Sunday, November 23, 2014

Defiant Goose

This morning I was checking out the birds in the small open water area of Lake Elmo when this immature Bald Eagle took off from his perch on the ice at the middle of the lake and cruised over the open water area. The Mallards that were hanging out on the water scattered in front of the bird, but this lone Canada Goose had a different idea. He just turned towards the eagle, rose up in the water, spread his wings and hollered at him. It worked. The eagle just kept flying and returned to a spot on the ice of the lake. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Book Review - Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin

Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin
Tim Birkhead, Jo Wimpenny & Bob Montgomerie
Princeton University Press (a review copy was provided to me by Princeton University Press)
544 pp. | 8 x 10 | 94 color illus. 60 halftones.

Cloth | 2014 | $45.00 / £29.95 | ISBN: 9780691151977

I will get right to the point - I am enamored by this book. Although the title implies that it is a history of ornithology, the reader will notice that the word "history" does not show up in the subtitle of the book. Perhaps this was by design since this history book does not behave like a typical history book. Rather than the more traditional timeline approach, the book is broken into eleven topic based chapters, each with their story of how the topic evolved through time, an approach the authors thought would be "more interesting for both us and our readers and more meaningful in a broader biological sense."  I believe the have done just that. As noted in the subtitle, the book only covers the history of ornithology since Darwin since "nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution."

Each chapter begins with a full page of wonderful bird art relevant to the chapter topic. Not just good art, these paintings are also a bit of a tour through the history of bird art. Ranging from Keulemans and Hart (the era when bird art was the only depiction of birds available), to field guide artists Pratt and Tudor, and on to the more modern fine art of Bateman and Ching, each depiction provides visual context for the following text. Each chapter also contains numerous well chosen illustrations and photos of relevant subject matter as well as an informative illustrated timeline of key milestones from 1860 though 2010.

Each chapter is based on the words of the prominent ornithologists working in that field using either direct quotes from published sources or from the authors own interviews with the researchers. These provide a rich mix of context across generations of ornithological professionals and helps frame the context of each discovery and revelation in a meaningful way, often including a description of the initial hesitance or outright derision of new ideas. I particularly enjoyed how this aspect of the book made the history come alive and showed the people and their ideas in the context of the time and state of the science when they were working as well as the fact that as a group they were no different than any other segment of human society and exhibited a wide range of human quirks and foibles . Each chapter also contains a more detailed interview with a couple of the prominent ornithologists working on the subject explored in that chapter. 

Chapter one is, appropriately, a review of yesterdays birds - the paleontology of modern birds (otherwise know as today's dinosaurs). It begins just a few miles south of where I am writing this review and a few months before I was born, when John Ostrom and Greg Myer discovered the animal now known as Deinonychus - sometimes considered the most important dinosaur discovery of the mid-twentieth century. It is a good place to start. Chapter 2 continues with the Origin and Diversification of Species or how modern birds came to be; Chapter 3, Birds on the Tree of Life, explores the view of how modern birds are related to each other; Chapter 4, Ebb and Flow, delves into our understanding of bird migration; Chapter 5, Ecological Adaptations for Breeding, describes the emergence and development of our understanding of breeding biology; Chapter 6, Form and Function, explores our understanding of the internal bird; Chapter 7, The Study of Instincts, describes the journey to understand why birds do what they do; Chapter 8, Behavior as an Adaptation, integrates the discussion of behavior into the realm of the ecological context where the behavior is occurring (one of my favorite chapters); Chapter 9, Selection in Relation to Sex, takes breeding biology, behavior, and evolution and describes how the competition for mates makes many male birds look like they do (a very simple summary of this chapter, I would suggest reading it to get the full gist of the concept); Chapter 10, Population Studies of Birds, is pretty self explanatory - a journey through our understanding of bird number fluctuate what forces drive those fluctuations. The book ends with Chapter 11, Tomorrow's Birds, a sobering view of the conservation of birds and how our interest in birds have changed over the last hundred years.

The authors stated goal was to develop "the history of modern ornithology in a readable fashion." They more than succeeded in that endeavor - I have enjoyed learning of the intellectual journey each of these ornithological concepts has endured to arrive at our current state of understanding. In addition, the authors have also provided a primer on the current state of ornithological science. This book should be required reading for any student of Ornithology as well as anyone who has an interest in birds as the complex ancient creatures we share our world with.    

Sunday, November 9, 2014

When the Land Belonged to God - Charles M. Russell

Late last week I was able to visit the Montana Historical Society and show my boys one of my all time favorite paintings. We only had a short while at the historical society museum in Helena, so we went straight to the Charlie Russell section to see this painting.

When the Land Belonged to God - Charles M. Russell, Montana Historical Society, Helena, Montana
I think I could probably find the spot depicted in the painting relatively easily from the horizon to the right of the bison - Square Butte and the Highwood Mountains. I had always thought of this as a depiction of buffalo as sunset, but now, after looking at the geography, I realized that this is in fact a depiction of sunrise, with the animals moving north across the Missouri rather than heading south as I had believed. If my geography is correct that would put the vantage point of this painting somewhere downstream of Fort Benton just before the Missouri makes a big bend to the south just south of the town of Big Sandy. Next time I am in that area I will have to pay attention to the skyline to the south of the river to see if I an pinpoint it a bit better than that. I would appreciate any other thoughts or comments on my speculation about this location.

When the Land Belonged to God (detail) - Charles M. Russell - Montana Historical Society, Helena, Montana
I could look at this painting for hours. Not only to appreciate the way he used bold colors in this painting to make me feel like I am sitting there at sunrise with the golden Missouri River water still streaming from the bull's beard, but also for making me feel like I had just been noticed by the bull - his tail up and looking straight at me. It gives me apprehension of an imminent close encounter and a feeling that I need to start looking for an escape route soon.

It also represents the West that Charlie Russell longed for and a time in Montana that I can only vaguely imagine and get glimpses of through the remnants of bison horns still found in the prairie grass and the bones and skulls that litter the banks of the river. What a place this must have been.

It is also home for me. I can easily imagine a scene very similar to this occurring not that long ago at the site of the house I grew up in on the banks of the Missouri River, near the mouth of Big Dry Creek, as well as my current resident above the banks of the Yellowstone River near the mouth of Alkali Creek.

One additional detail I hadn't really paid attention to before is the appearance of a sage-grouse in the foreground.

When the Land Belonged to God (detail) - Charles M. Russell, Montana Historical Society Helena, Montana

There, hiding in the branches of a beaver cut log, is a Greater Sage-Grouse. Just to the right is a wolf. How prescient Charlie Russell was to depict the three greatest wildlife challenges in the state of Montana right now. First it was the reintroduction of wolves into the Yellowstone region and re-colonization from populations to the north; then it was bison and recent efforts to fine a place for wild bison in Montana outside of Yellowstone National Park; and most recently it is the impending Endangered Species listing decision for Greater Sage-Grouse and the recent Governors executive order dealing with sage-grouse management in Montana.

I sometimes wonder what he would think of his Montana now, but I think I have a pretty good idea.

God made Montana for the wild man
for the Piegan, and the Sioux and Crow,
Saved His greatest gift for Charlie,
Said "Get her all down before she goes,
You gotta get her all down
'cause she's bound to go. 
Ian Tyson - The Gift

I was raised with the West around,
Enough to hum her tune,
But I never know the place like the old boys did,
Chinook to Mountain View.
Cause this was all a cathedral then,
And the cowboys they all knew,
That you can't keep a loop on paradise,
but she disappeared so soon,
She disappeared so soon.  
Corb Lund - Especially a Paint.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Red-throated Loon

Yesterday I received a report of an immature Red-throated Loon at Lake Elmo State Park, which is just a few minutes away from my house. I headed out to see what I could find and had a great morning birding around the lake. It included good looks at the Red-throated Loon.

 Most of the time he was towards the middle of the lake, but late in the day when I returned he was foraging close to shore. This is the 16th recorded observation of this species in Montana.

There were quite a few Yellow-rumped Warblers around the lake too.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Autumn Evening Birds

Fall migration is happening in my backyard. I finally was able to spend a couple of hours after work just watching to see what has shown up. I also managed to get some photos of a few migrants passing through along with a couple of more permanent residents of the neighborhood.

Black-capped Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee

Chipping Sparrow

Harris's Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Elk Evening

Mid to late September is the peak of the elk rut in Montana and over the last few years I have managed at least one trip to spend some time at the Slippery Ann Elk Viewing Area on the west end of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. This year I made the trip last night. 
I had planned on making the two hour trip north from Billings on a weekday night to avoid the large crowds that form on weekend evenings and the weather this week looked favorable. 
The viewing areas is a section of the refuge bordered on the south by the Missouri River and a gallery of large Cottonwood trees and willows. A dirt road runs roughly parallel with the river and in between the trees and the road is a rather large open meadow area that I believe used to be irrigated hay fields. There are also large patches of greasewood bordering the meadow and trees. The elk spend the bulk of the day out of sight along the river under the trees, but as the sun sinks low in the evening they begin to filter out of the trees to forage in meadows and the hills on the other side of the road to the north. Some nights the road is completely lined with vehicles waiting for the elk to emerge. When I arrived there were only a couple other vehicles near my usual spot. I turned off my vehicle and immediately heard elk bugling in the trees and there was also a noticeable high pitched whine in the air. I had managed to avoid the crowds of people, but not the crowds of mosquitoes. They were horrible due the some recent heavy rains. Even the Boreal Chorus Frogs were singing again. 

The elk action started out slow. Even though I could hear a few bulls bugling in the trees, it seemed that there were fewer elk in this portion of the viewing area than in the past. I visited with a few folks I knew from Billings and after a while with only a couple of distant bulls moving in and out of the trees, they decided to move further down the road to where there were more cars parked and it appeared a herd of elk were moving closer to the road. I stuck it out at my spot and soon a rather rough looking bull and a couple of cows emerged from the trees in front of me. 

They were soon joined by a few more cows and calves and the bull continued to move back and forth behind the cows between them and the other bulls I could hear back in the trees. This situation didn't last for long. Soon another group of cows emerged from behind the curtain of trees and on their heels was a bull. 

It was apparent rather quickly that he ruled the area. As soon as he emerged, my rough looking bull turned tail and headed away from the cows and he was quickly escorted out of the area by the new bull. 

The cows slowly fed out of the greasewood to an open area directly in front of me and soon the bull joined them. I kept an eye on the bull as he patrolled the area between the cows and the treeline and was privileged to an evening of elk before the daylight faded. 


Monday, September 8, 2014

World Shorebird Day

Last Saturday (September 6th) was the first annual World Shorebird Day.  That, along with a recent email describing the shorebirds found during a recent visit by another Montana birder (thanks Ed), finally got me to prioritize some time to get to Spidel Waterfowl Management Area near Broadview, MT.  It is a rather shallow water body and it often doesn't have much if any water in it, but this spring it filled up good and summer rains have kept the water levels fairly high with enough exposed shoreline to continue to be attractive to migrating shorebirds. I had hoped to get to Spidel much sooner than this, but life conspired against me for planned outings for much of the summer. This time I made it work and it was well worth it. The wetland area sits to the east of the access road so afternoons are best for viewing.  The weather Saturday was gorgeous too. No wind, sunny, and pleasant temps. We arrived late in the afternoon and had great light and there were lots of birds. Most of the birds were molting waterfowl sitting on the far side of the lake, but there were scattered bunches of small sandpipers and American Avocets along the near shoreline.

There were also mixed flocks of a variety of other shorebirds, including Baird's Sandpipers, Stilt Sandpipers, Least Sandpipers, Lesser Yellowlegs, and Greater Yellowlegs.

Even the Killdeer were photogenic in the golden evening light.

We weren't the only ones there looking for shorebirds.

This Peregrine Falcon was chasing shorebirds at the far end of the lake and generally causing a ruckus wherever he was including a few passes at a Northern Harrier passing through. There were also a few California Gulls hanging around and as the sun set a large number of Franklin's Gulls flew in to the lake from the south.

It was great to finally get out and look at (and photograph) some wildlife.