Being Here, Being Now


I’m sitting in a meadow near Harrison Lake, watching a pair of Short-eared Owls courting high above me.  Their soft “wup-wup-wups” and the wing-clapping of the male is surprisingly loud, even when they’re hundreds of feet away.   A pair of courting loons calls to each from the other side of the lake, and a Northern Harrier decides that it’s time for him to do his roller-coaster mating dance as well. No female Harrier that I can see: maybe it’s just a practice run.

I don’t want to be anywhere else.   This is what it means to be here now.

Of course, it’s not surprising. It’s a perfect  sunny day, in a beautiful place.  Why would I want to be anywhere else?


But,  of course, there are plenty of times when a beautiful place is not enough to stop my “monkey mind.”  Today, though, is not one of them.

The owls are intent on each other…at least the male is intent on the female.  She seems more interested in looking for dinner.

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The male, though, is interested in what the heck I’m doing down there.


At one point they both land on a hillside, and disappear into the browns and greys of the sagebrush.    I keep watching, though, and suddenly…

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A dance?   I don’t know, but it’s pretty lovely.

Even without the owls, the Montana countryside is breathtaking in April.

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And when the owls decide it’s time for a rest, the Northern Harrier gives up his mating dance rehearsal and starts hunting for dinner.  It doesn’t take him long, either.  If I were a female Harrier, I do believe this example of hunting prowess would be more impressive than his silly roller coaster acrobatics.


Of course, the Meadowlark and the Yellow-headed Blackbirds need to add their two cents.

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The sun sets slowly behind the Tobacco Root Mountains, and all is right with this little corner of the world.


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Spring in Yellowstone? How Can You Tell?

Blowing snow, blowing wind….freezing my tush off.  Springtime in Yellowstone.

A ghostly coyote wanders through the blowing snow.   I don’t imagine he’s too impressed with the weather, either.


The trade off, of course, is an empty park.   And gorgeous skies.

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And being able to watch a couple of wolves without the accompanying crowds.


Nonetheless, there are signs of spring.

Flocks of Mountain Bluebirds flit from bush to bush, flashes of turquoise among the gray-green sagebrush.

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Sandhill Cranes rattle overhead, and one decides to land at the Blacktail Ponds.



The Northern Flickers — who have been around all winter — have decided that it’s time to impress a mate.  They are paired up, doing their silly little dance and flashing their bright orange tail feathers at each other.



The elk did their mating in the fall, which is a good thing, because the males look pretty silly right now.

He looks embarrassed, doesn't he?

He looks embarrassed, doesn’t he?

And the bears.  Even if we don’t see them, we know they’re awake…

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March Gladness

The snow geese are landing, the eagles are in their nests, and the meadowlarks have found their favorite fence posts.  Nature keeps on truckin’, and all’s well in this little corner of the world…





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Happy spring!

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Beware the Pesky Glochids and Other Tips from the Desert Southwest

Cacti have spines.  I know that.   I mean, it’s really pretty obvious.

Don't reach for that nest.  Unless you're a cactus wren.

Don’t reach for that nest. Unless you’re a cactus wren.

What I didn’t know until too late is that some cacti have really tiny spines: so tiny that you don’t notice them.  It would have helped to know this before my husband pointed out a prickly pear that looked strangely smooth – so strangely smooth that I just had to reach out and run my hand along the paddle.

Don’t do that.

Now I know that there really aren’t any cacti without spines.  Some have good upfront stout ones, that warn you ahead of time to not touch.  Others – the sneaky little devils – have fine little spines called glochids, and they are one pain in the butt (or wherever) to get out.  I’ve since learned from my desert-savvy friends that we would have been wise to carry duct tape on our desert hikes to get the zillions of little spines out.  (Of course, the wisest move would be not to touch things you don’t know about.  I know that…now.)

So just how do the desert birds manage to avoid being impaled?  They seem oblivious to their spiky surroundings.





In addition to learning lessons the hard way, we did find some unexpected gems on our recent southwest jaunt, which I’m happy to share:

Favorite campsite in Death Valley:  Mesquite Springs, at the northern end of the park.  At 1,800 feet in elevation it’s a bit cooler than the campgrounds at Furnace Creek, but it’s nice and small, with lots of great country to explore.

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Good Birding:     Salton Sea and the Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge.  We had no plans to go here, but I’m so glad we did.  Thousands of shorebirds, along with other great desert birds.

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Nice place to get away from everyone and relax in the desert:  Kofa Wildlife Refuge.  Good skies here, too!

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Favorite combo of cute little town, Sonoran Desert and a dandy National Monument:  Ajo, Arizona and Organ Pipe National Monument.    Camp at Alamo Canyon campground in the monument: you’ll need to stop at the Visitor Center to reserve a spot, but it’s worth it.

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Next on the agenda: find the migrating Snow Geese!


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Sun, Sky and Snow: A Winter Day in Yellowstone

Breaking trail on a perfect winter day in Yellowstone.

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Wolves up there?

Wolves up there?

Nope.  Bighorns!

Nope. Bighorns!

What about these?

What about these?


Yep! Far away, though.


Bobcat trail.

Bobcat trail.



See you in the Spring, Yellowstone!

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Now You See Me…

Yesterday’s task was to try and find a Great Horned Owl that we knew was hanging around some old cottonwoods not too far from our house.    We tramped around the slushy woods, looking for that distinctive owl silhouette on one of the bare branches.    After 45 minutes of searching, I was just about to give up when Bill stopped and pointed: “There he is!”

Score.     I took a quick picture.


Actually, double score.  When I looked closely, I saw there were two Great Horned Owls.  See the second guy?  On the left?


He was even harder to see when he turned his head.


I walked around the tree and the one on the right seemed to disappear.  Magic owls.


It took some time, but I finally found a spot where I could see them both at the same time.  Gotta love camouflage!



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Tracking the Toughest Critter Out There


US Fish and Wildlife Service Photo

Grizzly bears are some bad ass critters, no two ways about it.  But pound for pound, the wolverine wins the One Tough Critter contest, hands down.     And it’s not just because they’ll take on animals many times their size.    For one thing, grizzly bears sleep most of the winter, while wolverines are out prowling around no matter how cold it gets.    Heck, one guy was even monitored as he winter climbed straight up Mt. Cleveland in Glacier:  he reached the top (5000 feet in 90 minutes!) and then just went down the other side.     There was nothing he wanted up there; he just was climbing because that’s what tough critters do.  Their jaws are so strong that they eat every part of a carcass, bones included.  I’ve even seen video of a wolverine going up a tree after a black bear.     They’re rare, and I thought that they were pretty much all in the Glacier Park area.

So I was surprised last weekend when the Montana Wilderness Association and Wild Things Unlimited offered a workshop to go out and learn about tracking wolverines and lynx just an hour outside of Helena.    There are wolverines there?  Cool.

We spent two hours on Friday night learning about winter tracking in general: information about stride, straddle, and direct registry that was nifty in itself.     We (the citizen scientists!) were going to be looking for three animals in particular: lynx, wolverines, and fishers.    On Saturday we broke into four groups and headed up four different drainages to search for tracks.  Our group found interesting stuff right away: bobcat, coyote, snowshoe hare and deer tracks, and some unknown scat that our fearless leader collected.

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We continued up the trail, trying hard to decipher the tracks we found in the crusty snow.


More scat.


The big reward came  when we discovered a fairly fresh elk carcass.  Something had been eating on it recently, and had even buried it in the snow.

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We started looking carefully, and found….wolverine tracks!  They were not the best tracks, but they were clearly wolverine: large, with five toes, and with a gait and track pattern that is typical of wolverines.  We may have even found lynx tracks,  as well.  There was even a bit of scat near the carcass (yay, poop!)   My photos of the tracks are not the best, but I think you can make out the prints:




We had lunch near the carcass, and then headed back.  When we all met up we discovered that three of our four groups had found wolverine tracks.  One group even followed some tracks to a snowshoe hare kill.  Amazing.


If you’re interested in learning more, here is the link to Wild Things Unlimited, as well as a link to a short piece that NPR did about our day in the field.

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The Eyes Have It

We all know that you’re not supposed to make eye contact with wild animals.    Or even with the neighborhood dogs.  Or cats. Which must be why it is so disconcerting when a wild critter makes eye contact with us.


It can be pretty creepy.

Ospreys are good at the intimidating stare.  This guy absolutely did not want me getting any closer to his lunch:


Even if they don’t have a snack to protect, any raptor will give you the evil eye if  you take one step too close.



A Great Grey Owl might not seem too scary from 50 feet away, but get a little closer and his glare can look a bit more predatory.


Juveniles try to intimidate, but somehow they just can’t pull it off.


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Sometimes, though, there’s really no malevolence in the stare.  It’s all curiosity.   What are you doing out here?








Oddly enough, even a meat-eating predator can manage to look you in the eye and not be scary.  What’s that about?


A grizzly bear, though….

Is this guy looking at me?  Maybe.  But I’m not going any closer to find out.



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Camping at the End of the Road: The Loner’s Guide to the Best Campsites


Johnny Gulch, Montana

Some of our best friends are people.   We like them.   And sometimes we even like to go camping with them.

But more often than not, we* prefer to camp alone, and we’re perfectly happy if we don’t see another soul the whole time we’re out there.

* “we” = my husband and I.  Apparently we don’t really consider each other “people”.

It’s pretty easy to be alone when we’re backpacking.  But what about car camping?  What makes a campsite that you drive to the perfect site for the anti-social camper?

1.  The first requirement is obvious:  solitude.  If you want to get away from it all, it’s important to get away from them all.    This is where the campsite at the end of the road comes in pretty handy.


Missouri Breaks, Montana

Sometimes all you need is a barely used road; no need to go all the way to the end.


Canyon Pintado, Colorado


Gravelly Mountains near Black Butte, Montana


Gravelly Mountains, Montana

When you’re having your morning coffee it’s important to feel like you’re the boss of all you see.  You’re not, of course, but your solitary campsite lets you live the dream.


2.  Since you’re all alone out there, grand vistas are the second requirement.


Near Granite Butte, Montana


Granite Butte

Even if the best spot to stop is at the bottom of a swale, make sure that it will only take a short climb to give you the required grand vista.


North of Red Rock Lakes, Montana

3.   Rainbows over your chosen campsite are not a requirement, but they are a definite plus.  Double rainbows give you double points, of course.


Gravelly Mountains


Medicine Rock Creek, Montana

4.  Likewise, a full moon rising over your campsite is not required.  But extra points, for sure.


Missouri Breaks, Montana


Butler Wash, Utah


Near Canyonlands, Utah

5.  Once that moon is up, a nice fire can be a big plus, especially in the winter.



6.  And a little whiskey by the fire  (again, not required!) is pretty nice in my book.


7.  Finally, a critter at the campsite will give you lots of bonus points.    The requirement is actually the possibility of a critter showing up for a visit, but the actual visit of something bigger than a rabbit is a huge plus.  If a grizzly or a wolf shows up, the bonus points go through the roof.

Missouri River, Montana

Missouri River, Montana


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Winter Birds

It’s easy to think that there aren’t many birds left hanging around these cold northern woods by the end of December.


But they’re there, huddled up in their little down coats, making an occasional foray to find some fermented berries or little bugs that have burrowed into rotten tree trunks.    Their wiser cousins have headed south,  but these guys hang tough, hoping that the energy they’ve saved by not making that long flight will be enough to get them through the winter.

The Pine Grosbeaks manage to find trees full of berries that must be especially tasty after a good hard freeze:  they are so intent on eating that they let me get close enough to get a somewhat disconcerting look at their tongues.


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The Townsend’s Solitaire hangs around all winter as well, usually singing its long complicated song from the top of a tall spruce.    But sometimes all it can do is fluff itself up into a nice warm ball and wait out the cold.


Northern Flickers are generally busy all winter pecking holes in houses or rapping on chimneys.   Luckily for us, they like the spruce tree in our yard,


but are particularly fond of the heated water bath we provide.  This guy hung out all day, warming his toes in his own personal hot tub.


The Bohemian Waxwings fly in frantic flocks from tree to tree, looking for the same fermented berries that the Pine Grosbeaks like.    Once they’ve found a good tree, they eat their fill and then hang out in a contented group for the rest of the day.



Group hangouts seem to be popular, actually.  House finches are particularly fond of each other.


Magpies, too, have a predilection for holding loud squawking meetings.  They’re particularly happy if they can meet in a tree in a yard with a cat or dog that they can aggravate.


Mallards group up near whatever open water they can find.  If there’s a water slide available, so much the better!


And Bald Eagles and Northern Harriers manage to find plenty of voles and rabbits to keep them full and happy all winter long.


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Yep, it’s quiet is the winter woods, but that doesn’t mean nothing’s going on.


Posted in Birding, Montana, Nature, Wildlife | Tagged , , , | 24 Comments