Sunday, April 6, 2014

Flyway Envy

Nearly all my life I have lived outside of a bird migration flyway, the rather predictable rivers of birds flowing north and south, back and forth from breeding and wintering areas. I grew up on the edge of a flyway floodplain, if we are to keep with the river analogy. Migration was apparent but only when the flood was on. Perhaps the closest I have come to living in the middle of the channel was a few months I spent working in central Texas doing birds surveys. Not only was I in the middle of the river, I was "fishing" every day - it was spectacular. I still relish the memories of the staggered pulses of migrants flowing through our study sites as the spring progressed, as well as the in-your-face spectacle of the morning arrival of trans-gulf migrants on the Gulf Coast.

I still live well outside the major channels of bird migration and every spring I hear the reports of the appearance of bird species west of the continental divide - "I just saw four Violet-green Swallows over East Broadway in Missoula."-  species that I know I will not see on the eastern plains for at least another month.

By the end of the week I had had enough. I knew where I could get relief from the migration doldrums, and in a big way, so on Saturday I headed north out of Billings early in the morning overcast. I had checked the weather forecast and it looked like on Saturday afternoon there would be a short-lived thumb-like protrusion of clear skies along the Rocky Mountain Front into the overcast that was covering the state. The tip of the thumb was supposed to be right where I was headed.

I began to observe signs of the ongoing migration well before I arrived at my destination. Mobs of migrating crows, twenty or thirty to a bunch, were scattered in the fields and roadside ditches, grounded by the wind a rain. Here and there was a Western Meadowlark, recently arrived for the summer or just moving through to points further north. I also found a few Rough-legged Hawks along my route. They are winter residents in Montana, but these birds had most likely spent their winter further south and were on their way much farther north.

Late in the morning I arrived at Freezeout Wildlife Management Area just south of Choteau, Montana. Most of the migrant Snow Geese, the birds I had come here to see, were feeding in the nearby fields. I looked over the birds at the nearby Priest Lake and then headed back to Freezeout to watch the geese come back to the lake when they were done feeding. I could see the thumb of clear sky jabbing south along the front and I found a spot along the east side of the lake where I hoped the birds would be moving over me towards the lake from the fields.

It was, in short, another spectacular day watching bird migration in action. I got to visit with a few folks (out of the 100's that were there to watch the geese) and it is always a great time and place to see friends with similar interests. There were at least 250,000 Snow Geese at the lake that day and although the clear sky never quite made it all the way south to Freezeout, I had a thoroughly enjoyable and much needed day outside watching birds.

This was an interesting bird that appears to lack black pigment. Notice how degraded the flight feathers are compared to the normally pigmented birds on the right. The black pigment in feathers makes them more resistant to wear.

1 comment:

Blazingstar said...

Gorgeous photos of one of my favourite birds. I always feel like they look as if they are trying to write something in the sky when the large flocks go over. Maybe one of these days they will write something that we can understand!