Monday, April 14, 2014

Godzilla in a Feather Boa - Greater Sage-Grouse

Last year one of my friends commented on a portrait of a Greater Sage-Grouse I had taken that spring. He said that the photo looked like a picture of Godzilla in a feather boa. Now I can't see anything but that so I am passing that thought along to the rest of you.

These are a few photos from a recent morning spent on one of my favorite leks. It is a rather new (for us to know about) lek that was found by a couple of my interns a few years ago after their diligent sleuthing and early morning searching and it has figured prominently in a couple of graduate projects I was fortunate to be part of. It also happens to be in one of my favorite landscapes so spending time there is therapeutic. It was nice to have a meeting with sage-grouse rather than about sage-grouse for a change.

Sunny side up

Fan Dance

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Flyway Envy

Nearly all my life I have lived outside of a bird migration flyway, the rather predictable rivers of birds flowing north and south, back and forth from breeding and wintering areas. I grew up on the edge of a flyway floodplain, if we are to keep with the river analogy. Migration was apparent but only when the flood was on. Perhaps the closest I have come to living in the middle of the channel was a few months I spent working in central Texas doing birds surveys. Not only was I in the middle of the river, I was "fishing" every day - it was spectacular. I still relish the memories of the staggered pulses of migrants flowing through our study sites as the spring progressed, as well as the in-your-face spectacle of the morning arrival of trans-gulf migrants on the Gulf Coast.

I still live well outside the major channels of bird migration and every spring I hear the reports of the appearance of bird species west of the continental divide - "I just saw four Violet-green Swallows over East Broadway in Missoula."-  species that I know I will not see on the eastern plains for at least another month.

By the end of the week I had had enough. I knew where I could get relief from the migration doldrums, and in a big way, so on Saturday I headed north out of Billings early in the morning overcast. I had checked the weather forecast and it looked like on Saturday afternoon there would be a short-lived thumb-like protrusion of clear skies along the Rocky Mountain Front into the overcast that was covering the state. The tip of the thumb was supposed to be right where I was headed.

I began to observe signs of the ongoing migration well before I arrived at my destination. Mobs of migrating crows, twenty or thirty to a bunch, were scattered in the fields and roadside ditches, grounded by the wind a rain. Here and there was a Western Meadowlark, recently arrived for the summer or just moving through to points further north. I also found a few Rough-legged Hawks along my route. They are winter residents in Montana, but these birds had most likely spent their winter further south and were on their way much farther north.

Late in the morning I arrived at Freezeout Wildlife Management Area just south of Choteau, Montana. Most of the migrant Snow Geese, the birds I had come here to see, were feeding in the nearby fields. I looked over the birds at the nearby Priest Lake and then headed back to Freezeout to watch the geese come back to the lake when they were done feeding. I could see the thumb of clear sky jabbing south along the front and I found a spot along the east side of the lake where I hoped the birds would be moving over me towards the lake from the fields.

It was, in short, another spectacular day watching bird migration in action. I got to visit with a few folks (out of the 100's that were there to watch the geese) and it is always a great time and place to see friends with similar interests. There were at least 250,000 Snow Geese at the lake that day and although the clear sky never quite made it all the way south to Freezeout, I had a thoroughly enjoyable and much needed day outside watching birds.

This was an interesting bird that appears to lack black pigment. Notice how degraded the flight feathers are compared to the normally pigmented birds on the right. The black pigment in feathers makes them more resistant to wear.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Torres del Paine National Park

Another older photo. This time from the southern end of South America in Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile. I sure miss this place, this landscape, and my friends that live there.

Guanaco (Lama guanicoe) in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Winter Hawk

This photo isn't that old, but I just didn't get around to posting it earlier. This was taken earlier this month during a walk along the Yellowstone River.

Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)
Yellowstone River, Montana

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Winter Eagle

I have been going through older photos lately and finding some that I hadn't processed before. I plan on sharing a few here as I go through them. This is the first one - taken on my weekly commute through the lonely and beautiful stretch between Fort Peck and Billings a couple of winters ago. My drives were time lapse snapshots of a landscape in transition as it slowly blended into spring from one of the harshest winters in many years. The Golden Eagles starting to become more prevalent in late February and their gargoyle shapes topped many on the buttes and rocky outcrops along my route.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

March is a Tease

l took advantage of the recent lack of snow and headed north of town to explore a new area around Lake Mason National Wildlife Refuge. The west-of-the-divide reports of a wide variety of waterfowl migrating through the Flathead Valley got me itching to go see what I could find on the eastern plains. The answer was - not much. I checked out a few areas of native prairie I plan to return to later in the spring and then headed towards the wetland portion of the refuge. I wish I could have got there. The road turned to a slippery sinking mess well before I could get to the refuge boundary so rather than tempt getting stuck I turned around with plans to get back after it dries out a bit. Horned Larks were setting up territories throughout the drive and there was a number of large flocks of Canada Geese tacking north against the strong west wind. One small flock of Tundra Swans flew over me and a few Mallards littered the occasional puddle. I also found scattered herds of Pronghorn along one stretch of road. There was a lot of standing water north of Billings in the Broadview flats and maybe more waterfowl will start to arrive in the next couple of weeks. Guess I will just have to try it again.