Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Photography Post - end of summer

     As summer is winding down I have been preparing for my big trip to Arizona and Utah. As busy as I have been, I have not forgotten about my blog, and I want to share some of my favorite photos I shot this summer.

Sunrise in Glacier National Park

Morning sun on the Pryor Mountains - viewed from Bighorn Canyon NRA

Sunset at our campsite in the Bighorn Canyon NRA, Wyoming

Stephanie and the Bighorn Canyon at Devil's Overlook.

My lifer Sagebrush Sparrow - Bear Canyon Rd - Pryor Mountains, Carbon County Montana

Stephanie and I enjoying the beautiful Montana mountains!

Early morning sun in Yellowstone NP

Green-tailed Towhee - Park Co, MT

Green-tailed Towhee - Park Co, MT

A skull of some creature on the hillside. Park Co, MT

Yellow-bellied Marmot - Giant Springs State Park - Great Falls, MT

My new adventure car!

evening light on Lake MacDonald - Glacier National Park

Grinnell Glacier and upper Grinnell Lake - Glacier NP

sunrise at Bowman Lake - Glacier NP

Here are a few of my favorites! I hope you enjoy the photos!

Check back to see my next post from southeast Arizona!!

Monday, August 8, 2016

An Owl in the Cemetery

     On thrusday, August 4th, I stopped at the Spring Creek Cemetery along West Valley Road.  I have driven by numerous times and always thought it looked like it may be a good spot for resident and migrating birds.

the Spring Creek Cemetery
     It was a beautiful and cool morning, and I walked around the cemetery looking for small birds.  I was surprised to look up and see a Great Horned Owl sitting 8 feet up in a mature tree, just staring at me. My first thought was "great! what a cool place to find an owl!", then I wondered about the correlation between a cemetery and an owl.

Great Horned Owl - Spring Creek Cemetery

Great Horned Owl - Spring Creek Cemetery

Great Horned Owl - Spring Creek Cemetery

     Here is a passage I found on owls in North American Tribal culture.

"In most Native American tribes, owls are a symbol of death. Hearing owls hooting is considered an unlucky omen, and they are the subject of numerous 'bogeyman' stories told to warn children to stay inside at night or not cry too much, otherwise the owl may carry them away. In some tribes, owls are associated with ghosts, and the bony circles around an owl's eyes are said to be made up of the fingernails of ghosts. Sometimes owls are said to carry messages from beyond the grave or deliver supernatural warnings to people who have broken tribal taboos. And in the Aztec and Mayan religions of Mexico, owls served as the messengers and companions of the gods of death."**


     My belief of the symbol of an owl is nearly the opposite.  I see it as a good omen, a blessing on the day.  To see an otherwise nocturnal bird with quiet and secretive habits, I believe, is great!  The owl makes its living trying to not be detected, so finding one, especially in the day, is a good blessing. Maybe it has to do with the owl being outsides its relm, and into one we have dominated, that makes it seem special to me.  It feels like a visitor, and if I were to spot an owl at night, I sure would feel like the outsider then!

     I hope anyone who is reading this can appreciate what it takes to find and see an owl during the day, and make your own idea of what it means to you to see an owl.

**Source of the above quote:

A quick trip out east!

the Rocky Mountain Front as viewed from east of Browning
     This year has been the best year I've had in a while, and it's only half over!  I've found my groove again, and have been birding every chance I get, along with just about every other outdoor activity one can do in this great state!
     With all the birding and trips I've taken so far, I have amassed a personal Montana bird list larger than any other year!  Being on such a role, I decided to try and keep it going by running out to the NE of Montana and looking for the prairie specialists I have not seen this year.

     I set out Wednesday the 13th for Malta.  The plan is to camp in Malta Wed. night and bird Bowdoin first thing in the morning, moving to the surrounding area in the late morning/early afternoon before driving home (a 6 hour drive!).

     On the way to Malta, once I got to the east side, I saw several Ferruginous and Swainson's Hawks!  I have seen these species earlier this year, but no one can get tired of seeing a Ferruginous Hawk!
     Somewhere east of the small town of Inverness, I happened to spot a Swainson's Hawk nest along the highway!  I stopped to snap some pictures and left in a timely manner as to not disturb the birds.  The parents were not happy that I stopped to check them out!

Swainson's Hawk nest with 2 young
     In this cropped in photo, you can see 2 young hawks, and a ripped-apart ground squirrel hanging from one of the branches! 

     Just east of Chinook, I turned north onto Bagan Road.  This is a good, known spot to find Sprague's Pipit, Baird's Sparrows and other prairie specialists.  I decided to check it out on my way east, just in case I miss Sprague's or Baird's elswhere, I can at least try for them on Bagan Rd.
     The first half mile goes through some lush fields and crosses a river with thick riparian habitat around it.  After that, the road climbs a hill and plateaus on the native shortgrass prairie.  Almost immediately after I stopped and stepped out of the car, I heard a singing Sprague's Pipit!  The first year bird of the trip!  There were a few Lark Buntings and Loggerhead Shrikes along the road, and Vesper and Grasshopper Sparrows singing in the field, but I did not hear a Baird's Sparrow.  I could have spent hours here but I was running out of time if I wanted to make camp in Malta before the sun went down!
     Driving back to the highway, just after the river, I spotted a female oriole on the fence.  I hit the brakes and skidded to a stop and craned out the window with my binoculars.  Here, it could be a Baltimore Oriole or a Bullock's.  Sure enough, it was a female Baltimore Oriole! Second year bird of the trip!  She flew to a shrub, and I got out and walked closer to get a better look.  I discovered 4 more orioles, including an adult male!  It was a family group with 3 juveniles! I managed a few poor shots to record this sighting!

adult male Baltimore Oriole
juvenile Baltimore Oriole

     After snapping a few shots of the orioles, I was back on the highway, with another hour to go before I reached Malta.

     Making it to Tafton Park around 8:30pm, I found a good spot and set up camp. It was quickly getting dark as I took a quick walk around camp after the tent was up.  Gray Catbirds, American Robins, Western Kingbirds, and Common Nighthawks were the abundant birds as it got dark.  Sometime in the middle of the night, I awoke to an Eastern Screech-Owl calling in a tree fairly close to my tent!  I laid in tent, half away, wondering if I should get up and try to see the owl as it would be a lifer if I saw it.  Unfortunately, my half awake/half asleep brain prioritizes more sleep above all else, and I fell back asleep.  In the morning, and throughout the day, I kicked myself for not getting up! I could have seen a screech-owl, and a lifer at that!  Maybe next time...

      I got out of town, and made it to Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge (7 miles east of Malta) around 5:50am.  It was a beautiful and calm morning, lots of birds about, and no shortage of mosquitoes!
     One of my main target birds, the Nelson's Sparrow, has been seen on the south end of the driving route, which I found out was CLOSED! Yeah, the auto tour route was closed at the railroad crossings, effectively blocking access to the area the Nelson's Sparrow is.  I drove down the sw portion of the route to see just how much area I can access before the RR tracks.  Also, this section is the area the Sedge Wrens have been found, which was my other top target bird.  They inhabit dense and tall wet Timothy grass fields, and once I reached the first patch of good habitat, I stopped the car and got out to see what I could find.  Almost immediately, I heard a singing Sedge Wren, and saw an additional bird foraging fairly close to the road!  I grabbed my camera and spished the bird to a higher perch and snapped some record shots!

Sedge Wren

Sedge Wren
     I have only seen the Sedge Wren 2 other times; once in Florida (Feb. 2008), and once in North Dakota (Jun. 2008).  This means it's a new Montana state bird for me, bringing my personal state list to 291!
     Continuing east on the auto tour route to 'Patrol Pond', I counted 11 total Sedge Wrens!  That's huge! These habitat specialists are fairly uncommon in eastern MT and to find a local breeding population with this many birds is great! Records from earlier in the season at Bowdoin have only counted 2 to 3 birds.  I believe the early morning with calm weather allowed me to locate more birds that would have been possible later in the day and/or with stronger winds.

     After reaching the end of the line, where the road meets the railroad tracks, I turned around and headed back to the other end of the auto-tour route.  after about the first half mile or so, the route opens up to grasslands and great views of the main lake.  I heard singing Sprague's Pipits, Grasshopper Sparrows, and a few Baird's Sparrows!  The Baird's Sparrows, although they never showed themselves, were my next yearbird!  Slowly, I'm getting the prairie specialties I set out to find.   

The natural prairie that surrounds the lake

A passable photo of one of the many Grasshopper Sparrows I encountered
A photogenic female Lark Bunting along the auto tour route

    Where the route gets closer to the road, I had good views of the resident birds that breed on or near the water.  Franklin's Gulls, American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts, White-faced Ibis, and Willets were plentiful.
White-faced Ibis
Franklin's Gull
American Avocet
     On this stretch of the route, I spotted a small group of shorebirds on the close shore.  Looking through them, I spotted one that was larger than the Semipalmated Sandpipers near by.  A Sanderling!  A great unexpected find!  Until that moment, I have not seen a Sanderling in the state, making that my state bird #292!
     Working my way back along the route after turning around at the train tracks again, I spotted a Short-eared Owl in a shrub!  It's always a good day when you see an owl, especially close enough for a photo!
Short-eared Owl
     Finishing my time at Bowdoin NWR, I set off for Bentonite Road southwest of Glasgow, MT.  There I hoped to find the resident Mountain Plovers.
I started down the road at about 2pm after the hour drive from Malta.  It was sunny but there were rain clouds on the horizon.  The road starts out in agricultural fields and then moves to all native short-grass prairie.  In the first stretch, I was lucky enough to snap a photo of one of the most striking sparrow species we have in Montana; the Lark Sparrow.
Lark Sparrow
     Moving down the road, I encountered several Lark Buntings, Vesper Sparrows and a small herd of Pronghorn.
Vesper Sparrow with a meal
3 of the 15 or so Pronghorn along Bentonite Road.

     Unfortunately, a rainstorm was fast approaching, and a local stopped me to warn me that the road because impassable in the rain.  I turned around and abandoned the search for the Mountain Plovers, but not before get a shot of the storm that stopped my search.
The big and beautiful storm that halted my quest for Mountain Plover

     I returned to Glasgow, joined Montana Highway 2, and headed home.  On the 6 nearly 7.5 hour drive home, I saw several Ferruginous Hawks, Loggerhead Shrikes, and Western Kingbirds.  The beauty of the northeast Montana prairie always amazes me.  I will be back; I don't know how soon, but I will be back.

Sunset on the Montana praires (taken just east of Browning)

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Lesser Goldfinch!

     That's right! I got my lifer Lesser Goldfinch!  BJ and I spent the morning of July 11 birding my "secret spot" in Flathead County (see blog post below) and found a male LEGO!
     At the 1.1 mile of Cromwell Creek Rd, it splits and a lesser road goes left, and the main road continues right up the backside of the knoll.  It was here where we stopped and spent some time looking around at the mass of birds around.
     I noticed a small finch fly in to the bottom of a thick bush.  I assumed it was a Pine Siskin, but once it landed, I saw it had much more yellow on the body! I quickly raised my binoculars and instantly recognized it as a male Lesser Goldfinch!  I yelled with excitement and BJ ran over and we observed the bird for less than a minute before it left as abruptly as it arrived! We tried but failed for a photo.  Nevertheless, an amazing find and lifer for me! That makes my life list 405!!!

     This area continues to produce a plethora of birds, in diversity and sheer numbers!

Gray Catbird, a common bird in the dense shrubs along Cromwell Creek

a male Lazuli Bunting, common along Cromwell Creek

Flathead county's secret spot!

     Flathead County is a Montana's 3rd largest county, with 5,099 square miles.
It includes the parts of Glacier National Park, The Great Bear and Bob Marshall Wildernesses west of the Continental Divide; the north end of Flathead Lake, and large tracks of the Flathead National Forest up to the Canadian Border.

     The area that has become a focus of my interest lately, is the small section circled in green on this map.  The little "appendix" swings down and grabs some large areas of native grassland and dry pine forests.  It is accessed by highway 28, between Elmo and Hot Springs.

     This is the only large and basically untouched plot of this habitat in the county, so naturally I had to check it out.

     First was Thursday night, June 30th.  This is the best habitat in the county for Common Poorwill, and in my recent poorwill searches, I had to try for a county poorwill!  I drove down and took Brown's Meadow Road north from the highway, stopping ever so often listening for poorwills.  At about 10:45pm, I heard at least 3 birds singing from the hillside a few hundred yards away! Success!! This could be the first spot in the county to hold reliable and probable breeding Common Poorwills!

     As I drove back home that night, I planned my return in the morning.  The grassland area holds the prospect of several birds that would be found no-where else in the county.

     5:45AM July 1st:  I pulled off the highway onto Brown's Meadow Road, and go 150 yards before stopping to listen for whatever is out there.  My target was Grasshopper Sparrow, although, none have been reported there before, it was the right habitat.
Nearly first thing I heard was a singing Grasshopper Sparrow! New county bird for me!
I spotted it sitting on a small bush, and watched it sing a few more times before continuing on down the gravel road.

Where the Grasshopper Sparrows are: looking west, in the first half mile of Browns Meadow Road

     The next 2 miles had loads of Western Meadowlarks, and Vesper and Savannah Sparrows.  I even heard a few Horned Larks and a Long-billed Curlew!

Western Meadowlark

     After the first 2 miles, the road splits and Brown's Meadow Road (BMR) continues to the right. Along here, there are many small cliff faces and in them, Rock Wrens!  The whole while birding this area, I was looking for Lark Sparrows, but no luck this time.  In 2 miles (again) the road splits, and Cromwell Creek Road takes right as BMR continues left.

Rocky cliff faces along Browns Meadow Rd; where the Rock Wrens are first detected

     Cromwell Creek Road is the one to take.
Crossing the cattle guard, I only made it about 1 mile up in 1 hour and 40 minutes! It is loaded with birds! There are many the same birds I could find in the valley, but with this setting and lack of people, it was magical.  Also, it might be tougher to find a few species that seemed to be standards on this road.  Cassin's Finch, and Rock Wrens to name a few.

Along Cromwell Creek Rd.  Great habitat on both sides!

     The family of Rock Wrens I ran into were very entertaining to watch!  I even managed a few shots of one of the fledglings!

     The road makes it's way into a dry, Ponderosa Pine-mix forest as it climbs the hill.  Here, I had 3 Gray Jays and a few flyover Red Crossbills!  I ran out of time, but this forest definitely need more attention!

One week later, I make it down again.

     5:45AM July 8th:  Craig Hohenberger had saw a Lark Sparrow and Say's Phoebe on BMR on the 7th, both birds I had missed the week prior.  First thing, 150 yards up from the highway on BMR, I heard a singing Grasshopper Sparrow probably the same bird I heard last week.  In my search for Lark Sparrow, I end up locating 5 individual Grasshopper Sparrows!  They were all withing the first 0.8 miles of BMR on the west side of the road.  This is most likely the first and only spot in the county that they are reliable and possibly breeding!

     I continue up BMR, finding 4 Long-billed Curlew and a juvenile Prairie Falcon! This seems to be a reliable spot for curlew, which would be the only spot for the county also!

     This time, I try the first mile of Battle Butte Road, looking for the Lark Sparrow and Say's Phoebe. Same as BMR, its littered with Western Meadowlarks, Brewer's Blackbirds, and Vesper Sparrows are singing all over, but no Lark Sparrows this time.  On this road, I found a very squashed snake! It's hard to say but I believe it is a rattlesnake of some kind!

rattlesnake squished on the road

     Trying the cliffy stretch of BMR, I find another family (separate the first family) of Rock Wrens on the cliffs about 0.5 miles from the turn.  Watching them, I spot a Say's Phoebe!  County year bird #207! Driving to the cattle guard and back, I fail to locate a Lark Sparrow but I pick up a singing Brewer's Sparrow!

Along Browns Meadow Rd, after the right turn.  Cliff area to the left, sunflowers to the right.
2 Mule Deer along Brown's Meadow Road.

     What I am finding is a area rich in birds, several that are not easily (or at all) found in the valley!  It is proving to be a good spot for Grasshopper Sparrow and Long-billed Curlew, as well as Horned Lark and Say's Phoebe.  With the great habitat and little human use, I believe this is an area worth many more explorations!  Maybe even a Flammulated Owl in the forest above the grassland!

Eastern Kingbird - Brown's Meadow Road