Birding in one place for a full year

Golden Eagle
Golden Eagle is a common sight in Big Sky Country, especially in fall. Photo by Shutterstock

Helena, Montana, is Golden Eagle country. Thousands glide past each fall from the rugged lands of Canada and Alaska. Many follow the ridge updraft highways, but at least a few spill out over the valleys on thermals. From an eagle’s view a thousand feet up, Sevenmile Creek in October looks like countless other grassland streams here on the dry side of the Continental Divide. It’s a ribbon of burgundy stems and orange leaves in a sea of tinder-dry grasses. This is arid country, the mountains cloaked with hardy Douglas-firs and ponderosa pines, the valleys a tattered mosaic of grasslands and sagebrush among irrigated hay farms and housing sprawl.

What’s different about Sevenmile Creek is that I and other local Audubon members have watched it, in collaboration with the land trust that is restoring the degraded stream. The parcel is a long 350 acres, and the bird-survey route extends almost a mile and a half upstream. Even in the land’s degraded state, close observation through the seasons has revealed a rich and changing web of life. Here I present a whirlwind tour: a year of birds in one place, starting in October. As you’ll see, a hemisphere of birds can be seen in this one spot.

Want to learn more about birds? Sign up for our newsletter, full of birding tips, news, and more!

The sharp-eyed hunter

The Rough-legged Hawk seemed to hang in the west breeze, neck craned — two pounds of crisply feathered, sharp-eyed hunter. The first had shown up in October with the Golden Eagles. The eagles passed over, but I saw one or two Roughies consistently through the rest of the winter. The same one or two? Impossible to tell. A radio telemetry study 120 miles away in the Mission Valley gave some clues. Roughies may roost communally on winter nights, and the study turned up the largest known winter roost in the world: a conifer stand sheltering up to 300 hawks in some years. From the roost, Rough-legs commuted up to 15 miles to foraging areas each day. Adults usually visited the same spots daily, while juveniles wandered much more.

At Sevenmile Creek, without radios or bands to mark individuals, I could only wonder about their movements. I had a good idea why the hawks were here, though. With their diminutive feet and bills, Rough-legs are winter vole specialists. Amid this sea of grasses, the stubby-tailed rodents were sure to be here.

As snow piled up and periods of sun and wind compacted and drifted it, the voles continued to feed beneath their crystalline blanket. By February, the snow was so dense that I couldn’t push a tape measure through to check the depth, and I kept expecting the hawks to leave. To my amazement, the Rough-legs persisted, though they seemed to perch more and kite less. Clearly the hawks were tough winter birds, some of the few finding food on the dormant landscape.

Rough-legged Hawk
Rough-legged Hawk typically arrives in Montana in late September and a few linger in the state until early May. Photo by Ed Schneider/Shutterstock

The sleek gray Townsend’s Solitaire “whisper-sang” softly from a bare chokecherry branch. Raising its tail, it defecated twice, flashed its white outer tail feathers, and darted into the alders along the ice-covered creek. Consistent sightings of one or two solitaires on winter surveys were a mystery: What where they eating? The chokecherries were long gone, and the few remaining fruits of a single Russian olive probably wouldn’t go far. Solitaires are known for feeding on junipers, but only four of the shrubs were in sight along the open draws north of the creek. Was that enough? I waded through the snow under the solitaire’s perch to collect scat. Later, the pungent smell told me before the dissecting microscope did: juniper skins, seeds, and pulp.

Sparrows in springtime

I heard it before I saw it: two clear whistles dropping into a complex jumble. The Vesper Sparrow perched on a pile of railroad ties on a grassy bench above the stream. Farther away, another responded. A strengthening March sun had finally melted the snow, bringing meadowlarks back. By late April, the grasses were growing fresh leaves and Vesper Sparrows had returned, too. The bird on the ties continued to sing, almost drowned out by the vibrant whistles and gurgles of the meadowlarks. In the wetter, denser cover of an old hayfield, Savannah Sparrows perched and buzzed. On the drier slopes and flats, the Vesper Sparrows predominated.

My progress up the stream was stopped by a flitting movement and a sharp buzzy zeet call. I paused, attentive. Finally, a Lincoln’s Sparrow darted from a shrubby tangle and landed among spring-green grasses at the stream’s edge. It picked in the saturated mud for several minutes. I came to know the crisp, streaky sparrows by their behavior as much as their appearance: a bit smaller than a Song Sparrow, but twice as secretive. I found them in the densest thickets and woodiest tangles along the stream. Sometimes I saw two together, but often they were solitary. By mid-May, they were gone, onward to the dense wet willows where they breed.

The Lincoln’s Sparrows were not the only birds moving on to a different breeding habitat. Yellow-rumped Warblers, White-crowned Sparrows, and flaming orange Western Tanagers were some of the others that passed through. The birds brought spring migration alive as they arrived and departed. It was clear that this place was tied to other far-flung grasslands and forests. My understanding of the movements was limited by my inability to mark and track individuals, but the White-crowned Sparrows hinted at a destination as well as timing. Boreal White-crowns differ from the local mountain breeders by the color of their bill and lores. All my photos showed boreal birds, en route to the forests of Canada.

Western Tanager
Western Tanager stops at Sevenmile Creek in Montana in spring on its way north.

Nesting season

Like most nests, those of grassland birds are hard to find. Though the Vesper and Savannah Sparrows sang through June and numbers spiked in July, as I would expect with fledglings, I never found a nest. So, when a Western Meadowlark flushed from the ground right at my feet in May, I looked very carefully in the field. Even so, I almost missed the nest, tucked in near a grass hummock: a fine basket with a full clutch of five eggs. After a swift photo, I and my two fellow birders moved on quickly, wary of predators. A check 10 days later revealed hatchlings. After that we swung far around the spot to avoid flushing nearly fledged young prematurely. By the next month, the nest was empty.

Two streamlined blue-and-orange Barn Swallows perched side-by-side on the branch of a dead alder, the deeper orange male warbling his song. May and June had brought sightings of six swallow species, but only two were frequent here: the streamer-tailed Barn Swallows and the elegant brown and white Northern Rough-winged. Much of the riparian breeding bird contingent had arrived: Yellow Warblers and Gray Catbirds; Eastern Kingbirds and House Wrens. Were any of the swallows breeding here? I suspected the Rough-wings were. They had insects, perches, and 6-foot-high vertical dirt banks for nesting, from a history of stream alterations for agriculture. How about the Barn Swallows? I wondered if they could be using the eaves of the abandoned homestead a quarter-mile away. What I found in June was a surprise: a clutch suspended a few feet above the stream on the side of a 4-foot diameter steel culvert. July brought Barn Swallow fledglings and a second surprise: another nest over the water, this one on a support post for an irrigation dam.

Swallow mystery unsolved

Strangely, the Rough-winged Swallows remained an enigma. Pairs perched together frequently, and several times I saw birds visiting a bank cavity, but then activity decreased. I confirmed no nests and saw no begging fledglings. By August they were gone, leaving the mystery unsolved.

A cloud of birds rose noisily to the fence from the drying grasses of the hayfield. One group dropped back down, then another: over 700 European Starlings in total, mostly grayish fledglings. Amid the late July haze of distant, burning forests, grasshoppers swirled up as I walked. Evidently, the starlings were finding good foraging. The heat of summer had ended the year’s widespread birdsong, but activity had not stopped. For several weeks, up to 20 Western Kingbirds perched along the creek and hunted insects in the fields: harried, frayed adults and fresh-plumaged, begging juveniles. Earlier in the season, these yellow-gray flycatchers had been elsewhere — perhaps nesting in a clump of shade trees by a distant house?

One day, a deer jumped up from a thicket as I passed, startling a Long-eared Owl into flight. I glimpsed a Ferruginous Hawk — rare in this valley — circling in the distance. Other nonbreeders appeared occasionally: stunning orange Bullock’s Orioles and large-headed, thick-billed juvenile Grasshopper Sparrows. These July sightings and others hinted that bird movements were more nuanced here than simply spring and fall migrations.

I wondered about the Long-eared Owl sighting. Might they breed here? I called Jeff Marks, executive director of Montana Bird Advocacy and the author of Birds of Montana, who had studied the species for his master’s thesis. He agreed that the habitat sounded promising: dense, shrubby cover, open fields for foraging, and old magpie nests for breeding. He also told me about the surprising post-breeding movements revealed in an Idaho study of radio-tagged adults and young. By July, the Long-eared Owls had left their riparian nesting area, and some had moved 45 miles north into the mountains. What might this mean for Sevenmile Creek? It would be worthwhile to check all the stick nests for an incubating female next March, but a July sighting couldn’t tell me anything about breeding here.

Vesper Sparrow
Vesper Sparrow can be found in Montana during the summer. It winters in the southern U.S. and northern Mexico. Photo by Chris Hill/Shutterstock

Southbound visitors

August and September brought changes that I could confidently call migration, even without ways of tracking individual birds. Up to 35 Vesper Sparrows frequented the grassland-stream edge, their numbers peaking in late August and then dwindling. I heard the clear, plaintive pew calls of Mountain Bluebirds and strained to find flocks passing overhead, flying mostly south.

One day, standing still and listening, a nervous movement on the ground across the stream drew my attention. A Green-tailed Towhee scratched in the grasses, its chestnut cap and gray-green wings crisp through my binoculars. Soon I saw it again near a tangle of clematis vines and a clump of fruit-laden chokecherries. It grasped a long, twisted piece of grass in its beak, dropped it, carried it a short distance, and dropped it again. What was its story? Helena is near the northern end of the species’ range, so perhaps this bird had nested in sagebrush or a dry sumac draw elsewhere in this valley. A Spotted Towhee appeared nearby. Wilson’s Warblers and the occasional Orange-crowned Warbler gleaned insects from the alders. Lincoln’s Sparrows returned in numbers — up to 14 skulking in the thickets.

By early October, the water birches were golden, and rich orange chokecherry leaves were falling. The warbler flood was dwindling, with Yellow-rumps bringing up the seasonal rear. Robins and Western Meadowlarks remained, perching in a clump of chokecherries, when a dark streak shot past and the birds scattered. In seconds, the falcon was beyond them and over the fence. A Black-billed Magpie flapped buoyantly up the road. The falcon plowed into it and dropped like a rock, gone. My mom had accompanied me on this survey. We looked at each other in awe, already walking quickly toward our last glimpse of the raptor.

We discussed the bird: narrow, pointy wings, seemingly too big for a Merlin. I had seen Prairie Falcons here a few times before. But this bird — those sharp wingbeats, that lightning action — could it be a Peregrine? We lucked out as we approached: the dark-helmeted Peregrine Falcon was still there, tearing feathers from the magpie in a low grassy area. We watched it for minutes, rapt, before it carried the rest of the magpie to a fencepost. Almost an hour after the kill, it flared its wings and launched. We followed it with our binoculars as it became a distant speck in the southeast over Helena.

How did it happen that our survey coincided with the Peregrine? We would have missed it if it had stooped two hours later, or on another day. Routine surveys have started to paint a compelling picture of a landscape — but how much more have we missed? What if we could watch every single day, for a year?

Sevenmile Creek is an amazing place. It has water, insects, small mammals, and native plants: good habitat, and with care it will continue to improve. Yet this story is not just about one place. It is about a hemisphere that still has a year’s cycle of habitat for Golden Eagles and Lincoln’s Sparrows. It is about connecting with a place and hearing the stories it has to tell. From the marshes of Argentina where Barn Swallows winter to the harsh arctic tundra where Rough-legged Hawks nest on the cliffs, birds tie the world together. Sevenmile Creek is a part of that story. I wish I could ride on the wings of one of these birds and learn about its life. I cannot. So, I walk on the soil of one place and catch sightings and hints on the breeze.

Restoration underway

Sevenmile Creek’s past has included overgrazing, topsoil removal, and stream channelization. New ownership by Prickly Pear Land Trust and an extensive stream restoration project are giving hope for a revitalized riparian zone. While restoration progresses, the site is not yet open for public access. For more information, visit http://pricklypearlt.org.

A version of this article originally appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of BirdWatching magazine. 

Read about birding hotspots in Montana

Read our newsletter!

Sign up for our free e-newsletter to receive news, photos of birds, attracting and ID tips, and more delivered to your inbox.

Sign Up for Free
Shane Sater

Shane Sater

Shane Sater is an enthusiastic naturalist with a deep curiosity about, and love for, the natural world. He works for the Montana Natural Heritage Program and volunteers frequently on ecology-related projects, from grizzly bear research and whitebark pine restoration to Black Swift surveys. He has written for Montana Outdoors and the newsletter of the Audubon chapter in Helena. His passion for education has prompted him to lead bird walks, mentor children in connecting with nature, and teach with live raptors on his glove.

Shane Sater on social media