.......and Reflections

Friday, June 10, 2011

Into Montana, Into the American West

I spent last night in Plentywood, Montana. It's a sleepy little town in the very northeast corner of Montana and conveniently close to my first destination, Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge. The motel is a nice place to spend the night. There is a restaurant  right across the street. I got up early and strolled on over for breakfast. On the way I heard an unfamiliar call...Eurasian Collared-dove. It's always good to start the day with a new trip bird. On my way back across the street from breakfast I heard an unfamiliar call. It was oriole-like. So much so that it was an oriole...a Bullock's Oriole. By now I'm feeling good about arriving in the American West.

On the 20 minute drive to the refuge I stopped to check out several California Gulls foraging in a farm field. Entering Medicine Lake N.W.R. is always a beautiful experience. In the first 200 yards I added Chestnut-collared Longspur, Baird's Sparrow and Lark Bunting. Welcome to one of America's finest preserves!

My jubilation soon fizzled when the gate to the Wildlife Auto Tour was closed. I was sure it was a flooding issue. I was devastated. I studied the posted information on the gate re-routing visitors to another access point. As it turned out the visit to the refuge was just fine despite the closures. On my way out I stopped at the refuge office and found out that the closures were do not because of road flooding but lake flooding.

I was informed that the lake levels were so high that the nesting habitat for Piping Plovers (an endangered and protected species) was flooded. These birds nest on sand/gravel areas around the lakes at normal levels. Since those areas were flooded the Piping Plovers decided to nest on the gravel Auto Tour Road. The closures were in place to protect the birds, who implemented "plan b" for Mother Nature. Now that is really your tax dollars at work!

I informed the Refuge staff that there is a pair of Piping Plovers nesting on the road still open. I watched one plover fly around an area of the road where another plover held its ground despite the presence of my truck. This was clearly protecting a nesting territory. Almost every bird breeding on these refuges challenge the perceived threat of traffic around their nesting areas. I stopped in one location to look for sparrows and a Marbled Godwit flew directly at me and banked high, right above me, and proceeded to verbally scold me  to make his or her point that I was not welcome.

Birding prairie refuges in the spring is a unique experience. Willets, Marbled Godwits, Wilson's Phalaropes, Western Meadowlarks, Whimbrels, Upland Sandpipers, Chestnut-collared Longspurs and other birds get up close and personal when defending territories during breeding. It is quite the opposite of any other human/bird confrontation.

The trip from Plentywood to Malta and Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge is a westward journey. The prairie potholes decrease in frequency all along the way west. The rolling farmland gives way to larger hills and although it isn't obvious the road gradually increases in elevation and will continue to do so until reaching the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. A few eastern birds hang on now, but the Eastern Wood Pewees are now replaced by Western Wood Pewees. The sweet Eastern Meadowlark song is now replaced by the gurgling Western Meadowlark songs and clucks. Flooding is still a serious issue in Montana as it was in North Dakota. Route 2 travels just north of the Missouri River and cuts through the Missouri River watershed. The mighty Mississippi River has a lot of water yet to come.

I love the prairies and I love the West. It's a big place. It's a quiet but vibrant place that speaks to both the beauty and reality of nature. I flushed a female Northern Pintail from her nest along the Bowdoin Auto Tour. It happened quite by accident but it happened none the less. I couldn't help taking a picture of her temporarily abandoned nest. It was lined with soft feathers ever so perfectly arranged, and there was order to the several eggs in there. The grass around the nest converged to form a perfect canopy over the nest as if it was engineered that way. It's the future of Northern Pintails and I suspect the future of wild places and the future of those like me that love Northern Pintails so much.

I saw another thing that causes one to reflect. I love Richardson's Ground Squirrels. they seem to be almost everywhere in their range. They're cute and busy creatures that patrol these prairies. I also love Ferruginous Hawks. This is a fairly uncommon raptor of the Plains. It has distinctive plumage, kind of like our familiar Red-tailed Hawk...but not really. It's a wonderful hawk.

I happened upon a Ferruginous Hawk on the the ground in the prairie grass. I watched it lift from the ground as it was harassed by a blackbird. In its talons was a Richardson's Ground Squirrel. This is a grand meal for the hawk, and likely for nestlings in a nearby nest in a lonely tree on the prairie. This is not a great outcome for the ground squirrel nor a choice by the hawk, but a necessity.

I saw 92 species of birds today and I would be pressed to name them from the top of my head. But I saw prairies today and a Northern Pintail nest and a Ferruginous Hawk and a Richardson's Ground Squirrel. I saw places, things, and events that inspire me.

Tomorrow I will see "high" plains, and the magnificent Rocky Mountains, and birds they make possible.

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