DRY – The Sloughs Are Nearly Gone And Summer Is Yet To Come

  By MikeDrew


There were twisters of alkali blowing across Deadhorse Lake.

They were spinning columns of white that rose from the clouds of alkali blowing from the dried-out north end of the big, shallow lake. Waves of white dust rolled like fog along the shoreline until they reached the water where the ripples tugged at the bottoms of dust clouds and made them twist. Vortices swirled and rose into the air.

I’d been seeing things like this for most of day, clouds of alkali blowing off dry sloughs, dust from farm machinery and rural traffic being swept high into the air. Fields lay parched – but greening – sloughs and impoundments shrinking.

To the west, the mountains still hold onto their snow. But here to the east, it’s dry.

I’d started out the day cutting east toward the Wintering Hills more to look for birds than anything else. Everything is back from the south now, mating has happened and eggs are being incubated in the nests, so I was hoping spend a fine, late-spring morning checking out fencelines and wet spots for whatever feathered friend I could find.

I’d left early enough in the day that the raptors were still on dawn patrol, riding the thermals rising from the warming land to look for prey. Swainson’s and redtail hawks were everywhere and other birds were on the hunt, too.

Ravens, crows and magpies were walking around the pastures and the edges of fields grabbing whatever they could find while blackbirds hunted the damp slough margins. Kingbirds flitted around stands of willows snagging bugs out of the air.

But as I drove, I noticed that the fields I passed weren’t as green as I thought they’d be and water bodies were very low. Pastures where I’d expected to see meadowlarks and sparrows were still mostly brown and though there were a few birds around, they weren’t there in the numbers I expected.

It was a similar story with the sloughs.

Last fall I’d seen hundreds of snow geese and dozens of swans on a pond near Nightingale but the place where they’d been swimming was now just a mud flat. The shoreline trees were still leafing out and looked lovely but they were now a good twenty feet from the water. Eight months ago, their feet were wet.

There were birds, of course. I took a picture of a grackle having a morning stretch and on the opposite side of the road I found a pair blue-winged teal paddling through duckweed. But not much else.

The gophers, however, were having a wonderful morning.

The babies have emerged from the burrows and they seemed to be having a great time chasing each other around the pastures and wresting in the dry grass. A bit strange to see dust kicked up by gophers but they were fun to watch.

But there was something even more strange. A patch of pavement next to a pasture just west of Rockyford seemed to hold some kind of fascination for the babies. Coming over a low rise, I could see dozens of them sitting on the road, silhouetted against the glare of the low sun. And a lot of them seemed to be nibbling at it.

Attracted to some mineral, maybe? A child-like curiosity about what the road tasted like? Or maybe it was just warmer than the pasture and they were passing the time as they sat there soaking up the heat. No idea.

They scattered as I approached but as soon as I was by, they came right back out again. Weird.

I continued east along the Serviceberry Creek valley and found a Swainson’s hawk on her nest right beside the road while a jackrabbit lay close by trying to blend into a rough piece of pasture. Tree swallows swooped around catching bugs for their babies before returning to sit by their nesting boxes.

And I spotted a pair of pelicans headed for Severn Dam just a few kilometres away. I followed them.

And was surprised again at how low the water was.

The dam is fed by ground water from the nearby hills and is normally at its highest right around now. But like the pond back down the road, the dam was even lower than it had been last fall.

Cattails along the banks were growing on dry ground and the bay where I’d taken pictures of ducks last summer was completely dry. The high-water line on the rocks of the dam stood a good two metres above the present level of the water.

But there were still birds there.

The pelicans I’d seen had joined a group at the far end of the dam while teal and mallards paddled around closer by. A couple of ring-billed gulls were flying around as were swallows. There was a hatch of mayflies and damselflies coming off the water, adults emerging from their nymphal form, and the birds were gobbling them up.

Especially the grackles.

I always forget how amazing the colours are on these birds. At a glance, they just look like they’re uniformly black but when the light hits them just right, as it was doing now, they look spectacular.

Their heads are blue or purple, depending in the angle, their backs, a shimmering bronze. The folded wings are tinged with blue and magenta. All of it glitters with a metallic sheen. Even their eyes look metallic, like drops of silver. A dozen of them were hunting along the shoreline, grabbing emerging nymphs and even a few minnows, sparkling as they hopped along.

I stopped to watch them and the other birds, like the cormorants that were catching a few of the stocked trout – love their green eyes! – before moving on. The low water in the dam had been unexpected so I was wondering what the rest of the sloughs in the area were like.

For the most part, no surprise, they were dry.

There was a bit of water in some of them but even those were shrinking and surrounded by rings of white precipitate. I saw the first alkali twister on one the biggest ones just east of Severn and at another a little further on, I was able to walk out on it far enough to photograph heron tracks preserved in the dry muck. It was firm enough that I didn’t even sink.

There were a few birds around the margins – saw a hermit thrush – but almost none on the water. A few ducks were sitting on the shoreline of the big slough but I could see that away from the shore the water seemed, I dunno, thick, kinda soupy with alkali. Looked nasty.

And it was the same at all the other sloughs. Most were completely dry, some had a bit of water but not much life. I remembered shooting pictures at all of them in years past but now I just rolled on by.

Finally, though, I found one with what looked like plenty of water. And there were plenty of birds, too.

They were mostly avocets and willets, a few killdeers and small sandpipers, too, and they were hunting the same bugs as back at Severn Dam. Here though, they were much more concentrated.

Pulling the truck up to hang the camera out the window, a cloud of small damselflies rose from the roadside grass. There were hundreds and hundreds of them and the shorebirds were so intent on grabbing the emergers from the surface of the water they were ignoring me.

So, because the pond was right beside the road, I hopped out of the truck and walked down to the shore to have a look.

Okay, crawled might be a better word. The grass was full of damselflies so I laid down on my belly to take some pictures.

They were small and skittish and the breeze blowing the grass around didn’t help but I managed to find a few of them that sat still long enough. One was a bit of a cheat. It had been snagged by a waiting crab spider that had wrapped its legs around the damselfly as it hung on a stalk of grass. The life of an adult damselfly is short enough as it is, let alone being gobbled up by birds and spiders.

Speaking of, the birds were still ignoring me so I walked to the water’s edge to try for more pictures. And when I got there, the shoreline was crunchy.

Not from dried mud like the other sloughs, though, but from snail shells.

What I had at first taken to be a pebbly beach turned out consist not of rocks but of thousands of tiny snail shells. Naturally, I had to flop down and take pictures of them.

The biggest were about the size of my thumbnail but there were some among them no bigger than a pinhead. All of them were fascinating. The spirals and whorls of these calcium concretions were amazing to see through my lens and as I wiggled my finger to arrange them for better light I found that they were in a layer several inches deep.

And they were marooned here three or four metres from the water. Obviously they had floated here but how deep had this pond been for that many snails to thrive? Unlike the other ponds and sloughs I’d been by, the water here was clear enough that I could see wading bird tracks in the mud below the surface so it must have a fairly regular source of groundwater.

But even this slough was drying up. The crunchy snail-shell shoreline proved that.

I continued on down into the Rosebud River valley and passed a beaver pond on a tiny creek full of chocolate-coloured water. And there was another similar pond where the creek met the Rosebud.

I knew that there was yet another pond further up the road so I set up a camera to record a timelapse of clouds moving across the river valley and went to have a look.

It was dry.

In this case, it might be that someone took out the dam to avoid damage to the road but it was still a shock to see it empty. A paltry trickle of water was flowing slowly along in the lowest part but even if the beavers rebuilt the dam, it would take a very long time to fill.

Back down by the river, I gathered up my timelapse camera and rolled on south again. Just east of Rockyford, I found a pair of antelope, the first ones I’ve ever seen in that vicinity, and saw the pelicans flying again, this time away from Severn Dam.

From the heights of the Wintering Hills, I could see Deadhorse Lake. And what looked like a blizzard.

I stopped briefly to shoot the pinkish water in another drying pond and then headed toward the lake. Alkali was blowing off the dry lakebed in a blizzard of dust. Twisters were spinning and dancing until they petered out over the water.

I parked and watched until my eyes were burning from all the dust and and precipitate in the air and then pulled back onto the road as another gust sent a fresh wall of white toward what remained of the water.

Despite the generally cool weather, to this point spring has been very dry. And that followed a very dry winter. Which followed, nine months ago, a very dry fall.

And now summer, the driest season of all, is on the way.

There will be many more alkali twisters to come.

Dust rolling up behind the truck, I headed on back to town.