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On Birding

Birds, Natural History, People & Nature

On Birding

By David Cronenwett

binosWhile going through an old box of books recently, I re-discovered a fascinating paper entitled, “Bird nomenclature and principals of avian taxonomy of the Blackfeet Indians”. It was published in 1950 by Claude E. Schaeffer, and was a project for the Museum of the Plains Indian. My version is well-worn and because it appears to be a third generation copy, challenging to read in some spots. But when you delve into this work it is immediately engaging. There is a sense that Schaeffer, who at the time was interviewing Blackfeet elders in their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, had an access to the deep past that no longer exists.

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Ferruginous Hawk

By David Cronenwett

FEHawk_NikkiMannPhotoThe inevitable greening of the prairie in Montana now, warms the heart of this naturalist.  Long-billed curlews, godwits and other species intimately tied to our grasslands have returned. One of these, the Ferruginous Hawk, (Buteo regalis) is a relatively unusual sight even when one knows where to look for them. This magnificent bird is the largest member of the genus Buteo and a cousin to Red Tailed and Rough-legged hawks. Like its relatives, there is a significant amount of variation in plumage from individual to individual. However, a “classic” bird will be covered with the rusty iron-like feathers for which they are named and the most striking will have a brilliant white breast usually flecked with this “rust”. Feathers cover the legs all the way to the feet, which under certain circumstances, can be a useful identifying feature.

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Merlin

By David Cronenwett

Merlin(Tiaga)_BMartinkaOften neglected among Montana’s pantheon of raptors is the Merlin, Falco columbarius. Part of our lack of appreciation towards them stems from difficulty in identification: Merlins usually don’t have the strong facial features of others in the Falconidae family and have an overall brownish appearance, problematic to ID under some circumstances. So, these guys unwillingly endure the moniker, “some kind of brown hawk” much of the time.

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Mountain Bluebird

By David Cronenwett

Mobl_martinka_mAround March 15th each year, I keep my eyes open, scanning nest boxes as I drive past the Ear Mountain trailhead on the Rocky Mountain Front. It is then, like clockwork that the first Mountain Bluebirds (Sialia currocodies) show up in the country. This month in Montana is mostly an extension of winter; blizzards, high winds and arctic cold snaps are common events. Yet there they are; vivacious, cerulean birds in a landscape that is still mostly dormant and lifeless. Their presence optimistically speaks to the imminence and renewal of spring. Three species of bluebirds spend part of their life cycles in our state; the Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana) in the northwest and the Eastern (Sialia sialia) in the far southeast. But it is the “Mountain Blue” that dominates in Montana, both on the land and in the hearts of people.

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Pileated Woodpecker

by David Cronenwett

piwo_BMartinkaOn a recent visit to the Swan Valley, I’m mesmerized by the dense, lush forests of deep snow country. During one of those introspective moments, driving up highway 83, a large black & white bird wings over the road. It’s always funny how seeing a species out of context can cause one to hesitate in a moment of confusion before its name comes to mind. And at present, I’m seeing a bird in a different country from my home range, where this beast is rarely found to begin with. It is large, with an undulating flight pattern and unmistakable red crest: a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus).

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Gray Jay – Whiskey Jack

by David Cronenwett

grayjayWinter_martinkaThere is so much snow here now, after the driest December on record, that its difficult to get my head around it. At the cabin, a foot is on the ground with a lot more on the way. The temperatures are respectable too, -22 this morning. Deep cold is punishing to wildlife, especially small-bodied creatures like birds. The relatively few species that winter in Montana must have adaptations to cope with dramatic weather events like blasts of polar air and attendant snowfall. Among the birds that stay are the Corvids; crows, ravens and jays. These are not species that many people hold in high regard for various reasons, but mostly, I think it is their commonness and comfort around humans that we resent. Our kind does tend to take the familiar for granted. However, these resident birds are some of the more interesting ones in Montana. Among the large-brained corvids we can observe in the forest this time of year is the Gray Jay or “Whiskey Jack” (Perisoreus canadensis).

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