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Nature Walk 2003
By Helen Bratt  

Helen Bratt is the Idaho field editor for Birds & Blooms and Country Discoveries magazines. Her writing has also appeared in numerous publications. In 2000, she was the recipient of two Family Favorite Film "Togetherness Awards" for 'Best Screenplay', and 'Best Children's Educational Television Series' "Nature Scout Adventures". She was also the writer for the highly acclaimed television news program 'Nature News' which aired nationally.

Kayaking, cross country skiing, and hiking with her family keep Helen outdoors when she is not writing. As President of the Greater Yellowstone Audubon Chapter, Helen has many opportunities to share her knowledge of nature and wildlife with others. She is also an Advanced Master Gardener, specializing in high altitude gardening and wildflowers. She is the mother of six very wonderful children and is married to Robert Bratt, an award winning photographer and film producer.

Appreciating Canada geese

0ur chickadee friends

Fall hiking is fabulous

Warbler Watching

What is your birding personality?

Hummingbirds at Home

So Many Birds, So Little Time

Flickers are natural alarm clocks

Soaking up Spring

Earth Day 2003 – Water for Life

Earth Day: Crisis & Opportunity

Sandhill cranes call in spring

Western meadowlarks have returned

Bluebirds are here to welcome spring

Avian Myths & Legends

Snow geese are now passing through the area

A pine grosbeak primer

All about rosy finches

Becoming stewards of nature

Northern shrike spotted in Fremont County

My favorite winter birds

The Clark's Nutcracker: An Idaho Discovery

It's Snowbird Season- Enjoy the Juncos!

'Important Bird Areas' build a brighter future for our feathered friends

Appreciating Canada geese

October is an amazing time for birders to be out and about. Much action is taking place overhead. There is not much going on at the feeders, but up there, in the sky, many wings stroke the air.
The Canada goose is the best known of the North American geese. There are actually a dozen subspecies that comprise the family. The largest is the giant Canada goose, which is four feet long and can weigh up to 18 pounds. The smallest is the tiny "cackling goose," which weighs a mere three pounds and is a little larger than a mallard duck.
Although there is a great deal of difference in their size, all the Canada geese look the same, with a black head and neck and white chinstrap. Gray and brown birds have lighter feathers underneath and in flight, the darker wing feathers and white under tail show in striking contrast to the autumn sky. Unlike many species of birds, male and female Canada geese cannot be determined by sight. The only time that you might be able to tell them apart is during nesting season, when the larger bird is usually the male, and the female sits on the nest.
Geese can often be seen floating along the river with their heads underwater and tails pointing straight up in the air. They feed upon grass, leaves and plants on the bottom of the water. On the ground, the geese bob their heads and power stroke their wings in gesture to each other. Communication among Canada geese is not limited to body movement. Studies have shown that they use at least ten different sounds to vocalize with one another. The large Canada goose has the wildly delightful ka-ronk, ka-ronk, ka-ronk, that is music to a birders ears in the fall. The smaller species have a softer, higher pitched call.
Many myths surround the Canada goose. One of the most famous is that hummingbirds will migrate south on the backs of geese. This old wives-tale came from the belief that the tiny hummingbird could not fly all the way across the Gulf of Mexico into South America by itself. This is truly one of the greatest bid myths of all times – hummingbirds fly south all on their own.
Watching Canada geese fly, you might wonder how fast they can travel. The speed of their flight depends on where they are headed. If they are just flying around looking for a place to land or to eat, they fly at about 30 miles per hour. When traveling long distances, as in the annual migration, they may fly as fast as 40 miles per hour. Their top speed is 60 miles per hour. That must be when they are trying to out race a fast approaching winter storm or they are the "slow-pokes" in the southward flight that particular year.
Just this morning, as I was leaving the house, a pair of trumpeter swans with five cygnets flew directly over the cabin and headed off toward the lake on the back property. A small flock of mallards landed in unison along the river. Turning back toward the car, my ears detected the soft honking of a flock of Canada geese. Soon 23 beautiful geese came into sight and in perfect v-formation.
The golden days of autumn will soon be replaced with the white flurries of winter. As the flocks of Canada geese gather for their flight outh, step outside and listen for their gentle honking. Take a walk, quietly listen, and observe the beauty that surrounds us here and hopefully you’ll see those wonderful v-formations of fall.


0ur chickadee friends

When winter arrives, the season brings feathered friends to our birdfeeders and none can compare to the happy little chickadees that abound this time of year. I love to watch their antics as they flit back and forth between a tree branch and the feeders and snatch a sunflower seed before darting off to eat it at another location. It seems that I am not alone either. Chickadees are a favorite with almost everyone.

Chickadees store food to eat when food becomes scarce. Common storage places are under leaves, conifer needles, knotholes, dirt, or snow. Chickadees do most of their caching in the fall. They may carry several seeds at a time, but each item is placed in a different location and no place is used twice. This is called scatter-hoarding.
Chickadees must remember where they stored the food they stashed, and also which sites they emptied during the winter. They must also remember the quality and quantity of food at each of these sites. Remembering where food is stored is an amazing adaptation. The hippocampus, which is the portion of the forebrain which is the memory formation and storage and spatial learning of the black-capped chickadees is about three times larger than birds that don't store food. Scientists suggest that hippocampus may actually grow new neurons each fall to help with the remembering of the food storage. They can remember and retrieve food from sites for up to 28 days.
The average life span of a black-capped chickadee is two and a half years. The oldest chickadee recorded was twelve and one half years old. The most common cause of death is starvation during the winter. Their survival under severe weather conditions is aided by roosting in tree cavities and the ability to lower body temperature with controlled hypothermia.
Chickadees belong to the group of birds known as titmice. The word titmouse comes from the Old Icelandic word titr, meaning something small and from Latin, ater meaning black, and capillus meaning hair of the head.
Chickadees can be found throughout North America. Their Northern limits are southern and central Alaska, southern Yukon, and northern Alberta. Eastern limits are along the Atlantic coast from Newfoundland to North Carolina, and northern California. They are generally a non-migrating species. Occasionally, younger birds will travel farther north or south during period of irruptions. Such irruptions can be caused by a number of factors such as habitat destruction, loss of food source, etc.
"The chickadee is a symbol of faithfulness. It lives the year around in the same region. It never deceives its human friends, as so many birds do, by changing its coat and colors. In the summer, to be sure, it is not much seen. .... But with wintry blasts, time the others go south, the Chickadee begins to be noticed. Then there comes a time when it is almost the only thing to lend a touch of life and a note of gladness to a bleak outdoors." — William A. Dupuy
If you keep your feeders filled this winter and suet hanging nearby, the playful antics and happy songs of chickadees will fill your yard with delight.


Fall hiking is fabulous

Hills are ablaze with firey red scrub oaks. Brilliant yellow aspen leaves appear among the green of the pines. Cool air has replaced the hot dustiness of summer. Autumn brings out the best in what we all love about this region.
Harriman State Park, near Last Chance, is a great early morning or late afternoon hike this time of year. The trail to Golden Lake is quiet and meandering, with a variety of terrain that includes open meadows, tall groves of quaking aspens, and beautiful view of swans drifting across Golden Lake. The trail takes a few hours to complete and children love to find hidden frogs as they hike through the meadows.
Silver Lake offers another beautiful hike through Harriman. This trail goes completely around the lake, and this time of year, the breeding and nesting season is over so the trail is open. Watch for migrating waterfowl and an occasional muskrat. Hear bull elk bugle at dusk.
The thundering waters at Cave Falls, close to the Idaho entrance to Yellowstone Park, makes for a spectacular fall hiking excursion. The trail is not difficult, but getting to the cave itself is not recommended for the less nimble or rock-climbing challenged. The kids don’t seem to mind scrambling over the slippery boulders to get down into the cave that lies at the bottom of the falls. The view is beautiful and the colors of autumn really do accentuate them, especially in the evening light.
Sheep Falls, which is tucked away on the southern side of the Caldera, is a more difficult and less traveled trail. The beginning is steep and has a few switchbacks at the head of the trail. Bears are in the area, so be careful and conscientious of wildlife.
Targhee Trail, at the top of Targhee Pass, makes for a longer hike. Mountain biking or horse packing are two of the common ways to set out on your adventure along this trail.
Lone Star Geyser, inside Yellowstone near Old Faithful is one of our favorite day trails in the fall. The crowds of summer have slowed down their pace, and the trail out to the geyser is a peaceful way to spend an afternoon. The varied scenery along the trial includes meadows and stands of pine that extend for several miles. Pack in some water and a treat to enjoy while you are waiting for the geyser to go off, and check with park rangers for the estimated next eruption time.


Warbler Watching

Have you noticed all the colors that have exploded this past week? The greens are deeper, the blue of the sky is richer and the yellows are the most brilliant of all. Did you watch as the yellow of the dandelions turned into the arrow-leaf balsamroot and then on to the mules ear? Now as the first sunflowers of the summer emerge another yellow can be seen among the willows and chokecherries. It’s warbler time!
Watch in the chokecherry bushes this week for flashes of yellow darting in and out of the branches. Listen quietly as you walk along the willows and you might just hear the sweet song of the warblers that are hiding there until just the right moment to fly out and show off their wonderful hue.
There are various types of warblers, and yellow can be noticed as a species color for many of them. Even their names imply their color – the common yellow throated warbler, the yellow warbler, and the yellow-rumped warbler. Orange crowned warbler’s carry on the tradition of brilliant plumage coloration. Hermit warblers can also be found during the summer months. Wilson’s warbler, which is one of the smallest at only 4 inches in size, the Townsend’s warbler with its black and yellow banded head, and then of course the most colorful one is the yellow warbler.
Warbler’s are about the size of sparrows. They inhabit our coniferous forests, thickets, dry woodlands, brushy freshwater marshes and open country. Each species lives in its own differing habitat making your chances for seeing one type of warbler or another pretty good. With the mixed forests and meadows that are so abundant in this area, an afternoon hike through several locations might just allow you to see many of our local migrating species of warblers.
Identifying individual species does require patience, a pair of binoculars, and a good field guide. Rarely do these little birds hold still long enough to be studied at length, so be prepared to search among the branches and brush trying to get a second sighting if it should dart away!
The yellow warbler can most easily be spotted near fresh water thickets. It is especially fond of streamside willows. Both the male and females are predominantly yellow, olive-yellow wings and tail that have yellow wing bars and spots on its tail. The male can be differentiated by rust colored streaks down its chest, which are missing in the females and immature warblers. The yellow warbler breeds from Alaska east to Newfoundland, south to California. It winters in South America and Mexico. The female Townsend’s warbler can easily be mistaken for a Yellow warbler, so watch for a darker patch on its head, and the lack of spots on its tail.
The common yellowthroat warbler is abundant and easily found flitting among the willows and chokecherries. Watch for its tell-tale coloration. It is a pretty little bird, having a black mask and yellow throat. The Common Yellowthroat is one of about 56 species of warblers found in North America. In early spring, the male starts seeking territory in overgrown fields, brush, woodland margins and near fresh or saltwater marshes. The female is similar in appearance to the male except she lacks the facial mask, is totally responsible for nest building. She will build a loose, bulky, cup-shaped nest located anywhere from a few inches to several feet above the ground. The usual nest contains three to five eggs and the female is solely responsible for incubation, but both the male and female will care for the young after they hatch. The common yellowthroat often raises two broods each summer and may care for the second set of young right up to migration.
Yellow sunflowers, mules ear, dandelions, goldfinches and now the warblers, all bring out the best in the yellows for the summer season. Take a walk out in nature tonight and see how many different pieces of the "nature puzzle" contain yellow. Bring a field guide along with you, it will make the activity more enjoyable there are so many little birds flying around. You should be pleasantly surprised with how many you really can identify.


What is your birding personality?

What kind of birder are you? Does your family think of you as a birding fanatic, do you drop everything to go and see a rare bird hundreds of miles away? Or are you a “casual birder’, who prefers to watch the visitors to your feeders as you read the morning paper? Answer each of the questions, then add up your score test to see where your birding interests truly are.

You get called into your boss’ office and he announces that because of your great work recently, you have earned a large cash bonus. Your first thought is to spend the money on:
a. Paying off your credit cards (1 point)
b. Buying premium black oil sunflower seeds (2 points)
c. Purchasing that really expensive spotting scope you’ve had your eye on since November (4 points)

When your spouse calls out from the other room “Come here quick!” the first thing you think of is:
a. The house is on fire. (1 point)
b. The new puppy has had another accident. (0 points)
c. A Black-chinned hummingbird is at the feeder. (2 points)

Your new binoculars cost more than:
a. The blender (0 points)
b. The microwave (1 point)
c. The lawnmower (2 points)

Quickly browse through your books in your home library. Do you own:
a. More Harry Potter books than field guides (0 points)
b. Only field guides (1 point)
c. Every bird book ever written (3 points)

It’s 11:30 p.m. on April 14, your biggest worry is:
a. Getting your taxes finished and to the post office before midnight. (0 points)
b. Cleaning the hummingbird feeders before the little visitors arrive. (3 points)
c. Filing electronically so you can receive a fast refund that you need to buy those new binoculars at the sporting goods store. (2 points)
Your very best friends are:
a. The shop owners of the store where you buy bird feeding supplies. (2 points)
b. Your college roomies (0 points)
c. Anyone wearing a pair of binoculars around their neck and carrying a field guide. (2 points)

The ‘Ultimate Vacation’ for you would be to spend time at:
a. Cape May New Jersey for Fall migration (2 points)
b. A cruise to the Bahamas (0 points)
c. A Costa Rican birding expedition. (3 points)

SCORING: 10+ points -You are a birding fanatic for sure. 5-9 points -You are a Casual birder. 0-4 - There’s always hope for your inner bird watching self.
Have a great week with the birds!

Hummingbirds at Home

Zipping around the corners of the house, in between the aspens and the chokecherries, my favorite summer visitors have returned. Bringing life and splashes of quick color into my yard, Hummingbirds are a captivating and extremely entertaining choice for any birdwatcher.

There are four types of hummingbirds that frequent the various feeders in this area. The tiny Calliope with its striped chin, the brilliant orange and green-hued Rufous, the fast, lower pitched Broad-tailed, and my personal favorite, the magnificent Black-chinned hummingbird. I have a special fascination with the female black-chinned hummingbird, the elegance and grace of her total presence is amazing and captivating. Watch for these later in the season as they are one of the last to migrate into the area.

Hummingbirds are the smallest of the bird species. They have incredible navigational skills, being able to fly backward, forward, sideways and to stop in mid-air! They can reach speeds up to sixty miles an hour, or hover silently near hanging flowers. The heartbeat of the hummingbird is over 1,000 beats per minute and their wings move at 50 beats per second.

When the male is trying to attract a female he performs an incredible aerial feat. Straight up into the air he zips at an incredible speed, then straight back down until it seems he is going to crash into the ground. If you happen to be in the immediate area you might think you are under attack, but the hummingbird is not paying any attention to you.

Hummingbirds have an excellent memory. They can remember from year to year the location of food sources. I have noticed this as the first hummers arrive each spring. They know just where the feeders should be and will peek inside the windows to let me know of their return. Keep this fact in mind when you are trying to attract hummingbirds to your feeders. Place your feeders in the same or nearly the same proximity as the previous year and they will be able to locate it faster. If you can get them to feed and nest in your yard, they will most likely return year after year to an established feeding site.

Hummingbirds are very territorial. Both the male and the female have their own separate territories. Hers is one for nesting and rearing the young, while the male is just protecting a reliable food source. The male does not take part in the care or feeding of the young. Hummingbirds enjoy bathing while in flight through a fine mist or a sprinkler. A combination birdbath and mister will provide bathing opportunities for them in your yard.

Since the metabolism of hummingbirds is so fast, they must consume half their weight in nectar and eat many insects each day. They get the nectar from flowers and tree sap.

You can purchase a nectar mix or if you prefer you can make the liquid yourself. Mix 1 part granulated sugar with 4 parts water. Bring to a boil. Let cool before adding to the feeder. Never use artificial sweeteners or food coloring. Studies have shown that food coloring can coat the hummingbirds tongue, making it slick and preventing them from lapping the nectar. Never use the artificial sweeteners in your feeders because they have no caloric value. Please do not ever use honey as a sugar substitute as it could contain deadly microorganisms that will kill the hummingbirds.

Change the nectar every 4-7 days. Sugar water never lasts that long in my feeders though. Currently I am refilling them at least once a day. During August when the young have fledged, my yard is filled with flight from over 50 flying jewels at a time and the feeders can be drained in a matter of hours!

The bank along the river is bursting with the fragrant white clusters of chokecherry, serviceberry and rabbitbrush. The blooms of larkspur and columbine create and irresistible palate for the hummingbirds. Nectar rich flowers will bring the hummers into your garden and beautify the area. Great hummingbird flowers for our area include monarda, fuschia, lilac, chokecherry, columbine, honeysuckle, and petunias.

Having these little birds around is a priceless piece of nature. Invite them into your yard today.


So Many Birds, So Little Time

Did you know that there are approximately 314 different species of birds that live or migrate through Island Park and the surrounding Yellowstone ecosystem? Birds have been documented here since Lewis and Clark first ventured through the untamed west.

This large number of birds is quite extraordinary when you think about the harsh conditions our winters and the high altitudes of the forests. Our area has quite a range of eco-zones and habitats. While hiking or sightseeing through this region be sure to take in the gorgeous scenery and fun activities, but don't forget to check out the fantastic birding opportunities which are extremely plentiful this time of year.

Mesa Falls with its tremendous flow of water and deep canyon is home to bald eagles and osprey. They nest in tall snags and can build huge nests up to eight feet in diameter. Woodpeckers and flickers are also common in the area surrounding Mesa Falls. Black-capped and mountain chickadees can be seen and heard as they flit about the lodgepole pines in search of food.

If you happen to be floating down the gentle waters of the Buffalo River keep your eyes searching for yellow warblers, Western tanagers and violet-green and cliff swallows. The echoing call of the Stellar's jay through the forest will let you know that you are not ever alone in a forest. The resident kingfisher will most likely cry out a warning to you if you get to close to its nesting cavity or invade his territory for too long.

Clark's nutcrackers and gray jays, along with common crows and ravens are abundant around the many campgrounds and picnic areas. While hiking the trails near Big Springs watch for nuthatches, chickadees, flickers and many of the sparrows that visit. A flash of bright blue might just mean that an indigo bunting is nesting in the nearby bushes.

The waters running through Harriman State Park are filled with many species of ducks. Mallards are perhaps the most common, but with a good pair of binoculars you might be able to spot American widgeons, green-winged teals, pintails, buffleheads and ruddy ducks. Other waterfowl in the area include the majestic trumpeter swan, mergansers and lesser scaups. High overhead you might hear the honking of Canada geese, and if you are in the right place at the right time, a family of geese with seven or eight goslings in tow might float right past.

On the back trails and lakes of Harriman, listen for the haunting call of the loon. Great blue herons will be near the river's edge laying in wait for a minnow or frog to swim past. The magnificent sandhill cranes call to one another with an ethereal voice, and perform a beautiful mating dance by leaping into the air with one another. The young chicks blend in well with the grasses, but it's rusty color can be seen if you are patient and watch closely as the parents feed.

Great gray and big horn owls dwell deep within the forests. Nighttime and early evening are prime hours to listen and watch for them. They nest early in the year so keep a watchful eye for young owls staying close to the parents.

In the air above the Henry's Lake Flats, red-tail hawks and turkey vultures rule the skies. Northern harriers and sharp-shinned hawks are also soaring above the grassy fields in search of prey. American kestrels dot the telephone lines about a quarter mile apart as you travel up and down the highways and side roads. Hawks can be difficult to identify, but with experience, a spotting scope and a good field guide, you should be able to recognize many after just a little time.

Shorebirds are plentiful on both the Island Park Reservoir and Henry's Lake. Grebes, cormorants and pelicans seem to accompany fishermen in their search for the largest trout in our famous waters. Franklin and California gulls fill the air with their raucous calls and an occasional common tern might be seen skimming the water.

With the incredible abundance of resident and migratory birds in our area, it's no wonder that bird watching is the number one hobby enjoyed by Americans. This summer enjoy our array of feathered friends as you come into contact with them.


Flickers are natural alarm clocks

Birds are natural alarm clocks, and I have one that goes off at 7:15 every morning. The sound is a rhythmic knocking on the side of the upstairs bedroom wall. I have to get out of bed quickly and run upstairs to shoo him away – Red shafted flickers can wreck real havoc on the side of a log home!

The Red-Shafted Flicker, also known as the Northern Flicker, is the largest of our common woodpeckers, and at 12 to 14 inches in length, is larger than the robin. It is beautifully colored, with a curious personality. Flickers belong to the woodpecker family, Picidae. The scientific name for the red-shafted flicker is Coloptes auratus cafer. The red-shafted flicker has a brownish body, a slate colored throat, a barred back, and underparts spotted with black. Its chest is boldly marked with a black crescent, and the male has a showy red moustache. The flying bird is unmistakable with the flash of scarlet on its wings and tail, white rump patch, and pendulating flight pattern.

Their main food source is insects, with over half of these being ants. They do a great service by controlling ant populations, which can be destructive to forests and to our food supply. Their tongues are long and sticky, which allow them to reach into tight cracks to locate ants. Flickers also eat beetles, moths, butterflies grasshoppers, the fruitsof chokeberry, elder, dogwood, Virginia creeper, sumac, poison ivy, hackberry, poison oak, wild grapes and juniper.

The male flicker claim shis breeding territory with loud drilling. He pounds on a hollow trunk, a dead branch, a television antenna, or a metal roof. This drumming warns off rivals and informs the mate that he has found a nesting site. When these birds are courting, they face each other with heads tilted back, necks outstretched, and bills pointed skyward. Their bodies sway from side to side, and their heads move constantly.

Flickers are woodworkers, using only wood chips to build their nest. Like all woodpeckers, both birds share the task of drilling the nesting hole with their bills to chisel out a nest in the chosen tree, either alive or dead, a tree stump, or a telephone pole. Often they may drill through the walls of houses or barns, and lay their eggs on beams with wood chips placed around to keep them from falling off.

They lay six to ten glossy white eggs. Both parents incubate them, with the male taking the night shift. The young are voracious feeders from the time of hatching, and the constant task of feeding them is shared by the parents.

As a general rule, flickers carve out a new nest each spring. The old holes are quickly taken over by other species ,such as tree swallows, sparrow hawks, screech owls, and saw-whet owls. Invasive starlings compete with the flickers, and even take over the new holes before the hard-working female has a chance to lay eggs, and her mate must work very hard to drive them away from their territory.

Red-shafted flickers are found from Alaska to the western part of the Great Plains, south through western United States and Mexico to Guatemala. They are year-round residents in many parts of the western United States. In the eastern part of their range, the red-shafted flicker readily interbreeds with the yellow-shafted.

The spring mating season only lasts for a short while, so I am in hopes that this determined flicker will settle down soon, and maybe allow me just a little more shut eye in the morning.


Soaking up Spring

Spring is the season of the birds. As the earth emerges from under the blanket of winter snow, early migrants and faithful residents of the forests tune up for the spring chorus. The morning air is filled with the sounds of newly returned songbirds. It seems as if Mother Nature's orchestra and chorus are in full harmony. There is no other time of the year when the changes of nature are so breathtaking, fabulous, and predictable.

With these fast-moving changes to your surroundings make time to stop and observe as the scene unfolds before your eyes. Breathe in the warm mountain air as it fills the forest the fragrances of pine, grasses and the earthy brown fragrance of soil. Look into the sky as the geese and ducks pair off. Tree swallows fill the air with fast moving splashes of color. The awakening skies have now become alive with movement. Food is in its shortest supply for the birds now. Last summer's supply of seeds, nuts and insect larvae have been eaten. This is one reason the activity surrounding your feeder has increased dramatically.

When we get that “surprise” late spring snowstorm, remember to set out some raisins, grapes or mealworms for the robins. Now is the perfect time to clean and refill your feeders. Check for cracks that can be repaired and replace those feeders which have not survived the winter well.

As the migration of neo-tropical birds such as warblers, vireos, and tanagers begins, clean up the bird bath and your backyard pond so as they migrate through there will be fresh, clean water for them to enjoy.

Put up that new birdhouse that you made over the winter, and clean out the houses that were used last year. Bluebirds, chickadees, swallows, and woodpeckers are beginning their search for places to nest this spring.

Set out your bird list. Watch and hopefully you will be able to add a new species or two to your life list. If you haven't started your list, find a small notebook and begin by recording the date, time, place and the species of bird that you saw. By keeping a journal you will be able to read back over it in the future and be able to make a pretty good estimate as to when that species will arrive in your area.

Now is the time to listen for the music of the different male songbirds vying for the approval of females. Go outside just prior to and after dawn and you will find the air filled with the songs of robins, bluebirds, and red-winged blackbirds. In the distance the echoing percussion of sandhill cranes tumbles across the fields. Meadowlarks, killdeer, chickadees, finches, and mourning doves fill in for a complete symphony of song.

If all these sounds are a bit overwhelming to you, you can pick up a CD or tape of bird songs and learn how to identify them by listening and learning from the pros. Birding software for your computer will also help you identify the bird that goes along with the sound that you are hearing. It's easy to tell a robin from a crow, but some of those sparrows and warblers can get mighty tricky!

Listen at night for the spring courtship of the frogs, which have emerged from the marshes. The low hoots of owls hidden in the dark keep the song playing into the night. Spring's wonderful arrival is made known through its music.

An early morning walk through the forest or along the river will soon let you know that the world is alive once more. The geese softly honking on the rivers edge and the robins chirping as they hop across your lawn is absolutely wonderful therapy for ears that have strained at the quiet silence of winter for so many months. Take a walk tonight. Stop and fill your thoughts with the sights and songs of nature.


Earth Day 2003 – Water for Life

With the environment under constant attack, it's more important than ever for everyone to be vigilant and active. Earth Day is Tuesday, April 22— a time to renew the fight to protect our planet every day.
The theme for this year's Earth Day is "Water for Life," and many people will examine and re-think their daily activities to find ways to improve the health of our water quality and the environment.
The Earth Day Network is an alliance of 5,000 groups in 184 countries working to promote a healthy environment and a peaceful, just, sustainable world.
What can you do to celebrate Earth Day? Clean up a stretch of a local body of water. Visit the nearest body of water, lake, stream, ocean, or estuary. Look for and catalog evidence of human use and occupation. Is there garbage in or near the water? Sort and classify the garbage. Is the water discolored or spotted with foam? Is there visible life in the water or at the edge? Ask about the quality of the local bodies of water.
If you are more of a homebody perhaps you would like to re-evaluate your consumption of energy. As a consumer, think about the many ways you use electricity, propane and gasoline. Every time you turn on the light, plug in an appliance, adjust the thermostat or get in your car you are using energy. Changing the way you make simple day-to-day decisions can help decrease global warming.
As a voter you can contact your elected officials and urge them to support clean water policies that allow the United States to meet or beat the pollution targets that have been established. As a volunteer there are several organizations that offer volunteer opportunities on Earth Day and throughout the year. Join one and make that difference
The internet has valuable links and information about Earth Day 2003. The following sites are excellent references for additional information. Visit these sites and for more resources and activities.
Tell your friends and family know about Earth Day, and why it is important to protect our natural resources. Send an Earth Day e-card and tell the people who are important to you why they should help protect our water, endangered species and the amazing places that surround us.
Each year, Earth Day inspires grassroots action groups in communities around the world. People from Peru to India, and from Ireland to the United States take part in Earth Day events and actions, which educate, spread awareness and push for visible change.
Every voice counts and every action matters. Earth Day is based on the simple philosophy that ordinary people, acting together, can achieve extraordinary things.
Whether you organize an Earth Day event, take part in the activities, or make a personal commitment to the Earth to act more responsibly, you are a vital part of the Earth Day movement. By working together, all over the planet, we can make a difference!


Earth Day: Crisis & Opportunity
By John McConnell, Earth Day Founder

The purpose of Earth Day, founded 33 years ago, was to further "peace, justice and the care of Earth." We have an amazing planet and with our new technology can provide a wonderful future for the human family.
On this Earth Day we face a great challenge. President Bush has chosen this time to initiate a great war that could trigger reciprocal violence and use of diabolical weapons. Terrorists are now able to produce dirty bombs and germ warfare. The weak can now destroy the powerful. The Bush policy is to have the mightiest military and control the world and his actions may unleash global catastrophe.
It is time for peacemakers around the world to unite in a global effort to demonstrate the power of faith, love and prayer to bring peaceful resolution of conflict in this time of global crisis. Let us remember the great peacemakers of the past and take heart from their achievements.
Wherever you are on Earth Day, make it a time of silent prayer and dedication to work for peaceful progress on our planet. And follow it by action.
"The ultimate weakness of violence it that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.  Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. . . Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.  Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that."
—Martin Luther King, Jr.


Sandhill cranes call in spring

“High horns, low horns, silence, and finally a pandemonium of trumpets, rattles, croaks, and cries that almost shakes the bog with its nearness, but without yet disclosing whence it comes. On motionless wing they emerge from the lifting mists, sweep a final arc of sky, and settle in clangorous descending spirals to their feeding grounds. A new day has begun on the crane marsh.... Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.” — Aldo Leopold, 1949

A normal day begins at dawn for sandhill cranes. Shortly after sunrise they begin moving out, briefly stopping in wet meadows near rivers and streams. From there, they head for nearby fields to feed, and these feeding areas can extend for several miles to the north and south of the river.

From mid-morning to mid-afternoon, sandhill cranes loiter in the fields and begin their colorful courtship display. On calm, clear days, the birds enjoy riding the warm air currents, soaring higher and higher to altitudes that make them appear as small dots in the blue sky. The cranes head back to the river after a final late-afternoon feeding.

Early spring finds the cranes spending most of their feeding hours in wet meadows. Food remains abundant until the increasing numbers of migrating cranes deplete the supply. After a few days of probing the ground for tubers, plant shoots, insects and earthworms, large flocks of cranes can pick a meadow clean. Sandhill cranes are omnivorous. Throughout the year their diet includes such varied meals as small birds, eggs, mice, crayfish, snakes, lizards, insects, tubers, weed seeds and waste grain.

Sandhill cranes have long legs, standing 4 feet tall with a 6-7 foot wing span, they are generally gray-colored with a dramatic patch of red skin on their foreheads. The feathers of the back, wings and shoulders of sandhill cranes are a light to pale gray with a tan color wash. The area above and in front of the eyes varies with shades of red or red-orange, changing to a drab gray where it meets the bill.

Cranes mate for life and stay together so you will often see them paired off. They make a nest 4 feet in diameter built on dry ground or in shallow water. They make the nest by up-rooting marsh plants and piling them into a mound. The female usually lays two eggs, which she incubates for 28-32 days. There is a slight problem with having two kids though, because sandhill crane chicks, called colts, are not very friendly siblings. In fact, they can be so aggressive towards each other that each parent takes one to keep them apart from each other!  

Sandhill crane colts are able to walk immediately after hatching but don't fly until they are two months old. They continue to stay with their parents until they are about 10 months old. By the fall of the year they were hatched, young birds nearly resemble adults, the only clue to their age is a crown and forehead less red than adults.

  The greater sandhill crane once bred widely in meadows and marshes throughout the Midwest and West. It has lost more habitat than any other subtype and though these majestic cranes have staged a comeback in some regions, a great many marshes that used to ring with crane music have been silent for over a century. Over the past three years there has been a drastic decrease in the number of returning pairs to local areas. If they are killed off there will not be any to return to nest and we will lose this precious species that is so much a part of the Island Park ecosystem.

From the gray clouds of a late winter snowstorm the softly beating wings of the crane emerge. Though the snows and winds linger on, the appearance of the sandhill crane portends the return of spring.


Western meadowlarks have returned

When the melodious song of the western meadowlark floats over the grasses and sagebrush of Island Park's open places, spring has truly arrived. Some birds live in the trees, and some love lakes, but meadowlarks are birds of the open grasslands.

The meadowlark is one of the best known and best loved birds in the western United States. Its beautiful song and brilliant colors touch the feelings of anyone who has ever lived near the grasslands that make our area special.

So well-loved is this bird that Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon and Wyoming have all named the meadowlark their state bird.

Meadowlarks are most evident in spring, when the males are making their presence known with song. Watch the tops of fence posts for the bird with a yellow front colored like a bright golden shield. Each spring the male meadowlark adopts its own bragging post, spending several hours each day in song doing his best to impress his lady friend. Keep your car window open as you drive along the highway so that you can hear them as they sing. When you do, stop and watch along the fence posts that are near the roadside.

A meadowlark will stay perched on the post if you drive past without stopping, but he'll quickly fly away the moment you slow down or stop. So I like to drive slowly down the back roads. If by chance he flies away from his preferred post, wait a few minutes - he'll be back, and then you will be able to get a closer look, and a chance to listen to the beautiful song.

The first meadowlarks probably arrived in the western United States as the Ice Age glaciers began their retreat northward. Although the vast prairies are no longer its main homeland today, meadowlarks still sing over the land where the giant herds of bison once roamed.

Male meadowlarks arrive in here during mid- April. His immediate task is to secure and hold on to the best possible nesting territory. Meadowlarks feed on caterpillars, grasshoppers, and cutworms. The male meadowlark measures 10 inches from the point of its bill to the end of the tail.

The male and female are identical in coloration. She will build a dome shaped nest in spring that is completely hidden in the tall grasses with a concealed entry path. A brood of five or six young will be raised in early spring, and by mid-June a second brood might be hatched by the pair. This "double clutching" provides a greater chance for the young to survive the many predators that include raccoons, weasels, hawks, and skunks.

The western meadowlark sings a different song than its eastern cousin. It has a complicated and difficult to reproduce melody, filled with double notes that have an almost warbling resonance. Sounding like a flute, the song has been described as if the bird were singing "Utah's a beautiful place to live."

“When I was a girl, I had a favorite story of the meadowlark who lived where the rivers wind; Her voice could match the angels' in its glory...An old king came and took her to his palace, where the walls were burnished bronze and golden braid, and he fed her fruit and nuts from an ivory chalice and he prayed "Sing for me, my meadowlark. Sing for me of the silver morning. Set me free, my meadowlark.” — from The Baker's Wife - music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz

If you should come across a meadowlark in the morning or late afternoon, notice that he will be facing the sun, as if magnetically drawn toward the source of its brilliant coloration. Make it your goal this month to watch and listen for this beautiful harbinger of spring.


Bluebirds are here to welcome spring

As the snowline recedes around the cabin I get more excited every day. The dates on the calendar say that spring has arrived, but when I see the year's first mountain bluebirds, I begin to think that winter might finally be over.

The last part of March is a great time to start seeing these sparkling flashes of blue darting along fence lines and across fields. Just about everyone I talk to wishes that the birds would set up house in their yards and raise their young where they can be easily observed. If this sounds like something that might interest you, here are a few tips to attract nesting mountain bluebirds to your yard this year.

Mountain bluebirds have a large nesting territory and boxes should be spaced no closer than 300 yards apart. A bluebird box should never have a perch. Sparrows and wrens are attracted to perches.

Bluebirds usually nest in late March or early April. Bluebirds usually have two broods per season, but three broods are possible. Have your bluebird boxes in place now, when the birds return from their winter migration and are looking for nesting sites. Boxes may also be put up later in the nesting season.

Bluebirds lay 4 to 5 light blue eggs, but may lay as many as 6 or 7. A small percentage of their eggs may be white. The incubation period for bluebird eggs is 12-14 days. Nestlings remain in the nest 18 to 21 days before they fledge. Do not open the box after nestlings are 12 to 14 days old. Doing so could result in the nestlings leaving the box before they are able to fly, greatly reducing their chance of survival.

Mount nesting boxes so the entrance hole is approximately five feet above the ground. Face the box away from prevailing winds and towards a tree or shrub, which is within 100 feet of the box. This provides a protective landing spot for the young bluebirds when they first leave the box.

When installing bluebird houses in an open field, face the entrance hole south, southeast, or east. The dawn sunlight will warm the box on cool mornings.

Keep two nest boxes near each other, one for bluebirds, and the other for tree swallows. They will co-exist harmoniously and other birds, such as sparrows, will stay away. To keep starlings and sparrows from entering the bluebird house use a slotted entrance instead of a hole. The slot should measure the width of the house and be 1 9/16” high. Or, use the plans on the next page, making the hole exactly 1 9/16" in diameter. This will also give the bluebird a chance to escape from predators if necessary.

Do not put up a bluebird box if you don't have time to monitor it. At least once a week during the nesting season, check the bluebird boxes until chicks are close to fledging. Learn to recognize a bluebird nest. It is a cup shaped nest that is usually made up of 100% woven grass. Pine needles can also be used. Always remove any other birds' nests immediately.

Remove bluebird nests and those of other birds as soon as the young birds have fledged. Because bluebirds build new nests for each brood, clean out the old one after the young leave. This will encourage a second or third nest during a single season.

Make it one of your goals this spring to watch for those beautiful blue signs of spring.


Avian Myths & Legends

New myths arise every day and spread so rapidly that there is no chance to rebut them. Among humans this is often referred to as gossip. In the animal world, these little tidbits of information often become the footings for myths and legends passed down from generation to generation.

Although there is no evidence that any of these things ever happened, the stories stay alive, repeated thousands of times a day somewhere in the country. Even bird watching has its own set of myths.

From kingfishers to owls, falcons to the phoenix, birds are common in the legends and myths of many cultures. There are always a few folks ready to believe them and pass them on. The following are among the most persistent myths, some of them popping up constantly in various forms.

When a vagrant bird from the West shows up in the East, stories immediately start to spread. Why is that bird in the area? How did it get here? Then someone remembers that a few days before, a storm with 60mph winds swept through the area. That's it! The bird must have been blown there! Now everyone believes that small birds can be carried long distances by powerful winds. That's incorrect. Those who have had the opportunity to be out in the weather during a Christmas Bird Count know that high winds do not blow small birds from place to place. In the rare instance that you might see one trying to fly, notice that it goes a short distance and plunges to the ground.

Another great bird myth states that that if you feed a gull an Alka-Seltzer tablet it will swallow the offering and when it gets into the stomach and dissolves, the expanding gasses will cause the bird to explode. When you stop laughing at the thought of gulls exploding like so many water balloons all over the countryside, the unlikelihood of this happening becomes quite evident

It is commonly expressed that you should never throw rice at weddings because if birds eat it, the rice will swell up in their stomach and cause them to explode.

This is definitely not true. If it were there would be exploding birds everywhere, especially during the month of June!

One of my favorite myths is that hummingbirds migrate by riding on the back of geese. I am amazed by its resilience as fact despite common sense and knowledge. There is virtually no overlap in the migration patterns and timing of geese and hummingbirds. Most hummingbirds have already migrated before the first geese fly down from the Arctic.

The legends that accompany many of the myths are quite interesting and are actually based on or because of a phenomenon occurring in nature.

The low flying V's of geese in formation can mean that rainy weather will come soon. This is based on actual facts because the lower clouds will cause many birds to fly at a lower altitude. These same clouds can bring rain and stormy weather.

A classic legend is that of why the buzzard's head is bare. It goes like this: The buzzard used to have a fine topknot, of which he was so proud that he refused to eat carrion. While other birds were eating a food find, he would strut around saying "You may have it all, it is not good enough for me." They decided to punish him, and with the help of the buffalo, carried out a plot in which the buzzard lost his topknot and nearly all the other feathers on his head. At the same time, he lost his pride, so now he is willing to eat carrion for a living.

These legends and myths can be a fun way to learn more about birds in our area and the places that we travel to. The timing is perfect for bird watching with the spring migration starting up, so grab your binoculars and a friend and discover the real answers to myths for yourself.


Snow geese are now passing through the area

A sign that winter is ending is the migration and congregation of the snow geese. The sight and sound of thousands of these white geese is one of the most spectacular wildlife events in nature.

Snow geese are the most abundant of the world's wild geese. There are two distinct color schemes in the species. The adult `blue goose' is actually grayish in color. They have white heads and upper necks with slate-gray bodies and varying amounts of white on their bellies. Their wings are pearl gray with black tips.

The white adults are completely white, except for black wing tips. Both the blue and white phases have pink bills, with black "grin patches", and rosy-red legs and feet. Immature blue geese are almost entirely dark gray, with a white chin patch. Their legs, feet and bill are grayish brown. The young white geese are a sooty gray with a whitish belly and bill. Their legs and feet also are grayish brown.

The two different colored snow geese were once thought to be two separate species. However, since the blue and white birds nest together and interbreed, taxonomists have determined that the blue goose is simply a color phase of the snow goose.

Male and female snow geese look alike, differing only in size. An adult male snow goose averages 29 inches in height, with a wingspan of 59 inches, and weighing an average of 6 pounds. Adult females average 28 inches high and weigh five and a half pounds with a wingspan of 56 inches.

Snow geese breed in the Arctic from Alaska to Greenland. The geese arrive on the nesting ground before the snow has completely melted. As the snow melts, the flocks break up and pairs vigorously defend their own piece of bare ground. They nest on the low grassy tundra plains, within a few miles of water. Snow geese nests are little more than scrapes in moss or gravel during the first few years. The geese build up the nest a little more each year with moss, willows, and grass forming a more substantial raised nest over time. Snow geese have very strong family ties and usually mate for life.

The female snow goose will lay two to 10 eggs. The male guards the nest from predators and other snow geese. He defends it by charging at intruders with his wings and neck outstretched and calling wildly. The female incubates the eggs. She will leave only briefly to feed in the early stages of incubation. In the later stages, she will seldom leave the nest. During incubation most females will lose 25 percent of their body weight. The eggs will hatch three weeks after being laid. With the abundance of food on the tundra and the long daylight hours, young snow geese grow rapidly. The goslings weigh two and one half ounces when they hatch and will weigh over 5 pounds just ninety days later.

Migrating flocks of snow geese usually begin their trip at sunset, and can fly continuously both day and night. Many will stop at rest areas while others will make the entire trip from the wintering grounds in one continuous flight. Some have been known to fly as long as 70 hours and 1,700 miles non-stop.

Snow geese migrate in unusually large flocks of 100 to 1,000. Flying between 40 and 50 miles per hour, they reach altitudes of around 3,000 feet. Amazingly, radar has recorded geese as high as 20,000 feet. Flying in imperfect V's, they are easily distinguishable from Canada geese, with their long wavy lines and an undulating rhythmic fashion.

Watch for large flocks of snow geese as they pass through on their annual spring migration. Dozens, for example, stopped for a rest on the Henry's Fork in Last Chance this week. Take a pair of binoculars with you, watching in the fields near Hebgen and Henry's Lakes and in open grain fields when the snow gives way to the grasses of spring. The geese rise and begin to feed early in the morning. They will remain in the area for about a week before continuing on their journey north.

Enjoy the beginning of spring with the return of the snow geese.


A pine grosbeak primer

The afternoon sun breaking through the clouds invited me to step outside. The bitter cold temperatures of the past week had kept me in the house, unwilling to open the door even to go out and collect the mail. The feeders were low on sunflower seeds, so I decided that now was the time to fill them up.

As I poured the loose, fragrant, black seeds into the top of the feeder, I heard the call of a familiar visitor to this area— the pine grosbeak. Its short, musical song is similar to that of the purple finch, but the pitch varies more and has more distinct, less-slurred notes. The song varies from a crisp, clear melody to a soft, fluid warble. Both the call and song may be heard during the pine grosbeak's flight.

Pine grosbeaks are related to goldfinches, sparrows, buntings, and crossbills. This larger member of the finch family has an extremely wide distribution throughout the forests of Europe, Russia, and North America. They can be found from Alaska south through the Cascades and Rocky Mountains. Pine grosbeaks inhabit the borders of coniferous woods, ponds, and stream edges, and along the edges of open fields and marshes.

They are plump, stocky birds, about the size of American robins. They have long, slightly forked-tails that differentiate them from evening grosbeaks. Their short, thick conical bills are dark and strongly curved. Adult males have deep rose red on their head, face, rump, and under-parts. Females lack pink and are generally gray with a patchy orange or yellow-brown head, nape, and face. Their cheeks are grayish. The chin, throat, and breast are light gray with yellowish tints on the lower throat and breast. The wings and tail are dark brown and show two wing bars, and the flight feathers have white edges

Though called a grosbeak, their beaks do not dominate the face like the thick, powerful, seed-cracking bill of the other big-beaked winter finch, the evening grosbeak. A pine grosbeak's black beak is short, rounded, but still good-sized and ideal for eating berries.

Pine grosbeaks feed in trees, or may fly down to the ground to search for fallen seeds and fruits. They eat the buds from various trees, including mountain ash, maple, birch, poplar, apple, and willow. Favorite foods include the fruits of mountain ash, crabapple, and barberry, and the seeds from the cones of pine and spruce trees. They also eat grass and weed seeds and various insects. Outside of the breeding season, pine grosbeaks are often found in flocks numbering up to 100 birds, which roost in a tree and feed on one food type.

These grosbeaks feed quietly in trees or on the ground and roads to feed on scattered seeds. Being relatively tame, they react slowly to passing cars. Pine grosbeaks probably will not come to feeders unless really stressed, but they may visit yards replete with a good fruit and berry supply. They have been observed eating sunflower seeds from feeders.

Pine Grosbeaks may irrupt, or move irregularly southward during winter, probably in reaction to a reduced food supply. Winter habitat tends to include open mixed and deciduous woods or hillsides with cedar or juniper. During certain years, few individuals leave the summer range, but in irruption years, whole populations move farther south in search of food.

Watch and listen carefully as these visitors make their daily rounds to your feeder and to the top of the trees, or as they stop to rest for a moment in your backyard before heading on to northerly destinations later this spring.


All about rosy finches

Finches are some of the most common and beloved birds to attract to your backyard birdfeeders. A variety of finches can be found in North America, such as the Cassins finch, the house finch, the purple finch, the American goldfinch, Lawrence's goldfinch, the black rosy finch, gray crowned rosy finch, and the brown-capped rosy finch. The black rosy finches, surpassed only by the brilliant American goldfinch, are some of the most strikingly colored members of the finch family.

Rosy finches belong to the family Fringillidae, but their taxonomy is inadequately understood. In the past they were considered forms of the same species. In 1993 they were split into three separate species by the American Ornithologists' Union: the black rosy finch, gray crowned rosy finch, and the brown capped rosy finch.

The rosy finch is a common bird approximately 5 1/2 to 6 1/2 inches long. The male black rosy finch has a black forehead, throat, and back, with gray on the rear of the head, a pink belly, under tail, rump, and wing feathers. The female is duller in color.

The male gray crowned rosy finch has a black forehead and throat, a brown breast and back, and a pink belly, under tail, rump and wing feather. The female is duller in color. The brown capped rosy finch has a black forehead, brown head, breast, and back, pink belly, under tail, rump, and wing feathers. With the close similarities, it is easy to confuse these three types of rosy finches.

The rosy finch is native to the Rocky Mountains from Colorado to Alaska. It prefers alpine tundra and meadows. Flocks of rosy finches meander through forests and meadows all during the winter, and stay in nearby lowlands. Mixed flocks of black and gray crowns are often seen roosting together in caves or abandoned mine shafts, in barns, or under bridges.

Rosy finches winter in northern Arizona and New Mexico. In winter, they will descend to lower elevations (4,000 to 7,000 feet) but remain in the same general geographic area.

Their breeding range in Rocky Mountains is in southwestern Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, northeastern Nevada, and northern Utah. During the summer they live above the timberline from Alaska to southwestern Alberta and south through the Cascades, Sierra Nevada, and the Rocky Mountains to east-central California, central Utah, and north-central New Mexico.

In spring, the female rosy finch produces three to five white eggs in a cup nest placed in a hole in talus or on vertical cliffs that offer protection. The bulky nest is comprised of grasses and dry stalks of various herbaceous materials, and lined with fine grass and feathers.

The diet of the rosy finch consists of the small seeds of alpine plants. Occasionally they will eat leaves and fruits and insects that are frozen in the snow, as well as small insects found on the ground or in nearby vegetation.

Rosy finches love to dine on mulberries, blackberries, cherries, cotoneaster, weed seeds, especially dandelion, zinnias, all types of sunflowers, coreopsis, thistle seeds, millet, cosmos and bachelor's buttons. You can attract rosy finches, as well as the other species of finches, with the same method since they all eat seeds. Place the seeds in a hanging tube feeder, a tray feeder near the ground or a cropper feeder for best results.

When photographing rosy finches be aware that they are flighty, so a blind will help you to remain unseen by the flock. By placing some pine boughs or other natural branches near you feeder for them to land on you will be able to get more realistic photos of the finches as they feed.

Rosy finches are a delight for the avid or weekend birdwatcher to see and to have visit. Keep your eyes and ears open for them and you will be pleasantly rewarded when you look out the kitchen window and see a flock happily feasting at your feeders.


Becoming stewards of nature

My family and I recently enjoyed a beautiful and delightful weekend participating in the Backyard Bird Count. It is an annual event for the entire family, one that consistently brings in a new bird or two for our life list, and this year was pleasantly no exception.

The usual chickadees, goldfinches and American robins were in abundance. Barrow and common goldeneyes floated happily on the river, as bald eagles and a lone kingfisher watched from trees along the bank. The silhouette of a solitary great blue heron could be seen a little further down the river, and the song of an early arriving redwing blackbird filled the air.

For the past ten days or so, the north side of the cabin has been the focus of a very persistent hairy woodpecker. Chips of the house can be seen flying off at times, and today was no exception. But the sighting of the day was the same bird that surprised me at a different location only last week. Perched on the telephone wire above the junipers, with a cunning look in its eye, was that infamous bird - the northern shrike. No wonder the goldfinches disappeared so quickly and did not return as usual.

Interacting with wildlife is one of the joys that I try to make time for. Being a part of the Backyard Bird Count allows me to take the time to observe and participate in nature, even if only for 15 minutes in my own backyard. Both children and adults can show that they care about wildlife and habitat and can have an important influence on others. Here are a few ideas for helping out wildlife in your daily life:

Walk or use your bike instead of driving, turn off a computer when you are not using it, recycle, turning down the heat and wear a sweater to reduce the physical demands that you make on the Earth.

Keep your pets under control. Always respect local leash laws and your neighbor's property. Dogs allowed to run free can harass and kill wildlife. Putting a bell around the neck of your outdoor cat will give birds more of a chance. Domesticated cats kill millions of songbirds every year.

Buy foods that are grown without herbicides and pesticides. Buy other “green” goods, such as eco-certified lumber and papers. Be cautious about what you put down the drain or into the garbage. Contact your local authorities to find out how to dispose of antifreeze, paint, used oil, and dead batteries in your area.

Recycle plastic products and avoid consumable products with disposable plastic packaging. Birds and animals have been known to die after swallowing plastic debris or becoming tangled in six-pack holders.

Drive cautiously in forested areas. Many wild animals are killed annually trying to cross busy roads. Participate in land-use planning in your community to ensure that wildlife habitat, especially habitat for endangered species, will be protected.

If you find a dead bird with a band on its leg or spot a live bird with a neck collar, wing tag, or other marking, send the band or report the location and species to the Fish and Wildlife Department. Information on where these bands are found help identify habitats.

If you are a hunter or angler, follow the regulations regarding seasons and catch limits and report poachers through your local wildlife agency. Develop identification skills to avoid killing endangered species and teach other hunters to do the same. Practice catch and release of fish if you are not going to eat them.

When choosing outdoor recreational activities, consider cross-country skiing and canoeing. These are quieter sports that don't disturb wildlife.

And finally, teach others what you know.

Together, with changes in other's own behavior, we all will make a difference for wildlife. No matter what your age and no matter where you live, you can help. Doing the small things – like the Backyard Bird Count, can make a difference. Never underestimate your own personal power.


Northern shrike spotted in Fremont County

Northern shrike, Lanius excubitor

Length: 8 inches

Heavy, hooked bill with a pale base to lower mandible

Black cheeks

Pale gray head and back

White underparts with faint gray barring

Black wings with white wing patches

Black tail with white outer tail feathers

Juvenile and immature birds are browner and duller

Traveling along the back roads of Island Park and the Upper Snake River Valley, I often come across birds when I least expect it. This past week I was even able to include a new bird in my life list.

I just happened to look out the car window to my right when a flash of white and gray caught my attention. There, perched on the barbed wire fence, was a bird that I could identify immediately by sight and recollection alone— it was a northern shrike.

With a desire for the open countryside, northern shrikes escape the attention of most bird watchers. Sitting patiently just below the top of a lone tree, along a rural fence line circling an abandoned pasture, or on a projecting stump of pine in the meadow, shrikes may easily be disregarded. The bird itself would never overlook the songbirds and vole populations that sustain it during the colder months. With its nasty disposition and vigor for the chase, smaller birds and mice must always be on the lookout watch for this meat-eating songbird.

Shrikes are the only songbirds that prey on other songbirds as their main food source. Unlike other birds of prey, which have strong talons, shrikes impale their prey on the thorns of hawthorns, barbed wire fences and other sharp objects. This, along with their habit of killing more birds than they can eat at one time, has earned them the nickname "butcher bird.”

Two species of shrikes can be seen in Idaho, but one— the loggerhead— is rare. The more common species is the northern shrike. Northern shrikes will attack birds larger than themselves but prefer to feed on smaller songbirds. They can be identified at a distance by examining the flight pattern and coloration. They have a habit of flying low to the ground and then suddenly swerving up to land on an exposed branch.

The great northern shrike is larger and darker than the loggerhead. It is also a better singer. Its notes are varied and almost completely musical, though sometimes it makes a sort of harsh half-croaking sound that ruins the song. Its general appearance at a short distance is very similar to a mockingbird. Both male and female adult northern shrikes have gray upper body parts, with wings and tail having black primary feathers that are white at the base and tipped with white or gray. Sometimes all of the tail feathers are tipped with white, and the outer feathers are mostly white, and the forehead whitish in color.

Shrikes are most common in rural areas but will also come to hunt in cities and towns, especially during "shrike winters." These occur on an irregular basis and are marked by large numbers of shrikes pouring into an area from northern latitudes. Northern shrikes occasionally come to birdfeeders to search for songbirds.

Shrikes possess excellent vision. A trained shrike once spotted flying bumblebees 100 yards away. You may not encounter shrikes catching bumblebees, but if you wait patiently in the right habitat, you may spot a northern shrike perched in a tree, watching for prey. Keep your distance because it will fly if threatened.

During winter, a shrike's food consists almost entirely of small birds, with an occasional mouse to add variety. In summer its diet is made up of larger insects, but sometimes a small snake is caught and eaten with noticeable delight.

Several years ago, birders in Idaho documented a record number of northern shrikes — 105 — and most were in the Camas National Wildlife Refuge. That count does not mean the species' numbers are rising. National Christmas Bird Count data from 1900 through 1980 show that northern shrikes go through irregular series of cycles. These fluctuations probably occur based on winter severity and prey availability in the shrike's breeding grounds.

If you catch a glimpse of a grey bird with a black mask and hooked beak, watch closely to see if it might be the infamous butcher bird of the North that comes down from the tundra each winter to search for prey.


My favorite winter birds

Just this past week I had a fun opportunity to be at a children's story hour at the local library to teach the little ones about the birds that they might see at the feeder in their backyards. They all listened intently and enjoyed learning about some of my favorite feathered friends that come to my feeders.

My top choices for winter visitors to the feeders are black-capped and mountain chickadees, evening grosbeaks, pine siskins, goldfinches and dark-eyed juncos. Each species is very different but easily attracted to your feeders. Anyone can attract these birds to their backyard by following these simple guidelines.

Always use sturdy, well-built feeders. Hang them securely with wire from a tree branch or a pole. If you place your feeders near shrubs or trees, the birds will feel secure and easily adapt to your feeders. When introducing a new feeder into your yard keep it at a distance from the other feeders. The birds will investigate it and with in a week or so you can start moving it closer to a window so you can observe the birds as they feed.

Hanging feeders will attract American goldfinches, chickadees, nuthatches, finches and siskins, grosbeaks, sparrows and many other birds. Tray feeders placed close to the ground and filled with mixed seeds such as millet, sunflower, cracked corn, milo will attract the mourning doves, juncos, jays, crows, and blackbirds. Keep the tray feeder and the hanging feeders separated – this will keep the larger and more aggressive birds from interfering with the smaller, and more timid birds at the feeders. Hang your suet feeders where woodpeckers, chickadees and nuthatches will be able to feed easily from them.

It is very important that you keep the feeders clean to prevent or reduce the spread of diseases among birds. Washing the feeders regularly with warm water and soap will make a tremendous difference in sanitation. Clean out the bottom of the feeders especially if the seeds become wet or mold begins to grow. Don't forget to clean the suet feeder regularly too.

With so many different species of birds visiting your feeders you'll want to have different types of seeds so you can attract the widest variety of birds. Set up several styles of feeders and fill with different seeds. Put sunflower seeds in your hanging feeder, thistle in a tube feeder and a tray feeder located near the ground with a mixed combination of seeds is a sure system for attracting many different birds.

Don't forget the water! All birds need water, especially in winter. They need to drink and to bathe in. Dirt on their feathers will lower the insulating strength of their feathers. Ice melting devices are available for birdbaths, and make a wise choice for winter birding, and will save you a lot of time changing water when the temperatures drop below freezing.

While we are all waiting for the snow to either melt faster or to pile higher and higher, enjoy feeding and watching the birds that reside here in our beautiful area all through the winter and year round.


The Clark's Nutcracker: An Idaho Discovery

What if you only had a few weeks to gather all the food you would need for the coming year? And you only were able to run from the store with a few bags at a time, hide them in a secret place that only you know, and then go back for more? Add to this that you must remember exactly where each of those grocery stashes were -and without the use of a map, relying only on your incredible ability to recognize the exact location months later?

Sounds like an amazing task, yet the Clark's nutcracker does it every day.

The Corps of Discovery first saw this bird on August 22, 1805, along the Lemhi River in Idaho. They recorded it "on the heights of the rocky mountains" while camping with the Shoshone Indians. This is the only bird species named for William Clark.

If not for the strikingly beautiful colors, this light gray bird with black wings and tail would look like a small crow. At 11 inches long, this campground scavenger, playfully regarded by some as a camp robber, prefers the high mountains and coniferous forests near the tree line. When severe winters drive most animals into hibernation or migration, the Clark's nutcracker remains at the highest elevations. It is similar to the Canada Jay but the white wing patches and outer white tail feathers are its main identifying features. It has a white face and stomach. Other field marks include a long, sharply pointed bill and darks eyes.

The nutcracker uses its long, stout beak to pry pine seeds from the cones of whitebark, pinion, and other types of pines, rather than the cracking of nuts as its name implies. During the late summer and fall when the pine seeds ripen, a single Clark's nutcracker can collect and cache between 20,000 and 30,000 seeds in the ground in more than 2,500 separate caches.

It carries the seeds in a unique throat pouch beneath its tongue, carrying up to 95 seeds at one time. The nutcracker flies off with its load to south facing slopes, often miles away from the gathering site, where winter snow will melt first. There, the nutcracker will bury small groups of seeds in the ground at an average depth of about one inch, and quickly covers the seeds with dirt or gravel. These unmarked caches are virtually invisible to the human eye.

Throughout the winter, spring and summer, the Clark's nutcracker returns to many of its caches to feed. In all but the harshest blizzards and deepest of snow banks, the nutcracker will dig though the snow to find the seeds.

Their success at recovering food is remarkable. Studies have shown that when nutcrackers stashed nuts in a location between two sticks, and when one of the sticks was moved to another point, the returning bird was confused, digging in a new midpoint where no seeds were located. But in relation to this study, if the stick and the seeds were moved to the new midpoint, the bird found the seeds right away.

Nutcrackers nest in early spring, when snow covers the ground and food is scarce. Both the adult birds and nestlings rely almost entirely on those seeds recovered from their caches. Nutcrackers and their young may still be eating stored seeds a year after burying them.

As you venture out this winter to ski, snowboard or snowshoe, you are likely to be greeted by the Clark's nutcracker. Keep a sharp look out for these birds at the tops of mountain passes, in tall stands of pines, or at the tops of chair lifts at your favorite ski resort.

You will most likely hear the loud, harsh `kraaa' of the Clark's nutcrackers call long before you see it. Follow the sound and scan the tops of the trees to where it sits on a favorite branch. Then perhaps, you will even get to have a peek at one of the secret hiding places for one of nature's greatest food storage experts.


It's Snowbird Season- Enjoy the Juncos!

Many folks think of juncos as "snowbirds." In some areas, juncos are year-round residents, but in different regions of the Unites States their arrival signals the beginning of winter.

Across America, they show up with stomach feathers as white as new snow, and back feathers the color of fading charcoal. Through out the nation, they are considered one of the top five most common birds at backyard feeders in the winter.

Juncos like to eat on the ground or from ground feeder trays. Seeds are the principal diet and they are taken from such noxious plants as ragweed, goldenrod, smartweed and redroot pigweed. If ragweed creates allergies for you, take note that juncos winter diet consists of almost one-third ragweed seeds!

Juncos enjoy eating millet found in mixed bird seed, sunflower hearts, and cracked corn spread on the ground or in a special ground level platform feeder. Ground level platform bird feeders offer a large feeding area and mesh bottoms that will keep the food off the ground, and keep it fresher by allowing for air circulation. This lively member of the sparrow family is easily attracted to backyard feeders with the use of cracked corn or baby chick feed. Sometimes they will eat suet if it is offered low, near the ground. So as you are setting up your feeders for them, don't forget to set the table at the right level.

Open areas and flowerbeds that have gone to seed are a favorite stomping ground for juncos as they flock together in the winter. They are particularly fond of seeds from cosmos and zinnia. As with all birds and wildlife, a source of fresh, clean water is a strong attractant. When temperatures drop below freezing, use a birdbath heater to ensure that they will have a fresh supply of unfrozen water. Be sure to offer water at ground level to attract flocks of these beautiful juncos.

Juncos prefer living close to the edge of conifer forests along side streams, ponds, lakes, and meadows. They are found abundantly near roadsides, parks, and neighborhood gardens. Juncos are common in the southern parts of North America during the summer breeding months, and more plentiful in the northern areas during winter and spring.

They nest on the ground in mud banks, bundles of weeds, in fallen logs or on rock ledges. Their nests are built with small roots, pieces of bark, twigs, mosses, and grass. When planning a natural area in your yard remember to add shelter locations on the ground that include low, dense shrubs, and set out secret stashes of favorite nesting materials close by to attract a family of juncos.

Juncos measure five to six inches in length with a light-colored bill. The adult males are dark slate gray above and white below. In general, the males show more white on the outer tail feathers than do the juveniles and females. Juncos frequently display their white outer tail feathers as a distinctive behavior during aggressive displays and when they take flight.

Adult female juncos have a dark reddish eye. The females and juvenile birds are generally paler and show a greater mixture of brown in the plumage coloration. The tips of adult tail feathers are usually more rounded while the tips of the juveniles are more pointed.

Juncos have a black hood with a chestnut mantle, but still sport that telltale white or buff belly. They have white outer tail feathers that are a signal for the rest of the flock to follow in a haphazard fashion over the snowy meadows.

Summer visitors to the Island Park area are not likely to see a dark-eyed junco, but if you come here in winter you will soon become accustomed to this lovely little harbinger of snow as it flits through the bushes and undergrowth of the snowy forest.


'Important Bird Areas' build a brighter future for our feathered friends

Hundreds of volunteers are helping identify, conserve, and monitor birding sites from Arizona to Alaska and across the globe as participants in the Important Bird Areas (IBA) program. The program materialized from recognizing that the loss and fragmentation of habitat is the primary threat to birds everywhere in the world. It identifies a network of sites that provide critical breeding, wintering, or migration stopover habitat throughout the world.
Currently, there are programs in 46 states, where more than 1,500 IBAs have been selected. There should be IBA programs in all 50 states by next year. The IBA is a very important program because it identifies areas in the country which says, "This place is special for birds."
IBAs are designated in 156 countries, with more than 4,000 sites now identified in Europe. The IBA program started in Europe in 1989, when biologists from Bird Life International, a British-based global coalition of more than 100 groups, identified 2,444 sites in 32 countries from Greenland to the Soviet Union. With a growing concern over the continuing fragmentation and loss of bird habitat, this program started the establishment of a network of vital areas that would protect not only birds but a wider swath of biodiversity as well.
In the United States, the process of identifying IBAs varies by state. Site decisions made by biologists are based on data compiled by groups of citizen scientists. IBAs may be enormous or small, and on public or private lands. The National Audubon Society, as a partner designate of Bird Life International, administers the IBA program in this country.
There are currently 1,500-plus sites in the United States, representing a variety of habitats, at-risk species, and conservation issues. The IBA designation helps birds even in protected areas, where such a designation can influence management policy for critical habitats and may also route funding to IBA-related projects in those areas.
The program's aim is to protect birds and habitat by building alliances with landowners, state and federal agencies, and land trusts. A big part of this strategy includes using existing environmental statutes, such as the Clean Water Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, as a means to strengthen the protection of IBAs. This differs from location to location, depending upon the existing land uses and those bird species, which rely on that habitat.
To qualify as an IBA, sites must meet at least one of the four criteria, each associated with a different form of vulnerability. It must (1)support threatened or endangered species; (2)support species that are not widely distributed; (3)sustain species that are restricted to a single extensive habitat or biome; or (4)support high densities of congregating species of waterfowl or shorebirds.
One of our local IBAs is Yellowstone National Park. The park's 2,219,791 acres of coniferous woodlands dominate much of the high country, but the meadows, sagebrush, and geyser basins also are important birding areas.
Yellowstone's white pelican, which is larger than the coastal brown pelican, is vulnerable to disturbance in its preferred breeding spots on islands in park lakes. Increasing pressures are from tourism and recreation and development on the park's fringes.
You can make a difference to the future of birds and their habitats. Much of the work that has been done so far has been based on fieldwork contributed by committed bird conservationists. Knowing where the crucial birding areas are is vital for their protection and conservation.

What You Can Do:
Participate in a Christmas Bird Count with the Greater Yellowstone Audubon Chapter on Saturday, January 4 in West Yellowstone. Contact Helen Bratt (208) 652-7268 or John Heine( 406) 646-7001 for more information.
Adopt an IBA and help develop a conservation plan for the site in partnership with IBA.
Volunteer for a project to restore habitat or eradicate invasive species at an IBA.
Advocate for land-acquisition funds for an IBA where land acquisition is under way.
Lobby for changes in laws and policies that would benefit birds of concern at IBAs.
Follow the Audubon at Home guidelines for a healthy yard and encourage habitat management that is beneficial to the birds of concern at an IBA near you.




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