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.