Safe Harbor Marsh Preserve

June has been a busy month and we have found very little time to go out birding as a family. Fortunately this past Sunday our schedule freed up and we were able to head south along Flathead Lake to explore Safe Harbor Marsh Preserve. The preserve is made up of 132 acres and is managed by the Nature Conservancy. The area is home to a wide array of wildlife, but our main goal was to see some new bird species in and around the marsh.

At first the Younger Fives were a little put off by the Safe Harbor Marsh Preserve as there is no designated trail. We had to remind them that when we lived in Maine one of their favorite activities was bushwhacking through the woods. A little ways in we found a rough foot path to follow and that made them a bit happier. Five String concluded that we have spent too much time on the well worn trails of the Montana park system lately and need to seek out more secluded spots. The Younger Fives countered that being told that bushwhacking was involved and to wear long pants would have been appreciated.

Luckily any further family bickering was averted a short ways into the preserve as two Calliope Hummingbirds alighted on a tree just in front of us. This was our 88th species to date in our Family Big Year. The coloring of the male was gorgeous, but hard to capture on film. The Calliope was the only new species that we encountered at the preserve, but we did see a number of birds that we have already recorded including red wing blackbirds, turkey vultures, and tree swallows.

All in all the outing was a success. It was really nice to be off the beaten path away from hikers, dog walkers, and bicyclists. As Montana is really starting to get busy with an influx of tourists it is nice to know that places like the Safe Harbor Marsh Preserve exist as a reprieve.

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.