For seven of the past eight years, I have made an annual spring trek to Leader, SK to watch and support my two talented nephews participate in the Sand Hills Music Festival. This festival provides students in the area with the opportunity to perform for an adjudicator as well as for friends and family. Kudos to the students and their teachers, as well as to the festival organizers for another excellent, well-organized event.
This year, my good friend and fellow wanderer, Claudia, accompanied me. We set off on Sunday afternoon, with the skies ashen gray and the roads slushy from yet another late April snowfall. We decided to head east from her place on Highway 12, then down the famed crane-viewing Highway 36. Just outside of Stettler, we heard our first meadowlark and after turning south on 36, we were treated to large flocks of stately sandhill cranes. Although they were too far away for good photos, it was a treat to watch them dance and jostle.
The next treat was totally unexpected—a short-eared owl sitting on a fencepost. I snapped a couple pictures before it flew off. As we enthused about our good fortune, we passed another one. Another screeching stop and more pictures. Much to our surprise and delight, the owls kept appearing. By the time we turned east on Highway 570, we had spotted 21 owls. Another six on that highway brought the total to 27!
The owl sightings were complemented by other spring delights as we made our way east. In addition to the usual and expected species, we were treated to meadowlark serenades as well as sightings of rough-legged and ferruginous hawks, long-billed curlews, sharp-tailed grouse, willets, American avocets and horned larks. We saw great horned owlets in a snag, geese hunkered down on their straw bale nests, American kestrels by the score, and even got to watch some snow geese (which are remarkably tetchy with each other) poke around in shoreline muck. By the time we got home on Thursday afternoon, we had ticked 53 species off our checklist.
Between attending festival sessions (where my nephews wowed both the adjudicator and the audience with their musical talent 😊), we joined our friend and fellow photographer, Cathy Cocks, for some prairie rambles on and near her amazing ranch east of Empress. Although it was cold and the wind howled, prairie crocuses—closed tight against the buffeting winds—dotted the hillsides. Dusty red three-flowered avens were just starting to poke their heads above the grass, assuring us that, despite the frigid temperatures, the earth was awakening. Alas, it was too cold for the (rattle, bull, hog-nosed, garter) snakes to be active, so a return trip in warmer weather is anticipated.
Southwestern Saskatchewan is an amazing place to explore. I highly recommend booking a few nights at Mammy’s Place, a quaint and rustic little getaway in the ghost town of Estuary. Mammy’s is close to many natural amenities (including the Great Sandhills) and makes for a delightful base from which to explore the area’s magnificent landscapes.