Saturday, June 28, 2008

Montana Prairie Morning

The month of June is the best time to be out on the prairie. If you time it right you can beat the mosquitoes and it is even better. This spring the prairie in Northeastern Montana was quite dry but we have made up for it in the last month or so. I have been spending too much time being a government bureaucrat in front of my computer and no time being a wildlife biologist and I have desperately missed being out on the prairie in the morning. Last week I was able to get a quick morning trip in when two young Montana birders, Josh Covill and Andrew Guttenburg were in town. They were on their way back home from the ABA Young Birders Conference in Minot, North Dakota and they both wanted to see Mountain Plovers and McCown's Longspurs. Dad drove and we took them and Andrew's sister out to find both species. We found them right away and were back in town before too long. Not much time in the field but finding life birds for someone is always good.

This morning I needed to get out. Looming and past deadlines and general ill weather in the office have been taking their toll and I needed a recharge. I headed north early this morning to one of my favorite areas full of Chestnut-collared Longspurs, Sprague's Pipits, Baird's Sparrows, and a few McCown's Longspurs. I have been trying to get a real good photo of a Chestnut-collared Longspur and I had hoped that I get that accomplished this year but it looks like unless I get out some more mornings soon, I am going to have to wait until next year. It was still a very nice morning.

Lots of longspurs around but they are hard to get close to.

Unless you count nests, I found this one with little effort. Must be a re-nest for this pair.

Ferruginous Hawks were flying around.

A Northern Harrier heavy into molt too.

A pair of Savannah Sparrows were tending a nest with four young.

Baird's Sparrow were quite common too.

A Badger was working a hole, probably digging out a Richardson's Ground Squirrel.

When I walked up to the hole to see what was going on I found this Burying Beetle in the dirt recently excavated from the hole.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

New Bird Classification

The results from a genetic assessment of a wide range of birds has found some very interesting results on the relationships between birds families. Very interesting and exciting.
The Early Bird Project had been collecting DNA sequence data from all major living groups of birds and will publish the results tomorrow in Science.
The implications from the research are far reaching and suggest that modern habitat associations and lifestyles evolved several times and falcons are not closely related to eagles, hummingbirds evolved from a nightjar type ancestor, and tropicbirds are not related to pelicans and other waterbirds. The basal evolutionary group is not shorebirds as previously thought, and tinamous have a common ancestor with the ostrich and emu.
Perhaps the most exciting thing that I take from this research applies to all life on earth and suggests how wonderfully diverse and adaptable we are and that each individual animal contains within it the stuff that enables species to respond and adapt to change over time.
More here.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

New Books

Today I received two new books for my Father's Day gift. Both are books I have been looking forward to reading and after glancing through them I am even more excited to get some reading in.

The first book is Return to Warden's Grove by Christopher Norment. This book came with high expectations on a recommendation from the author's brother-in-law; my good friend, and fellow co-author on the Birds of Montana project, Paul Hendricks. The book is ostensibly about 3 field seasons in the arctic studying Harris Sparrows but it appears that there is much more in there than just descriptions of study sites and findings. I am looking forward to reading this through and I will give a complete review when I am done. I already found one quote from Christopher I really like and describes my feelings for the Antarctic (and Arctic):

"In the dream I understand where I am, what keeps me rooted in the world, and why this arctic ache, this desire born out of emptiness and space and living things, will be with me always."

The other book is the latest edition of what was already a great book, now made even better. It is the new edition of The Complete Guide to Antarctic Wildlife: Birds and Marine Mammals of the Antarctic Continent and the Southern Ocean by Hadoram Shirihai. Again, I will review this edition when I have some time to delve into it a bit more but it certainly looks great and just thumbing through the pages this evening has me feeling an Antarctic ache and wishing for the logistics to work out for me to be able to venture south again this year and experience the emptiness and space and living things.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

1940 LaFrance Fire Engine

The reason I missed the fledgling of the last Hairy Woodpecker from the nest in my yard was a fund raiser for the local volunteer fire department. We raised over $4000 in donations selling coffee and generously donated homemade caramel rolls, cinnamon rolls, and cereal marshmallow treats in the morning and burgers and hot dogs in the afternoon. This works out to a per capita donation of about $16.

The main reason for the fundraiser is to purchase newer equipment. This is most evident in the fire trucks we use. One of the two fire truck we have (two others are county vehicles we use mostly for grass fires) is a 1940 LaFrance Fire Engine. We still use it and it still works although the brakes are a bit temperamental. Here are some photos of this fine old fire engine.

Here is the LaFrance in front of the Fort Peck Theater. They both are about the same age. The theater was constructed to provide entertainment for the workers building Fort Peck Dam in the thirties and it has a number of old movie posters still on display in the lobby. It is currently the home of a summer theater company and each summer they have a number of plays here.

This sign is on the dash of the LaFrance. Obviously from a different time.

All Gone

Yesterday when I was able to get back home after being gone all morning, the backyard was very quiet. The last Hairy Woodpecker fledgling had exited the nest and the air was devoid of calling adults and begging chicks. I still find myself glancing at the entrance to the cavity as I walk through our dining room to see who is hanging out the hole or what is being fed but there is just an empty hole in the side of the tree.

Friday, June 20, 2008

They Grow Up So Fast

Today was a bittersweet day. I came home from work and traded hello's with Laura as she headed into town with the boys for Benton's last t-ball game (if you ever want some great entertainment, watch a kids t-ball game!). I foraged in the fridge for a bit and sat down to watch the Hairy Woodpeckers before heading into the blind to get a few more photos before they are gone. As I sat down I noticed that the male woodpecker was foraging on the ground further out in the backyard. "that's interesting" I thought to myself as I prepared to watch him gather his next meal for the kids, "I haven't seen him forage there before". That's when I did a double take and noticed that it wasn't the male but one of the female woodpecker chicks, now fledgling. I went to grab the camera and realized it had just drove off in the van with my family. Due to work schedules, swimming lessons, a meeting for Laura, and daycare I wound up driving the van home from town and left my camera in it when Laura headed back for t-ball. Damn.

At least I still had my banding kit. I gathered up my bands and snagged the newly fledged bird against the backyard fence. It seems kind of a weird coincidence but the smell of the young woodpecker reminded me of the smell of a Giant Petrel, a sweet musty smell. All petrels I have handled have had an interesting smell to them and it was very similar to this young woodpecker.
I released the bird near the nest hole and she didn't even seem to recognize what it was from the outside and she headed right up the trunk past the nest hole. I retired to a chair near the back door and watched the family for a while. After watching for a while the young female launched out of the tree and flew rather strongly for such a new flyer, only to thunk against the side of the fence and attach herself like a tick to the boards. She was there for a long while but when I checked again about 15 minutes later she had moved somewhere else.
I think there were at least 3 young in the nest since one female was still left in the nest and there had been at least one male in there as well.
I watched the pair continue to feed the one last bird in the nest and it seemed that they were working on getting the last nestling out into the world. Even yesterday they would stick their head into the hole to feed the young. Today they would just give the chick a taste then move a bit down the trunk to get the youngster to move even farther out of the hole to get fed. I suspect that by late tomorrow morning I will not longer have the youngsters living exclusively in my backyard.
Here are a few photos from the last few days.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

You've Got Your Mother's Eyes

This young owl is one of this year's progeny from the mother owl I found this spring.

Glasgow Feather Fest

Last weekend we had our latest Glasgow Feather Fest bird festival. We are the longest running local bird festival in MT (Montana Audubon has been doing a bird festival every year for longer than us but they move around from town to town across the state).

We generally don't get a lot of people but we certainly get some good birds. This year we had about 3o people registered, about three for every Baird's Sparrow we found at one stop on Saturday.

One of the many Bairds Sparrow observed at one spot on our Saturday field trip to north Valley County.

We also found at least as many Sprague's Pipits at the same spot. Chestnut-collared Longspurs were all over the place.

*I recently worked up some rough population estimates for the grasslands of Northeastern Montana and found that for many of the grassland species of concern (Baird's Sparrow, Sprague's Pipit, McCown's Longspur), this area contained over 100% of the estimated global population! I treated all grasslands in our area equal and that could account for over-estimating these populations because most certainly only a portion of the grasslands function at the level where most of our surveys were conducted. On the flip side, our density estimates for most species are probably under-estimates somewhat making up for the over-estimate of the extent of habitat. There is also the possibility that the global population estimates may be low for some of these species too. The bottom line is that this part of the world is near the top of the best places left for North American grassland birds.

Oh yeah, the bird festival. Our Saturday trip wasn't able to get to all the places we would have liked because the roads were still quite muddy after our couple of weeks of much needed rain. We spent a bit of time next to a pothole type wetland before heading home.

We also conducted a bird banding demonstration on Sunday morning lead by Ryan Rauscher from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Park. We also had a couple of local Boy Scouts join us. Not many birds this year all the way around (I should write more about this later - it is rather disturbing). We banded about 15 individuals that morning but the best bird was our first bird. A male Yellow Warbler that we had originally banded last year during the demonstration at last years festival.

Other field trips included one that toured the Fort Peck area, another that went to the southern part of the county where we should have been able to find Mountain Plovers and McCown's Longspurs but the rain and the roads conspired against us. The most popular tour is a canoe trip down the Missouri River below Fort Peck Dam where we found Red-headed Woodpeckers among many other species.

All in all it was a pretty good weekend and we must be doing something right. It rained for two weeks before the festival but not during the festival and the wind even let up on Sunday for the canoe trip!

Friday, June 13, 2008

More Bird License Plates

I have added a couple more bird related license plates to the album on my sidebar. Both of these were sent to me recently. If you have a photo of any bird related plates you would like to share, please pass them along to: jccarlso at surfbirder dot com.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Orchids still

Although this orchid is done blooming and ready to transplant into my new pot, the other (pictured above) is still blooming strong.

More old signs

Here are a few more photos of old signs. I like to document old signs painted on the sides of buildings as well as old bars signs. These were taken on a recent very quick trip to Bozeman.

Moving Up

A while back I joined the Nature Blog Network just to get a bit more exposure and join the crowd. I would occasionally check to see where I was in the ranking and see how many people stopped by PrairieIce.
A couple of weeks ago their accounting of visitorship appears to have ceased working like it should and the number of reported visitors for everyone's blog plummeted.
Early last week I decided to see what was going on and headed to my usual place in the rankings, about 3 pages in to the list.

I wasn't there.

I went to the next page back.

Not there either.

I thought I must have really fallen with the new accounting and looked to the end of the list.

No PrairieIce.

Then I decided to check from the beginning to see where I missed it or if it was not listed anymore.

There I was on the first page!

This morning I am number 6 on the list!

I don't know how this has happened and it is kind of funny for a site that averages about 30-40 people a day to be in front of blogs that were averaging over a thousand unique visitors a day before the change in visitor accounting.
Hopefully the Nature Blog Network will get things fixed soon but for now it is kind of nice to be on the front page and I will take it while it lasts.
For all of you who stopped by after seeing PrairieIce on the network - Hello and I hope you like my journal.
And if you want so to see the last best prairie, come visit!

Saturday, June 7, 2008

And the Winner is.....

A couple of months ago the local Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture had a contest for this year's t-shirt design for the Longest Dam Race, our local running (and biking) contest.

Laura had encouraged Benton to do a drawing for the contest and he was all for it. He spent one evening working on his design.

Guess who won?

Here is Benton holding his winning design.

A closer view of his work.

The objects on the left are the powerhouses, the power generating facilities at Fort Peck Dam. Here is a photo I took earlier this spring of the buildings so you can see what he was going for.

More Bird License Plates

I have added a photo album to my sidebar to display all the photos of bird license plates. Caleb Putnam, formerly of Montana and now residing in Michigan, sent me a couple of new plates. Don't try to figure out what the Michigan plate means though. It isn't personalized but an example of a bird conservation plate produced by Michigan.
Mom and Dad are in Billings this weekend for the state Audubon Bird Festival and I am hoping that they come back with some more photos for me to add to this album.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Bringing Home the Bugs.

The male and female Hairy Woodpeckers have been very busy lately. They are continually moving back and forth from the nest cavity bringing all sorts of interesting insects to their brood. We still haven't observed any youngsters at the mouth of the cavity and both parents still disappear completely into the cavity when they bring food but we sure can hear the youngsters making lots of noise when the think someone is going to bring them food.
What an interesting world view they must have right now. Their whole world consists of wood walls and one glowing magic opening where Mom and Dad disappear into the light only to return with more food (and take away the fecal sacs, a membranous bag of bird poop kind of like bird diapers produced by young birds as a way of keeping the nest cleaner).

Monday, June 2, 2008

More New Neighbors

Yesterday afternoon while doing some landscaping in my backyard I found a new neighbor living in the back corner of our yard.

This Black-headed Grosbeak nest was actually quite easy to find, particularly when he was incubating. He couldn't shut up. He was singing the whole time he was on the nest and I could tell when he had taken incubation duties after the female was on the nest for a while because his singing was coming from one spot rather than all around they neighborhood. There is apparently still a bit of disagreement about his territory though. I watched what I assume was this male and another fighting near the nest. They had locked bills and were tumbling through the branches as they each tried to gain an advantage. Both were singing through the whole thing too.

This species has become much more common in the area over the last 20 years. I don't remember seeing many when I was younger but they are fairly abundant bird in the area now.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Baltilocks or Bullomore?

Here is a photo of one of the male hybrid orioles that has been found in Fort Peck for the last couple of years. This one looks more "Bullocks-ish" and the other male is more "Baltimore-ish". He has been coming to the oranges and grape jelly we have out for the orioles as well frequenting the orange and jelly smorgasbord at Mom and Dad's house.

More Blue

Taking the stage.

Warm up

Full song.