On the Road: Nature abuzz with activity as spring takes hold

Photographer Mike Drew hits southern Alberta’s back roads in search of spring — and he most certainly found it, up close and personal.

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There was a bee in my hair and I couldn’t get rid of it.

It had somehow gotten under the mullet-like mat that hangs over the back of my neck and, from the sound and feel of things, was just as anxious to get out of the tangle as I was for it to go. But the more it buzzed and crawled around, the more frantic I became. And the more frantic I became, so did the bee.

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I was out looking for spring things when the bee and I met, but this was now Day 3 of my search. I’d started on Sunday back in the city.

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I have gone to Tom Campbell’s Hill, the off-leash area at the east end of Bridgeland, to look for the first crocuses of spring every year. Though within sight of the tall downtown buildings, this little patch of nearly native foothills grassland has beds of crocuses all over it and I’ve seen them here as early as the middle of March, though the first week of April has been more common. This year, though, I was a bit late to the game.

Given the wind-blown blossoms I found there, at least some of them had bloomed a couple of weeks before. But there were dozens of them, their pretty purple heads adding splashes of colour to the still-brown grass.

The wind, though, was making them hard to photograph. Coming off the tail end of yet another bout of snowy cold, it was gusty and chilly and it made lying in the grass trying to squint at the eyepiece of the camera less comfortable than what you might think. The visits by curious dogs were a bonus but after a half hour or so, I packed it in.

But seeing those lovely sirens of spring made me curious to see what other spring things I could find. So early Monday morning, I headed out for a look.

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A young moose poses in the foothills southwest of Calgary, Alberta, on Saturday, April 20, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

It was going to be another windy day but the hour right around sunrise is usually calm, so I headed out to my favourite road through the Cross Conservancy to see what I could find.

There were a few elk out on the greening grasslands and a coyote poking through the dry grass around the Pine Creek beaver ponds. Canada geese had built nests at the water line and were sitting on them while song sparrows and redwing blackbirds sang from the willows and cattails. Lovely, but for the moment it was still a bit too dark, so I drove on up the valley.

And was surprised to see a moose. She — I assume it was a she, going by those luscious eyelashes — was standing right beside the road and remained standing there staring at me while I took a few pictures. Not exactly a spring thing, except for the winter hair she was shedding, but nice to see.

But there were definite spring things at the top of the hill.

The aspens are in full bloom now, and their catkins were catching the warm morning light. Big patches of them shimmered in the breeze that was beginning to build and at some angles I could see little puffs of pollen coming off them. I look for this every spring, these undulating waves of silver that cover the foothills. I almost prefer this look to the greens of summer and the yellows of fall. So lovely.

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Aspen catkins
Silvery aspen catkins in the foothills southwest of Calgary, Alberta, on Saturday, April 20, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

As were the bluebirds.

Like the crocuses, these guys have been announcing spring’s arrival for a few weeks now but these were the first I’d been able to get any pictures of. And there were lots of them.

The ones I got closest to were just on the south side of the Conservancy, flying back and forth from their nesting boxes to the grass where they were foraging, perching on fenceposts and tweeting out their dainty cries. I’ll be back to visit them again.

By now, though, the morning’s calm had given way to gusts and the aspens were dancing in the wind. But I got lucky at a pond in the next valley over.

The wind was blowing here, too, but the pond lay in a hollow that the angle of the gusts couldn’t reach. Down here, the water was nearly mirror-calm and I could see the reflections of the aspens and spruce along the shore rippled by foraging ducks and shorebirds. Bits of detritus and patches of pollen covered the surface and they sparkled like jewels in the morning sun. Morning sounds — birds, barking dogs and motors — echoed in the momentarily calm air. Definitely a spring thing.

Aspen catkins
Aspen catkins catch the morning light in the foothills southwest of Calgary, Alberta, on Saturday, April 20, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

No echoing at the next pond but plenty of spring sounds.

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Just one valley over but at a different angle, the wind was sending a clatter through the cattails and ruffling the water. But that didn’t stop the blackbirds from singing.

Redwing — or do you prefer red-winged? — blackbirds really seem to enjoy singing their territorial songs. They grab onto the dry cattail stems, flex their wings and throw their heads back to let ’er rip. They really put everything they have into it and as the wind began to pick up even more, these ones were really working it.

While the mergansers and mallards swam close to the shelter of the cattails, the blackbirds were out in the open with their claws clamped to the stems and seed heads as they thrashed in the wind. You’ve gotta admire tenacity like that.

It had been a lovely morning full of spring things but by now, three hours after sunrise, the predicted winds had arrived and though the light was still nice, those 50-km/h gusts weren’t. The bluebird I found looking like a piece of sky perched on a powerline was bobbing around so much I could hardly believe it could hang on. Time to head back to town.

A bluebird and a blue sky northeast of Millarville, Alberta, on Saturday, April 20, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

But next morning, I headed out again.

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I always tend to wake up as soon as the sky starts to lighten and at this time of year, that happens pretty early so by 7 a.m. I was back on the road again, this time headed east. And straight into morning traffic.

Luckily, for most of my working life and now into this post-working purgatory, I’ve never really had to deal with rush-hour traffic so trying to change lanes and alternate between brake and gas was a bit of a challenge. But three-quarters of an hour later, I was out amid the farms and fields beyond the city limits and on my way to the Carseland Weir.

I know, it seems like I go out there pretty often because, well, I do go out there pretty often. The Bow River flowing along among the islands, the wetlands in the old river channels, the aspen and poplar forests, the thickets of buffaloberry, saskatoon and chokecherry all offer a variety of landscape and habitat that few other nearby places do.

And right now, all of that variety holds spring things.

Things like spider webs.

Spider web
Spiders got a good start on the season along the Bow River at Carseland, Alberta, on Tuesday, April 23, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Yeah, they don’t seem all that spring-ish but spiders don’t start building them until things warm up enough to bring out their prey. The insects that the spiders feed on need the warmth to get them flying around, so there’s no point in building a web if there’s nothing around to catch.

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But there is now. A hatch of tiny mayflies was coming off the river and swarms of them were wafting on the mercifully light breeze. I could see some of them hanging from threads of silk and found dozens of fresh webs strung among the branches.

And spiders weren’t the only things after them.

Tree swallows and what I think were rough-winged swallows were swooping after them as were Franklin’s gulls, just arrived to join the ring-bills and California gulls already there. Song sparrows, too, were taking advantage of the spring bounty in between belting out their morning melodies.

A pair of pelicans relax on the Bow River at Carseland, Alberta, on Tuesday, April 23, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

And over closer to the weir, I found the first pelicans of the year. There were just two of them but they will be joined by others soon. They are definitely spring things. Living on fish as they do, they need ice-free water to hunt in.

As do the cormorants that were perched nearby. Though they were farther out in the water, I could clearly see their green eyes and the two tufts of feathers that give them their double-crested adjective. Handsome, though kinda funny-looking birds.

I looked for other spring things down there along the river, things like algae turning from brown to green behind the water flowing over the weir, closeups of aspen catkins — they look like hairy caterpillars — the jewel-like resin on the poplar buds and some of the variety of birds along the water.

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But I knew where there would be crocuses in bloom quite close by so, to take advantage of the mercifully light wind, I headed over to photograph them.

This particular bed sits right beside a set of bee boxes and that was one of the reasons why I chose this particular patch. With the temperature at a lovely 15C, I knew the bees would be active and most like collecting pollen from the crocus blossoms.

And I was right. Parking the truck and walking over to them, I flopped down on the ground to get close to their level and waited for the bees to arrive.

Tiny stamens studded with pollen behind the fuzzy purple sepals of a crocus in Calgary, Alberta, on Wednesday, April 24, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Have I mentioned yet how wonderful everything smelled?

Down in the valley I could smell the musty scent of the river with its floating algae and warm mud along with the scent of the balsam poplar buds. Up here among the crocuses, it was the aroma of dry grass and the damp soil underneath. The crocuses themselves don’t have any scent that my human nose can discern but the wild onions that I was inadvertently crushing underneath me certainly did. Wonderful.

The bees came, as I knew they would, and I alternated between shooting stills and video as they buzzed around. They landed on my camera and my hands and, really, they were no bother at all.

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Until one landed in my hair.

This had happened a few times already but the bees had buzzed off after a few seconds so I ignored them. This one, though, decided to explore my mullet a little deeper. And as it did, it seemed to get a little lost among the strands.

I reached back to give my hair a flip to help it out but it just went deeper. Finally, I could feel it on my neck so I grabbed my hair and lifted it off. Which inadvertently trapped the bee in my hair again.

Carefully, I rolled back the hood of my sweatshirt to give the bee more room and let go of my hair. The bee found a route out but now it was in my hood. I attempted to turn the hood inside out to let it go but I couldn’t reach properly with it hanging behind me.

All I could do now was take the sweatshirt off entirely. And stand there flapping it, glaring white belly bouncing in the sun, until the bee was free.

OK, that was enough spring things for today. I’d seen pelicans and mergansers, spiders and mayflies, ants doing their spring chores and crocuses and bees, the latter of which had just been treated to the sight of 110 kg of pale human beef.

Yep, enough things to prove that spring is definitely here.

But that’s enough for now. Time to get dressed and head on home.

Redwing blackbird
Redwing blackbird silhouetted by sunlit pond ripples northeast of Millarville, Alberta, on Saturday, April 20, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

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