Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Elk Evening

Mid to late September is the peak of the elk rut in Montana and over the last few years I have managed at least one trip to spend some time at the Slippery Ann Elk Viewing Area on the west end of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. This year I made the trip last night. 
I had planned on making the two hour trip north from Billings on a weekday night to avoid the large crowds that form on weekend evenings and the weather this week looked favorable. 
The viewing areas is a section of the refuge bordered on the south by the Missouri River and a gallery of large Cottonwood trees and willows. A dirt road runs roughly parallel with the river and in between the trees and the road is a rather large open meadow area that I believe used to be irrigated hay fields. There are also large patches of greasewood bordering the meadow and trees. The elk spend the bulk of the day out of sight along the river under the trees, but as the sun sinks low in the evening they begin to filter out of the trees to forage in meadows and the hills on the other side of the road to the north. Some nights the road is completely lined with vehicles waiting for the elk to emerge. When I arrived there were only a couple other vehicles near my usual spot. I turned off my vehicle and immediately heard elk bugling in the trees and there was also a noticeable high pitched whine in the air. I had managed to avoid the crowds of people, but not the crowds of mosquitoes. They were horrible due the some recent heavy rains. Even the Boreal Chorus Frogs were singing again. 

The elk action started out slow. Even though I could hear a few bulls bugling in the trees, it seemed that there were fewer elk in this portion of the viewing area than in the past. I visited with a few folks I knew from Billings and after a while with only a couple of distant bulls moving in and out of the trees, they decided to move further down the road to where there were more cars parked and it appeared a herd of elk were moving closer to the road. I stuck it out at my spot and soon a rather rough looking bull and a couple of cows emerged from the trees in front of me. 

They were soon joined by a few more cows and calves and the bull continued to move back and forth behind the cows between them and the other bulls I could hear back in the trees. This situation didn't last for long. Soon another group of cows emerged from behind the curtain of trees and on their heels was a bull. 

It was apparent rather quickly that he ruled the area. As soon as he emerged, my rough looking bull turned tail and headed away from the cows and he was quickly escorted out of the area by the new bull. 

The cows slowly fed out of the greasewood to an open area directly in front of me and soon the bull joined them. I kept an eye on the bull as he patrolled the area between the cows and the treeline and was privileged to an evening of elk before the daylight faded. 


Monday, September 8, 2014

World Shorebird Day

Last Saturday (September 6th) was the first annual World Shorebird Day.  That, along with a recent email describing the shorebirds found during a recent visit by another Montana birder (thanks Ed), finally got me to prioritize some time to get to Spidel Waterfowl Management Area near Broadview, MT.  It is a rather shallow water body and it often doesn't have much if any water in it, but this spring it filled up good and summer rains have kept the water levels fairly high with enough exposed shoreline to continue to be attractive to migrating shorebirds. I had hoped to get to Spidel much sooner than this, but life conspired against me for planned outings for much of the summer. This time I made it work and it was well worth it. The wetland area sits to the east of the access road so afternoons are best for viewing.  The weather Saturday was gorgeous too. No wind, sunny, and pleasant temps. We arrived late in the afternoon and had great light and there were lots of birds. Most of the birds were molting waterfowl sitting on the far side of the lake, but there were scattered bunches of small sandpipers and American Avocets along the near shoreline.

There were also mixed flocks of a variety of other shorebirds, including Baird's Sandpipers, Stilt Sandpipers, Least Sandpipers, Lesser Yellowlegs, and Greater Yellowlegs.

Even the Killdeer were photogenic in the golden evening light.

We weren't the only ones there looking for shorebirds.

This Peregrine Falcon was chasing shorebirds at the far end of the lake and generally causing a ruckus wherever he was including a few passes at a Northern Harrier passing through. There were also a few California Gulls hanging around and as the sun set a large number of Franklin's Gulls flew in to the lake from the south.

It was great to finally get out and look at (and photograph) some wildlife.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Just a Leaf

It is just a leaf. A Plains Cottonwood leaf to be more precise. But that morning it was much more. That morning I was sitting in the backyard with my dying dog. The cancer had finally closed it's fist around her body and was squeezing hard. We knew out time together was reaching the terminus of the arc projected that April day we were joined together 12 1/2 years ago in central Alberta.  

I was spending a few last precious moments with her that morning reminiscing over the overlap of our lives and what she meant to me and my family. She joined us when our family was composed of me, Laura, Kiela our golden retriever, and Luna the border collie. Benton joined us less than a year later and Crean a few years after that. She was the youngster causing problems with the old dogs and eating baby socks. Then she was our only dog. My boys have always had her as a companion and that was about to change. 

As I stroked her back I noticed a cottonwood leaf next to her. It had also reached the terminus of its life and fallen from our backyard tree. That connection in death - my dog and this leaf -  struck me and I placed it on her side. The fallen leaf triggered autumn memories of days hunting sharptails in the Eastern Montana wooded draws and sage-grouse in the barely green washes of the dry sagebrush flats (where she always amazed me by finding water to immerse herself in no matter how dry it was - she was a water dog). Then the bitterly cold morning when she retrieved three Canada Geese from a slushy Missouri River and then stood in the river, decked in jeweled ice waiting for more. 

Then it dawned on me that I was looking at a golden heart with a black hole in it and the leaf became even more. It was me and my family. We have lots of family memories that include that dog. Her little walkabouts in Fort Peck that left us scrambling to find her only to have her stroll home when she had had enough (or announce her presence in the back of the pickup where I had forgotten her when we got home) to a week on a Minnesota lake where she spent 90% of her time either leisurely paddling around the cove or flying off the dock to retrieve something the kids had thrown for her.  She had integrated herself into our hearts from the first five hours of crying during our initial ride home to her last hours crawling into the backyard pool for one last dip (she was a water dog). She is gone now. There is a hole in our lives somewhat filled by the spunky pup Sage, but she is gone.

I got up and the leaf slipped off her back and into the grass. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Mid-Winter Party Invitations from Antarctica - Davis Station

As I noted in my previous post, a number of the Antarctic research bases host a mid-winter party to celebrate the (southern hemisphere) winter solstice and they send out invitations to the other bases scattered around the continent (which is bigger than the continental US - see the photo from NASA below for a relative size comparison).
The invitations often mention various amenities the station can provide to guests, the menu for the mid-winter dinner, as well as other activities visitors could enjoy while at the base - knowing full well that there is now way in hell anyone is ever going to show up in response to their invitations. My kind of humor.

My favorite invitation from this year's bunch was the invite from Davis Station; an Australian base located near where Connecticut is on the US map above. There was a lot of work that went into this invitation without the expectation of any response - at least a response of attendance. Here it is: