November 2, 2022
It’s a quiet day along the Clark Fork River at Missoula’s Kelly Island Fishing Access Site. Deep blue-gray squalls carry short-lived snow flurries across the Missoula valley. The cottonwoods glow deep yellow against the clouds and rustle insistently in the wind.
I must look a little bit absurd this afternoon. The occasional bowhunters who pass me barely try to disguise their skeptical glances. I’m wearing waders, a raincoat, and more items of wool and fleece than I care to count. And on top of all of that is my birding gear: binoculars, camera, and a sound-recording setup with shotgun microphone and headset. My plan for the afternoon started out as a simple autumn walk – but it has quickly become an adventure in (attempting to) record bird sounds.
The only problem is that the birds today are few and far between. The sounds I might record are either fleeting or unappealing. A leaf blower emits a piercing whine from a house near the trailhead. Occasionally I can hear a northern flicker calling in the distance. A common raven flies over, croaking. A second raven slips past.
I’m trudging through the river-rounded cobbles of a side channel of the Clark Fork River. A fly fisherman casts into the pool below me.
Last night the weather turned sharply towards winter. Yesterday was sunny and in the 60s. Today, a 38°F breeze pushes clouds over the golden cottonwoods. Snow has dusted the mountains where the western larches (Larix occidentalis) have turned a deep yellow.
It’s quite a change from the last time I was here, in August. Fall songbird migration is over. The western tanagers, gray catbirds, and Wilson’s warblers have passed through already. With winter approaching, bird activity is becoming more sporadic. And it’s late afternoon – the worst time of day for bird activity. I feel clumsy and absurd with all of my sound-recording gear. Why am I doing this today?
But birds or no birds, it’s a beautiful afternoon to walk and notice the changing of the seasons. I continue onwards, wading the side channel just below the gentle arc of a well-maintained beaver dam.
Some of the cottonwoods are nearly bare already. The birds remain quiet. Underneath the trees, the invasive smooth brome (Bromus inermis) that dominates much of the island is glowing pale green, gold, and umber.
In spite of the smooth brome, the vegetation on this island is a rather diverse mix. Along a moist-soiled overflow channel where the deer have walked recently, I pass a sepia patch of tall dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum). This elegant native plant is covered with delicate white flowers in the summer. In another direction, a few ponderosa pines (Pinus ponderosa) mix with the cottonwoods. The understory is rusty-green with Rocky Mountain junipers (Juniperus scopulorum).
Kelly Island from a hawk’s view
I’ve been stumbling around Kelly Island in my waders for over an hour now, and I still haven’t heard a single bird I can record. But that’s okay, because there’s always something to learn out here. Even when a field day doesn’t go as planned, it’s never a waste.
A red-tailed hawk circles over the island against the blue-purple clouds. Its rusty tail tells me it’s an adult. The hawk taunts my camera and microphone, remaining silent and rapidly fading eastward on the sighing wind.
But this hawk carries one of today’s stories with it. From the eyes of a red-tail (or from the computer assistance of a LiDAR map), you can see that this entire island is a layered braid. It’s crisscrossed with old river channels, meandering back and forth, stacked one atop the next. Here, near the confluence of the Bitterroot and Clark Fork Rivers, every aspect of this place has been shaped by water. The patterns of smooth brome and dogbane, cottonwood and pine; the birds that appear here throughout the year; the white-tailed deer that flushed from their grassy beds moments ago – all of it is a tapestry woven by water.
Late fall in Missoula
I first arrived in Missoula two days ago, and I’ll be writing from here through the end of the year. And already, the force of water is informing my time here. Yesterday I joined the Watershed Education Network in a survey of the Rattlesnake Creek Dam site: a look at the power and changeability of water. (Watch for a blog post with that story in a few weeks.) Over the next two months, I’ll also be getting out in the field with birders and naturalists, celebrating the changing seasons. And, most likely, I’ll be making some more trips out to Kelly Island.
Do you live around Missoula? Do you have ideas for naturalist forays with me in the next two months? Let me know!
An owl and two chickadees
The sun is sliding behind the cloud bank that looms over the western mountains. Finally, I start to hear some birds. A few pygmy nuthatches twitter from the ponderosas, too fleetingly to record them. A hairy woodpecker calls emphatically, just one time. Then a great horned owl flushes from the cottonwood above me, sailing silently to a nearby pine.
The flight of the owl unleashes a series of timid sip calls from two black-capped chickadees. They remain still for several minutes, hunkered down in a common barberry (Berberis vulgaris) that’s turning orange and scarlet. The chickadees, at least, I’m able to record. I capture their sip calls and watch as they begin to forage again, cautiously. It wasn’t totally foolish to carry all of this equipment with me, after all.
A walk in nature is always a foray into the unknown. Some afternoons, like this one, the birds are quiet. But whether we find what we’re hoping to find, or not, there are always stories waiting for us. Today, it’s been the last orange fall leaves against a stormy sky. It’s been the braided patterns of water and vegetation as seen from a red-tailed hawk’s vantage. And it’s been the chickadees that I lugged my microphone out here to record.
So get outside – and let me know about the stories you find! I’ll see you out there.