Mike Drew: The elusive bluebird

Mike Drew: The elusive bluebird
Mike Drew
April 15, 2018
April 15, 2018 2:59 PM EDT
Trumpeter swans north of Chain Lakes on Tuesday April 10, 2018. Mike Drew / Mike Drew/Postmedia
The only part of the swans I could see was their heads.
In fact, had I not heard their resonant warbles, I wouldn’t have even known the swans were there.
I’d actually stopped to try to take a few pictures of a pair of blue herons that were standing on the snow beside a little creek but they took off almost immediately. Looking through my long lens trying to find them as they blended into the thin blue haze of the valley, I heard the first blatt of the trumpeters.
I hadn’t actually expected to see either type of bird. Both the herons and the swans need open water in which to feed and there still ain’t much of that around. They were just a nice surprise.
What I was actually looking for were bluebirds.
Willow catkins south of Chain Lakes on Tuesday April 10, 2018.
I was pretty sure they’d be around. They look so delicate and dainty but these little bits of flying sky are really pretty hardy.
They usually show up around here sometime toward the end of March, maybe the first week of April, and by now there are often hundreds of them out in the foothills. Feeding on seeds and any bugs they can find, they get ready to set up home in the nest boxes so kindly set out for them.
But even in the best of years – like, ya know, the complete opposite of this one – they often have to confront nasty weather. Springtime in Alberta is not for the faint of heart.
So even though the weather was cold and snow was threatening yet again, I headed out to the foothills for a look.
I rolled south and west through the hills of the Ann and Sandy Cross Conservation area. The fence lines here are studded with bluebird boxes and it is almost always a sure bet that you’ll find bluebirds somewhere out there.
A pair of wood ducks on a flowing spring in the Porcupine Hills east of Chain Lakes on Tuesday April 10, 2018.
And I did, nearly immediately. They weren’t, however, anxious to be photographed. But it was encouraging to see them around so I kept on rolling, confident that I would find more accommodating ones.
Heading further south and west toward the Leighton Art Centre, I found birds everywhere. Not just bluebirds but bald eagles, redtail hawks, even a meadowlark. There were rough-legged hawks everywhere. Normally these guys would be on their way north to their nesting grounds in the Arctic but with all the gophers making easy pickings against the snow, I guess they’re hanging around to feast.
A rough-legged hawk north of Turner Valley on Tuesday April 10, 2018.
The combination of blue haze and generally nasty light made getting pictures of any of them pretty tough but there was one batch of birds that made things much easier.
Robins were everywhere.
By the time I reached Leighton Centre, I must have seen 200 of them. They flew up from the roadsides as I bounced along or spun overhead semi-silhouetted against the grey sky. But just down the road from the Centre, I found a flock feeding on a patch of exposed grass. Pulling into an approach, I rolled down the windows and aimed the camera.
A robin perches on a post in the foothills south of Calgary on Tuesday April 10, 2018.
There were at least 30 of them, males and females, all concentrating on turning over lumps of dirt or cocking their heads and pouncing on anything that seemed edible. After a few moments of flying around as I parked, they settled back and ignored me. Chirping, bouncing and flitting about, they went on with their business as if I weren’t there.
They were fun to watch but I was on a bluebird quest. I rolled on.
I still didn’t have a bluebird picture as I hit Black Diamond despite have seen a dozen more of the little guys so I cut back further west to check out the Tongue Creek valley. Bluebirds – and all kinds of other birds – hang out there so I was confident I’d at least see a few.
And again, I did. And again, I didn’t manage to get a picture. I found cattle in the pastures with their new calves and watched them wade through belly-deep snow. There were whitetail deer that moved among the trees and mulies on the ridges. The bluebirds, though were elusive.
By now I was at Longview so I thought I might as well head to Chain Lakes. Bluebirds there for sure. At the north end of the lakes I turned off the highway to head up the Smuts Creek valley.
The road was not fun. It was mucky with snow melt and under the muck was ice. I stopped a couple of time for pictures and had to kick into 4-by-4 to get rolling again. It wasn’t worth the fight.
Blue heron rookery along Mosquito Creek in the Porcupine Hills west of Nanton on Tuesday April 10, 2018.
But as I recrossed the creek dribbling out of the dam at the north end of the lakes, I saw the herons. And when I stopped to shoot the herons, I heard the swans.
There’s no mistaking the sound of trumpeter swans. Those long necks blast out a noise that you can feel as much as hear. But had I not heard them, I wouldn’t have known they were there.
I could see open water on the creek beside the road but down the valley the snow was so deep that the water was only visible in the bends. But when I looked toward the sound of the swans, I could see their heads moving as they swam along with their necks stretched up trying to see me.
There were about 20 of them along the creek, some on the water, others sleeping on the snow. Once I first saw them, they were easy to spot and as they perked up at my presence and stood up, they dwarfed the geese and ducks around them.
My collection of spring birds was growing but the bluebirds were sadly lacking. Heading on toward the south fork of Willow Creek, I saw a dozen more of them but managed only to get pictures of a couple of moose and some pretty willow catkins. At the summit between the two forks of Willow Creek I took pictures of mule deer grazing and cattle on the ridge – one with lovely, black-shadowed eyes – and more robins.
Mule deer snack on the first blades of green grass in the Porcupine Hills east of Chain Lakes on Tuesday April 10, 2018.
Pretty bovine eyes in the Porcupine Hills east of Chain Lakes on Tuesday April 10, 2018.
Down in the valley I found a variety of birds on an open spring. There were pintails, widgeon, goldeneyes and mallards on the open water and just up the road, a whack of killdeers who walked right up to the truck. There were green-winged and blue-winged teal and even a pair of wood ducks. I hardly ever see those guys.
There were pheasants and a couple more blue herons at the nesting colony by Williams Coulee and more meadowlarks where I turned south again to head back into the hills. A crew on horseback was out checking on calves at the Riley Blake ranch and I stopped for minute to chat. Nice folks.
But now the weather was starting to turn. Raindrops spattered the windshield and the sky started to lower. The road ahead was muddy, the shoulders soft. But I kept going.
Checking the mommas and babies on the Riley Blake ranch in the Porcupine Hills west of Nanton on Tuesday April 10, 2018.
And found a bluebird beside the road.
I slowed down and lowered the window. The bluebird flew down to the next fencepost. I rolled ahead. And it flitted ahead again, this time three posts down. So I crept closer and it flew again.
But this time to a fence line that was perpendicular to the road. And it sat there just long enough for a really ordinary, barely adequate, yes-I-actually-saw-one picture. And then it was gone.
Finally, a pretty ordinary picture of a mountain bluebird in the Porcupine Hills west of Nanton on Tuesday April 10, 2018.
So yes, the bluebirds are back. As are the swans, the hawks, the herons, the killdeers, the wood ducks, the meadowlarks and the robins. Spring, it seems, is here.
Maybe next time, I’ll get pictures that actually show it.

On the Road with Mike Drew: The elusive bluebird | Toronto Sun
Mike Drew: The melt and the mud
Mike Drew
April 22, 2018
April 22, 2018 2:02 PM EDT
The roads were a nightmare.
Snowmelt filled the ditches and in places where the drifts were still high enough to be level with the road surface, water trickled across. Puddles just a few inches deep concealed quadruple their depth in mud.
The roads running north and south weren’t quite as bad but the east-west roads, where the morning sun warmed one side of the road while leaving the other in cool shade, were horrifying. Any slight incline started the back wheels spinning. Any decline held the possibility of a muddy skid.
Putting the truck into four-wheel drive didn’t do much more than send four rooster tails of mud flying instead of just two as I churned along.
I was on my way to the countryside around Taber, not so much to see the reported flooding down there but instead to check out the patches of standing water. Mud and floods weren’t the goal. Birds were.
Meltwater inundates farmland north of Turin, Ab., on Tuesday, April 17, 2018. Mike Drew/Postmedia
But I thought I might as well have a look at some of my other favourite bird areas on the way. So I cut east at Stavely to head for Crystal Lake Park. The pavement was wet. The gravel was slime.
And worse, there were no birds. Just as well. Had I stopped I’d have been up to the axles in muck. Forget that. Half a clench-worthy hour of mud-spraying later, I was back on pavement and headed east again.
Back on dry roads, I found a big flock of pintails right next to the highway east of Claresholm and I saw the first swans of the day on a pond not far from them. Meadowlarks were everywhere, pairs of them flying up from the roadsides. The big bodies of water like Keho Lake were still frozen over but ponds of snowmelt were growing in every low spot in the fields. There were birds on all of them.
Pintail ducks take flight over a flooded field west of Barons, Ab., on Tuesday, April 17, 2018. Mike Drew/Postmedia
But an interesting thing happened as I braved another gravel road to cross Albion Ridge north of Picture Butte. The snow disappeared.
Back to the west, the landscape was shrouded in white. In front of me, looking east, all was bare grass, stubble and fallow fields.
And I can’t emphasize enough how happy that made me feel.
There was still snow around, of course. It’s going to take a while longer to melt the drifts out of the coulees and in the shadowy windbreaks. But a warm wind was blowing and the sun was shining. And the fields were bare. Finally, it felt like spring.
The birds helped, too.
Besides the pintails there were puddlers like widgeons, shovelers and teal and divers like canvasbacks and scaup. Canada geese, of course, were everywhere. The ponds near Picture Butte were covered with birds and the fields, especially the cornfields, were equally crowded.
Swans were nearly as numerous as the geese and I found a group of young ones still with some of last year’s grey feathers swimming with a small flock of snow geese. Which they absolutely dwarfed.
A tundra swan flexes its wings on a meltwater pond east of Picture Butte, Ab., on Tuesday, April 17, 2018. Mike Drew/Postmedia
I cut east toward the open prairie beyond the irrigation belt and crossed the ice-free Oldman River north of Coaldale before heading east again toward Taber. The roads here were fine, too. A little soft, really, for heavily-loaded farm trucks but okay for me.
North of Cranford and Barnwell, though, I began seeing signs of flooding.
There were spots where the roadsides had been eroded by flowing water and coulees still had creeks rushing through them. I stopped to set my camera down beside a meltwater pond with waves splashing on the edge of the road.
But, where I was at least, the majority of the flooding had passed. The preceding days must have been intense, though.
I put in a splash of gas and refilled my bladder-buster with Diet Coke in Taber and then cut north toward Vauxhall. Thinking I’d passed through most of the flooded areas, I’d hoped I might see some antelope on the plains north of the Oldman River.
I was wrong about both things.
Mule deer aplenty but no antelope. And lots of flooding.
Waves splash on the shore of a meltwater lake near Taber, Ab., on Tuesday, April 17, 2018. Mike Drew/Postmedia
I came across the first barricaded road about 15 km north of Taber. And the barricade was unnecessary.
A lake covered the road for a couple of hundred metres, tea-coloured water with wind-blown waves that sparkled in the warm sun. Somewhere around a thousand snow geese thronged the far side of the water and through my long lens I could see them swimming across the road, flowing like chunks of snowdrift through a trench the flood had cut across the roadway.
There were ducks among them and gulls wheeling overhead. A big flock of tundra swans sat in the shallows to the north. The constant honking of Canada geese and the peeping of the snow geese mixed with the sound of wind and waves.
My plan had been to cut across to Retlaw and then back over to Turin but it was looking like I might have to rethink that. Rolling north I passed barricaded road after barricaded road until finally I came to one where the barricade had been pulled off to the side.
I couldn’t resist. I turned.
The road climbed as I rolled west and was firm and dry but I could see there was a coulee coming up in front of me. If the road were to be flooded, that’s where it would be.
And it had been. Now, though, the water had rolled on past and formed a lake off to the south so I stopped the truck and sent up my little copter.
Meltwater flows down a narrow coulee near Taber, Ab., on Tuesday, April 17, 2018. Mike Drew/Postmedia
Grass swept by the flood hung off the fence beside the road and ripple marks cut through the gravel road surface and looked kinda cool from overhead. But the best view was down the valley.
From the air I could see the long, brown lake sweeping in a curve among the grain fields and prairie grass. The sky above held clouds that looked almost summery, puffy, cottony clouds that trailed curtains of light rain. There was a bit of snow along the coulee but the landscape was mostly bare and brown.
After four solid months of nothing but white, it was so nice to see.
Landing the copter, I drove on. Up the road there was water running off the fields and more clouds that grew darker by the minute. But as I crested the top of the coulee I could see it was clear to the west and the road looked fine.
Back on pavement again, I turned north up the Little Bow River valley at Turin and stopped to take pictures of a herd of mule deer on a bare field shimmering with heat haze. But just a few kilometres beyond them, the season changed.
A herd of mule deer forages under stormy skies north of Turin, Ab., on Tuesday, April 17, 2018. Mike Drew/Postmedia
I put the copter up again at a flooded intersection and beyond the water all I could see was bare ground trailing off eastward into the distance. Behind me, though, to the north and west, everything was covered in snow.
The gravel roads turned back into a sloppy mess so I cut over to the pavement and rolled north to Lomond. Snow covered the fields, the few visible ponds held handfuls of geese and a few swans. The air was noticeably cooler as the wind blew across the snow.
McGregor Lake, to the west, was frozen, the ditches were full of slush. It was winter again.
But despite that, the snow was melting. I put up the copter one last time, as the sun was going down, to photograph a silvery stream of meltwater cutting through a snowy field. Give it a couple of warm days and the ground will be bare here, too.
The roads, though, will need some time. Putting the copter away, I hopped back in the truck to leave. And sank.
Throwing the shifter into four-wheel drive, I tried pulling away. Four rooster tails of mud blasted into the evening sky.
Clenching and spinning, I headed on home.
The setting sun lights meltwater flowing through a field near Milo, Ab., on Tuesday, April 17, 2018. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Mike Drew: Mudder’s Day excitement | Toronto Sun
Mike Drew: Gulliver drops in on the colony
Mike Drew
April 29, 2018
April 29, 2018 2:34 PM EDT
None of the hundreds of ants that were crawling on me were biting.
They had every right to. I mean, I was an inch away from them, my elbows parked right on the edge of their nest, my exhalations bathing them with what had to be the most foul wind they’d ever encountered.
But they weren’t biting at all. They were climbing all around my camera and my hands and wandering up my sleeves. Some even made it as far as my hat. But except for the faint vinegar scent – I assume it was some sort of mass chemical communication – they seemed more curious than upset.
I was lying in the ditch beside Chimney Rock Rd. south of Chain Lakes. The sky overhead was cloudy and the wind was starting to come up but it was fairly warm, especially close to the ground. A few raindrops were sprinkling down. The landscape around me was burned and black but in front of me on the edges of the ant nest, green grass was starting to grow.
Great horned owl on its nest near Cayley on Tuesday April 24, 2018. Mike Drew/Postmedia
The day had been more promising when I’d started out, chilly but sunny. The sky was clear as I’d bounced south, the blue tint of the sky reflecting off the feathers of a nesting owl I’d stopped to photograph near Cayley, the radiant heat of the sun causing the atmosphere to ripple as I took pictures of a heron colony along Mosquito Creek.
But the closer I got to the mountains, the more overcast the sky became. It softened the light on a blue heron standing patiently beside Stimson Creek and made the dry, honey-coloured grass turn grey.
Great blue heron on Stimson Creek south of Longview on Tuesday April 24, 2018. Mike Drew/Postmedia
Two weeks before when I’d been out to this same area and it was still winter. I’d found trumpeter swans swimming along the creek between banks piled so high with snow that all I could see was their heads. Now, though, the snow had all melted and the banks were bare. The swans were long gone but geese still paddled around.
It was a pretty dramatic change but one that had been a long time coming. Truth is, though, matted down and grey, it actually looked nicer with the snow. I’ll check back again in a couple more weeks. Give it a chance to catch up to the season.
But as I drove on I thought, ya know, since I was out this way anyway maybe I should check out the other areas I’d explored so recently, see what changes had occurred.
Chain Lakes was still frozen over and Willow Creek was still flowing at its winter rate so I cut east to head for more open country. The ducks I’d photographed on the spring-fed ponds had all scattered as had the cattle I’d seen on the ridge between the north and south forks of Willow Creek. The snow had mostly disappeared, too, but for the shadowed areas and among the stands of aspens.
Out in the open I saw meadowlarks and robins everywhere – easily spooked, those little guys – but back among the trees along the south fork of Willow Creek tree swallows filled the air.
I like these guys. True, they do tend to hog the bluebird nesting boxes but watching their scimitar shapes flit through the air and listening to their constant chatter always makes me smile. A lot of personality, these little patches of purple.
Tree swallow at a nest box south of Longview on Tuesday April 24, 2018. Mike Drew/Postmedia
The sun pretty much disappeared as I left the swallows but so did the wind. For the moment, at least. So just down the road I stopped to sit by a pond.
Last fall this place had been dry. Two weeks ago it was filled with snow. Now it was a mirror made of water the colour of bock beer that reflected the aspens and spruce on the far bank.
Aspens reflect in a meltwater pond south of Longview on Tuesday April 24, 2018. Mike Drew/Postmedia
Little backswimmer beetles spun through water and made spiral wakes on the surface. Wolf spiders stalked among the grass and sedge stems floating along the edge. A dark butterfly floated by, the first I’ve seen this year.
Wolf spider on a meltwater pond south of Longview on Tuesday April 24, 2018. Mike Drew/Postmedia
The damp ground smelled kinda like cookies, a sweet, organic scent. I heard one single peep as a chorus frog made a try at singing but then went quiet. Had I not parked my butt on a thorny, bent-over rose twig, I could have easily had a nap.
The wind was starting to blow again as I rolled up Chimney Rock Rd. Not hard but enough to strip away some of the day’s warmth. In front of me, the landscape was black.
This area burned last October, one of the many areas that caught fire in that windy, dry time. Having witnessed that fire, I’d been wanting to check it out again to see how it was recovering but every time I’d headed up here, the land had been covered with snow. Now though, it was bare. And black.
And not very photogenic. I put up the little copter for a look but it was just an amorphous mass from the air. From the ground, though, I could see the remains of spruces that had been scorched standing tall among the aspens on the slopes and the red stems of willows rising above their blackened bases.
Aspen catkins and scorched trees in a burned-over area along Chimney Rock Road south of Longview on Tuesday April 24, 2018. Mike Drew/Postmedia
But it wasn’t until I spied the ant hill that I found anything to take pictures of. Green grass was growing around the colony, an island in a sea of black, and the colony itself was churning with ants busy rebuilding their nest after the long winter.
So naturally, I flopped on my belly and started taking pictures.
The ants began swarming me immediately but they seemed more curious than upset. A couple of them tried to haul away the hair on my hands but none of them chomped on my skin. The only real problem came from them crawling on the lens of my camera. Couple of puffs to blow them off fixed that.
Their vinegar scent still in my nostrils – interesting, that – I walked over to a patch of burnt orange junipers. There were burned bones lying around and by one of them a set of tiny green leaves was starting to sprout. Clearly, the roots of the plant were intact, just like those of the native grasses all around them. When I get back here again in a couple of weeks, I’m sure everything will be eye-wateringly green.
Wood ants work in a burned-over area along Chimney Rock Road south of Longview on Tuesday April 24, 2018. Mike Drew/Postmedia
The day was wearing down now so I headed south a bit more before cutting east over the summit of the Porcupine Hills. The heights were still full of snow but down low, the aspens were in bloom, catkins fat and fuzzy and bouncing in the wind. The grassy meadows between the limber-pine studded ridges held Columbia ground squirrels while not much farther away their cousins, the Richardsons, stood up by their burrows.
The amber-tinted, grassy slopes were starting to show a light tinge of green as new calves bounced around. Deer wandered the coulee edges. Redtail and Swainson’s hawks soared against the chinook cloud overhead. Wind ruffled the waters on snow-melt ponds. Bluebirds and meadowlarks perched on fenceposts. Until I stopped to try to take their pictures, at least.
Whitetail deer relax in a stand of poplars in the Porcupine Hills west of Nanton on Tuesday April 24, 2018. Mike Drew/Postmedia
The sun was edging westward as I passed Nanton but, unusual for out here in the open, the wind had dropped again. I put up the little copter for a view of Mosquito Creek.
Brown water twisted its way through a brown pasture, the meanders still marked by crescents of snow. Chinook cloud draped the Porcupine Hills. Off in the distance, a truck pulling a stock trailer kicked up a cloud of dust that hung in the air. White mountain peaks stood on the far horizon.
It was all so pretty, all so overdue. But it’s here and I’m so happy to see it.
Nature has a ways to go to catch up, though. It’s just about May and spring has barely started.
Time to make like those ants and get busy.
But, this will do for now. Smiling, I rolled on home.
Chinook clouds roll in over the Porcupine Hills west of Claresholm on Tuesday April 24, 2018. Mike Drew/Postmedia
Mike Drew: Gulliver drops in on the colony | Toronto Sun

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