Tuesday, December 25, 2012

And a partridge in a ..... well close anyway.

Not a just one, and not quite a partridge or a pear tree, but... Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Addie our Flatcoat

This weekend we got out and about a bit. My pup is now getting pretty stiff after a good day of walking. I can't believe she will be 11 in a couple  of months.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Weekend Eagles (and other raptors too)

This weekend I drove 280 miles to spend an evening with some good friends. It was worth every mile in the laughter therapy alone. An added bonus was the opportunity to spend some time in the car - just me and the dog- thinking and pondering while traveling through some great country, as well as a morning wandering along the river as the sun illuminated a few days worth of results from frost building fog.  I always appreciate any time I get to spend visiting with my Mom too and this time I didn't have to share that time with anyone else - an added bonus.

I have gotten to know the stretch of highway I travel between Billings and Fort Peck quite well. A couple of winters ago I drove it twice a week. I had started a new job in Billings, but the rest of my life was still in Fort Peck. Each drive was a single frame in a stop action feature that now in retrospect forms a movie of a  particularly brutal winter that was slowly defeated by the advancing spring time and not soon enough. There were frames dominated by blowing snow and completely white landscapes and latter frames defined by soaked landscapes and raging prairie streams and rivers. The main actors in this drama were the pronghorn I observed each trip trying to survive long enough to intersect the advancing spring before their bodies ran out of any source of energy they could eke from the landscape or themselves.

This trip, particularly my return trip on Sunday, was dominated by raptors. On Saturday morning I took a walk near the Missouri River after the omnipresent fog of late had lifted to reveal a landscape gilded in heavy white frost. There weren't many birds around.

A few Redheads on the kids fishing pond that is kept ice-free by an aerator and more waterfowl, including some Canada Geese, were present on the open river, but there were no passerines to be found in the buffaloberry thickets or cottonwoods along the trail. But there were eagles. Bald Eagles - and quite a few. I counted about 50 in the immediate area, but made no distinction between adults and immatures. Today Dad counted 43 adults and 31 immatures in this same area.

That afternoon I encountered my first snowy owl of this winter season. An immature that was perched on a lightpole on top of Fort Peck Dam.

On my way to and from Fort Peck I encountered a large number Rough-legged Hawks. They are a standard sight each winter with particular stretches of highway noted for the presence of these visitors from the Arctic. I also was able to find this adult Prairie Falcon perched along the roadside.

The raptors that really captured my attention this trip though were the Golden Eagles. I don't remember how many I observed on my way north, but on my return trip I observed at least 25 individuals - both adults and immature birds- but mostly adults, including a few obvious pairs perched near each other. Sometimes they were on a powerpole but a large number were observed perched on bluffs, gumbo knobs, and rock outcrops that dominate this country. The presence of these distinctive profiles perched on these natural vantage points has always made this landscape for me. There is something deeply comforting to know that this country is still big enough to keep eagles.

Others,  however, apparently don't think so.  On a small approach off the highway I found an adult female bird lying on her breast in the gravel and short grass. The posture was distinctive and depressing. I knew the bird was dead, and I also knew the she hadn't died from a vehicle collision - the posture is not indicative of the violent rendering that vehicles inflict on large birds. When I rolled her over it was apparent that poison was not the culprit either - one of her legs had been nearly severed by a bullet that eventually killed her. I traced the blood trail back to the gate post where she had been sitting when she was shot and I could see the spray of blood in the snow behind the post. She was still gorgeous, even in death. Burnished golden hackles etched into the rich brown of her nape. And the feet -  massive yellow cable and black stiletto ends - each deadly appendage emerging from the feathered mass of the body like snakes from Medusa's head. I have trapped and handled a number of Golden Eagles, but every time I see one up close I am awed by the overt presence of power that emanates from feet not much smaller than my hands (and on a few occasions I have felt that power directly and then the awe transcends to borderline fright).
Although we have certainly come a long way in our understanding of the ecological role of raptors and predators in general, the dead birds I find like this remind me that there are plenty of others that still have a much different perspective. It makes me wonder how many birds like this one are left lying in the dirt away from the highway. It was a rather depressing end to an otherwise enjoyable weekend.

I did get to see coyote this weekend though. See if you can find him too.


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Brown Creeper

I have been observing more Brown Creepers this winter than I have ever before. I had two in my backyard about a month ago, and on our walk at Two Moon Park last weekend I observed at least 4 and heard another. Of course, I really don't have a good idea of how many are expected here each winter, but either way it has given me a good chance to observe these little bark climbers better than before.

I love to watch their frenetic wanderings up the boles of larger trees, prying into crevices in the bark with their dental pick-like bill, only to drop down to the base of a neighboring tree to start again. The name "creeper" suggests a slow and slinky bird.  Spiderhunter would be appropriate I think, but it is already taken by another group of birds so I guess Brown Creeper it will be.
They forage so close to the trunk and their plumage blends in so well with the tree bark that it would be next to impossible to find them if they weren't moving, but fortunately they don't slow down much.

Well, it is fortunate for finding them anyway- photographing them is another matter. I have a lot of blurry photos that suggest a chunk of bark falling off the tree. I was able to get a few photos when this guy wasn't moving much though.

Below is a closer view of the last image above. If you look close you can see a small insect in the middle of it's bill. Check out the second image above too. You can see the fine, needle-like tongue he uses to pry out insects.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Prairie Ice

This weekend we took a walk along the Yellowstone River at a place known as Two Moon Park. This is a county park in the floodplain below rather steep bluffs somewhat close to our house. There are seeps and channels that have open water all year but the main portion of the river has migrated away from the park, leaving the old riverbed as an overflow side channel that constrains the established trails away from the new main river channel. There is limited flow in the channel and it tends to freeze with some very interesting patterns in the ice. 

Sunday, December 9, 2012


Yes, even the Cedar Waxwings are surprised to see something here. It has been a long time with rather sporadic posts and I am hoping to have that change. I have had a rather busy stretch at work on top of other commitments and I haven't had the time to devote to keeping the written portion of the blog worth reading.  I have been loath to turn this into a photo blog too and the result has been a very lean publishing rate. I have missed Prairie Ice but I have a plan - I am making a decision to drop a few commitments and allow myself to just post photos more.
So with that here are a few somewhat recent random favorite photos to get me started and a promise to myself to spend more time here.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Hardwood Autumn

A few weeks ago I was in West Virginia for a week of training. This was only my third trip to the east coast and it was a gorgeous time of the year to visit.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Unexpected Bird

A couple of weeks ago I was at Pompey's Pillar National National Monument for work. As we left the monument I noticed what appeared to be a Western Kingbird perched on a wire above the entrance.The bird was perched above and just forward of the vehicle so I was looking at the bird straight up it's tail.  I almost just left the ID at that, thinking that it would turn out to be a Western Kingbird anyway. Although it had been quite warm through the fall I knew that most if not all of the kingbirds had already departed for points further south and the possibility of the bird being something else was increased.

The photo above shows what my initial view of the bird looked like although it was even more silhouetted against the light sky.

I decided I just had to check and turned the vehicle around at the approach to the highway and I was immediately glad I made that decision. Even without my binoculars I knew that I was looking at a pretty rare bird for Montana. The profile was distinctive - a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. I told my coworkers that this was a pretty rare species for MT and later, after some research, I figured it was probably the 16th observation of this species in MT. However it wasn't the first time I had seen this species in MT - I was 10 years old when my Dad found the first one for MT and it still remember that bird. I have been looking for another in MT ever since, figuring that it would be a bird that I could recognize pretty easily driving down the highway.

I didn't have my camera with me, but one of my coworkers did have her point-and-shoot so she took a couple of photos at my urging.

In the photo above (by Karen Prentice) you can see the flycatcher perched on the wire in the upper left side of the photo.

We returned to Billings and I grabbed my camera and I returned to the monument hoping to find the bird again. I initially could not find it, but just as I was getting ready to head back to town and work I found the bird perched in the shadow of a powerpole across the highway to the south. I was able to get a few photos as the bird as it foraged back and forth from this perch. 

I am still not sure of the age and sex of this bird. My best guess is that it is an immature female based on the length of the tail feathers and the pale base of the bill. Comments regarding this conclusion are welcome.

The bird apparently stuck around for at least a few days and it looks like a number of other birders from around the area were able to relocate it.  The last photos I took were of the bird stretching its wing and tail.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Big Old Birds

This morning I took the boys to the airport to see three WWII vintage airplanes - a B-17, a B-24, and a P-51 Mustang. The planes were in Billings as part of the Collings Foundation's Wings of Freedom tour. Information on the history of these particular airplanes can be found on the foundation's website; the B-17 here, the P-51 here. The B-24 link doesn't work right now, but I have a photo below of a placard that was next to the airplane.

This is the B-17.

The B-24 was laid up with some engine work, but we were still able to walk through.

The P-51

We were able to walk through both bombers, although a more apt term would be a crawl through. There wasn't a lot of space on those planes. It was pretty amazing to see these planes up close.