still waiting watching for a west wind in the porcupine hills

I knew it was going to be a good day when I saw the ducks.

There were a couple of hundred of them in a little pasture on the south end of the Porcupine Hills not far from the Summerview bridge over the Oldman River and they were milling around among the cattle, most of whom were trying to shelter from the cold wind. Feed had been put out for the cattle to snack on and now that they were done, the ducks had swooped in to gobble up whatever was left over.

The good part was that they were right beside the road, close enough that I could just pull over and park with my camera clamped to my window and fill my frame with the scene. On a day like this, I was going to grab every opportunity I could to get a picture.

I was already feeling pretty good about the day. It was cold, true, and the wind was starting to pick up, making the day even colder. The light was flat, the sky blended into the snowy ground, the view was obscured by thin ice fog and blowing snow.

But I’d come across a herd of horses out in a big pasture not far from Head-Smashed-In and they actually made a pretty nice picture with their dark semi-silhouettes against the two-dimensional backdrop of the snowy Porcupine Hills. The soft bluish light seemed to enhance the warm tones of the bay, chestnut, creams and blacks of the horses. Yeah, I kinda liked it.

And then, just over the hill, I found the most calm eagle I think I’ve ever photographed.

Normally when I see an eagle perched on a fence post I roll down the window and clamp on my camera, take my foot off the gas, pre-set the focus for the distance I think I’ll be away from the bird and then try to ease my way close enough for a picture. It works well enough that I get the occasional shot.

At that point, the eagle usually glances my way, lifts its tail to let out a streak of white to lighten the load and then takes off. No more pictures.

But this guy just kind of shrugged and then ignored me. I took a couple of shots and then decided to edge closer. That worked so I edged again. And then suddenly I was right across the road from him, so close that I didn’t need the full power of my 150-600 zoom to get a picture. He barely acknowledged my presence.

Maybe he just didn’t feel like flying off into the increasingly-nasty weather. Fine with me.

Thoroughly chilled from having the windows rolled down for the eagle, I headed on south. I knew I’d find more birds down along the Oldman River. But the heater had barely brought the truck’s interior back above freezing when I saw the ducks.

Yeah, it was going to be a good day.

I never know what I’m going to find when I head out. And that’s exactly how I like it. Sure, I can stack the deck a bit when, for instance, it’s cactus blossom time. Or fall harvest. Or spring runoff.

But most of the time I just go and look. Luckily, we live in a part of the world that has no shortage of interesting places to explore, wonderful things to see. Even on a cold, flat day like this, I knew I was going to find something.

The horses were pretty good, the eagle even better. And the ducks, they were the icing on this frozen cake.

I spent half an hour with them as the wind gathered strength and the clouds waxed and waned. The cattle barely moved but the ducks wheeled and swooped around, squadrons of them flying in to replace the squadrons flying out. I stayed along enough with the windows rolled down that my Double Gulp was starting to freeze over.

I still hadn’t made it down to the river yet so I rolled on. Down by the bridge there were a thousand or so geese on the open water but it was misty and hard to see them. I continued on to the Oldman Dam.

By the time I got there - barely ten minutes - the sun had popped out. So had the coyotes.

I spotted one on the edge of the Oldman Reservoir and though it was a ways away, it looked cool with a stand of red willows beside it. I stopped the truck and hung the lens out the window.

As I expected, it started to trot off. But then another one appeared. And another. Pretty quick, there were 14 of them walking across the ice. They were scattered so I couldn’t get a shot with all of them in it but it was still pretty amazing.

No idea why the were so many of them. I suspect there was a food source somewhere hidden from view but even so, that was a whack of coyotes.

The Oldman River never fully freezes over below the dam and because the valley here is mostly out of the wind, it’s thronged with ducks and geese. No exception this day. They were lined up along the snowy banks or gathered in masses in the ice-free eddies. Some perked up when I stopped for pictures but most just ignored me and slept with frost crystals accumulating on the feathers of their backs and wings.

There were deer down there, of course, and a squirrel or two. Another month or so and the gophers will be waking up in Cottonwood Campground. Not today, though.

I rolled on toward Pincher Creek - big flock of horned larks near there - and cut north at Pincher Station. It was sunny now and the wind was edging toward the west. Lines of cattle stretched out like Morse code, their dark bodies dots and dashes against the white snow. I saw a rough-legged hawk trying to steal a vole from a short-eared owl but I couldn’t unlimber the camera fast enough for a picture.

As I made my way back across the dam, the weather changed again.

This time a north wind roared down from the heights of the Porcupines, blowing snow and mist obscuring the wind generators, making them look like something from War of the Worlds. Deer fled the pastures and crossed the road in front of me, tan and cream streams flowing against the blowing greyness. An eagle blew by at fence top level.

And then it blew out and sundogs ringed our favourite star. I looked up at them, smiled and started toward home. A fine, cold day.

But it wasn’t done.

There were cattle being moved right next to the pasture where I’d stopped to photograph the horses earlier. They were following a truck with a round hay bale and through my long lens they trotted through a cloud of their own steam. Lovely. Cold but lovely.

No, I never know what I’m going to find when I head out.

And that’s just the way I like it.

MIKE DREW ON THE ROAD

JANUARY 10, 2017

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

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