snow in the hills a little return to winter between chinooks

There is just no excuse for a snipe to still be hanging around here at this time of year.

Sure, the little guy found a nice, free-flowing spring to spend the winter in. And it’s not likely he’ll have to share it with many other birds for the next month or so. But in a winter that’s seen a surfeit of snow and a dearth of chinooks, he has no excuse for not heading south months ago.

Maybe he took his cue from the horses just up the road. They were standing stoically in the falling snow and bitter temperatures and biting wind. True, they didn't seem to really be all that bothered by it. And it’s not like they could do anything different even if they were. No option to head south for these guys.

Looking at them through my long lens, their eyelashes frosted, icicles entwined in their long winter hair, they seemed resigned to the fact that they would just have to tough it out, that they would have to wait until the weather broke. I could relate as I watched them stand there by a little copse of aspens, their eyes closing as they napped, their hooves making the snow squeak as they shifted their weight. Like them, I didn’t have many options but to tough it out myself.

The snipe, though, could have exercised it’s options back in October when the rest of its brethren lit out for the Gulf of Mexico. It didn't have to stay here at that little pond. It chose to.

Leaving the snipe and the horses behind, I continued on into the foothills. I was barely out of the city limits, angled toward Millarville. Snow was falling, the roads were covered axle-deep. The temperature was around minus-20C and I was driving with the windows rolled down in case I saw anything to photograph.

Just up the road I found more horses, these ones pulling mouthfuls of hay from a round bale by a shelter, and with them were magpies fluffed up against the cold. A rough-legged hawk flew by low along the snow and disappeared into the greyness.

I really had no excuse for being out there myself. The roads were terrible, there was a snowfall warning. The light, what little of it there was, let the snowy ground bleed into the grey sky. And the falling snow, the one plausible reason I had for being out there in the first place, was coming down with all the innate loveliness of blowing ash.

No big, pretty flakes, no soft curtain of white descending from the sky. Not even any nice frosty accumulations on the branches.

But I’d come this far. Might as well keep going.

Looking across a valley I saw some whitetail deer nibbling grass in a field. They fled almost immediately, as whitetails almost always do. A pair of sharptail grouse came winging out of the whiteness near the deer. One landed in the upper branches of a poplar and perched on a branch that looked far too thin for its bulk. A coyote nearby looked up at it, then back at me and then sped away through the snow as soon as I aimed my camera.

I kept rolling west.

The main roads were okay, not great, but at least they were packed down. Less-traveled roads were covered with snow and, even though my FJ has four-wheel drive I decided to avoid them. I could have churned my way through but with that much snow, it was hard to tell where the edge of the road was. No point in tempting fate. The snipe might have been fine being stuck in its little pond but I had no intention of being stuck anywhere at all.

Mid-day turned to afternoon, afternoon edged toward evening. But as I headed west, the sky started to clear a bit, the snowfall became patchy. At a ranch west of Turner Valley, I stopped to take some pictures of frosty cattle. They stared back at me, their backs covered with snow, their faces icy. I could see their breath as it rose up from their nostrils, backlit for a few seconds by a weak spray of sunshine.

Cold sunshine. The further west I went, the colder it became. Out at Sandy McNabb in the Sheep River valley it was minus-26C. Snow covered the ground, fluffy but as deep as the middle of my tires. Pines and spruce held onto piles of it, the accumulations of flakes standing deep on the branches. Aspens stood silvery against the pale blue of the clearing sky, tall in some spots, leaning against each other for support in others. I could hear chickadees when I rolled down the windows. Unlike snipe, they seem to thrive in weather like this.

I was chilled through now - driving with the windows down so I could take pictures will do that - and I was feeling a bit sorry for the truck as it bounced down the snow-rutted side roads. It’s still going strong with nearly 615,000 km and never complains but it deserves nice roads once in a while.

fading light and then rolled on until I came across a herd of bull elk within expectorating distance of the Calgary city limits. I nearly slid into the ditch trying to pull over for both.

The sun down, I headed back into the city. Snowy hills behind me, I looked back as the last of the day faded. There was a chinook in the forecast and that snow was about to be blown around and piled up. Might look kinda nice in a couple of days. And maybe those stoic horses and frosty cattle might have an easier go of it with warmer weather.

The snipe, though, it probably won’t care. It has its little pond all to itself, a haven from the cold and shelter from the wind.

Yeah, it has no excuse for still being here at this time of year but it made its choice. Just like me.

Snowy, cold southern Alberta is my home.

And if a snipe can stand it, well, so can I.

MIKE DREW ON THE ROAD

FEBRUARY 6, 2017

Photographed with DJI Phantom 4, Canon 7D Mark II and EOS M5 with Sigma 150-600C

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