Wednesday, August 3, 2022

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This most impressive fledgling Golden Eagle showed an abundance of white coloration in its tail and wings. Only out of the nest a month or so, this big female was already impressive in her flight maneuvers overhead.
The tail of this impressive fledgling can best be described as being white with a dark brown band along the terminal end. Both wings also showed an extensive area of white coloration.
Already impressive in her flight maneuvers, the big female fledgling dived out of her circular soaring flight overhead, providing an unusual angles in the resulting photos.
Still showing some fleshy skin on edge of its gape, a fledgling Black-billed Magpie foraged in low grass, emphasizing the iridescent colors of its new plumage.
A fledgling Ferruginous Hawk shows its strong flying skill not far from Paul’s office.

During a wild trip that would take me 1,000 miles northwest to the border of Montana and Canada, before reaching Montana my first exciting avian encounter took place in the dramatic landscape of the Badlands, along a high ridge above the Little Missouri River in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. While following the direct flight of an adult male Golden Eagle through my camera lens the resulting photos were uninteresting, but suddenly a spectacularly colored, very large female fledgling Golden Eagle winged in from the river valley and began soaring toward me.

This most impressive eagle showed the most white coloration in its tail and wings that I have ever seen, rivaled by only a couple first-year Goldens I can recall. The tail can best be described as being white with a dark brown band along the terminal end. Only out of the nest a month or so, this big girl was already impressive in her flight maneuvers, especially as she dived out of her circular soaring pattern overhead, thereby providing some unusual angles in the final photos I took before she disappeared over the ridge. She was a spectacular raptor already, and I hoped she would grace the Badlands for many years to come. The unplanned 90-minute diversion into the national park was inspired by the fact that the region was still very green and I couldn’t just zip on by, even though I was on my way to the most majestic region of the Rocky Mountains. It proved to be a worthy stopover.

Farther west, beyond Billings, as I followed the Yellowstone River Valley I halted my progress as 3 Ospreys suddenly appeared in a low circling flight – a fledgling and 2 adults, with the young Osprey giving an incessant food-begging call during what might have been an instructional flight with the adult pair. I photographed an adult as it circled toward me, from the side, then head-on, before the trio glided far east. As the Ospreys made their way back along a ridge to the north, a falcon flew into their midst, following their progress westward – a Prairie Falcon? The size was right, but the falcon didn’t look quite right for a Prairie; or was it a big Merlin? It seemed to be larger than the largest Merlin, yet I couldn’t make a positive ID through my camera lens; it was just too far away. I took a documentary photo – luckily – because a week later when I reviewed the photo under high magnification on my computer it was clear the bird was a young Peregrine Falcon, probably a yearling; maybe a recent local fledgling.

While progressing westward I sighted a few more Ospreys and a lone adult Bald Eagle that paralleled my drive low and close for a few moments, but I was really hoping some of the regional birds would present themselves – Greater Sage Grouse, Mountain Plovers, Thick-billed Longspurs, Chestnut-collared Longspurs, Lark Buntings, Mountain Bluebirds. I planned to try to search for some of these birds during my return trip, but as things turned out, a twist in my plans wouldn’t permit that option.

Wedding Birds

The ever-more mountainous landscape was beautiful, but it yielded few bird observations on my way to the edge of Whitefish, Montana, not far from Glacier National Park. While birds are never far from the focus for me, my main attraction to the area was to attend the family wedding of my cousin and great friend Dwight and his soon to be wife Michelle, my friend and new cousin. An uncle and 17 cousins were assembled, and we enjoyed a couple days of conversations and celebratory eating, but birds were always in view during daylight hours – kool birds!

It turned out that our hosts, cousins Lanette and Mick, have a great feeding station setup with nectar feeders, sunflower seeds, and suet, along with fresh water. Out their windows and in their yard I saw more Calliope Hummingbirds in a couple hours than I’ve seen my entire life, plus Rufous, Broad-tailed, and Black-chinned Hummers. Pine Siskins were the primary seed eaters, but even more interesting were the young Red Crossbills, and the second day Mountain Chickadees were fairly regular too. In the treetops there were occasional Steller’s Jays, Red-shafted Northern Flickers, Cedar Waxwings, and Eurasian Collared Doves. In Mick’s adjacent hayfield there was also a fledgling Red-tailed Hawk that could fly well but still could be heard begging for food at times. A couple flybys by Turkey Vultures filled out the avian sightings during my 2-day stay, but the feeding station provided an interesting insights into other cousins’ home feeding stations cross country in New Mexico, which I incorporated into this week’s Backyard Birding article.

A surprise treat was when Mick invited Del and I to take a drive to check on a Bald Eagle location, and while we didn’t see eagles, we did see aggregations of corvids – magpies, ravens, and crows that were foraging in recently cut grasslands (beautiful green mountain meadows). But the treat was a drive through old growth forest on the way to Upper Whitefish Lake, a forest that rivaled the most beautiful Rocky Mountain forests I have ever seen. I was kinda mesmerized by the beauty of this deep forest and its pine scent that permeated the area, but along the way I was periodically excited to see a male American Redstart, a male Common Yellowthroat, and a male Yellow Warbler singing along a mountain stream – great warblers, plus a colorful male Western Tanager! I expect the females were tending nests, and we did see a Bald Eagle at the remote mountain lake too. Gracias Mick!

Glacier Corvids

Magpies, crows, and ravens were among the most common birds I observed during the considerable transect I drove along the south side of Glacier, the east side, and back and forth into Many Glaciers and the top of Logan Pass. Other birds included a Western Tanager and 3 Red-shafted Northern Flickers, but the most interesting observations and best photo ops happened during my return drive to the lower reaches of Glacier National Park. The flight of 2 Black-billed Magpies lured me to a couple trees on the edge of a meadow; there, a fledgling magpie was hunting on the ground, along with 2 fledgling American Crows with an adult.

I began photographing the young magpie, hoping to emphasize the iridescent colors in its tail and wings in the evening light, and that’s when I realized there was a Columbia Ground Squirrel actively foraging in the midst of the crows. Actually though, the crows were surrounding the squirrel, and as it would dig for and collect food, perhaps pine nuts, the crows would try to steal the food. One fledgling crow would approach it head-on, while the other one slipped in behind the squirrel; when the rodent located food, the crow in the rear would reach forward and grab the squirrel’s tail.

This would create a quick reversing jump into the air by the ground squirrel, permitting the crow ahead of it to reach in to try to steal the food item. The action was immediate and ultra-fast with the crows jumping up, flapping wings, and trying to avoid a squirrel bite while grabbing at the food. Repeatedly I tried to document the action, and was alert to photograph the magpie if it took flight, but I only had luck with portrait photos of each crow, the magpie, and the ground squirrel – ha.

After leaving the “Glacier Corvids,” what had been the overnight start of a summer cold in my throat turned into Glacier Covid – What! Yes, even though I’m fully vaccinated, as were all the other cousins and uncle Del, it turned out that at least 7 of us were suffering with covid within 3 days of the wedding – all relatively mild, and we have all recovered well, but it underscores how super-infectious the newest strain of covid is, although it seems to create a less intense sickness. Day 2 proved to be the worst; I had planned to make a run through northwest Yellowstone National Park, then try to find Mountain Plovers, Greater Sage Grouse, and Thick-billed Longspurs in eastern Montana, but I realized I needed to get home as soon as possible to recover from the covid infection.

As it turned out, I could only drive 100 miles before needing to nap 3 hours; then drove another 100 miles before a 2 hour nap. I wasn’t making very good progress, and I wasn’t feeling very well, but after the second siesta I rallied to drive 300 miles all the way to Glendive, just a half-hour from Dakota. That made it relatively easy to drive home Tuesday, feeling much better, but not having much to share along the way in the birds department. However, I took a little detour east of Bismarck to check on changes over the past 10 days at McKenzie, and found a lot of White Pelicans, a scattering of Great Blue Herons, a few White-faced Ibis, scattered Black Terns, and a pair of Eared Grebes with 2 new hatchlings among the many molting ducks. But the real excitement was created by the 120 or so Arctic- and boreal-nesting shorebirds that included Stilt Sandpipers, Long-billed Dowitchers, Pectoral Sandpipers, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, and Least Sandpipers with a few local Wilson’s Phalaropes mixed in – the migration had begun!

Closer to home, I drove by the Ferruginous Hawk nest I’ve been monitoring, which has provided perplexing information since the nestlings should have been fledging. Even though I’ve been doing a drive-by stop weekly, the nestlings haven’t been apparent since leaving the nest. There were 3 nestlings for sure, but I hadn’t seen any fledglings to date. Were they hidden in the grass rather than seeking more prominent perches in trees or fence posts? The rancher seemed to be holding off on cutting the surrounding grassland for hay, but when I drove by last Tuesday the main field had been cut and baled during my trip, and there was a Ferruginous Hawk fledgling perched on a hay bale – hooray. I photographed it on the bale, looked for others, watched for adults overhead, then noticed a second fledgling standing on the ground in the shade of a big bale; well, that’s better! And the closer to home I drove, there were evermore duck broods showing in the early evening – aah, back in duckling haven.

Prairie Encounters

The summer wind subsided Friday, which made for a productive sojourn across the wide prairie, which still showed scattered Upland Sandpipers, a Common Nighthawk in flight, and some interesting groups of what appeared to be post-nesting Orchard Orioles, Bobolinks, and Dickcissels. A couple pairs of Orchard Orioles were evident south of the Lost Road, including a male that was busy feeding 4 fledglings, while a pair that flew from a roadside willow tree was in company of what might have been 5 fledglings, although they may not have been associated with the adult male and female. Nearby, a mixed collection of Bobolinks and Dickcissels was active, with many female Bobolinks in the mix, and nearer the orioles was a pair of Bobolinks with what appeared to be 2 fledglings that resembled the female but with less yellow and more white-colored plumage.

During my return I found a few Spotted Sandpipers at 2 wetlands close to home that provided some surprise photo ops; these summer sandpipers tend to be difficult to approach close enough to even try a photo, and they are usually only seen flying away. These Spotted Sandpipers hung tight on a gravel beach, yielding some nice photos. I was surprised to see very few duck broods along the way Friday evening, but there was a new Gadwall brood of 5 ducklings, and a week-old brood of 6 Blue-winged Teal. I also chronicled a flock of 8 molting Wood Duck drakes, not a common species in the area this year.

Monday evening I drove a big circle to the northwest and back, counting 7 lone adult Swainson’s Hawks along the way, along with 7 broods that included a new Redhead brood of 3 and a new Ruddy Duck brood of 6 ducklings. I checked on the Ferruginous Hawks too, but only saw an adult in the area.

After being gone for a week, a few things changed at my feeding station, but I’m going to refer you to this issue’s Backyard Birding article to get the update on the action outside my bay windows. In retrospect, it was a great summer trip to the best Rocky Mountain destination in America – Glacier – and many family members provided great fun and memorable times, as did the birds I encountered along the way. I’m back to normal after my corvid covid encounter, and eager for the next week of birding, undoubtedly closer to home. Enjoy this first week of August and the birds that grace your views!

Article and photos by Paul Konrad

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