A Southern Boreal Journey, the First Leg
It had been awhile since being on the road. There had been a day or two here and there, with a few days on the coast, but mostly, since last year’s big trip, travel was limited to the confines of the home county. Not that the county was such a terrible place to bird, finding new life birds there was essentially impossible. The home county offered only Flammulated Owl, and it wasn’t giving away a single hoot to my ears.
The road trip did offer Flammulated Owls and more. The new journey would begin with travel from southern Oregon to western Washington, east to northeastern Montana, up to Calgary, Alberta, Banff and Kootenay National Parks and back across northern Washington before returning home. We set aside about a month for a hunt of 12 target species, potential life species. Most of the targeted birds breed in the northern United States and southern Canada. This was to be our southern boreal trip.
6 July 2006
Yesterday, during the throes of packing the car, I pause a moment while sitting behind the steering wheel of the garage bound birdmobile. A familiar yet strange wave of anxiety sweeps through me. Or, was it so strange? Zugunruhe! Am I experiencing zugunruhe, a well-known behavior in ornithological literature in the 50s that means premigratory restlessness in birds? Not being a bird, behaviors such as disruptions in sleep patterns, weight gain or physiological changes are not readily apparent. Admittedly, I have had to adjust the old belt out one more hole, which may be more a symptom of old male men more than tanking up on food for a long migratory journey. Zugunruhe did, the night before departure, swell my brain of expectations to the point of difficulty sleeping. If placed in a cage, my feet wet with ink, I might have scratched marks on the paper floor just as birds did during early studies of zugenruhe. Certainly, I would have indicated pending flight northward.
The first day begins with quick clearing out perishables in the refrigerator. It is no fun coming home to a half gallon of thoroughly brewed milk or blue hairy oranges and amoeba wanna-be lettuce. The next step is ascertaining the cat, named Cat, has plenty of food and water in the respective automatic dispensers. A relative will periodically come to bring her to a purr and change her litter box. We check window locks for the fourth time before the garage door flies open. We back out, and aim northward on Interstate 5.
With little to do on the all too familiar route, my mind wonders about the few hybrid cars we pass. Why do they seem styled to look ugly? I suppose that in time the hybrids will blend in with the other models and hope that hybrids will someday be the norm, but not so ugly. Few cars of any kind pass; am I driving too fast. Some of the rarely passing drivers sit low in the seat or are they just little guys trying to look tough and cool? Avoiding eye contact, my eyes bore straight down the lane. Maybe some of these cool low riders are working the I 5 drug pipeline. Mules? If there were a caravan of them, would that make a mule train? Then, there are the thankfully few vehicles with fancy wheel covers, the kind that sparkle like jewels and continue turning when the vehicle stops. I consider what the older generation thought of my rally striped VW when I birded across the country in the 60s. Being different or at least not too different should be all right. Of course, what is “too” different?
Most everyone on the road is probably comforted that most everyone else was practicing normal safe driving. A few may be attempting bird identification, a slightly safer avocation than that practiced by the driving cell phone junky or worse, the make-up artist and newspaper readers I often dodged during the commute to the museum. Before pulling into the night’s lodging, I do not use the phone and count 12 species of birds, two at a rest stop and 10 daring to fly over the rushing interstate.
The next three days are in Puyallup, Washington, at our hosts, Jim and Carolyn Nelson, long-time friends of Linda. Jim is a retired pediatrician, who helped Linda’s son, born a victim of a medically inept delivery years earlier. Not being a person for sitting around talking, Jim whisks me over to Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, three thousand acres of salt and freshwater marshes and forest habitat of the Nisqually River Delta in southern Puget Sound. The refuge was established in 1974, about the time Linda lived in Tacoma, and three years after I was practicing ornithology at Smithsonian. It is a cooperative between the Nisqually Indians, and the Fish and Wildlife Service. In the 1970s, Tacoma wanted to build a port in the delta. Instead, the refuge was established and was enlarged by the Nisqually Indians purchasing an expensive dairy farm, land that was once theirs in the first place. It was humbling to feel the history and nature of this teeming delta.
We are a long way from the headwaters of Nisqually River in Mt. Rainier National Park. Here, near sea-level, the bluish-white opaque glacial fed water is quiet and clear as it filters through the marsh grasses. I don’t expect to find any life birds here, but it is the first real birding since leaving home. It’s a great place to get the trip list in gear. Serenading Swainson’s Thrush and Yellow Warblers fill the riparian wood. The warblers, now victims of the beef and milk industry, interrupt singing to feed cowbirds, a species showing up in the Pacific Northwest after human settlement. Cliff Swallows swarm the open sky near remnants of the old dairy farm, two identical barns hosting adobe nests of thousands of birds. Out on a marsh dike, we hear a Virginia Rail, and are shown video of it taken by a local birder whose military wife had been deployed to Iraq. The peaceful delta, now watched over by all seems in heavy contrast to the war-torn cradle of civilization.
One of the species Nisqually has to offer but was not seen is Marsh Wren. Oh, I’ve seen Marsh Wrens at many localities, but Marsh Wrens here represent a different subspecies. Back in the days of the museum, I discovered that Marsh Wrens breeding from southwestern British Columbia to the Puget Sound were noticeably grayer than other coastal subspecies. Specimens from those lowlands also are less black on the crown and back. These differences warranted naming a new subspecies, but I just did not have the time to write a manuscript required to name formally the new Marsh Wrens. I sent my notes somewhat later to Amadeo Rea, former curator at San Diego Museum of Natural History, when he wrote that he was writing the taxonomy of the Pacific lowland Marsh Wrens for Allan R. Phillip. My notes were just collecting dust, and I was happy to share what I discovered with Amadeo. Later, 1986, Allan’s book, Known Birds of North and Middle America, Part I, included a formal description by Amadeo of a new Marsh Wren named Cistothorus palustris browningi.
The next day Jim, urgently behind the wheel, chauffeurs Linda and me to the Tacoma Glass Museum, featuring works by Dale Chihuly and a hot auditorium for observing glass making. A coordinated team of young apprentices labored next to red-hot glass and hotter ovens. Casual birding in Tacoma and near Pt. Defiance bags us Glaucous-winged Gull and Caspian Tern. Later, back at the Nelsons quiet home and just before servings of Salmon cooked on cedar slates, an Anna’s Hummingbird and three uninvited neighborhood cats pay homage to flowers and fish respectively.
On the morning of 9 July, Jim returns from a very early trip to the airport where he had delivered his son Mark, a successful retinal eye surgeon, who was on his way to Iraq. Not ready for calm, Jim asks if I’m up for a trip to Mt. Rainier National Park. Loving Mt. Rainier since first seeing it in 1959, being anywhere near its massive slope is a prize of life. I am ready in 10 minutes.
We head for a remote western entrance to the end of a dusty gravel road ending at the shore of Mowich Lake. Even though it is Sunday, I expect this off-the-beaten track site will be isolated. It isn’t but hopes for a glance at a White-tailed Ptarmigan are high. Spray Park is a place to search for ptarmigan, according to my trusty ABA finding guide. However, Jim opts for the opposite direction, and we hike northwest to Eunice Lake, away from the grand Mt. Rainier.
Every bend of the trail is breathtaking, partly from the beauty and mostly from trying to keep up with Jim’s quickened pace. Sporting a tan fishing vest, similar to the one I wear as my birding vest, Jim rushes forward. On the back of his vest reads “Dr. Marathon.” My unadorned vest, loaded with DEET, compass, pen and paper, camera, food and water, could have read “Dr. Slow.” We push onward and upward, although I am pushing more than Jim, to tiny Eunice Lake, an arresting mountain pool 600 feet below rocky Tolmie Peak. By then, my blood sugar craves some repair, and my feet want a rest. The only way to stop the momentum is for me to announce firmly that I was stopping. Doctor Go acts reluctant, but seems to appreciate the rest. After a gulp and a sip and we are on our way up to the lookout on Tolmie Peak until Jim checks his watch. It is time to turn around. Instead, should we sprint to the summit? Not being sure whether my 62 year-old knees would last for the descent, I encourage a return to the trailhead at Mowich Lake. Fortunately, returning to the trailhead is relatively easy. Although the trail to the lake is not steep, it is fast as we continue the marathon.
The gathering of assorted vehicles parked along the road near the lake and more jockeying for space surprise me. By now, sounds of people overpower the singing Dipper foraging amid the bubbling water exiting Mowich Lake. Dust kicked up by tires and boots of those frantic to pack in a wilderness hour or two before sundown coats the windshield of our waiting ride. I shudder to think about the crowds at the more accessible visitor centers on other slopes of Mt. Rainier. About 100 million more people exist in the United States than when I began birding and their weight comes down heavy on many National Parks. Today there are more birders and more people wanting and needing to experience nature. Unfortunately, the pace of preserving any remaining wilderness is slow at best while the increase of recreating population grows exponentially. Perhaps I should say procreating population. There are too many people.
Jim and I arrive at his home just minutes after dinner guests appear from nearby Fircrest, a bedroom community of Tacoma. After dusty handshaking and sweaty greetings, we excuse ourselves in order to become tolerable for dinner. I was sorry to report to Linda that I barely glimpsed any birds, let alone a ptarmigan, but glad to see her enjoying catching up with her old 1970s friends, Pat and Earl Drangstveit.
Jim set off for one of his volunteer sites where he continues to practice medicine. Linda and I enjoy an insisted hearty breakfast served by Carolyn. Wishing to get going, we break away around mid-morning, miss our highway junction somehow, backtrack, and finally pull into the parking lot at Sunrise Village on the northeast side of Mt. Rainier. Before we shut the car door, we hear the unfamiliar strains of a bird dominating the sounds of awe struck park visitors working their cameras. Making our way toward the singer, our eyes whirl from left to right in order to have a wide-angle memory of the giant mountain. The performer is a Fox Sparrow, but certainly not the Fox Sparrow we know so well near our home now a few hundred miles in southwestern Oregon. The bird we are hearing might be called some kind of Fox-Sparrow. Fox hyphen Sparrow. The magical hyphen would appear if and when the AOU hails these birds as full bore species. That is when the hyphen also becomes annoying because many indices will send the reader, if polite, to Fox-Sparrow since it will no longer be listed under Sparrow. The same will possibly happen to Seaside-Sparrow and others, should they be taxonomically split. It has already happened to Screech-Owl and a few others. That little hyphen creates problems when looking up birds. Not really appreciating its necessity, I often would prefer not to use it, despite what Kenneth Parkes proposed in his paper “A guide to forming and capitalizing compound names of birds in English” that appeared in the 1978 Auk, volume 95. Incidentally, most ornithological journals do not capitalize most words in the titles of papers. “Gone with the Wind,“ in an ornithological paper, would be rendered as “Gone with the wind.” Anyway, the AOU adopted the idea of hyphenating bird names, but the evolution of hyphenated names often leads to deleting the hyphen and forming one compound word, such as Kennethparkes. Works for me. Not really.
The convenience of nomenclature changes from time to time. During my day job, stirring facts and specimens for some sort of handle on current ornithological truth, which as we all know changes with time, I was exposed to names not recognized in this or in the previous century. The oldest tome I consulted was 1648 because of 20th Century confusion of the proper binomial to bestow on what we now know as the Neotropic Cormorant. Of course, over my years, there were consultations of unknown magnitude to Nineteenth Century English volumes of Latham and Bonaparte (the nice one), German works by Cabanis, French treatises by Vieillot and long and short tomes of Lichtenstein, Wagler, Lesson and many others. The authors named many of our North American species, and the common names, if used, and scientific names sometimes had little resemblance to current nomenclature. With so many authors publishing so many names, sometimes unknowingly for the same bird, synonymies, lists of names, including the published source of the name, became very important. Eventually, I committed to memory many of the synonyms. Centuries ago, all woodpeckers were in the genus Picus and many sparrows, including the Fox, were in the genus Fringilla. Even though many species of hawks were in the genus Falco, that historic genus actually once represented birds from more than one family. Thanks to later works by Robert Ridgway and others, thorough synonymies allow us today to know what bird someone back as far as the Eighteenth Century was referring. Then there was the problem of taxonomic sequences, none of which resemble a current AOU or ABA checklist. Taxonomic sequences, which early ornithologists customarily based “on current ornithological truth“ of the day, have changed considerably as our knowledge grows to point to today’s ornithological truth.
The truth that now positions ducks at the head of the linear list of birds may change. It may maintain ducks at the head of the list and it may give us four species of Fox hyphen Sparrows. Almost a dozen years ago, I complained in a paper appearing in the journal Oregon Birds (vol. 21) that Bob Zink’s publications on the subject sparrow was based on too few specimens. Today, because of more information from more specimens and localities, and improved techniques used to sort out genetics, it may be more than prudent to bring out the hyphen for what are surely four species. Of course, more data may reveal interbreeding where the supposed different Fox Sparrows come in contact. Maybe we have four groups of distinct subspecies that need more time to evolve into our present species concept. As for the bird Linda and I hear singing at Mt. Rainier, it is, if I may go off the record, a Sooty-colored Fox-Sparrow, a northern relative to our familiar southern Oregon Thick-billed Fox-Sparrow. On my life list, it remains simply Fox Sparrow, at least for now.
Charlie Wright, a master birder known as the person who knows, or has a more than a good idea where to bird in Washington, replied to my query about finding White-tailed Ptarmigan in Mt. Rainier National Park. He emailed that “Ptarmigans are very much hit or miss– more often miss. I’ve hiked up there looking for them maybe 15 times, and seen them 4 times. On the Sunrise side, I have seen ptarmigans once (a female with a chick) in July on the saddle between First and Second Burroughs Mountains. The trail to Mount Fremont is another place where they are occasionally seen. It’s best to hike up very early, before many hikers cause them to move away from the trails.” His reply was in May. Wishing for current news, I check the visitor center for sightings. The ranger hands me a map and said ptarmigan had been seen from the Mt. Fremont Lookout Trail, a distance of 5.6 miles and the Burroughs Mountain Trail, a distance of 4.8 miles to First Burroughs Mountain. Both trails had 900 feet elevation gains. According to the ranger, each trail requires the same time to hike, and that the first trail had some treacherous snow covering a section. Having left my ice ax, well, home, where my late parents lived, decades ago, I opt for the less slippery Burroughs Mountain Trail.
Linda’s foot was not going to allow the trek. I kiss her and tell I will be back in about three hours. What I did not realize was that the trail to First Burroughs first went down before it went up and three hours might be pushing it. I also did not look at the back side of the supplied map until much later. A heading on the sheet above the listing of the trail read “Strenuous Trails.” Fortunately, I didn’t realize the category at the time.
About where the trail begins to descend to Sunrise Camp, a Sooty Grouse’s low pulsating call shudders somewhere near the brushy foot of a tall isolated fir. Low frequencies are difficult to locate which is why we stereophiles don’t care much where a subwoofer is placed. It doesn’t matter. A couple of hikers believe the grouse is an owl hidden high up in the tree. I cannot locate this bird, the first one since officially no longer a Blue Grouse but now sanctioned by the AOU as a Sooty Grouse.
The trail winds down into a valley where the warm afternoon sun shrinks scattered patches of last winter snow. Perfectly symmetrical firs stand among small dark hemlocks. Darting past deserted Sunrise Camp, I head up the initial ascent to First Burroughs Mountain, about a mile and half away. At the top of this incline, the trail curves hard to the right and upward. To the left is a fork of the White River roaring dizzyingly far below, with Emmons Glacier shockingly close and formidable. A man-made wall of stacked flat rocks sat knee high between the narrow trail and the abyss below. Scanning the ice and stones of the far side yields a quiet and forbidding terrain. I climb on, each stride on a narrowing path that will not tolerate a misstep. One and a half hours of relatively easy ascent passes before arriving at habitat suitable for a ptarmigan at First Burroughs Mountain. All is silent. Not a bird anywhere. Checking the time, I realize it is almost time to turn back, but I decide to investigate further up the trail. What is around the corner is the same as dangling a carrot in front of a horse. It pulls at the imagination. However, the trail practically disappears as it soars even higher. It appears, at best, no wider than the width of one of my clunky boots. The route is even more precipitously above the valley ever so far below.
Physically, I feel fine, but trying not to look down the 2500 foot drop is impossible. Acrophobia sends my nerves jangling as my apprehension and time is ever advancing. A mountain breeze cools the tension of my moist brow but not my sweaty palms. What happened these last decades? Climbing, including some technical ones, was something once loved. Knowing what happens to people who freeze or became weak from fear in situations similar to my current alpine perch decide my next move. I stop to avoid being victimized by my own fear. Glassing the other side of the valley for anything, I feel only the urgent need for flatter ground and omnipresent hunger. It is time to turn around, but first, I munch on a peanut butter sandwich while viewing the thin air rushing beneath the trail edge. Just finishing the snack, a ranger suddenly appears above and seems to fearlessly dance down to my shaky position. He had seen ptarmigan from the trail. Gleefully describing how unabashedly the birds walked within feet of him, he leans against a flat rock on the upside of the scrape called a trail. The rock moves suddenly, sliding a couple of inches. The ranger appears surprised as he pushes the rock back in place, but otherwise ignores what to me is definitely unnerving. The focus is ptarmigan, so I ask, “How far?” The ranger said about 45 minutes up the trail that is, admittedly more difficult and steeper (translate, scarier). I wring moisture from my sweating hands, imagine being too frightened to appreciate the ptarmigan, and hopeful that I will have another chance at these alpine grouse elsewhere where it will be humanly safer.
Some will scoff, thinking the trail passed First Burroughs Mountain is a stroll. Unfortunately, for me, the failed journey is a defeating experience, especially since it lacks ptarmigan and reminds me that time can change a person‘s opinions about height. Descending to flatter territory is welcoming as is outrageously beautiful scenery burning into my memory. Returning to the tree with the Sooty Grouse, I see Linda sitting at the edge of the trail. Covering about a mile, despite the aching foot, Linda is now determined to glimpse the grouse. Thirty minutes pass, with no grouse in site.
Reluctantly, we motor down the switchbacks from Sun Rise into the valley of raging White River, now wider from its high tributaries that I had uneasily viewed from the trail to First Burroughs Mountain. Earlier in the day, we were parallel to this river while entering Mt. Rainier National Park at the northeastern boundary. The White is one of many rivers flowing from massive Mt. Rainier, with its steamy hot springs attesting that it is an active volcano. The park, inching into the national system in 1899, protects only 235,625 acres and ranges from 1610 feet to 14,410 feet. Inside the park are old growth forests, a rare habitat anywhere in North America, along with glaciers. Emmons Glacier, occupying 4.3 square miles is the largest of the 26 major glaciers draping Mt. Rainier. As many roaring creeks and rivers, including Nisqually, Puyallup and Mowich rivers, carry melting glacial water down the mountain. Unfortunately, many glaciers are rapidly becoming victims of climate change. Studies show that between 1913 and 1994, the combined area occupied by Mt. Rainiers’ glaciers decreased 21% and glaciers total volume shrunk by 25%. Glaciers shrank more on the south side of Mt. Rainier than on the north side (total area losses of 27% and 17% respectively). Remarkably, the position of glacier termini indicate the mountain’s major glaciers retreated between 1913 and the late 1950’s, advanced until the early 1980’s, and then retreated significantly during the 1990’s. Most frightening, a study (www.nps.gov/mora/ncrd/glacier/Chg10b) demonstrates an alarming reduction in glaciers between 1974 and 1994. Glaciers are becoming extinct. By 2030, the USGS acknowledges that glaciers will have disappeared entirely from Glacier National Park. Glaciers on Mt. Rainier will suffer a similar demise, as will the ecosystems of the park. Floods and landslides, forest fires, you name it, will scour the land, and that is just the short-term beginning. Perhaps I should not have chickened-out on the Burroughs Mountain Trail. In a few years, it will become even harder to find White-tailed Ptarmigan in our parks, and, again, that is the short-term beginning of the demise of alpine species. It is not the humidity, it is definitely the heat and there is no escaping it.
At the eastern park boundary, we tarry at 5400-foot Chinook Pass. Except for a wispy breeze, the promise of Black Swifts, Sooty Grouse, Clark’s Nutcrackers and Gray Jays is replaced by a few parenting Dark-eyed Juncos and Chipping Sparrows.
Birds go unseen as we begin the long descent beside first the American River then the Naches River to Yakima about 4400 feet below. For miles and miles, the ridges are in shades of gray and green, with spots of brown, the landscape left by bark beetles and spruce budworms. The beetles kill the trees, the budworms are not quite so awful, but that depends on the number of years they have been snacking needles. In the Naches region, they dined heavily on Douglas and grand fir. A cold winter and quick hard frosts, according to a spokesperson for the forest service, annihilates most of the larva, at least before the needle snackers rear their ugly heads again, usually in five-year cycles. The Canadian Forest Service reports that outbreaks occur, on the average, every 29 years. Once the sylvan Armageddon begins, the nature of the beast goes and goes until it runs into distasteful pines, bad weather, or trees already dead by themselves or bark beetles. An eastern species of budworms wreak habitat on forests in the northern states and southern Canada. Apparently, I may have to race a budworm, not to mention acid rain and other killers, to see my first Bicknell’s Thrush.
Bark beetles, feeding on the Cambrian layer, frequently are attracted to weakened trees, maybe those hosting budworms. With warmer winters, warming climate contributes to the health of forest pests and demise of the trees on which they feed. Driving down the valleys of the American and Naches Rivers, we try to burn in our mind the remaining green trees, but the grays and browns cannot be ignored.
Leaving our Ellensburg motel, we navigate the streets looking for Look Road, the place where, according to the finding guide, Gray Partridges hang out. Linda and I are better than average interpreters of maps, but contents in our friendly guide book had to be assisted by a couple of laborers working outside one of too many houses north of town. Finally, we are looking from Look Road. We also search surrounding roads in the flat agricultural scape, coming up with three pairs of California Quail, several Eastern Kingbirds, and a fence pole sitting Wilson’s Snipe and an unkempt Horned Lark with insects in its bill. Two hours and no partridge later, we straddle the interstate eastward toward Spokane.
The thermometer, climbing above the 90 degree mark, registers the beginning of a heat wave, something we were not expecting. Eastward, the landscape becomes rolling, arid and a sparsely vegetated shrub-steppe or what some sources refer to as Channeled Scabland topography. Although suggesting a skin disease, Channeled Scablands is what was left after the great Missoula Floods eroded eastern Washington when water hurtled down the Columbia River Plateau. This all happened in the Pleistocene epoch, beginning somewhere between 18,000 to 12,000 years ago according to the International Commission on Stratigraphy, part of the International Union of Geological Sciences. That span of years is pretty wide, but the credentials attesting the information sound better than say, a recommendation of 4 out of 5 dentist. No matter, it was a long time ago.
Channeled Scabland also has been applied to describing the surface of Mars, but a welcome detour revealed, in Earth’s Channeled Scablands, surface water in small lakes called potholes, scrubby bushes, grasses and even groves of ponderosa pines. The road off the baking freeway takes us to Fishtrap Lake and several thousand acres administered by BLM. The dark water of Fish Trap Lake, replete with Black Terns and coots of all ages is surrounded by tall grasses browning in the arid wind. Finally, the fussy chatter of Gray Partridges is heard not far from a trail above the lake. After hours of listening to recordings, I knew the unmistakable sound. At last, a new life bird. I didn’t have to see it by my rules. It would have been nice to see them, but so would it have been great to see the Whiskered Screech-Owl in Arizona or the Common Pauraque in Texas. Certainly, I tried to find the partridges, but it might as well been a moonless night when hearing the owl and nightjar. The partridges, now quiet, are not interested in me seeing them. An unseen introduced species becomes my 600th ABA species. At last, the countdown to 700 begins.
Except for a nearby Grasshopper Sparrow buzzing, silence and flickering heat waves now dominate the dirt road on our return to the BLM entrance. There, small ponds on both sides of the road host more coots, blue-billed Ruddy Ducks, their ducklings and an early Lesser Yellowlegs. Back on the interstate, we manage to arrive in Spokane during evening rush hour, which compared to years of commuting in Washington, D.C., is not much of a bother. Driving east, the landscape suddenly is forested and more mountainous. Just as suddenly, we are in Idaho, as if having crossed a corresponding natural border between dry grass and scrub to wetter forest land. A motel at Coeur d’Alene waits.
It took little time to traverse the narrow leg of northern Idaho. No birding stops are planned between our motel and the next lodging at Hot Springs, Montana. A Dusky Grouse picking along the edge of Interstate 90 would more than likely have gone unnoticed, and most probably not identified as we push around curves cut through mountains. These were the western fingers of the anticipated Rockies, the Coeur D’Alene Mountains and the Bitterroot Range. First, we will spend a couple of days in the shadow of the great divide to explore the Flathead Valley. Venturing off the interstate at small St. Regis, a touristy village, we journey at a welcoming slow pace into the western edge of the Flathead Indian Reservation.
Our Hot Springs, Montana, room, cooled by last night’s air, is comforting. The early afternoon sun bakes us while we nearly empty the car for our four nights stay. After cooling off, zugunruhe, in a mild form, pushes us out the door to explore the town. Hot Spring’s commerce, one grocer, a hardware store, one realtor office about to open, a drug store, no gas station, but enough businesses to support its approximately 531 residents and visiting tourists is drawn principally by the sulfurous hot springs. Though on an Indian reservation, only 9% of the town of Hot Springs residents are American Indian, the remainder primarily, according to the 2000 census pigeon hole, are “white.” The only Indian owned businesses in Hot Springs are two fencing companies and a small logging business.
Outside town, the Flathead Reservation is home to the Pend d’ Oreilles and Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes. The Flathead Reservation is where Edward S. Curtiss, beginning around the turn of the 20th Century and for 26 years, took 40,000 photographs and documented stories, speech and music of the tribes. His work is housed just up the street from my old office at Smithsonian. Bill Taft, living in the White House a few city blocks in the other direction from my former office, decided, in 1909, to give much of the reservation to white homesteaders. A land rush on 1 November 1910 ensued, the year Hot Springs was founded.
Though the Flathead Reservation is 1.317 million acres, the tribe’s original home was in over 20 million acres of northwestern Montana, part of Idaho, British Columbia and Wyoming. Today, the reservation population is about 22,000, with only 6,000 (27%) of Indian descent. Of the 6,000, 3,500 are enrolled members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Tourists traveling through the reservation may think that the croplands and beautiful Flathead River Valley are not the typical no-mans-land seen on most Indian reservations. However, only about 58% of the land defined by the Reservation boundary is tribal land. The other half is deeded to non-Indians, a result of homesteading of the Reservation in 1910. Testament to the Confederated Salich and Kootenai Tribes, they derive income from timber sales, and from ownership of a Best Western resort hotel, a wood products company and Kerr Dam below the outlet of Flathead Lake. They also own a state of the art S and K Electronics (“Blending the Wisdom of the Past…with the Technology of the Future”) and S and K Technologies, specializing in aerospace, robotics and artificial intelligence, telecommunications and much more that operates in six states. We cannot help but wonder what more accomplishments could have been achieved before all those faithless treaties.
At the southwestern end of town, a signed road “Old Hot Springs Road” draws us into the ponderosa pine hills. Chipping Sparrows dot every perch on a narrow route that soon becomes a gravel road. In the middle of the one-lane byway is a very dead male Red Crossbill. Further up the road is another deceased member of these enigmatic birds. It too lay on the road, rigor mortis keeping its brick colored feathers in disarray. The bills of these birds are gigantic compared to the ones in southwestern Oregon Cascades. These Hot Springs birds may be a different species and most certainly a different subspecies. My old late friend, Allan Phillips, would have tried to salvage the two dead crossbills. He spent years attempting to decipher the mysteries of what we now call Red Crossbill, and what may actually consist of up to nine or more distinct species. Distinct does mean not that they are easy to identify in the field. They are not. Studies do show that some populations of crossbills differ in voice, but because they sound so similar to one another, sonograms may be required to identify accurately birds to a given taxon. Upon hearing crossbills in the trees above the road, I think I discern differences from them and the Oregon birds. Or am I imagining what I believe should be the case. I’m not 100% sure. Regardless, it crosses my mind, what are these arboreal cross-billed birds doing in the road?
The next morning I drive to the first dead crossbill site. Nothing, no dead birds, but a few yards up the road a male Red Crossbill sits in the middle of the road. Most alive, he seems oblivious to my vehicle as I roll slightly forward. He is picking pieces of grit from the road by positioning his head sideway or parallel to the road surface. Other birds that I have seen picking up grit hold their head and beaks perpendicular to the substrate. Driving ever so slowly, I see the male fly about the time my bumper is two feet from him. Later, a male and female, with three striped immatures busily gather road grit, some leaning to the left and others to the right. I cannot tell if their leaning was related to the direction their bill crossed. Before I am able to determine right or left bills, a speeding vehicle barely misses me and the birds. Now I knew how the crossbills we found yesterday had died.
There was little hope in finding a life bird further up Old Hot Springs Road, but I had to see what was around the bend. Before the road became rougher than I wanted, Brewer’s and more Chipping Sparrows and a Western Wood Pewee made it clear that young are all around. I had hopes of hearing the Rocky Mountain version of White-breasted Nuthatch, but this is Red-breasted country.
Back through Hot Springs, I hurry about 2 miles down the road to the a gas station, the only one I know of for miles, then cut across a fine paved reservation road leading over a ridge and down to the Flathead River. Without a doubt, the river is a beautiful ribbon of water forming a riparian oasis that any bird or birder should appreciate. Nonetheless, being mission oriented, I rush toward the National Bison Range. The finding guide for Montana recommends the short loop for Gray Partridge. I want to see number 600. All I see is a handful of Bison dust bathing, a Golden Eagle soaring in the far distance and heat waves bending the light in a sky whitening from the hot drying sun. At the end of the loop tour, are parenting Mountain Bluebirds pant on their way in and out of a bird box. It must be sizzling in there as the thermometer tips past 100.
A brief stop at an access to the Jocko River near Dixon yields Gray Catbird and numerous Yellow Warblers. Only briefly do I think about the warbler’s subspecies identity. After all, I had already figured that out, years ago in my review, primarily in an air conditioned museum. Today, it is just too damn hot.
The next day is a revisit of the National Bison Range, with Linda, and earlier in the day. First stop is the visitor center where we meet Donald M. Jones who is signing books that he had illustrated amply with birds, mammals and plants. His works are visual page-turners. We purchase his “Wings Over Montana.” Its introduction is by Daniel Casey, who had kindly answered some of my early pleas about finding target birds in Montana. Don provides some hints for finding certain species in Glacier National Park and in Alberta.
The 18,500 acre National Bison Range, in the Flathead Reservation, is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and operated mostly of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. The heard of Bison, not more than 500, began as five orphaned calves in 1873 imported from Blackfeet country by Walking Coyote, a Pend d’ Orielle Indian. About that time, there were less than 100 free-roaming bison where once 30 to 70 million once lived. The bison, which are not really relatives of water buffalo of Asia or Cape Buffalo of Africa, are cousins to a zoo population of once wild bison in Europe.
The single-lane one-way gravel road, aka Red Sleep Mountain Drive climbs up Pauline Creek, its narrow riparian willows surrounded by yellowing grassy hills. Lazuli Buntings dart in the higher vegetation. On four occasions, four cars appear on our bumper and pass where room allows. Numerous switchbacks twisting up the summit of Headquarters Ridge take us over 2500 feet above the smooth waters of the Flathead River. Bison are roaming slowly under the sweltering sun. Where a targeted Dusky Grouse might have been is male bison, standing quietly in the deep shade of one of the conifer groves. Just beyond the forest dwelling bison, Linda finally saw her first Dusky Flycatcher, completing her collection of Empidonax breeding north of the border. Showing Linda her Dusky species is almost as fun as me seeing one the first time.
Before our descent, we pass a restroom. Although we had been pouring in the water, none wants out during the route. It seems amazing that a Common Nighthawk roosting at the edge of the road or the heavily coated dark bison could bare the scorching sun. About six antelope on the north side of the range appear unconcerned by us. The heat is too much for antelope to play and buffalo to roam. The riparian habitat along Mission Creek had looked promising, but we chose to roll up the windows and crank up the air conditioner. Tomorrow we will be in the Rockies. Maybe tomorrow will be cooler.