The High Country, Part 5

Warm Springs is, among other things, the home of Montana's state mental hospital, so naturally there were some cracks from online friends when I mentioned our birding destination for Sunday morning. Still, my friend and host David Abrams had done a little research with the local birders, who'd told him that the ponds and impoundments of the area offered a rich variety of bird life, so that's where he pointed his car. Rolling eastward on I-90, we passed by the impressive smokestack of the old smelter in Anaconda, the company town a few mile from Butte where the Anaconda Mine's copper was processed. Along with its neighboring town, Opportunity, it has the distinction of appearing on my favorite highway sign ever:

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But a few miles east of this sign, there was no time for such whimsy. No, we were getting serious about birding. David hadn't done much of it, though he had taken an ornithology course at the University of Oregon some years back, but he had both my father's binoculars and twenty years of experience in identifying Army insignia to guide him, so I felt as though he'd be a capable observer of field marks. He also volunteered to serve as photographer, which is how I discovered just how bright my new yellow t-shirt from Sierra Trading Post really was:

DSC00930.JPG(And again, note the horizon near my head: snowy mountains, as per usual.)

The first bird we spotted was one of the many gulls I'd been observing over the past few days, but always from the car, rendering identification all but impossible. Stationary next to the flow of Silver Bow Creek, however, I had no trouble recognizing the bird flying just overhead as a California Gull. I could also see a flycatcher perched in some scrub, one producing the "Pikachu!" call I'd heard at length during a trip to West Virginia a while back: a Willow Flycatcher. There was even a small, teetering shorebird hugging the shore of the creek, the first Spotted Sandpiper I'd seen in several years.

The ponds were, as promised, full of waterfowl, even in June, and we logged such unsurprising water-loving birds as Blue-winged Teal, Lesser Scaup, and Gadwall, as well as a few more uncommon (to me, at least) species like White Pelican and Cinnamon Teal, but we reasoned that we'd see even more if we could get up to the top of the levee. This reasoning led to a long hike up a dirt road that ran upslope from the creek bed, giving us a good look at the scenery, but frustrating looks at a couple of birds. First, there was the Common Yellowthroat that was loosing its witchety witchety call to beat the band, but simply Would. Not. come out of the cover of its bush so that David could see what it looked like. Then there was the streaky grey sparrow that perched at the crown of a small tree and hurled its call out for at least five straight minutes without betraying a single clearly distinctive field mark. Later online research on its voice, however, revealed it as a Vesper Sparrow, which gave me a certain degree of relief.

It was while we stood in the road that the biggest surprise of the morning--up to that point--appeared over us: a quartet of Great Blue Herons, their broad wings flapping almost in unison, flying in formation like a squadron of pelicans. In my experience, it's unusual enough to see more than one of these solitary birds at a time; to see four adults in full breeding plumage flying together was simply unprecedented. Naturally, I was too flabbergasted to remember my camera, but I don't think I'll be forgetting that image anytime soon.

Eventually the road merged with the top of the levee, exposing a large stretch of scrubland to our left, along with a "Red-shafted" Flicker flying in and out of the cottonwoods. The sun was getting pretty fierce, but we were getting close to the dam and the spillway through which the Silver Bow flowed, so we pressed on past a few historical markers about the area, which had originated as a series of tailing ponds for the local mines:

DSC00937.JPGBut to our surprise, from the top of the levee we could see almost nothing in the way of birds. A Northern Harrier was pursued over the water by a hostile blackbird, and a few Canada Geese led their goslings from the road to the safety of the water, but it looked as though we'd seen everything the place had to offer. Baked by the sun and thinking about brunch, we trudged back toward the car.

Less than a hundred yards from the parking lot, however, David suddenly stopped following me and peered into a small stand of trees. Something big had flown into it. "What you got?" I asked.

DSC00944.JPGIt was a Great Horned Owl. These birds live almost everywhere in North America, but because they're largely nocturnal, you're a great deal more likely to hear them than see them. I myself was now seeing only the third adult GHO I'd ever seen, so I took a good long look, as well as a number of pictures. Why it was flying around in broad daylight we didn't know, but it didn't seem inclined to go anywhere, at least not until I got a little too close and it flew to another tree.

Once it had moved, however, I took a better look at the trees around us, and I realized that it wasn't alone. There was another owl in the low branches--a juvenile.

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I haven't seen a lot of GHOs, but thanks to having been tipped off to the location of a nest in Ithaca NY's Stuart Park a few years back, I did actually get to observe a pair of owlets, who were basically balls of white woolly fluff with hideous demon-Muppet faces. By contrast, this guy was obviously moving toward adulthood, what with having working flight feathers, but I was amused that his head was still basically white woolly fluff, even down to the stubby little "horns." I was also aware, very quickly, that this owlet was not alone.

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As you can see from David's proximity, the second owlet was perching much closer to the ground, and much closer to the state of denial. The legend of the ostrich's burying its head in the sand is just that--a legend--but this owlet appeared firmly of the opinion that with its head in the thick leaves, it was invisible. We tested its belief in that opinion by approaching it quite closely, to the point where we were somewhat worried that its parent might come after us, but we remained safe from its talons long enough to get the pictures we wanted:

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As nice as that formation of herons had been, this was clearly the birding highlight of the day--maybe even the whole trip--and it was time to head home, pack up, and meet Mom and Dad for brunch. This we accomplished with the help of the Montana Club, a restaurant recommended by David that offered everything we needed: excellent omelets, plentiful cups of coffee, and a chance to bleed off some of our owl-related adrenaline. After that, it was time to pose for one last photo together. It's a photo of something even more unusual than a squadron of herons or a juvenile owl in daylight. Here you can see, on either side of the frame, the smile of a writer who who woke up, went birding with another writer, and shyly asked for a signature in his copy of the other's book.

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 And with that, it was time to say goodbye and climb into the car again. We were heading for a place so far north it was called Glacier.

NEXT: ADVENTURES IN BOOKKEEPING
(or THE CABIN NEAR THE WOODS)

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on June 21, 2013 9:39 AM.

The High Country, Part 4 was the previous entry in this blog.

The High Country, Part 6 is the next entry in this blog.

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