Montana: (The Birds)


I’ve said it before: a sonic landscape different from my home, sometimes, is all one asks from somewhere new. Or relatively new. We were in Montana a year ago about three weeks earlier in spring than this year. I sat along the same river in Missoula and walked down into the hills there along the Clark Fork River. The sun was shining this year on the arrival afternoon. The river was high with snow melt. Everywhere the sounds of Yellow Warblers on territory. And on the morning walks: Catbirds up and singing. They replace Mockers there. Sweeter and quieter songsters, they still mock and collect. Less mock than honor, I think. When I was there last year there were no catbirds.

After two nights in Missoula we moved to higher elevation and a forested landscape in the mountains near a lake at about 4500 feet. Below: the birds, mostly each to his own. In no defined order that I foresee.


Last year almost the first birds I saw on the river in Missoula were Common Mergansers, trusting and close, floating on the current, feeding in the shallows, sunning on the rocks. Groups of females this year. Sometimes four or five floating the current together. One very trusting female who would let me sit close and just watch her preen. I saw males again the second day. And in the mountains, they would be paired on the lakes or flying by in pairs low across the lake surface. I don’t believe I ever heard a sound from them. Never in Arkansas do I see them this close or consistently. They are a treat every time.


One morning after some long rain, Josh and I made a run up a road to the west that climbed 1500 more feet to some higher mountain lakes on the map. It was still raining. We stopped at any wet area, any area that looked promising. A Sora called in one stop. And once in the still falling rain, a Sandhill Crane standing in the road. It flew up and over. Lost in the mountains, into the fog and clouds. But up top, the rain turned to snow and then heavy snow. Temp to 32 F. And on the car navigation map we could see the outline of a small lake right next to us. It would have been a hidden mystery otherwise. We stopped and we dove into conifers. The snow still came down. And on this 4 or 5 acre lake surface, I could see only a few Goldeneye. They were all Barrow’s. A bird I had only seen as a single lost wanderer in Arkansas. This was where they truly lived however. This must be where they made more Barrow’s.

We came back the next day and checked the small  lake again and then moved just south to the larger nearby Meadow Lake. This was a high snowmelt lake to make you want to stay forever in the mountains. Josh fished with his fly fishing gear. I jumped the boulders along the shore. I looked to the snowcap reflections and watched all the Barrow’s males and females do their spring activities. They were not all paired. Though they were difficult to count and sort. It was not males = female in numbers for sure. The sounds they made carried over the lake surface. The only other birds on the water were a pair of Canada Geese and a group of Green-winged Teal which seemed calm and sleepy comparatively.

The male Barrow’s were like dogs in heat. They would lay themselves out in the closest head-to-head encounters with the heads and beaks barely above the water, pointed at their tormentor or their tormented. Hind feet kicking with speed. Battles involved wing beatings, involved rising up on the hind parts, diving and chasing underwater. Sometimes the females nearby would launch on a flight around the lake and a male or two males would flight chase making a repetitive wing noise with grunting as they went by. She would come back down in hormonal indecision and the males would lunge back into flat-nosed stare down mode. It was so entertaining I lost track of time.

And then we walked one morning down to a lake that was 1500 feet lower, down one of the most beautiful two mile trails I have ever walked. It was a very large and elongate lake compared to the others, bending around a corner to the east in the unwalkable distance. At first no breeze was breaking the glass of the surface. While we were there a female Goldeneye appeared down shore, not far away. And soon, behind her, eight newly hatched chicks. Dark with creamy racing stripes, the chicks were unworldly. Unlike any northern southland ducklings I had seen before. Goldeneye nest in tree cavities like Wood Ducks. So these youngsters had no doubt just dropped from somewhere high over in these woods. She led them all the way across and to the west of us where the lake spilled off into a river that flowed for miles down to join the lake where we were staying. She was showing them the ropes. It was the first day of swimming, the first taste of this bug and that bug. Lessons abounding no doubt: always swim away from those pale gorillas on the shore. And here my children is the wide, wide sky.


They need no other name really. Like Prince. American or Northern, it is unnecessary. We should at most call them Earth Ravens. And we have to hope that somewhere on one of these many planets we have discovered out there in the last 25 years there is another Raven of some type. A top Corvid. We will name them after their planets. The complex local sequences that build life will always make one great black feathered thing, we hope. Chemistry and time will always make a Raven out there in the other stars. But will chemistry and time always make someone to watch them? Don’t we wish truly for another planet that is just populated with birds?

I tend to go to places with Ravens when I go elsewhere from Arkansas. In Montana they seemed to be everywhere. Mostly paired already, though I saw a few triplets. I saw some soaring. At the lake house they would come over gronk-gronking, stalling in the pines. Most true raptors I saw would have a Raven after them. Some Ravens soared very high, those quadrilateral tails in view. And apparently, according to Bernd Heinrich, they sometimes soar just for the joy of soaring, of simple flight appreciation. In the Buddhist world, I want one life as a Raven. Just one. And if I have had it already, well, when I close my eyes, I cannot see it. This would be the deepest cheat if true. Where is the drug that will make it come back?


I had seen Red-necks in lakes in Montana in the past. I have seen them wander to Arkansas in their winter colors. But here on this mountain lake where I lived for a week, they were the birds to be dealt with. The birds that got right into your soul. I had thought the call of the loon was something unmatched on a mountain lake. I have a competitor to offer up now. And this house had a dock that jutted out into the lake. I would bring my spotting scope down on the dock and scan the water. The cry of these animals, it is…primeval, essential, I suppose. I wonder if the people on this lake even know it. Most people never pay enough attention to their local worlds I find. But what do they think it is? A different loon call I suspect. Everyone knows the loon. But anyway I watched this grebe pair so closely that I could eventually define the male from the female. A subtle difference in the darkness of the red at the upper hindneck, the width of the blackening at the back of the neck. There was a jut of land to the south of our rent house, maybe 100 yards away from my dock. A human home sat on the point there which appeared to be unoccupied. I saw the grebes drift there at late dusk one evening. And out from my dock I would witness male and female birds returning to each other. As though they had been lost. The stirring and sharp cries heralding the approach. Proclaiming the nearing. And then the rising up to dance next to each other. Necks arched and the voices singing, a dance, the bent and lifted togetherness. It is not something I can unsee. It cannot be unseen.

And with the scope, which is like a secret invader into the lives of birds sometimes, I saw the female carrying some aquatic vegetation. I watched her go into a folded arch of pine branches on the shore to the south. And thus I found the nest. And watched as both the male and the female dove to bring up wet, aquatic clumps and bill them into place. The male often handing the female whatever treasure he had secured. Mostly they dove and brought up wet clumps of vegetation. But I watched the male struggle with a thin pine stem until we both were tired. It never gave way, never broke off. He moved on.

I learned to leave the door in my bedroom open at night, screened but open. Just for the night songs, the conversation of the grebes around their nest. Sometimes I would awaken and just listen. Either to silence or the piercing cry of the grebe being a reward. It is a ringing and heroic sound.

By the later part of the week she was sitting on the eggs. The male ranging out across to the north lake shore and back. He did not appear to feed her. She came off the nest sometimes and dove, presumably for her own food. I would watch her on the nest and then suddenly the urge would come to her: wanderlust or hunger, the restrictions of motherhood giving way. She would slide off and silently hunt underwater. Clearly it was a long vigil ahead for her on the nest.


The west is richer with them than we are in the east. Hummers being essentially born of the mountain altitudes. At Missoula, on one of my morning walks, I found Calliope males perching and zinging. One up on the tallest spire looking for trouble in the skies above him. But at the mountain lake it was Rufous world. A few males on my walks startled me with that extraordinary noise they make at the bottom of their flight displays. Occasional females zipping up to inspect the red umbrellas on the porch. No feeders were hanging. I regretted not bringing one of my own. I watched each female carefully and on one of the early days there, from the deck, in a sprinkle of rain, I saw one stop suddenly and I found it. I brought the scope over and there she was sitting atop her delicate nest that was beautifully decorated with lichen just like in our Ruby-throats. It was dangling down at the far reaches of a tree branch, a fir. Nothing could get it there. Safe from jays, from ravens, from crows. From humans. From deer. Oh the dangerous world.

Tail cocked up, beak affront. The faint flint and purple sparkles in the female’s throat, orange and green in the tail. She sat so patiently. I watched rain beads gather on her back. She was just 20 feet or so directly from the deck so she filled the scope at 50 power. We watched her all week. I looked at her before I packed the scope away to return home.


Or so I thought. Walking a trail in the mountains early one morning. I knew there are 15 owl species in the Montana landscape. I thought I was hearing one that I could not quite remember. “Who doo doo doo doo doo doo dooooo.” It seemed to come from multiple directions, high up in the trees. I kept turning and focusing in the tallest pines and firs. I did not think I had a chance of seeing whatever owl this was that I had forgotten the call for. Boreal, Western Screech, Ferruginous? I kept moving and I thought there must be at least five of them there in every compass direction. And I moved farther down until I was next to an opening where a small creek spilled into a swampy area. A male Ring-necked Duck and a male Bufflehead floated out there between the reed arrays. Their respective females no doubt hidden in a nest somewhere. I listened to the water flow and the owl seemed to be above me. I spotted something small and high in the air, tracing across my low clouded sky. And in the binoculars I could see a small bird with a long leading beak. I watched him track to the bottom of an arc as the owl sound repeated itself. Eureka, I was a dunce. Of course, I had no owls with me. I had a very active Snipe, winnowing, as they say, across my sky. And what an owlish sound it was. I had never heard it before. I was astonished by it then.

And over the week we stayed, from the deck of the house on the lake, I could hear the snipe each morning doing his owlish dives. Winging and wooing whoever it was he was winging and wooing. It is an astounding sound. I will not forget it.


In Missoula, along the rivers it was all Yellows. Males and females everywhere. Territory abutting territory I assumed. I never saw a fight or even a spat. Deeper down the river valley when the trees came up the Audubon’s called. In the mountains the Audubon’s were the dominant sound. Higher up the Townsend’s sang. One Audubon was building a nest less than ten foot from the deck rail. It appeared the female did most of the work. They would call close by. The male’s bright markings always impressive.

In several spots I would hear Northern Waterthrush. Mostly near dense vegetation and wetlands. I could pish them out and they would bob and stare. I did not see nesting material carried.

And once on the long walk down to the wilderness lake where the Goldeneye chicks amazed me, I stopped once on the trail to see a male Macgillivray’s Warbler come up and give me the eye. White parenthetic marks on the dark head, I may have been near a territory there. It was a very rich woodland on a steep slope. Perhaps only the second bird of this species I have ever seen.


I think of these as large aquatic diving wrens. And this is what they act like and sound like. There was a small creek that flowed out into the Clark Fork just next to our hotel in Missoula. You could see it was a raging creek with many boulders and stones up where I could not go. The current was too swift. But the Dippers would always be near the point where these waters came together. Clear cold water that raged. They would flutter-fly across the main river to where another branch of the Clark Fork rejoined the main in a tumult around an island. It looked like Dipper heaven and apparently was.

Once I came upon the male on the rail of the hotel, above the roaring water. And just because I was so close to him I heard song. I could not believe at first it was the bird. I did not think of these divers as having a song but it was melodious and complex, weaving with the crash of the water. Tailed cocked, the beak would open for the song. Along the edge of the shallow water in this same place I found a dipper bathing and I approached. Another dipper came in close from the right and I could see that my bather was a fledgling. The head feathers still patched with some down and the wing feathers edged with some pale coloration. I was amazed that in the third week of May these birds would have a nest fledged but I have no other explanation. The adult was much more worried about me than the fledgling was. Making nervous wrenish chiding sounds they finally flew together across toward the island. I did not tire of watching them.


One always watches for them in Montana. And on the high road one morning a Dusky Grouse male appeared suddenly at the roadside and we stopped. They sometimes will stay and become fairly aggressive at breeding time. I have had them peck my camera lens, no doubt seeing their own image. I have had them peck my pants legs. This male was in tail fan display and was showing off his neck patches. A female was likely nearby but we never saw her. When I bailed out of the car the male flew off into the firs.

One Ruffed female appeared in an open overlook where a pair of Mountain Bluebirds was feeding and putting nest material in a tree opening. She walked quickly away into the underbrush and wildflowers.

And in several places near rivers or in the wilderness slopes we would stop to hear the accelerated drumming of the males. A sound one longs for after you have heard it once. A thing I have tried to see happening but have still not accomplished this yet. It is for another day.


The sound of the north, I suppose. It is still haunting. And I saw several loons in flight on my walks or out on the deck. They called and called in their flight, from distance to other distance, until they were out of sight.

Out on the water, in the scope, I cannot tell you how much brighter and striking the full black and white dress of the loon is on the breeding waters. It is truly a remarkable spot backed, dapper, tuxedoed look. The pair on our lake would show in the mornings or late in the day, I never discerned where they might be nesting. Once I saw three together and things did look tense. They did an amazing slow spinning circle within five feet of each other, sometimes all with their heads held underwater, like they were giving each other the subaquatic eye. Then they would cry out and all dive, coming back together to yodel some more.


The piercing ‘teeyew’ cry of these birds was almost the first sound I heard out of the car at the house on the lake. I jumped out to hear everything I could hear, like I wanted to fill my ears immediately and completely. Essentially they replace cardinals there. Birds with big seed cracking beaks. The house next door had a sunflower seed basket feeder and the grosbeaks were constantly on it. Sometimes I would just leave the scope focused there so you could take in the flashy golden things whenever you wanted to walk over and bend down to their active feeding. The feeder was mesh and the male beaks were sometimes so large they had trouble pulling a seed out. Several females seemed almost machinelike in their efficiency in comparison. The males would beg and flutter sometimes in some sort of mating display. I only saw these birds in association with human encroachment. Perhaps because of feeders. But what a bird to have dangling from your eaves and baskets. For days, back at home, I kept seeing ghost grosbeaks.


The flickers there are golden shafted. The males with red instead of black moustaches. I heard Pileateds in many places but never saw one. The sound carries so far across the lakes I think you can hear them for miles.

And on the first morning walk I made, just a hundred yards from the house, a woodpecker flew up next to a nest hole in front of me and I raised the binoculars to find a Three-toed Woodpecker male right there. I have looked for them every time we have gone to the northern woods. This was the first I had ever seen. And it called. This prompted the arrival of a female who landed right next to the hole. The male was agitated for a moment and then flew away.

I saw another pair on the wilderness lake. Above me on a pine limb, they suddenly were coital, brief and fluttery. I shook my head at the wildness of the place. And then they were gone.