Meet the birds that don’t fly south for the winter
When we hear the term “snowbirds,” many of us think of the people who escape the cold and overcast skies by heading south for a spell. Birdwatchers, however, think of the small but hearty group of actual birds that stick out the winter here in Western Montana. Birding is a great way to spend the winter months. It requires no formal training and provides a great excuse to get outside when the dreary weather doldrums begin to take hold. Winter’s white backdrop and bare tree branches also make it easier to spot the birds. Here is a list of five birds to keep your eyes peeled for this winter and hints on the best locations to start your search.
Your confidence as a birder will rise like the crest of the Hooded Merganser once you learn to identify this small distinctive duck. Like many breeds of birds the male and female look nothing alike, but the female Hooded Merganser does not take a backseat to the male when it comes to flair and their characteristic crest of feathers. The crest on the male is mostly white and looks like a stripe when lowered and a three-quarter moon when raised. The female’s crest is cinnamon and feathery, sweeping back with a flourish from her forehead. Many ducks migrate south but Hooded Mergansers brave the cold providing us with a colorful sight on a bleak winter day. Look for them in wooded ponds and on small rivers at the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge in Stevensville and the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge, located in Charlo.
Large, sleek, and seemingly always on the hunt, the Northern Harrier is the quintessential raptor. Voles are their main diet, and they are often seen gliding low to the ground, hunting in open grasslands and meadows. At first glance, they look like most hawks but the best clue to spotting one is the distinctive white rump patch, present on both males and females. The male is pale gray with black wing tips whereas females are larger and dark brown. A facial disk gives them an owl-like appearance and they even hunt similarly to owls—with sound—and are the only hawk to do so. Spot them gliding over fields along Mullan Road and at the National Bison Range.
Great Horned Owl
Dusk sets in as you finish a snowshoeing adventure in Pattee Canyon. Suddenly, the quiet is pierced by a chilling hoo, hoo-hoo hoo, hoo; you sense something large overhead but see nothing. One of the world’s largest owls just swept in to say, “Hello.” Great Horned Owls stay in Missoula all year and are one of the easiest birds to identify, thanks to their namesake “horns”—tufts of feathers. These great owls also have dense bars of feathers on their undersides and brown facial disks with piercing yellow eyes. Despite their nocturnal ways, they give us plenty of chances to see them, especially during dawn or dusk, roosting in trees at river bottoms and in pine forests. To help locate a roost, look on the ground below a ponderosa pine for the oval gray pellets regurgitated by owls after a meal. Find a pellet below and look up; one may be looking down at you. Greenough Park is a good place to start.
“Pileated” means crested and the bright red crest of this crow-sized woodpecker is its defining feature. The male’s crest is entirely red while on the female the red starts farther back from her forehead. The males also have a red mustache. Often, the Pileated Woodpecker is heard long before it’s seen. Their familiar drum on the trunk of a dead tree or log begins slowly and powerfully before trailing off at the end. Now, look high on a cottonwood or western larch for a large black red-crowned bird skirting the trunk looking for its favorite food: carpenter ants. Look and listen for the Pileated Woodpecker at Traveler’s Rest State Park and Council Grove State Park.
The Bohemian Waxwing, a medium-sized songbird, swoops down in large flocks onto shrubs such as mountain ash and efficiently strips the branches bare of the season’s last remaining berries before moving on to the next food source. The name “bohemian” refers to these bird’s nomadic movements as they seek out food. Look for flocks in river bottoms among the branches of juniper, holly, and winterberry. They are a gray-crested bird with a dark mask, giving them a thief-like appearance, and the tip of their tail appears as if it were dipped in bright yellow paint. To find them, follow the length of the river at Maclay Flat or check out the bushes on Kelly Island.