Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Photo album: fall at Cherry Lake

Upper Indian Head Creek Valley, above Cherry Lake

The warm, sunny days this fall have made up for the cool, wet spring, giving us some wonderful weather for walking the valley and prairie from our weekend community at Cherry Lake. The beavers have made six or seven lodges in the creek upstream of the lake, and you can see places on the valley walls where they've knocked aspen down in pick-up sticks piles. Late on Saturday afternoon we saw five bald eagles heading up the valley to their evening roost site, which they seem to use in late October as they migrate through the area.

As we walked to count eagles, a group of five ravens played on updrafts. Two moved in almost perfect tandem. I have trouble taking ravens seriously. The way these two moved, I swear they were not so much courting as teasing or putting on a mock ballet.

"One of those ravens is an eagle," Karen said, looking through her binoculars at the other three birds near the pair flying in tandem. I pointed the camera's big lens and took a shot, thinking it was a bald eagle, but when I got it onto the computer later I realized it was the much less common golden eagle. Only our second record in six years at Cherry Lake, it was a sub-adult, which you can see from the white areas limited to the base of the primary wing feathers and the tail.

The other identifying feature is the projection of the head compared to the tail. A bald eagle appears to be bigger in the head and shorter tailed.

As we approached the springs and pond at the head of the tributary where the eagles roost, we slowed down and kept quiet, but still flushed five eagles from their roost. All bald eagles, three were adults. The following shots show an adult that flew across the valley toward us and overhead into the fading sun.

The next day I took some shots of the valley hillsides and the marsh end of the lake.

looking up the valley from the end of the lake

the tawny grass in the foreground is Little Bluestem

The curled "prairie wool" of Blue Grama grass in fall

looking down on the lake and valley from the rim--you can see how the beavers have kept this part of the valley hillsides cropped short.

The people shown in the right middleground are digging up some of our last potatoes from a new patch in our upper alfalfa field.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Premier Redford makes good on her promise

16,000 acres of Alberta Crown grassland is safe. . . for now

The 16,000 acres of provincially-owned grassland that was put up for sale this fall in Alberta (see the "Potatogate" postings here and here) will not be sold. During the controversy that ensued, people opposed to the sale, in particular, the Alberta Wilderness Association, managed to secure a committment from Conservative Party leadership candidate, Alison Redford, to suspend the sale. Now that she is Premier of Alberta, Redford seems to be following through on her promises. Here is a news release quietly issued yesterday by Alberta's "Sustainable Resource Development" ministry.

It mentions "impact on water and on the ranching community," and says that concerns about "public consultation and water use and availability" were the reasons the RFP was cancelled. Not surprisingly, no mention of endangered species or important habitat.

A victory, but as we've seen with this piece of land, the pressure to plough it under does not go away. Once Alberta completes its land use planning process for the South Saskatchewan River Basin (the South Saskatchewan Land-Use Framework), the government may consider selling this parcel and others like it. And the legislative mechanism for arbitrary decisions to sell Crown land remains in place.

Here is a Winnipeg Free Press report of the cancellation, with some words from Nigel Douglas, spokesman for the AWA.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Giving thanks for the prairie blessings that remain

Upland Sandpiper--it was a good year for this species in Saskatchewan

I had an experience this summer that helped me see with fresh eyes the blessings that remain in the prairie world, urging me to be grateful for the wild creatures who continue to enliven our pastures, fields, and sloughs.

A friend I know from volunteering a couple of times at Regina's Marion Centre asked me if I would take her and a visiting member of their apostolate for a bird outing.

Doreen is a sweet soul, open-hearted and full of spirit, so I knew it would be fun to show her some birds. Her friend, Charlie, was from Maryland originally and wanted to see some of our landscape and birds before he left.

I took them for a slow drive east along my favourite road out of the city one evening. Just an average, mid-summer evening: warm light coming from behind us, and a typical mix of birds. What transformed the trip, though, was the way Doreen and Charlie responded to each bird sighting, whether it was a meadowlark in breast-swelling song or a gang of cowbirds on a fence line.

We got a few looks at the Bobolinks and Common Yellowthroats who breed in an Agriculture Canada research field, a pair of Western Kingbirds, a couple of Swainson's and Red-tailed hawks on power poles.

Western Kingbird--a common sight along prairie roads

"Oh my, how beautiful," Doreen would say as each bird showed up in her binoculars. Sometimes it was just a small sound of delight. Both she and Charlie received the birds that came our way with a fresh welcome and complete gratitude for the gift manifest in feathers, song, wings.

I found myself relaxing and happier than I am sometimes when I am alone and grumbling in lament for all that I know is missing from the landscape. An Upland Sandpiper whistled and I felt my heart lift. Looking up, we found it flying with rapid, stiff wingbeats before landing on a power pole.

Moments later, we watched a Solitary Sandpiper and a group of six American Avocets foraging in Wascana Creek. The avocets, fading from their bright breeding plumage, flew back and forth in front of us, up and down the channel, long legs trailing, backs humped, heads lowered. It was glorious seeing them in these slow, circling flights.

American Avocet, beginning to moult

As the evening passed I told Charlie and Doreen about the moult of the avocets, the sexual behaviour of the bobolinks, the natural history of cowbirds, and I spelled the word "slough" for them, unfamiliar as it is to people from the eastern half of the continent.

Later we all watched in awe as a Vesper Sparrow sang to the setting sun from its ditch-side dock plant.

Vesper Sparrow, head back in full song

"So many birds. I can't believe how many birds there are here," Doreen said as we watched cowbirds with some cattle.

I see all that is missing and they see all that is there. And instead of complaining, they were grateful, so grateful, part of them bowing inwardly to each creature, each field of cut hay, or barn, or row of fence.

I don't know if I have ever felt that deep receiving thankfulness, but it seemed in that moment like something I had lost and wanted dearly to feel again.

And so, thanks be for Upland Sandpipers, Avocets, Vesper Sparrows and the many birds we still have. Thanks be for the wet season we had, the waterfowl it spawned in the millions across the land, and thanks be for farmers and ranchers who have found it good to keep native grass or any kind of grass on the land they draw a living from.

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