We Won the Sharp-tailed Grouse Blind Lottery!!!

Back in February Five String entered us into the Sharp-tailed Grouse Blind lottery at the Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge. We didn’t really think that we had a chance in winning as the spots are limited and the blind is only open to the public three days a week between April and May. So, we were super excited when we received an email a few weeks ago telling us that there had been a cancellation and that the April 28th spot was now ours if we were still interested.

During mating season male Sharp-tailed Grouse display in a communal fashion to attract females. They do this at a site know as a “lek” which is usually a flat area free of dense vegetation. The lek or “dancing ground” where the grouse blind is situated at Benton Lake was first observed in 1988 and Sharp-tailed Grouse have been returning to it every year since.

Visitors to the blind are required to arrive one hour prior to sunrise so that they don’t disturb the grouse. For us this meant leaving our hotel in Great Falls at 4:45am. The Younger Fives were troopers at getting up and dressed even though it was pitch dark outside. From the auto road at the refuge we then had to walk about 400 yards through the dark, avoiding ground squirrel holes until we reached the blind. The grouse blind was built by an eagle scout and has seating room and viewing windows for six people.

As soon as we reached the blind we could hear that grouse already on the lek. We tiptoed inside, took our seats, and enjoyed listening to the sounds of the grouse while we waited for the sky to lighten. In no time at all we were able to view the male grouse as they displayed. Their orange eye combs and purple air sacs are really quite the sight. We were all impressed by the noise that their feathers make as they dance. We stayed at the blind for over 2 hours and while it was a chilly 40 degrees outside we were comfortable inside the blind. During our visit we were able to count 45 males and 2 females. Five of Hearts put together a short video of what we saw, so that you can share in the experience.

Willapa National Wildlife Refuge

We were all really excited to visit the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge near Ilwaco, Washington on our recent vacation. The refuge is made up of units near and along the Long Beach Peninsula. The variety of habitats from old growth forest, to marshes, and open ocean make this refuge a great place for bird watching, hiking, and just enjoying the coast. The Cutthroat Climb at the Headquarters Unit was a huge hit with the Younger Fives. You will definitely want footwear that can get wet during the spring. The Leadbetter Unit at the tip of the Long Beach Peninsula was great for birding along the bay, but the trails to the ocean were all flooded past thigh level. We ended up visiting the refuge on several days and would love to return to do some camping on the island portion of the refuge.

Cutthroat Climb at Headquarters Office

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Leadbetter Unit

Just Keep Birding…

The end of January has proven to be a bit depressing here in Montana. We have had a few weeks now of overcast weather due to a winter inversion affecting the valley. Combined with the daily news coming out of Washington D.C. we are all feeling depressed. To try to keep our spirits up we have been concentrating on birding as much as possible.

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The other day after a particularly long dentist appointment we were more than happy to find a little birding relief along the Whitefish River as we stopped to watch the Mallards and were surprised to find a pair of Common Goldeneye swimming among them.

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Another day the mood in our house was lightened considerably when Five Ball called us all into the kitchen to see a “humongous” bird perched 30 feet up in a back yard tree. After several minutes we all realized that it was one of the neighborhood turkeys (we don’t see them roosting often) and shared a therapeutic laugh.

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While the weather hasn’t been inviting for many outside birding expeditions we have enjoyed reading birding books and watching some bird inspiring movies. Below are a few that we highly recommend in case you need a little birding therapy this time of year as well.

The Blues Go Birding Across America – A fun picture book about a group of blue birds traveling across the United States in search of the perfect bird song.

Fly Away Home – A long time family favorite. The Younger Fives love the story of Amy and the geese that imprinted on her.

National Geographic Bird Watcher’s Bible – We are really enjoying this huge compilation of all things birds. From history and science to interesting bird facts this book has gorgeous pictures and sections of interest for every member of the family.

Look Up! Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard – A great birding resource for comic book fans. This book is packed with interesting comic book style illustrations. It contains a huge amount of bird watching information and provides a good amount of humor.

Birders: The Central Park Effect – An interesting documentary about the dedicated group of bird-watchers that call New York City home. This film highlights the passion of birding as well as the need for heightened conservation efforts.

 

Just in Time for the Waxwings

With our Family Big Year in full swing we decided that it was time to purchase a decent birding camera. We were in the market for a point and shoot with a decent zoom for under $300, which narrowed the field quite extensively:) In the end our two main contenders were the Panasonic LUMIX DMC-FZ70 16.1 MP and the Canon PowerShot SX530 HS. The Lumix beat out the PowerShot in almost every field except for the fact that it was heavier. We really wanted this camera, but it is out of stock everywhere except Amazon.com and that is with a 1-2 month delivery period. On the other hand the PowerShot was available with a memory card and carrying case package at Costco and would be delivered in just a few days. We were too impatient to wait for the Lumix and liked the fact that we could return the PowerShot directly to Costco if need be. So, the PowerShot won out.

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Good fortune was with us today as our brand new camera was delivered at roughly the same time that a huge flock of Waxwings were feeding in the trees across the street. After an agonizing period of waiting for the battery to charge up a bit we returned outside to test out the 50x optical zoom. While holding the camera steady with such a high zoom is no easy feat we were richly rewarded with some fabulous photos of Waxwings. At the same time a Bald Eagle was perched in a nearby tree and humored us as we crouched below the tree for 10 minutes trying out our new camera and snapping his picture.

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Just as we came inside the Waxwings decided to feed from the Mountain Ash in our backyard and stop for a drink at our winter bird bath (this time of year we are in a constant struggle with Old Man Winter to keep it from freezing up). From behind our patio door we hardly had to use the zoom at all to snap some great shots of these gorgeous birds.

The photos came in handy as we are still trying to work out the difference between Bohemian and Cedar Waxwings. It appears that we have had both in our neighborhood in the past few days as they feed on the Mountain Ash berries. However, when they are busy flying to and fro it can be hard to tell for sure which is Bohemian and which is Cedar. From what we have read a yellowish belly and white undertail coverts equals a Cedar Waxwing, while a gray belly and chestnut undertail coverts is a Bohemian Waxwing. We are still too novice to feel confident in our on sight identification, but having quality photos to check back over really helps. As our Family Big Year continues we are sure that our new camera will come in handy.

Bonding While Birding: A Family Big Year

As a family we started to get interested in bird watching back in the spring of 2015 when we lived in Wyoming for a while. During this time we spotted many migratory birds passing through the area and made a trip to see the Sandhill Cranes at the Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Our enthusiasm for bird watching only increased when we lived on Vancouver Island and had the pleasure of viewing bald and golden eagles as well as many species of seabirds.

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With 2017 just underway we made a decision the other day to work towards a “Family Big Year”. A Big Year in terms of bird watching is a competition between birders to see who can identify through sight or sound the largest number of bird species in one calendar year. A great film with Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black was made based on the book The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession telling the story of 3 men who tried for a Big Year in 1998. We highly recommend watching the film or reading the book to learn a little more about this fun birding competition.

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While we don’t expect to get anywhere near the 780 species of birds spotted by 2016’s Big Year winner, we have set a family goal to spot 105 different bird species in 2017. All five of use will have to see the species in order for it to count towards our total. We are all super excited about this challenge and have already had up close encounters with Wild Turkey, American Crow, and Bald Eagle. The kids are diligently tracking each species we see, researching more about the bird’s characteristics, and studying up on basic birding techniques.

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We were very fortunate to be able to tap into the resources of the Flathead Audubon Society who make learning about birds in our area fun and interesting. They offer Educational Trunks to homeschoolers and we were fortunate to start off our Family Big Year by borrowing their Common Birds of the Flathead trunk. The field guides, CDs, and pictures inside have been a great resource in getting our family up to speed on what common species of birds we should be looking for in our surrounding area.

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In order to record our Family Big Year we will keep a list and photo gallery of each bird species that we spot in 2017 on the  Nature On The Fly page of our blog. We can’t wait to see what this big year will bring!