Milestone 700, ch 4

A Grosbeak, a Grouse and a Longspur Muddling

14-15 July 2006

Our last day in Hot Springs begins leisurely, with a full breakfast of scrambled eggs and waffles cooked in our tiny kitchen. Of course, the hard frozen waffles heated by the provided toaster help produce close to a real breakfast not forgotten back in Oregon. It is a treat, compared to the usual dry cereal and milk. We boil eggs, and, at the local grocery, pick up lettuce for salad, cottage cheese, a couple of apples and oranges and a loaf of bread for our next round of travel. Our original provisions from home will supply us with canned chicken, dry soap and canned vegetables. An occasional restaurant breaks the menu in taste although it provides more salt than we usually eat. We have some laundry, and hang out at the only laundromat and begin packing the car for tomorrow’s departure.

The next morning, departing Hot Springs, a town once bathing in its successful hot springs resorts for decades, is leaving a place of hope and struggle. A “Big Medicine” for Indians, the region, overtaken by resort businesses that eventually collapsed into failing economies, is full of buildings now steps from condemnation. On the other hand, our innkeepers were remodeling but we had no neighbors until our last night. The more expensive and long established Symes Hot Springs and Mineral Baths up the street seemed moderately busy. Linda had a massage there. Except for its espresso bar, she said it was like entering a world set in the 1940s. Most other inns are empty of guests. Our departure is fraught by sadness of how the land was taken from the Indians, and hope for the future with a success that would not serve to ruin Hot Springs any more than had already transpired.

During the good old days when Lake Missoula was filling and emptying, what happened to the Hot Springs region would not matter. In fact, it may have been beachfront property if not under the water of glacial Lake Missoula. Most valleys in northwestern Montana were inundated by the massive lake. Geologists discovered that this huge inland sea, a result of glaciers damming the Clark Fork River, contained up to 500 cubic miles of water. A 2,000 foot dam of ice would break, releasing an inland sea that plunged westward at 65 mph. Missoula Lake drained in a meager 48 hours. Meanwhile, back at the glacier, the ice continued to move southward, creating, in about 50 years, yet another Missoula Lake. The cataclysmic floods caused by collapsing dams that created the Channeled Scablands in Washington was the work of a cycle of ice dams breaking and emptying Missoula Lake several times for nearly 3,000 years. In fact, geologists estimate that the floods transported more than 50 cubic miles of earth, depositing the sediment as new landforms elsewhere. Chunks of ice, rock and debris swirled in rushing water around 1200 feet deep in eastern Washington. The depth decreased to about 900 feet as the flood hurried down the Columbia River, where the water, squeezed by the narrow Cascade Gorge, gained velocity to 85 mph. Surging about 375 feet near pre-proto Portland, the Montana sea backed up the Willamette River about 100 miles south to the site of Eugene, the wintering area of the Falcated Duck missed last year. The Missoula Floods, aka Spokane Floods or Bretz Floods, in recognition of the geologist who proposed the cause of the scablands, finally settled to sea level at Astoria. That’s not far from the Columbia River’s South Jetty, a good place to see Lapland Longspur and Gyrfalcon, at least it was last year.

Driving north, we pass a sign pointing to Kerry Dam. Flathead Lake spreads to our right. We negotiate 17,000 strong Kalispell, the largest city in northwestern Big Sky, and then turn east. The logical destination to suspect is Glacier National Park. That had been the original plan. The itinerary reads “Glacier National Park, Going-to-the-Sun Highway, 52 miles long, Dusky Grouse along highway early am, Apgar Village Campground, White-winged Crossbill,” and the highlight, ”Logan Pass, White-tailed Ptarmigan.” Getting to higher elevations is part of the trip, you know, the boreal part. High elevation also means a way to escape the torrid heat wave. However, according Terry McEneaney’s Birding Montana, Falcon Guide, the road is narrow and winding, which seemed all right but the part that that informs the road is “walled in by a rock cliff on one side and a sheer drop on the other” is troubling. The bad news, according to McEneaney is that vehicles must not exceed eight feet in width, including side mirrors. Going-to-the-Sun Highway is 22 feet wide. The share of road going one direction would be 11 feet. Our smallish SUV is 6.5 feet from side mirror to side mirror. Our garage door is nine feet wide. Going through the opening begs a very slow speed while carefully checking that the two mirrors clear the doorframe. Surely, the 11-foot highway lane would not be a problem. Although never great with math, our vehicle should have 4.5 feet of extra room or a 2.25-foot buffer zone between the left mirror and the centerline and between the right mirror and the edge of the pavement. The edge of the pavement?! What about meeting a larger vehicle with mirror spans that would embarrass a California Condor? That’s too wide, but what about those with mirrors out to eight feet? What about an aggressive HUMV driver and we are on the drop side? The speed limit varies from 45 down to 10 mph. The lower limit, although faster than my garage door speed limit, must be in pretty scary territory. After reflecting on the prospect of mirrors having head on collisions, I reflect about curves and that people do not always stay in their lane. Then I think of us not staying in our lane. Maybe we could do the highway, but we had already met a couple of tourists with foreboding news. One couple made the trip but had the veiled expression reminiscent of Munch’s The Scream. Another pair went white knuckled before making the ascent to Logan Pass. They turned around. Linda and I agree that we likely will be too scared to enjoy the highway.

Missing chances at Dusky Grouse and White-winged Crossbill is not as bad as passing up a potential White-tailed Ptarmigan. Three more sites, one in Banff and two in northern Washington could produce ptarmigan and several sites on the itinerary offer chances for Dusky Grouse and the crossbills. Taking U.S. 2 around the southern boundary of Glacier National Park will be our route. Passing the junction to Going-to-the-Sun Highway, we wish for ptarmigan and braver hearts. Calculating risks are now more common since we have passed those younger bulletproof days of yore. We are not ready to see the light caused by a Going-to-the-Sun-Highway mishap. Most importantly, we cherish our time together and need more. We know that someday, that ptarmigan will cross the road, and we will not ask why.

Three stops along U.S. 2, the chicken route, promise Spruce Grouse, White-winged Crossbill and Pine Grosbeak. Our first site, Skyland Road, a graveled logging road is south of the highway. A weak cloud of dust follows us for a little over a mile and a half of crunching gravel. There we take a dirt road up the side of a ridge until we come to the edge of a sylvan graveyard. Dead grayed spires, once a viable green forest, stand over a lush understory of bushes, grasses and a multitude of flowers ranging from white and yellow daisies, paintbrush, crimson mimulus or monkey flowers. What happened? We guess bark beetles. Whatever it was deforested several square miles. We park at this new ecotone, where, at about 5300 feet, we hope for a temperature of something less than 90.

S Boreal 06 117
Looking for Pine Grosbeaks just south of Glacier National Park


Mountain Bluebirds and Chipping Sparrow weather the solar onslaught. I busily play a tape of a singing Pine Grosbeak. The sixth playback brought a largish gray bird that lands in one of the beetle gnawed trees tops. The bird is almost straight overhead, looking down at us. Besides the gray, we see a tinge of yellow on its head and curious face replete with a short thick bill. The female Pine Grosbeak darts suddenly toward a far grove of green conifers. Trying for a male with the tape attracts only more biting and buzzing insects. Complaining is not in order, the female Pine Grosbeak becomes my 601 ABA life bird. Take one down, 99 birds to go! 

Back on the highway and two miles eastward, commemorates crossing the Great Divide, the continental backbone. At only 5216 feet, Marias Pass does not seem particularly memorable. Turning at the junction of Pine Creek Road, we drive three miles on the narrow track, the second recommended birding site. Spruce Grouse and White-winged Crossbills are on the menu. Although we hear crossbills, they sound much like Red Crossbills of some species. Summit Siding Forest Service Camp, according to our guidebook, potentially hosts Spruce Grouse. However, the site, if we are reading our book correctly, has become commercialized and not particularly suitable to anything but humans.

By mid-afternoon, we roll down the east slope of the Rocky Mountains and into Browning, Montana. Slightly over 1,000 people reside in this largest of towns in the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. For many of my youthful years, I thought the town might be named for my great grandfather, who had vanished in the late 1800s. It turns out that the town was named after Daniel M. Browning, a Commissioner of Indian Affairs working in Washington D.C. When I earlier phoned to reserve a room in the Warbonnet Lodge, the person taking my name said, “Oh, the same as our town.” Still embarrassed when I check in today, I make it clear that I am not related to the town’s namesake. Except for my coppery arms and reddish-tan face, my ancestry, mostly Cherokee and who knows what else, I look pretty much like a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in a t-shirt. Lewis and his crew, upon return from the Pacific, killed two Blackfeet boys or two warriors depending on who is telling the story. Linda and I had heard on NPR that the most Blackfeet were not interested in participating in this year’s bicentennial commemoration of the expedition since it was the beginning of their end.

Browning, at 4655 feet, sits on the dry high prairie that stretches to the eastern horizon. Parched for water, each household gets less than half the ideal number of gallons each day. Ground water is rare, but a few miles out of town, Kipp Lake nestles at the foot of rolling hills. It’s a must see birding site Don Jones told us a few days and a mountain divide ago. The sun is about three inches over the top of the western mountains when I turn onto a dirt road opposite the village of Blackfoot, a few miles east of Browning. Finally, the lowering sun will bring some relief from the heat wave. At first, the road is wide and dusty. On a fence post near the first turn sits a solitary Upland Sandpiper. The track becomes narrower, worn bare by tires, with grass and small flowers growing from the sides and center of the track. A Long-billed Curlew standing in the road rears up and cries a warning to the prairie.

S Boreal 06 199

Minutes later a small bird flies from a tuft of grass at the road’s edge. Jumping out of the car, I hurry to where the bird landed. Airborne again, it wavers, as if in no real hurry, but disappears after I see that it is a McCown’s Longspur. I hadn’t seen McCown’s Longspurs since the 70s while working with Marshall A. Howe in the Pawnee National Grassland in northeastern Colorado. Marshall was studying their breeding behavior. I flew out from then National Airport, now Reagan International Airport, to help. Although loving the work at the museum, a chance to escape the hot and humid days in Washington, D.C., was a welcome respite. For 28 days, we captured and banded every McCown’s Longspur that flew into our mist nets. Each bird was accessorized with the aluminum Fish and Wildlife Service band, with its unique identifying number and a combination of colored plastic bands. An individual might have red and green bands on its right leg. Another would be decorated with a blue band on the left leg and a yellow on the right leg. The number of captured birds dictated the possible combinations of colors and leg configurations.

The constant wind sometimes blew so hard that the lightweight mist nets were useless. They needed to hang loose enough that unsuspecting birds would entangle themselves; strong wind caused the nets to be tight and birds simply bounced off them. On those days, we observed the territories of previously marked individuals. Infrequently, the wind speed was great enough to virtually ground most birds and make observations difficult at best. Those were the days when the giant longhorn grasshoppers would sail through the air like hollow-point bullets. I took a few headshots, which were painful for me and perhaps fatal to the insect. Instead of my hard head, which some have noted, the grasshoppers could have bounced off roaming bison. Of course, there were no bison. Above the short grass, the only tall objects were a windmill a couple of miles away, our vehicle, Marshall and my forehead.

On a few days the wind really howled, and we were forced to take refuge at the forest service house, our home away from home. One such day Walter Graul, who was studying Mountain Plovers paid a visit, and when the wind abated, showed us his prized birds. The strong wind had kicked up a minor dust cloud, showing us that another dust bowel was just one bad agricultural practice away. That agriculture and the marching plows of today have put the Mountain Plover at great risk. The Nature Conservancy reports declines, beginning in 1900, of up to 89%. Walters’ studies provided data on ecological parameters of the species. Back at the museum, we, especially Phil Angle and I would have dubbed Walt the honorable title of Mr. Mountain Plover.

On one of the less balmy days, Marshall and I were moving a mist net. The low vegetation allowed us to simply pull the aluminum poles out of the ground. We then would walk the net to a new location. Marshall was grasping the pole on one end and, several yards away, I was holding the other pole. We walked slowly toward the new location, ever careful to keep the net taut and off the ground. A government vehicle suddenly appeared; a male driver got out and asked Marshall if he knew Ralph Browning. He replied that I was holding the pole at the end of the net. Because of the wind and distance, I could barely here the conversation. The stranger, decked with a badge and side arm approached me slowly, asked my identity, then unsnapped his holster, put his hand on his gun and stared. He accused me of collecting and illegally importing a megapod into the United States. His hand on the gun and rooster posturing not only scared me, it made me mad. Looking the misguided character in the eye, I told him I had nothing to do with the bird and had not been out of the country. In fact, I told him that had anyone checked with the State Department, I had not been out of the country since being discharged from the Navy. Before he could get in a word, I told him that the position in Navy Intelligence prevented me from leaving the country for several years after my discharge.

I suppose the officer in the cowboy hat could have taken me in, and luckily, he did not. He just turned and drove off. Marshall was dumfounded. I was livid, especially because I discovered that Clyde Jones, then director of my outfit, had put the Cheyenne Fish and Wildlife enforcers on my trail. However, upon returning to Washington, D.C., and overcoming the cultural shock after nearly a month on the lone prairie, Clyde told me that he had been approached by headquarters of the bird police, and he told them if they wanted to know anything about the illegal megapod, to contact me. It so happened that a megapod had been sent to the museum a few days before I departed for the grassland. The sender, whose name I conveniently forget, had hoped we would transship it to his institution. Realizing this would be illegal, I informed the supervising curator Paul Slud. Paul is perhaps best known for a nontechnical work on birds of Costa Rico and a confusing tome that should have been titled “The Further North You Go, the Fewer Southern Birds You See.” He overreacted and apparently dialed 911 to cause the Fish and Wildlife‘s enforcement people to a stage of alertness.

Later, following my departure to the Pawnee Grasslands, Clyde Jones was approached by the enforcement people. Perhaps Clyde’s comment to them was, putting it nicely, misconstrued, something like kids playing the game gossip. From someone who realized something illegal was brewing, I had become the culprit. My first day back from Colorado was the day I complained to the head of the Fish and Wildlife law enforcement division. I was told I was off the hook, that I was not guilty of anything. Mentioning how surprised I was to have someone track me down in the middle of the Pawnee Grassland elicited a very serious reply: “Ralph that is the long-arm of the law.” I nearly chocked while trying to suppress uncontrollable laughter. In the end, the long arm never did extend an apology. At the end of the conversation, I let the laughter out. It was an annoyed relief.

Vesper Sparrows on the rolling prairie north of Kipp Lake today flit back in forth in front of the car, not unlike grasshoppers jumping from a horse running through a field. Up and over a rise is the elongated lake. A breeze picks up as an embryonic sunset begins to form. Light allows me to identify a strikingly patterned Baird’s Sparrow sitting in a low bush near the shore of lake. I had not seen a Baird’s Sparrow since 1962. It was almost as fun as finding a life bird. Franklin’s Gull, White Pelican and Eared Grebe ply the dark water while a fisherman wades deep into the lake.

Returning to the main dirt road, I meet a student from Missoula’s University of Montana driving toward the lake. She is with her mother, and in a hurry. The sun now appears less than a half of an inch from the tops of the Rocky Mountains over 20 miles away. The two people had found several McCown’s Longspurs and Baird’s Sparrow at Mission Lake. I report my findings, and we go our separate way. Barely moving forward, a large bird moves in the taller grass west of the road. First thought is it is an Upland Sandpiper. By the time I come to a full stop, I realize it is a female Sharp-tailed Grouse. Watching more closely, at least three half-grown chicks accompany her. She watches me more closely and freezes. The young do not seem to notice her warnings or my excitement of witnessing species 602.

17 July

Road repairs on U.S. 2 east of Browning delay my drive to Mission Lake this morning. I’m looking for milepost 240 at the junction of the road to the lake, but the innkeeper had told me road crews may not have yet replaced them and that I should look for a nest of communication antenna opposite the turn. As described, a straight gravel road leads south into the rolling prairie. People driving two SUVs are parked at the junction. A passenger confirms that this is the road to Mission Lake. They must have been discussing fishing tactics; they soon pass me when I stop to verify yet another Vesper Sparrow. Continuing through a planted field, the narrow road soon became a track. Further, south, a fence and cattle guard divide the flat field and rolling prairie. Here, the road forks, with the one to the right having a high grassy center. I noticed that the two SUVs took the right fork. I choose the left or east fork. It had been well traveled and lacked the grass center. I feel more comfortable keeping the super-hot catalytic converter away from the drying vegetation. Also, birds along the track would be less disturbed.

The left fork becomes a driving challenge. There are holes, ruts, jutting rocks, very steep inclines, and a plethora of eye stopping birds. Up and over the first rise, in a slightly taller grass is a pair of Chestnut-collared Longspurs sitting motionless. Seconds later, they swing into the air, disappearing over the next grassy knoll.

Before following the pair of Chestnut-collared Longspurs over the next rise, more birds seem to melt from the grass. Eight Sprague’s Pipits forage to my right. Two more jump from the tire tracks as I inch over the next knoll. Last spring, I had them on their wintering grounds in Texas. McCown’s Longspurs were almost everywhere. As long as I stay in the dusty car, the birds can be approached within about 20 feet. Hundreds of Horned Larks scurry from the road, joining more that dot the hills. Mingling in the grass, and occasional flowers, one resembling a lavender paintbrush, Western Meadowlarks and its distant relative, the Brown-head Cowbirds joined the lakeside heard of cattle and seven horses. Flies also joined the bovine/blackbird party. Longspurs are no longer in sight. I could see the vehicles that passed me earlier. The group was fishing on a far shore joining the Clark’s and Red-necked Grebes searching Mission Lake for a morsel.

Driving back, the bouquet of longspurs, Horned Larks and pipits seem more intimidated by my approaching vehicle. The temperature has also risen to discomfort and the prairie breeze is accelerating. Back on U.S. 2, I wait the delay of 15 minutes as a crew repaves the highway. A Blackfeet flagger, a few years out of high school, tells me how much he loves the feel of the prairie and seeing the distant mountains. I ask if he has seen the Mission Mountains. This Rocky Mountain range is just west of the Flathead Indian Reservation, but I do not mention the word reservation. He said, “Yes,” he knew the range. “My girlfriend lives west of there.” Such a relationship would not have been accepted roughly 150 years ago. Of course, then, I would not have been kindly afforded access to Mission Lake. I told the young flagger I appreciate seeing this land.

The sun continues to bake the hills, but a stop at Kipp Lake might provide another look at the Sharp-tailed Grouse. Naturally, any grouse in its right mind is seeking shade wherever it might be found. A Clay-colored Sparrow jumps from the bushes near a tiny riparian growth, and then hurries back into the shadows. Token Willets, a Marbled Godwit, and pairs of Spotted Sandpiper and Long-billed Curlews cool their legs in the lake. I cool myself by cranking up the air conditioner. It is high noon, and time to have lunch with Linda.

The Warbonnet Lodge air conditioner hums as it sizzles outside. It is a great time for a siesta. Deep slumber is interrupted by a muffled knock at the door. The sound is clearer as I begin shaking my brain awake. There had been no “Do not disturb,” Sleeping now,” “We’re consenting adults, go away” signs. I can hear something said about towels and a coffee maker and an alarm clock. How nice, but not now. Calling through the closed door, I relate that we didn’t need either. The knocking persists. Finally, I crawl out of bed and crack the door open. A young woman thrust her collection of towels, the clock and a coffee maker towards me, I drop a couple of the items while trying to keep the door opening to a minimum to avoid revealing any tan lines. Almost the same thing happened at a motel in Texas last year. Communications failed both times. Both instances caught me answering the door from a sleep and dressed as comfortable as possible, with nothing on. Was this going to be an annual exhibition? I hurriedly shut the door, and could hear the young woman giggle. Many of the local residents, none who were labeled Browning, have Indian names such as Walking Crane, Wild Plume, and Knocks at the Door. Mine could be Running Bare.

Waking late in the afternoon, Linda and I eat a quick meal of fruit and cottage cheese, with coffee from the new coffee maker delivered by the giggling lodge employee. The sun is leaning in the hot whitish blue sky as the heat fades with the increasing wind. By 7:30, we are turning on the road to Mission Lake. There are fewer Horned Larks and McCown’s Longspurs and we work hard to locate Sprague’s Pipit. This time, Chestnut-collared Longspurs are singing.

The prairie wind gradually increases causing the few birds we see on the road to stay put before jumping up and buffeting in the wind like dry fall leaves. The lake has white caps dotted by Red-necked and Eared Grebes. With the lake to our back, we rush north to the highway. On the way, a Clay-colored Sparrow that we missed on the way in sits on the fence where the road forks. Beyond, the dirt road is a straight and rutted line to the highway. Daylight is leaving when we hurry to Kipp Lake where an Upland Sandpiper mixes with a handful of the usual shorebird suspects. The wind stiffens. The hasty tour of the two lakes yield eight new life birds for Linda.


Two more comments about longspurs include one of which is embarrassing and one that is taxonomic. First, when I first saw the Chestnut-collared Longspurs near Browning, I mistakenly believed I was seeing them for the first time. The narrative is correct, but at that moment on 16 July, I was convinced McCown’s Longspur was a new species, not Chestnut-collared. I couldn’t help but be slightly mystified that McCown’s were in shorter grass than the Chestnut-collared Longspurs, and that the song of the McCown’s seemed so familiar. Later, I emailed Marshall Howe about seeing my first McCown’s Longspurs. He corrected my error. The McCown’s Longspur was the species we studied in Colorado’s Pawnee grassland. Further, I had forgotten that Chestnut-collared Longspur were at the Colorado study site. A tattered checklist tucked inside a 1961 vintage Peterson field guide tells the truth. Was I a victim of a lapses calami, what some of my museum colleagues called any mistake, or was I suffering from profound longspur dyslexia? Proverbially forgetting where I last placed my glasses and now long-term memory loss is not something easily accepted. Replying to Marshall, I suggested maybe my wayward thinking was a product of the prairie wind. Most of us, including myself, recall their first sighting of many species, especially those with relatively confined ranges. Maybe this is all the reason more to hurry to find 700 species. Forget about physical limitations. Taking too many years to reach the mark may mean forgetting species already seen and more such as where are my binocs or worse. Will aging birders need a finding guide to locate their glasses? Seeing both species of longspurs near Browning, despite my muddling, did deliver, at the time a rush similar to finding a life bird. It is easy to fool the brain.

The second comment is more relevant to the science, especially to those with less wrinkled brains. The McCown’s Longspurs I was seeing in Montana, compared to Chestnut-collared Longspurs, seem plump. Now, that’s not a particularly ornithological statement. It is not a theory and certainly not a fact; it’s just a casual observation. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but McCown’s Longspurs did not seem to fit in with Chestnut-collared or Lapland Longspurs, the only other species in the genus Calcarius that I had seen. My flimsy thinking almost seemed vindicated a month later when I read in the AOU supplement that McCown’s Longspurs may be best placed in the genus Plectrophenax. That’s it; McCown’s seemed like prairie Snow Buntings. Probably anyone who is familiar with these birds will conclude, to paraphrase an old saying, there is not a snowbird’s chance in hell that the appearances of McCown’s and Snow Buntings share generic characters. Appearance or what some birders call jizz, I am the first to agree, mostly likely could not be useful in avian systematics. “Most likely not” or “usually” are words scientist use or should use since there is not a snowball’s (or snowbird’s) chance in hell of always being correct.

Anyway, Spencer F. Baird who curated the bird collection at Smithsonian several decades ago, proposed the genus Rhynchophanes just for McCown’s Longspur in recognition that McCown’s Longspurs didn’t quite fit in with the other longspurs in Calcarius. About 100 years later, Rhynchophanes was merged with Calcarius because of a single hybrid of McCown’s and Chestnut-collared Longspurs. Incidentally, one of the authors proposing the merger had something to do with the megapod and me almost being arrested in the Pawnee grasslands. Maybe the memory of that unpleasant episode was the reason for muddling my longspurs.

Now, 60 years later, researchers, with a study of genetics and computers not dreamed of by Baird or the two who merged his genus, have arrived at some new conclusions. Kevin Winker, one of the three authors of the 2003 paper appearing in volume 26 of Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution sent me a reprint. The data shows that longspurs and snow buntings are quite similar, and supports merging Plectrophenes, the Snow and McKay’s Buntings, in Calcarius, the longspurs. Recalling the word usual as applied to conclusions, there is a however. The genetic distances between the longspurs and so-called buntings are close, but suggest further study. The McCown’s Longspur and buntings fit snuggly in one group as do Smith’s and Chestnut-collared Longspurs show a second close relationship. Lapland Longspur sits alone between these two groups. The authors the of the 2003 paper conclude that Plectrophanes could be retained only if Rhynchophanes be reinstated for McCown’s Longspur. I asked Kevin about AOU’s possible recognition of McCown’s in Plectrophanes. During evenings and sometimes weekends at Smithsonian, Kevin and I used to spend hours discussing taxonomic issues. From his new job at the University of Alaska, the present discussion was reduced to a succinct email: “We need nuclear confirmation of that one node to confidently go the route the Check-list Committee suggests (retaining both genera).”


18 July 2006

During the morning, we pick up a few items at the local Browning supermarket. It is the only large grocery in the main town of the 1.5 million acre reservation. Even though the average income for residents is only slightly more than half that of the national average, the grocery prices they must pay are high. Hearing unemployment was 71% a few years ago; we could see the harshness of the reservation on many faces. Nearly the size of Delaware, about 9000 live on the mostly parched reservation. That’s four people per square mile. Half of the farms are owned by Indians, the rest deeded to non-natives, although Browning, unlike Hot Springs, is mostly populated by American Indians, with 91% Blackfeet. Major income from oil and gas leases on the reservation help the Blackfeet Confederacy that includes South Peigan originally from Montana and North Peigan, Siksika Nation and Kainai Nation originally from Alberta.

The yellowing prairie fades in the review mirror as we head back toward the Rockies. Yesterday was the last day of prairie birding. As with all natural habitats, the North American prairie is rapidly shrinking as roads, urbanization, agriculture and cattle fragment and reduce the grasslands. Prairie birds are declining faster than any other group of species according to the American Birding Association and other conservation organizations. The Blackfeet prairie remains natural with the exception of minor cattle grazing, something the buffalo would be doing had they not been essentially exterminated from the region. McCown’s Longspur especially benefits from sensible amounts of grazing; they require short grass for successful nesting. Opportunity to see so many longspurs, Sprague’s Pipits, the family of Sharp-tailed Grouse and other grassland species will always be appreciated.

In a few miles west, we turn north, skirting the Rocky Mountains of Glacier National Park. Passing through Blackfeet towns of Kiowa, St. Mary and Babb, we veer northwest onto Chief Mountain Highway. Stopping about a mile south of the Canadian border, we hope for a Spruce or Dusky Grouse or perhaps a White-winged Crossbill. It was a non-bird event. Down the road, the Canadian agent is polite and pleasant, despite the huge Texas RV in front of us that is denied entry. A red-faced driver glares angrily as he maneuvers the gargantuan motorized house back to the south. He roars away, the black diesel exhaust almost suffocating from viewing the bumper sticker extolling the NRA. Canada does not allow importing guns.

A Veery at the lunch stop at the Belly River campground in Alberta is a reminder that at least some birds were around. Lincoln’s Sparrow sings near the river, but we munch and begin the journey north. Our destination, Airdrie (pronounced air-dree) is three or more hours away. As luck will have it, we arrive in the Calgary region during rush hour. Aside from a little intense racing, we pull into our motel at Airdrie at a civilized hour. It is hot. I walk over to a service station and pick up a range and township road map. Milton Spitzer, one of the local birders of Calgary territory had earlier emailed me that I would need it to locate backcountry roads. After dinner, I call Milt. Yes, the Connecticut Warbler might still be there. We hang up. Ever hopeful, I plan to find the last northern ABA warbler missing from my list.

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