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On Birding

Birds, Natural History, People & Nature

Thoughts on Winter

By David Cronenwett

The transition out of summer seems gradual at first, but by October, most of our wildflowers and migrant birds have disappeared. As energy continues to dissipate from the landscape due to increasingly shorter days, the country rapidly slides into dormancy. Eventually, the first storms descend from the north, dumping snow and ushering arctic air into Montana. This is a time of long nights and sustained cold across the Northern Hemisphere and it is no secret that the winter season profoundly affects how creatures like birds and other wildlife experience the world.

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Aspen Ecology

By David Cronenwett

AspenTrees_SimonWilliamsPhoto_webA cluster of gold-leafed trees sits in the center of a photo my son recently sent me. He lives in a northwest Montana valley dominated by a mix of grass and conifers. During fall, the sun’s low angle illuminates a subtle pallet of muted prairie color. But in the picture, just beyond stacks of fenced bee boxes, a familiar group of deciduous trees stands out like an incandescent beacon. Aspen are like that, drawing the most attention in September-October, but even outside of autumn, their brilliant green foliage differentiates them from nearby conifers in spring and summer. In winter, bare limbs and stark white boles lend a haunting aura to any landscape. Next to wetlands, aspen habitat is one of the most species-rich ecotypes in the West, a fact well understood by birders, hunters and photographers. Trying to quantify how much of our native wildlife use aspen forests for part of their life cycles would be a time consuming exercise; from butterflies to grizzly bears and much in between, aspen play a critically important ecological role wherever they occur.

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Birds, Light, and Night

By David Cronenwett

World_Light_NightEach time I open my laptop to put this column together, I am greeted by a bright, glowing screen. The technology of the blue, light emitting diode (LED) makes all cell phone, computer and flatscreen television displays as well as the newer and highly efficient LED “lightbulbs” possible. Three scientists were recently awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for this achievement, which paved the way for the now ubiquitous screen and household-lighting technology. In nearly every way LEDs are superior over conventional incandescent and fluorescent lighting using a fraction of the energy of other means and now, very inexpensive to manufacture and purchase.

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Ruffed Grouse

By David Cronenwett

RuffedGrouse_MartinkaIt is always startling at that moment in September when we realize the accumulation of cooler nights, longer shadows and the fading greens of summer mean that a season is irretrievably slipping away. There will still be warm days yet, but diminishing daylight and each new pulse of cold from the north pushes the country further and further into dormancy. There are only late asters and a few migrant songbirds left on the landscape now, but our resident bird species become more visible and obvious this time of year. A walk in the aspens or higher woods reveals some of my favorite locals; red-breasted nuthatches, mountain chickadees and ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus).

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Fire and Birds

By David Cronenwett

BBWoodpecker.MartinkaIn the summer of 2007 I led a hike on the Lewis and Clark Forest down the six-mile long Box Canyon, through which the North Fork Teton River flows. The east-west trending, glacially cut chasm is, as the name suggests, steep-walled with essentially no way out save the river corridor. The forest was dense with small diameter conifers and if memory serves, the understory contained few species of flowering plants or shrubs. There were no notable bird sightings. Our small group though was thoroughly enjoying themselves; this route involves multiple stream crossings and on that day of searing 90-degree heat, these were a fun and welcome reprieve.

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American Crow

By David Cronenwett

ACrowMartinkaIf you stare out a window, nearly any window anywhere in North America and wait long enough, you will likely see an American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos). From the most remote wildland to the densest urban landscape, the many crow species are ubiquitous and recognizable across cultures. A member of the Corvidae genus, which contains over 120 species of ravens, magpies, jays and crows worldwide, the American crow’s ancestors begin to show in the fossil record from 17 million years ago. The bird is unmistakable; large, all black with a stout bill and often found in the cacophonous company of others. They have a unique flying style that relies on measured, steady wing beats with little reliance on gliding. Crows are similar in many ways to their cousins, the common raven, but are smaller and far more social. Winter congregations can consist of hundreds or thousands of individuals in a small area. Generally considered a “trash” bird and pest, the American crow may be among the only wildlife people confined to urban areas regularly see.

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Birds and Riparian Habitat

By David Cronenwett

CordilleranFlycatcherfledgThe waterways of my home landscape have begun to swell with an abundance of mountain snowpack, loosened and released by warmer days. The Teton River, its vegetation barely leafing out, spills from a mountain canyon and barrels across the prairie, coursing powerfully toward the distant sea. For me, rapidly moving water is always an impressive display of energy. But while the eye is drawn to the river in its seasonal flood, habitat created by it— the riparian zone of willows, cottonwoods, birches and other water-dependent species—is dwarfed by the larger grassland it crosses.

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Outdoor Education and the Future of Conservation

By David Cronenwett

waterexpo3The kids in the seat behind me were gawking at something outside as our bus cruised through the dramatic chasm of Wolf Creek canyon. I remember being startled by the fact that these fourth-grade boys bothered to look up from their electronic devices to be impressed by an eye-catching natural rock feature. My kid was there too, along with almost 30 of his classmates, squirming and eager to get to our destination one hundred miles to the south. This spring field trip to visit the Montana WILD education center in Helena is a much anticipated annual excursion at Choteau Elementary. (more…)

The Alpine Zone and White-Tailed Ptarmigan

By David Cronenwett

ptarmigan-matt-banta-img_2954On a clear day from my desk window, I can see the limestone peaks of the Front nearly thirty miles distant. Though the prairies have begun to thaw, winter will hold tight in the high mountains for many weeks to come. I’ve never been to the Arctic, but have spent a great deal of time in the alpine zone of Montana’s backcountry, which shares many similarities with the barrens far to the North. For much of the year, the land above the trees is a frigid, wind-blasted and inhospitable realm. Deep snow and highly unpredictable weather add to the hardship inhabitants of this environment must regularly endure. (more…)

The Red Crossbill

By David Cronenwett

recr_mThe winter of 2009-2010, if one can remember, was troublesome in Montana due to mild temperatures and scant mountain snowpack. But then, in mid May, it began to rain, and did so on and off for weeks on end. The extended period of moisture caught us up on precipitation and, at least in North Central Montana where I live, helped produce one of the most impressive conifer cone crops in recent memory. The limbs of Douglas fir, Limber Pine, Engelmann Spruce and others were heavily laden with cones that year, and as birders might guess, this situation can be a boon for several species.

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The Exotic House Sparrow

By David Cronenwett

HouseSparrowFI carried a load of garbage to the back ally this morning, surprising a flock of about thirty small birds hunkered down in the shrubs near the trash bin. Standing there in my pajamas and slippers in the snow, I wince at the little monsters with a well-honed repulsion; they barely react, just stirring a bit with a collective flutter of wings, casually adjusting themselves to my presence. The rodent-like chirp that echoes through the horde identifies them as House Sparrows (Passer domesticus).That these birds regularly park themselves right next to the trash receptacle is beyond coincidence and seems entirely appropriate. I slam the trashcan lid as hard as I can, sending the birds, temporarily, to a clump of bushes twenty feet away. House Sparrows are strongly associated with human civilization, probably benefitting from the proliferation of our species since the dawn of agriculture.

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People, Birds, and Science

By David Cronenwett

MoKellyIsland_2011_tallyingbirdsst birders understandably, have a keen appreciation for nature and its conservation. A cynical question we occasionally hear from some quarters is why birds or any other component of nature should matter at all; but it is a question that has been repeatedly and resoundingly answered by our culture since the end of the nineteenth century. In North America, our extraordinary efforts to keep wildlife and wild landscapes around largely arises from our unbounded love of these creatures and places. Conservationists make numerous arguments for how nature provides “ecosystem services” and other functional benefits for humanity which are certainly valid. But I suspect in the end, we’re more often motivated to conserve the natural world by deep affection stemming from our individual relationships with flora, fauna and land.  (more…)

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