On the Road: Waiting for the tamaracks with the birds

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It was straight-up 7 a.m. and things were getting a little NSFW.

A pair of tree swallows were flying back and forth near a nesting box, one chasing off another swallow that was trespassing while the other flew around the box guarding the entry hole. After a few minutes of frantic flying, both swallows settled on the fence by the box and chirped back and forth at each other. Then, suddenly, they both took off and flitted around chattering before one landed back on the fence wire again.

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Typical tree swallows, I thought, never sitting still for long. But then the second swallow swooped in, hovered momentarily and then landed on the first one’s back.

OK, what’s going on here? A second or two later, it was pretty clear. That nesting box was soon going to be full of hungry little swallow-lings. Unless I badly misinterpreted what may have been a nasty domestic dispute.

Either way, NSFW.

Tree swallows coupling west of Airdrie, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024.
Tree swallows coupling west of Airdrie, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

It had been cloudy and rainy — again — when I’d left the house an hour before but it didn’t take long for the clouds to move off and the soft morning sun to shine through. It was just a tad chilly and there were sparkles of frost on some of the roadside grass but by around 6:15 things were starting to warm up.

A trumpeter swan plays with a stick on a pond north of Calgary, Ab., on Tuesday, May 21, 2024.
A trumpeter swan plays with a stick on a pond north of Calgary, Ab., on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

There was just the tiniest breeze ruffling the water on a roadside slough where pair of trumpeter swans were nesting, one sleeping on the nest and the other, for some reason, grabbing sticks from the pond bottom. Canada geese honked at the few vehicles passing by while ducks paddled around. A thin mist softened the light on cattle in a pasture down the way while blackbirds chortled and chirped at another pond a few kilometres down a muddy road.

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Cattle in the clearing morning mist west of Airdrie, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024.
Cattle in the clearing morning mist west of Airdrie, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Every bird in the foothills seemed to be singing. There were savannah sparrows and song sparrows trilling away while their clay-coloured cousins sang their buzzy, bug-like songs. Robins, yellow-rumped warblers, starlings, grackles and even bluebirds added to the choir. The tree swallows, when not busy making more tree swallows, twittered out a few melodies as well.

Do we count magpies and ravens? Sure, why not.

A clay-coloured sparrow sings west of Airdrie, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024.
A clay-coloured sparrow sings west of Airdrie, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The sun continued to shine and the wind held off as I continued north from the two ponds, past Madden and through the Dogpound Creek valley east of Cremona. Thanks to all the rain and snow melt, every little depression I passed held water where little blue-winged teal paddled and redwing blackbirds sang while the morning sun backlit the new poplar and aspen leaves along the road.

And it smelled wonderful. The balsam poplars were living up to their name and perfuming the air with their sweet, pungent scent. Passing newly-worked fields I could pick up the odour of the tilled soil, sloughs gave off their slightly skunky, sulphurous smell. And at one spot, a really skunky smell that no doubt was coming from an actual skunk.

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A male blue-winged teal swims through reflections east of Cremona, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024.
A male blue-winged teal swims through reflections east of Cremona, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I was on my way to larch — or tamarack — country to see if any of them had begun sprouting their new needles yet. Unlike their fellow conifers, tamaracks — let’s just go with that name for now — lose their leaves in the fall and grow them again in the spring so I was curious how far along they would be.

The aspens and poplars were certainly well along. The poplars were especially leafy, their waxy, resiny leaves walling in the foothills roads and shimmering in the light breeze. The trees in the open areas were full of their yellow-green glow while in the shadier spots, their unfurling buds were more common.

New poplar leaves east of Cremona, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024.
New poplar leaves east of Cremona, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Stopping at a little stream that was trickling through a valley I found several buds just opening up while the previous leaves, now grey and dry, still held on. The stream itself was very pretty, with greening grass along the banks and streamers of algae swaying in its tannin-stained water. Gotta remember this spot for later in the summer.

Old and new poplar leaves west of Olds, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024.
Old and new poplar leaves west of Olds, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia
A tiny foothills stream west of Olds, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024.
A tiny foothills stream west of Olds, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I didn’t find any tamaracks until I was beyond the Red Deer River east of the James River Bridge Store but suddenly, they were everywhere. And they weren’t quite as far along as I thought they’d be.

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Alone, they looked downright sickly compared to all the new leaves around them but they contributed a nice shade of muted green to the backlit hillsides. Another week and they’ll blend in perfectly.

New green needles coming out on a tamarack east of Caroline, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024.
New green needles coming out on a tamarack east of Caroline, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I’m always a bit startled by the sudden transition from the rolling poplar and spruce hills just to the south and east to the vast spread of beaver meadows and tamaracks just a few kilometres away. This country between the Raven River and Burnstick Lake is so different from the land around Sundre and east to Spruce View and truly quite lovely.

Canada goose family east of Caroline, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024.
Canada goose family east of Caroline, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Beaver ponds — some actually lake-sized — fill nearly every valley and those that don’t are stuffed with water-loving things like willows and black spruce. I found a family of Canada geese paddling on one and at the outlet to another, a backlit stand of dainty yellow willow blossoms. These are the same flowers that started out as fuzzy catkins a month or more ago that are now fully bloomed and putting out pollen to be scattered by the wind and the bugs that come to feed on them.

Willow blossoms send off pollen east of Caroline, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024.
Willow blossoms send off pollen east of Caroline, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

And that wind was picking up a bit now so I popped into a more protected area where there were tamaracks beside the road to see if I could get any close-ups of those tiny new needles.

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And I mean tiny. Those little buds along the branches are smaller than your pinky fingernail and the needles, at this point, about as thick as a hair from a horse’s tail. They’ll grow, of course, but it will be a while.

Tiny new green needles coming out on a tamarack east of Caroline, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. The clusters are smaller than a pinky fingernail.
Tiny new green needles coming out on a tamarack east of Caroline, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. The clusters are smaller than a pinky fingernail. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Though it was now past noon, the birdsong hadn’t abated at all as I sat there but here in this boggy country, there were additional voices. I heard more chickadees and other kinds of thrushes beyond the standard robins. The knock of a pileated woodpecker hammering on a tree joined in, followed by its laughing call. A pair of skinny ducks came swooping by, calling as they went. Goldeneyes, I think, from their peeping cries.

And then suddenly, it began to rain.

I hadn’t even noticed the clouds building up and, in fact, it was still sunny where I was parked. But then the drops began to hit the windshield and patter on the roof, the sun started to dim and the rain came down hard. I rolled up the windows and pulled away.

I’d circled around toward Kevisville and was now aimed toward James River Bridge so I kept on heading that direction as the rain fell and the roads — still wet from the rain the night before — started to slick up. Ten minutes later I was back on pavement and, as quickly as it had started, the rain quit.

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But now I was out of tamarack country. The swampy land back to the north and east had given way to rolling, aspen-covered hills. There were still a few tamaracks here but the land was different enough that they were isolated, few and far between.

New green needles coming out on a tamarack west of Caroline, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024.
New green needles coming out on a tamarack west of Caroline, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Back their direction I knew the roads would be muddy, thanks to that rain, and I’ve gotta say, I’ve had enough of muddy roads for a while. So I continued on down into the James River valley and took the road — mercifully dry — that follows along its course.

The river itself, sorry to say, I find kind of bland. It’s often muddy — which it was today — and it runs fairly flat, at least along this stretch. But it’s more than made up for by the cutoff meanders and beaver ponds in the valley.

There are always birds here, even in winter in the places where springs bubble up and keep the ice at bay. And today there were plenty.

A male green-winged teal beside a beaver pond along the James River north of Bearberry, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024.
A male green-winged teal beside a beaver pond along the James River north of Bearberry, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I found green-winged teal — so handsome — and spotted sandpipers. Swallows swooped back and forth grabbing bugs out of the air and occasionally dropped down to skim along the water’s surface for a drink. A blue heron took off from a corner of the pond while a pair of scaup paddled along.

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A spotted sandpiper along the James River north of Bearberry, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024.
A spotted sandpiper along the James River north of Bearberry, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

And yellow-rumped warblers, so many yellow-rumped warblers. They were everywhere, flitting from snag to snag and catching bugs — like the swallows — out of the air. But, oh my, they were hard to photograph.

They are tiny birds, not much bigger than a chickadee and they don’t stay in one place for long. But I did manage to find a couple females that were hunting along a little creek close to the road. Even so, I barely got any pictures.

A female yellow-rumped warbler along the James River north of Bearberry, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024.
A female yellow-rumped warbler along the James River north of Bearberry, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The sandhill crane was a bit easier but there was a catch with it, too.

Judging by the brown feathers, it was a young one and it was all alone as it poked at the dirt in a field with a trio of Canada geese. I was thrilled to see it, as I always am whenever I see a crane, but the heat waves coming off the dark soil killed any chance I had of getting a decent picture. If only it had been raining — and there was another storm threatening — the heat ripples wouldn’t have been so tough. Oh well.

A young sandhill crane forages with geese in a field along the James River north of Bearberry, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024.
A young sandhill crane forages with geese in a field along the James River north of Bearberry, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I followed the road along the river watching for wild horses as the road left the valley and headed into the hills. No luck there but a lone elk decided to pose for a second. At the next intersection, still hoping for horses, I decided to turn toward Burnstick Lake and tamarack country again.

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I was still ahead of the storm so I put up my little drone at a bog near the lake to get a look at at the tamaracks from the air and then drove up a mud-slimed side road with thoughts of flying it again. Didn’t need to.

There were tamaracks right beside the road, so close that I could reach out and touch them.

Last year's cones and tiny new green needles coming out on a tamarack west of Caroline, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024.
Last year’s cones and tiny new green needles coming out on a tamarack west of Caroline, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I put on my long lens and grabbed pictures of the new needles and old cones as the sun moved in and out of the oncoming clouds. And as I did, I noticed the bugs.

I thought at first that they were coming to the tamarack buds but, no, they were actually drifting there from a close-by clump of willows. Like the ones I’d seen earlier, these were bright yellow and pouring out pollen. And they were covered with bugs.

Some, like hoverflies, I recognized. Others, no clue. But there were thousands of them, flying and crawling everywhere. Absolutely fascinating to see.

Dozens of various kinds of insects gather and feed on willow blossoms west of Caroline, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024.
Dozens of various kinds of insects gather and feed on willow blossoms west of Caroline, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

As was all of this country.

Spring had gotten off to a slow start but now it was in full swing. The poplars and aspens were nearly all leafed out and the tamaracks, although slower, weren’t far behind. Soon there will be pond lilies spreading their leaves and flowers blooming everywhere.

And then, summer.

Shades of green in the foothills forest east of Caroline, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024.
Shades of green in the foothills forest east of Caroline, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

But for now, I had to leave behind these darling buds of May. That threatening rain was beginning to fall and the road was about to go slimy. And I really did not feel like sloshing my way along it.

Those early morning swallows had been NSWF enough.

And if the roads turned bad, my words would be, too.

Tamaracks, spruce, pine and willows line a shallow pond west of Caroline, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024.
Tamaracks, spruce, pine and willows line a shallow pond west of Caroline, Ab., on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

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