Utter destruction

Turns out a good snow year means bad vole damage:

Voles, also known as field mice, are a little rodent that looks like a short-tailed, tiny-eared mouse. They are quite cute but really destructive. It’s a good thing there are plenty of predators around here, including our killer feline.

The cool thing about the damage is that it illuminates the invisible world beneath the snow layer in what’s called the subnivean zone. That’s fancy-talk for under-snow zone. The snow creates a surprisingly insulating layer over the ground, so many animals stay away during the winter months, living in burrows between the soil and the snow. It’s pretty cool! I’d post some links, but you can google subnivean as well as I can. Get after it!


Today is a wonderful day. After two bluebird ski days we arrived back home to be greeted by the first butterfly of the spring. A happy (I presume) Milbert’s Tortoiseshell was flitting along the driveway’s edge. I tried to get a picture but scared it off up the hill. The sun retreated too, which grounded the little guy.

Seeing the first butterfly, which is almost always the Milbert, got me thinking about spring butterfly appearance. I’ve always wondered why on occasional warm days in March or so, sometimes you see a butterfly. Did you know that some butterflies hibernate? When it gets warm enough, they will emerge, only to hunker down when it gets cold again. That’s why you see the random butterfly before winter has fully lost its grip.

Despite the scientific explanation, I still like to think of butterflies as visitors from the Thin Space. As Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross said, “Death is simply a shedding of the physical body like the butterfly shedding its cocoon.” Angels. I like it.

And ladies and gentlemen, we have robins!

Two nights ago I arrived home to the noisy chatter of robins in the trees above our house. And this morning, letting the critters out early - and chasing them chasing the elk - I heard them again. Not just chattering, but one even singing a little. It was a hilarious sound. Like he had forgotten the tune. Not the relentlessly random and endless string of notes you hear from a more experienced bird - one that’s been singing most of the spring. But broken bits of song. Fits and starts. I may be making up the possibility that a robin wouldn’t sing all winter and then would have be out of practice each spring. But it’s a fun thought.

Also noticed: heard red-winged blackbirds in the wetland a few days ago. A juvenile bald eagle with a small clump of nesting material. Note the mottled appearance of the not-yet-bald juvy.

Noisy Neighbors - and elusive...

Last night they showed up! D. came home at 6:15 and brought us all outside to listen to the distant calls. Can you name that tune? Sandhill cranes in the third pasture! They show up every spring and come and go throughout the summer. I am always hopeful that they will stay and nest. Maybe this year? Montana is one of the few places in the lower US where sandhill cranes breed. They mostly head north to Canada or Alaska. Anyway, I headed out to see if I could find them this morning but only found their tracks. Check out how big they are. That’s my lens cap:


Snow Fleas - Scooped

The other day - a glorious sunny, warm one - we saw that the snow fleas had come out, speckling the surface of the snow with bouncing black bits, and I thought, “What a great thing to blog about!” So, I pulled out the ol’ computer to see what’s out there on the interwebs about snow fleas and I found a great blog post all about them. Darn. The author did a fabulous and comprehensive job of covering the topic, so I’m not even going to bother trying to be creative and do my own. Check out the Hudson Valley Geologist’s blog post here.


Waiting for Robins

As I let the dogs out this morning, I thought I saw a robin silhouetted against the gray morning sky. No way! It’s time! But…no. As it retreated, the distinctive white spot on its rump indicated it was only a flicker. Darn.

I was disappointed, but also excited. It’s not just time for the robins to return; it’s time for me to start waiting for them. We’ve had such an incredibly wintery winter that it almost didn’t even occur to me that it’s April. I’m usually tuned in to looking out for the daily spring arrivals halfway into March. Instead, I’ve been watching weather reports and looking out for more powder! It’s been fun, but after two days of major snowmelt - and a rather slushy ski day yesterday - I’m switching gears.

This morning was not only a reminder that spring will inevitably come back, but it was a reminder that despite the mud, it’s possibly my favorite time of year. And also a reminder that I like to pay attention and note what I’m seeing. So, I’ll give the ol’ blog another go and see if I sustain it beyond, well, who knows…


May Mating

This weekend I brought binos along on my morning walk and got a great look at the eagle’s nest. The female was in the nest with only her head visible. The male was perched on a branch about five feet away. The nest was massive. Based on the fact that a bald eagle is about 3 feet long from head to tail, I estimate that the nest was about 6 feet deep and 8 feet wide. Eagles often use nests over and over again, and I wonder if they built upon an existing nest.

Reading about eagles I discovered that they are monogamous for a lifetime. Other regional birds that mate for life include geese, swans, and some owls. Though they don’t all mate for life, it has been estimated that around 90% of birds are monogamous for at least a mating season. Recent studies suggest, however, that while most birds are socially monogamous (maintaining a paired relationship for child-rearing), they may not be sexually monogamous and often have what’s known as “extra-pair copulations”. Here is an interesting essay about that topic, as well as a book by the same author.

Bird spottings: Northern Harrier, Ruby-crowned Kinglet (!!), Mountain Bluebird, Killdeer, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Hungarian (or Gray) Partridge (thanks to Dave’s eagle eye).

Waterfowl Visitors

A beautiful bluebird sky today! Today there were a couple visitors on the pond. The first duck I noticed was bright brick red Cinnamon Teal. The picture doesn’t do it justice. It’s feathers were shimmering in the sun and it looked so bright.

I got to wondering what makes bird feathers so remarkably beautiful and found a couple interesting bits of information from the Cornell site. Basically, feathers get their color from pigmentation and/or structure. Pigmentation is the result of special color-producing substances. Pigmentation is what colors human skin, for instance. An interesting study at Yale University shows that pigment cells can actually remain in fossils, allowing scientists to see original color patterns on 100 million-year-old creatures! In the future, they hope to be able to determine which pigments are in the fossils to be able to re-create the actual colors of long-extinct feathered animals.

The other way feathers get their color is from their structure. For instance, prismatic structure in hummingbird throat feathers allow the light to refract, creating iridescent colors. Another structural effect is the vivid blues that we see in Bluebirds or Steller’s Jays. This comes from tiny bubbles in the feather cell structure. The tiny bubbles are formed in a similar way as beer foam is formed (read more here).

There were about a dozen Green-winged Teal on the pond too. Being visitors, they are much shyer when approached by me and my three dogs. They lifted off and began an incredibly synchronized acrobatic flight above the property, seeking a less vulnerable spot to rest. Teal often gather in large flocks as they fly and their twisting masses are fun to watch. They’ve been flying around Big Sky proper and resting in the water storage ponds. Keep your eyes out for them.

The last visitor I noticed was a lone Bufflehead, stuck in the brood pond. We have a large scale mesh covering stretched across the 10’ by 20’ brood pond to keep osprey and eagles and the like from harvesting the tiny fish we grow to stock the pond. Every now and then, other critters get stuck in there. The Bufflehead made an easy escape by swimming up and through the open entrance gate. I was relieved he didn’t try to get up and fly.

Happy May Day!

Catching Up

It’s already late April, so I feel like there is a bit of catching up to do. Like most years, the first American Robins showed up around the first of the month, though they are not yet waking us with their noisy early morning mating songs. As the snow melted, conveniently just at the end of the ski season, the year-round juncos started frequenting our driveway seeking exposed insects and gathering grit for digestion. (I often watch them through our picture window, inspiring this blog’s title.) About a week ago, I heard the first spring song of one of my favorite birds: the Ruby-crowned Kinglet. These birds are practically invisible—I’ve only seen one a couple times in my life—but their song is huge and unmistakable. Listen for it throughout the summer.

Yesterday we also spotted a Bald Eagle carrying an impressively large branch towards a nest south of our house on the steep forested slopes. There are eagle nests there nearly every year, which is not surprising considering the ample dead snags and proximity to the abundant Gallatin River.

On April 20th we were visited by a pair of Sandhill Cranes. I was so glad to have my kids with me on my walk that day. The cranes were on the pond with the more regular mallards and geese. As we approached, they lifted off with a racket and we got a great view of their size—a six-foot wingspan is pretty striking from 50 feet away!

Speaking of the pond, the mallards and geese continue to hang out in pairs daily, though we probably won’t see ducklings or goslings for another month.

April 17th we saw our first butterflies: lots of Milbert’s Tortoiseshell and a Mourning Cloak. They flitted about for several days of >60 degree weather, but have since hunkered down again to wait out this latest cold snap. I expect to see some little blues with the next warm weather.

Somewhere mid-April we also saw the first crocus in our garden bloom. Though they aren’t native, their emergence reminds us to start looking around for the first blooms elsewhere in our environs. Sure enough, yesterday we found our first native wildflower, a little yellow buttercup, poignently on the anniversary of Dave’s mother’s death. The only other signs of wildflower life are the emerging leaves of a forb I have yet to identify. I’ll keep you posted…

The elk continue to visit the property, sending the dogs into a frenzy every time they notice. Last night there were about 30 on the hillside behind the house, looking pretty shabby as they shed their winter coats. We even spotted one male with little two-point antlers covered in spring velvet.

I think that gets us up to speed so far. Future posts should hopefully be short and sweet, with highlights from a few days rather than for a whole month. I hope I can point you to things to look out for, so be sure to get out yourself and let me know what you see too!

WJ Introduction

This is the first post from my old blog about nature. I live in SW Montana and am outside in some capacity every day. When you’re outside in SW Montana, you pretty much can’t avoid nature. This works out great for me, because I love simply walking around and observing the natural world around me. Today, as I was taking a morning walk and mentally noting the latest natural happenings, the thought occurred to me that I should blog about it. So here we are.

One thing I am particularly interested in is the timing of things. My family and I love to note the firsts of the season: first robin, first butterfly, first flower, etc. Now that I know that monitoring the timing of natural events is actually an important scientific effort (phenology), I sure wish we had actually recorded our observations over the years. (Believe it or not, amateur nature watchers are becoming increasingly instrumental in phenological efforts and in some cases, can contribute significant data supporting concepts like climate change. More on that later.) So, anyway, this will be a place where I will keep track of some of those observations. Hope you enjoy it!