The change from Rockies to Plains is dramatic, in Canada just as in the United States. Here in Alberta and Saskatchawan the crops are just starting and the air is still cool. It has been raining; this is greatly welcomed after a mild winter and a dry spring which has left the ground brown and the ponds low. Downtown Calgary
Further west there is more open range and cattle ranches; all the herds are full of new calves, lying near their mothers in the grass. Further east there are fields with grains just starting to sprout. We passed dozens of ground squirrels doing sentinel duty not far from their burrows. According to our bird book the raven has yielded to the smaller crow but ducks and gulls can be seen everywhere.
Calgary is an astonishing city. Having heard so much about the Calgary Stampede, we'd been expecting a cow town. But now the city has grown to over 800,000 people. New developments are everywhere; somewhere we heard Calgary described as a perpetual boom town. Downtown looks like any major modern city, with high rises and corporate headquarters of oil and gas and communications companies.
We stayed three nights in Calgary, to catch up with laundry and shopping and printing, etc., but it rained all the time, so we did less sightseeing. We drove around, and fortunately found a great gaggle of geese and goslings surrounded by parks and pedestrians. On the other hand, we kept finding roads which unexpectedly dead ended, and a somewhat uncontrolled mix of industrial and commercial districts. It's really hard for a boom town to keep up with city planning!
Moving East across southern Alberta and into Saskatchewan we found farms and ranches and more towns than we'd seen during the past month. The World's Buffalo Pound Marsh tallest teepee is in Medicine Hat, and the world's tallest moose is in Moose Jaw, and both towns are preparing for their rodeos. With all the interest in recreational horseback riding and rodeos, coupled with a growing population, there are more horses in the fields now than fifty years ago, when they were essential for running the cattle ranches. It reminded us of all the dogs in Alaska and the Yukon, used for recreational dog sledding.
We stopped in Moose Jaw to get the truck serviced and some clothes dry cleaned. Everyone in town wanted to make sure we enjoyed the local tourist attractions, and we did get to some of them, including a lovely park near an old stone ranch with a beautiful marsh and lake. We saw some white tailed deer and encountered our first mosquitos of the season.
We spent an hour at the Saskatchewan Burrowing Owl Interpretive Center. The owls migrate from south Texas to the great plains to nest in the spring. But their habitat is shrinking. They are gone from Manitoba, nearly so from Alberta, and down from 700 to 70 in Saskatchewan. There are still thousands of burrowing owls who nest in the north central states of the U.S., but the summer range is shrinking. The center is hoping to raise and release chicks to stop the trend. They're not sure of the factors causing the shrinking of the owls' range, but predators and loss of habitat are two obvious factors.
The Center has about 15 owls in captivity. Judged unable to survive migration either because of injuries or because they were born too late to make a migratory flight their first year, these owls live in large open cages complete with nesting tubes and prairie grasses, protected by mesh fencing. They must be thriving here, because several females are currently sitting on clutches of three to seven eggs. The plan is for the hatchlings to be "fostered" by being placed in the territory of wild burrowing owls as soon as they leave their own burrows. Then they'll take wing for Texas and Mexico with World's Largest Moose their adopted families in September, slowly building up the numbers.
These small owls hunt anytime, but principally at dawn or dusk, catching mice and voles and whatever else offers (baby owls like grasshoppers). They mate for a season and sometimes longer. They don't dig burrows but rather capture them, mostly from ground squirrels. The male owl prepares a nest inside a burrow, lines it with manure to provide a covering odor, caches a hoard of mice, then calls to attract a female to his structure. During nesting, he'll guard the burrow entrance and keep the female supplied with food, and will complete his paternal duties by teaching the youngsters to hunt.
We missed some other attractions in Moose Jaw, which we'll save for our next visit. There are underground tunnels used for a while by Canadian bootleggers; Al Capone himself is supposed to have visited -- or hid out! There are several museums and art galleries. Quite an achievement for a town of less than 40,000!
After our months of travel in the wilder areas of the Northwest, we're beginning to wonder whether we'll be able to adjust to a higher level of urbanization. We found we were more attracted by the natural wonders than the man-made ones, at least today. On our way back from the park we looked up to see six or eight great white pelicans flying high above. While some of these birds remain year round in south Florida and California, many migrate in summer to the great plains, just like the owls. It's fascinating!
We stopped at the auto club again and picked up more maps, which we've started to mark with the locations of various ancestors and relatives we hope to visit (figuratively, in case of the deceased!)