Birding Beginnings

Sacajawea Audubon Society

Kim Hightower  |  Wednesday Apr. 30th, 2014

As John Parker and I stepped quietly onto the grounds of Sunset Hills, I never imagined myself ever taking a voluntary walk around a cemetery. We were immediately enveloped by a feeling of serenity and a chorus of various bird calls emanating from all directions. Sitting adjacent to Lindley Park, it is a perfect, peaceful, tree-rich setting in which to look and listen for birds.
John has been volunteering with Sacajawea

Audubon for many years and is currently the Field Trips and Bird Sightings Leader. During our first steps that brisk morning, John and I talked about Audubon, the numerous events and field trips they hold, and different spots around Bozeman and the surrounding areas where bird-watching is best. John told me about the upcoming annual Audubon festival called “Wings Across the Big Sky.” It takes place June 6th-8th and is a great chance for all birders, especially those fledgling bird-watchers, to learn about the endless places and opportunities to look for birds in Montana and to embark on some expertly-led bird-watching adventures. Sacajawea Audubon holds meetings the second Monday of each month, where representatives cover different topics surrounding birding and specific events and opportunities with Audubon. In terms of upcoming trips, there will be one bird-sighting trip each week throughout the summer, starting in May. The possibilities for field trip destinations, and their accompanying nature hikes and bird sightings, are endless. John is currently re-working the “hotspots” list, where he details the best places to go in the valley and beyond to find the birds of summer (and the far fewer birds of winter, too) you are looking for. This can be found on the Sacajawea Audubon website, where there is also abundant information regarding field trips and events. John and I hit one of the two hotspots in downtown Bozeman –  the other being the nearby, popular trail running just alongside Peets Hill.

Two minutes into our walk, we heard a loud rustling high in a tree right above us. “Shh!” John whispered, and we hurriedly circled the tree and searched for the source of the racket.

“This is a really cool bird!” he announced quietly, tip-toeing swiftly across the crackling leaves. This was clearly something unusual. I followed excitedly, making a tight circle around the tree trunk and squinting up into the branches. John had at first deemed this to be a more ordinary bird but as we inched around the tree to get a better view, a huge creature with a giant wingspan thrashed through the thin, bending limbs and out of the tree, hovering for a second and then soaring off into the sky. A minute later, a second one emerged and took off even more quickly to join its partner. They were vultures – one of my favorites – turkey vultures, to be precise. These birds are incredible scavengers and are beautiful to watch high in the sky, catching thermals on a sunny day. They typically spend their winters in Texas or Mexico, I learned from John. In this same way, as the sun climbed higher, John helped me to spot, identify and learn the calls of a few other birds that morning. We saw and heard magpies, crows, European starlings, house finches, a woodpecker, and a red-breasted nuthatch – plus loads of squirrels and their accompanying pine-cone shrines (which are piles of food, created over years and years).

Peak migrating season is upon us, and some species had already returned by this first week of April when John and I took our bird-walk – like the turkey vultures we saw. Many more will arrive in April and throughout the month of May. Breeding season continues through August and then in October, migrating season happens all over again.

John specifically mentioned Freezeout Lake as a huge hotspot in the beginning of April. At the time of our walk, John said that the snow geese had just returned and were staging there before heading even further north for the summer.

Apparently a week prior, the sky above the lake was blanketed with geese. Other prime spots to see shorebirds are Cottonwood Reservoir and Harrison Reservoir, and John suggested that for shorter, easier day trips, two great areas to go birding near town are the East Gallatin Recreation Area and Sourdough Nature Trail.
John said the cemetery was quiet that morning. I didn’t think so. When I closed my eyes all I could hear was a harmony of bird calls spliced with squirrel chirps. Nature’s dialogue was all around me in so many different dialects, and it was a language I couldn’t understand. It was beautiful. I was taken by all of the increasingly unique sounds I heard once I really started listening. But John and I talked, too. We listened and we talked. He has a wealth of information to share and I was overwhelmed, like an over-soaked sponge, trying to absorb his knowledge and ideas – still only a fraction of what he knows and of what I could learn from my own fledgling research and observations. He told me about the birds here in Montana, birds in different areas across the US that he has visited, eastern birds that I am accustomed to seeing, and foreign, exotic birds. We talked about their social habits and their migrating patterns and how different these are for each of the countless different species. We talked about which birds hang around the Northwest all year and which ones migrate.  Each species is unique and fascinating. Some have incredible stories, incomprehensible abilities. The Swainson’s Hawk winters in the Pampas of Argentina and Uruguay. They are a regular nester in the Gallatin Valley and throughout Montana.

John shared a few other amazing birds facts with me. The Bar-tailed Godwit, an unbelievable creature of flight, breeds in Alaska and winters on islands in the South Pacific between Australia and Indonesia. These shorebirds fly non-stop for nine days averaging 40 mph, covering up to 9,100 miles! Pacific Golden Plovers fly from Alaska to Hawaii non-stop, and they can reach speeds of 103-114 mph! Another amazing migrant is the Arctic Tern, which travels  (‘as the crow flies’) 11,000 miles from the Arctic to the Antarctic every year, and then back again. But they don’t fly in a straight line and have been found to cover 49,700 miles in a year! None of these are birds we can see here in Montana, but talking about their magnificence and endurance is inspiring and evokes wonder and curiosity for all birds – and all species for that matter. Being able to go out into nature, observe and learn is a gift.

It’s baffling to ponder the instincts and capabilities of birds. I often wonder where they stop along their journeys. How do they choose their staging areas? I ask John this, and I ask him how often they sleep, and do they build temporary nightly nests? I asked him mostly about recognition, pairs and social structures. Unless they are birds that mate for life, like a lot of raptors do, the flocks generally find each other for migrating and mating purposes and then split again at the end of the season.

There are so many questions and there is so much to learn, as with everything in life, but one thing is certain: Birds’ abilities and instincts for migrating and for daily survival are remarkable. We take birds for granted and we don’t always stop and look up, we don’t always marvel at how incredible and admirable their lives are – not to mention the mere fact that they fly. They soar high above us as we go about our daily lives, and they travel in ways we can never hope to with our human bodies alone. We will never truly know or understand their world, and that is wonderful. That is the beauty of science, nature and wonder – we are forever learning and we will never fully know.  

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