Don’t blame me for the focus on this photo. I wasn’t there. This whitetail buck took his own picture and then smashed his nose into my trail camera, which is now covered with teeth marks.
My family and I don’t use our trail cam for hunting; we use it for spying on our wild visitors. After a snowstorm last winter, I crisscrossed our land looking for tracks, then set up the camera along the busiest game trail. That first photo of an elk got me hooked. Later I aimed the camera at a retired fox den, which turned out to be a sort of wildlife crossroads, visited by skunks, deer, squirrels, birds, raccoons, coyotes, and not surprisingly, foxes.
My trail camera photos and videos are modest, all taken in my big backyard. But I couldn’t resist giving them their own Trail Cam page. (As I’m not on Facebook, where else am I supposed to share my blurry skunk pics?) If you want to see more impressive trail camera footage, visit the Mission Valley Grizz Cam. Amazing bears.
Last year, red crossbills invaded my neighborhood, attracted by a large crop of ponderosa pine cones. We hadn’t seen any crossbills for a long time, then suddenly, they were everywhere, crowding the bird bath, flitting between the trees, prying apart pine cones to reach the seeds.
I was already curious about the birds, as red crossbills are one of those unusual species that can nest at nearly (but not quite) any time of year, including late winter. On days with weather so foul we just want to stay inside, they may be incubating sensitive eggs or caring for downy, delicate nestlings.
When the crossbills arrived, I moved my laptop near a window so I could watch them while doing a little research. The result is an Outdoors Portrait in the 2018 March-April issue of Montana Outdoors magazine.
Below are some additional details and photos of a red crossbill nest I found, by pure luck, while working on the article. I’m including them for people who are really, really interested in crossbills.
The first week in March, with snow still patchy on the ground, I saw red crossbills gathering bits of dried grass. One day when I was out walking, I watched a female carry a beak full of grass into a tree. She didn’t come out. I had found her nest.
The picture below, taken two weeks later, shows the female’s notched tail jutting out over the edge. It was cold that day, and she wasn’t going anywhere.
I kept an eye on the nest but did not visit too frequently, as I didn’t want to scare the female off her eggs or young or attract predators. The nest was also near the end of a branch about 10 feet up a tree. Looking inside required a ladder balanced precariously amid the sagebrush. My husband took photos of the babies at a couple of stages of development. (He doesn’t mind standing on the part of a stepladder that carries a warning of impending doom.)
The photo below was taken six days before they flew away, at the end of a very quick “childhood.” We saw three fledge; we don’t know what happened to the fourth nestling.
By April 8, the nest was abandoned, and we lost track of these youngsters. But we were still visited by flocks of juveniles and their parents, which helped feed their young for a while.
With plenty of cones this year as well, we are now hosting another generation.
If you are a teacher or homeschooler looking for ways to extend What I Saw in Grand Teton: A Kid’s Guide to the National Park, here are a few activity ideas for you. My thanks to third-grade teacher Suzy Miller for “Safe Space”–a fun way to teach important lessons for kids living in or visiting areas with potentially dangerous wildlife.
In 1978, there were only 12 known nesting pairs of bald eagles in Montana. By 2014, that number had increased to more than 700 pairs. This amazing recovery, thanks to the ban on DDT and actions taken under the Endangered Species Act, is the subject of “The Eagles Have Landed,” my article in the November-December 2017 issue of Montana Outdoors Magazine. Kate Davis of Raptors of the Rockies took the stunning photographs that accompany the story.
While researching bald eagles, I watched for them in their usual haunts, and I spotted a fair number of nests in river valleys before the cottonwoods leafed out. But I also saw bald eagles in a few more unexpected places:
Soaring over Walmart in Missoula, next to the Clark Fork River.
Flapping over the parking lot at my kids’ school, while being harassed by a raven.
Attending a high school track meet. An adult and an immature bald eagle perched in nearby trees, hunting rodents in a field. Later, the adult circled repeatedly over the track, as if curious about the 1600m relay.
Flying low over my yard during high water. With tough fishing on the river a mile away, the eagle may have been looking for more prey options. (My three hens appeared to get a good adrenaline rush out of this flyover, but were unharmed.)
Sometimes I even saw eagles while driving somewhere to look for eagles. The message in all this for me? The eagles are back.
Yet even though overall bald eagle numbers are encouraging, we should be careful not to take the species for granted. As zoologist Willard Van Name said, “The time to save a species is while it is still common.” Bald eagles remain vulnerable to everything that got us in trouble in the first place, including habitat loss, nest disturbance, and poisoning by environmental contaminants.
One more note about Montana’s bald eagles . . . Not all the birds you see are nesters. Some are “floaters,” immature birds or others that haven’t yet established a nesting territory (my track meet birds probably fit this category). Others are migrating birds passing through Montana on their way to somewhere else. And still others are Canadian birds here to spend the winter in milder conditions. I look forward to seeing these winter migrants soon.
When you hear coyotes howl, do you ever wish you had a translator? I became especially curious a couple of summers ago when a pack of coyotes moved into the gully below my house, and as far as I could tell, started raising a family. The coyotes kicked up a chorus for almost any loud sound, including the roar of commercial jets flying over the neighborhood. That noisy summer is the subject of “Awake at night and listening to coyotes,” my latest essay in High Country News (titled “Overheard in Montana” in the print edition, which was published September 4, 2017). My thanks to researcher Brian R. Mitchell for answering my questions about coyote vocalizations.
I’m excited to announce the release of What I Saw in Grand Teton: A Kid’s Guide to the NationalPark on April 1 (available through Amazon and Riverbend Publishing). I wrote the text and Christopher Cauble provided the many beautiful photographs.
Our book offers a sampler of many of the animals, plants, and places families are likely to see on a trip to the park, as well as space for children to record their own sightings. It also includes fun facts on everything from ranger hats to earthquakes. The wildlife “Guess what?” sections are some of my favorites. Did you know that bluebird feathers aren’t really blue? Or that the pronghorn’s closest living relatives are not antelope? (Hint: They are found in Africa and can grow up to 19 feet tall.) I liked digging into the research to find surprising details even about common species.
After spending a fair amount of time in the Tetons as a kid, I enjoyed reconnecting with the park and learning more about its history and incredible diversity of wildlife and plants. The book provides a fun guide for kids visiting Grand Teton National Park, and I hope it will spark an interest in wildlife and natural areas for at least a few of them.
I spent most of my twenties working for the National Park Service, and I lived in a wide variety of government housing, including several shabby but appealing old houses where the wild creatures outnumbered human inhabitants. Sometimes I wondered, lying awake at night, how many hearts beat inside those walls. With all that lovely national park habitat protected for their use, why did the animals need to live in my house? Or my office?
My latest essay in the Christian Science Monitor, “The indoor wilds at outdoor parks,” revisits my experiences with wild (non-human!) roommates and officemates in Rocky Mountain National Park. At the time, they were considered annoying but not dangerous. Attitudes changed dramatically when hantavirus came on the scene, and suddenly those cute, non-housebroken deer mice became a threat. When I moved on to Canyonlands National Park, I found that every effort had been made to seal off my double-wide from four-footed intruders. These efforts mostly worked (and later employees moved into rodent-free new housing). But somehow a packrat still managed to chew its way through the floor and drown itself in my toilet. I’m not even going to get started about my coworkers’ experiences with skunks and scorpions.
About the visitor center in the story . . . the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center was designed by Taliesin Associated Architects, Frank Lloyd Wright’s firm, after Wright’s death. Working there, I always thought the building was a bit of an oddball. But in my defense, I had previously worked out of a fort and a log cabin. I recently revisited the building while researching a children’s book I am writing about the park. I think I get it now, at least a little.
It can be tough to decide what risks are acceptable for your children, especially if you’ve had a chance to see what can go wrong in the mountains. For my take, see my essay published April 4, 2016 in High Country News, “Take a page from the mountain goats.” (In the print edition, see “Risk, goats, and kids in the mountains.”)