purple petals, white wings swans, snow geese and crocuses light up the prairies

It felt so good to have that prairie dust tickling my nose again.

With my cheek pressed to the ground and the chinook breeze kicking around I couldn’t help but inhale it. It smelled of dry grass and sage, maybe a hint of horse. Wonderful.

I was in a pasture north of Cluny, a spot on the southern slopes of the Crowfoot Creek valley. It’s a place I’ve been to many times before, a patch of native prairie that overlooks the valley with a dugout hosting a noisy pair of geese and an access road leading to a gas well.

And like many times before, I was laying flat on my belly.

About four inches in front of my face I could see - blurrily - sprigs of dry fescue and the just sprouted leaves of pasture sage. Immediately beyond them was the rear screen of my camera. And just a few inches beyond that was my first crocus of the year.

The fuzzy purple petals had probably just opened a few hours before. It’s neighbours close by still had their fur coats on, waiting for the day to get just a little bit warmer. There was no hint of green anywhere around them, just the browns and greys of the prairie waking up from its winter slumber.

I shuffled back a bit to try to get my eyes to focus on the camera’s screen, inhaling the perfume of prairie dust as my motion kicked it up, and finally got my face in a position where the crocus didn’t just look like a purple blob. I hit the shutter button.

I’d been wandering around out this way for a couple of hours. The day was blustery and not particularly warm but at least the light was nice. Diffused by the chinook clouds, it lay soft on the land. Stubble fields now free of snow glowed yellow, ponds were a deep amber, the colour of tea. And there were birds everywhere.

Robins flew up from the ditches where they were poking around, meadowlarks tried to cling to fenceposts but had trouble with the wind. Redtail and Swainson’s hawks, back from their winter sojourns in Central and South America, grabbed tightly to branches in farmyard poplars or silhouetted against the sky.

I didn’t manage to get pictures of any of them. But the swans were a different story.

I’d seen the first of them right at the city limits, both tundra and trumpeter swans on sloughs still hosting slabs of winter ice. Nearly every little puddle from the city east to Carseland held at least of few of the big whites but I didn't stop for a picture until I was a little ways further east.

You don’t really realize just how big swans are until you see them on a pond with ducks and Canada geese. Pintails and mallards are absolutely dwarfed by them and even Canada geese look as small as ducks do to the geese themselves.

But I managed to get a picture with a trumpeter next to a pair of tundra swans and it shows just how huge trumpeter swans are. Among the heaviest flying birds in the world, trumpeter swans are truly magnificent. They midgetize the tundras.

I found fewer trumpeters the further east I went but tundra swans were all over the place. They, Canada geese, pintail, mallard and widgeon ducks populated every damp spot between Carseland and Cluny. For the most part, they stayed put whenever I stopped to try for a picture but the pintails always seemed to find an excuse to take off. Maybe they just have a need for speed - they’re among the fastest flying birds, hitting speeds up to 100 km/hr - so they were taking advantage of the wind.

The tundra swans were taking things easy, though. Made a little cautious by my presence, they would turn into the wind and flex their huge white wings but mostly they just made their funny peeps and chirps and ignored me.

But when they did take off, sound was amazing. The chirps and peeps became honks and the slapping of their feet on the water and the churning of the air by their wings near overpowered the roar of the chinook that was helping to lift them into the sky. A bit awkward as they took off, they were a stunning sight once they were in flight.

But the sky over the ponds where I was taking my pictures near Makepeace was starting to dim and I was running out of daylight. Time to head home.

But I’d already decided to come back. I knew there would be even more purple petals and white wings.

Four days later I was headed toward Crawling valley. The day was warm, the wind as close to calm as it ever goes out that way. There would be crocuses blooming in even more profusion now. And swans. In April, there are always swans.

But there are also snow geese.

Smaller than Canada geese but bigger than mallards, they follow the swans northward just a little later every spring. We don’t get the huge flocks that Saskatchewan does over here on the western edge of the flyway but we always get a few. And there were about 500 of them on the shallow waters of Wolf Lake at the north end of Crawling Valley.

Snow geese are just plain pretty. Most of them are white - hence the name - with black wing tips but a few feature blue feathers or dark necks. They make a peeping sound almost like pintail ducks, not a goose-like sound at all and from my position a quarter-mile away on a ridge beside the lake I could hear them perfectly.

I watched for ten minutes as they swam or slept or bobbed in the nearly-flat water. And then suddenly, in a cacophony of peeps and squeaks and the roar of a thousand wings shattering the air, they leapt into the sky. No running takeoff like the swans, they just slapped their wings on the water and shoved their way into the air. Looking through my long lens, they nearly filled the viewfinder.

They flew off and came back, circling and twisting, their white bodies looking like ripples against the blue sky, until they finally landed again in pretty much the same spot they took off from. Why, I have no idea. A hawk, maybe? I dunno.

Leaving the snowies behind, I headed back west. I’d found a few crocuses but I was curious how many more had blossomed since I’d last looked at Crowfoot Creek.

Lots. In the low angle of the afternoon sun I could see their furry stems and petals backlit against the prairie and they were everywhere. Most were just single blossoms but there were a few doubles and triples around. Give them another couple of weeks and there will be carpets of their pretty purple faces all over the place.

I laid down on the prairie to shoot some closeups and inhaled that lovely perfume again. The crocuses themselves have no scent - at least none that I can discern - but once again I breathed in that sagey, dusty smell. Around me I could hear geese talking and gophers whistling but the loudest sound was a meadowlark singing nearby. Those guys really belt out a tune.

I shot my pictures and turned over on my back to look up at the sky. And four swans came flying by. They were bright white against the blue, their huge wings propelling them along on their way to s slough just down the way. They were quiet as they flew and, although thinking back on it, it may have been my imagination, I could hear the wind in their wings.

I laid there and watched them fly by, the fuzzy purple petals just inches away, white wings a hundred feet overhead.

It really is springtime.

MIKE DREW ON THE ROAD

APRIL 4, 2017

Photographed with Canon 7D Mark II and EOS M5 with Sigma 150-600C

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