Saturday, June 30, 2012

Pine Butte Birding Workshop

Earlier this June I was fortunate to be asked to help lead a birding workshop at the Pine Butte Guest Ranch. I had lead this workshop about 6 years ago and was honored to be asked back again. I really enjoy this part of Montana and the wide variety of birds to be found near the ranch. The staff and guests were top notch last time and they were again this time too.

It rained for most of my drive from Billings to the ranch and when I got to the ranch there was a couple of inches of snow on the ground.The snow soon disappeared and the weather improved each day I was there. The new snow sure made the Rocky Mountain Front spectacular.

Our first morning was a trip to the Pine Butte Swamp which is actually a fen. The photo above show the fen in the foreground with the Front behind. We climbed to the top of Pine Butte, which is surrounded by the fen. From the top we managed to find a moose with a calf foraging below us. We also found a small group of elk and one more moose, but not bears were observed directly. We did find a nice grizzly bear track in the mud along the trail though.

 An old Limber Pine.

We found this Cecropia Moth along the trail to the top of the butte.

The next morning we headed to a property along the Teton River and we birded in the dense riparian area. We found the few Northern Waterthrushes singing and foraging along a small pond.

I watched this waterthrush pick a dragonfly larvae out of the water.  We observed a good variety of birds in this area and then, just as we were finishing up and thinking about lunch, the skies broke open and we were hit with a mid-day deluge. It rained heavy for about a half an hour as we moved towards the grassland area to the south. By the time we got there, the storm had blown past and the day returned to being very nice.

We were entertained by a Golden Eagle the soared over us while we were having lunch and waiting for the road to dry out a bit.

After lunch we were rewarded with a great afternoon of birding in the grasslands east of the ranch.

One of the reasons I really like birding in this area is the variety of habitats near the ranch. East of the mountains there are some great fescue grasslands which harbor bird more typical of eastern Montana like Chestnut-collared Longspurs, McCown's Longspurs, and Sprague's Pipit.

Here we all are looking for Sprague's Pipit.

And here is the pipit we found. We were also treated to some great views of McCown's Longspurs that afternoon as well.

That afternoon David Sibley and Keith Hansen arrived to assume leadership of the workshop and I had the pleasure of working with both of these great guys.

The next day we headed to Freezeout Wildlife Management Area (WMA) a bit east of the ranch. This WMA is home to a wide variety of waterbirds and shorebirds and we were able to observe a great many of them.

These American Avocets were displaying before and after a copulation.
Back at the ranch, this Red-naped Sapsucker continued to excavate a cavity he was working on during the week.

The next morning we stayed at the ranch and hiked up to a ridgeline above the ranch. It was a great morning with some wonderful birds, including a Magnolia Warbler - a rather rare warbler this far west in Montana. I particularly enjoyed this morning. Not just because of the great company birding, but because the birds we observed were such typical western Montana birds that I haven't been able to watch for quite a while and they always bring back memories of my time spent in the Montana mountains.

These include the Gray Jay

and the Calliope Hummingbird. This species was one of the first "western" birds I remember finding when I went to college in Missoula and when I lived in Bozeman we had many of these at my feeders. I miss seeing them on a regular basis.

I also got to see some flowers I haven't seen for a while too including the Arrowleaf Balsamroot

and this Calypso Orchid.

Immediately after getting back to the ranch after this walk I had to hit the road and get back to Billings. Along the way home I stopped one last time at Freezeout WMA to see what I could find and found large numbers of Wilson's Phalaropes and a few  Willets.

This was the view from my porch one morning. I hope I get invited back to do this workshop again. I had a great time working with staff naturalists Jeff Wohl and Nikki Mann for the first couple of days and then tagging along with David and Kieth for another couple of days. The guests for this workshop were also a wonderful bunch to be with. I hope they enjoyed it as much as I did. One of the guests, Derek Rodgers from New York, also has a great blog and you can read more about the trip from Derek's point of view here.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Pompey's White-throated Swift

Over the last couple of weeks I have had the opportunity to spend a bit of time at the Pompey's Pillar National Monument. I always look forward to the walk to the top of this large sandstone bluff along the Yellowstone, not only to see the only remaining physical evidence of the Lewis and Clark Expedition along their trail - Wm Clark's signature carved into the rock - but these little aerial speedsters, the White-throated Swift.

I could have showed you a sample of the majority of the photos I took on both occasions, but I figured photos of dark blurs and clear blue sky just wouldn't be all that interesting.

The Monument has an excellent visitors center - one of the best designed I have ever been to - and there is a boardwalk to the top of the rock that ends at the summit of the west end above a cliff face. This is the best spot to observe the swifts. They nest is small holes and cracks in these sandstone cliffs and frolic and chatter in swirling groups around the Pillar, often cresting above the edge at eye level.

Often they cruise right over the top of you - too fast and close to even attempt a photo, chattering the whole time.

The speed and maneuverability of these birds is amazing.  

Occasionally they get into aerial tussles. They happen too fast to see what is happening but I was able to (somewhat) focus on a couple of these interactions and get a few photos.


 I will probably be back photographing these guys again this summer. Part of the fun is just trying to get a clear photo of these guys as they rocket around, but the other part is just to be able to enjoy watching their ability to twist and dart through the air.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Chestnut-collared Longspur

Last week I managed to get out by myself one morning and found a rather cooperative Chestnut-collared Longspur to photograph.

I think the photo above is my favorite of the bunch.

 At one point he returned to  this rock with what appears to be a horsefly in his mouth. Must have had a nest full of mouths to feed nearby.