Mike Drew: With a little help from my friends

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A trio of swans was flying directly overhead.

They’d just lifted off from a group of maybe 50 or so of their siblings and cousins, running across the water and flapping their huge wings to get airborne. Rising into the air, they banked and headed off southwest, bleating out farewells to the birds they’d left behind — or maybe just telling each other to watch how they were flying — and heading toward the truck.

I was tight on them with the camera, letting the autofocus on the 600mm lens do all the hard work, until they were too close to frame. Taking my eye away from the viewfinder, I looked up as they passed by so closely that even over the wind I could hear the frrrt, frrrt, frrrt of their wingtips cutting through the air.

The day hadn’t started too promising. A low-hanging fog covered everything as I headed south of the city in the hour before dawn, in places so thick that even the low-beams scattered after 30 metres or so. Normally I kinda like foggy mornings but I was heading out looking for birds and fog, well, makes them pretty hard to see.

Birds mill around as the sun rises into the mist at Frank Lake east of High River. Mike Drew / Postmedia

I was rolling toward Frank Lake, east of High River, on the recommendation of my pal Mike. He’d been out there a few days before and seen hundreds of swans and even greater numbers of snow geese. He knew I’d been out looking for them myself but not having much luck so he gave me the tip.

Now, with dawn half an hour away and the fog still heavy, I was headed for one of the Ducks Unlimited access points at the south end of the lake. Turning down the dirt road, I looked toward the water. Couldn’t see it at all.

Birds mill around as the sun rises at Frank Lake east of High River. Mike Drew / Postmedia

But as I came down the low hill next to the parking area beside the lake I emerged from the mist. Now, at least, I could see the cattail-lined bay in front of me and as I turned around to park I was surprised — and thankful — to see the far shore of the lake. The fog was still there but as dawn approached, it was lifting.

Rolling down the window and setting my camera on the window mount, I could hear the birds out on the lake. Though they were still impossible to see in the dim light, I could hear the laughter of mallards, the distinctive peeping and chirping of the snow geese, the high-pitched whistling of the tundra swans and the low-pitched wha-honk of their close relatives, the trumpeter swans.

As the sun turned the horizon a soft pink against the blue, the wind picked up, a strengthening breeze from the south that turned the remaining fog to tatters and started waves to splash against the shore. The waterbird chorus melded with the wind noise as the sun broke the horizon like a big yellow ball.

Now I could see the birds. The ones on the water were still lost among the waves but bands of them were milling in the air above the lake, silhouettes against the rising sun. There were hundreds of them, black boomerangs against the orange sky directly beneath the sun and in the peach-coloured light off to the sides.

With the dawn, all the birds began to move. Groups of ducks — mallards mostly — flew overhead while the coots and teal swam out from the shelter of the cattails to feed in the bay beside me. I could still hear the geese and swans over the wind but now I also heard the pop-pop of shotguns fired by hunters along the shoreline.

The sun had risen higher now and so I decided to go to the opposite side of the lake to see what I could find. With grain fields all around, there had to be something.

And there was.

Snow geese land on a pond west of Champion. Mike Drew / Postmedia

A thousand or so snow geese were on a stubble field close to the lake. They looked like a left-over snowdrift against the sunlit stubble but they were a long ways off so I took a road beside the field to see if I could get closer.

Nope. The canny birds had picked a spot well away from any road. But I did find a small group of them sitting in a pasture. I took what I could get.

It soon became apparent that I wasn’t going to get anything much better so I decided to move on. Clear Lake, east of Stavely, wasn’t all that far away. I headed there.

Trumpeter swans at Clear Lake east of Stavely. Mike Drew / Postmedia

My friend Neil — I’m lucky to have so many friends giving me tips! — had messaged me that he’d been down that way a couple of days before and seen a whack of swans so I had high hopes as I headed southeast.

Yep, they were there. Hundreds of them, almost all congregated on one of the shallow ponds next to the main irrigation-fed lake. There were both tundras and trumpeters, along with Canada geese, white-fronted geese, mallards and pintails. And with the sun up and the fog gone, I could actually see them.

Tundra swans fly past snow geese at Frank Lake east of High River. Mike Drew / Postmedia

As could the predator birds around them. There were rough-legged hawks down from the north and a couple of redtail hawks that hadn’t headed south yet. They’d never bother the big birds, of course, but there was also a pair of eagles there. One of them stared down at me from the top of a power pole. They’d drop on an injured swan for sure.

A bald eagle locks eyes with the camera at Clear Lake east of Stavely. Mike Drew / Postmedia

All of these ones, though, were healthy. They were in family groups, parents and older siblings a nice bright white while the young of the year stood out with their grey feathers. They were preening and talking and sleeping and stretching their wings and completely ignoring me.

Every once in a while a group of them would take off, running into the wind until they got enough speed and then flapping their huge wings as they flew off south.

Like the trio that flew right over me. Such magnificent birds, they were so close that I could make out the little yellow teardrops on their faces even without the camera.

Tundra swans in flight at Clear Lake east of Stavely. Mike Drew / Postmedia

Turned out they were heading for another pond further south. There were hundreds more of them there, mostly far beyond the reach of my lens but a few were bouncing in the waves beside the shore.

Tundra swans relax at Clear Lake. Mike Drew / Postmedia

But I didn’t see any snow geese. There had been a bunch back at Frank Lake but there had to be more around. I’d completed my quest to find the swans but the snow geese were still outstanding.

And it was still just mid-morning. So I headed to Keho Lake.

It’s a big lake just south of Barons and I’d seen tons of birds there before so with hopes high, I circumnavigated the shoreline.

To almost no avail.

A few Canada geese, some swans, harriers and meadowlarks that bounced in the wind along the banks but no snow geese until, finally, I spotted a few riding the waves along the north shore. There weren’t many but they would have to do. I grabbed a few pictures and video clips as they flew around.

Snow geese waggle their wings as they come in for a landing on Keho Lake near Barons. Mike Drew / Postmedia

Turning back north, I stopped at Barons to grab a lunch of pepperoni sticks and apples and as I pulled out of town I decided to check a nearby slough. It had been mostly dry through the summer but since I was close anyway, why not have a look.

And there were the snow geese. Not many of them, maybe a few hundred, but they were right along the shoreline, close enough that I could see their orange beaks and black wingtips as they sat in the shallow water. Further out on the slough there were more of them, swans and ducks, too.

Snow geese on a pond near Barons. Mike Drew / Postmedia

But the wind was fierce and the birds hunkered down so I spent a half-hour there and then cut back toward Frank Lake for another look.

A chinook arch was forming as I drove along past harvested fields that had spillage sprouting green in the stubble and unharvested fields still standing and waiting for the combines idled by the cold and wet of the last month. I found one other small band of snow geese that were landing in a muddy field to take advantage of all that bounty.

Leftover green in a pea field near Brant. Mike Drew / Postmedia

If more of their kind show up, they’ll have plenty to eat.

Wheat still standing in a field, possible food for migrating ducks and geese, near Blackie. Mike Drew / Postmedia

Back at Frank Lake, the birds were moving around, swans flying out to feed, semi-silhouetted against the snowy mountains to the west while the snow geese were back in the same field — maybe hadn’t even left — that they’d been in at dawn.

I left them as the sun moved beyond the Chinook clouds and began to light the arch from underneath. The wind had died and the light had become creamy as I hit the south edge of the city and I stopped to photograph a horse with the sky behind.

Tundra swans at Clear Lake east of Stavely. Mike Drew / Postmedia

A skein of geese flew overhead as I sat in the grass beside the pasture. It had been a wonderful day, sunrise to sunset, looking for southern Alberta birds, ducks, geese and swans. Thanks to my friends, I knew where to find them. And thanks to this horse, I had one last picture for the day.

Time for home.