December 03rd, 2016

ID Tips for Those Winter Predator Hawks
(Jeff Mc Partlin, an experienced local falconer and raptor “guy”,  kindly offered some tips to quickly identify those predator hawks lurking about our feeders)
I might offer a couple of tips as to how one might quickly identify the small raptors that frequent Great Falls and surrounding areas during the winter months. First of all, MOST kestrels migrate out of our area during and shortly after the Swainsons Hawks leave in September. The kestrels start to return earlier than the Swainsons Hawks. They generally start to show up in the latter part of March, whereas the Swainsons usually begin to arrive back around April 20th. The handful of kestrels that I see now, frequenting the power lines between where I live and town, and that remain throughout the winter are USUALLY adult males. Therefore, by process of elimination, one can generally assume that the raptorial visitor to the back yard feeder is PROBABLY not a kestrel. However, if you notice that the little raptor is resting on a wire or tree branch, and not infrequently twitching its tail up and down, it could be a kestrel as Merlins and Sharp-shinned Hawks DO NOT make up and down ‘jerking’ motions with their tails when standing at rest.

Two other species probably represent the bulk of the predatory attacks that are witnessed in the local back yards as well as in down town areas. These are the Richardson’s Merlin and the Sharp-Shinned Hawk. MOST of the Coopers Hawks also vacate the area during the winter, with some few exceptions. Therefore the hawk observed attacking the small birds or feeding off of one during the winter months are MORE THAN LIKELY a Merlin or a Sharp-shinned Hawk. The fact that either or both species can show up on the same day at the same location is probably well known to many of the club members. When the song birds show up in numbers, nature is ringing the dinner bell for these two small hawk/falcon species.

O.K., here are a couple of quick tips. The Sharp-shinned Hawk will ALWAYS have yellow, orange or red eyes…depending on age. Sex does not have anything to do with the eye color. The Merlin will ALWAYS have dark brown, nearly black looking eyes. The wings of the Sharp-shinned Hawk are rounded whereas those of the Merlin are long and pointed. A very good clue is that the Sharp-shinned Hawk ALWAYS has dark bands on the tail, and not white ones. The Merlin has nice, clearly identifiable white bands on the tail. Immature Merlins of both sexes have brownish colored backs and streaked chests. The adult female Merlin also is brownish colored on her back. The adult male Merlin has a beautiful, light blue colored back . This is where some confusion may occur. Both adult male and female Sharp-shinned Hawks have a bluish-gray back whereas the immature Sharp-shinned Hawks of both sexes have a brownish colored back as do the immature Merlins of both sexes and the adult female Merlins.

To really help pin down what your binoculars or spotting scopes are showing you I would suggest looking at the following: 1.) The color of the eyes. 2.) The color of the bands on the tail (all dark bands are Sharp-shinned Hawks as well as their large cousins, the Coopers and Goshawks) . The Merlins are readily distinguishable from the similar sized Sharp-shinned Hawk by the white bands on the tail. Finally, if the observation is of any duration, you will see the long, pointed wings of the Merlin falcon as opposed to the short, rounded wings of the Sharp-shinned (accipiter) Hawk. I hope these few tips might be of some assistance.

Berners Kelly – An Early Great Falls Conservationist

Berners B. Kelly (1860-1920) – Early Great Falls Conservationist
Berners was born December 8, 1860 in England and traveled to South Africa and Australia before arriving in Great Falls in 1887.  He married Ellenor Devlin and joined his brother Ted’s coal mining and building supplies company – ‘Tod and Kelly’.  Charlie Russell and Berners were friends and members of the local Elks lodge.  His illustrated letters to the Kelly brothers contain his humor and appreciation for friendship.  My husband’s cousin Harold Lockhart recently gave one (dated February 22, 1920)[1] to the C M Russell Museum.  The subtitle to Berners’s obituary (April 17-18, 1920)[2] in the Great Falls Tribune read “President of Local Park Board and Pioneer Resident of City Succumbs; Always an Ardent Lover of Birds, Trees and Flowers”.
Berners B. Kelly first came to my attention about seven years ago via a small booklet he authored entitled “Bird Notes”[3] which I found in Upper Missouri Breaks Audubon Christmas Bird Count box.  The booklet contains descriptions of the habits of various bird species which can yet be seen in Great Falls.  Topics addressed are winter bird residents, bird nests, migration, songbirds and predators.  His style was descriptive and informative.  Of the Western Meadowlark, “In the dewy coolness of an April morning from fence post, boulder, or bare treetop one hears again and again the eight notes of the lark’s repertoire thrilling the air with a marvelous freshness … When the sun is at its height he will again utter his tanks, or his prayer, whichever it may be, and, if one may be fanciful in one’s ideas, having said grace will fall to at the table spread for him…”  (Bird Notes, 13)
In the same box was a newspaper article he wrote entitled “The Coming of the Birds and What They Mean to the Farmer and the Gardener”[4].  He extolled the birds’ financial benefits to all of us as they consume myriads of harmful insects.  “If there were no hawks and owls our fields and prairies would swarm with gophers and mice,…If there were no robins the cutworms and kindred pests would make gardening well nigh a hopeless task…The orioles delights in potato bugs as a change in his diet of lighter insects,…And what shall I say of our debt to the eaters of flies and other winged pests?…The king-bird, the phoebe, the other three members of the fly-catcher family which spend the summers with us, and the swallow and the martin, and the night-hawk?…And were it not for our trees and shrubbery, we should not have many of the birds that prey solely on insect life, which is worth remembering.”  From the biological section of the department of agriculture (of the USA), Berners listed figures of financial loss caused in our country by various insects eating commercial crops.  Bottom line:  “welcome and protect the birds, except for the “English (House) Sparrow which is an unmitigated and pestiferous nuisance without one redeeming characteristic…”
Besides encouraging people to appreciate and protect birds, he conducted Great Falls’ first and second Christmas Bird Counts by himself in 1911 and 1918.  1900 was the first Christmas Bird Count held in the United States.  It was a reaction to the late nineteenth century Christmas day activity called “side hunt”:  shooting as m any birds as possible.  Concerned about declining bird populations, ornithologist Frank Chapman proposed a new holiday tradition of counting as many species and individual birds as possible and sending the information to a central location.  Berners’ accounts are recorded in Bird-Lore Magazine, the official Christmas Bird Count publication at the time (14:42, 1912 and 21:46, 1919)[5].  His first count on December 25, 1911:  “12 PM to 2 PM.  Fair; snow in air; wind northwest, light; two degrees above zero.”  He saw six species:  27 Common Goldeneyes, 1 Swainsons Hawk, 3 Downy Woodpeckers, 4 magpies, 150 Ruby-crowned Kinglets and 5 Northern Shrikes.  His second count on December 25, 1918:  “1 to 3 PM.  Clear and bright sun; skiff of snow; no wind; temp 32 F.  Bufflehead Duck, 52; Downy Woodpecker, 2; Sparrow Hawk (now American Kestrel), 1; Hawk (unidentified), 1; magpie, 3; Siskin, 30; Tree Sparrow, 12; Northern Shrike, 2; Chickadee, 3;  Total 8 species, 108 individuals”.
Lee M. Ford also did a count on Christmas day 1918 on his ranch 18 miles west of Great Falls.  From his account in the above Bird-Lore Magazine[6]:  “2 to 5 PM.  Clear, light snow on ground; mild west wind; temp 33F.  Four miles of river bottom.  Pin-tail Grouse, 8; Hairy Woodpecker, 3; Downy Woodpecker, 1; flicker, 3; Horned Lark, 7; Magpie, 27; Pine Siskin, 33; Lapland Longspur, 5; Redpoll (estimate) 150; Tree Sparrow, 29; Northern Shrike, 2; Bohemian Waxwing, 49; Chickadee, 23.  Total:  13 species, 340 individuals.  The Pine Siskins, Redpolls, Tree Sparrows, and Chickadees were intermingled in a sunflower field, and I am satisfied there were a great many more of each variety than I was able to count.  The Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs were also found together.  The Waxwings were feeding on the berries of wild rose bushes.”
(Thirty-six years later, the third Great Falls Christmas Bird Count was held in 1954 followed by counts in 1955-1957, 1959-1960.  The next count occurred in 1981.  Upper Missouri Breaks Audubon chapter has held the count annually since then.)
As a long-time city park board member and later president, he was a leader in planning Highland cemetery.  That cemetery is a fine birding area today.  Berners picked a wonderful final resting place for himself.  Thank-you, Berners B. Kelly, for your energetic efforts on behalf of birds, parks and all citizens of Great Falls.
Nora Flaherty Gray, February 22, 2016

[1] Brian W. Dippie,The 100 Best Illustrated Letters of Charles M. Russell (Fort Worth:  Amon Carter Museum), 2008, 154-157 “Frind Berners”  February 22, 1920

[2] “Berners B. Kelly Passes Away After Illness of Two Years,”  Great Falls Tribune, April 17, 1920,8.
“Kelly Funeral to be Monday”, Great Falls Tribune, April 18, 1920

[3] Berners B. Kelly, Bird Notes, 13 (28-page booklet:  1897?)  He mentions being in Great Falls for ten (10) years (p4).  He arrived in the city in 1887 according to his obituary.

[4] Berners B. Kelly, “The Coming of the Birds and What They Mean to the Farmer and the Gardener.”  (date and newspaper unknown)

[5] Bird-Lore Magazine, 14:42, 1912; 21:46, 1919 (Bird Lore Magazine was the immediate predecessor of Audubon Magazine.  It was first published in 1899 by Frank Chapman as the “Official Organ of the Audubon Societies” and “an illustrated bi-monthly magazine devoted to the study and protection f birds.”  The National Association of Audubon Societies purchased Bird-Lore from Chapman in 1935.  After the National Association of Audubon Societies became the National Audubon Society in 1940, Bird-Lore became Audubon Magazine in 1941.  The magazines name was changed to Audubon in 1966.

[6] Bird-Lore magazine, 21:46, 1919

Not Just One Field Trip

On November 12 UMBA  took to the field.  And what a great bunch of mini-field trips it was.  We started the morning at Giant Springs hoping to find the continuing Pacific Loon and the recent arrival of a male, breeding plumage Black Scoter.  We quickly found both birds and were able to watch them for some time.  The Pacific Loon was hanging out with several Common Loons.  It made comparing the two nice and easy.  A number of Common Goldeneye, Coot and a group of female Hooded Mergansers were in the area as well.  We then headed over to West Bank Park, but got side tracked at the caboose to see if the raft Of birds there were “just” Coots.  Well, they were, but after 30 minutes of interesting observations we had seen over 16 species including some interaction between Bald Eagle and Coot (poor harassed Coot), Bald Eagle and Redtail Hawk, Redtail and Sharpie, Sharpie and Magpie, a bunch of Redhead had one nice Ring-necked Duck with them.  On to West Bank Park.  Canada Geese were arriving at a steady pace.  There could have been 1000 there by mid-morning.  There was a flicker calling loudly from the island.  We wondered what might be at Benton Lake so we took a swing through.  The wind was starting to pick up by then.  We saw white caps on the big lake and at first thought it looked empty. HA!  Nothing could have further from the truth.  Coot numbers had to be over a thousand.  Maybe that many Gadwall and Wigeon, there were SOOOOO many.  Some Northern Shovelers, a very few Mallards, a number of Canada Geese and a nice group of 60 Snow Geese.  At first they almost looked like the white caps.  It was too early to quit so we took the river road between Ulm and Cascade.  We were paced by a small bird, grey, black and white “stop!”  And sure enough we had a Northern Shrike.  Nice looks as it made its way along the fence line next to the road in the direction we were going.  We saw several Roughlegs, Redtail Hawk, Northern Harriers and a wonderful look at a Prairie Falcon flying and perching.  Think about joining us on one of our field trip – you never know what we might find.

Lake Frances Field Trip

Four of us headed out on the morning of the 15th not knowing just what we’d see, but there has always been something special. No exception today. A smudge of a rainbow over ‘the front’ greeted us as we got near the Valier exit. High winds were whipping the lake to a froth until nearly 11 am. No problem for Dan, Velda, Beth and special guest Sage. We were able to get out to the island and proceeded to walk around the circumference. We were able to spot: Coot by the thousand, American Wigeon, Black-bellied Plover (2), Mallard by the hundred, Northern Pintail, Western Grebe, a Clarks Grebe, Eared and Horned Grebe, Pied-billed Grebe, Buffleheads, Common Raven, Black-billed Magpie , Redhead, Lesser Scaup, Rock Pigeon, Ring-bill Gull, Canada Geese, an immature Bald Eagle, one Greater Yellowlegs, a Red-tail hawk, Starlings, Northern Flicker, Eurasian Collared Dove and of course Common Loons. Around near the lighthouse we added Ring-necked Pheasant, House Sparrow, Horned Lark, Green-winged Teal, 4 White-winged Scoter (a male with female or young), and a hundred more Common Loons!! Continuing a loop to go past Priest Butte Lake we added more: Ruddy Duck, Canvasback. At Freezout Lake we saw an empty lake but managed to add a few more birds to the day: American White Pelican, Vesper Sparrow (saw the white outer tail feathers) and a nice long look at an American Pipit. There had to have been more than 130 loons on the water we were able to scope and there was a lot of water that was too far, into the sun, glare…just how many were there? Great trip, great birds, great car buddies.

Native Plants for Birds

I am exicted to see the new initiative from Audubon – it has its own website and it’s all about planting native plants for birds whether it is a pot, a plot or a whole lot.  As it gets developed you will be able to get suggestions for plants for your area.  UMBA already has a few materials developed to give some ideas about native plants that are good for birds and our part of the state.  We will work on getting those added to the Audubon database.  Here is a short video to get you started.