Posts Tagged ‘Montana’

Whitetails in a Tizzy

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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 Colossal Cottonwood

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Thursday, August 9th, 2012

A Colossal Cottonwood by Jack Ballard

Narrowleaf Cottonwood tree

Narrowleaf Cottonwood © Jack Ballard

Joliet, Montana, is one of those little towns that survives, God knows why. Its economic core is a riddle. Its main street is drab. The most prominent landmark on Highway 212, the thoroughfare that connects it with the outside world, is a gas station. But it has a school and a post office and is within commuting distance of Billings, the largest city in the state. In Montana, those features alone can nurture a town.

As it turns out, Joliet houses a record-breaking tree. Recently, the American Forests National Big Tree competition granted championship status to a narrowleaf cottonwood tree in Joliet, a stone’s throw from Highway 212. Narrowleaf Cottonwoods are actually members of the willow family. This one sports a circumference of over 14 feet and is nearly 80 feet tall.

Situated not far from the bottomlands of Rock Creek, the colossal cottonwood’s relatives don’t fare so well on Rock Creek or the nearby Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River. Invasive species such as Russian olives and European buckthorns have dramatically reduced both narrowleaf and black cottonwoods in these drainages.

Narrowleaf Cottonwood trees

Narrowleaf Cottonwood © Jack Ballard

Narrowleaf cottonwoods are often considered a nuisance tree in municipalities. They’re nourished by a shallow, spreading root system that sometimes clogs sewer lines and storm drains. However, in native environments their extensive root system helps stabilize stream banks and reduces soil erosion. These cottonwoods provide summer housing for numerous species of nesting birds. They’re commonly downed by beavers who prize their nutritious bark and soft wood that is easily gnawed into lengths to create lodges. Deer and moose browse their tender shoots in the depths of winter. Grouse dine on their buds and catkins in the spring.

I love all species of cottonwoods. They’re excellent places to observe birds. The smell of damp cottonwood leaves reminds me of fishing.

If you find your wheels humming on route from Billings to Red Lodge, it’s now worth stopping in Joliet, if only to view their champion cottonwood.

We Wike Wobblers – Yellow Warblers

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Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

They nested somewhere in the neighborhood, but I never found the location. For much of the summer, a pair of Yellow Warblers frequented my backyard birdbath. Enthused by such a bright, sprightly subject, I kept a camera with a telephoto lens near the kitchen window, hoping to photograph the warblers as they fluffed in the water or perched in the branches of a nearby stand of tall shrubbery.

Yellow Warbler © Lisa Densmore

One morning, my oldest son, then an inquisitive three year-old, scrambled up on a nearby stool as I was attempting to photograph the male.

“What’s that bird?”

“A yellow warbler.”

In a short few minutes the mustard-yellow fellow flew damply away. Clapping his pudgy hands together, the toddler perfectly summed my sentiments.

“I wike wobblers.”

For the next few years the birds, in his vocabulary, were “wobblers.” We spotted them here and there while fishing or hiking. The problem is, if you’re a fan of warblers, south-central Montana is just about the worst place in the country to live. Yellow Warblers are sighted with some regularity, and I’ve rarely seen other members of the warbler family including Common Yellowthroats, and Yellow-rumped Warblers. According the field guides, we’re also potentially within or near the range of MacGillivray’s Warblers, Ovenbirds, Yellow-breasted Chats and American Redstarts. But I have never clearly observed any of those species. Of the 50+ warbler species inhabiting North America, my area seems to infrequently hold but two or three.

But I’ll keep looking. So will the rest of my family. We wike wobblers.

Fast Jack

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Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

While pulling stray shoots of grass from the flowers, I spot another stray in my yard. An errant White-tailed Jackrabbit sits huddled in the swath of tall grass where my lawn meets a vacant lot. I race inside for my camera, then sidle slowly toward my visitor, shutter clicking. He allows a few photos, and then pops to his feet, seemingly more bored than alarmed. In a few bounds, he’s found a new spot to lounge across the lot. I marvel at how light on its feet is Mr. Jackrabbit.

White-tailed Jackrabbit by Jack Ballard

The fact is, White-tailed Jackrabbits are incredible athletes. Jackrabbits are amazingly fast. Covering up to twenty feet in a single leap, they can spurt to 45 miles per hour over short distances. In addition to their speed, jackrabbits can dart and change course without breaking stride, allowing them to elude predators that might actually hold an edge in sustained speed.

One warm spring day I was hiking on my family’s ranch, cheerfully accompanied by Addie, an adopted greyhound. In the center of a wide basin, a big jackrabbit burst from its napping spot at the base of a bushy sagebrush. Centuries of breeding for just such moments overtook the hound and she lunged in pursuit.

Greyhounds can hit 50 miles per hour on the track. What chance, I thought, does this seven pound jackrabbit have with seventy pounds of brindle lightening on its fluffy, white tail? As I watched spellbound, I realized the streaking hare knew exactly how to handle the hound. Each time the dog closed in, the jackrabbit darted off-course, forcing the greyhound to slow its pursuit and change direction. In a few minutes, the prey crested a ridge and the crestfallen predator came trotting my way with its tongue on its ankles.

White-tailed Jackrabbit by Jack Ballard

Given the jackrabbit’s peculiar adaptations for fleet coursing over open terrain, I shouldn’t have been surprised that it outran my retired racer. From head to toe, jacks are created to run. Their skulls are pocked with cavities which make them lighter. Long, powerful hind legs, with specially fused bones, allow them to exert maximum force to their feet and cover incredible distance with each stride. In addition, jackrabbits have a small, lightweight collarbone that facilitates not only speed, but agility as well.

Despite their prowess as sprinters, the life expectancy of jackrabbits is somewhere under five years. Although an individual may successfully elude predators in a dozen instances, eventually the odds turn hostile to the hare. I hope my visitor beats the clock.

Lewis Monkeyflower

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Wednesday, May 9th, 2012
Wildflowers

Lewis Monkeyflower or Pink Monkeyflower by Lisa Densmore

Location: Sylvan Lake, Montana

I was looking through some photos from a hike I did two summers ago to Sylvan Lake, a remote mountain tarn in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. It was a 5-mile hike to the lake where I caught my first Golden Trout. The journey proved as colorful as the goal. The entire mountainside was abloom with wildflowers. It took an extra two hours to get to the lake because of all the photographs I took. One of the showiest trailside species was this Lewis Monkeyflower (Mimulus lewisii).

Also known as a Pink Monkeyflower or a Great Purple Monkeyflower, these vibrant perennials common to mountainous wetlands in the Sierra Nevadas, northern and central Rockies and western Canada were first recorded in 1805 at Lemhi Pass, Montana during the famed Lewis and Clark expedition. Meriwether Lewis did not name the plant. It was named after him about 10 years later by Frederick Pursh, the botanist who identified most of the plant species the expedition discovered.

I’ve always found this flower’s name, monkeyflower, to be curious considering there are no monkeys in North America. It’s Latin genus, “Mimulus”, comes from its five petals which resemble the lips of a grinning mime. Its common name, “monkeyflower”, may be because Lewis or Pursh though it looked like the smiling lips of a monkey.

Of the 100 plus species of monkeyflowers, 70% are native to California and are either tender annuals or bright yellow. Lewis Monkeyflowers are easy to recognize due to their large pink blooms that come back year after year.

I’ve since come across Lewis Monkeyflowers on backcountry camping trips in Montana’s Crazy Mountains and in Banff National Park. They are among my favorite wildflowers. Though it’s barely the first week of spring, I’m looking forward to this summer and seeing more of these lovely blooms when hiking near backcountry lakes and streams. Do you have a particular wildflower that you can’t wait to see?

Pasque Flower

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Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012
Wildflowers

American Pasque by Lisa Densmore

Location: Red Lodge, MT

I declare it officially spring. Of course the calendar declared the start of spring at the March equinox, but for me, it happened two days ago. While taking an early evening walk around my neighborhood, I decided to cross a dry irrigation creek split in two by a 4-foot high narrow grassy ridge. Based on its flat, well-trodden crest, the local White-tailed Deer have used it as a walkway into a clump of tall shrubs about 50 feet away. Luckily, they haven’t strayed close to the edges. Just at the point where the ridge-top goes from flat to vertical, I spied a clump of lilac-colored Pasque flowers (Pulsatilla hirsutissima or Pulsatilla patens), then another and another. What a delight!

Wildflowers

Pasque by Lisa Desnmore

This is my first spring in Montana. I had never seen a pasque flower, which is so named because it blooms around Passover and Easter. It’s also called a May Day flower for the same reason. It reminds me of an oversized version of the purple crocuses that poked their heads above the ground in my New Hampshire garden as the last crystals of snow melted into the earth, but they aren’t related. Pasque flowers are wild tundra anenomes, that blooms throughout the northwest and Alaska. It is the state flower of South Dakota. Though more than one flower stem can emerge from its woody taproot, it propagates by seed. If you look below this lavender beauty’s showy 3-inch flower, you can see its silky hairs along its short stem, which helps insulate it from the inevitable early spring cold snap.

wildflowers

American Pasque by Lisa Densmore

Pasque flowers were used by the early Blackfoot Indians to induce abortions and childbirth. Today, it is a homeopathic treatment for cataracts, but this is in the category of “don’t try this at home”. Excessive ingestion of this toxic plant can lead to heart failure. I would rather have my heart beat pick up a little whenever I see this ground hugging flower, not only for its colorful display, but also because it signals warmer weather and a greener landscape close at hand.

wildflowers

Pasque by Lisa Desnmore

Curious, Crazy Crossbills

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Friday, April 27th, 2012

Red Crossbills by Jack Ballard

They’ve shown up in my life at odd places and times. They’ve visited my feeder when I lived in the pine-covered hills near Billings, Montana. I’ve watched them sipping droplets of melting snow from a vertical snow bank in the parking lot of Harriman State Park in Idaho. They are colorful birds and very strange.

For starters, Red Crossbills (loxia curvirostra) have a crazy bill just as their name implies. The mandibles cross over one another, giving the beak the appearance of a twist-tie tacked onto the face of a bird. Ornithologists point out that the bizarre beak of the crossbill is quite useful, aiding them in their quest for the nuts of evergreens, their primary food source.

Breeding among crossbills doesn’t follow the usual pattern of springtime mating. Rather, the birds mate when they discover a robust source of mature cones in evergreen trees. Crossbills may breed almost any time of the year, except when periods of daylight drop below 12 hours in the fall. Given an adequate cone crop, breeding may resume as early as January, or about the time days lengthen to more than 10 hours.

Eight different sub-species or “races” of crossbills have been identified north of the Mexico border, distinct populations differentiated by various flight calls. Birds from separate flight call races do not normally breed with each other, maintaining a high degree of genetic isolation between the various flight call sub-sets. Male crossbills have reddish plumage while females sport more yellowish or olive tones. Sightings of these curious birds are as transient as the cone crops they follow, making it ever a treat to set eyes on a crossbill.

European Starling

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Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

European Starling by Lisa Densmore

Location: Red Lodge, MT

They sat like a line of loiters on a very long bench in a city park. Except they were in Montana, 30 feet up in the air on a telephone wire. They could have been in Florida (where I took this photo), Kansas or Oregon. European Starlings (Stumus vulgaris) are common wherever people live in North America. When they’re not hanging out on a high wire, tree or rooftop, they fly around in large noisy flocks, descending onto fields and parking lots alike, eating everything from bugs to berries, grains to garbage.

If birds are judged by the company they keep, European Starlings are the street gangs of the bird world, hanging out with aggressive birds such as Grackles and Crows and chasing other cavity nesters, even birds that are much larger such as Wood Ducks, from their abodes. Sometimes a European Starling will lay an egg in the nest of another starling or a different species of bird, leaving the childrearing to a stranger. No wonder European Starlings were dubbed “vulgaris”, though they weren’t always considered so lowbrow.

Wood Duck, adult male © Glenn Bartley/VIREO

In the 1890’s, a group of Shakespeare lovers brought every species of bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays to New York City, including 100 European Starlings, and released them in Central Park. Those 100 birds have now grown to 200 million. The fact that they can fly fast, up to 48 miles per hour, and live long, the oldest recorded wild starling lived almost 16 years, has helped them proliferate so profusely.

European Starlings can be rather attractive in the right light, with their winter spots and glossy iridescent feathers. Interestingly, they lose their spots in the spring through a process called “wear molting”. Their feathers don’t fall out. The white wears off. Each fall, the new feathers that grow in have white tips giving the bird spots again. European Starlings resemble stocky blackbirds with short tails. They are easier to identify by sight rather than by sound as they can mimic up to 20 different species of birds. Have you ever heard a starling and thought it was something else?

Variations in Rough-legged Hawks

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Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

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 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 AudubonGuides.com app has a common look, variations occur. Have you seen birds-of-a-color that really are not?

Pine Siskin

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Wednesday, April 4th, 2012

Pine Siskin by Lisa Densmore

Location: Red Lodge, Montana

When I peered at our thistle-filled bird feeder the other day, three Pine Siskins (Spinus pinus) poked ravenously at the seeds. Another half dozen flitted from branch to branch in the dormant Quaking Aspen tree from which the swaying feeder hung. It was a nasty day, a blizzard. Dime-sized snowflakes streaked sideways by the window of our house. The wind was so strong the feeder was rarely vertical to the ground. I bundled up to get this shot, finding a modicum of shelter by pressing my body against a leeward wall of the house for the few moments I dallied outdoors.

The siskins handled the storm with much more aplomb. These little finches do not need to be upright to eat. They cling to the end of branches, sometimes upside down, to pluck a seed from a pinecone. If a larger bird finds a seed that’s too big for a siskin’s beak, such as a sunflower seed, they’ll flutter by, gleaning a scrap from the larger bird.

A Pine Siskin has a pointed bill that’s more slender than most finches. They are streaked brown, black and white with yellow on their wings, which is visible when their wings are folded.

During the winter, this little songbird often visits feeders in flocks, twittering constantly and rarely sitting still unless it’s stabbing its sharp bill into a pile of thistle seeds. I was glad a few stopped by on this blustery day. Though Pine Siskins are not considered rare – they sometimes migrate in flocks of 1,000 or more birds – they are notorious for being around one winter then gone the next. This might be my only chance to see them for a while. Have you spotted any Pine Siskins lately?