Day 3 of the Montana Big Loop

Two of my clients birding McDonald CreekThe second of three days in Glacier National Park, what an unbelievable treat for everyone on the tour. Today, we woke a bit later and enjoyed coffee and breakfast at Eddie’s Café in Apgar. The big targets for day were another chance at Pacific Wren, Harlequin Duck, and Black Swift. We carefully picked our way along the east side Lake McDonald with a productive stop at the Sprague Creek Campground. The ever-present Townsend’s Warblers were in full throat along with chorus mates Golden-crowned Kinglets and Varied Thrushes. Jon give a nice dissertation of the “western” Warbling Vireo song, and how it separates this current subspecies from the “eastern” subspecies.

As the morning drew on, we found ourselves at the Avalanche Creek Campground, and this time we had a companion. A large black bear lumbered along the road as we parked. He was all black without an hint of a white sash on his chest. The way he ambled into the timber without a hint of fear or haste was a bit disconcerting, so the bear spray was rapidly attached to my belt. Along the broad walk, the Pacific Wrens put on a show providing great looks at the dark, little bird with a large voice. It was at this point when learned that our British birder was racking up the lifers on this trip as it was her first tour in western North America. Her lifers become the group’s de facto mission from this point onward. A bit about the Pacific Wren and its newly acquired full species status from the Winter Wren complex of related birds. How did I know that these birds were definitively Pacific Wrens, and not the “eastern” Winter Wren? To be honest, it was strictly done on faith and the range of the respective species. That little conundrum will be the subject of a future posting.

Did I mention that we have missed the Harlequin Duck on 3 separate trips up and down McDonald Creek? This was our last chance to see this marvelous duck as it swam amongst the torrents. As we followed the creek, I checked every eddy and rapid that I had ever seen them in the past, and then like a materializing ghost, a beautiful male Harlequin Duck appeared in some slack water near a recently toppled cedar that laid across a portion of the stream. He perched on the exposed roots before diving once again, only to burst into flight. He crossed the waters and landed near a gravel bar, and there his mate sat, so perfectly camouflaged against the stones. Everyone rushed to the spotting scopes as great views were had and digiscoped pictures were snapped. They were not phantoms after all, it just took a little effort and timing.

Leaving the west side of Glacier, we drove around the southern edge on Highway 2. We had to do this detour because the Going-to-the-Sun Road was close, and it is still closed as of July 5th. This was just one symptom of the record snowfall and cool spring. We stopped at the Issak Walton Inn for the possibility of a Black-chinned Hummingbird, and although, we missed the hummer, we did found a host of cooperative Evening Grosbeaks and Steller’s Jays.

Everyone wanted the White-tailed Ptarmigan, which is tough bird to find in the best of conditions. I gave our chances as 1 in a 1000 (too generous) as several clients and I walked up the first 1/2 mile of Sunrift Gorge. I found a display of wildflowers and a Myrtle Yellow-rumped Warbler. A pleasant surprise as Jon’s passion for subspecies and possible splits was infectious and had me checking every bird, just in case (good habit to start). We decided to drive up to the Jackson Glacier Overlook, just to see the glacier, which was mostly obscured by banks of clouds. The consolation – several bears. We had great looks at a large black bear forging on leafy vegetation and a cinnamon black bear sow and her 2 yearling cubs.

Young Black Bear Large Black Bear eating foliage
What going on behind those eyes? Alert black bear momma

What a day…tomorrow brings Many Glacier and the Front Range.

Day 2 of the Montana Big Loop

What a hell are we looking at?By now a recurring theme was solidly materializing during this 2011 Montana Big Loop, “I have never seen such weather or more water ever in my life in Montana.” But, who can complain as you start your birding in spectacular Glacier National Park. As the first of the morning light came spilling over the mountains, the roaring North Fork of the Flathead River illuminated to reveal the opaque color of the flood, the water reminiscent of chocolate milk. We arrived at Warbler Heaven, my little secret spot that can absolutely teemed with those little novae of color. Northern Waterthrush, American Redstart, Yellow Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and MacGillivray’s Warbler all made their appearances as did the Hammond’s Flycatcher and Gray Jays.

Now, on to the real treat of the morning, breakfast at the Polebridge Mercantile. “The best bakery for 500 miles,” said the manager of our hotel the evening before. Deliciously tart and sweet huckleberry muffins and savory artichoke and spinach pastries sit side by side on the cases of this worn and eccentric store in the middle of nowhere, and I can have none of them. My recently revealed allergies to just about everything good were causing me some deep-seated emotional angst. I resolved that this meal was about the clients enjoyment. Their faces lit up with each first bite. This place had lived up to my hype. Then, I spied a gluten-free muffin. Could it be that I might actually take part in this culinary orgy? Quickly purchased, the muffin tasted sublime, maybe due more to the specialness place and my memories of it than the reality of muffin itself. But, who cared? It was everything that I had hoped it would be.

Birding at the Polebridge Mercantile

A view from PolebridgeBack to the birding, the reason for my employment and obsession. Pine Siskins fed eagerly on the lawn’s dandelions and Brewer’s Blackbirds lined like a Hanna-Barbara cartoon on a rough pole fence. We scanned the cottonwood snags for Lewis’s Woodpecker, skunked once again. Violet-green Swallows glided over the vast expanse of the dead trees as bluebirds, both Mountain and Western, sang ever so softly. The New Yorker client mentioned a far bird with large white patches. “What the hell could that be,” I thought to myself. “No, it couldn’t be that bird.” Sure enough, a Northern Mockingbird flew into view as it perched in a broken snag. “What a bird!”, I spewed. My first Northern Mockingbird on this, the Pacific, side of the Continental Divide. The bird regrettably faded into oblivion before any digiscoped or quality photos could be taken, but the image to the right is where the rarity – yes, I said rarity – made its appearance. Soon, Red-naped Sapsucker and another uncooperative Rufous Hummingbird were seen by the group.

Cassin’s Vireos sang as we remounted into the vans after a satisfying lunch at Eddie’s in Apgar. We were making our way up to the Avalanche Creek Campground, the hopeful home of Varied Thrush, Pacific Wren, and Harlequin Duck. Townsend’s Warblers were heard from the treetops as the haunting songs of distant Varied Thrushes cascaded through the thick, humid western red cedar forest. The prehistoric Pileated Woodpecker alternatively poked and hammered a decaying cottonwood. His large red crest crowning him as king of the woodpeckers (please save the Ivory-billed talk. I am not a believer and refuse to believe until a quality image or bird in hand exist). We walked the well-developed trail to the picturesque Avalanche Gorge, that quirk of geology that as photographed incalculable times by millions of slack-jawed tourists, a group that included me among its roster. We all stood in wonder at the Gorge’s sheer beauty when the avian world asserted itself. Above the chasm, the seemingly fragile cup of plant fibers and arboreal lichens held together by spider webs dangled precariously. The female Rufous Hummingbird made multiple forays into the forest as we watched, only to return with a small amount of new nest material. How amazing that this dynamo with a nuclear metabolism can live, let alone reproduce, in this damp, cool habitat.

I had mentioned that Black Swifts are known to make their way down the creek when the weather comes in, but the weather was too nice. I have always associated these sickle-winged aerialists as foul-weather birds. Sometimes it seems that good birding requires bad weather, and today was not the day for the Black Swift. I sensed that Jon had special spot for this species, and it saddened me that they were not over the cedars as we looked.

“Searching for ghosts. We’re searching for damn ghosts,” screamed within my ever-increasingly fractured mind. Each location for the Harlequin Duck came up empty, save for the consolation American Dipper. MacDonald Creek raged, maybe too much for Montana’s most lovely duck – this both my opinion and quite true. Two trips up and down the road, and nothing, absolutely nothing. I was starting to become a little paranoid that the birds and weather had hatched a conspiracy, one on the scale of black helicopters and chem-trails as unlikely and illogical as they are. Maybe a decent meal and glass of dark ale would remedy the situation…then again maybe not.

Day 1 of the Montana Big Loop

The first full day started with a birder’s breakfast (you know, greasy and early) at the ever popular IHOP, although I am still skeptical about the international portion of the name. Our first birding destination was the Old Sloan Bridge site near Dixon. Lewis’s Woodpecker is somewhat regular here, but for some reason last night’s luck followed us and we dipped on Lewis’s Woodpecker, but this minor disappointment was tempered by great looks at Hooded Merganser going into her cottonwood snag nest hole, Willow Flycatcher throwing his head back in song, Gray Catbird imitating all his neighbors, and a variety of riparian-associated species in full throat, particularly the warblers (some were still Dendroica at the time, more on this later). The Flathead River was as high I have ever seen it in my scant 39 years. Leaving this location, 5 Trumpeter Swans flew over the road as we departed.

Female Mountain BluebirdA short drive later, we arrived at the lower portions of the National Bison Range and its Palouse prairie and related grassland-associated species. Uniquely adapted for the dry climate of the West, Palouse prairie is dominated by bunch grasses, such as Idaho fescue, bluebunch wheatgrass, and rough fescue. These grasses provide the bulk of the forage for the grazing bison, pronghorns, and elk of the Bison Range. Quickly, we observed Savannah Sparrow, Mountain Bluebird, Tree Swallow, and Western Meadowlark. At a stop near Mission Creek, the soft insect-like buzz gathered my fractured attention. This is the point where I learned something very valuable, most people over the age of 40 cannot hear the song of the Grasshopper Sparrow. As we got scopes on this cooperative bird, my co-leader begun to seamlessly discuss the history of the Latin name and other fascinating points of interest about the bird. I stood in awe at how easily he went into this bit of ornithological musing.

Birding along Mission Creek, we were treated to Cedar Waxwings and Bullock’s Orioles. Northern Rough-winged Swallows coursed out of their clay bank colony and over the scattered ponderosa pines and Rocky Mountain junipers. A single Belted Kingfisher called out as it passed over a pond filled with the trip’s first herp, Western Painted Turtles. This is when I found the trip’s mascot, a small plush toy bunny with “Let’s be together” stitched across its chest, obviously evidence of a failed teenage romance as it had been discarded. Bunny took its place in the dashboard as we drove through the gates.

Jon Dunn at Ninepipe NWRHave I mentioned my co-leader for my first trip for WINGS? It was none other than Jon Dunn. At first, I had to calm my inner fanboy, and not blurt out “Sh*t, you’re Jon Dunn. Sign my field guide or better yet my binos.” I cannot not be more pleased and humbled to have Jon along for this epic birding trip. His knowledge and mentorship was and is invaluable to me. Firsthand, I observed a guide and expert with 30 years of tour leading experience do his thing. Even though Jon has served as Chief Consultant/Editor for the National Geographic Guide, co-author the definitive guide for warblers, and a member on the AOU’s Checklist committee, he was universally patient, kind, and wise. Jon’s amazing travel endurance is quite impressive. He had just led from the WINGS Gambell trip when he had arrived in Missoula, and after this 9 day trip, he was off to Maryland and Virginia to led a Birding the American Civil War tour (a perfect tour for him given his keen interests in both birds and history).

The whole crew birding at Ninepipe NWRThe next stop for the day was the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge and adjacent state managed wetlands. Here we had several surprises such as numerous American Avocets and  Black-necked Stilts along with a lone Caspian Tern. Every time I am lucky enough to see one of these massive terns, my mind’s eye envisions them gracefully flapping over some ancient sea. Even with the obscenely high water levels, the colonial nesting Ring-billed Gulls and Double-crested Cormorants seemed to be do as well as ever.

Flathead Lake from Finley Point State ParkAfter lunch at the Cove in Polson, we birded Finley Point, which sticks out far into Flathead Lake (the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi). The state park was largely abandoned, save for a boat of ever-increasingly drunk college kids (did I just refer to college-age youth as kids? My God, I’m old now). Dark-eyed Juncos, Downy Woodpeckers, Warbling Vireos (the western swainsoni form, more on that in a later post), and a Wilson’s Warbler. A mass of Western Tanagers bathed in an otherwise unimpressive puddle. Pale Swallowtails delighted the butterfly lovers of the group with their large size and close views. A couple of different sightings of Wild Turkey sparked a conversation on the “countability” of the introduced species. My opinion is if Ring-necked Pheasant and Gray Partridge can be counted, then Wild Turkeys are as well. We stopped near a house with feeders, and we immediately had our first hummingbirds of the trip, both Calliope and Rufous Hummingbirds. Spotted Towhees and Pine Siskins hung around the feeders, and then the big surprise. A magnificent Blue Jay was picking along the lawn under the feeder. The East Coast folks were not impress, but this was a heck of a sighting for this side of the Continental Divide. Along the east side of the Flathead at one of the nearly countless cherry orchards, a Western Bluebird pair was observed. I must have seemed like a madman as I screamed, “BLUEBIRD!”, and slammed on the brakes. This maneuver was neither legal or wise as the road is a heavily-used highway, but these are Western Bluebirds after all. The group was rapidly learning that I am prone to bouts of unabashed enthusiasm.

Western Tanager in a puddle Pale Swallowtail

Near Kalispell, we beat the approaching rain storms to find Evening Grosbeak and Clay-colored Sparrow. I choose dinner at Moose’s Pizza, the best pizza in the valley and it even as sawdust on the floor for a touch of class. Unfortunately, it was Saturday night in old Kalispell, and the noise level was between deafening and mind-numbing, especially with those with hearing aids. I appreciated the groups good nature about this debacle. One participant merely removed his hearing aids, and smile contently as we ate great slices of deliciousness and drink Blackfoot IPA beer.

The Lewis Range of Glacier National Park from my runThat night’s stay was at the Glacier Vista Hotel, and I went for an incredible run on an empty road with Lewis Range standing solid on the horizon. What a great way to wind down from the day. The next day we went of Glacier National Park and Warbler Heaven (my secret spot).

Day 0 of the 2011 Montana Big Loop

Night at Pattee CanyonThe first evening of my first trip for WINGS. I was immensely nervous and hurriedly mentally rehearsing the entire trip. Mulling over drive times and dining arrangements in the hotel lobby, I rapidly noticed a fellow birder. She was wearing the standard issue uniform – tan and khaki cloths, binoculars suspended on a shoulder harness, and field guide in hand. Introducing myself, I was warmly greeting with a British accent and broad smile. My first client, one who would prove to have true English resolve by the end of the trip. Soon, I was meeting and greeting seven more participants. After chatting for a bit, we did what birders do, we went birding, even if it was in the neighboring industrial park. We found starlings, House Sparrows, and Brewer’s Blackbirds. Nothing shocking, but it was a start.

Cooper's HawkAfter a most excellent dinner at the Depot in Missoula, we departed for our first birding destination, the Kim Williams Trail along the Clark Fork River. The target bird was the Nashville Warbler, and this spot always produces. Well, not this time. We were skunked by the Nashville. Missing our first target bird, not exactly the way I wanted to start the trip. On the positive side of the ledger, an accommodating Cooper’s Hawk flew into view, much to the delight of the clients.

As evening drew to a close, the entire party traveled along Pattee Canyon to look – well, listen – for the small, dark-eyed Flammulated Owl that haunts these stands of large Ponderosa pines. I felt good about our chances of the detecting the owl as I was wearing my good luck Flammulated Owl t-shirt. Soon after leaving the vans, Common Nighthawks harvested the air overhead of flying insects and Swainson’s Thrushes sang and called for the ever-darkening forest. Guess what? The owl refused to make a peep, and the mosquitos, night fall, and shoe-soaking seeping ground caused a hasty retreat. 0 for 2.

As sleep approached, the mantra “tomorrow is another day” cycled through my mind.