april snow and a whole whack of robins!

There was a crazy cacophony of robins coming from somewhere down the hillside.

It was a roar of chirps, peeps and warbles that echoed down across the Willow Creek valley. From where I was sitting with my long lens perched on the truck window, I couldn’t see a single bird. But beyond the light wind and the occasional loud moo from the cattle close by, all I could hear was robins.

I hadn’t really planned on coming out this way. Three hours before I’d been heading down to the Bow River at Policeman’s Flats to check out the blue heron nesting colony and look for any interesting ducks.

But as I got to the southern edge of the city, I looked off to the west. There was a lot of fresh snow over there so kept going south for a better look. The high country was blanketed from the mountain peaks to the foothills and it looked like more snow was about to fall.

See ya later, herons. I headed west.

You’d think that after this past winter I may have had enough of snow. And you’d mostly be right. But I kinda like snow that falls out of season. The first snow of fall, the last few snows of spring, I just find them interesting.

So I headed south to Cayley and cut west past Pekisko - hi, Lenore! - and carried on down to the Willow Creek valley. My plan, such as it was, had been to head west up the Stimson Creek valley as far as I could go, maybe as far as the foot of Hailstone Butte.

Snow lay thick on the ground, heavy, wet snow that glowed white under the overcast sky. It was sticky enough that it had stuck to the trunks of aspens and it had fallen heavily enough that it turned the surfaces of the beaver ponds to slush.

A light wind was blowing and on a colder day it would have been enough to send the snow drifting. But this day was relatively warm and the snow was just too laden with moisture. The best the wind could do was ripple the small patches of open water.

And carry the sounds of robins.

They were everywhere along the road, probing the mud for bugs and worms, thronging the trees. They were pretty darn hard to photograph, too. These weren’t your standard backyard robins, these were migrants just back from the south to nest in our part of the world. They weren’t used to people or vehicles and they spun away into the wind never I stopped.

The road to Hailstone Butte turned out to be closed just past the Willow Creek bridge so I turned back and headed to Chain Lakes. There was less snow there but it was still breezy. Fishermen were casting along the shoreline, magpies were being magpies, geese linked out on the open water or sat on the small slab of ice still left at the southern end.

Redtail hawks perched in the poplars and a kingfisher flitted along the outflow creek below the dam, startling a dipper as it whizzed by low along the water. A pair of mergansers took off, too.

There were whitetail deer everywhere, up among the willows by the campground and down along the creek. Fresh moose tracks marked the mud below the dam.

By now it was getting onto late afternoon and I thought about heading back to town. But no, I was already more than an hour south, might as well poke around some more.

The snow was patchy here as I gained elevation heading south, the countryside became whiter. I turned west again at the south fork of Willow Creek.

The road was sloppy as I drove along and a couple of times I had to kick into four-wheel drive to get rolling again after stopping too close to the edge of the ditch. But it was worth it.

I could see the valley stretching off to the west and the rise of the mountains into the blue-tinged clouds beyond. Willows along the valley were silvery with catkins and snow clung to the pastures. Trails left by wandering cattle etched dark channels through it. Deer nibbled in the open spots between the copses of aspens and shafts of weak sunlight that managed to find gaps in the clouds lit the forest slopes with a faint glow.

I turned on a side road to head up to another willow-filled meadow where I wanted to fly my little copter for an overhead view. The snow was thicker up here, a hundred metres or so higher in elevation than the valley I’d just left. Small spring-fed creeks cut dark, serpentine shoes through the white. The red of the willows glowed.

I flew out over the meadow, watching the video feed on my phone as the little copter flew along. It didn’t take long for the buzz of the propellers to get swallowed up by the sound-deadening effect of all the snow on the ground and soon all I could were geese honking, robins singing - hundreds more of them here, just as skittish - and mallards quacking.

But with them was another sound, a soft churring.. Quickly, I brought the copter back. I’d just heard sandhill cranes.

I packed up and headed toward the source of the sound, a pond just over the hill. And there they were, a pair of red-crowned, sandy-feathered, metre-and-a-half tall birds. Who flew away almost immediately. I managed to get one pretty bad picture before they disappeared. But I’ll know where to look next time.

Dusk was falling so I cut through the hills back toward Nanton. I found frogs singing in a pond - so nice to hear - and calves looking pretty mucky as they followed their moms through the wet snow. And at the summit above the junction of Willow Creek and the south fork, a cacophony of robins.

Robins I couldn’t see. The combination of failing light and the slope of the hill hid what had to be at least a hundred of the red-breasted noisemakers from view. I could spot the magpies in the trees and a trio of geese passing by but the robins stayed hidden.

Until I moved the truck. Suddenly, they were flying everywhere, zipping past my windshield, past my mirrors, over the roof. A dozen or so landed on the fence next to me but lit out as soon as I aimed my lens.

Down the road I could see them poking around a bit of open grass so I tried to sneak up on them. They were just too wary. Even with the truck in neutral and gravity pulling it down the hill, I couldn’t get close.

Rolling down to the Willow Creek valley, I turned back north again and onto the pavement headed toward Nanton. But then I saw a moose. I stopped, shot and spotted a herd of elk close by. I grabbed some pictures of them. I was having much better luck with the big animals than I was with the birds.

I rolled on and then spotted more elk. I stopped to photograph them even though the light was getting pretty low. And as I glanced west, I saw that the first herd of elk were walking along the skyline above the second herd.

I rolled on and then spotted more elk. I stopped to photograph them even though the light was getting pretty low. And as I glanced west, I saw that the first herd of elk were walking along the skyline above the second herd.

Ya know, I was starting feel pretty happy about heading to the high country to see the snow. I put the truck in gear and started to roll.

And three robins burst up in front of me, startled from where they’d been sitting in the ditch right in front of my truck.

Wings strobing in the headlights, I watched them fly away. I followed them on home.

MIKE DREW ON THE ROAD

APRIL 11, 2017

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

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