On the Road: Big puffy clouds and prickly pear blossoms

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It kinda reminded me of something, this view.

There were big puffy clouds in the sky and their shadows were moving over undulating hills covered with dark green, freshly-sprouted field peas. The scene was changing constantly as I shot my pictures but as I was watching it through the viewfinder, I couldn’t shake that feeling of familiarity.

It wasn’t familiar because I was yet again headed out to the prairie east of Hussar. I know I come out this way a lot — and I have photographed these same hills many times before — but this country is just so lovely, I can’t stay away. No, it was something else.

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But it wasn’t until I was past the dry bed of Wolf Lake and into the irrigation country closer to Gem that I remembered what it was.

Watching the clouds roll across the sky above a pasture filled with cattle and undulating waves of belly-high grass, everything clicked into place. Green fields, cloud shadows, cotton-ball sky, yeah, that’s what it is!

Cloud shadows on lush pea fields east of Hussar, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024.
Cloud shadows on lush pea fields east of Hussar, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Having never used a Windows laptop even on a dare, I’m not very well versed in their myriad capabilities and know them more by their reputation for keeping IT people gainfully employed. But I have seen the background image that appears — or used to, at least — when the machine first boots up. It’s a lovely photo of, you guessed it, rolling green hills with cloud shadows and a fluff-filled sky.

The green in that photo was grass, not peas, and it was shot in California but otherwise, the scene was remarkably similar. Purely coincidental, but a lovely scene is a lovely scene.

Clouds and cattle on the prairie near Gem, Ab., on Wednesday, June 26, 2024.
Clouds and cattle on the prairie near Gem, Ab., on Wednesday, June 26, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The sky continued to be patchy with clouds and sun alternating as I turned north onto the plains between Wolf Lake and the Red Deer River valley. A wind had come up and I could see curtains of rain draped along the northern horizon but for the moment, it was dry and dusty.

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Both the native grasslands and the grain fields were bright green, the wet spring giving everything a boost. The croplands and hay fields were getting to be lush and the native grasses like fescues and speargrass were as tall as they ever get. And there were flowers everywhere.

A momma redwing blackbird on a buffaloberry and rose thicket at a prairie wetland near Finnegan Ferry, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024.
A momma redwing blackbird on a buffaloberry and rose thicket at a prairie wetland near Finnegan Ferry, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The biggest ones like blanket flowers and sunflowers are just getting started but the wild roses are blooming everywhere. In the damp areas where springs seep out there are absolute hedges of them, impenetrable thickets crowded up against stands of buffaloberry and chokecherry. Birds love these refuges and I saw momma blackbirds with beaks full of bugs for their babies, kingbirds perched high on the old, bare stems and squawking yellow-headed blackbirds. I heard a catbird but couldn’t see it and caught the cinnamon flash of a brown thrasher flying off.

A momma redwing blackbird with a beakful of bugs for her babies at a prairie wetland near Finnegan Ferry, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024.
A momma redwing blackbird with a beakful of bugs for her babies at a prairie wetland near Finnegan Ferry, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

There were pheasants, too, as fast and elusive as that brown thrasher, Swainson’s hawks screeching and ravens flying by. None of which I managed to photograph.

The flowers, though, they were easy. Once I got down to their level.

Golden aster unfurling on the prairie near Finnegan Ferry, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024.
Golden aster unfurling on the prairie near Finnegan Ferry, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Carpets of orange mallow blossoms spread through the prairie grass accompanied by clumps of golden aster. A few pearly everlasting and some lapsed crocuses, too. Lovely flowers but not a one of them more than a hand-width tall. Time to take a knee.

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And then proceed to belly. Once low, I flipped out the back screen on my camera and filled the frame.

Tiny scarlet mallow on the prairie near Finnegan Ferry, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024.
Tiny scarlet mallow on the prairie near Finnegan Ferry, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The colours were so intense, the yellows and oranges so bright on the screen. The mallows and asters, their blossoms barely an inch or so across, were brilliant up close and shone like beacons against the green and grey of the grass and sage. It was pleasant crawling among them.

But I had to be careful. Manoeuvring around to aim my camera at a patch of scarlet gaura — more bright colour — I propped my elbow right next to a pincushion cactus. Another inch to the right and the spines would have nailed my shirt to my arm.

Scarlet gaura on the prairie near Finnegan Ferry, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024.
Scarlet gaura on the prairie near Finnegan Ferry, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Looking around I discovered I’d flopped down in a scattered patch of them but hadn’t noticed because they grow so flat to the ground. Had they been in bloom, though, I would have definitely noticed. Their bright magenta blossoms would have put the mallows and asters to shame.

The pincushions weren’t blooming but I knew their cousins, the prickly pears, were. I’d seen a few of them already but I knew where there were a bunch more close by so I went to have a look.

Prickly pear cactus in the Red Deer River valley by Finnegan Ferry, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024.
Prickly pear cactus in the Red Deer River valley by Finnegan Ferry, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The coulee leading down to Finnegan Ferry is an amazing place. It’s a virtual desert on the north side, a grassy slope on the south and a lush riparian garden in the bottom. Willows, dogwoods, saskatoons, buffaloberries and chokecherries lined the little trickle that runs through the bottom while wolfwillow, still in bloom, scented the air.

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There were a few blanket flowers and sunflowers starting to bloom here and a few more mallows and asters. But it was the big, yellow, papery blossoms of the prickly pear cactus that I was here to see.

And they didn’t disappoint.

Prickly pear cactus blossoms along the Red Deer River by Finnegan Ferry, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024.
Prickly pear cactus blossoms along the Red Deer River by Finnegan Ferry, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I love these guys. So bright and lovely with their sunny petals and red interiors, they liven up this beautiful but brutal landscape perfectly. Even the finished blossoms — there are several that open individually on each cactus — look gorgeous as they fade through shades of pink.

Bugs love them and there were ants and little beetles crawling all over the flowers and the spiky pads. And while I was lying down photographing them, I saw what might have been a grackle land beside one further away and stick its beak into a blossom. Looking for bugs, I guess, but I’ve never seen that before.

Prickly pear cactus in the Red Deer River valley by Finnegan Ferry, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024.
Prickly pear cactus in the Red Deer River valley by Finnegan Ferry, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

For once, I managed to get the pictures I wanted without getting spiked but as I crawled around, I noticed some smaller, rounder cactus pads. Could they be brittle prickly pear, the third kind of cactus we have in Alberta? I’ve seen them further north in the Battle River country but never noticed them here. Interesting.

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Earlier in the day I’d thought I might get rained on but now the clouds were breaking up a bit. Looking east, in fact, blue sky dominated. So, leaving the cactus behind, I hopped on the Finnegan Ferry for a nice, leisurely five-minute crossing of the Red Deer River. Accompanied by barn swallows nesting right on the ferry, to my surprise. On the far side, I flew my little drone for a picture of the ferry going back across the river and then continued on up the valley.

The Red Deer River at Finnegan Ferry, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024.
The Red Deer River at Finnegan Ferry, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia
This barn swallow built a nest on the ferry that crosses the Red Deer River at Finnegan Ferry, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024.
This barn swallow built a nest on the ferry that crosses the Red Deer River at Finnegan Ferry, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

More cactus here, a lot more, and I could see the yellow blossoms scattered all across the grassy benchland and hills. Down along the river the cottonwoods and willows were a dark green belt running between the slopes. The side coulees were filled with saskatoons and chokecherries.

Everything was so green, the spring rain and snow obviously having knocked aside — momentarily, at least — the drought that had been feared. Nearly every fence post had a kingbird or sparrow of some sort on it, a lot of them with bugs for their nestlings. Up on the flats above the river, gophers perched and chirped among the feathery, backlit speargrass, the fluorescent mallow and pasture sage.

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A skinny gopher on the gorgeous prairie east of Dorothy, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024.
A skinny gopher on the gorgeous prairie east of Dorothy, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

And there were antelope.

I came across a little band of mommas and babies lazing in a dip in the landscape but they trotted off before I could raise my camera. I got a few pictures of them as they bounced through the grass, the fawns in the middle of the group, and then switched over to video when they stopped.

Antelope with this year's babies on the plains east of Dorothy, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024.
Antelope with this year’s babies on the plains east of Dorothy, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Knowing they were safe, they stared back at me and waited to see what I was going to do. The little ones, impatient, decided they were going to move off but as they did, one of the adults let out a bark. It is always a surprise to me to hear an antelope make a noise of any kind but their barks — more of a cough, really — kind of make me giggle.

It’s a strange sound, one made even stranger given its source. But if it’s strange coming from the females, it is even more strange coming from the males.

An antelope buck relaxes on the plains east of Dorothy, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024.
An antelope buck relaxes on the plains east of Dorothy, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I found three of them lounging around at various places — they mostly stay separate from the moms and babies — and two of them barely acknowledged me. The third, though, jumped up and started running, barking loudly as it went. Why, I have no idea.

An antelope buck trots across the plains east of Dorothy, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024.
An antelope buck trots across the plains east of Dorothy, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The day was winding down now, the sun heading west across the open country. I passed more little bands of antelope, Swainson’s hawks on fenceposts, shrikes hunting for their evening meal. A mule deer doe that had been lying in the roadside grass popped up and ran across the road in front of me so I stopped to have a look where she had been laying, thinking that there might have been a fawn. There wasn’t.

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Crossing the Red Deer River again, this time on a bridge, I swung back toward Gem and the prairie around Wolf Lake. At a spring and irrigation-fed wetland I stopped to watch black terns dive and grab morsels from the water and stopped to have a look at the area where the dry bed of Wolf Lake becomes Crawling Valley Reservoir. Surprisingly, there was water there. I’ll have to stop by here another time for a better look.

A black tern with a morsel for its babies at a wetland east of Gem, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024.
A black tern with a morsel for its babies at a wetland east of Gem, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Back closer to Hussar, I slowed to have a look at the Windows pea fields again. This time, though, with the clouds gone and the sun low, they reminded me of nothing more than a set of lush rolling hills.

Lovely, lush rolling hills. No, they weren’t quite the same as those California ones in that Windows picture. But they did have something that made them even better.

As I drove on home across the prairie, all I had to do was look out my own window to see them.

A shrike on the hunt east of Dorothy, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024.
A shrike on the hunt east of Dorothy, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia
A meadowlark gets set to sing on the prairie east of Dorothy, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024.
A meadowlark gets set to sing on the prairie east of Dorothy, Ab., on Tuesday, June 25, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

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