harvest begins as summertime winds down

The day was just too nice to pass up.

The sky was blue and the sun was shining. There was a strong breeze blowing, not a roaring wind but enough to make the heat of the day bearable. And best of all, the ever-present forest fire smoke that had obscured sky for most of the last month had drifted away.

I had things to do in town but nothing pressing - why do something now when it is so easy to put it off? - so I headed east and north.

I had no destination in mind but I like that rolling country out around Lyalta, Irricana and Beiseker so I headed that way. Rumbling along under that blue sky passing ripened fields of yellow, amber and tan, I drove with the windows rolled down and let the heat and dust of the day roll along with me.

I always like this time of year. Even though summer is winding down, it’s nice to see how the growing season has worked out, how the crops have fared, how the prairie has set seed, how the birds and animals have raised their families.

Not that I’m anxious for summer to end or anything like that, no, no, no! But my favourite parts of every season are the transition times, the weeks where one season ends and another begins. Summer starts with bird song and flowers and equipment in the fields and as it winds down, it eases into birds in flight, waving seas of seeds and, well, equipment in the fields. No other season has such dramatic changes.

So as I drove along the irrigation canals and pothole lakes out on the slopes of the Rosebud River valley, I watched for those changes.

There are hawks everywhere at this time of year. The baby redtail and Swainson’s hawks - our most common raptors - have all left their nests now and are learning all about flying and hunting as they get ready to accompany their parents on their long migrations to the south.

Some of them are pretty good at flying and I watched family groups soaring together over the fields and riding the thermals generated by the heat of the day. But there were a lot of them just sitting on fenceposts, too. It’s pretty easy to get pictures of these youngsters. They’ll often just sit there and look at you before startling the camera out of your hands with an ear-shredding shriek in response to a call from momma soaring above.

And of course, there are ducks everywhere.

The fuzzy ducklings from back in May and June have all grown up and, like the raptors, are learning to fly as well. There are literally thousands of them around so it seems like it’s been a good year for the web-footed fowl but it’s also possible that with the incredibly dry summer evaporating a lot of the early-season sloughs they’ve had to congregate on what little water they can find.

The pelicans and cormorants I saw out that way - watched a squad of them fishing in one pond - don’t have quite as many problems as the ducks. Most of them don’t nest around here anyway so there are fewer babies and, besides, they prefer deeper water than the ducks. Plenty of that in the irrigation-fed ponds.

The prairie grasses have all set seed now and their short-lived green season is long over. Although accelerated by the dryness of the summer, the prairie looks pretty much exactly as it should at this time of year and I like the tans and umbers and fawns of the late-summer grasslands. Especially on a blue-sky day like this.

And the crops look good, too. By that, of course, I mean that they look photographically good.

The ripened fields of barley and wheat contrast so nicely with the blue sky, just like their prairie grass cousins. The blondes of the barley and the browns of the wheat always look good. Canola looks best when it’s in bloom but knocked down into windrows to await the coming combines, the tans of the ripened seed pods look lovely against the greens of the cut-off stalks still still left standing.

And all of it looks even better from the air.

Launching my little copter, I watched the video feed from thirty metres up as it played on my phone. From above, the windrows parallaxed their way down the fields, the straight lines of knocked-down grain seeming to converge at a point near the horizon. The colours of the different crops looked even more dramatic from the sky and looking down on the Rosebud River I could see fields of barley, wheat and canola along with patches of native prairie tucked between the river’s meanders.

All of it was lovely to look at but my definition of good is somewhat different from what a farmer’s might be. A few weeks ago I talked to some folks around Milk River who said that their barley crops were coming off at around 25 bushels per acre while just a few days ago I met a guy combining barley near Three Hills who said that their fields were yielding around 85 bushels. Visually, the fields looked exactly the same.

So as I flew over the combines cutting certified seed wheat at Stahlville Colony - with permission, of course - I looked at both the spectacular view of a fleet of machinery chewing its way through the fields and the grain pouring into the hoppers that I could see from overhead. It all looked good to me.

Hawks flew alongside my copter, ignoring it as they waited to pounce on rodents scattered by the combines and a flock of crows converged on a tree just down the road. Landing the copter, I grabbed my long lens but managed to miss both the hawks and the crows.

It was late afternoon now and the wind had died down. The heat of the day rippled the air in every direction and the heat was furnace-like even next to a pivot irrigation system near Rockyford. Dust and chaff hung in the air as the breeze stilled even more. I passed stands of poplars with their leaves starting to yellow and listened to the sounds of crickets chirping every time I stopped for a picture.

The sky above was still a lovely blue as I rolled back to town but dust kicked up by trucks on the gravel roads and combines churning through the fields hung everywhere in the nearly-still air. But at least it wasn’t smoke.

Yep, summer is winding down. But when one season ends, another begins.

And no matter how busy you are, blue-sky days like this are always too nice to pass up.

MIKE DREW ON THE ROAD

AUGUST 28, 2017

Photographed with the Canon EOS M5, the Canon 7D Mark II, with the Canon 70-300, the Sigma 150-600C and the DJI Phantom 4 Pro.

MY NEW BOOK

If you’d like to see pictures from past columns and read a few more of my stories, please check out my new book, On the Road with Mike Drew - Collected Photographs and Stories from Central and Southern Alberta from Rocky Mountain Books.

You can find it locally at Costco, The Camera Store, Owl’s Nest, Pages on Kensington, Cafe Books (Canmore), and Shelf Life Books or order online from Rocky Mountain Books at http://www.rmbooks.com.

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