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Nov 23 2015

Wetland Wanderings

A group on an MWA Wilderness Walk bond over bird sightings and other wildlife encounters

Exploring Montana, Featured

On the day of our “Wetland Wanderings” Wilderness Walk, autumn winds carried their first leaves of the season, adding to the challenge of spotting birds during fall migration. We started about eight miles west of Kalispell on Kila Pub's back porch for a morning briefing. Looking out towards wisps of green, yellow, and gold willow, we made our first sighting of the day – a heron perched on the root wad of a downed bog birch.

As the walk began, we became observers, constantly scanning and glassing. Much like elk hunting, the process of keying in on a sighting includes a slow, rhythmic forearm swing up with binoculars in hand. We worked the edge of the wetlands, where the red osier dogwood was thick, identifying riparian plant species. Those of us focusing in on movement, clues, and distinguishing features of wetland birds of prey found it a bit trickier because of the weather.

One of the children on the walk, flaming auburn hair flying, broke into an excited laugh as we watched a female harrier hunt. When not diving here and there into the nooks and crannies of the marsh, the marsh hawk hovered, her wings beating. It was marvelous how she negotiated the twenty-something mile-an-hour wind gusts.
Meanwhile, one of our sharp-eyed participants spotted red winged blackbirds and a Hairy woodpecker.

Isn't it funny how there can be a flurry of action, participants sharing sightings all over the place, then quietness?

We moved on to the next spot, where almost immediately one participant spotted a black bear ballerina in elderberry, moving precariously while curling her claws around the blue-black luscious fruit. We left our ballerina in peace and headed over Haskill Pass to Pleasant Valley.

Shaped like a huge trough, the valley of Douglas firs and Ponderosas held shrub-wetland habitat. Even deeper within were tiny islands of muskrat mounds, and long fingers of rocky outcrops with almost Palouse prairie-like grasses and sedge. We found a few muskrat and otter tracks and scat. Amphibious critters slithered, and salamanders made an occasional appearance, much to the joy of our child naturalist.

We headed up to the rim rock, where bluebirds streaked across the light tan of the terrain. We spotted something white far off in the distance but couldn’t see well in the wind with our hats flying off. We had to find a better vantage point. We found a spot out of the wind and were thrilled to realize that what we were seeing were Trumpeter Swans at the edge of a lake. Montana is home to one of two remaining nesting areas in our region. The birds often nest on bulrush islands or old beaver lodges. We identified two male adults, two female adults, and two cygnets (young trumpeters).

Our last loop involved a short hike into mosaics of mud where we looked for sign, scat, and tracks. We found mink scat, heron feathers, and fox tracks, as well as elk, deer, and coyote tracks. We spotted flickers drilling horizontally in the bog birches. As the wind died down, we heard a Pileated woodpecker in the distance of the lowlands..

Sharing snacks back at the rigs, we excitedly recorded our best finds and flicked through pictures on our cameras. If the Old Indian Legend holds – that all who share unique sightings and wildlife interactions are bonded for life – then we had bonded many times that day. Then, like a separating flock of birds, we all went our separate ways.

- Brian Baxter, Wilderness Walks leader