We did it again – scheduled a great sounding field trip (3 days and 2 nights in yurts along the Judith River near its junction with the Missouri River) on a weekend when the forecast became cold and wet. The trip was cancelled and made a back-up plan to head west toward the front and stay on solid roads. Sunday May 19th looked like the best option. 3 of us decided to make a go of it. It was well worth going. It was cloudy; we had a brief period of rain, conveniently timed for a lunch break, and later in the afternoon the wind picked up. It was really good weather for finding birds. We started at Freezout Lake – it took us 3 hours of looking before we headed toward Choteau. Stops included the garage site, vault toilet stops, tour route, the dike between pond 1 and 2, and Priest Butte Lake. We could have spent the whole day observing. We observed a Great Horned Owl on her nest with 2 fuzzy owls. At the same site we were seeing Lark, White-crowned and Chipping Sparrows. A dark headed small bird was flitting about a building. The tail flipped over the back and at first we thought “house wren” but when we were able to see it more clearly as it explored the building for an opening the dark head, plain wings, light chest all pointed to an Eastern Phoebe. Historically this was a spot for a Say’s Phoebe – it was clearly not a Say’s Phoebe. A highlight was the Short-eared Owl that was doing a mating flight – so high, almost out of sight, and then he would swoop down and “clap” his wings. None of us had seen that before. Candace could even hear the low frequency “whoooooot-whooooot”. At that time there was no wind. While we were standing there at the vault toilet (what a unique observation point) the swallows were buzzing around us – Barn Swallows and Tree Swallows. Ducks, Killdeer, Pelicans, Geese, Cormorants – quite a list could be made from an unexpected spot. Tour route highlights included a single Marbled Godwit, many, many Western Grebes that were “neck dancing” with their mates. None seemed to want to perform a ballet for us, many Black-necked Stilts and just a few American Avocets, and great looks at Marsh Wrens. Surprising was the hundreds (seemed like hundreds) of Yellow-rumped Warblers in the sagebrush. When we could get a close look they all had a white throat – Myrtle Warblers. From the dike between pond 1 and 2 we could see many of the swallows were Cliff Swallows – not many cliffs close by. Of interest was one Bonaparte’s Gull, a first winter plumage individual. Although we could not find any White-faced Ibis hiding we did see one Black-crowned Night Heron take off. It started raining by the time we got to Priest Butte Lake – that didn’t stop the Great Blue Herons from stalking something. There was actually 3 in one small reed bed near us. There were also many more swallows. We made lunch in Choteau while watching Chipping Sparrows, House Sparrows and Eurasian Collared Doves. The rain stopped so off we went up the Teton Canyon Road. Eureka Reservoir was thick with swallows. The roadside around the reservoir was thick with Chipping Sparrows and more Myrtle Warblers – again it seemed like hundreds. And then we got to the Mountain Bluebirds. Some were claiming nest boxes; others were just in flocks – flocks of blue flitting through the air. They were brilliant. As we crossed onto Forest Service Road three large “headless” birds came soaring into view (Turkey Vultures), and the habitat changed – here we saw Audubon’s Warblers, more Chipping Sparrows, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet and a road that was slick, rutty and rocky. It seemed like a good place to turn around.
For some reason I thought we should stop by Garden Home Park to watch the Barrows Goldeneyes. We got out and suddenly they started flying past….about 50. They are so good looking. Velda picked up on the head shape difference between the Common and Barrow’s Goldeneyes pretty quick. There were some geese swimming up along the Bank and one was about 30% smaller and had a short stubby bill, I asked if they could see one that looked different. Yes! It was a Cackling Goose. Then as we were about ready to leave there was another small goose coming into view, but wait….it was a Greater White-fronted Goose and it even stood up and flapped, we could see the breast markings. Sweet. It was a life bird for both Velda and Laura. And easy to photograph! Later, as we were heading down the river road below Ulm we saw a small bird…. it looked like it was carrying something grasped in its feet. It landed in the stubble… a Shrike! It then came closer as it landed on the fence wire, but left the prey behind. Again, we had good looks for a minute. It finally flew off, but without the mouse/vole. It was another life bird for Laura. How often can you introduce several life birds to two people in one day? We saw at least 20 species including 3 Wild Turkeys, 8 Rough-legged Hawks, the first two were very dark, one Red-tailed Hawk, several Bald Eagles, two distant Golden Eagles, a Merlin, and a couple thousand geese.
26 volunteers counted 50 species (total 23,683 birds) on count day with an additional 2 species during count week. The windy and warm weather were factors in the lower count numbers. When the river is partly frozen, duck species bunch together in open areas which means easier counting. The gusty winds Great Falls had over several days can result in birds holding tight rather than flying in the wind. However, bird feeder watchers may not notice a difference in their numbers as feeders are usually placed in somewhat protected areas. On the annual Christmas Bird Count Day, we wish folks with feeders would consider reporting their findings to us or perhaps allow us to observe their feeder that day.
UMBA booked the Judith Ranger Station June 29, 2018 for an overnight field trip.
The ranger station and surrounding area is special to UMBA as Jean Setter, UMBA founding member, lived nearby on her parent’s homestead. Jean walked over to the ranger station for piano lessons and was a key reference to restore the ranger station and get in placed on the National Register.
While the weather was cool driving in and we experienced a couple of rain showers, the birds and the wildflowers were showy and abundant.
Red Wing Blackbird
Red Tail Hawk
We walked up north to Jean Setter’s homestead and enjoyed the sounds of 15 horses on a pack ride.
A June trip is sure to have plenty of wildflowers, with the hillsides pink with color!
We took a hike up Hay Canyon and enjoyed the shady flowers including clematis and columbine.
The Judith Basin in June is special and we hope to visit again.
Thirteen lucky individuals participated in this year’s Raptor class, eager to improve their hawk and eagle identification skills. About 1/3 of the group was taking the class for their second time because they enjoyed the first round so much, and we quickly discovered we were in for a real treat. Attendees from as far as Seattle and Billings gathered at FWP in Great Falls Friday night for a slideshow presentation and Saturday field trip. Our enthusiastic guide Steve Hoffman, the Bozeman-based former director of Montana Audubon and walking encyclopedia of hawk and eagle knowledge, dazzled us “fledglings” with many wonderful photographs and helpful ID tips.
After two hours of drinking from Steve’s fire hose, we knew our dihedral (upward angled wings from horizontal, Golden Eagles have a little bit of it especially at the wing tips while Bald’s wings stay flat in flight) from our diurnal (active during the day, opposite of nocturnal) and a veritable feast of diagnostic hawk characteristics. We also learned many interesting facts about the various raptor migration patterns, habitat needs, and survival strategies. Who knew male Northern Harriers are polygynous -as in polygamy- they mate with multiple females and they hunt for and provide food to their multiple ladies! Also, even though Shrikes (Northern in MT in winter, Loggerhead in MT in Summer) kill and eat meat they are not part of the raptor family. Raptors, it turns out, are distinguished from all other birds by their powerful talon tipped feet. Also fascinating were the human impacts on raptor habitat from oil and gas development and emerging conservation efforts in Mexico and South America.
The class spent Saturday on the pastoral back roads south of Great Falls, looping from Eden bridge and lunch on the banks of the Smith River, to Cascade and Ulm. With the short grass prairie in its vivid “full green” our group marveled at sightings of Osprey with fish, Swainson’s and Cooper’s hawks, Kestrel, well over a dozen Bald and Golden eagles, Short eared owls, and even side by side male and female Northern Harriers. Curlews, Sandhill cranes, and Snipes graced our presence; yes, snipes exist and are super cute! Mother Nature also provided stunning views of the largest and rarest hawk in North America, the magnificent Ferruginous. For ID think light/light/light: light head, light chest/body, light tail with rusty red top of wings.* There is a dark morph as well but less than 10% of the population.
A few of the many additional sightings included “all the Teals”, Lark buntings, Upland sandpiper, Phalaropes, Godwit, Sandhill Cranes, Turkeys, Redheads, Pintail, Gadwall, Turkey Vultures, Yellow Warbler, and Black Angus beef on the hoof. This driving loop really showcases the stunning bird and raptor habitat that is our central MT backyard.
We would like to acknowledge Beth Hill and Candace Beery for making this class happen, and for providing close up views with Beth’s new spotting scope. Thanks also to Montana FWP for their continued support of UMBA allowing us the use of their facility. Finally, a huge thank you to Steve Hoffman for coming up to Great Falls for the weekend to help us learn our raptors, and for his lifetime commitment to our feather friends. – UMBA Raptor Class of 2018
Lastly, Drew Marsh is leading a group trip to the Duck Pass – Golden Eagle Migration Survey (GEMS) observation site 20 miles West of White Sulfur in the Big Belt Mountains in early October. Surveyors count 2,000-3,000 golden eagles each Fall, with peak single day counts of 200-300! Stay tuned to UMBA for more details coming out in August.
P.S. Steve Hoffman now owns/leads birding tours throughout Central and South America year round. Check out upcoming trips at https://merlinbirding.com. I can’t think of a better guide for the international trip of a lifetime!