Pelican Island and Other Wonders of a Blustery Saturday

A winter storm warning put a crimp in our plans for a long spring hike this past Saturday. Instead, we checked out the weather, saw the storm heading our way from the northwest and decided to head southeast and see if we could outrun it.

Surprisingly, our plan worked.  We ended up at the Wildlife Management Area at the southern end of Canyon Ferry Lake under blue skies.    Plenty of wind, but no snow.

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We watched the front heading our way,  but it hung over the mountains long enough for us to find a calm little cove that was sheltering hundreds of white pelicans.

At first we saw a few determinedly flying into the wind.

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More and more passed us, until we found them hanging out on a couple of islands in the sheltered cove.  There were hundreds of them.

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They’d take off, land, take off again, circle around, and land again.  Sometime they seemed to group together for an important discussion, and then take off again.

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They were gorgeous.

We wandered back along an irrigation ditch, marveling at the fact that the weather hadn’t caught us yet,

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and spooked a trio of sandhill cranes, who took off into the wind, chattering their alarm.

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The discoveries didn’t end there.  We decided to explore Avalanche Gulch on the way home, and on the way in spied a large herd of elk in a stubble field.  Most were resting, but there were plenty of sentries keeping a keen lookout.

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Then, to top it off, a group of mountain goats was grazing on the hillside at the mouth of the canyon!

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Not too shabby.

Posted in Birding, Montana, Nature, Outdoors, Wildlife | Tagged , , , | 19 Comments

April is the Coolest Month…

“Spring” in Montana is a weeks long exercise in frustration. Gray skies, wind-blown dust, snow storms, driving sleet…it drives me nuts.

But when I hear the snow geese honking overhead as they make their way north, or see “my” eagles fixing up their nests I get a glimmer of hope that change is really on the way. One by one, the birds return: first, of course, are the huge flocks of snow geese and tundra swans. Then one day a mountain bluebird streaks from a fencepost, followed by a western meadowlark singing from another post. Redwinged blackbirds are suddenly everywhere, and the ducks! Northern shovelers, buffleheads, and hooded mergansers suddenly appear in ponds and rivers where just last week there were only lonely mallards. The gorgeous pelicans come back, and the grebes are changing into their silly breeding hairdos. The osprey usually take longer to show up, but I did see an industrious fellow last week, busily repairing his nest.

When I  hear the rattling call of the sandhill cranes, and see them gliding into their favorite stubble fields…that’s when I know that winter is truly over.  They’re here.  It’s spring.

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A Nice Batch of Eagles

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Snow geese weren’t the only migrators at Freezout Lake last week.  We were thrilled to discover a healthy bunch of bald eagles gathered at the south end of the lake.  We counted at least fifty of them – all ages – sitting on the ice.  They were buzzing the ducks, keeping an eye on the snow geese, and squabbling over fish they’d caught.

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But they spent most of their time standing around on the ice, looking at each other.  (If you look carefully at the picture below, you can see skeins of snow geese in the sky.    They’d look like they’d want to land in the open water,  but would veer off in a panic when they noticed the eagles.)

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It’s Snowing Geese!

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The snow geese are migrating, and earlier this week they were headed right for me.

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I’d heard that there were 35,000 snow geese at Freezout Lake in central Montana, so one afternoon we loaded up the camper and ended up camping on the prairie under a startlingly white strip of cloud.  Seemed like a good omen.

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We wandered around, watching the geese flying in ahead of a brewing storm.

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There were indeed many thousands of them, some resting on the shore, some landing on the still frozen lake, and many trying to squeeze into the small sections of lake that are free of ice.

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And more were arriving every minute.

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They continued to arrive long after sunset.

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In fact, I heard them honking overhead all through the night.

But the real magic happened at sunrise the next morning.  It was cold, so we were having our coffee in the camper.  I heard honking getting louder and louder, and when we opened the door the sky was covered from horizon to horizon with skeins of geese, each of whom was loudly announcing that he was coming.    What a sight!  Here’s the photo I took, but I  hope you’ll check out the short video as well – it gives a much better idea of what that moment was like.  Oh nature….you’re pretty great.

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Posted in Adventure, Birding, Camping, Montana, Nature, Outdoors, Wildlife | Tagged , , , | 23 Comments

Blog Neglect, Whale Fever and Just Plain Laziness: the Consequences of Three Weeks in Paradise

Here are a couple of things you might not know:

Hawaii is beautiful.

Hawaii is one wonderful place to spend three weeks in the middle of winter.

Oh, you knew that already?

Of course you did.

Hawaii, of course, is not exactly off the beaten track.   We did, however, find a little house to rent in the tiny town of Hawi, on the Big Island, and just returned from three glorious weeks of watching whales, hiking in rainforests, and hanging out on gorgeous beaches.   It was heaven.

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The little house:

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and the walk to the ocean cliffs that we took each day from the little house:

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But the whales!  The whales were the unexpected bonus.   I knew that the humpback whales migrate from Alaska to the waters off of Maui and the Big Island to breed and have their babies, but I didn’t realize that we’d be able to watch them every day from shore, or that they would be so wonderfully entertaining.    The first morning we walked to the cliffs, and we were stunned by the number of whales we saw breaching:

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and flapping their flippers, and spouting…

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The best, though, was the day we saw whales breaching all around a small sailboat.  I kept my camera focused on the sailboat, hoping that a whale would breach close enough to get them both in in the frame, and….

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Success!  Can you imagine being the guy in that little boat?

 

Posted in Adventure, Nature, Outdoors, Travel | Tagged , , | 17 Comments

Bleu Horses: A Montana Artist’s Gift

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If you happen to be driving Highway 287 between the little towns of Three Forks and Townsend, Montana, make sure to check out the herd of horses grazing on the west side of the highway.

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Montana artist Jim Dolan created the stunning group and donated the sculpture to all of us.    Pretty generous gift, don’t you think?

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Posted in Life, Montana, Nature, Outdoors | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments

Time to Tidy Up: Eagles Getting Busy

There’s a job for every season, and the eagles know that better than anyone. They can tell that the days are getting longer (so can I!) and they are suddenly busy with some important nest renovations.

I’ve checked out two nests this past week, and both pairs of bald eagles are hustling about, making sure that their nests will be sound and comfortable for the coming eaglets.

One of the nests is on one of my favorite backroads in all of Montana – heck, maybe in all the world:

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The nest sits high up in a gnarled and twisted Ponderosa pine.    It’s a brilliant spot for an eagle:  not far from the Missouri River, but also near fields that are bursting with ground squirrels in the spring and summer.    Last weekend the eagles were busy checking it out and bringing new sticks to shore up the walls.

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January 18, 2014

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The eagle in the pictures above was busy, busy, busy.  It’s mate, however, was more concerned with keeping an eye on me from another tree:

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I have high hopes for this pair.  Last year they raised three eaglets, which is pretty unusual.  I think they’re great parents.     And they were handsome young’uns, too, don’t you think?

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The second nest is right next to the Missouri, also in a pretty special spot:

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These guys actually alternate between a couple of nests:  last year they surprised me by going back to a dilapidated old nest that seemed in danger of sliding off the branch.  This year, though, it looks like they have decided to move up in the world, and they’re fixing up a much nicer looking home:

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They also were hustling around this past weekend.  One partner flew back and forth with new sticks, while the second one fussily worked at getting the stick in just the right spot.    It’s hard not to make the interior designer the female, but I’m resisting…

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January 25, 2014

This pair had a couple of eaglets last year, and they were pretty entertaining to watch:

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I’ll keep you posted on this year’s developments!

Posted in Birding, Montana, Nature, Outdoors, Wildlife | Tagged , , | 21 Comments