Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Bird Count

Last Saturday, the 18th of December, bird watchers across Billings participated in the annual Christmas Bird Count. This year over 25 people gathered at seven AM to organize themselves into groups and head into the field for eight hours of bird-watching. The Christmas Bird Count occurs between December 14th and January 5th across the Americas. This annual tradition has been occurring for over 100 years! As I learned from the National Audubon website, "Beginning on Christmas Day 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman, an early officer in the then budding Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday tradition-a "Christmas Bird Census"-that would count birds in the holidays rather than hunt them. So began the Christmas Bird Count. Thanks to the inspiration of Frank M. Chapman and the enthusiasm of twenty-seven dedicated birders, twenty-five Christmas Bird Counts were held that day. The locations ranged from Toronto, Ontario to Pacific Grove, California with most counts in or near the population centers of northeastern North America. Those original 27 Christmas Bird Counters tallied around 90 species on all the counts combined." (Retrieved from

The information gathered from the bird count contributes to bird science and conservation efforts. Changes in regional bird distribution trends have been documented through the data collected by thousands of citizen scientists each year. An interesting find in Billings this year was the presence of several thousand American Robins (see photo above right). As I learned from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds website, "Although robins are considered harbingers of spring, many American Robins spend the whole winter in their breeding range. But because they spend more time roosting in trees and less time in your yard, you're much less likely to see them. The number of robins present in the northern parts of the range varies each year with the local conditions." Perhaps this year Billings' late, warm fall encouraged more robins to stay here than usual. Or perhaps we are seeing the beginning of a longer-term trend. Time, and more annual counts, will tell.

Darcie Vallant, the Audubon Center Director, recorded a first for her life list on Saturday. She spotted a Townsend Solitaire by the Yellowstone River in the Heights. A long-tailed gray bird of the high western mountains, the Townsend's Solitaire descends in the winter to lower elevations where it feeds almost exclusively on juniper berries. Her group also observed every raptor that lives here at this time of year. These included Bald Eagle, Kestrel, Merlin, Harrier, Prairie Falcon, Red-Tailed Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk, and Golden Eagle.

Participants gathered at Helen Carlson's house afterward for home made soups, cookies, and cider. Helen coordinated her annual competition to see who could guess how many ornaments she had on each of two trees. The winners this year were Phil McBride and Bernie Quetchandach. Congratulations to the both of them! And thank you to everyone that spent a day participating in this important citizen science effort!!

Thursday, December 9, 2010


Friendship House 2nd and 3rd graders spent an afternoon this week looking and listening for owls on Norm's Island with Teacher Naturalist Adam Sundstrom. Adam introduced the students to the great horned owl, Bubo virginianus, in the classroom by showing them the wings and talons of a real owl. The class discussed the adaptations that help owls to be excellent hunters. They use their sharp feet (talons) to grab prey (usually small mammals like mice, though the great horned owl is the only animal that regularly eats skunks!). The feathers on their wings are fringed on the leading and trailing edges. This breaks up the wind as it flows over the feather, making for nearly silent flight so that owls can sneak up on unsuspecting small mammals. Additionally, the dish-shaped face of the owl helps to gather sounds, similar to the way a satellite dish gathers TV signals. The "horns" on the great horned owl are not its ears, they are actually just feathers. The ears of the owl are offset on the sides of its head (one side is higher than the other), which helps the owl to determine the precise location of prey. Oftentimes we see dogs tilt their head back and forth when they are listening; in doing so they are using the same principal of sound triangulation.

Armed with a portable wildlife caller that plays owl calls and mouse distress signals, the students headed to the field. As the evening approached and skies darkened, the students kept their eyes fixed on the trees, looking for camouflaged owls in the branches. When Adam played the owl's call, the students listening silently with the hope that owls would call back to the group. We didn't have luck this time, but we have seen great horned owls on the Island in the past and we'll keep looking. With luck, a pair will nest on the island sometime in February.

Friday, November 19, 2010

First snow of the season

Last Friday our first real winter storm of the season blew in, covering Billings with record amounts of snow, accompanied by bitter cold single-digit temperatures. It was a full 180 from the previous weeks' Indian summer feel with highs in the 60s. It was early October last year when I wrote about the first snow on the ground; now that we have waited until late November for the white blanket to cover us, it seems that winter has arrived with an urgency. The cold and snow have been persistent for the last several days; highs are around 3 degrees each day and a new dusting of snow graces the ground every morning.

The winter weather doesn't deter our local wildlife from going about the business of finding food to fuel their bodies to stay warm. Our feeder has been occupied by chickadees (Poecile atricapilla) and house finches (Carpodacus mexicanus), two species that will remain in the area all winter long. The male house finch (left) is distinguished from the female by its red head and breast. The female (below) is a brown and tawny colored bird, sometimes described as "drab". This is typical of many bird species; the male bird is colorful, which helps it to attract mates in the spring. Females are dull-colored so that they are camoflauged when sitting on their nests. That way they blend in and don't attract predators to their helpless eggs or hatchlings. House finches often travel in small flocks and are regular visitors to bird feeders, often nesting on or near buildings. They feed on nuts, seeds, berries, and insects (making them an omnivore, an animal that eats plants and animals).

If the animals can get out in this cold, we should be able to as well! I encourage you to put on some warm layers and head out to explore the winter wonderland. You are likely to find some tracks in the snow, such as the deer tracks I captured in the photo on the left. Follow the tracks backwards to see where the animal came from, and where it stopped to feed or rest. Put together the puzzle pieces as you get a unique glimpse into the life of an animal that is not visible at any other time of year.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Yellowstone Adventures

On a recent October afternoon the Center Director, Darcie Vallant, and I traveled through Yellowstone to a conference on the far side of the Park. I felt immensely lucky to be commuting through one of the most spectacular places in North America on my way to a conference about connecting people with nature. We had ample opportunities to connect with nature ourselves as we traveled along Soda Butte Creek, the Lamar River, and the Madison River on the way over to West Yellowstone.

Not more than one hundred meters from the road along the Soda Butte Creek, our first big sighting was a grizzly bear. Grizzly bears are identifiable by their dish-shaped face and hump on the shoulders. Both grizzly and black bears can be a multitude of colors, from brown to black to cinnamon. See if you can notice the shoulder hump in the photo below.

If you get close enough to either bear (which I don't recommend!), you will also observe that grizzly bears have much longer claws. These are used to dig for tubers and grubs. Black bears' shorter, curved claws are made for climbing trees. Grizzly and black bears have similar diets, though black bears don't generally forage for tubers. They are both omnivores, meaning that they eat both animals and plants. Their diet consists of elk, bison, roots, berries, white bark pine seeds and insects.

The Lamar Valley was full of herds of bison, surrounded by cottonwood trees that were at the peak of fall color. A lone coyote was hunting just west of the Lamar Ranger Station. We observed while s/he tilted its head back and forth, listening for the sound of mice beneath the soil. We were not lucky enough to get to see this coyote pounce and capture its prey.

We didn't see any elk until we pulled into Mammoth and met the resident
herd that feeds on the pristine green lawns in front of Officer's Row. Here we also ran into herds of tourists that were photographing the elk. One majestic bull elk sat in watch over his harem, a group of roughly 20 cow elk. At this time of year, during the rut, a male elk participates in mating behaviors such as sparring with other males with his antlers and bugling. Bugling both attracts females and proclaims a male's dominance over other males. To hear an elk bugle is a magical experience. It is a combination of whistling, bellowing, and grunting. The whistling noise is made by air passing over the elk's ivories ("the bugling teeth").
Evening is the best time to hear the elk bugle. We saw a few more bull elk, surrounded by females, as we continued westward. The mating season, or rut, lasts for 1 - 2 months each fall and is currently at its peak.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Cormorant spreads its wings

Yesterday afternoon as the dust settled from another exciting field trip with fourth grade students, ACEC Teacher Naturalist Carol Ward spotted a double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) on one of the floating islands in Deep Mill Pond. The cormorant was holding its wings out in spread-eagle fashion. This behavior is fairly unique to cormorants and is believed to help them dry their feathers. However, many birds dive underwater and don't exhibit this trait. One possible explanation is that cormorants don't have waterproof feathers the way that ducks do and must spread their wings out to dry in the sun and wind. If they had waterproof feathers they would be too buoyant to dive to great depths while hunting for fish. Recently there has been some debate as to whether the cormorants are holding their wings out in order to generate muscle heat in order to compensate for the chilling effect of cold fish in their bellies. See the Bird Forum discussion page HERE for more information on this debate.

Montana is the summer habitat for cormorants. This individual is on its way to wintering grounds along the Gulf of Mexico, anywhere from Florida to Texas. Usually the fall peak for cormorant migration is around September 6th, so this bird is on the tail-end of the migration period.

The cormorant earns its name "double crested" because of the double crest of feathers that are fully developed for only a short time early in the year. It is a black or dark-brown bird with a dull greenish or bronze gloss. It has orange-yellow skin on its face and throat that is distinctive throughout the year. They are fairly large birds (typical length of 70 - 90 cm with a body mass of 1.2 - 2.5 kg) with males that are slightly larger than the females.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Weed Be Gone

On October 9th we hosted our first annual weed pull
contest in partnership with Montana Conservation Corps. Over 30 folks braved the cold and rain to help eradicate canada thistle, spotted knapweed, and houndstongue. After a brief overview of the why, how, and what of weed eradication, the volunteers split into teams and headed to the field. The race was on as teams competed to see who could pull the most weeds by weight before eleven AM. We had a very successful morning. The rain actually made the weeds much easier to pull, though we ended up quite muddy in the process. Combined, the volunteers pulled 1,142 pounds of weeds! We also gave out two special prizes to individuals that pulled the longest intact root out of the ground. These went to a 28" first place root, and a 15" second place root. Thanks to all who braved the cold and rain to help us clean up the ACEC!

Our history as a gravel mine has resulted in a number of invasive weeds on the property, not just the three that we attacked on Saturday. They are considered noxious, invasive weeds because they are able to outcompete native plants and take over a landscape. In a short period of time they can replace native grasses and other vegetation. We are beginning an aggressive weed management plan that will combine mechanical methods such as hand pulling with chemical methods for some of the more difficult plants. It is also possible to remove weeds by burning them, grazing sheep/goats in infected areas, or mowing. We are unable to employ these methods at our site due to the large number of natives that have already been planted and the extensive irrigation system on our property.

Saturday was so much fun that we plan to continue the tradition of weed pull contests in the spring, and will make it a bi-annual event! Join us next time for some friendly competition and great prizes, not the least of which is the sense of satisfaction for doing something to help the natural world that surrounds and sustains us.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

2010 TogetherGreen Fellows

ACEC Education Director Heather Ristow has been recognized as a TogetherGreen Fellow. This program is an initiative launched by Audubon and Toyota to build the promise of a greener, healthier future through innovation, leadership and volunteerism.
Learn more about the program and Heather's plans for the fellowship here:
Profile of Fellow Heather Ristow

Monday, September 27, 2010

Sensory explorations on Norm's Island

On these gorgeous fall days (and even on the colder, rainy ones), our Center staff is outdoors with students engaging in hands-on explorations to learn about native plants, insects, birds, and other wildlife. Our educational programs emphasize direct observation and inquiry as a way to learn about the natural world. One of the elementary students' favorite activities is Meet A Tree in which they are blindfolded and must use their other four senses to "meet" a cottonwood tree. Each student is brought by a partner to a tree, and given an opportunity to feel the tree, smell it, listen to it (as this student from Newman ES is doing by knocking on the bark), and if they so choose, to taste the tree. Upon returning to the circle, each students' blindfold is taken off and they must go find "their" tree. In describing how they found their tree, the students refer to an amazing diversity of clues. Some of these include remembering whether the sun was on their face or back, remembering the placement of branches, the slope of a hill they walked up, and even seeing a wet mark where they did lick their tree. It is a challenge to rely on and trust a partner to lead them through the forest, and this in itself is a valuable learning experience. Humans are very reliant on our sense of sight to navigate the world, followed closely by hearing. We use our sense of sight in almost everything we do from reading to walking to eating. The Meet a Tree exercise helps students to tune into their other senses, and to use these to become increasingly aware of the world around them.

During this activity the students also learn about cottonwood natural history as we explore the riparian ecosystem (riparian land is that which is found near water). We have two kinds of cottonwood trees on Norm's Island: narrowleaf and plains cottonwood. They are easily identifiable by their leaves which differ significantly in size and shape. Narrowleaf trees have long, lance-like leaves, whereas the plains trees have large, spade-shaped leaves. Both types of cottonwood trees thrive in riparian areas, and therefore are a sign of a moist area. If you are traveling across the plains of eastern Montana and see a line of cottonwood trees in the distance, it is a sure indication that there is a creek ahead. Riparian areas are used by 85% of the animal species in Montana at some point in the year, and therefore provide critically important habitat.

Cottonwood trees are dioecious, meaning that each tree is either male or female. Flowering and pollination coincide with springtime peaks in riverine flows. Cottonwood seeds are borne by fluffy, cotton-like hairs and can be dispersed long distance by both wind and water. Seed dispersal usually occurs as river levels are falling, and therefore seeds have an increased probability of landing in favorable moist microsites along the river channel. The soil must stay moist throughout the early stages of seedling establishment. This reliance on a moist growing site explains why it is often said that cottonwood trees need flooding to spread to new areas. Rising and falling river levels create the ideal growing sites for young cottonwoods. Cottonwood seedlings and saplings can not tolerate drought, but they can tolerate inundation by water and silt. They are truly well-adapted to living in the riparian ecosystem.

Next time you are out for a walk along a river, observe the cottonwoods and see if you can identify whether they are narrow-leaf or plains cottonwoods. Observe too their thick, grey bark which helps to protect them from fire. Do you see any cavities (holes) in the tree that animals might be living in? What do your senses tell you about these trees?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Autumnal Equinox

Today is the Autumnal Equinox, the day when the sun crosses the equator from north to south, officially bringing us longer nights and shorter days. On the equinox, as the name implies, the length of our day and night is nearly equal. The equinox marks the official first day of fall. The harvest moon, the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox, will be gracing the night skies tomorrow, September 23rd. Historically, the light from the full moon at this time of year gave farmers extra time in the fields to gather their harvest; crops such as corn, squash, pumpkins, and beans are ready for gathering.
As students of phenology, our Audubon Naturalist in the Schools classes have been observing the changes in the seasons during recent visits to the Center. In the mornings we have discovered the grass wet with dew. This is a result of colder night temperatures; cold air cannot hold as much moisture as warm air. As the temperature drops over night, the water condenses and is deposited on the ground as dew.
We have also observed the yellowing of the cottonwood leaves and the reddish hue that many of the local shrubs such as wood's rose and golden current have acquired. This change in leaf color is triggered by the shortening of the days. Chlorophyll gives leaves their green color in summer, and is essential for photosynthesis, the chemical reaction that enables plants to produce their own food using the energy of the sun to convert carbon dioxide and water into sugars. The chlorophyll masks other pigments that are also present in the leaves. As the length of the night increases in autumn, chlorophyll production slows down and then stops, and eventually all the chlorophyll is destroyed. This reveals the yellow, orange, and red pigments that paint the landscape in such beautiful hues during autumn.
Many changes are taking place in nature during this truly spectacular time of year. Animals are preparing for the colder months to come by caching (storing) food, putting on extra fat reserves, and by migrating away to warmer climes. We have heard numerous flocks of geese overhead during the past few weeks, and the students have observed that it is quieter in the woods lately; many bird species have already left for the south. Keep your eyes, ears, and nose tuned to nature, and share your phenological observations here.

Friday, August 27, 2010


Here is the link to the pre-program survey for students at Central Heights ES and Poly Drive ES. Please DO NOT take this survey unless you are enrolled as a 4th or 5th grade student at these two schools. Thank you!

Take our Online Survey

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Giant Bald Eagle Nest

Last week the High School Naturalists in Training joined me and a couple of teachers for an educational, and fun, float on the Stillwater River. In addition to testing water quality, collecting macroinvertebrates, and having a close run-in with a rattlesnake (aka "buzz worm"), we were lucky to see a most amazing site. On the west bank of the Stillwater is a very large and old nest of a bald eagle pair (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). According to Bird Feats of Montana by Deborah Richie Oberbillig (Farcountry Press, 2008), the largest bird nest in North America belongs to a bald eagle, and was 20 feet tall and 9.5 feet across. The one we saw was not quite as big, but was still very impressive. The same eagle pair has been occupying this nest for at least five years. They return year after year to the same spot and continue to add more sticks each year. After they die, another pair will take over the nest.

Bald eagles eat fish, and that is why they place their nests along rivers, usually in tall cottonwood trees. We were unable to see inside the nest, but had we glimpsed in we would likely have seen a soft bed of feathers, moss, and grasses. Usually the eagles will have 1 - 3 chicks per clutch. Eggs are laid in March or April and are incubated for 5 weeks by both the male and female bird. First flight will occur after 10 - 12 weeks. The young will remain around the nest for several weeks after fledging. We were not lucky enough to see the adults or chicks, however a group in the morning had seen them so we know they are still around!

If you are floating the Stillwater this summer, keep your eyes on the west bank high in the cottonwoods, and you are sure not to miss this amazing spectacle!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Song Sparrows in the Nursery

On Wednesday we were pleased to discover that a family of song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) has decided to make their nest in our nursery! Inside a tight-growing rose bush, tucked at the bottom of the foliage, we spied five little chicks. As we peered into the nest, the parents called and flew nearby, clearly agitated by our presence. We quickly snapped a photo and retreated.

Song Sparrows get their name because of their beautiful song, which we have been hearing for several months around the ACEC and on Norm's Island. We live right on the border of their year-round and summer-only ranges. I have yet to see one in the winter, so I believe in our location we are witnessing birds that have recently migrated back from more southern climes. As stated on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's website, "The Song Sparrow sings a loud, clanking song of 2–6 phrases that typically starts with abrupt, well-spaced notes and finishes with a buzz or trill. In between, the singer may add other trills with different tempo and quality. The song usually lasts 2-4 seconds." Adult sparrows are rich brown-grey with streaking down their breast, which converge in a central breast spot. They are medium-sized and fairly bulky. The tail is long and rounded, and the wings are broad.

Apparently, the base of rose bushes is a common site for a song sparrow nest. The female sparrow will build the nest; it is a simple, sturdy cup of loose grasses, weeds, and bark on the outsides, lined with softer, tidier grasses and animal hair. Finished nests are 4 - 8 inches across and 2 - 4 inches deep. The female will lay 1 - 8 eggs, and incubate them for 12 - 15 days. Newborn sparrows are naked with a little black down, and have their eyes closed. They will remain in the nest as "nestlings" for 9 - 12 days. The ones that we observed were probably several days old. Their eyes were wide open, as were their beaks as they awaited food from their parents!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Baltimore Oriole in the garden

The feeders in our habitat garden have been primarily populated by red-winged blackbirds and house finches. But today a new, brilliantly-colored orange bird arrived in the garden. We thought at first that it was a Bullock's Oriole, but on closer inspection we realized it is a Baltimore Oriole, Icterus galbula. The completely black head was the main clue to our identification. We are on the very edge of its migration range so this is not a common sight here.
Orioles are omnivores and are known to eat caterpillars, fruits, insects, spiders, and nectar. They make very unique nests. They are gourd-shaped and woven from hair, plant fibers, and synthetic fibers. Their nests hang by the rim from thin branches or a fork in a tall tree. They lay 3 - 7 eggs, which they incubate for 11 - 14 days. Chicks are helpless when they hatch, and will fledge in another 11 - 14 days.
Visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website for more info on this magnificent bird.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Goslings on the lawn

On April 30th I looked up from my desk to catch sight of the first goslings of the year. A family of five young geese, accompanied by their parents, was crossing the lawn from Will's Marsh to Deep Mill pond. I cautiously stuck my head out the door to take a photo; I have heard stories of adult geese attacking unwary humans, and I didn't want to press my luck. The geese lingered on the lawn to munch on some grass. As I learned from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's website, geese are "particularly drawn to lawns for two reasons: they can digest grass, and when they are feeding with their young, manicured lawns give them a wide, unobstructed view of any approaching predators."

These young goslings started their lives as eggs in large open cup nests on the ground, often made of grasses and other plant materials, and lined with the soft down and body feathers of the parents. The female chooses the nest site and incubates the eggs. Her mate will stay close-by and help to protect her and the eggs. She will lay from 2 - 8 cream-colored eggs that are roughly 3 inches long and 2 inches wide. The incubation period is 25 - 28 days. Goslings will leave the nest when 1 - 2 days old and are very active and mobile right away. They can walk, swim, and dive when they leave the nest.

One month later, the goslings have grown immensely, though they are still hanging out close to their parents. Students out in canoes this spring often saw the family swimming and feeding on the shores. Will's Marsh is also home to at least two families of mallards with 7 - 10 ducklings each. It has been a busy spring!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Survey for fourth graders

If you are a 4th grade student at Newman, Ponderosa, or Orchard Elementary Schools, please click HERE to start the survey.

If you are a 4th grade student at Burlington or Central Heights Elementary Schools, please click HERE to start the survey.

Thank you!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Owl on the Prowl

We kicked off the spring field trip season this past week with visits from three Orchard Elementary School classes. On Thursday, Ms. Cox's fourth grade joined us for birding adventures on Norm's Island. Half-way through our hike we had already seen about ten species of local birds. But the best was yet to come. We rounded a corner, and in a cottonwood tree, only 50 feet from the trail, we spotted a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus). This large owl can be up to two feet tall, with a wingspan of five feet. The female owls are larger than the males, though the males have deeper voices. An owl pair will call back and forth with the familiar "hoo hohoho hoo hoo". Check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website to listen to its call.
The owl sat motionless on the branch with the exception of its head, which swirled around backwards to look in our direction. We could see the tall tufts of feathers on its head; these are the "horns" for which it is named. All owls have excellent hearing and eyesight, which helps them to hunt at night. Their eyes are set facing forward in a dish-shaped face. The forward-looking eyes give the bird greater depth perception to help them hone in on prey. The dish shape helps to gather sounds, similar to how a satellite dish collects signals from the sky. This enables the owl to be a very effective predator!
Great Horned Owl nesting season occurs early, in January or February. This is when the males and females hoot to each other, oftentimes we hear them in the evening. When close they bow to each other, with drooped wings in a courtship display. Mutual bill rubbing and preening (cleaning of feathers) also occurs. They do not build a nest of their own but utilize the nests of other birds such as the hawk, crow and heron. They may also use squirrel nests, hollows in trees, abandoned buildings, or artificial platforms. They are extremely aggressive when defending the nest. Normally, two to four eggs are laid and incubated by the female for 26-35 days. Young owlets start roaming from the nest onto nearby branches at 6 to 7 weeks, but cannot fly well until 9 to 10 weeks old. They are fed for another few weeks as they are slowly weaned. Families remain loosely associated during summer before young disperse in the autumn. Adults tend to remain near their breeding areas year-round while juveniles disperse widely, over 250 km (150 miles) in the autumn. Territories are maintained by the same pair for as many as 8 consecutive years, however, these owls are solitary in nature, only staying with their mate during the nesting season. To learn more about this fascinating creature, check out the MT Fish, Wildlife, and Parks field guide pages.
Thanks to Ms. Cox's class for quietly observing this majestic bird with me!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Earth Day Celebration

Come celebrate the 40th anniversary of Earth Day! Worldwide this April people will be participating in projects that connect them in service to the natural world, and that help to raise awareness of ecological issues. Earth Day began in 1970 when US Senator Gaylord Nelson launched a grassroots "environmental teach-in" that took the form of environmental clean-ups, restoration projects, and educational projects nationwide.

On Saturday April 17th here at the ACEC we'll be planting and launching floating islands to help clean up the water in Deep Mill Pond. We'll also plant shrubs and flowers to create butterfly and bird habitat gardens around our new building. A bit of trash cleanup will round out the morning of restoration activities (8 am - noon).
We'll break for a free BBQ lunch, sponsored by Buchanan Capital, LLC. During lunch, Amy Cilimburg will give a short presentation on Birds in a Warming World. Then we'll go hiking in search of birds and insects, and will learn about life in the ponds while practicing our canoeing skills. Join for an hour or the whole day! Families are welcome. No fee for participation. Bring water, sun protection (hat and sunblock), and work gloves. Also a shovel if you have one (please make sure to label it with your name).
I hope to see you soon! Call me with any questions (Heather Ristow at 406 - 294 - 5099 or

Monday, March 15, 2010

Bluebirds in Billings

The remarkable blue feathers of the male Mountain Bluebird (Sialia currucoides) are a sight for sore eyes in March. The arrival of this migratory bird signals the arrival of spring. Bluebirds head to the southern US and Mexico in the fall, and return to breed in ranchland and other open areas of the American and Canadian west in the spring. They will be a common sight over the next few months, but the first arrival of the spring is always an occasion to celebrate!
I had the pleasure of spotting a few bluebirds during the last couple of days here in eastern Montana. I went for a hike at the BLM's Acton Area, and also at Phipps Park just west of Billings over the weekend. In both locations I saw a male bluebird, and at Acton the male was hanging out with a female. I sat and watched the pair at Acton for awhile. They were sitting at the top of a dead tree; I didn't watch long before the male darted into the air to snap up an insect, and then promptly returned to his perch. The pair called back and forth to one another as I sat silent, listening. Their voice reminded me of a reeded instrument; the notes are thick and rich. Soon the pair will be making a nest; common locations include cavities in trees and even nest boxes. We have several nest boxes at the ACEC; though they are primarily occupied by swallows, last year Norm and Mary did see one bluebird pair using a box. We hope to see more here this year, and will continue to monitor our nest boxes. Visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds pages for more information on this magnificent summer resident.
During my afternoon at Acton I heard several other birds rustling in the trees, flapping overhead, and calling out to each other. A constant tapping of wood clued me in to the presence of a woodpecker, and soon enough a downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) emerged from the branches of a Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa). These year-long residents are a familiar site at my suet feeder, and on Norm's Island. I have seen them at the ACEC a couple of times, though they prefer more mature forests. I also saw several crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) and black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus), also one red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) by the highway. As we get further into spring, the diversity of birds out and about will only increase as summer residents return. Its a great time of year to be a birder!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Mud Season

After three months of living in a winter wonderland, the blanket of snow is finally melting away with recent warm temperatures and sunny skies. We have officially entered mud season in Billings. Patches of open water are appearing on the ponds, and ducks and geese have re-discovered the ACEC. The Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) are hanging out in pairs, an indication that breeding season is about to begin. Geese form long-term pair bonds and mate for life. They will make their nest near the water, usually of grasses, forbs, sticks, and other vegetation. Eggs will be laid from mid-March through late April. Each pair will have four to seven eggs in their brood. The female with incubate the eggs for 25 - 30 days. When the eggs hatch and the young emerge, the male will help to care for them. Geese primarily eat invertebrates during breeding season, though they are omnivores and often indulge in plant materials during the rest of the year. For more information, click here for FWP's Montana Field Guide.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Pond Rescue

This afternoon Norm and I headed out to Will's Marsh to check on the oxygen level in the water. It is a very shallow pond, only 3 - 6 feet deep in most places. A complete cover of ice/snow has blanketed it since November. This causes the oxygen level in the unfrozen water beneath the ice to steadily drop. There is no unfrozen surface water to gather oxygen from the air. It is critical to help our frogs and fish survive in the depths of the pond by adding oxygenated water from the well in late/mid winter if oxygen levels drop too low.
Norm and I headed out onto the ice, and I used a pulaski to break a hole in the surface of the pond. Immediately my nostrils were filled with the stench of rotten eggs. This is not a good sign; it indicates an anaerobic (unoxygenated) environment. I stuck my hands in the ice-cold water and gathered a small sample of water. We weren't the only ones that had been out on the ice: a couple sets of jackrabbit tracks crossed our path, the alternate walking pattern of foxes criss-crossed them, and one set of cross-country ski tracks went clear across the pond as well.
Back in the lab Norm ran a test for oxygen content in the water. The results were dismaying! The oxygen level had dropped to a critically low level. Norm headed out immediately to start the pump in the well in order to add water onto the north side of the pond, where it will fill in under the ice and bring in fresh oxygen. We hope that we can save the hibernating fish, frogs, and turtles! Deep Mill Pond doesn't have this problem as it is two or three times deeper than Will's Marsh. Will's is a marsh after all, but we'd like to make sure it is hospitable for frogs, fish, and turtles. This means it requires a bit more water than a typical marsh. We'll be keeping our fingers crossed.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Who's clues?

February: a new month, and plenty of new snow here in Billings. We're having an "old-fashioned" winter, and I couldn't be happier about it! There are great opportunities for people to learn more about the natural world by following tracks in the snow. During no other time of the year can we get such an in-depth look at the lives of animals. By following their tracks, we can discover where they are going, what habitats they are choosing to spend time in, and what they are doing. We all have the chance to be detectives as we put together clues surrounding the tracks we find. Perhaps tracks will disappear down a deep hole at the base of a tree, or end in a spot of blood in the snow that is flanked by the impressions of a large bird's wings. Sometimes we can see where an animal has bedded down deep into the snowpack for a rest. The possibilities are exciting and endless!
These tracks are from a snowshoe hare in the Teton Mountains in Wyoming. Can you figure out which direction it is traveling?

If you guessed down the page, you are correct! The larger prints are the hare's hind feet. Like all hopping animals the small front legs land first, and then the large back legs wrap around the front ones to land in front of them. You can try this at home: are your joints as flexible as the hares? Humans walk in an alternating left - right pattern, as do fox, coyotes, bears, elk, deer, and many other species. Still other animals are bounders. Weasels are a great example of bounders: their front legs leave a spot on the ground, and their back legs land in the same spot. In this way they "bound" along the ground, constantly extending and then contracting their bodies.

Here are some tips for a successful tracking adventure:
1. wait 24 hours after it has stopped snowing. This gives the animals a chance to move around, and leave their tracks in the fresh snow.
2. Always backtrack an animal first (follow its tracks back the way it came from). That way if the tracks are very fresh, you won't catch up to the animal and startle it. Winter is a hard time for wildlife; they must conserve energy. There is not as much food available at this time of year, yet they need more of it to stay warm in the colder temperatures. If an animal is startled it will waste energy running away from us.
3. Bring along a pencil, journal, and ruler. Make some sketches of what you find. Measurements of tracks will often help you to determine which species you are looking at. For example, fox and coyotes have identical track patterns, but with measurements you can usually figure out what you're looking at (though a large fox and small coyote overlap somewhat, and may cause difficulty regardless).
4. Bring along a good track book. In the winter I enjoy Louise Forrest's Field Guide to Tracking Animals in Snow. Another favorite of mine for tracks and signs is Tracking and the Art of Seeing by Paul Rezendes.
5. Put on your detective thinking cap, take your warm jacket, hat, and desire to explore, and head out the door!

Right now outside my door a couple of colorful ringed-necked pheasants are strutting up the walkway. We have several coveys (groups) of pheasants living at the ACEC. Though not native to Montana, they have spread across the state. You may have heard their clucking coming from brushy cover along the edges of grasslands and fields. To listen to the pheasant, and for more information, visit Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Field Guide. Thanks to Chuck Carlson for the fantastic photo from the MT FWP page.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Great Backyard Bird Count

Mark your calendars, and get ready to count the chickadees, flickers, and all other feathered friends in your neighborhood! The weekend of February 12 - 15th, 2010, will be the annual Great Backyard Bird Count. This is a four-day event that engages bird watchers of all ages in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of where the birds are across the continent and in Hawaii. Anyone can participate, from beginning bird watchers to experts. It takes as little as 15 minutes on one day, or you can count for as long as you like each day of the event. It’s free, fun, and easy—and it helps the birds. To learn more on how you can become involved, please click HERE.

Friday, January 8, 2010

White rabbits

I glimpsed out the window this afternoon just in time to see a white ball of fur hop out of the nursery onto the open road and down to Will's Marsh. It was rather large, and fully white except for black tips on top of its tall ears. A white rabbit!?! I questioned my sanity, as I thought we only had cottontail rabbits here, and true rabbits do not turn white in the winter.
After double-checking my vision, and assuring myself I was seeing a white rabbit-like critter, I did some research. I visited the MT Fish Wildlife, and Parks Natural Heritage page and linked to the Montana Field Guide. There I discovered that this long-legged, long-eared animal was most likely the white-tailed jackrabbit, Lepus townsendii. You can check out the FWP page by clicking here. Jackrabbits are actually hares, not rabbits. All hares are in the genus Lepus. They are closely related to rabbits (both are in the family Leporidae), but there are some critical differences. As I mentioned above, rabbits don't change colors with the seasons, while most hares do (another Montana hare is the Snowshoe hare, Lepus americanus). Hares are usually larger than rabbits, have longer ears, and black markings on their fur. Hares are not born underground in a burrow, rather they are born in a shallow nest of grass known as a form. Because they are born above-ground with less protection than in a burrow, they are born with eyes open and bearing fur, and soon after birth can fend for themselves. Rabbits, which are born underground, are born blind, hairless, and relatively helpless. To learn more about the Mountain Cottontail Rabbit, our other leporid at the ACEC, please click here.
The white-tailed jackrabbit was a lucky sighting for me, the highlight of my day! I learned from the Montana Field Guide that they usually inhabit sage-grasslands, but move to wooded and riparian (riverside) areas during rough winters. We have some grasslands and fields nearby, and are adjacent to the heavily wooded riparian ecological community. Perhaps this hare made its way here following our recent days of sub-zero temperatures and deep snow. Hopefully she, or he, decides to stay!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Good day for a ski

It is a wonderful New Year here in Montana! Yesterday it snowed gently, but continuously, and this morning we woke to near a foot here in Billings. The sun peeked out by late morning, and the new snow is now sparkling from the Rims to the South Hills under a brilliant blue sky. The temperature is hovering in the single digits, but the sun and snow make the venture outdoors very appealing. During my lunch break I strapped on my cross-country skis and headed over to explore Norm's Island. I crossed several sets of red fox and cottontail rabbit tracks on my way down the road from the ACEC. I was greeted on the island by a flock of geese soaring overhead, followed by a mob of crows landing in the bare cottonwood trees.
The air was busy with the activity of songbirds. Black-capped chickadees flitted from snowberry bushes to cottonwoods to buffaloberry bushes. They called to one another "chick-a-dee-dee-dee" as they went about the business of collecting seeds and dried berries. They must eat plenty of food during the short days so that they have enough energy to burn in order to stay warm during long, cold winter nights. They will keep warm by finding a cavity in a tree. Some bird species will huddle in cavities with many other individuals to help stay warm, but not the chickadee. Even when temperatures are far below zero, chickadees virtually always sleep in their own individual cavities. See the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for more information on chickadees.
Along the shores of the Yellowstone River, I heard the strange sound of several dozen Common Goldeneyes taking flight. These striking black and white diving ducks spend the winter on open water, as far north as southern Canada and as far south as Mexico. Their wings make a whistling noise in flight, which is what I heard as they took off from the river. To hear that sound, and learn more about them, check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The photo in the upper right corner of this blog is of the Common Goldeneye male.
On my trek around the island I witnessed the diversity of creatures that are out and about, surviving winter in this cold climate. I'll highlight another one of these amazing creatures next time. Until then, Happy New Year!