Friday, February 17, 2012

Bald and Beautiful

Bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) flew over several classes as we hiked along the Yellowstone River this month (photo at right by USACEpublicaffairs). One group even listened as the eagle chirped! To listen for yourself visit Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds website. For such a large bird, the eagle's cry is rather weak and unassuming. When eagles appear in movies, usually in Westerns, the red-tailed hawk's piercing cry is played in the background instead of the eagle's quiet warble. Thus, many people identify the hawk's call with the eagle.

Eagles are common along the river and other bodies of water. They mainly eat fish. They grab fish with their strong toes and very sharp talons that are adapted for hunting. They also have strong and sharp beaks to rip the flesh of their prey.

Eagles mate for life, and only seek a new mate if their original partner is lost. They build huge nests out of sticks, and use the same nest from year-to-year. Their nests may grow to weigh hundreds of pounds as they put new branches on each year.

The bald eagle is not truly bald (see photo at left by Pen Waggener). They earned their name because the white feathers on their head shine in contrast with the dark brown body feathers. Young bald eagles are mostly brown (even on their head) with white spotting on the body. By their fourth birthday, they take on the characteristic adult plumage.

We have seen both juveniles and adults at the Center this month. Two of the eagles are paired up and spending time by the trail under South Billings Boulevard. If we are lucky, they'll build a nest where we can watch the young eagles grow up!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Nordic Center Tracking

Last Saturday I spent the morning at the Red Lodge Nordic Center with beginning and expert skiers alike to learn about animal tracks. We started the day with a ski lesson for those who were new to the sport. More than half our participants hadn't been on cross-country skis before! Three great volunteers from the Nordic Center, Les, Marci, and Ellen helped to teach the newbies. After an hour of practice, they were at least able to stay up on the thin wooden skis... well, most of the time.

After a brief break and hot cider, we were refreshed and ready to learn about animal tracks. Barb Pitman from Custer National Forest joined us to lead an introduction to track patterns and animal gaits. She taught us some of the tracks we might find there in Red Lodge, including fox, wolves, weasels, mountain lions, deer, and moose. Luckily, it had snowed a couple of inches the previous day so there was a fresh pallet for animals to leave their tracks on overnight. We headed down the trail to see what we could find.

First up was a nice set of cottontail rabbit tracks. Their large back legs wrap around the smaller front legs when they hop through the snow; sometimes the full back leg doesn't touch the ground so the track won't look as long as the foot really is. In the photo at the far left, you can't tell the difference between front and back legs prints. However, the photo at left with a succession of track groups helps us to visualize the movement of the animal (a track group means a set of four prints, one from each foot). The front legs are staggered from each other, as are the back legs in many of the track groups. A close inspection leads us to the conclusion that the rabbit was heading up the photo, so the front feet made the two tracks closest to the bottom of the photo in each group.

Later in the morning we came across some moose tracks that disappeared into the brush. While moose are common in Red Lodge, we were tricked by these tracks. Barb had made them earlier in the morning by using a rubber mold! Here she is showing one of our young trackers how she made them.
By the end of the morning we had found several sets of fox tracks, many cottontail rabbit tracks, and even one set of weasel tracks. There were even signs of the North American Human post-holing through deep snow without skis! What a fantastic way to spend a sunny winter day.