Eastern kingbirds: Bug catchers of the Bitterroot
Image Courtesy of Heather Tellock

Image Courtesy of Heather Tellock

While I often observe small birds chasing larger birds from their territory or nesting site, one bird, in my opinion, tops the list as the most aggressive at defending its space.

Recently, I saw one of these small birds in flight, pulling feathers from the back of an immature red-tailed hawk as it chased the intruder away from its nest. This aggressor is a small perching bird known as the Eastern kingbird.

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Teller Wildlife Refuge
Honeybee Highway: Teller Refuge’s 10-acre pollinator plot a boon for bees
Image Courtesy of Perry Backus

Image Courtesy of Perry Backus

Honeybees know when they’ve found a good thing.

Researchers learned back in the 1920s that when bees find a good supply nectar, they perform a special kind of dance that shows their fellow bees where to go.

This summer, there must be a lot of dancing bees around the Teller Wildlife Refuge’s brand-new 10-acre pollinator plot.

On a recent morning, the place was already buzzing as thousands of bees converged on the blooms of lacy phacelia, annual sunflower, prairie Coneflower and small burnet that were part of the 14 species of grasses and flowering plants seeded with a no-till drill in early spring.

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Teller Wildlife Refuge
American Kestrel a skillful predator
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As I drove down the main entrance road to Teller Refuge, I stopped to watch a small dove size bird hovering above the two-foot vegetation only to disappear in a quick dive to the surface below. Within seconds the bird lifted above the vegetation and flew to a nearby wooded post to consume its catch. The bird wasted no time tearing the small rodent into swallowing size pieces. Soon, several black-billed magpies flew in to harass this skillful predator, which you could detect, aggravated the bird that clung tightly to its prize. Within seconds it took flight clutching what remained of its earned meal and flew from its tormentors. The bird I was watching was the American kestrel. For years known as the sparrow hawk, this small raptor is actually the smallest North American member of the falcon family.

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Teller Wildlife Refuge
Bitterroot hoodies: The hooded merganser is one of two mergansers found in the valley
Image courtesy of Randy Smith

Image courtesy of Randy Smith

Named for the hood-like crest on both the male and female, the hooded merganser is one of two commonly observed merganser duck species found in the Bitterroot.

The other, the common merganser, is mallard-size and more frequently found along river systems while the much smaller hooded prefers small backwaters and ponds.

Mergansers are often referred to as “fish ducks” as that is what they primarily feed on. Their bills have serrated saw tooth adaptations that help grasp slippery prey, while most waterfowl species have flat “toothless” bills adapted for seeds, insects and vegetation.

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Teller Wildlife Refuge
Trumpeter swan visits Teller Wildlife Refuge
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Peering through the cattails, the large white bird stood out amongst several Canada geese and mallards as enormous. Could this be the largest North American waterfowl species?

While Teller is commonly visited by Tundra swans, this bird immediately sparked my curiosity by its size, particularly its long neck, extending several feet in length. With the aid of binoculars and photographs, it was confirmed as a large adult trumpeter swan. I could not distinguish whether this bird was a “cob” (male) or “pen” (female) and it appeared to be alone and likely will not be joining a mate to produce “cygnets” (young) this year.

Thought to be nearing extinction in the late 1800s due to over-harvesting, this magnificent bird represents a true conservation success story involving public and private interests and today we can celebrate as trumpeter swan populations rebound.

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American robins, bobbing in the Bitterroot
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The sighting of many bird species returning to the Bitterroot represents spring, however, one species stands out as the true indicator, the American robin.

My first 2019 sighting of this American symbol was March 15, when I observed two adult males perched in the barren branches of a cottonwood tree. Soon these birds will be singing their beautiful melody that peaks early in the morning just before first light, especially where robins tend to flock in tall pine trees.

So why has this birds become such a symbol of spring? Perhaps it’s because of a Russian-born early American singer/songwriter, Al Jolson, who was struck by the jovial nature of the bird and its song. The famous 1926 lyrics best describe the arrival of robins and how our mood is lifted when we hear the melody of the robin’s song. Listen to it on YouTube sung by Bing Crosby in the 1940s.

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Teller Wildlife Refuge
Snow, Snow, and More Snow: How’s it impacting Bitterroot Birds?
image courtesy of Perry Backus

image courtesy of Perry Backus

As I drive by a Corvallis haystack, several white-tails are munching away at the protein rich food source, barely bothered by my vehicle.

The two-foot snow pack surrounding the haystack is trampled as if 100 school kids had recess. Several deep trails lead to the haystack from the cotton woods in the distance, yet these trails may now be paths to survival in the Bitterroot. Luckily, deer and elk in the valley not lured by haystacks have adapted to survive deep snow by using their snouts and hoofs to clear away snow to reveal grass or browse below.

Most of the valley snow has not reached a height that could significantly impact these large grazers. Other mammals, like foxes and coyotes, use their tremendous sense of hearing to detect mice and voles as those rodents scurry about beneath the snow in a myriad of tunnels that have ample vegetation to feed on.

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Teller Wildlife Refuge
Western meadowlarks arrive in the Bitterroot
image courtesy of Alex Kearney

image courtesy of Alex Kearney

I suspect most folks living in the Bitterroot know that the Montana state flower is the Bitterroot. Yet, many are unaware that the state bird is the western meadowlark.

This quail size bird spends most of the spring and summer months in Montana grasslands habitats.

Although a few western meadowlarks brave the winter in the Bitterroot, the majority of these ground dwelling birds migrate south to warmer temperatures.

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Teller Wildlife Refuge
The Bitterroot Pterodactyl: Pileated woodpeckers are a year-around treat for local bird watchers
Image courtesy of Patrick Chaplin

Image courtesy of Patrick Chaplin

Standing nearly 12 inches tall, the largest North American woodpecker is a magnificent bird, one that will capture your attention when offered the opportunity to see or hear it.

The eerie sounding, unmistakable call of a pileated woodpecker in a conifer forest or cottonwood river bottom, is one that ignites a primordial spirit. Looking like a miniature pterodactyl, the Pileated was named for its beautiful red crest that covers the top of its head.

Pileated woodpeckers are predominately black with white streaks below the eye extending down the neck. In flight, the breast and tips of the wings are black with white underwings. Both male and female have similar appearances yet the female is slightly smaller. When observing the two together, the male will have a more brilliant red crest that extends all the way to the beak, whereas the female’s red crest will stop short of the beak.

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Teller Wildlife Refuge
Bitterroot rough-leggeds return to the valley
Image courtesy of Mel Holloway

Image courtesy of Mel Holloway

I can always tell when winter is approaching by the detection of various migrating bird species that show up in the Bitterroot.

One bird shows up like clockwork every November poised to reduce the rodent population in the valley.

Named for its feathered legs, the rough-legged hawk is a large hawk within a group of hawks referred to as Buteos. These hawks, which include species like the common red-tailed hawk, have broad wings and often perch on telephone poles, fence posts or wheel lines to visually detect their next meal or feed after a successful hunt.

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Teller Wildlife Refuge
Teller Wildlife Refuge and Montana Becoming an Outdoors-Woman host Women’s Waterfowl Weekend
image courtesy of Mady Braught

image courtesy of Mady Braught

Teller Wildlife Refuge and the Montana Becoming an Outdoors-Woman program partnered recently to present a Women’s Waterfowl Weekend.

Ten women from Montana and as far away as North Dakota traveled to Teller Wildlife Refuge to spend the weekend learning about all things waterfowl.

Staff from Teller and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, and a group of knowledgeable volunteers delivered lessons on the history of waterfowl management, Montana waterfowl hunting regulations, Duck ID, gear and decoys.

Ducks Unlimited donated mallard calls and caps and local chapter volunteers presented a lesson on basic duck calling. The Hamilton Trap Club hosted the shooting safety portion of the day and assisted with helping everyone practice shooting that mimicked an actual hunting situation.

At the end of the day, the group had a hands-on demonstration on how to process their harvest in addition to being able to sample some favorite recipes of the volunteers. The following morning, the ladies and their instructors headed out to the blinds for their first duck hunt.

Teller Wildlife Refuge
Belted kingfishers are a common sight in the Bitterroot Valley
image courtesy of Mike Daniels

image courtesy of Mike Daniels

For most of us living in the Bitterroot, spending time along the river or one of the many valley streams is a highlight of our outdoor connection.

Whether fishing from a raft, wading, or just out for a walk with the dog, those visits have undoubtedly provided an opportunity to encounter one of nature’s most accomplished avian fish predators, the belted kingfisher.

Typically, you hear a loud “rattle-chatter” call as the bird parallels the water course, finally perching on a branch overlooking a pool of clear water. Suddenly, the bird plunges downward, makes a splash on the water, and quickly ascends back to the perch with a 2-inch fish in its beak. Swallowing the prey head first, the bird ruffles its feathers to knock off a few remaining water beads before it departs, echoing the “rattle chatter” as it flies off.

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Teller Wildlife Refuge
Northern Harrier is one of the Bitterroot’s most common birds of prey
image courtesy of Heather Tellock

image courtesy of Heather Tellock

Flying low over the field, a midsized hawk gently glides inches over the tall grass.

Suddenly, it maneuvers and begins to hover, maintaining its position with a sharp eye on the quarry below. As it descends to the ground it disappears in the grass. Magically, it reappears and flies off to perch on a wooden fence post and consume what appears to be a vole.

Grasping the rodent firmly in its talons, it uses its sharp beak to rip open the protein rich meal.

Appropriately referred to as a Marsh Hawk in the past, this raptor is now recognized as the Northern Harrier, one of the Bitterroot’s most common birds of prey. Standing about 12-inches tall with a wing span near 26 inches, this raptor is easily identified with its white rump patch, which is quite visible as the bird flies away from a human observer.

Teller Wildlife Refuge
Bitterroot boasts three species of blackbirds
image courtesy of Mel Holloway

image courtesy of Mel Holloway

Perhaps you have heard of the old nursery rhyme, “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” telling a story about a blackbird pie served to a king.

While the pie wasn’t species specific, I am convinced it was one of the species that call the Bitterroot and most of North America their spring and summer home.

I also vividly remember my Great Aunt Franny speaking highly of blackbird stew, which often fed her family during the Great Depression. Today however, blackbirds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and unless they are causing severe damage to crops, they may not be taken.

So, what species of blackbird reside in the Bitterroot? There are three, and all can be observed within a short distance of one another. Two species, the yellow-headed and the red–winged can be found near cattail marsh habitats, while the Brewer's blackbird tends to frequent pastures or wet meadows. Each has its own distinct appearance, vocalizations and behaviors. Let’s take a deeper look into these three blackbirds of the Bitterroot.

Teller Wildlife Refuge