A Driving Blind

As December comes to a close so does our Family Big Year. Although, December is a crazy busy month for us we made time recently to check out the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in an attempt of adding a few more bird species to our Big Year list.

The Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge is a birder’s paradise with over 5,300 acres of water, wood, and field habitat for birds. From October to May visitors must stay in their cars to avoid disturbing wintering waterfowl. However, there is a 4 mile road through the refuge that visitors are allowed to drive, which gives great viewing access. In addition the refuge offers a guided auto-tour via CD that provides an overview of the refuge and the wildlife species that might be seen.

While most of the refuge is closed to foot traffic during the fall and winter there is a viewing blind that remains open and can be accessed via a short path. The blind looks out on one of the ponds and provides a great view of Tundra Swans, Coots, and other waterfowl.

Although, birding while driving can be a little bit difficult (especially for the driver) it is a really great way to see a large number of species in a relatively short period of time. During our visit we counted over 15 different species of birds and hundreds of individuals. We also added one new species to our Family Big Year list bringing our total up to 114!

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Wilderness Wednesday – Steigerwald Lake

We are finally settled in our new rental house in Vancouver, Washington! Leaving Montana and heading towards a more populated area we were afraid that we would lose the access to wild places that we love so much. However, we have been pleasantly surprised with how many parks and wildlife refuges exist in the greater Vancouver area. We were even more delighted to find out that there is a homeschool group that gets together for “Wilderness Wednesdays”. We love to get out into nature whenever possible, but what a great idea to make a special trip to a favorite nature based destination every Wednesday.

For our first “Wilderness Wednesday” we headed east of our new house to the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Washougal. When we arrived there were two school buses in the parking lot bringing local school kids to the refuge on a field trip. It was great to see so many kids out in nature. The Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge is is comprised of 1,049 acres of wetlands, woodlands, and field that border the Columbia River. The diversity of habitats makes it a great place to view a variety of birds.

We didn’t have to make our way very far down the refuge trail before we started seeing birds. From song birds to water birds our three hour visit at the refuge was packed with bird sightings. In total we ended up viewing 15 species of birds, four of which were new species for our Family Big Year. On our way down the path towards the Columbia River we were most excited to spot three Hooded Mergansers. The coloring of the male is really something!

However, our trip back from the Columbia River to our car was even more exciting as we passed by a small section of woodlands and heard an owl hooting. We stopped to listen and used our best owl imitation to hoot back. The owl responded and we called back and forth for several minutes before spotting the owl tucked up close to a tree trunk. It took a while before we got all five of us to clearly see the owl and just as we were able to leave a second owl swooped down and perched on a lower branch giving us an amazing view. We were able to snap some great shots of what we can now tell was a Great Horned Owl (although it looked really wet). Then both of the owls flew off over the water to a second patch of woodland. It was really an amazing sight!

When we finally made it back to the car we were exhausted. Even though we had only walked about 2 1/2 miles we had worked hard looking, listening, and observing new bird species. It turned out to be a very successful Wilderness Wednesday and we can’t wait for the next one.

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.

All Alone at Tally Lake

We have heard great things about Tally Lake in Flathead County, Montana and wanted to get a visit in before tourist season begins at the end of the month. As the temperatures rose into the 70’s this past Thursday we figured that there was no better time to make the trip.

Tally Lake is Montana’s 2nd deepest lake at 445 feet deep. The kids were prepared for a day of swimming, but as they rushed in for their first dip they realized how cold the lake still was. The fast rushing creek adjacent to the beach looked like it would be fun to tube down, but the snow melt that it carried made even our fearless cold water swimmer, Five of Hearts, head back to shore. However, the Younger Fives still found a way to enjoy the freezing water as they built rafts out of their boogie boards and managed to paddle the lake without getting wet.

The campground at Tally Lake wasn’t yet open and besides a few people using the boat landing we pretty much had the whole lake to ourselves. The lack of people near the beach area created the perfect environment for birding and we enjoyed watching Yellow Warblers and Rufous Hummingbirds. The Richardson Ground Squirrels were also a pleasure to watch. We ended up staying at the lake until well into the evening and had great difficulty getting the kids to leave. It seems that Tally Lake will definitely be at the top of our list for camping and swimming this summer.

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).