Mother Nature flipped a switch a week ago and now we are free of snow and the temperatures are t-shirt appropriate. The moose probably aren’t excited about the warmer weather but I’m sure they are enjoying snacking on the new greenery. Looking at the photographs of this young bull moose afterwards, it struck me that it has been about nine months since I have had snow-free backgrounds of moose.
Regarding the moose, expect that they will start retreating for the cooler forest just after dawn pretty soon. I think it is finally safe to say we are now coming out of the mild, but very long, winter here.
It has been just about ten months since my last encounter with a Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa) in one special area I frequently visit in Bragg Creek. Last year, there was a two month stretch where I would regularly see one or more of four owls in the forest and fields there. The long absence could be for any number of reasons but most likely it was me not seeing them or them not wanting to be seen. I know from talking with people in Bragg Creek that owls remain year round but I think some rotate around different spots throughout the year and some migrate away for at least a few months.
Last night I went for a drive with my daughter to see what animals were out and about. When I first spied this owl it was perched on a sapling standing in the middle of one of the meadows. It was a couple of hundred metres away so we watched for a minute and then carried on. About a half an hour later we returned and found the owl in a tree along the fenceline. It was watching over the grassland and soon dove successfully on a field mouse. It carried that back to a fencepost, had its snack and then went for another one. Given the place it was, the way it hunted and its markings I think it was one of the four from last year. She looked hungry so I imagine there are owlets back at her nest. Over a fifteen minute period of watching her, three rodents fell victim to her aerial strikes.
It was special to be there with my daughter for this encounter. However she fell asleep as it was close to her bedtime so I will show her the pictures and we will have to return – maybe tonight. Last year I had almost daily encounters with the Great Grays in this area. I can only hope for a repeat this spring.
The past weekend I was able to devote much of my time photographing along the grassy marshes that line the edges of Frank Lake near High River. This lake is a major stopover in Alberta for migrating birds and I was there to check which birds might be there in early spring. One of the open ponds was popular with a few different ducks which drew my attention. I worked my way over near the water edge but then soon forgot about the ducks.
There were a few American Avocets (Recurvirostra americana) fishing in the shallow water. These shorebirds stole the show for me and I spent that evening and came back again on Sunday to enjoy watching and photographing them.
Curious, beautiful and agile the Avocet is a great bird to photograph. I had not been around them before so it was a lot of fun learning some of their habits. I’m excited to get back down there as they start their courtships.
Mark Garbutt, a fellow photographer who I met on the weekend, said their dance is elaborate and wonderful to watch. I hope to be able to see some of these performances in the next couple of weeks.
This coyote didn’t seem impressed with the storm that tore across the Foothills on the weekend. The front of the blizzard was pretty wet so when the temperature started to drop, everything built up a layer of ice. I suppose this creature didn’t feel like trotting around with the extra weight, and the blinding snow, so it laid down and burrowed in. It was resolute to stay put and only watched me as I set up my camera and lens for this picture. Most coyotes will perk their ears so I wondered if this one may have been injured or sick. However, I went by a couple of hours later and the coyote had moved on. The storm was still raging so maybe dinner had called her to action. When I’d seen her earlier, I thought she might not leave until the weather improved considerably.
This coyote found Jack and I as we wound upwards along the road up towards Lake Minnewanka. It trotted along in the trees and then cut down into the ditch and then took a few steps towards up the hill again before it stopped. It stared our way for a few seconds before backtracking a little bit and then crossing the road and going over the edge. Beautiful animals who are among nature’s most adaptable. I see them alone or in small packs in the mountains, on the prairie and throughout the Foothills and enjoy photographing them immensely.
A few echos of the blizzard from last week blew through since then. More opportunities to photograph winter storms and with the image above I wanted to show the chaotic aspect often seen when the wind blows and the snow flies. Click on the image to open a page with a higher resolution version.
A heavy blizzard blew through southern Alberta on Sunday. The snow fell throughout the day with the wind keeping pace alongside. The trees on the edge of Kananaskis Country caught pieces of the storm and twirled the snow around the branches in the evergreens.
Following a beautiful sunrise down on the Vermilion Lakes, my friend and I drove up towards Lake Minnewanka to see if there was any wildlife that wanted to be seen.
We spied this bull elk along the edge of the canal where the lake drains out grazing on the patches of snow-free grass.
He spent a little time in the water and the climbed out and moved towards us along the tree line. I loved the way the reflection cast by the elk and the trees onto the water shimmered and blurred.
Just after walking behind the stand of trees that hung over the water, the elk walked into the trees to graze. Returning to the car, we found the elk had moved to the edge of the trees by the road and that allowed us to watch him stripping bark of fallen tree branches.
As the moon waxed towards full this weekend, I spent an evening at Elbow Falls to photograph the landscape at night. The clear air allowed stars to shine even with a relatively short exposure and small aperture (10 seconds and f/8.0, respectively). Always a bit lonely sitting out there for a couple of hours but the stars are really good company.
The 6400 ISO and the bright moonlight allowed for some of the great details at this magical place in Kananaskis Country to show in the image. I am impressed with the improvements in the dSLR’s low-light capabilities over the last couple of years. A couple of years ago I spent another evening up at these falls. At that time I was using a Canon 1D Mark III and when compared with the image above and others where I used a 5D Mark III, the detail, structure of the noise and the color are all vastly improved. The technology is less and less of an obstacle to realizing the images I want to make. I like that a lot.
Our family went for a drive along the Grand Valley Road northwest of Cochrane a few days ago in search of raptors of any description. This road is nice drive that is rarely busy and can often yield sightings of owls, hawks or eagles. In a hilly farmland area we noticed a number of ravens circling around a stand of trees in a field a couple of hundred metres off the road. When we pulled over to see what the focus of their attention was two coyotes bolted out from under a large cedar and sprinted across the open into the thicker forest on the far side of the field. Looking back to the spot where they started running we could see a carcass that had been mostly picked clean of what, judging by one of the horns that was sticking up, appeared to be a bison. As it was on farm land it seems likely there were bison being raised here but there were no other farm animals within sight to confirm that theory. With coyotes, ravens, magpies and probably a number of other predators drawn to this unfortunate beast, its herd was likely as far away from this spot as the fences would allow. So, we were watching the ravens which were squawking and pestering the smaller birds picking at the scraps when Bobbi noticed a Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) approaching from down the valley.
We already had the long lenses out so we were able to photograph the bird as it flew overhead towards the other birds. Two ravens also saw the eagle inbound and flew up to harass this new attendee. The three looped around the trees for a minute before the eagle landed in one of the high branches and the black birds returned to ground.
During this chase, the overcast skies took on a more threatening tone and soon a soft snowfall turned into a blizzard. I thought the Golden eagle would wait out the height of the storm from the perch so I kept looking around to see if the coyotes, or anything else, came back.
Out of the sheets of snow a Bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) swooped in and took up a spot on a tree near to the Golden. This had turned out to be a great encounter and when a couple more Bald eagles flew in and around over the next half an hour, it continued to get better and better. The snow did finally ease up and there were opportunities for nice flight images.
The lighter skies appeared to spur one of the Bald eagles to say goodbye to a raven it had been sharing a tree with across the field and glide over to the bison skeleton.
This eagle brought a good amount of conviction to its scavenging intent and it chased off all of the passerine that had been crowding on the ground.
When we moved on, this eagle was alone on the ground having successfully landed and taken ownership of what remained.
The Golden eagle had disappeared and two Bald eagles were perched where they could keep an eye on the bones. The collection of black birds were scattered in singles and small groups around the scene though none strayed close to the eagle holding dominion on the ground. The last wildlife we saw as we drove away were the coyotes trotting along the hill towards the farm-house keeping their distance while still keeping an eye on the bison.
I’ve spent a lot of time this winter driving the township and range roads which divide the prairie up into a grid work of crisscrossing dirt roads. The primary goal has been to photograph Snowy owls during their winter stay here but I’m always happy to see bald eagles when I happen across them. These were two separate encounters. Above, the eagle was flying low over the fields west of Calgary and I parked at a driveway in time to photograph the bird flying past. In the photograph below, the eagle was perched in this tall tree near Gleichen east of Calgary for ten minutes while I watched before it launched and headed out over the fields.
The second sunrise at Vermilion Lake this weekend produced some wonderful images this weekend. There was a break between clouds and mountain peaks farther east so the clouds above Mount Rundle and the lake were painted with this amazing light. One of the best mornings that I have had in the Banff National Park.
The hot springs that seep into the water along the chain of lakes allow for a few pools without ice to remain open through the winter. These pools pull many photographers to their shores and this morning was no exception. It’s always interesting how quiet these moments become even with five other photographers nearby. The better the light gets, the quieter it usually becomes. It was silent at the peak of this morning’s sunrise.
Dawn at the second Vermilion Lake was beautiful with some lovely colour in the sky around Mount Rundle early in the sunrise. As the sun climbed, I moved into the contrasts and this one worked well in black and white.
Lake Louise is a favourite place for my wife and I to visit in the Banff National Park. This weekend, with my parents taking care of the kids for a night, we went up and stayed on the lake’s eastern shore at the Chateau. The view across the ice up to the Victoria Glacier and the surrounding peaks was hidden by nightfall by the time we arrived so I was anxious for the morning to come. As it turned out, I may have slept right through sunrise, if Bobbi hadn’t looked outside just after 7 and woken me up. The black of night had given way to the dark shades of blue ahead of the dawn. I looked outside and then raced out of the door a few minutes later.
Winter at Lake Louise is magical. The Fairmont had an ice carving competition earlier this year and the sculptures fanned out between the hotel and the lake. At night, they are lit up as is the patriotic castle that is in the middle of the skating rink cleared out on the lake ice.
An ice castle is made every winter by the Chateau’s chefs from large blocks of ice. Nearby is a hockey rink and the trailhead for ski trails along the northern shoreline. Through the evening and again during the day, as it turned out, these drew many visitors who walked, skated and skied around. However at the time I went down to the lake, in the early but quickly brightening morning, there were only a few other people around.
Two people were playing around with hockey sticks and a puck while a couple of other photographers were roaming across the ice. And there was one gentleman out skating laps around the castle – I was glad he wore a red coat.
Once the sunlight hit the peaks, the dark sky disappeared and the cold, clear dawn of a beautiful morning took hold. It was wonderful to be out on the lake and I had a lot of fun working with the details in the castle and the spectacular landscape surrounding it.
When the sun was rising out of the forest east of the lake, the warm light on the ice blocks provided another opportunity to play a bit longer before I headed in for breakfast with my dear, and patient, wife.
The sky to the east was beautiful this morning. I had a chance to photograph from a good elevation which let me see the horizon towards the east and the downtown cityscape in the other direction. I loved the explosion of color in the clouds preceding the sunrise and those added nice reflections in some of the glass facades of Calgary’s prominent buildings.
The common redpolls (Carduelis flammea) are, as the name implies, common across Canada’s lower latitudes in the winter. However, they are new to my backyard. We have had scores of Black-capped chickadees since we put out a winter bird feeder several years ago but not redpolls. This year, there is a flock of about ten that spend much of the day in the trees behind our house flitting back and forth to the feeder. They are joined now and then by a larger mob of about thirty more redpolls. All of them seem to play nice with the incumbent chickadees so they have been a great, and colourful, addition to the forest that edges my backyard.
The morning I spent with them this weekend was cold so all of the birds were eating a lot and flying around. My fingers didn’t like the -20˚C but it was a lot of fun standing in the middle of activity.
I set up early so the light was decidedly bluish. When it came up, the sun went in and out of the clouds so I had a lot of different moods to work with. It was a very fun morning at home.