It’s been beautiful here in Montana lately. By beautiful, I mean too cold, too gray, and as always too dry, but full of birds.

The list serv is burning up with news of a vagrant (we hope, and dutifully analyzed for traces of cage wear) Harris Hawk, movements of White-winged Crossbills and Pine Grosbeaks, Northern Pygmy Owls popping out of the shrubbery, and other winter goodies. The only action I’ve personally benefited from so far, however, is the descent of Common Redpolls onto our fair state in vast numbers.

I spotted my life Common Redpolls on campus this week. As I walked, I heard an odd note, loosely reminiscent of an American Goldfinch but different enough to demand that I stop and check it out. The birds were in a low ornamental tree, and though they soon spooked on the busy path between the University Center and the library, I got a good enough look to be quite confident that these were the iconic birds that I’d waited thirty years in vain to see at the feeders on the Olde Homestead. A few days later, I saw them again, in some brush on the edge of campus near the nature trail. It seems as though they’re planning to be regulars, much to my delight.

This, of course, is wonderful in itself, but it also gives me high hopes for the future. First, the hope that I can lure them to my feeder and count them as yard birds, even (God help you all) try to photograph them. And second, the omnipresent hope of Hoary Redpolls. Already I’m seeing reports that these Common Redpolls are bringing the customary handful of their paler cousins in their wake. It’s been a long time since I’ve had the perversely enjoyable, almost meditative experience of scanning through dozens or hundreds of similar-looking birds for that one special something — three years since I’ve been to Jamaica Bay during shorebird season, four or five since the winters when I was standing in the mud combing flocks of American Goldfinch for a Pine Siskin that never showed (Montana has since offered me Pine Siskin in abundance — thanks again, Montana!) Without activities like that, I feel that my birding has suffered, although maybe it’s just my self-image as a patient and observant naturalist that has taken the hit when my life birds keep practically dropping onto the sidewalk in front of me. A little winter discipline and hard work may be just the thing.

Preferably at my feeder, so I can stay inside while I do it, because it is still too cold.


Prepare for something almost this beautiful, but with more stripes.

Written by Carrie
Carrie Laben, after years of writing and birding in New York, moved to Montana to pursue her two great passions more effectively. She recently graduated with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Montana in Missoula. When she is not cranking out essays and speculative fiction stories, or wandering around on mountains failing to see the birds she is looking for, she is likely to be drinking one of the many fine local microbrews or attending a potluck with something from the local farmer’s market in hand. On Mondays from 3 to 3:30 Mountain Time you can find her answering questions about birds on live chat at