As we roll towards Valentine’s Day, the U.S. as a whole is desperate for signs of spring. Montana is no excpetion. Just this week, Missoula was carpeted with more than 9 inches of snow in one 24-hour span, yet on the list-servs and in conversation the hot topics are the smallest hints of migration and breeding — the Black-capped Chickadees that sing a fuller song, the sudden appearance of Short-Eared Owls in a field or Red-winged Blackbirds at a feeder.
Sometimes we strain a little too hard for these signs. One swallow, we are reminded, does not make a spring (although I’d be impressed by even one swallow right now.) Birds are quirky creatures, and it’s a mistake to assume too much about them. What seems to me an early migrant can in fact be an individual who lingered so long as to overwinter.
And, of course, one location’s migrant is another location’s winter resident. You have to know your territory to know what birds mean. In New York, the appearance of Ring-necked Ducks at Prospect Park was always one of my early-spring tip-offs. But what am I to make of the small flock I saw bobbing on the Clark Fork River a few days ago? The maps and books all call them year-round residents of western Montana, but I hadn’t seen them there before. Are these migrants from further south who may stop off here, winterers shifting about in preparation for a jump into Canada, or full-time Montanans who just wanted a change of scene? It’s impossible for me to say, but I can’t help but wonder.
Which is why I’m so impressed by the Owl Research Institute, and would like to take this time to wish them a happy anniversary. As the article states, 25 years of research continuity is an impressive and valuable thing. It’s hardly novel to say, with these folks and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and many others, that basic patch birding and the natural history work that goes with it still have a critical place in science as well as recreation.
Photo courtesy of Stephen Tuttle, US Fish and Wildlife Service.