raptorous the eagles are back in the foothills

My heart sank just a little bit as I stared into the swirl of snow in front of me.

I’d left the city in bright sunshine and headed south but I could see what looked like a wall of fog on the horizon. The fog turned out to be snow and now, as I rolled along slick roads between High River and Nanton, I could barely see more than two car-lengths in front of me.

Not a great situation for photography. And since what I had headed out to photograph were eagles, not the easiest things to spot at the best of times, my prospects were were looking pretty grim.

I’d been out near Longview a couple of days before enjoying the last of the latest chinook. Clear sky, sunshine, warm weather, I just couldn’t hang around the city. Not looking for anything in particular, I headed out along Coal Trail and watched the mountains grow bigger in my windshield.

I saw the first eagle not far down the road, a mature bald eagle flying along. A bit later I found two more perched in a tree. I managed to get close to the mature one - white head and tail, yellow feet and beak - and was taking pictures of it when I noticed, immediately across the road from where the eagle was perched, a great horned owl sitting on its nest. Raptors everywhere!

Two more eagles on the Highwood River and two more again on a fenceline near Pekisko. Then a golden eagle, bronze highlights glowing in the lowering sun, not far from them. Not all of them made for great pictures but that was fine. Good pictures are always welcome but they’re kind of like raspberries on top of ice cream. Delicious but not necessary.

By the time the sun had set I was down by Parkland and had seen a second nesting owl and a total of 11 eagles, four of which were goldens and the rest either adult or dark-plumaged immature bald eagles. I was feeling raptor-ous! I decided I’d head out again, earlier in the day this time, to have a better look.

The weather changed, as it is wont to do around here, so I waited a day and then woke up to a cold but clearing sky. I headed out as the sun broke through the clouds.

By the time I’d left the sun behind and hit the wall of snow I’d already seen two eagles along Highway 2 but as I motored south I wondered if that was going to be the limit. Now, having relied upon a wildly inaccurate weather forecast, I found myself 150km from home having not shot even a single photo.

But, in for a penny, as they say, I rolled on.

I took a completely useless photo of a pair of eagles in a cottonwood along Willow Creek - too much snow falling to even focus properly - and then rolled up Meadow Creek into the Porcupine Hills to have a look.

Every year around this time, eagles start to concentrate along the eastern slopes of the Porcupine Hills. They linger here as they migrate to their summer residences because, thanks to the springtime emergence of gophers - Richardson’s ground squirrels - and calving time on the big ranches, there is a veritable buffet of things for them to eat.

They can easily find gophers, their eagle eyes catching movement in the grass or the dark bodies of the gophers standing out against the snow, and calving pastures provide plenty of offerings in the byproducts of the birthing process.

No, they don’t carry off calves, regardless what you may have heard, but occasionally calves are stillborn and they won’t hesitate to make a meal of them.

I’d decided to head up Meadow Creek valley because I knew there would be new calves up that way and they’d be near the road, close enough to photograph. But even though they were close by, the few eagles I did see were beyond my camera’s reach.

The snow, however, was backing off and I could see clearing to the south so I rolled on. I hadn’t intended to go this far but since I was down here anyway, I rolled on toward the Oldman River. Lots of geese, ducks and gophers to feed on down there - and lots of trees for eagles to roost in - so I headed to the Oldman Dam.

Yep, lots of ducks, geese and gophers. Not a single eagle. Did get a picture of a gopher with snowflakes on its fur that I’m not entirely ashamed of so there was that. But the day was turning into a write-off, eagle-wise.

But as I backtracked toward Head-Smashed-In, the snow stopped. And the sky cleared.

I saw two eagles right there, in flight and headed east. Down the road, another, this time a golden. Okay, now we’re talkin’! I headed toward the calving pastures again.

The sun was shining across the Porcupine Hills as I launched my little copter for a quick eagle’s-eye flight over a snowy pasture and another eagle flew by in the single minute I had it in the air. And in a lone poplar tree just down the road there were three more.

These ones stayed put while I took my pictures, two mature bald eagles and one dark immature sat in the tree as the cattle nearby blatted out moos as the mommas called to their new calves. The road I was on bisected a couple of the calving pastures on Granum Colony and a gentleman I spoke to told me they were calving 1100 cows. No wonder the eagles were hanging out there.

I saw a total of eleven just in that one area. Most were flying but several were roosting in the trees near the feed shelters. All of them were bald eagles. This is such a great place to find them and had it not been snowing earlier, I’m sure I’d have seen many more.

The day was winding down now and the few other eagles I saw as I rolled back northward in the cold sunshine were too far off for pictures. No matter, I was more than happy with what I had. And since this is just the beginning of eagle season along the Porcupine Hills, I knew that next time I came down this way I’d see many more.

Raptor-ous, I headed on home.

The eagles have landed.

MIKE DREW ON THE ROAD

FEBRUARY 28, 2017

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

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