Monday, May 28, 2007

Montana Bird Festival Season

Fort Peck, MT - Field season is upon me and so the blog posts are probably going to be farther apart, at least until the beginning of July. It is also bird festival season and two that I am particularly fond of are the Glasgow FeatherFest, our small, local festival with great birds, and the Montana Audubon annual festival, an event that annually moves around Montana, providing local communities across Montana with an economic boost from birds and also provides participants with the opportunity to observe a wide variety of bird species across Montana.

The Glasgow FeatherFest has been going on for 3 years now (last year it was held in conjunction with the Montana Audubon annual bird festival). We have a small group of people working to put this on so we have decided to alternate our efforts each year. This year we are focusing on getting local individuals who may be interested in birds, but may feel overwhelmed to attend a larger function, to attend. We are having an orientation talk and field trips this year, including a Missouri River canoe float, but no lectures or keynote addresses. Next year we will again be looking for lecturers and a keynote speaker that we hope will help draw in more people from around the country. I am hoping that our bird list will help draw in those speakers too! (more on birding in Northeastern Montana later). I would provide a link for more information about the FeatherFest but that is something we currently lack and I am hoping to correct soon.

I will also be attending the Montana Audubon Festival in Ennis, MT next weekend. I am giving a talk on grassland birds and also providing the keynote address where I will talk about Antarctica and Antarctic birds. I am looking forward to seeing a number of friends I haven't visited with in a long time as well as hopefully observing a few species I haven't seen in Montana before. More information on this festival can be found here.

Black-headed Grosbeak

Saturday, May 19, 2007

More grouse and recording with the Nevilles

A 3:00 a.m. start began the week on Monday morning. I headed east to begin the last shorebird survey and found a Sharp-tailed Grouse lek at the beginning of the route. I delayed starting the survey a bit so I could watch the birds displaying. I hadn't been to a Sharp-tailed Grouse lek for a number of years and I had forgotten how entertaining these birds are. The displays are very active with plenty of foot stomping and calling. The most entertaining part for me however was the cessation of displays for short periods of time. At some cue all displaying would stop. It was as if there was a cosmic pause in time, with the birds frozen in mid-dance. The only clue that time was still proceeding was the background chorus of Western Meadowlarks and Savannah Sparrows. Then, with another unknown cue, all the birds would begin to display again, stomping and turning as if nothing had happened. I will have to remember to get back to this lek next spring to take more photos.
The survey went well and I was able traverse some landscape that I hadn't explored before. It was still similar to the route I had done last week with much of the country tilled.
I also spent some time this week with John and Heather Neville. John records bird songs as a consuming hobby/vocation and has produced a number of CD's of bird songs, mostly with Canadian themes. Here is his website. His current project is a CD of prairie birds and I am eagerly waiting for this one to be done. I really like his recordings because he doesn't filter out all the background sounds and it is fun to figure out what other birds are present in the recordings of the target bird songs. It is also much more like really being in the habitats he is recording in and listening for birds. They are also a very nice couple to be in the field with. At last report John had gotten a number of good recordings of species that he needed out of his trip here and I hope that when he finally heads home that he gets good recordings of all of the birds he was looking for.

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Brown-headed Cowbird, mid display.

Tree Swallow at sunset

Sunday, May 13, 2007

I love this time of year

It started Friday morning. I was eating breakfast with the window open. It was a windless morning - rare in eastern Montana - and I could hear a bird song in the backyard. I figured I knew what it was, but firing up the rusty neurons of bird song ID in the spring always leaves me a bit unsure the first time around. So I grabbed my binoculars and headed out the door. It was coming from the near the top of a tall tree in the corner of the yard and I wandered around the tree a couple of times looking for the bird but just couldn't locate him in the newly leafed out branches. Then finally, there it was - a chevron of cherry red against a snowy breast. My first Rose-breasted Grosbeak of the year.

I decided that I needed a bit of birding time by myself and used some credit time to spend an hour so down by the river before I headed to work. It was wonderful. Yellow-rumped Warblers, Yellow Warblers, a few Orange-crowned Warblers and one Blackpoll Warbler and Northern Waterthrush rounded out the list of warblers. Tree Swallows, Barn Swallows, Cliff Swallows, and Chimney Swifts were foraging in the early morning air above the old winter harbor that was once the winter home to barges that were used to construct Fort Peck dam. House Wrens were numerous for a bird that has apparently arrived that night. I even found one hauling small twigs into a nest box. There were many Chipping and Clay-colored Sparrows as well. Least Flycathers were mixed in with the warblers flittting in the foliage along the river. On the way into Glasgow I found a Broad-winged Hawk in a small coulee behind the Fort Peck Theater. Broad-winged Hawks are rare but regular in eastern Montana during the spring migration.
Yesterday I completed the first of my two shorebird surveys. It was a bit windy and the habitat wasn't that great but I did find a few upland shorebirds on the route. There were many Baird's Sparrows, Chestnut-collared Longspurs and Sprague's Pipits when I found a patch of native prairie but the patches were few and far between. Much of the landscape was tilled and all I found at stops in that habitat were Western Meadowlarks and Horned Larks. There was a fairly large patch of native prairie along the Poplar River where I could get a sense of what the landscape must have been like before the plow, but it was too depressing to dwell on too long. Thankfully we still have large patches of native prairie left in portions of Valley County but on a larger scale much of the northern Great Plains has been converted to agriculture and threats to the remaining grassland continue to build with the new gold rush to biofuels and genetically modified corn. More on this subject to follow soon.

Chimney Swift

Broad-winged Hawk

Red-winged Blackbird

Tree Swallow

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Thursday, May 10, 2007

South Valley County, Montana

I wound up not doing the shorebird survey I had planned, but I did head out to collect some Greater Sage-grouse feathers on a lek I hadn't gotten to yet. It was a great day to be out and I found between 1000 and 1500 Wilson's Phalaropes and 5 Hudsonian Godwits on a stock reservoir. The godwits are particularly rare in MT and it is only the second time I have seen this species. Lots of other species have arrived and the sage is starting to fill up with the summer residents. Swainson's Hawks, Lark Bunting, Willets, Marbled Godwits, Loggerhead Shrikes, Brewer's Sparrows, and McCown's Longspurs. I even had a gorgeous Peregrine Falcon fly alongside the vehicle and then land in a dead tree just off the road (far enough not to be able to get a decent picture though). Here is a sample of the sights from today:

Horned Lark

Vesper Sparrow

McCown's Longspur

Mountain Plover

American White Pelican


Evening Primrose


Purple Bluebells

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

One more

This is one of my favorite funny sign photos I took in western Montana a few years ago.

Mike Nolan's New Photos

Mike Nolan at Michael S. Nolan's Wildlife Images has finally returned from his long voyage on the National Geographic Endeavour and has posted a number of excellent photos from his time on board. Check it out. Here is a photo courtesy of Sally Kleberg of Mike and me during the benefit auction for Oceanites on board the Endeavour (Mike is on the right).


While I am trying to get back on track at work and at home I will just be posting a few pictures. This is the first and depicts some erosion channels in the badland formations south of Fort Peck.

Tomorrow I am finally getting back out to do some fieldwork! I will be doing the first of two shorebird surveys to be done this week.

Monday, May 7, 2007

There and Back Again (with apologies to Bilbo Baggins)

Finally back home again! Shortly before I got back to Fort Peck from my trip to Colorado, Laura called to tell me that her Grandfather had passed away. He was our last grandparent and a very good man and it was an easy choice for us to make to attend the funeral. The only problem was that it was in Omaha on Tuesday morning. So, Monday afternoon I was heading back to the Billings Airport, this time with two small boys and Laura on our way to Omaha. Benton had a grand adventure in the airplanes and really liked watching the cars and buildings get small. We arrived late at night on Monday and stayed with Laura's aunt and uncle. The funeral took place on a very nice spring day with Chimney Swifts chittering overhead. I was very honored to be a pallbearer for the funeral and we had a very nice and simple ceremony for a man that didn't like anyone to fuss over him.
We spent the rest of the week on Omaha visiting with Laura's relatives. We were able to take the boys to the Omaha Zoo and it was fun to listen to Benton talk about the different species he recognized at the penguin exhibit. I had planned on getting out either Friday or Saturday morning for a little birding at the Fontenelle Forest but it was raining pretty hard both mornings so I wound up not going.
It was nice to see Chimney Swifts all over Omaha and when I arrived back in Fort Peck and went to my Mom and Dad's house to pick up the dogs, the Chimney Swifts that nest in the chimney at the old school across the street were observed for the first time this spring.