What Winter Wonders Wait?
Just before I left for Italy, I took a trip to the Lee Metcalf Wildlife Refuge for a healthy dose of migration. It was loaded with waterfowl – lots of Mallards and Green-winged Teal, a few Gadwalls and Northern Shovelers, a solitary Pintail and an equally lonesome Eared Grebe, and of course tons of my old favorite the American Coot (or as I like to call them, the Devil’s chickens.) No Snow Geese or swans yet, and no Sandhill Cranes, but it did renew my taste for some of the simpler, homier pleasures of birding.
With all my traipsing about this year I’ve actually been shamefully lax on birding Montana. Montana offers little in the way of flamingos, generally speaking. But that’s not to say that I don’t still love it here. And there are already signs that this winter will be a promising time, if I can squeeze in a little birding between writing my thesis and figuring out what I’m going to do after I’m ejected from the warm womb of academia back into the cold, cruel world:
Last year’s amazing invasion of Snowy Owls is unlikely to be topped, but in Montana that’s no reason for despair. There’s always the possibility of Great Gray Owls, Northern Pygmy Owls, and Boreal Owls moving south and/or downhill in the colder months. Most exciting, there are already hints that Northern Hawk Owls may be on the move (although of course, one stray does not an irruption make.) Among the diurnal raptors the Ospreys are mostly gone now, but Bald Eagles are starting to congregate, and no matter how many times you see it, it’s hard to get bored of a mass occupation of Bald Eagles (although I will defer to my Alaskan comrades if they claim this is possible.) And the Rough-legged Hawks should be here any time now, maybe bringing — dare I hope? — a Gyrfalcon or two along.
It’s not only the big, predatory birds that I have to look forward to. I’ve seen Evening Grosbeaks on and off since my first magical encounter with them, and folks I talked to in my master naturalist class confirmed that this is one of the best years for the species in Missoula in a decade, both in frequency of sightings and in size of the flocks. Given the Evening Grosbeak’s notorious decline, I can’t help but be happy about that, even if it’s just a demographic hiccup. Other nifty winter passerines are starting to pop up too — I haven’t seen one myself yet, but the local mailing list is showing earlier-than-usual sightings of Gray-crowned Rosy Finch in several locations. Red Crossbills (or whatever they’ve been split into this week) are also making a showing, and Blue Jays, which out here count as a winter treat, are already turning up as well.
Is this the year that I finally get a crossbill of some sort on my life list? Will a Northern Hawk Owl come perch on my roof? Will I at least finally manage to get all three varieties of Dark-eyed Junco in focus in one photo? Stay tuned to find out.
Didn’t have much luck with juncos last year.