I thought I would do some fishing, and headed down to Carburn Park after work. When I got to my fishing spot I found a bunch of Common Terns feeding on insects over the river. Despite the bad light it was a pretty cool shooting session because the I was able to sit right up close on the bank while they worked their way slowly down the river diving and skimming the surface for bugs. Once they were about twenty or thirty yards away they would fly right back up to where I was and start over again.
As I mentioned, the light was pretty crappy, and I hadn’t brought along my tripod, and the birds move pretty erratically, so getting a sharp image was not easy, but it was a lot of fun. Needless to say I didn’t do a whole lot of fishing.
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.
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.
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.
The weather was finally starting to warm up a little, so I headed down to Carburn park to try my hand at some spring fishing, and test out my new 500mm lens. The fishing was entirely uneventful, so I spent most of the time chasing birds around the shoreline.
Picked up my new lens yesterday, so as soon as I had a chance I headed down for a walk through the Weaselhead area in Calgary. There wasn’t a lot going on, but eventually I spotted a couple of Trumpeter Swans swimming around the western shore of Glenmore Reservoir.
I heard from a fellow photographer that there was a Great Horned Owl that had nested and in Fish Creek Park, and had recently had a couple chicks. So I went down to see if I could find them. It didn’t take very long to figure out where they were, as there was already a bunch of photographers down there watching them. It was pretty neat to see them, but with the nest facing east, and the sun setting directly behind it, shooting pictures was a bit of a waste of time. I think that Owl chicks might possible be one of the ugliest creatures on the planet.
I took a nice long walk through the park, and saw a lot of other birds. The highlight (apart form the owls) was a pair of American Kestrels, but they were way to fast to get a decent photo.
This was the third time I’ve been camping at Loon Lake. Just north of the US border and west of Fernie B.C., it’s one of the nicest lakes I’ve camped at. One of the things I really like about the lake, is that the area is a little warmer and drier and quite different than where I usually camp. The most noticeable thing is that there are turtles and crayfish in the water, as well as wild blueberries growing on the shoreline, and as the name suggests, a healthy population of Common Loons. On this trip the weather was nice and hot, and the morning fog that formed over the lake at sunrise was absolutely amazing to see.
I took a walk half-way around the lake at sunrise, hoping to get some shots of the loons, but the fog was so thick I couldn’t get a decent shot, and they had moved off to the other side of the lake by the time it began to clear up.
I did manage to get a couple of shots of turtles from the shore, but they don’t do them justice (they have a bright red and orange belly). They are pretty skittish on shore hard to get close to without a boat. Unfortunately I wasn’t ready to risk my camera in a small inflatable dingy.
2011 was a pretty terrible year for migrating birds in Calgary, I’m not sure if I just didn’t get out at the right time, or the weather just really messed up the whole migration, although I’m leaning towards the latter. I did head out east of the city a few times, but only found a few of the more common birds.