You might think that a warm snap would be a welcome occurrence in Montana in January, and I’m not going to lie: it totally is. Nevertheless, when I went out into it, I discovered the walking situation on un-shoveled sidewalks had degenerated from snow on top of packed snow to water on top of ice. This is not a good walking situation.
Still, I really wanted to enjoy the weather, so I perservered. My plan was to make for the riverfront trail through town and thus to the Kim Williams Nature Trail, which had yielded such lovely (and winter-hardy) species as American Dipper, Pileated Woodpecker, and Pygmy Nuthatch in the past.
The birding fates smiled on my plan right away, when a small flock of finches flew out of a bare tree near the river’s edge. Most quickly flew out of sight, but two stragglers proved to be male Cassin’s Finches. This relative of the Purple and House Finches is relatively common around these parts in winter, but it was a new species for me. Needless to say, I was delighted.
My delighted faded a bit as it started to rain, but I continued along the water, adding relatively normal Missoula birds like Northern Flicker, Mallard, Common Merganser, and a nice large murder of American Crows to my list. A flock of Waxwings popped up, but they proved to be Cedar, not Bohemian.
Eventually the rain tapered off, and a good thing too, because as the trail wound past campus and out of town things got really slick really fast. At the start of the Kim Williams trail proper, I found myself nearly stranded on a vast patch of wet ice. After shuffle-skating to safety, I then had to contend with shin-deep snow that had a crust almost — but not quite — sturdy enough to support me.
Having the trail entirely to myself was some consolation. A Great Blue Heron flying past was more. I thought I had spotted another American Crow, but as it turned and called I was able to see the it was in fact a Common Raven — one of two that I’d see that day.
I had no plans to hike any of the side trails that day, for obvious reasons. But as I passed the Hellgate Canyon trail — covered in snow, marked by only a few hardy bootprints — I heard an unfamiliar call.
I tried in vain to spot the birds from where I was. It sounded like there were two of them, and it sounded like they were somewhere along the Hellgate Canyon trail, not very far up. The trail got steep beyond where they were. I was guessing.
It was sort of like this, only covered in snow.
So, I started up. The birds moved higher. I followed them. They moved higher. I told myself that at the next level place I would turn around and go back, partly because I was unwilling to give up, and partly because I wasn’t sure I could turn around where the trail wasn’t level. But when I came to the next level place, they’d moved higher again, and so did I.
Just when I was starting to feel like I was being stupid, one of the birds decided to take a break from luring me to my doom. It perched on the very tip of a pine and called, holding its pose long enough for me to identify a Townsend’s Solitaire, my second life bird of the day.
Obviously, I made it back down the trail safely, and the rest of the trip was free of death-defying stunts, although it did feature large flocks of Black-billed Magpies and a handsome adult Bald Eagle. And, in a twist that I should have foreseen, another pair of Solitaires, these safely visible from level ground. Still, if I had been sensible, it wouldn’t be much of a story, would it?
The Hellgate Canyon Trail is a good place to look for Northern Three-toed Woodpeckers.
Carrie, The trails here in Southeastern Ohio are much the same right now. Those that dare the ice and snow covered trails can see the most beautiful frozen waterfalls, though! I say the treacherous journey is worth it but alas, many will not dare. Thank you for your tenacity and wonderful stories!
You’re going to be a great writer, Carrie. You had me hooked all the way up the trail! Thanks!
Great post, Carrie.
Lifers always feel better when they are properly earned, so, in a way, it is good that you had to risk a death-hike.
However, I must point out that you clearly misidentified the solitaires that you found in pairs. I mean, that’s not even possible, is it?
Hmmm, sounds like me going birding, except for the fact that your mysterious birds turned out to be (life) Townsend’s Solitaires, whereas in my world they would not have stopped going up until reaching the tree line and then turned out to be a pair of House Finches.
Thanks for such a slick story!