharptail grouse in the rain along Willow Creek west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I had really hoped the wind would be a little friendlier down here in the Stavely Elks campground portion of the park but, nope. It was still coming from the northwest so that meant here in the park where the creek flows to the southeast, the wind was coming straight in. All those big cottonwoods growing there broke it up a bit but it was still howling and it blew the rain so hard it stung my face whenever I cranked down the window for a picture.

But cold and windy and wet as it was, it looked lovely.

Long arm of a cottonwood along Willow Creek west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024.
Long arm of a cottonwood along Willow Creek west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Cottonwoods are my favourite trees — followed closely by limber pines — and being among them, even on a day like this, is always a joy. I love those wide trunks, twisty branches and thick, wrinkly bark. I find them endlessly fascinating.

And the rain made them even more so.

Rain heightens the colours on a cottonwood branch along Willow Creek west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024.
Rain heightens the colours on a cottonwood branch along Willow Creek west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Cottonwood bark normally appears kind of grey, brown at best, when it’s dry. But wet it down and all those subtle colours beyond the grey start to shine through.

There are plenty of yellows and browns, colours that give the newest bark a look almost like a bruised banana. Beyond those are the chocolates and cinnamons. And on the north-facing sides of a lot of the trees here in the park, lichens add their colours to the mix.

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Lichens on a cottonwood along Willow Creek west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024.
Lichens on a cottonwood along Willow Creek west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Colours that are also enhanced by the rain. Most are bright yellow and soft green. A few are red. Down closer to the ground, they share their habitat with mosses and grass that takes advantage of the moisture that gets directed groundward by the furrowed cottonwood bark.

Many of the cottonwoods here have scars from various knocks and flood-borne detritus and where the bark has been broken away, the cambium — the wood of the tree — shows through. Weathering has left some pretty interesting patterns in it, some reminding me of beach sand, others more abstract and, in one case, a little eerie.

Rain brings out the textures in a cottonwood trunk along Willow Creek west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024.
Rain brings out the textures in a cottonwood trunk along Willow Creek west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia
A natural sculpture in a cottonwood trunk along Willow Creek west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024.
A natural sculpture in a cottonwood trunk along Willow Creek west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The wind and rain continued as I poked around the bends of the creek. Crows made creaky croaking sounds as I drove and walked around. I think they had a nest somewhere. Starlings and robins looked for bugs around the trees and clumps of rose hips. Speaking of roses, the leaves were starting to pop on all of them. The blossoms won’t be all that far behind.

There were bright yellow buffalo beans everywhere and I got soaked lying on the wet ground to take their pictures.

Buffalo beans along Willow Creek west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024.
Buffalo beans along Willow Creek west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I spent a pretty pleasant couple of hours there with the place entirely to myself but after pausing one more time to shoot the still-empty cliff swallow nests along the creek, I headed back out into the open country.

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Turns out the cottonwoods had slowed the wind down more than I thought. Stopping to shoot pictures of a goose on a nest at the very top of a thicket of diamond willows — crazy place for a goose nest — wind gusts were absolutely shaking the truck. Over by the reservoir I saw a partridge blown sideways as it tried to run and a smart gopher that ducked down behind a clump of old grass to chomp on some new green.

A Canada goose picked an unusual place to nest on top of a cluster of diamond willow near Pine Coulee Reservoir west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024.
A Canada goose picked an unusual place to nest on top of a cluster of diamond willow near Pine Coulee Reservoir west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia
A grey — or Hungarian — partridge by Pine Coulee Reservoir west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024.
A grey — or Hungarian — partridge by Pine Coulee Reservoir west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Really bright new green. The rain brightened all the colours now emerging from their winter sleep and improved the ones still left over from last year. The reds and oranges among the grass and shrubs just glowed. The blues and greens of the glacial erratic boulders shone as well.

A gopher — Richardson's ground squirrel — shelters from the wind and rain as it snacks on fresh green growth near Pine Coulee Reservoir west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024.
A gopher — Richardson’s ground squirrel — shelters from the wind and rain as it snacks on fresh green growth near Pine Coulee Reservoir west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia
Rain brings out the colours of the new and old growth around glacial erratics by Pine Coulee Reservoir west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024.
Rain brings out the colours of the new and old growth around glacial erratics by Pine Coulee Reservoir west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The water on the reservoir was even more riled up now. Waves were crashing on the shore and sending spray flying while ducks rode the swells as they pecked at whatever was being churned up. There were blackbirds along the shore in the more sheltered areas doing the same thing while swallows — crazy little things — swooped above the waves looking for whatever they could find.

Brewer's blackbirds forage among the waves crashing on the shore at Pine Coulee Reservoir west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024.
Brewer’s blackbirds forage among the waves crashing on the shore at Pine Coulee Reservoir west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia
Waves crash on the shore at Pine Coulee Reservoir west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024.
Waves crash on the shore at Pine Coulee Reservoir west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Though I hadn’t spent much time out in the wind and rain, I was pretty soaked from the little time that I did and feeling chilled. One of my lenses was fogged up as well from being constantly cold and wet so I stuck it on the dash by the defroster as I started heading back to town. The fogging cleared just in time to take pictures of a pair of mallards out for a walk in the rain.

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Horses get out of the wind and rain near Parkland, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024.
Horses get out of the wind and rain near Parkland, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Rain that was still coming in sideways, blown by the wind. It kept horses in their little shelters and herons at the rookery along Mosquito Creek flattened low on their nests. Parked on the bridge I watched a goose cruise along beside the greening bank and then had to dry my lens to get pictures of raindrops trembling in the wind gusts as they dripped down the orange-painted iron of the rails.

A raindrop hovers on a bridge over Mosquito Creek near Parkland, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024.
A raindrop hovers on a bridge over Mosquito Creek near Parkland, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Bad weather does have its charms but I gotta admit that after a few hours, they start to thin considerably. Time to head back to town.

And hope that next time I head out I’ll be able to sample the charms that good weather can bring instead.

Blue herons and Canada geese stay low and out of the wind on their nest on Mosquito Creek near Parkland, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024.
Blue herons and Canada geese stay low and out of the wind on their nest on Mosquito Creek near Parkland, Ab., on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

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