.......and Reflections

Monday, June 13, 2011

Variety is the spice of birding

Today was yet another beautiful morning in Glacier National Park. I broke camp early and spent about an hour birding close to camp. Then, with truck organized and packed I headed south through the foothills and then onto Route 89, an American highway classic. My destination is Helena, Montana's State Capital. The goal is to bird the habitats along the east face of the Rocky Mountains.

I spent the day on Route 89 and Route 287, both run north and south along the mountains where awesome mountains are almost always in view. After birding in Glacier my next stop was a gravel road that runs east off of Rt 89. I wanted to bird the first quarter mile. About 100 yards up the road I stopped and played the song of McGown's Longspur and instantly a male landed beside the road and pranced ever so proudly right in front of me.

This road passes through an overgrazed and relatively barren habitat. It is what this Longspur prefers. It is also the home of the Horned Lark, Vesper Sparrow, Long-billed Curlew and Cliff Swallows among others.
These birds prefer impoverished landscapes along with their Ground Squirrel neighbors. This is also a place for the hunters. This is where you find Prairie Falcons, Swainson's and Ferruginous Hawks, and the magnificent Golden Eagle.

I heard a Vesper Sparrow singing out in the grasses. So I played the the Vesper Sparrow song. A Vesper Sparrow came to the call immediately. I assumed it was the male but the sexes look alike so I couldn't tell. Out of nowhere came another Vesper Sparrow and the original bird began to beg....a courtship behavior exhibited by the female. The second to arrive Vesper Sparrow then engaged in a similar dance and before you know it, he copulated with the begging female.

For those of us that think males hold territories and attract females to mate with, there is a message here. The bird that responded to the tape was not a competing male; it was a female looking for love. The male that showed up saw the willing female and took advantage of her willingness to mate. So.... the females set up a "territory" and competing males compete with other males for the prize of mating. I guess I did this male that got the girl, a big favor, by getting his girl all excited by the recording.

I learned something. I sometimes get the silly notion that I've got it all figured out and then Mother Nature reminds me that I don't know nothin' yet! I am but a student and I'm happy to never achieve my advanced degree.

Now I'm off to Freezeout Lake Wildlife Management Area operated by Montana Fish & Game Department. This is another favorite location that is always productive birding. The landscape has changed, in that now, buttes rise above the prairie, providing the views we associate with the "old west". Freezeout lake is a a huge wetland that produces significant waterfowl. In managing for waterfowl some 227 species of birds can be found residing or migrating through this magnificent marsh surrounded by upland habitats.

In entering the marshes the first bird I see is a Golden Eagle. It is being harassed by a California Gull and a Marbled Godwit. The last place one would look for a Golden Eagle is in a marsh. And the last birds expected to harass the bird would be the two that were. So once again I become the student. I drove the wildlife tour and checked some of the upland habitats and saw 60 species of birds.

As I make my way to Helena I plan to bird areas on the way and near where I am spending the night. There is a wonderful area called Prickly Pear Canyon and Creek that opens up into sagebrush habitat at the southern end beyond the canyon. In the canyon I saw Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Lazuli Buntings, MacGillivray's Warblers, Warbling Vireos, Lark Sparrows, Mountain Bluebirds ,and Western wood Pewees.

Once out in the Sagebrush I scanned a Black-tailed Prairie Dog town and added Cooper's Hawk, Sandhill Cranes, Common Ravens, and Violet-green Swallows. By routing my way through very different habitats I ended the day with 102 species of birds. More importantly I learned some things that maybe I should have known. But the fact is that I have always learned from experience. The best teacher is being out in the field learning from nature. I won't forget what I now know from watching and engaging Vesper Sparrows or from witnessing a Golden Eagle trying to take advantage of a habitat different from the grasslands that are their normal haunts.

Tomorrow I travel to the Bridger Mountains where I will camp for the night before heading to Yellowstone National Park. I've never been there. Stay tuned and find out more about what i do and do not know about Montana wildlife.

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