Canada: Eventide

September 2018

Out there, where land and sky are greeting. Where wind whips the grass into waves, and light dresses hills in gold.

It is wolf country. Can you hear them call?

For ninety years they’ve been gone, but the deer, I think, are still listening. The grasslands never forget their own.

White tailed deer GNP Sept 18

Things that belong to it: implausible ridges cloaked in sagebush.

GNP sundown2 Sept 18

Ghosts of villages that crumbled under Time.

Old barn Sask Sept 18

Trees that grow grackles like autumn leaves.

Grackles in the tree Sept 18

Shallow lakes the locals call ‘potholes’: scars of past glaciation, now tended by muskrats.

Muskrat Sept 18

And roads that redefine infinity.

Farm gate Sept 18

I’m on one of them. It’s been an eventful 48 hours in Saskatchewan, but now it’s time to turn north.

Canada: Skylights

20th September 2018

Land of Living Skies – Saskatchewan won its nickname for restless clouds and light. But there is life on that huge canvas. I’ve found nowhere on my global travels that rivals the prairies for sheer abundance and variety of raptors – eagles, yes, both bald and golden, but the prairie has another large hunter that readily turns heads.

Ferruginous hawk GNP 21 Sept 2018

This is a ferruginous hawk, an enormous relative of the British buzzard. For reasons lost to history, the Buteo genus is called ‘hawk’ in North America, which is very confusing to English wildlife watchers. But it is really a buzzard, complete with a 1.5m wingspan and eagle-style feathered legs.

Ferruginous hawks have had mixed fortunes since the prairie was settled and are still listed as a threatened species. Merlins, on the other hand, have increased, and are even found in some cities – but they look best in the prairie.

Raptor2 20 Sept 2018

As undoubtedly does the stunning prairie falcon, a cousin of the peregrine.

Prairie falcon 20 Sept 2018

How many other carnivorous birds have I seen in the Grasslands area over the years? I’ve stopped my fieldwork for a lunchtime picnic and seen golden eagles lazily soar by. Struggled with the identification riddles of Swainson’s hawks and red-tailed hawks. Been watched by snowy owls on icy March mornings. Noted loggerhead shrikes perched on the prairie’s rare bushes.

All these hunters – and coyotes, foxes, black-footed ferrets, rattlesnakes and bobcats – need prey. It is true that rodents do their best to avoid their natural enemies, but nonetheless, they support all the ecological tiers above them. If we want to save raptors, we need to learn to live with Richardson’s ground squirrels and their kin, too.

Richardson's ground squirrel 20 Sept 2018

Meanwhile, pronghorn watch the restless skies.

Pronghorn sky 20 Sept 2018

They are alive. Clouds and sun do not sleep.

Canada: Frenchman

This little river is the prairie to me. Winding ribbon of grey-green water – it is quiet now. Read the land and learn a different story: the mud is churned because bison thundered through.

Frenchman1

Like everything in the prairies, the Frenchman pretends to be subtle when it is not. This small vein is the remnant of a monstrous torrent, one of many prairie rivers fed and bloated by the dying Laurentide icesheet – the icecap that covered most of Canada. Today, the ice has gone and the river has shrunk, little channel in a giant valley carved by its riotous past.

But it remains a wild, surprising place, sweetened by the wind and half-burying its secrets. Never underestimate the drama of the Frenchman River. I spent eight extraordinary weeks here in 2012, running its first ever trail camera project. And to be sure, this is the land of powerful things.

Trail camera photo

Bison crossing river

Bison have a history too. While I was completing my fieldwork, the river uncovered the bones of what was probably a Bison antiquusa 10,000 year old predecessor of the modern plains bison. And of course, as everyone knows, the plains bison itself nearly vanished in our era, but Grasslands National Park has brought them back.

And now I’m back too, watching them breathe under that sprawling, fitful sky.

Bison 21 Sept 2018

I’m looking for old friends, remembering old turns in the road.

Coyote

Coyote GNP Sept 18

Plains garter

Garter snake GNP 21 Sept 2018

And listening to prairie dogs yip.

Prairie dog1

Grasslands National Park is the only place in Canada where these hyper-social ground squirrels still survive. They are a symbol of prairie holding itself together, of an ecosystem relatively intact. Everything here knows the dogs: some species hunt them, some live in their burrows, some simply benefit from their cropped-grass grazing regime.

I’ve been absent six years. It’s not much in the lifespan of a place like this.

Canada: Whispers in the Grass

20th September 2018

Weather: whatever it is doing, the prairie knows it. You just have to hope that the roads can withstand it.

Prairie road 20 Sept 18

South of Assiniboia, lonely grid roads flanked by black-eyed susans roll towards remote border huts on the US border. Vaguely I recall fighting the selfie-snapping crowds at tourist hotspots in Banff – this is the other Canada, the raw Canada: stark, blunt and unforgiving, with a gruff charm all its own.

Hoodoo 20 Sept 2018

It carves human beings who venture into it, whittling us with rain and wind. In turn, the native people of this land once carved petroglyphs into its bones.

Petroglyph

For a place so open, its secrets are subtle. History is a matter of tipi rings and extinct lakes, but also written within flesh and bone. Once upon a time, so the story goes, pronghorn were pursued by the lightning-fast American cheetah. Like the vast majority of North American mammals, the cheetah became extinct at the end of the last ice age, but its prey has survived, its incredible speed now redundant.

Pronghorn are not deer or antelope but distant relatives of giraffes.

Pronghorn 20 Sept 2018

Cheetahs were hardly alone in the Pleistocene prairie: lions, sabre-toothed cats, dire wolves and short-faced bears also roamed. Today, the most visible predators are a bewildering array of raptors.

Raptor 20 Sept 2018

And what would the grasslands be without the sweet song of the meadowlark?

Meadowlark 20 Sept 18

The skies are still uneasy. Mule deer roam amidst droplets.

Mule deer 20 Sept 2018

If you go the prairie, you adapt to fit in with its moods. The road to the park is too dangerous in these conditions. We watch the vast sky fade into night over Val Marie, and hope for sunshine with the sunrise.