Nests and Raptors – A Visit to Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge

On a very sunny Sunday we headed south along Flathead Lake towards Ronan, Montana hoping to see some serious raptor activity. We had read that Ronan is often the winter home to a number of Rough-legged Hawks who roost in the conifer trees at the base of the mountains and hunt for voles in the surrounding fields of the Mission Valley.

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Soon after arriving in the Ronan area we began to see raptors from the car windows. We were especially excited to see a large Golden Eagle sitting in a tree just off the road (there was roadkill nearby). After spotting more than 5 raptors perched on road side telephone poles we decided it was time to do a little birding by foot and made our way to the Ninepipe Wildlife Refuge just down the road in Charlo.

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This 4,027 acre refuge consists of mostly wetlands (reservoir, small ponds, and potholes) with an amazing view of the Mission Mountains. While there were several different access areas and a road through the refuge we chose to park and walk along the road towards the Ninepipe Reservoir. As we walked we spotted eagles and several more hawks. The weather was perfect for stopping to view them through our binoculars and spotting scope.

Our most favorite feature of Ninepipe was the stand of several trees near the waters edge with nests made by what we think were Double–crested Cormorants. We all enjoyed our walk out towards the nests and being able to view them close up due to the fact that the Cormorants are still down south. It will be interesting to stop back in the Spring and Summer and view the nests being put to use (from a further distance back).

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!

 

The Sea Lions Weren’t Lying…The Spawn Is On!

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With our time winding down on Vancouver Island, we’ve been hoping to catch a glimpse of the annual spring Pacific herring spawn before we leave. While not as famed as the autumn salmon run, the tons of herring that make their way to the coast from offshore and saturate the water with eggs provide an important food source for creatures of all shapes and sizes. We’ve been regularly walking the beaches around Qualicum Beach and have not seen any signs. However, after waking up to see the sun for the first time in a while, we decided to head north up the coast to see if our fortunes might change.

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Our first stop was Fanny Bay, where a colony of stellar sea lions caught our eye (and ear) as we were driving by. Dozens were hauled out on several boats, and stopped to have lunch and listen to the raucous conversations going on all around us in the harbor. While our sea lion-ese is a bit rusty, they seemed to be grunting, “You’re almost there.”

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We didn’t have a set destination in mind when we stopped in Courtenay after lunch, but after consulting a map we decided to check out Seal Bay Regional Nature Park. As we headed out on the trail through the temperate rain forest, along coastal bluffs and eventually descending to a secluded cove, we knew we had found someplace special. The beauty of the rocky shore set against the snow-capped mountains on the mainland was breathtaking, but it didn’t keep our attention for long. The cries of hundreds of gulls along the shore and hundreds of other seabirds in the water piqued our curiosity, and we eagerly made out way to the water’s edge to investigate.

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Five of Hearts was the first to exclaim, “Herring eggs!” The piece of seaweed in her hand dotted with herring eggs was only the beginning. The eggs were literally covering every surface, from the rocks and seaweed to clouding the tranquil pools along the shoreline. We soon gave up on trying to walk around the eggs covering the beach, almost a foot thick in places, and marveled at the unexpected places the eggs had reached, such as pieces of driftwood four feet above the sand.

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As the first minutes of wonder drifted into several leisurely hours of exploring the cove, the surprises never ceased. Mallards, mergansers, blue herons, and Pacific loons plied the waters just offshore, and stellar sea lions and harbor seals started appearing around low tide to haul out and sun themselves on the just-emerged boulders. It took a lot of effort to tear ourselves away at sunset, but we could only feel thrilled to have been in the right place at the right time!

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