There was a blizzard of cattail fluff.
It was coming from a big wetland just west of Standard and every gust of the hot wind sent another wave of it rolling across the valley. With the windows rolled down so I could photograph it, it was getting everywhere, covering the dash and the passenger seat, clinging to my shirt and sweaty face, even piling up around my hands where they gripped the camera.
It was gorgeous, all those millions of tiny parachutes catching the light as they spun through the air. But it was also kind of annoying. Whenever I took my face away from the camera, they began landing on my nose and within seconds, I was sneezing. Finally, I had to roll up the windows and reposition the truck.
Needless to say, I hadn’t come out this way in the hope that I would be nasally assaulted by cattails. No, I was looking for birds.
Some of the migratory birds have already passed through our part of the world. Most of the warblers have headed south and the hummingbirds are all long gone. There are still a few redtail and Swainson’s hawks hanging around but they will be on their way to the tropics any day now.
But there are still birds that will be coming through from the north and those are what I was hoping to find. So I headed east to some of my favourite sloughs.
And therein lies the rub.
It’s no secret it has been a dry summer. A dry summer that, despite the winter’s snowfall, couldn’t make up for the previous autumn’s drought. Sloughs that were already low back in May are completely dry now.
And that includes a lot of my favourites.
Starting from Chestermere and rolling on east, I passed a dozen low spots that I’ve taken pictures at before and pretty much all of them were, if not dry, had so little water that a duck could barely wet its feet. Many of them were grown over by vegetation and a few of them on the edges of fields had actually been sown to grain.
It wasn’t until I got to an old faithful next to a feedlot north of Strathmore that I found one with enough water host any migrators. And there weren’t many.
There were, of course, the usual birds that accumulate around water bodies. I saw a hundred or so Canada geese and dozens of ring-billed gulls. There were mallards, too. But though there may have been a few birds that had migrated in, they were most likely locals, born and raised right here.
But there were migrators. Among the Canadas there were white-fronted geese, smaller birds that make peeping sounds instead of honks, and a few pintail ducks. Overall, there might have been maybe 500 birds. A decent number, true, but hardly the number I had hoped to see.
Down the road at another slough next to another feedlot — gotta be irrigation-fed — there were a bunch more ducks but again, with the possible exception of some American wigeons, they all seemed to be locals. The gulls I found were mostly sleeping.
I hit two more dry holes as I kept rolling further east but finally, coming over a low rise, I saw a glorious sight. On a pond east of Strathmore, there was a flock of snow geese.
That was what I was looking for, a decent-sized bunch of migratory birds. They were a bit far out on the water even for my longest lens and the heat ripples coming off the surface on this 28C day made getting the geese in focus a major challenge. But at least they were there.
Feeling a bit more confident now, I spent a half-hour watching them bob around on the water, three or four hundred bright white — with a few blue — bodies soaking up the hot October sun before moving on to the next set of sloughs down the line.
Where I found next to nothing.
There were Canada geese and a few ducks. A lone pelican shared the sky overhead with gulls. A blue heron flew from one small pond to the next in the chain. But beyond that, nada.
So I rolled on.
There were a couple of damp lowlands along Crowfoot Creek that were bird-less and a bigger slough that had enough water to hold a good-sized flock of geese, or even swans, over toward Standard but that was empty, too. I kept on rolling.
And just down the road, I found the cattails.
This big swampy area on Parfleche — or maybe Parflesh — Creek has long been a favourite area. In spring and summer it is alive with blackbirds, marsh wrens, wading birds and puddle ducks. I didn’t really expect to find any big flocks here but I was hoping there might be enough water to hold something interesting.
There was, barely, but it was the cattails that made me stop.
A gravel road cuts right through the middle of about a quarter-section of marsh dominated by cattails and at this time of year, those big brown cobs that the plants produce are shedding their seeds. The cobs are designed to burst open as they dry so the wind can pick up their tiny parachute-wearing seeds and carry them off to find new places to take root.
And that’s what was happening as I pulled up.
The wind had picked up as the day warmed and now gusts were surging down the valley and catching all that loose fluff. It truly looked like snow as it wafted up from the marsh, thousands upon thousands of downy seeds catching the light like crystals as they blew along.
The ditches were filling up with them and everything that had anywhere they could latch onto — including me and the interior of the truck — was coated with them. It was all lovely to behold but eventually I had to move on before I sneezed myself into a hemorrhage.
As I suspected, Deadhorse Lake at Hussar was dry, at least the part of it that I could see, and the smaller sloughs further east were as well. I had hoped I might see some flocks of birds flying around as I approached Crawling Valley Reservoir but the clear, blue sky held nothing. There would be water there for sure, I knew, so I swung south check it out.
Yep, plenty of water, plenty of people fishing. But the only bird I saw was a lone western grebe.
I followed the irrigation canal — now shut off for the winter — down from the reservoir just to see what I could see. There were a few ducks, mallards mostly, and flocks of pipits. These little birds nest here in the summer and head south for the winter but I guess these ones weren’t in any hurry. Dozens of them were hunting along the canal bottom looking for whatever was left behind by the receding water.
Further along there were antelope foraging in the grass on the far bank and ranchers sorting cattle that had just come off the grazing lease along the reservoir. Geese were flying around, too. But they were the common Canada geese, not the snow geese or white-fronted geese I was hoping for.
The day was summertime hot and the sunshine was glorious so I kinda forgot that even though it felt summery, the hours of daylight were distinctly autumnal. So when I stopped at the wetlands east of Gem, I was surprised to see the light that reminded me so much of an August evening was now happening at five in the afternoon. If I was going to check out any more possible bird spots between here and Bassano, I was gonna have to get a wiggle on.
But I had to hang around a bit after I saw the blackbirds.
These ones here among the cattails were all redwings. There may have been a few yellow-heads about, too, but I didn’t spot any. These redwings, though, were gorgeous birds.
There were a few females among them but they looked much like they do all summer. The males, though, they were something else.
The red shoulder patches that give them their name were now more orange-ish than in summer and were complemented by yellow feathers below them. And it seemed like the black tones on their body feathers had faded to a deep grey that allowed the browns underneath to show through. When they raised their heads to squawk, it looked like they were wearing tawny capes. So handsome.
The Brewer’s blackbirds up the road were no slouches either. Their bright, silvery eyes and iridescent feathers gleamed in the sun and as flocks of them flew by or lit in fields — along with a few starlings and grackles — they shimmered against the sky.
But as for the geese and ducks I’d hoped to find, there were none. By now, the day was getting late and even though it was barely six in the evening as I rolled on toward Countess and Bassano, the sun was skimming the horizon. It lit up swirling clouds of midges that bounced among stands of cottonwoods and backlit the leaves along the dry irrigation canals. And there were gophers that still haven’t gone to bed yet. I watched couple of them bouncing around in a pasture.
I passed flock after flock of meadowlarks along the way, mostly this year’s young looking for bugs in the prairie grass. They, along with the blackbirds, will be winging south soon.
Dandelions, wild asparagus and horses in a pasture caught the dregs of the day’s direct light but by the time I hit the last of my favourite sloughs due east of Bassano, the sun was dropping below the horizon.
The still waters reflected the sky overhead as ducks paddled through the golden light while small skeins of birds flew overhead. A few geese honked from somewhere close by. But of big flocks, there were none.
The sun now down, I made my way back toward Bassano along a gravel road misted with dust kicked up by a passing truck. Pinking clouds and cobalt sky reflected on the few ponds that still held any water. Stopping to try for a picture, I could hear trucks on the nearby highway and a chorus of coyotes. But no birds.
It had been a truly lovely day, more like summer than fall. But much as I enjoyed it, it was still a bit disappointing. A few white-fronted geese, a single flock of snow geese. Not much given that it is already the middle of October.
Maybe they’ll come along, maybe not. Could be that the lack of places for them to set down forced them to fly right on by or maybe diverted them further east instead.
Or maybe, they’re just enjoying the weather so much that they’re in no hurry to get here.
But for now, with dusk coalescing into dark, it was time to head on home.
And maybe try a goose chase another day.