30 March May, 2012, and on my second last day of a prairie photo tour.
I usually wake up before the dawn, and this day is no exception. It is a cold morning. I rise from the warmth of the sleeping bag, pull on chilled clothing and scramble out of the tent. I remove the camera and tripod from the car and crunch my way to the gravel road towards the scenic loop in Dinosaur Provincial Park. Looking over the sagebrush and into the badlands, the eastern sky begins to burn red between a tumult of clouds.
After my early walk, I drive up to the top of the valley to watch the sunrise and to warm up with hot coffee (prepared the evening before and placed in a thermos) and breakfast. I am on the rim of the canyon — right at the edge where the prairie sweeps in before it collapses into the coulee. From this point there is a grand view over Dinosaur Provincial Park (see the panorama) with the Red Deer River Valley on the left, and Little Sandhill Creek on the right.
The southern view over the prairie is clear, the clouds breaking in the blue sky, while…
…in the north the light is still rosy-golden over the hazy valley.
Breakfast complete, I drive back to camp, pack my camera gear in the backpack and take the trail south following Little Sandhill Creek. This is my favorite trail in the park, beginning at the southern campground and running along the floor of the valley, wandering beneath the rising cliffs on the west side of the stream. The sky is partially cloudy, and while the sun’s out, I see a distant butterfly, bright and orange, basking in the warmth. I slowly move towards it, taking occasional pictures as I move forward. At this point in the morning, I never know what I’ll meet, so I have been walking with my Canon T2i with a 70 – 300mm zoom lens. As I get close, I am careful not to let my shadow pass over it, and I manage to get close enough for a good record image.
Later, this is ID’d as a Sagebrush Checkerspot, a Nymphalid found in badland areas where sagebrush is common. The larva feed on Rabbit-brush (Chrysothamnus viscidiflorus) and desert-aster (Machaeranthera spp.).
Moving on, I come across the tattered remains of a dead crow. The corpse is almost dry and beyond the putrid fly-ridden state, so I decide to check it out:
“Poking with a stick” has limited success as a bug-finding technique: the beetles that were feeding on the carrion prefer to be out of the light, and scuttle away when exposed. I make a mental note to take chopsticks or tweezers with me next time. I manage to get two record shots of the well-riveted (i.e lots of tubercles) carrion beetles (Thanatophilus lapponicus) before they scurry for cover, and a glossy beetle larva, as yet unidentified.
Because my gear is all down and prepped, I decide to make this the hub for further exploration, so I begin to wander through the area.
During my explorations, I find a well camouflaged spider basking in the sun…
and a tattered butterfly being annoyingly awkward among the grass stems.
I pack up my gear and move further south along the trail, looking out for a likely spot to set up again and explore. Just 15 minutes later I come across an eroding outcrop, with rubble from falling cap-stones scattered over the ground. I find a niche, remove my backpack and place it inside, then, armed with camera and macro lens, I begin to explore the area.
Scrambling over and between rocks, I eventually make my way to a small gully leading up the west side of the outcrop. I photograph another basking butterfly and move on, alert for more bugs. I lift a stone here and there without results, until a rustle in the grass calls my attention. A large rattler is bolting for a gap under a rock. I snap off a shot before it disappears…
Hoping for a better opportunity to photograph the rattler, I set my tripod nearby and prepare the camera for video. Then I wait, standing as still as possible to avoid transmitting tell-tale vibrations through the ground. Twenty minutes after the first sighting, the snake begins to re-emerge. I start the camera at the first signs of rustling grass, but it appears to sense me, and it slowly moves back under the rock. Re-positioning the camera further back, and adding the zoom lens, I place it to have a better view of the location, I then move quietly away. I have no remote release for video, but my hope is that it will eventually settle down and perhaps come out to bask again. I eat lunch, and then carefully glide back to the tripod and camera. The snake is back in the sun, but it is still mostly hidden in the grass. I manage to capture some video, but at no point does the snake fully reveal itself. Although I have been moving quietly and slowly, the rattler soon drifts back to its shelter. Perhaps it has had enough for the day. I decide to leave it in peace, returning to the camera bag to pack the equipment. Nearby, something swaying on a blade of grass captures my attention, and kneeling I take a closer look. It turns out to be a petal-festooned emerald looper caterpillar, so I take some photographs and, because the movement is interesting, I also attempt some macro video. Then I make my way slowly back to camp…
On the way back I manage to capture a wandering field cricket, and an awkward spider, both of which I photograph at the campsite. (More on those later.) After an unmemorable one-pot meal, I head to the showers and, thoroughly refreshed, return to camp to prepare for the next day and then settle down for the night.
I had two days of this tour left. The next day would be the last day in Dinosaur, followed by a day in Dry Island Provincial Park. Then I returned to Edmonton in time to do a recording of the Singing Strings orchestra, where my daughter Arwen (the newly christened Splendour Awaits editor!) was to perform a solo. While the above day is far from typical, I greatly enjoy these prairie visits, and I plan to do another trip this spring.