I had an amazing evening photographing flying Terns out at Frank Lake. The waterfowl was out in full force with Grebes and Redheads playing around by the blind. There was a bunch of White-faced Ibis off in the distance, and I saw my first couple of Black Terns. But the star of the day was most definitely the Common Terns which spent the whole time hovering and diving into the marshy area east of the blind. I think I shot about 800 photos of the Terns alone (a couple hundred of which were complete blurs, or more likely nothing but sky where I had missed the bird completely). One thing I learned for sure is that shooting birds in flight is not an easy thing to do and I could use a whole lot more practice at it. But it sure was a lot of fun..!
I got a really good deal on a week long stay at a place by the Fairmont Hotsprings and headed out for some R&R. I spent the whole day driving out, through Kananaskis and Banff and Kootenay National Parks, stopping first at Gap lake to watch a variety of small songbirds. The weather was beautiful and I had great time exploring the shorelines at various points along the Bow and Kootenay rivers.
Once I got to Fairmont the weather turned rainy and overcast for the next few days, and I spent a lot of time relaxing around the hotel. That’s not to say I didn’t do much, I did a whole lot of driving all over the area. I explored the forestry roads in search of White Swan Lake. Photographed Colombia Lake at sunset. Drove a dirt track on the south side of the river valley halfway to Golden (and then continued on the rest of the way on the highway). Went hiking down to a old gold miners camp along a small creek. Walked around Canal flats where an old canal had been dug between Columbia Lake and the river which is in a different watershed.
I had really been hopeful that I would see some wildlife, but it was a bit of a letdown. The marshes and ponds were strangely devoid of waterfowl (despite it being the annual bird festival in the area). I did spot a black bear about 2 kilometres from the hotel after driving all the way to Golden and back without seeing anything. I had on my wide lens and after it crossed the road in front of my car I watched it from a stand up and scratch its back on a telephone pole while I was fumbling around with my camera, and of course it was gone by the time I got my long lens on.
I spent a lot of time driving up and down some sketchy forestry roads, but apart from a couple of deer and a huge flock of Coots in one of the mountain lakes it was entirely unproductive.
The highlight was an afternoon spent in the reed beds near Canal Flats, which was full of of Great Blue Herons. The light was pretty crappy so I was excited to go back the next day, but the Heron’s were mostly all gone.
As far as photography goes the way there and back again through Banff and Kananaskis was likely more productive than all the time I spent in BC, but I read an entire book about Coastal Wolves and spent more than a few hours in the jacuzzi tub. So I guess it was a successful trip.
Still waiting for spring….
I drove out to Kananaskis Country, taking the long way through Springbank, to exploring some of the backcountry roads to try and photograph waterfowl in the country ponds. It wasn’t very successful and the weather was beginning to turn rather ugly. By the time I got into Kananaskis Country I realised that spring was still a long way off in the mountains and headed back early, deciding not waste anymore time.
Winter seemed a big long this year and by April I was desperate to get out and do something. Despite it not being very warm, and a strong north wind blowing I thought I would give Frank Lake a try to see if the birds were migrating yet.
While the birds were starting to arrive (most notably the Northern Pintails) the lake was still partially ice covered. Most of the shoreline was free of ice, but it was completely flooded and I couldn’t actually get near the lake. At the trail to the viewing blind where I parked my car the water came pretty much right out to the roadway, the walkway was completely submerged, and the actual blind had water halfway up the railings.
I walked around the lake shore for a bit despite it being completely unproductive, but eventually the wind took it’s toll and I gave up and headed home.
Another evening out at Frank Lake…
I had my first experience with the Common Tern, and they may be one of my new favourite birds, I think I could spend hours watching them hover over the water searching for fish and diving down with a splash to catch them in their beaks.
While the Tern’s didn’t stay around very long there were ample other birds to watch and photograph, including the horrendously ugly baby Coots, and the tiny little Eared Grebe chicks riding around on their mothers backs. For the fist time that I’ve been to Frank Lake the light was better than just mediocre, and by the time the golden hour hit, it was just about the perfect way to spend a summers evening on the prairies.
Rule #1… Always have your camera ready…
I headed out to do some fishing at Sibbald meadows Pond, and shortly after turning off the highway I was thinking I should pull over and put my long lens on the camera when I spotted this big beautiful (if somewhat shaggy) moose standing knee deep in a marsh with a mouthful of grass staring straight at me… And my camera was still in the bag. It was easily the most iconic moose scene I’ve ever witnessed, and I totally missed it. I stopped in the middle of the road and tried to gear up as quick as I could and got off a couple shots before it headed off away from the road. But it doesn’t really do justice to the original scene.
I don’t think I caught any fish on this particular evening, but a moose sighting, as well as some bluebirds I had been meaning to photograph (there’s a section of the road to the pond lined with nesting boxes), made for a nice evening out..
There is an Osprey nesting platform just off to the side of Highway #22… or The Marquis De Lorne Trail… or Stoney Trail…. I think it’s now being called…
Anyway… it’s right near the overpass were the highway crosses over Macleod Trail on the south end of Calgary. I’ve been driving past the platform for the past few seasons, but never got around to stopping mostly because I wasn’t sure where to access it from. Turns out there is actually a small gravel road that runs right under the nest. After realizing this, and seeing the Osprey return to the nest this spring I decided I would have to find the time to visit it.
The really great thing about this nest is that it is right beside the overpass and you can climb up the embankment and end up only a couple metres below the level of the nest (instead of looking up at it from ground level). The nest is also located right beside a large pond or slough, so it is very active, and you can sit up on the hillside and watch them catch fish in the pond and then return to the nest to eat them.
The pictures below are just a few of the hundreds I shot on two different visits I made to the nest over the course of the summer. You can’t really tell, but on at least one occasion there was two or three young chicks in the nest, though they never really came far enough out of the nest to get a picture of.
I first read something about the endangered Sage Grouse in Grasslands NP a few years ago… and then I read about the Black Footed Ferrets which had become extinct in the wild, until recently when they were successfully reintroduced into Grasslands NP from captive populations. Then I read about the Golden Eagles that nest in areas of the park, and the Burrowing owls and Prairie Dogs (not to be confused with common ground squirrels) that make their home there. While all of these caught my interest, the truth is I had never been to Saskatchewan and I live too close to have never visited our neighboring province. At about 650 kilometres from Calgary it is a long drive to the park, and I couldn’t really justify the distance until I got a super-telephoto lens, as most of the wildlife in the park are birds or small mammals, and I figured it would pretty much be a waste of time with anything shorter than a 300 or 400mm lens.
Not only is it a long drive, but it’s an extremely uneventful one. I only stopped once on the drive there, and that was 600 km in and I only stopped to get gas and dinner (knowing it was the last place to fill up the tank before the park). Toward the end of the drive I turned east onto a rather rundown and potholed but still somewhat paved farm road with ponds and sloughs along the ditches that where filled with ducks and waterfowl of all different kinds. I’ve never before seen such abundance, everywhere I looked there were birds in the ponds, and the skies, and the fields, on every tree branch and fence post, it was pretty unbelievable.
The motto of Saskatchewan is “The land of living skies” I always thought that was in reference to the clouds and big blue wide open skies. But I was wrong, it’s the birds, and although my experience of the province in very limited, I can say its a very suitable motto.
The village at the edge of the park is tiny (there isn’t even a gas station), with little more than a visitor centre (which was closed) and a ‘hotel’ that was nothing more than a house with rooms to rent, and after a quick glance decided tenting in the park was a better option.
The park itself consists of little more than a gravel road running though the open grasslands with a treeless campground on a hilltop in the middle. There were free roaming bison wandering throughout, and the birds were so active that I was stopping every 10 metres to take pictures. I saw my first burrowing owls, the large prairie dog towns, a lone pronghorn, and young bison butting heads and chasing each other around, as well as more small bird than I could count or identify. kingbirds, and mourning doves, and meadowlarks, sparrows of all different design. I almost hit a harrier hawk with my car but it flew off before I could get a decent photo.
Eventually I made it to the campground just as darkness was setting in, and found it completely empty, to say it was a bit eerie is an understatement, but thankfully there was a box of firewood so at least I was able to have a fire.
I was really hoping to try taking some pictures of the night sky and saw the faint glow of northern lights dancing around overhead, but the stars never came out, thick fog and a light dusting of dry snow began to blanketed the campground so I headed off to bed.
I was woken in the middle of the night by the ear piercing yips and howls of coyotes coming from every direction there must have been at least a dozen of them and I was completely surrounded. They were so close that the volumn of there voices hurt my ears and I could hear their footsteps in the tall grass as they circled around my tent. Coyotes don’t frighten me much but it did occur to me that a large pack could become a serious problem. Then I had an idea, and hit the panic button on my car remote, and literally laughed to myself as I heard them scatter, their yips and noises moving quickly away over the side of the hill, before they joined together in a choirs of howls now at a distance.
I woke at sunrise and packed up camp quickly, not sure what my plan was I figured I shouldn’t leave my tent behind just in case. I drove back and forth all morning taking pictures hoping to spot a Sage Grouse or Ferret or Fox, but wasn’t that lucky.
I did spot what I later learned was an American Bittern feeding on insects in a roadside ditch and spent a half hour or so watching the funny looking bird.
Grasslands NP consists of two different areas and I was hoping to visit the second one as well. So when I found a road heading off in that direction I thought I would see where it led. The gravel road quickly turned to a dirt track, and then left the park behind, after a while I started to get nervous, but there was no where to turn around so I kept going, and going, and going.
Two hours later… yes… two extremely nerve-wrecking hours later I finally popped out onto a real gravel road with no idea were I was. Grabbing my gps out of the trunk I turned it on to find out I was literally in the middle of nowhere (If you look at the gps track at the bottom of the page you can see where I was when I turned it on… and how far I now was from the entrance in the southwest corner of the park and access to the campground). I briefly debated continuing on to the eastern park but it was still a long way and with no campground and no Idea what is actually there I was too tired and frustrated to keep exploring, and headed home instead.
Grasslands National Park is an amazing place. Although in all reality I was only in the park for about 12 or 13 hours much of it spent sleeping, I left with a feeling of awe at the place and can’t wait to go back. Next time I will definitely have to plan things a bit better, and probably go later in the year and not alone. Because frankly having an entire National Park to yourself may sound pretty cool (I didn’t see one single other person the whole time in the park), but in all reality it’s kind of creepy.
[map style=”width: auto; height:400px; margin:20px 0px 20px 0px; border: 1px solid black;” maptype=”SATELLITE” gpx=”http://photoboom.ca/wp/wp-content/uploads/Grasslands NP 04-13.gpx”]
I spent the afternoon fishing and chasing birds around at Sibbald Meadows pond…. (that’s really about all there is to say about that).
I started out in the prairies, watching swallows (which are almost impossible to photography) working on their nest at one of the roadside birdhouses. After that I headed up through Jumpingpound spotting Buffleheads and Goldeneyes in one of the ponds along the way. Next it was a White-Crowned Sparrow (my first), when I stopped to use the washroom at Mount Lorette Ponds.
When I left town the weather was pretty crappy, windy and cloudy, and not very nice, but the further I got into mountains the nicer it got. By the time I made it to the Shark Mountain turn-off on Spray-Lakes trail it was a beautiful spring evening. While there was still snow higher-up, it was great to see the rivers and streams had already thawed and were flowing high with spring melt.
On the return trip I spotted a pair of Grizzlies (mother and cub), walking down highway 40 from what must have been at least a kilometre or two in the distance. Cutting the engine I coasted down the hill doing my best not to spook them, but a winters worth of gravel on the roadway grinding under my tires was enough to scare them off the road before I could get very close. Thankfully I had my long lens and 1.4X on and was able to get some great shots of them crossing the road and climbing over the guard rail.
After leaving the road they climbed down the embankment, and I spent a half hour or so before it got too dark watching them (from a really bad angle) while they fed on new spring growth.
There was an Elk on the hillside about 20 metres behind them, and neither the bear nor the Elk even blinked at the others presence, they just kept on grazing. I found this very interesting, because everyone knows bears are blood thirsty carnivorous that kill everything they see…
Headed out to McKinnon Flats southeast of Calgary to do some fishing on the Bow river. On the way there I made a quick stop off at the lake (which doesn’t appear to have a name so I call it McKinnon Lake) that is a little bit down the road and across Highway 22 from the turnoff to the flats.
Although I didn’t find anything especially exciting, the usual suspects (yellow-headed, and red-winged blackbirds) were out in full force and I was able to get a few worthwhile shots.
There is a pond on the north side of the Trans-Canada Highway just before the Jumping-pound exit, that for whatever reason draws a group of Trumpeter Swans every spring. While most of the time I’m speeding by on the highway and just get a glimpse of them, today I thought I should take the time to try and get some photos.
To put it bluntly, it was so cold and windy that I could hardly hold the camera still, the light was terrible, the Swans were filthy, and they swam off to the far side of the pond as soon as I pulled up.
Not my best photo stop, but at least I tried, and well there’s always next year.
Frank Lake is a Ducks Unlimited conservation site southeast of Calgary that is an important breeding site for many migratory birds (http://www.ducks.ca/your-province/alberta/wetlands-area/frank-lake/). How I went this long without hearing about this place completely baffles me, so when I was told about it I headed down for a look the first chance I got.
One of the birds on my list to find and photograph this year was the American Avocet. I spotted one the previous spring and thought they were pretty cool looking so I was hoping to get some photos when their migration brought them up north again.
All I can say about Frank Lake is that it’s pretty awesome. On my first visit there I found not only the one Avocet I was looking for, but was greeted by an entire flock of a few dozen of them wading around in a pool right near where I parked my car. There is also a great viewing blind that sits out over the water where you can watch all the ducks and geese out on the lake.
While there I spotted a large unfamiliar bird landing in the reeds off in the distance, and though it was too far away to identify at the time I shot some (really bad) photos, and after getting home was able identify it as a Black Crowned Night Heron. A bird I had never even heard of let alone seen before, so that was pretty exciting.
When I fist arrived at the lake I ran into a lady who asked me about Short-eared owls (at least I think that’s what she was asking, her English was not great, and I was rather confused). But then later when the sun was pretty much down and I was packing up I saw what was obviously some kind of owl flying around way off in the distance. I shot a couple of photos but was pretty much out of light so I put my gear away and headed out. Then as I was driving the gravel road back away from the lake it flew right up to within 10 metres of my passenger window and followed along beside me for a couple of hundred metres. She was right, it was a Short Eared Owl.
Overall my first experience at Frank Lake was pretty awesome, and I’m sure I’ll be heading back again in the near future.
After hibernating through the first few weeks of the year cabin fever finally got the better of me, so I got up early and headed out towards Spray Lakes in Kananaskis Country to see what I could find.
All I can say is I didn’t find much at all. It was pretty much a whiteout as I headed up the hill from Canmore and along the side of the lake. As far a wildlife goes the one and only highlight was a squirrel sitting on its pile of pine cone debris. Once I hit highway 40 the snow had stopped, and the sky clearing slightly, but it was still painfully cold and windy so the few times I did stop it was short lived and not very productive.
I took a sunrise drive out to the mountains, heading first up the Bow Valley Parkway, and then up to the Icefields Parkway (#93) all the way to Saskatchewan River Crossing with an hour detour down the David Thompson Highway (#11).
The morning started out fantastic, if a little chilly, with great morning light on Castle Mountain, and a nice shiny layer of frost on the grass.
Unfortunately it didn’t last long and by the time I got to the Icefields Parkway it had turned cloudy and overcast and by Bow Lake the roads were shear ice, and there was a few feet of snow in the ditches. Once I headed down from the summit, the roadsides cleared up and I was able to do a bit of walking around. The mountains are not very scenic this time of year with a lot of dead grass and old dirty snow, but sometimes you just have to make due with what you’ve got (in this case it meant a lot of bracketing and HDR in post, to bring out what little colour and detail there was).
Eventually I headed east on the David Thompson Highway, with the idea of going to have a look at Abraham Lake, but I had no idea how far it was to lake and it was so windy out on the Kootenay Plains that I gave up and headed back before I made it there.
This was the first time I had ever driven east on the D.T.H. and I have to say the view of the long straight road leading directly into the distant mountain was pretty impressive.
I spent a fair bit of time wandering around in the mud by the river (below the bridge) at Saskatchewan River Crossing. There is some pretty nice scenery there, but again, everything looks pretty bleak this time of year. I will definitely have to find some time to spend there when the grass is green and the wild-flowers are blooming.
The drive back was a bit touchy with a about a foot of fresh unploughed snow (slush) that had come down at the summit since I had passed by earlier, but at least the ice that was there in the morning had melted.
As far as wildlife goes the day was a complete bust. On the way back I spotted an absolutely massive Elk on the Bow Valley Parkway, but it was gone into the trees by the time I stopped the car, that was the only living creature I saw all day. I did follow some really fresh wolf tracks for a little ways, until I broke through the ice and ended up ankle deep in mud (I think the wolf was following a weasel or something of that sort, whatever it was I didn’t recognize the tracks).
It was a warm sunny Wednesday afternoon, and I was off work early so I figured I’d head out to Kananaskis for one last chance to shoot some pictures before the snow started to pile up. Heading down Highway #40 it was all sunshine and blue skies, but the wind was so strong and cold you couldn’t stand outside for more than a minute before being blinded by watering eyes (which always makes shooting photos a bit difficult). After a short walk around Mount Lorette Ponds, and some roadside shots of Barrier Lake I made my way up Spray Lakes Trail.
A bit of a winter storm blew through and I got snowed on for a while, before it cleared up again just in time for sunset. There was a fair amount of old dirty snow in the ditches along Spray Lakes Trail, so between that, the clouds, and the falling snow I didn’t shoot a whole lot of photos. On the way back I stopped for what turned out to be some pretty decent shots of Spillway Lake, the sky had totally cleared up by now, and the sun was pretty much down, but still shining off the mountain range across the lake, which made for some nice low-key high contrast images.
Elk Island National Park is located 35 KM east of Edmonton on the Yellowhead Highway (Hwy. #16). It is one of Canada’s smaller national parks at only 194 square kilometres, and the only completely enclosed national park.
By the time I got to the park I was pretty sick of driving, so it was really nice to get to the slow and relaxing pace of the Elk Island Parkway.
Like I said, its a pretty small park, only about 20 km from north to south, and about half that from east to west, with the parkway running north/south through the middle of it with only a couple of offshoots from the main road. The first of these offshoots is the Bison Loop Road, a dirt track that travels in a loop through a mostly open field where the bison like to hang out. I spotted a coyote in the under-brush shortly after turning on to the loop, but it was too far of for decent photos. Towards the end of the loop I spotted my first bison of the trip, a mother and calf (but I’ll leave that for the next post).
Further up the parkway I found another coyote on the side of the road, this time I was able to get a couple of photos before it disappeared over the hill. Shortly after that I spotted a Ruffed Grouse in the grass along the roadside (my first ever).
After driving down most of the roads in the park I was in serious need of some time out of the car (and it was the worst possible time of day for wildlife) so I thought I’d go for a quick hike, and ended up at the Beaver Pond Trail.
It was a nice short (3.5km) easy walk through Aspen forests (one of Canada’s most endangered habitats), but not overly exciting, and to my dismay, there was no beaver ponds, and therefore no beavers or waterfowl to photograph, which was the main reason I chose this particular trail (It wasn’t until I got back to the car that I stopped to read the information marker which explained how the ponds had dried up a couple of decades ago, (I guess I should have taken the time to read it at the start)).
One thing that I noticed about the park was that there was bee or wasp hives hanging from trees all over the place (on more than one occasion I stopped the car thinking I’d spotted it an owl or other large bird up in the trees only to realize it was a hive). Despite all the hives, I never actually noticed a problem with bees or wasps, but it could have been because it was so late in the year. There did however seem to be an incredible amount and variety of damselflies (dragonflies) fluttering about the trail, so I stopped to shoot a few shots.
After the hike I was in need of a nap, so I headed in to Fort Saskatchewan (and was awed and disgusted by all the refineries there) to find a hotel and a rest. I made another trip to the park for sunset, and then again for sunrise the next morning before heading home.
I saw a whole lot of bison, as well as three coyotes, a couple of deer, only a few elk from a distance (which was surprising considering they estimate the elk population at over 1,000). Lots of ducks and geese, a couple of Trumpeter Swans from a long way off, and two moose, (one while I was outside the park driving along the fence-line, it was trying to get out of the park, the other from inside the park, it was on the outside of the fence trying to find a way in). One of the definite highlights though was a little black and white skunk running along the roadside (I was about to get a photo but one of the parks trucks came flying over the hill and almost ran over it).
I was actually really impressed with the park, and the amount of wildlife I saw (the bison alone were worth the drive). But the scenery was pretty none-existent which could have been largely to do with the time of year (everything was overgrown and turning brown), it was however a nice change not to have to switch lenses every five minutes, (I think I put on my wide lens once the whole time I was in the park).
I’d really love to go back at a different time of year when the animals are more active, and the migrating birds are coming through, but I would definitely plan to spend more time, although the park is small there’s enough to see and do to keep me busy for at least a few more days.
So, the clock on my dresser says its 5:30 in the morning, and I’m staring at the ceiling wondering why I’m wide awake on a Thursday morning after only sleeping like 4 hours. And then I start thinking about a Sausage and Egg Mcmuffin from McDonalds, and next thing I know I’m showered and loading gear into the car. I don’t have to be at work for like 6 hours so I figure I’ll take the long way there……
When I say long way there, I mean the three hundred and some kilometre loop through Canmore up Spray Lakes Trail to Hwy. #40 over the Highwood Pass to Longview and Hwy. #22.
Eating my breakfast while cruising down Hwy. #1, the clouds rolling over the mountains were phenomenal (as they frequently are at sunrise), but like always I can’t find a decent place to stop for a photo on the highway. After getting stuck in Canmore (long story) for awhile I finally make it up to spray lakes, and everything is completely fogged in, so there’s really no photo opportunities until I’m almost all the way back to Highway 40.
I did eventually spot a moose on the side of the road, which livened things up a little, but it was a ugly young male with little pathetic stunted looking velvet antlers. Which was a little bit disappointing.
After that things started to clear up, and I had a incredible run-in with the most beautiful healthy looking female moose I’ve ever seen. What was really great was how little she actually cared that I was there. It always amazes me how you can tell when an animal is uncomfortable, and you can really tell when it’s just going about its business, and completely apathetic to your presence. By the end of it I was literally driving circles around her to get into position for a shot, (and trying to get a rise out of her, (which I never managed to do)).
Other than the moose, the photography wasn’t really working, at least until I got back down out of the mountains and into the prairies (I love the depth created by the clouds and shadows in the last photo), but by then I was late for work and in a rush.
Needless to say it turned into a really, really, long day at work, but was well worth it in the end.
I was going through some photos from last year noticed this view of Haig glacier, (I had no idea what glacier it was when I took the photo). So I thought I’d post this just to show a little perspective of the our backpacking trip (obviously the path is not very accurate).
**click on the image a couple of times to get to the full view.
(I have no Idea why this image is showing up on top of the screen!!)