August 30, 2022
The sun is hot on this midday at the end of summer, but the breeze carries a cool hint of fall. A delta of bright green algae marks the mouth of Spokane Creek where it flows lazily into the bay on Hauser Lake. Twenty mallards are swimming slowly away from me, following the shallow blue channels that wind among the algae. A lone female hooded merganser is swimming alongside them. Otherwise, the bay is empty of waterfowl.
Earlier, I had watched two pelicans swimming placidly along the far shore, where the steep hills of pink-orange shale rise up. Three sandhill cranes were circling over the bay, their throbbing calls echoing off of the slope.
The cranes have landed now. They’re foraging quietly among the rushes and cattails near the mouth of the creek, picking methodically among the damp vegetation.
Fall migration is already underway. The shorebirds were some of the earliest to migrate – since the end of July, they’ve been passing through the Helena Valley. But now, the songbirds are beginning to move, too. Here at Spokane Bay this morning, the native cottonwoods (Populus sp.) and the non-native crack willows (Salix fragilis) along the water are full of yellow-rumped warblers. Yellow-rumps are breeding birds of the conifer forest. Seeing them here, in riparian habitat along the lake, it’s clear that they’re already migrating. Their spic calls fill the trees as they flit from leaf to leaf, hunting insects.
Occasionally I also hear the sharper chip calls of a Wilson’s warbler. These furtive birds nest along mountain streams and beaver ponds. Now they’re beginning to migrate, too. They’re much less common than the yellow-rumps today, though. This morning I’ve counted just five of them, scattered in the trees and shrubs around the bay. At the same time, I’ve counted 40 yellow-rumps.
We’re still near the start of this fast-moving season of transition. Here at Spokane Bay, many of our summer breeding birds are sticking around. Spotted towhees mew from the dry, shrubby slopes. A western wood-pewee sings his lazy, descending slur from the crack willows. Several gray catbirds mew from dense shrubs near the stream. A few of the yellow warblers that probably nested here this summer are still around, hunting insects in the cottonwoods.
Into the hills
In the grassland on the hills, the clattering crepitations of grasshoppers, red-winged and yellow-winged, fill the air. The broom snakeweed (Gutierrezia sarothrae) is in full bloom now. The dotted blazing star (Liatris punctata) is almost done flowering, while rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa) is just beginning.
By now I’ve climbed nearly to the ridgeline, hiking through the bright yellow clumps of broom snakeweed and the tufts of the bunchgrasses. Suddenly, in the distance, I hear a chorus of strange calls. They remind me vaguely of Clark’s nutcrackers, but each call is like a question mark. It slurs strongly upwards and then drops off again.
Then I see them, sailing over the bay in an undulating line, heading for a Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum) below me. They’re pinyon jays, dusty blue from their beaks to their tail feathers. They land in the juniper, making more of their questioning calls, then continue to a more-distant ponderosa pine. I manage to get a bad recording of them calling in the distance, a nasal wee-ow above the constant conversation of the wind and the grasses.
Pinyon jay biology
I’ve been watching for pinyon jays since I first arrived in Helena six years ago. And over those years of casual looking, they’ve always eluded me. Around Helena, the Scratchgravel Hills and the nearby Forestvale Cemetery are the places where birders see them most frequently. But even there, a pinyon jay sighting is never a sure thing. And in the Spokane Bay area, across the Helena Valley from the Scratchgravel Hills, it’s been 22 years since anyone has reported pinyon jays.
Pinyon jays are birds of the interior west. They’re usually associated with pinyon pines, whose seeds they harvest and cache for food. But interestingly, although we don’t have pinyon pines in Montana, we do have pinyon jays. According to the excellent reference Birds of Montana, these birds are residents in much of the state east of the continental divide, where they’re associated with ponderosa pine and limber pine-juniper forests.
Without pinyon pines in Montana, what do pinyon jays eat? Birds of Montana suggests that our local pinyon jays probably eat pine seeds, too – just not pinyon pines. But pine seeds aren’t the entire diet. Birds of Montana also relays some observations made over a century ago in far-eastern Montana, near Fallon. There, ornithologist Ewen Cameron saw pinyon jays flipping over cow pies to hunt beetles. During the winter, he watched them feeding on juniper berries.
Why I write
From the completely unexpected pinyon jays to the first migrating warblers, it’s been a good day for birds. Today, Spokane Bay has reminded me, once again, why I write. I write because I love being out here. The stories are different every day, and I want to share them with you. Today it’s the cranes bugling over the marsh, the mallards and a hooded merganser swimming at the mouth of the creek. It’s the warblers feeding in the willows, the broom snakeweed covering the hillsides with gold, and the possibility of pinyon jays landing, unexpected, in a juniper.
Being out here gives me a sense of wonder and lets me feel grounded in the place where I live. When I’m here, I’m connected to the changing of the seasons through my eyes, my ears, and my bones. And no matter how much I may be doubting – questioning my purpose, despairing at all that seems wrong in the world – somehow, after sitting out here, a measure of hope and awe always comes seeping back in. I hope that these stories do the same for you.