Mike Drew: Looking for snowy owls amid the chinook

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Sorry about the headaches.

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I know there are folks out there that get a little migraine-ish whenever those wonderful westerly winds start to blow. It must be terrible to dread the arrival of one of the very best things about living in southern Alberta.

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But I am definitely not one of those people. When a chinook rolls in, I am as happy as a puppy with a stolen sock and I get out of town as quickly as I can to enjoy it.

I have to admit, though, that with the weather we’ve been having it is kinda hard to tell whether we’re having a chinook or not. With the lack of snow there isn’t much to melt when a chinook actually does show up and the day-to-day temperatures, instead of being frigid, have been pretty similar to what a chinook would bring.

But on Tuesday morning the arch started building, the west wind started to pick up and the temperature began to rise. So just like the last time a chinook blew in — barely two weeks ago — I headed east to poke around under that lovely, cloudy sky.

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Which was still fairly clear when I saw the owl.

A male snowy owl poses on a fencepost near Irricana, Ab., on Wednesday, December 6, 2023.
A male snowy owl poses on a fencepost near Irricana, Ab., on Wednesday, December 6, 2023. Mike Drew/Postmedia

It was a snowy owl, a bright white male sitting on a fencepost not far from Irricana. With the backdrop of a tawny stubble field behind it, it was pretty easy to spot, the glowing feathers kicking back every ray of the morning sun.

I managed to get fairly close — not as close as I would have liked — but I’m sure it had figured out it had caught my attention so after a few seconds it flew off across the field. It was a brief encounter but a wonderful one, my first snowy owl of the season!

A male snowy owl stands out against all the brown grass as it lands on a fencepost near Irricana, Ab., on Tuesday, December 5, 2023.
A male snowy owl stands out against all the brown grass as it lands on a fencepost near Irricana, Ab., on Tuesday, December 5, 2023. Mike Drew/Postmedia

And about the last thing I was going to be able to photograph in bright sunlight. The chinook clouds were thickening rapidly and within five minutes or so the sun disappeared and the light went flat.

But even with the sun gone, the temperature continued to rise.

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Stopping at another slough, this one with a muskrat house, I glanced down at the temperature display on my dash. It was 10C. Back at the snowy owl, a bare 20 minutes before, it had been 5C. I liked the way this was going.

I swung around over to the wide Rosebud River valley hoping to spot more snowies — no luck — and then cut south through that fascinating field of grass-covered sand dunes that run along its western flanks. One of these days I’m going to have to find out who owns this piece and get permission to go for a walk. I’ll bet there’s lots to explore out there.

The Rosebud River meanders through its snowless valley northwest of Rockyford, Ab., on Tuesday, December 5, 2023.
The Rosebud River meanders through its snowless valley northwest of Rockyford, Ab., on Tuesday, December 5, 2023. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Skirting the dunes and heading east, I dropped down into the Rosebud River valley again, this time north of Rockford. I was aiming toward a road that runs through the rolling hills between there and Redland, an area where I’ve seen many snowy owls before, but as I crossed the river I decided to get out my little copter to have a look from overhead.

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Like all prairie streams, the Rosebud’s channel has meandered back and forth across its valley constantly over the millennia, twisting and doubling back on itself like a circus contortionist. You don’t notice it much from the level of the river but from above it’s plain to see.

And easy, too. The nights have been cold enough for a bit of ice to form on the slow-moving water and those streaks of blue and white really show off the river’s flow through that wide swath of brown, snowless grass. From 60 metres up I could see far to the west, all the way to the cloud-shrouded mountains on the horizon. All was shades of brown and grey.

A cow munches on feed behind an unemployed snow fence near Redland, Ab., on Tuesday, December 5, 2023.
A cow munches on feed behind an unemployed snow fence near Redland, Ab., on Tuesday, December 5, 2023. Mike Drew/Postmedia

There were no owls along that road nor were there any down toward Redland and Rosebud. I turned north to go around the big, deep coulee that runs down to the Rosebud River at Beynon and stopped for pictures of cattle munching on oat straw behind a — so far — underemployed snow fence. The lack of snow must make it easier for the cattle to forage but I do wonder how much edible grass is left in the pastures after such a dry fall.

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The clouds were even thicker out this way, thick enough to rob the daylight of most of its blue colour and allow the yellow to shine through. With the sun as low on the horizon as it is at this time of year, the light took on, even though it wasn’t much past noon, a nearly sunset glow.

Chinook clouds start to thicken as the wind picks up near Irricana, Ab., on Tuesday, December 5, 2023.
Chinook clouds start to thicken as the wind picks up near Irricana, Ab., on Tuesday, December 5, 2023. Mike Drew/Postmedia

It continued like that as I headed north toward the Red Deer River. I’d actually meant to turn back west through the open country on the south side of the river — more owl country and lots of deer that way — but thanks to a wrong turn, I ended up down in the river valley.

Which was fine. Lots to see down there, too. But instead of exploring the river, I turned up a very lovely side road that follows Kneehill Creek. The valley here is jammed with twisty, weatherbeaten, old cottonwood trees and dense thickets of saskatoon, chokecherry and buffaloberry. In summer, it is alive with birds and cactus blooms on the sunny badlands slopes.

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But stepping from the truck to shoot a panorama of the frozen creek, I got a surprise.

Kneehill Creek winds down to the Red Deer River by Dunphy, Ab., on Tuesday, December 5, 2023.
Kneehill Creek winds down to the Red Deer River by Dunphy, Ab., on Tuesday, December 5, 2023. Mike Drew/Postmedia

It was cold. Up on the flats above it had been 14C. Down here, sheltered from the west wind, this narrow slash in the land was isolated from the chinook blowing above. It was only, according to my dash, 2C. Perfectly normal, maybe even a little bit warm, for the first week of December but a radical difference from what was happening up on the flats.

I followed the road up the creek and out of the valley into the warmer air again and found myself east of Carbon. For a moment I thought I might head that way but then decided I might have more luck finding snowy owls just a bit to the north. So I turned that way instead.

It was only just coming up on 2:30 in the afternoon but the sky to the southwest was beginning to look even more sunset-like. The chinook cloud overhead was thick and almost cobalt blue while the brighter edge of the chinook arch — maybe a hundred kilometres to the southwest — was shades of yellow and orange. There were old farm buildings around me, crumpled granaries and swaybacked barns, so I stopped to photograph them.

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Late afternoon glow north of Carbon, Ab., on Tuesday, December 5, 2023.
Late afternoon glow north of Carbon, Ab., on Tuesday, December 5, 2023. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Strangely, the wind had almost stopped. It was still warm but without the wind, the dust flying up behind the truck barely drifted as I drove along. Stopping to photograph a stand of trees silhouetted against the faux sunset made by the chinook clouds, I could hear ravens and magpies calling and human voices coming from somewhere, too.

A little further up the road, I saw from where. Just over the hill, a couple of men were moving a grain auger up to a bin. The air, now almost still, had carried their voices from there.

Cattails surround a melting pond near Irricana, Ab., on Tuesday, December 5, 2023.
Cattails surround a melting pond near Irricana, Ab., on Tuesday, December 5, 2023. Mike Drew/Postmedia

And over in Swalwell, I had no problem hearing voices at all.

But these voices weren’t human. These ones were coming from a flock of Bohemian waxwings that had descended on a couple of crabapple trees heavy with tiny, drying apples.

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Bohemian waxwings gobble up tiny apples in Swalwell, Ab., on Tuesday, December 5, 2023.
Bohemian waxwings gobble up tiny apples in Swalwell, Ab., on Tuesday, December 5, 2023. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Standing on the boulevard in front of a couple of neat little houses in this pretty little town, the wrinkled red fruit, both on the trees and in the bare grass around them, was providing a feast for the waxwings. There must have been at least 200 of them, their lovely mocha-coloured bodies and masked and crested heads making them almost tropical-looking, flitting from branch to branch, straining to reach the yummiest fruit and bouncing through the grass gobbling up the little apples laying there.

It was amazing to watch — man, they can swallow a lot of apples! — but hard to photograph in the dim light. I did manage to fluke a couple of pictures, though.

Bohemian waxwings gobble up tiny apples in Swalwell, Ab., on Tuesday, December 5, 2023.
Bohemian waxwings gobble up tiny apples in Swalwell, Ab., on Tuesday, December 5, 2023. Mike Drew/Postmedia

It was past three in the afternoon when I left the waxwings behind and headed west. The sky was still heavy as I pulled into Linden to grab a couple of Danishes but by the time I stopped for pictures of a group of mule deer foraging in a field, the sun was beginning to reach the edge of the chinook arch. And as I drove along west of Beiseker, it finally did.

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Warm sunlight spread across the fields. Whitetail deer posed for me momentarily before fleeing into a copse of aspens. A single V of geese flew by overhead. But by 4:15 the sun was behind the clouds again, this time the ones torn ragged by the wind coming over the mountains to the west.

Whitetail deer just before panicking near Linden, Ab., on Tuesday, December 5, 2023.
Whitetail deer just before panicking near Linden, Ab., on Tuesday, December 5, 2023. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Long shadows cast by clouds in front of the setting sun streaked the clear sky above while its last light caught the edge of the arch. The temperature was still around 10C but as the light faded, the day was done. The night-hunting great horned owls that live here year-round would be taking over from the daylight-hunting snowy owls — of which I had seen only one — visiting from the north.

And I would be heading home, giving praise for yet another lovely chinook day as I drove.

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Chinook clouds reflect off meltwater on a pond near Irricana, Ab., on Tuesday, December 5, 2023.
Chinook clouds reflect off meltwater on a pond near Irricana, Ab., on Tuesday, December 5, 2023. Mike Drew/Postmedia

And understanding that not everyone looks forward to a chinook. The wind makes some people grouchy and the rapid change in atmosphere can cause actual pain to others.

But even though as I type this the chinook has gone and it is actually snowing, the forecast says another one is on the way. We’ll have near-average temperatures through Monday but on Tuesday, the winds will start up again and by Wednesday the high temperature is expected to be — OK, this must be a typo — 18C? No, that can’t be right.

But, maybe?

The setting sun lights up the sky west of Irricana, Ab., on Tuesday, December 5, 2023.
The setting sun lights up the sky west of Irricana, Ab., on Tuesday, December 5, 2023. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Anyway, get ready for another ride. Grumps, just remember that Christmas is coming! And headache-ers, brew a vat of black coffee and stock up on ibuprofen.

Me, I’ll be smiling.

So, sorry about the headaches.

But I love a chinook.

Sunset west of Irricana, Ab., on Tuesday, December 5, 2023.
Sunset west of Irricana, Ab., on Tuesday, December 5, 2023. Mike Drew/Postmedia

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