December 10, 2022
The forecast called for an easterly wind this morning, and it’s impossible to ignore here along the pedestrian trail that follows the Clark Fork River through Missoula, Montana. It funnels out of Hellgate Canyon to our east, blasting the heart of Missoula with its icy breath. Here along the Milwaukee Trail, the wind whistles under the bridges. The hiss of drifting snow keeps us company on our wintry walk.
But there are ducks here still, swimming along the Clark Fork River just a few blocks from downtown Missoula. A male common merganser maintains his position along the edge of the ice, showing off his dark head and his sharp, pinkish-orange bill. Common mergansers primarily eat fish, but right now this one isn’t diving. Perhaps he’s waiting for the sun to climb above Mount Sentinel and warm the morning.
There are six of us on this morning’s walk, bundled in many layers and carrying binoculars. It’s part of Five Valleys Audubon Society’s series of “town-bound birding” walks. Five Valleys Audubon board member Jacob Glass came up with the idea for these walks, and he’s been leading them once a month since April. By providing short bird walks within the city of Missoula and its outskirts, he hopes to make it more accessible for people of all ages and backgrounds to get to know our feathered neighbors.
Birding and inclusion
Within Montana’s birding community, most of the people I meet tend to be retired, financially secure, white Americans. Many of the bird walks that exist – such as day-long trips to relatively distant wildlife refuges – cater to people who fit this description. But all of us have birds as neighbors – and all of us, regardless of our age, identity, and work or family schedules, can be inspired by the awe of learning from these wild creatures.
With the town-bound birding series, Jacob hopes to make this connection with wild birds accessible to a broader group of Missoulians. He hopes these walks will be able to reach people who may not be able to come on longer trips to more-distant lakes or wildlife refuges.
The town-bound bird walks are a community space. Jacob invites us all to teach each other, sharing our knowledge and stories of the birds we’re seeing.
“We love to be inclusive in our birding information,” he says.
This morning, he mentions just one caveat: “If your mouth is frozen, I understand that, too!”
Ducks in the Hellgate wind
Sure enough, we’re all mumbling a little bit when we talk, our jaws chilled by the Hellgate wind. The birds are sparse on this intense morning – but the ones we see make the chilly adventure worthwhile. Near the common merganser, some black and white ducks appear, only to dive again almost immediately. They’re goldeneyes – and there are actually two species of them here!
A male common goldeneye, his black head marked with a round white spot, dives as two other ducks resurface. These two are the somewhat less-common Barrow’s goldeneyes. The male Barrow’s has a white crescent moon on his head instead of a white circle. And the female has a mostly orange bill (while common goldeneye females have a mostly dark bill).
“These are really good looks at the two next to each other,” Jacob says. “This is wonderful!”
Larry Weeks sets up his spotting scope on the ducks, offering everyone the chance to get an up-close look. We can find goldeneyes of both species on Montana’s icy rivers all through the winter, feeding on aquatic insects and fish.
A northern flicker is perching on the ice shelf along the edge of the river’s current. Is she getting a drink?
Birds in the heart of Missoula
We continue into the wind, stopping occasionally to look at Mount Jumbo rising above us. We don’t see the Mount Jumbo elk herd this morning. Jacob speculates that they’re on the far side of the mountain, where the morning sun is warming the slopes.
The birds remain few and far between. The cold wind buffets us, but we’re all in good spirits, happy to be walking outside. An American crow flaps over us, momentarily motionless in the headwind. Then it turns downstream, sailing rapidly away on the current of air. Another crow is perching nearby, calling occasionally. It faces into the wind, bobbing slightly, its body streamlined in the breeze.
It’s not always this quiet here. Jacob tells me that he sees western tanagers here in the summer. He compares their brilliant plumage to a sunset. At night during the warm season, common nighthawks dart over the river. Farther upstream, American redstarts hunt insects in the shrubs.
“The Clark Fork is such a good resource,” Jacob says.
And thanks to Missoula’s network of trails, everyone who lives here can spend time along the river.
The wind keeps the bird activity quiet this morning. Even some of our usual winter birds – like great blue herons and belted kingfishers – are nowhere to be seen. But sometimes the quiet spaces between the birds – just like the pauses between words – can serve to emphasize what we do see.
An eagle in the Hellgate wind
We’re walking back, the Hellgate wind at our backs, when we spot the bald eagle. Larry Weeks is far ahead, his spotting scope cradled on his shoulder. Janelle Dauenhauer and I stop where we are, watching the eagle as it navigates the breeze, flapping stiffly north in a crosswind. It crosses the river, almost over our heads. Behind us, Roberta McElroy and Pam Murphy have stopped, along with Jacob, their three pairs of binoculars following the massive bird as it continues past.
The flight of the eagle, the diving of the goldeneyes, the northern flicker at the edge of the ice – these moments, connected by the icy hiss of the wind, form the story of this morning’s wintry walk. Here in the middle of Missoula, these glimpses of our feathered neighbors are something that all of us can see and enjoy. And hopefully, with these short bird walks through town, we can share that joy with a broader, more-diverse group of Missoulians.
Now we’re headed back to Bernice’s Bakery for some hot drinks and pastries. But we’ll be back out in March, continuing the monthly town-bound birding walks and deepening our connection with this place where we live.
By March, the weather will be getting milder. Spring birdsong will be returning to the landscape. And by revisiting spots like the Milwaukee Trail, we’ll be able to see the seasons changing and celebrate the arrival of spring.
Want to join us in March – or do you know someone else who does? Watch the Five Valleys Audubon Society events page for details.