Mike Drew: Birds in the snow

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Sharptail grouse look pretty funny when they’re running on snow.

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It’s not so much that their feathery, snowshoe-like feet kick up puffs of snow as they scoot along — although that makes me smile, too — it’s more that their oval bodies look like tumbling balls kicked across a snowy playground. They kind of bounce and bobble as they run along, their feet mostly lost in the snow while their heads stay gimbal-steady with that football body wobbling in between.

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It’s pretty much impossible to show that in a still photo but if you’ve ever seen old footage from the silent movie era or one of those old, zany, sped-up Benny Hill skits, you’ll get the idea. When sharptails run across the snow, it almost seems like they’re doing it to a soundtrack of Yakety Sax.

It’s kinda the same with grey partridge. Or Hungarian Partridge; I really don’t know the preferred nomenclature. They’re funny to watch when they’re running, too, but they are way more likely to burst quickly into flight.

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There was quite a bit more new snow down south toward the Porcupine Hills. It had fallen as predicted on Monday night but I was still surprised by just how much fresh whiteness there was in the Mosquito Creek country west of Cayley and Nanton. Not that I minded. In addition to the moisture the snow would bring to the parched land, it would make wildlife much easier to see.

And that included partridge.

A male grey partridge clucks west of Cayley, Ab., on Tuesday, February 13, 2024.
A male grey partridge clucks west of Cayley, Ab., on Tuesday, February 13, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Grey — or Hungarian — partridge were introduced here over a century ago but, like pheasants and wild turkeys, they’ve adapted perfectly to our part of the world. So well, in fact, that I see them pretty much every time I’m on the road.

But I find them really hard to photograph. Spotting them pecking up road gravel is pretty easy but having them hang around long enough to get the truck stopped and the camera aimed before they explode into flight is another thing altogether. And though they are handsome birds with their bold orange faces and striped bodies, they blend in remarkably well with their favourite habitats along the edges of fields or in grassy ditches. Pretty easy to drive by and never even know they were there.

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Fresh snow, though, tends to change things a bit.

A male grey partridge lets out a squawk west of Cayley, Ab., on Tuesday, February 13, 2024.
A male grey partridge lets out a squawk west of Cayley, Ab., on Tuesday, February 13, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Those bold faces and striped bodies really don’t do much to camouflage them against all that white. And when they spot you spotting them out in a snowy, open field, they tend to crouch down and hope you lose track of where they are. Which, surprisingly, works pretty well unless you’re paying attention.

And that’s pretty much how it played out when I saw the first batch of them west of Cayley. They were on the road, then they flew out into a field where they ran for a bit before hunkering down. And then, of course, they jumped, squawking and flapping into the air. I managed a couple pictures but nothing too exciting.

A group of grey partridge run through the snow west of Cayley, Ab., on Wednesday, February 14, 2024.
A group of grey partridge run through the snow west of Cayley, Ab., on Wednesday, February 14, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Thinking they were gone, I started to pull away. But they surprised me by swinging around and landing in a patch of caraganas just up the road. So I slowly drove up beside it, stopped by a gap in the brush and waited.

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I could hear them chattering and see the occasional patch of brown and grey moving between the branches and then, after a few minutes, one of them walked through the gap. And then another. And then two more. Very cool. Through my long lens I could see their lovely ivory beaks and the red makeup around their eyes.

And I could also see they were in pairs. Although there were about 20 of them in the flock, they seemed to be in multiples of two. Nesting time isn’t that far away so maybe they had already chosen their mates? Yeah, could be.

The eagles I saw were mostly solitary, though.

A bald eagle checks out the scene from its perch in a farmyard tree west of Cayley, Ab., on Tuesday, February 13, 2024.
A bald eagle checks out the scene from its perch in a farmyard tree west of Cayley, Ab., on Tuesday, February 13, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Just down the road from the partridge, I found a cooperative one perched in a farmyard tree. It was a mature bald eagle with that white head and tail and those piercing silver-gold eyes, and it ignored me as I sat in the truck with the camera aimed upward at it. The wind blew bits of loose snow around it as it surveyed the countryside and looked magnificent.

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And there were more eagles as I rolled on southward. A trio of them — one mature, two dark-feathered younger ones — were huddled around something far off in a field and a golden eagle not much further on from them. The first ones were too far off for photos but the golden, well, I just messed up on the exposure.

A rough-legged hawk gets ready to fly west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, February 13, 2024.
A rough-legged hawk gets ready to fly west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, February 13, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The rough-legged hawk, though, I was ready for that. It was perched in a poplar by Pine Creek Reservoir and actually sat still long enough for a couple pictures. Haven’t seen many of those guys this winter.

And then I saw a second one a little further on. This one was perched by a group of cattle. Near to them was a flock of Canada geese feeding in a field and there were two bald eagles, one on each side of nearby Willow Creek. The geese took off as one of the eagles flew in low hoping, I guess, to pick off a straggler as the geese took flight.

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A young bald eagle near a flock of geese feeding in a field west of Claresholm, Ab., on Tuesday, February 13, 2024.
A young bald eagle near a flock of geese feeding in a field west of Claresholm, Ab., on Tuesday, February 13, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

And as they took flight and I followed with my camera as they passed over the edge of the field, I saw a third eagle sitting on one of the posts while next door, a fourth watched over the proceedings from atop a centre-pivot irrigation system.

It had really been a day for the birds so far. First the partridge, then the eagles — that was what, at least eight by now — two rough-legs plus dozens of ravens and magpies and hundreds of barnyard sparrows I’d barely bothered to aim a lens at.

Ravens circle something yummy in the snow west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, February 13, 2024.
Ravens circle something yummy in the snow west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, February 13, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

And yet to come were the sharpies.

I’d already seen one perched on top of a willow but with all the eagles, hawks and geese, I’d just grabbed a picture of it and rolled on. And I wasn’t thinking much about sharpies as I did. I knew it was calving time down the road at Granum Hutterite Colony and I was pretty sure I would find more eagles around the pens.

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A sharp-tail grouse sits on a willow branch west of Claresholm, Ab., on Tuesday, February 13, 2024.
A sharp-tail grouse sits on a willow branch west of Claresholm, Ab., on Tuesday, February 13, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

And I was nearly there when I saw the sharpies.

There was a bunch of them around a buffaloberry thicket and they began to trot off as I rolled toward them. Unlike their transplanted partridge cousins, these guys will more often just run or flatten out and try to blend in until rather than fly. And that’s what these sharpies were doing.

Snow is no problem for sharptail grouse. Unlike most other birds, sharpies have extra-wide toes and stiff feathers on their feet that give them much better traction and weight distribution on snow. They can run across drifts that might otherwise bog down a predator chasing them.

So that’s what they decided to do when I stopped beside them. And through my lens, they looked pretty funny doing it, Benny Hill-ing their way across the snowy prairie.

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A flock of sharptail grouse in the fresh snow west of Claresholm, Ab., on Tuesday, February 13, 2024.
A flock of sharptail grouse in the fresh snow west of Claresholm, Ab., on Tuesday, February 13, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

There were no eagles at the colony calving pens. Pigeons, ravens, magpies and sparrows, yes, but no eagles. Cowboy Justin, riding his palomino among the mommas and calves — they birth around a thousand, he said — told me there are plenty of eagles around. But not today.

I watched him work for a bit, knocked off a few pictures of the mothers and new babies in the snow — they are tough little things — and then continued on my way.

A momma and her new calf walk through the fresh snow at Granum Hutterite Colony west of Granum, Ab., on Tuesday, February 13, 2024.
A momma and her new calf walk through the fresh snow at Granum Hutterite Colony west of Granum, Ab., on Tuesday, February 13, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia
Cattle and a rough-legged hawk west of Claresholm, Ab., on Tuesday, February 13, 2024.
Cattle and a rough-legged hawk west of Claresholm, Ab., on Tuesday, February 13, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia
Cowboy Justin rides the calving pens to check out the new mommas and calves at Granum Hutterite Colony west of Granum, Ab., on Tuesday, February 13, 2024.
Cowboy Justin rides the calving pens to check out the new mommas and calves at Granum Hutterite Colony west of Granum, Ab., on Tuesday, February 13, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia
Pigeons perch on the fence around new mommas and calves at Granum Hutterite Colony west of Granum, Ab., on Tuesday, February 13, 2024.
Pigeons perch on the fence around new mommas and calves at Granum Hutterite Colony west of Granum, Ab., on Tuesday, February 13, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I looked for gophers — I know they’re up again — by Granum and Claresholm but all I found were sleepy mule deer in somebody’s yard and one very elusive jackrabbit. Too much snow for them, I guess. Or maybe too late in the day.

Very relaxed mule deer in Claresholm, Ab., on Tuesday, February 13, 2024.
Very relaxed mule deer in Claresholm, Ab., on Tuesday, February 13, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

It was heading toward evening now but the wind that had been puffing all day had died down to nearly nothing. Patches of late-day sunlight were sneaking through gaps in the clouds and spreading across the snowy Porcupine Hills. When I stopped to take pictures of a coyote trotting across a field, I could hear ravens cawing as they flew past and a dog barking from a farmyard close by. There was yet another eagle by a pasture west of Parkland, way off on a fencepost but unmistakably silhouetted against the snowy background. And two more flocks of partridge, these ones entirely uncooperative.

A coyote pauses in its hunt west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, February 13, 2024.
A coyote pauses in its hunt west of Stavely, Ab., on Tuesday, February 13, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Finally, just west of Cayley again, I stopped to watch the sun drop behind a cloud bank, its golden light contrasting with the blue evening shadows all around me. From somewhere close by, another dog barked. And mixed with that, the distant honking of a flock of geese.

Yeah, it really had been a day for the birds.

And I loved it.

One last blast of light as the day ends near Cayley, Ab., on Tuesday, February 13, 2024.
One last blast of light as the day ends near Cayley, Ab., on Tuesday, February 13, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

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