November 20, 2022
It’s -3°F this morning at the Bitterroot Valley’s Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge. Frost coats the tan cattail stems in thick, furry layers. Most of the extensive wetlands here are in their winter dormancy, the bounty of life hiding under an opaque, white layer of ice. But the small patches of open water that remain, maintained by the warmth of groundwater, are teeming with ducks.
“The ponds are normally not frozen over in mid-November,” says Elena Ulev, the naturalist who is leading us this morning. We’re on another of the Montana Natural History Center’s field outings today. This is the Natural History Center’s birding club, which meets twice a month at various “birdy” spots around Missoula. With these bitter temperatures, today’s group is small. We’re all bundled up against the cold. Along with Elena and me are Sue and Tim Furey, a pair of patient and curious observers with a propensity for spotting hard-to-see birds and interesting tracks. And in spite of the severe weather, there’s a lot for us to see at Lee Metcalf this morning.
Waterfowl and more
An icy mist is rising from the small patch of open water immediately west of the visitor’s center, and it’s alive with waterfowl. A group of green-winged teal are busily dabbling in the shallows, noticeably tiny next to the mallards and northern pintails that are accompanying them. Farther out, a few American coots are swimming in the deeper water. A female common goldeneye and two ring-necked ducks are diving for food.
Tim spots a smaller bird right in front of us, one we had overlooked in our enthusiasm for the ducks. It’s roosting on the ice, head tucked, so still that it seems to be frozen. We walk to the side so that we can see more than just its well-camouflaged back. It’s a killdeer, withstanding the cold without boots, gloves, or handwarmers. Soon it starts to forage, wading through the shallows among patches of ice and picking small invertebrates out of the waters of the spring.
The frozen marshes stretch out for half a mile in front of us, the cattails brittle and silent. But as we continue north along the Kenai Nature Trail, another patch of unfrozen water appears ahead of us. It’s a meandering channel, bordered on each side by marsh. This spot, too, is teeming with waterfowl. The Canada geese burst into honking music as soon as they see us. The northern pintails and green-winged teals seem less concerned, continuing to dabble butts-up in the water. And among the ducks and geese are three massive white birds, their necks long and their heads tinged faint orange. Swans!
We set up the spotting scope and debate species identification: are they tundra swans or trumpeter swans? Their bills are long and straight, the black keratin reaching their eye in a relatively thick band. They lack the dash of yellow near their eye that, when it’s present, is a dead giveaway for the migrant tundra swans that pass through Montana in the fall, en route from the arctic to wetlands along the North American coast.
We’re pretty sure that these ones are trumpeter swans, those massive, 23-pound birds that nest in Montana and will also, sometimes, stay around for the winter. But it’s only later, when another small group of swans begins their low-pitched, trumpeting honks, that we really feel solid in the identification.
Sue spots a female northern harrier slipping past low over the cattails, hunting for voles or perhaps green-winged teals.
“They have an owl-like face for listening,” Elena comments.
Chickadees and knapweed gall flies
Now that we’re past the open water, our walk lulls into relative silence. We pass by chokecherry thickets and mature cottonwoods that are undoubtedly full of birds in the spring and summer. But right now they’re resting, quiet except for a lone black-capped chickadee. The chickadee darts out from the shrubs, landing in the spotted knapweed (Centaurea stoebe) nearby. It taps expertly at a knapweed seedhead, then returns to the safety of the chokecherries to hammer at its food. What is this chickadee doing?
Based on research done by Chris Templeton at the University of Montana, it seems likely that this chickadee is foraging for gall fly larvae. A few species of gall flies in the genus Urophora have been introduced to western North America as biocontrol insects on spotted knapweed. The gall fly larvae overwinter in knapweed seedheads, substantially reducing seed production. At the same time, they provide a juicy, protein-rich snack for chickadees, deer mice, and other animals trying to survive the cold season.
Birds in the cold
Three trumpeter swans are still standing on the frozen pond, apparently nonchalant about the frigid morning.
“They’re just taking a nap on the ice,” Elena says. “Humans are so delicate in a way.”
Indeed, it’s hard to believe that all of these birds can tolerate the Montana winter. It’s a daunting challenge for us humans, one to be met with wool, puffy layers, and insulated boots.
I notice a slim bird perching in the distant aspens at the edge of the marsh, hundreds of yards away. Could it be a northern shrike? We set up Elena’s spotting scope and strain our eyes, waiting for it to turn its head. Sure enough, we can barely see its thin black mask and raptorial, hooked bill. A recent arrival from the north, there’s a good chance this shrike will stay in Montana until the spring, hunting voles and songbirds.
A northern flicker is perching quietly in a cottonwood, soaking up the morning sun. Otherwise, the morning remains quiet, the landscape frozen in wintry rest.
Hunters at Lee Metcalf
But as we walk back past the chokecherries, approaching the open water, things start to get busy. We see two red-tailed hawks at the same time, flapping across the marsh. And each is carrying prey! One hawk continues north, angling away from us, a deer mouse or a meadow vole clasped in its talons. We can see the second red-tail as it flies directly away from us, crossing the marsh towards the cottonwoods in the distance. And what’s in its claws? This prey is much bulkier, and we can almost see a wing trailing from it. The red-tail is loaded down, struggling to maintain altitude with its heavy catch. It manages to carry its prey across the marsh and land low in one of the cottonwoods. What has it caught? It seems to be a bird, the size of a small duck. Could it be a green-winged teal?
We set up the scope once again, but the shimmering heat waves make a positive identification impossible. Still, it seems likely that the hawk has caught a teal.
A refuge for wildlife
The excitement isn’t over yet. We can hear the tip calls of two American tree sparrows nearby. Then we see them, flitting through the chokecherries. They pause briefly and we get to admire their crisp white wingbars and chestnut caps. Then they’re gone, moving onwards in their quest for winter seeds.
An immature bald eagle flaps heavily south over the frozen wetlands. Then I spot a flash of wings out of the corner of my eye. It’s another bald eagle, an adult, flaring as it lands in a nearby cottonwood. Its white head and tail gleam in the sun as it scans the crowd of ducks in the water downhill from it. The ducks rustle nervously but stay put. Is the eagle, like the red-tailed hawk, contemplating a duck for lunch?
Even on this bitterly cold morning, it’s clear that these marshes and thickets are feeding ducks, sheltering sparrows, and attracting predators as well. Lee Metcalf is truly a refuge for wildlife – and a great place to spend the morning in the company of fellow naturalists, getting to know our feathered winter neighbors.
Winter is here. And frigid though it may be, a morning walk in the cold is still very worthwhile. From green-winged teals to the hawks carrying them away, there’s no telling what you might see.