On the Road: Green, lush and lovely

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Well of course I got wet.

I mean, it had been raining overnight and was threatening to drizzle again so lying here on the damp forest floor trying to take a few pictures, yeah, I got wet. But it was worth it.

In front of me was a patch of spotted coralroot. I know, that sounds like some sort of exotic disease but it is actually a very pretty — and very tiny — type of orchid. It has no chlorophyll, what with it being parasitic and all, but the reds and oranges look so nice against all the green. And the tiny flowers are gorgeous.

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But if you want pictures of them, you have to get down to their level. And on a damp day like this, you’re gonna get wet.

Spotted coralroot orchids in the Jumpingpound Creek valley west of Calgary, Ab., Saturday, June 29, 2024.
Spotted coralroot orchids in the Jumpingpound Creek valley west of Calgary, Ab., Saturday, June 29, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Perhaps foolishly, I had ventured out to the foothills on the weekend, joining the stream of traffic heading westward from the city. Fortunately, though, I didn’t have to put up with it for long and only went west far enough to hit the side roads. Once on them, all was well.

Thanks to the previous day’s rain, the gravel was damp but dust-free and I ambled slowly along not because the traffic dictated it but because I felt like it. Sunshine was finding gaps in the clouds and lighting up the gloriously green countryside, cattle were wading through tall grass and every little valley had a stream running through it.

Momma coot passes a bit of water weed to her baby on a slough west of Cochrane, Ab., Saturday, June 29, 2024.
Momma coot passes a bit of water weed to her baby on a slough west of Cochrane, Ab., Saturday, June 29, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The sloughs along the way were full right up to the roadsides and lined with green cattails and bursts of yellow goldenrod. I found a momma coot and a trio of her bizarre-looking babies paddling along and spotted but didn’t manage a photo of a baby muskrat. They are so tiny, almost mouse-like.

But the sun backed off as I continued on and soon the clouds overwhelmed. Puddles on the road indicated that the rain had just recently finished and the broken limbs and bent aspens along the side roads showed that I had just missed a fairly intense — but likely localized — storm. The rain was still around but for the moment, at least, it was holding back.

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Spotted coralroot orchids in the Jumpingpound Creek valley west of Calgary, Ab., Saturday, June 29, 2024.
Spotted coralroot orchids in the Jumpingpound Creek valley west of Calgary, Ab., Saturday, June 29, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

In fact, it was holding back enough that I was able to shoot the coralroot with the occasional burst of sunlight shining through. Which was very fortunate given the need for a lot of light when trying to photograph a flower the size of a child’s fingernail.

And that luck held as I watched a spotted sandpiper poking along the edge of runoff-swollen Jumpingpound Creek. It was finding plenty to eat in the foamy eddies next to the main flow. But just minutes later, the rain began to fall.

A spotted sandpiper checks out the swollen waters of Jumpingpound Creek west of Calgary, Ab., Saturday, June 29, 2024.
A spotted sandpiper checks out the swollen waters of Jumpingpound Creek west of Calgary, Ab., Saturday, June 29, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I’d been driving slowly with the windows down, as I like to do when the roads aren’t busy, and I’d been hearing birds singing as I went. But there was one prominent voice among them and near the terminus of the dead-end road I was on, I finally saw what it was.

Through the gently-falling rain I picked out a medium-sized bird perched on the top of a spruce tree and singing its sweet tune. It was grey and green-backed, kinda nondescript, actually, but its voice was lovely. Neither the rain nor the gunshots echoing from the nearby rifle range kept it from singing.

I had to look it up when I got back home and it turned out to be a Tennessee warbler. I’ve heard them hundreds of times but never actually seen one.

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A Tennessee warbler sits on a spruce tree in the falling rain west of Calgary, Ab., Saturday, June 29, 2024.
A Tennessee warbler sits on a spruce tree in the falling rain west of Calgary, Ab., Saturday, June 29, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The rain continued off and on, never more than a sprinkle, fortunately, but it quickly turned out I wasn’t the only one trying to avoid the weekend crowd. There were people and vehicles everywhere I went, so much so I finally turned around and headed back toward town. But there was one place I wanted to check.

And though there were people close by, I had it all to myself.

Lush greenery and a flowing waterfall west of Calgary, Ab., Saturday, June 29, 2024.
Lush greenery and a flowing waterfall west of Calgary, Ab., Saturday, June 29, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

My favourite little waterfall was flowing even stronger than the last time I’d been here a few weeks ago. It was roaring and foaming from all the rain and splashing the bright green moss and tiny ferns. There was clematis blooming in the damp forest nearby and dozens of little white Canada violets in the transition zone between the shady and sunny sides of the short, narrow valley.

And I had it all to myself.

Violets in the foothills west of Calgary, Ab., Saturday, June 29, 2024.
Violets in the foothills west of Calgary, Ab., Saturday, June 29, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

But by now I was soaked from standing by the little waterfall and wallowing around like a shoat as I shot the flowers so I decided to pack it in and head back to town before the return traffic started to congeal.

Rain-dampened clematis in the foothills west of Calgary, Ab., Saturday, June 29, 2024.
Rain-dampened clematis in the foothills west of Calgary, Ab., Saturday, June 29, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The next day it rained — hailed a bit, too — but when I woke up before dawn and stepped out the front door into the cool, damp air the day after, I decided to give the foothills one more try.

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Traffic was thin at 5:30 a.m. and given that it was now Tuesday, I could likely go anywhere without fear of it getting any thicker. But the way the sky was looking — rain threatening west, sunny east — I decided to head where I knew I would have the world basically to myself and that was to the south and west.

A Franklin's gull hovers over a field wet from a passing rain shower near Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, July 2, 2024.
A Franklin’s gull hovers over a field wet from a passing rain shower near Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, July 2, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I hadn’t missed the rain by much south of Diamond Valley. Franklin’s gulls were all over a fallow field probing the mud for whatever had been forced to the surface by the soaking. Deer in the fields were wandering through grass still bent from the downpour and one little mulie buck standing right beside the road had his antler velvet and face soaked from nibbling on a wet thicket.

Savannah sparrows and kingbirds sang and chattered from fencelines above the damp grass and another wet-faced mulie, this one a bit bigger and older, stopped to cock its ears at a barking dog somewhere in the distance.

A much deer buck in rain-dampened grass near Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, July 2, 2024.
A much deer buck in rain-dampened grass near Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, July 2, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Further west, wildflowers filled the ditches and I soaked the seat of my pants sitting down among them. Worth it, for sure.

Lupines and geraniums stood tall above the grass and barely moved in the light breeze. Across the road from them, a dusting of poplar fluff drifted by a stand of aspens. There were ravens flying around and calling and a kingbird landed on a fence post just a couple metres away. Must have thought I was just a lump of greying detritus but as soon as I raised my camera, it was gone.

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Lupines along a road west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, July 2, 2024.
Lupines along a road west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, July 2, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Back in the truck I transferred the dampness from my trousers to the truck seat, thereby assuring my pants would be wet for the rest of the day as I continued on west.

Geraniums and lupine along a road west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, July 2, 2024.
Geraniums and lupine along a road west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, July 2, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Deer were everywhere. I found a whitetail doe standing behind a screen of bare spruce bows and decided to get a little arty with my picture, leaving her out of focus behind the twigs. Up the road, another little girl deer, this one looking astonished at the squawk of a grackle.

A whitetail doe behind a screen of spruce branches west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, July 2, 2024.
A whitetail doe behind a screen of spruce branches west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, July 2, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia
A whitetail doe pauses mid-chew as it hears a sound in the forest west of Diamond Valley, Ab. on Wednesday, July 3, 2024.
A whitetail doe pauses mid-chew as it hears a sound in the forest west of Diamond Valley, Ab. on Wednesday, July 3, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

And there were birds were all over the place.

Sitting by a spring bubbling up through a pipe beside the road, I could hear them all around me. There were magpies, of course, and ravens but a dozen different songbird voices as well. Some, I recognized, like song sparrows and grackles, chickadees and robins. But I also heard what sounded like a loon. There was no lake or even a pond anywhere within a dozen kilometres but that warbling cry is pretty unmistakable.

But one I knew for sure came from down the road and back in the truck, clothing redampened from the spring’s mud, I found it.

It was another Tennessee warbler singing loud and proud. I’m really beginning to like these guys.

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A Tennessee warbler sings west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, July 2, 2024.
A Tennessee warbler sings west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, July 2, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

We don’t really get humidity like our friends further east and out on the west coast but with the sun beating down and warming the damp ground, I could definitely feel it. Down the road from the warbler a momma ruffed grouse slowly crossed in front of me and was followed by a flying flurry of feathery puffs, one of which landed in a spruce tree and sat panting for a few seconds.

A baby ruffed grouse perches momentarily in a spruce tree west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, July 2, 2024.
A baby ruffed grouse perches momentarily in a spruce tree west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, July 2, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The bluebirds and tree swallows didn’t seem to care and they swooped back and forth catching bugs out of the air as I sat in the truck, sweating, with my camera aimed at them. In fact, other than for me and that one baby grouse, the dampness didn’t seem to be much of a bother at all.

The butterflies actually seemed to be enjoying it. There were dozens of them along the road and in the ditches, most of them lighting on the damp gravel to suck up minerals liberated by the night’s rain.

A big tiger swallowtail butterfly laps up minerals from a damp roadside west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, July 2, 2024.
A big tiger swallowtail butterfly laps up minerals from a damp roadside west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, July 2, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

They are darn hard to photograph, though. Even the biggest ones like the tiger swallowtails are less than palm-sized and the smallest ones, the little blues, have wings smaller than a dime. But there were so many around that I decided to park the truck and sit by the side of the road in hopes that some of them would come close enough for a picture.

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A tiny blue butterfly soaks up the sun west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, July 2, 2024.
A tiny blue butterfly soaks up the sun west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, July 2, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

And they did, a few of them. But I had better luck just walking slowly along the road and looking down. Most of them were so interested in the damp ground — and their fallen brethren, for some reason — I could walk right up to them.

A pearl crescent butterfly checks out the body of another west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, July 2, 2024.
A pearl crescent butterfly checks out the body of another west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, July 2, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The morning warmed and the humidity rose and soon a breeze started to spring up. The butterflies began to have problems staying on the ground so I wandered back to the truck and rolled on.

Had I been looking up instead of down at the butterflies, I would have noticed the reason why the breeze had risen. A wall of clouds had built up to the northwest and it was tumbling toward me. Within a couple minutes, it arrived and the weather changed from warm and muggy to cold and damp.

One minute I was photographing sunlit hoverflies on yarrow blossoms, horsetails and dappled little streams in bright sunshine, the next I was fighting wind and cloud to take pictures of osier dogwoods in the dimness. And then, it began to drizzle.

Osier dogwood flowers west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, July 2, 2024.
Osier dogwood flowers west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, July 2, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Looking across the valley I could see full-on rain was falling but I was on the edge of the storm. For a few seconds it did actually rain but it quickly backed off to more like a light mist. But it felt like that was my cue to call it a day. It had been a pretty nice morning, a great start to the month of July. So I started heading back, slowly trolling along for photos in the now-soft light.

And shifting around on my seat as I did. Not only was the seat already wet, my pants were soaked from sitting in the ditches, my shirt was wet from sweating in the warm sun and my socks were sopping from walking through the wet grass.

Bluebells, dandelions, horsetails and more in a damp ditch west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, July 2, 2024.
Bluebells, dandelions, horsetails and more in a damp ditch west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, July 2, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Yeah, it had been a couple of damp days. And, in fact, a couple of damp months.

But that dampness has made everything green and lush and lovely.

And, you know, I kinda like it that way.

Rose petals dislodged by falling rain in a damp ditch west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, July 2, 2024.
Rose petals dislodged by falling rain in a damp ditch west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, July 2, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

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