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!