montana

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Story and Photos by Joe Sebastiani, Ashland Nature Center Manager

What happens on a Delaware Nature Society Eco-trip? This spring’s adventure to Montana and Yellowstone featured lots of Black Bear, Grizzlies, Bison babies, over 150 species of birds, and world-class scenery. Throw in a few overnights in haunted hotels, cute mountain towns, and great food, and you have the recipe for an eco-trip to remember for a lifetime.
Forrest Rowland from Rockjumper Birding Tours led the trip. Forrest leads groups around the world, but lives in Montana. Joe Sebastiani, Ashland Nature Center Manager, accompanied the Delaware Nature Society group to experience one of America’s most wild and beautiful areas.  Many fans of the Ashland Hawk Watch know Forrest as the first Hawk Watcher during our 2007 inaugural season.  Now he is in charge of New World Operations for Rockjumper, and a highly sought-after guide.

Richardson’s Ground Squirrel looks like a pint-sized Prairie Dog. This one is barking at our group!

Our trip started in the short-grass prairie ecosystem around Billings, and focused on finding the birds of the region.  Many prairie species are declining, and some of the rare ones take inside knowledge of where to find them.  Luckily, Forrest lives in the area, and is tuned-in to where pockets of decent prairie habitat remains that supports birds.

Some of the highlights include watching the breeding displays Sprague’s Pipit, McCown’s and Chestnut-collared Longspurs as well as Long-billed Curlews chasing Golden Eagles.  Curlew disdain for eagles is known right away, as they scold and chase the larger eagles, America’s most powerful predatory bird, across the prairie.  Rare prairie nesting species we encountered included Ferruginous Hawk and Baird’s Sparrow.  A few species I thought I would never see in my life.

Chestnut-collared Longspurs fly up in the air and parachute back to the ground on wings held high, impressing feathered and human onlookers.

We were lucky to encounter a Plains Hog-nosed Snake which allowed us some close-up looks.

After the prairies, our group ventured into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in southwest Montana.  Our base was Livingston, and we enjoyed the town and hotel as much as the adventures.  The Murray Hotel, downtown, allowed us to experience an old, western, authentic establishment, that is famously haunted, especially on the third floor, where my room was!  After returning from an old burned-over woods containing Lewis’s Woodpeckers, and visiting a wonderful bird feeding station with Evening Grosbeaks, Cassin’s Finches, Red Crossbills, and many others, the Murray awaited.  The rooms were well-appointed in Western and Native American decor.  Old photos of folks dressed in long-ago outfits decorated the walls.  I did not have a supernatural experience that night, but others in the group might have been in touch with the spirit world.

We visited two fantastic feeding stations, allowing opportunities to view hard to find species such as the Evening Grosbeak, a large finch.

Forrest Rowland, our Guide, enters the Murray Hotel in Livingston, with its famously haunted 3rd floor, where my room was.

Our group eagerly awaited Yellowstone National Park.  Large mammals abound, not to mention otherworldly hot springs and geothermal features.  Our first stop was Mammoth Hot Springs, which bubbles up boiling water, creating a beautiful cascade of dissolved limestone that reforms when in contact with the air at the surface.  Said to look like an inside-out cave, Mammoth Hot Springs is a beautiful sight, combined with sulphury smells, hot steam, and swirling colors.

Mammoth Hot Springs

We took one of the longest hikes of the trip here, partially to find Dusky Grouse and Williamson’s Sapsucker.  We found the Grouse by listening for its soft, low, cooing calls, produced by pinkish air sacs on the side of the male’s neck.  Forrest heard it, located it, and had us making concentric circles around the bird, without making eye contact with it, until we were right on top of it, taking a seat feet from the bird.  It went about its business, unconcerned by our proximity, so it seemed.

This male Dusky Grouse allowed us to sit practically next to it, as it made low, soft cooing sounds from the air sacs on its throat.

Along the walk, a few of us were looking at a butterfly, trying to identify it, when a brown figure was seen walking up a side trail towards us.  EEEEK!  It was a bear!  We noticed it when it was about 25 feet away, which is rather close.  We quickly stumbled away from it, walking at first, then moved with a little more urgency towards Forrest, who had the can of bear spray.  Hearts were racing, and there might have been a little pushing, but it turned out to be a young male cinnamon-colored Black Bear, only interested in getting a drink at the nearby creek, and eating some flowers.

This mild-mannered cinnamon Black Bear certainly startled a few of us on the trail, as we did not notice it until it was very close to us.

After our Bear encounter, we moved on to some of the large, open valleys in the park to seek other large forms of wildlife.  One way to do this is to stop where other people are on the side of the road looking at something.  One of our first “wildlife jams” on the road was caused by a mother Grizzly Bear and her two cubs tearing apart an elk that she had just killed.  As we watched them feed (300 yards away through the scope), you could see them tearing meat off the carcass…a brutal reminder there are animals here that are one step higher up the food chain than you.

For many of us, it was the herds of Bison that made the show at Yellowstone.  These hump-backed, woolly cow-like creatures plod around grasslands, roll in the dirt, walk down roadways, butt heads, and move along with young calves, right in front of you.  The calves are extremely cute, and allowed us fabulous looks.

In early June during our trip, it was “Cute Calf Season” for the Bison.

During our last few days in the park, continued our search for wildlife.  Sightings included Coyote, White-tailed Deer, Mule Deer, Bighorn Sheep, Mountain Goats, Moose, Pronghorn, and many species of birds including Harlequin Ducks and Barrow’s Goldeneye which inhabit the fast-moving rivers in the park.  One thing we missed by 10 minutes, however, was Gray Wolf.  We gave it a good effort, but didn’t end up seeing them.

Coyote are apparently more difficult to see in Yellowstone that Gray Wolves. We missed the wolves, but had this Coyote walk right past us.

Finally, although it was early June, we couldn’t leave the Rocky Mountains without at least one shot of snow.  Beartooth Pass, at nearly 11,000 feet in elevation, was closed to vehicular traffic up until the day we needed to cross it.  Finally, on June 3rd, hours after it opened, we ascended to the top.  Snow was falling, as was the thermometer in the car as we climbed.  At the top, the temperature was 31 degrees, the wind howled, and we dressed in every layer we brought.  We drove through canyons of snow 20 feet deep, as the road snaked its way over the barren top of the pass.  Considered one of the most scenic roads in the Lower 48,  it was a perfect way to cap off the adventure to the Montana and Yellowstone National Park.

The weather at Beartooth Pass finally allowed for some blue sky and clouds, after 31 degrees, snow, and high winds earlier in the day.

The next Delaware Nature Society Eco-trip is to Ecuador to see hundreds of species of birds in the Andes Mountains, where you will have the opportunity to surpass the elevation on the Yellowstone trip.  From 13,000 feet down to about 5,000 feet, sample the best of birding, eco-lodges, food, and natural beauty in one of the world’s most bio-diverse countries.  Sign up today!!!