Lisa Densmore

Throw Back Thursday: Variations in Rough-legged Hawks


Wednesday, April 17th, 2013
Rough-legged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawk by Lisa Densmore

Location: Lima, Montana

If you’re wondering where Lima (pronounced LI-ma, like the bean), Montana is, you are not geographically challenged. With due respect to the residents of this small ranching community in the southwestern part of the Treasure State, the only reason Lima entered my life was because we passed through it on the way home after a weekend in Idaho. I’m not apt to forget it. It took a long time to travel through Lima, not due to traffic – we might have seen two cars in two hours on the open road on which we traveled – but because we saw so many Rough-legged Hawks (Buteo lagopus).

Rough-legged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawk by Lisa Densmore

They perched everywhere, on the irrigation pipes, on the tops of electrical poles, on fence posts… In this hawk-rich environment, I gained a new appreciation for this rodent-eating raptor, which is on the large side for a buteos, averaging 19 to 24 inches tall. With so many of the species in one place, I realized how much variation there could be from one to another. The typical Rough-legged Hawk has a dark belly, though it may be blotchy. A black patch normally shades the carpal joint where the wing bends, but not always or it might be very small. The wings have lots of white on the underside, and its white tail has a black band near its end, but the black morph has a mostly dark tail. ID-ing a Rough-legged Hawk can be challenging if you don’t already know the bird. It’s more diverse than Grand Central Station during rush hour. Fortunately, it lives in a less populated environment than mid-town Manhattan, making it easy to spot.

I enjoyed seeing its color variations. The phenomenon is not unique to Rough-legged Hawks. While each avian on my Audubon Birds app has a common look, variations occur. Have you seen birds-of-a-color that really are not?

A Feast for Magpies


Monday, December 10th, 2012
Black-billed Magpie

Black-billed Magpie © Lisa Densmore

A Feast for Magpies by Lisa Densmore

Location: Red Lodge, Montana

As I waited for 17 to show up at my house and dig into this year’s Thanksgiving feast, I couldn’t help but notice four Black-billed Magpies in my yard. They busily poked their beaks into the bony carcass of a white-tailed deer that had spilled out of a large trash can, the top of which had just blown off in a fierce wind. The wind also collapsed the tall fence that shielded the trash can from the rest of the world, downed trees and sent anything that wasn’t tied securely into the next county. Most of the deer was already in my freezer, but the opportunistic magpies avidly foraged a venison feast from the few scraps that remained.

My first reaction was to shoo away these carrion-eating corvids, but I paused, enjoying the chance to watch them swagger around their prize. Larger than a blue jay but smaller than a raven, they are rather attractive with their long iridescent blue tails and wing feathers and their flashy white sides.

The largest magpie stood at the high point on the carcass, flashing its eyes and ruffling its feathers if the others tried to get near his spot. Black-billed Magpies may be social birds but they still stake out their turf.

These western scavengers aren’t afraid of people either and consider us a good source of food. Early records of the American West mention magpies following hunting parties to feed on bison kills or to steel food out of tents. Magpies nab eggs and baby birds from other birds’ nests giving them a low-brow reputation, but they also serve an important purpose in an ecosystem, cleaning up after larger predators. And they perform a valuable service to wild ungulates, such as deer and moose, and to domestic cows eating ticks off their backs.

Magpies cache food when it’s abundant though the ones in my backyard didn’t have leftovers from their Thanksgiving feast. After a few minutes, I shooed them away and cleaned up the wreckage from the wind. On the other hand, I have enough turkey and stuffing left over to feed my family for the next week.

Migrating Swans


Monday, December 3rd, 2012
Trumpeter Swans

Trumpeter Swans © Lisa Densmore

Migrating Swans by Lisa Densmore

Location: Red Lodge, Montana

Last weekend brought the first true cold snap to south-central Montana, zero degrees (F) overnight and a high of 15 degrees during the day. A fog bank preceded this Arctic cold front, which, combined with the drastic temperature drop, transformed the quaking aspens in my neighborhood into striking frosty silhouettes against the deep azure sky. I bundled up and headed outdoors to photograph the wintery fantasyland, or perhaps catching a whitetail deer grazing in a field. Instead, I was treated to a chorus of honks from the sky.

A few thousand Canada Geese had just migrated through the Red Lodge area. At first I figured more Canada geese were winging south in V-formation, long necks extended, but as they neared, I saw too much white. Snow Geese, perhaps?

They came closer, losing elevation as if targeting a place to land. Trumpeter Swans! At least 50 of them!

In search of open water, the swans intended to land on a pond near my house, but at the last second, they veered away, probably because the body of water they sought was solid ice. In that split second, I got a rare glimpse at these huge graceful birds in the air. The largest of North American waterfowl, measuring five feet from beak to tail and weighing up to 28 pounds, it’s impressive to see a flock in flight and so low the ground.

In September, I chanced upon trumpeter swans while in Alaska. I pondered whether these swans might be the very ones I saw in Alaska, now in search of a warmer place to spend the winter. I don’t have high hopes on either score. They’re probably from Alberta, and they’ll need to fly further than Red Lodge to find open water. The Alaskan swans generally winter along the Washington and British Columbia coast. Though trumpeters also breed in a few places in the northern Midwest, the only year-round populations in the Lower 48 live in the area around western Montana, eastern Idaho and northwestern Wyoming, a couple hundred miles west of my home on the east side of the Rockies.

Whitetails in a Tizzy


Monday, November 26th, 2012
White-tailed Deer

White-tailed Deer © Lisa Densmore

Whitetails in a Tizzy by Lisa Densmore

Location: Red Lodge, MT

There are a lot of nervous White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in my neighborhood at the moment. It’s the same expanding population of deer that always grazes on my lawn, trims my aspen trees and gorges on my lilacs, but now they’re in a tizzy. With the rut only a week or so away, the chests of the bucks are puffed out, and they’re trying feverishly to herd the does into harems. The annoyed does tend to comply rather than receive an antler in the behind. The bucks and does are so distracted by each other, they seem oblivious to a passerby such as me, whereas a week ago they would have put up their trademark white tails and bounded away.

Several evenings ago just after clock moved an hour earlier, I inadvertently took my late afternoon jog during the early evening. As I rounded the last corner on my street, I pondered whether to pick up my pace for the home stretch. Good thing I didn’t simply break into a sprint. Two deer would have run me over in their hell bent charge across the road. I always watch diligently for deer while driving my car, particularly at dusk and after dark when deer are most active, but it never occurred to me that a deer might run me over.

The next evening, I wanted to take a walk to help ease that over-stuffed feeling after a particularly hearty dinner. My sweetheart insisted he come with me. He was worried about the whitetails. Deer are herbivores. They graze on grass, grains and alfalfa; browse leaves, twigs and berries; and nibble nuts and lichens. What danger could a white-tailed deer pose a human?

“A buck in the rut wouldn’t think twice about butting you with an antler if you happened onto his turf,” he explained, “People have been killed by ornery deer.”

Onery? I think he meant horny.

A Hoppin’ Year for the Snowshoe Hare


Monday, November 19th, 2012
Snowshoe Hare

Snowshoe Hare Tracks © Lisa Densmore

A Hoppin’ Year for the Snowshoe Hare by Lisa Densmore

Location: Snowcrest Mountains, MT

It’s a banner year for snowshoe hares (Lepus americanus) in Montana’s Snowcrest Mountains. For the last three years, I’ve spent the third week in October in this rugged region of the northern Rockies where elk, deer and moose commonly wander the boreal and montane forests. The snowshoe hares are there, too, but a rare sight. Not this year! While hiking the high country, I twice pushed a snowshoe hare out of his twiggy cover while plopping myself on a random log to rest. It was fun to see them in their newly acquired white phase.

Snowshoe hares are well-known for their rusty brown summer coat which changes to white in the winter. Its ears, which are shorter than other hare species, are another trademark.

Though technically mid-fall, the Snowcrests were already covered with a half-foot of snow and it snowed every day while I was there. While the ungulates kept a low profile, leaving a few rubs on the trees, frozen scat and a depression or two in the snow where they bedded for the day, snowshoe hares trampled the open forests of Douglas fir and lodgepole pine literally everywhere. Their tracks were easy to identify with their large hind feet and small forefeet.

Snowshoe Hare © NatureShare

It’s their hind feet which give them their common moniker. Shaped like miniature snowshoes, their oversized back paws allow this shy yet active hopper to stay on top of the snow, a helpful skill when a lynx or a wolf fancies it for dinner. Not surprising, its feet have fur top and bottom to protect them from wintery temperatures. Sometimes I wish my feet had a little more fur on them. My trip to the Snowcrest Range was this year’s first brush with sub-freezing temperatures. Even with toe warmers, my feet were cold.

The Western Wood-Pewee


Tuesday, November 13th, 2012
Western Wood-Pewee

Western Wood-Pewee © Lisa Densmore

The Western Wood-Pewee by Lisa Densmore

Location: Tongue River, Montana

My mother is a “snow bird”, a person who lives in the northeastern United States, two hours from the Canadian border to be exact. Every year, in early November, she migrates south to avoid the snow and cold. She returns each spring to the North Country to her traditional nest, the house where my brother and I grew up. Her imminent departure for the tropics reminds me of another snow bird that is likely winging south for the winter, the Western Wood-Pewee.

Despite their gray backs and lack of colorful hues, Western Wood-Pewees (Contopus sordidulus) are cute little fly-catchers that spend the fairer days of year in North America, as far north as east-central Alaska. They are common in airy forests and along river banks across the west, which is the setting in which I saw this one.

On day last August, I parked my car under a towering cottonwood tree in a picnic area by the Tongue River in southeastern Montana, seeking shade from the midday sun. I usually find it difficult to spot birds among leaf-laden branches, but this bold little pewee, which may have stretched to six inches long and tipped the scales at a half ounce, ignored my intrusion and flitted about its business. I enjoyed watching him fly here and there, likely nabbing a mosquito or fly with his black-tipped beak before returning to his perch on a bare branch about 15 feet above the ground.

He seemed identical to the Eastern Wood-Pewees I’ve seen until he opened his mouth. Eastern wood pewees call their name, “pee-ah-wee. Western ones emit an abrasive “peer” as if the last bug they swallowed went down the wrong tube.

I imagine the cottonwood tree has dropped its leaves by now, and, like other “snow birds”, this little fellow has headed to a tropical forest in Ecuador or Peru for the winter.



Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

Western Meadowlark © Lisa Densmore

Location: Tongue River Reservoir, Montana

When I’m in need of entertainment or have a desire to move after sitting for long periods, I grab a camera and go for a walk in search of birds and other things to photograph. Late last summer, after a long day of fishing on the Tongue River Reservoir, I needed to stretch my legs. I grabbed a camera and wandered away from the boat launch.

Tongue River Reservoir State Park in southeastern Montana is surrounded by rolling prairie. I had low expectations as the area is heavily disturbed by RVs and anglers but within a few minutes I spotted an Eastern kingbird, a western wood peewee, a small flock of Canada geese and a cowbird. ‘Nothing rare, but nonetheless, fun to see.

After an hour, I turned back toward the boat launch, flushing a half-dozen sharptailed grouse. Just as I was about to put my camera away, I came across this Western meadowlarkabout 20 yards from my car.

Of all the birds I saw that day, the Western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) was my favorite find, particularly since they are more commonly heard rather than seen. John James Audubon gave the Western meadowlark its scientific name because he thought early pioneers took little notice of it though it was common west of the Mississippi. How funny that it is now the state bird in six states (Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, and Wyoming). Only the Northern Cardinal is a more popular with seven states claiming it as their official bird.

Western Meadowlarks look similar to Eastern meadowlarks, except for a slight difference in its song and the shape of its tail and its bill. The Western meadowlark’s powerful bill is one of its most interesting features. Like other members of the blackbird family, meadowlarks often feed by sticking their bill into soil or manure then opening it to create a gap from which they extract insects. It allows them to reach food that other birds cannot. And though they sometimes eat grains, they are more likely to save a crop from pests that become a pest themselves.

A Drunken Spruce


Monday, October 29th, 2012
Black Spruce

Black Spruce © Lisa Densmore

Location: Delta Clearwater River, Alaska

While fly fishing on the Delta Clearwater River, I thought it curious that black spruce (Picea mariana) was the dominant tree along the riverbanks for most of our 20-mile float trip. In my native Adirondacks in upstate New York, 4,100 miles east of the Delta Clearwater River, black spruce is also relatively common. Though Alaska and New York are so completely different, I realized that boreal forests throughout North America can be similar regardless of location. In fact, black spruce can be found across Canada, from Newfoundland to British Columbia, and in Minnesota. It is the provincial tree of Newfoundland and Labrador.

This spindly conifer is sometimes called “drunken spruce”, perhaps because they often lean against their neighbors or fall over, though the reason is not firewater but a shallow root system. Despite a propensity for tilting, they are well adapted for the cold, moist regions in which they reside. They need shallow roots to stay above the perma-frost layer, at least in the northern parts of their range. Their short branches deter heavy accumulations of snow. Even so, the lowest branches will take root when deep snow bends them to the ground creating a ring of younger trees around an older one. As a result, black spruce form homogeneous groves in wet, boggy areas, which was the case where I was fishing.

Black spruce is the unshaven backwoods brother of prissy white spruce. It looks unshaven with black hairs on its twigs and its thin, untidy appearance. It also has shorter needles, smaller rounder cones and a preference for wetter low-lying areas than white spruce does.

To me, the black spruce along the Delta Clearwater River formed a scraggly barrier. At first I would have preferred a more diverse view, but the longer I fished and pondered their presence, the more I appreciated their ability to grow in what would most certainly become inhospitable Arctic weather only a few short weeks after my departure.

In Search of Kittiwakes


Monday, October 22nd, 2012

In Search of Kittiwakes by Lisa Densmore

Some birds are a tougher than humans, at least this human, particularly kittiwakes and Sabine’s gulls, both of these shorebirds summer along coastal Alaska and winter at sea. One of the reasons I planned a 3-day sea kayaking trip from Valdez to Shoup Bay was the chance to paddle past a well-known rookery for black-legged kittiwakes.

“Why do you want to see Kittiwakes?” asked my guide, Josh McDonald, “They’re so common.”

“They might be common to you,” I replied, “Kittiwakes are rarely seen in the Lower 48.”

Rain fell lightly from heavy skies as we left Valdez harbor via water taxi. By the time the water taxi dropped us off on a gravel beach 10 miles from the harbor, the rain had become steady. As we neared a rookery, an island precipice near Shoup Glacier, I realized all but a few first-year kittiwakes had departed for open water.

Disappointed, the rain coming in sheets and teeth chattering from several wet hours on 35-degree water in 40-degree air, we set up camp by Shoup Glacier. That evening, the weather radio predicted winds over 60 miles per hour and seas over nineteen feet by the next afternoon – a typhoon! We bailed out of Shoup Bay in the morning, finding safe haven at the Harbor Inn in Valdez. I’ve never savored a dry comfortable bed and a hot shower so much!

The next day, still determined to see kittiwakes, I drove through the storm to an estuary on the edge of town. I saw herring gulls hanging out on a sandbar but no kittiwakes. I returned to my dry sanctuary at the Harbor Inn.

The following afternoon, we boarded the ferry to Cordova. It was still pouring rain, but a number of small gulls about the size of kittiwakes flew along behind us, unphased by the deluge. They turned out to be juvenile Sabine’s gulls, another Arctic gull. I was just as happy to glimpse this rare visitor to land.

Sabine’s gulls don’t acquire their first-winter plumage until after they head out to sea, but unlike kittiwakes that stay in the northern Pacific and Bering Sea, Sabine’s gulls wing to the Southern Hemisphere! The laggarts I saw had better get started. Winter in Alaska comes early. It was already snowing in the Alaskan interior.

Fishing for the Arctic Grayling


Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

Arctic Grayling © Lisa Densmore

Fishing for the Arctic Grayling by Lisa Densmore

Location: Delta Clearwater River, Alaska

As I savored another fork-full of the succulent silver salmon at the Black Rapids Lodge south of Delta Junction, Alaska, the innkeepers, Michael and Annie Hopper, nodded knowingly as I recalled my first encounter the day before with a different salmonid, native Arctic grayling (Thymallus arcticus).

“Did you taste any of the grayling you caught?” they asked.

“No. Reiny, my guide, mentioned possibly keeping a small one as an appetizer while we camped, but he never did,” I said. Reinhard Neuhauser, an Austrian racer who came to the University of Alaska to compete then never left, revered Arctic grayling for their look and their fight. He fished only with barbless hooks and immediately released whatever anyone on his raft landed.


Arctic Grayling © Lisa Densmore

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s website calls Arctic grayling, “one of the most beautiful freshwater fishes of Alaska.” While grayling are certainly intriguing for their oversized dorsal fin, I personally find spawning brook trout the Miss America of the inland piscine world. It’s hard to peg “most beautiful” on a species that has such a wide range of colorations from location to location. The ones in the Delta Clearwater River were silver and gold with pale speckles between the golden strips on their telltale “sail”, but others might have red, aqua and purple markings on their dorsal fin, and their sides might be black, silver, gold or blue. They might have black freckles or not on their sides and head, but they all have that huge dorsal fin.

I wondered why Artic grayling developed such a large appendage on their back compared to other salmonids, so I took a number of underwater shots of this North American native, so rare in the Lower 48 yet so popular among anglers in Alaska. It appears that grayling use their dorsal fin as a stabilizer which they can raise or contract as needed. The fin also flexes with the current, rarely completely straight up, but that’s the limit of my observations. The dorsal fin on other coldwater fish species also acts as a stabilizer but they aren’t nearly as large or showy. Do you know why an Artic grayling’s dorsal fin is so large?


Arctic Grayling © Lisa Densmore