October 5, 2022
An orange-crowned warbler and two drab gray yellow-rumped warblers are hunting insects in a chokecherry this morning as its leaves drop softly, one by one, swirling to the moist ground in orange pirouettes. Helena, Montana’s Nature Park is busy with birds this morning, even though in general fall songbird migration is beginning to dwindle. Robins are everywhere, calling energetically as they land in the European mountain-ashes (Sorbus aucuparia) and feed on the bitter orange fruits. A few spotted towhees mew from the chokecherry thickets. A downy woodpecker whinnies occasionally. A large mule deer buck, unafraid here in the safety of the city limits, is thrashing an aspen with his polished antlers.
A slender, medium-sized bird bobs past us on rhythmic wingbeats. A northern flicker, we wonder? No – it’s a Clark’s nutcracker, sleek and gray with narrow white patches in its dark wings. I’m surprised to see this nutcracker – a bird closely associated with our pine forests – in the deciduous habitat of this park. A Clark’s nutcracker in the “wrong” habitat: I love stories like these. Unusual sightings like this remind me to expect the unexpected. Clark’s nutcrackers are birds of pine forests, yes – but like all birds, they move from one patch to the next. Finding a nutcracker at Nature Park is like finding me at Walmart. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.
“So much stuff will just pass through here for a split second,” comments Sarah Kamis, my birding buddy this morning. She tells me about a time several years ago when she spotted a red crossbill – another seed-feeding specialist of the conifer forest – here in Nature Park.
Birding in the heart of Helena
For Sarah and many other local birders, Nature Park is a special place for birds. These folks have gotten to know this place well over the course of the seasons – and they’ve turned up some amazing stories. Over the years, they’ve documented 18 species of warblers at Nature Park. This is a phenomenal diversity for anywhere in the Helena area – and particularly notable here, in the heart of the city.
Today, we seem to be at the tail end of the fall white-crowned sparrow migration. Just a couple of chubby, brown-capped immatures are still hiding in the bushes. It’s another reflection of how dynamic migration is: a week and a half ago, Sarah and I found dozens of white-crowned sparrows here, feeding on seeds along the paved trail that runs through the park. Except for the white-crowned sparrows, that day was rather quiet, a lull between waves of southbound songbirds.
An impromptu gathering
September 24, 2022
But even when the birds are quiet, Nature Park is also a great place for impromptu community birding events. And so it was that, on that quiet morning, Sarah and I ran across our birding friends Sharon Dewart-Hansen and Bob Martinka. The slow morning of birding became a morning of storytelling.
The conversation immediately turned to the impressive diversity of birds that birders have found here over the years. It all started in 2019, when Sarah spotted a rare black-throated gray warbler here, flitting through the bushes with some chickadees. Black-throated gray warblers typically spend the summers south of us, in dry oak and juniper patches in the Great Basin. But in August 2019, the out-of-place bird stayed around for over two weeks. Many local birders got to see it. And from then on, Nature Park was “on the map” for Helena birders.
Since then, Helena’s birders have gotten to know this park very well. When Sarah found the black-throated gray warbler, the bird list for Nature Park stood at just 85 species. Three years later, with all of the attention from local birders, the list is up to a whopping 147 species. It’s an incredible diversity – especially considering that Nature Park is in the middle of the city, and it lacks the extensive wetland habitats that would otherwise attract many more species of ducks and marsh birds.
Changes through the seasons
This morning, Bob had arrived at the park earlier than the rest of us, so he gave us his morning bird report and then took his leave. Bob’s observations confirmed our hunch – it was a slow day for fall migrants. He had seen a handful of Wilson’s warblers, Lincoln’s sparrows, and ruby-crowned kinglets. And, of course, there were the white-crowned sparrows. But otherwise, most of the migrant songbirds seemed to be elsewhere this morning.
As Sarah, Sharon, and I continued onwards through the quiet morning, they showed me a knothole in an aspen where a house wren had nested several years ago. Now the house wrens no longer nest here – they only stop at Nature Park during spring and fall migration. Why? Sharon wondered if increased numbers of pedestrians in the park have deterred the wrens from nesting.
Here at the end of September, the chokecherry bushes were already bare of fruits. Sharon told us that a horde of robins had come through the park several weeks before and devoured them all. Meanwhile, she pointed out, the magpies had returned to the park. For some reason, the magpies were nearly absent over the summer. But now they were back, perhaps taking advantage of the seeds that people feed the chipmunks.
Warblers, aphids, and crayfish
We passed by the spot along the creek where, in September 2020, Sharon and several other birders spotted two other rare birds: a chestnut-sided warbler and a black-and-white warbler. It’s a thicket of chokecherries and other shrubs along a gully: a patch of shrubs just like many others around Helena. But Sharon’s story reminded us that among these patches of shrubs, there’s often more than meets the eye.
Farther along, we stopped at an overlook where we could see the understory vegetation along the stream, a mixture of dock (Rumex sp.) and burdock (Arctium sp.). In past years, Sharon told us, there was more dock and less burdock here. She would often see various warblers among the glossy leaves, feeding on aphids. More recently, this patch has become much quieter. The dock population has shrunk, the burdock has increased, and the aphids have apparently disappeared. And so, it seems, have the birds.
We continued to where the creek, strewn with bits of trash and debris from the spring floods, crosses under the trail in a culvert. Might there be crayfish in the pool below the culvert?, Sarah wondered. We walked down the hill and checked the boulders around the pool. No crayfish here, it seemed. There are crayfish at the K-Mart Ponds (another local hotspot for birding), though, my companions told me. Sarah has seen them hiding in the water control structure at the outlet, and Sharon has watched red-necked grebes eating them.
Walking through Nature Park
Nature Park is a special place for birds. Every cottonwood, every aspen, and every chokecherry holds stories. Some days, during the height of migration, this place can be spectacular for birds. But even on quieter days, there’s always something to see, something to learn, and innumerable stories to remember.
So this fall, I invite you to take a walk through Nature Park. Notice the seasons changing, and keep your eyes and ears open for the birds. And if you show up early in the morning, there’s a good chance you’ll find a friendly local birder with a wealth of stories about this place. I’ll see you there.