Monday, April 27, 2015

Montana Birds: Sandhill Crane

Sandhills mate for life; oldest sandhill on record lived at least 36 years, 7 mos...ChucknGaleRobbins photo

Sandhill cranes are big—4 feet tall, with wing spans approaching 6 feet—and imposing what with their long legs and neck, rapier-like bill and those piercing eyes—powerful enough to scrutinize the slightest suspect movement at unbelievable distances.

Their spectacular mating dance—bowing, leaping, hopping, skipping and pirouetting—all the while yodeling that loud unmistakable rolling rattle which can be heard miles away—is well, inimitable, and among the most remarkable in all nature.  One nature writer compares it to the sound of “fingernails drawn along the teeth of several combs,” undulating up and down and amplified by the birds’ exceptionally long windpipe.
Omnivorous, cranes have been know to dine on berries, seeds, snakes, amphibians, mice, voles, and just about everything else out there.

The nest is a simple affair, a shallow depression lined with dry grass and weeds, maybe a few feathers. Typically the female lays 1-3 spotted, grayish brown eggs; both parents incubate the eggs which hatch in about 30 days. It is not uncommon for just one egg to hatch. Sandhill chicks, “colts” can run and swim just a few hours after leaving the nest.

Fossil records indicate the sandhill has been around for millions years. Long-lived, sandhills mate for life. The oldest sandhill on record was at least 36 years, 7 months old. Originally banded in Wyoming in 1973, it was found dead in New Mexico in 2010.

...Many sandhills which nest in southwest Montana overwinter here in Whitewater Draw, in southeast Arizona's Sulphur Springs Valley between Wilcox and Douglas. This January day a couple years ago biologists estimated 25,000 sandhills were using the Draw... 

Recent surveys put the Rocky Mountain population at about 20,000 cranes. In Montana about 500 hunting permits are issued annually. Sandhills, which nest in southwest Montana, winter in the Sulphur Springs Valley in southeast Arizona between Wilcox and Douglas or across the border in New Mexico at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

In western Montana, one of the top spots for viewing cranes up close is the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Beaverhead County, 50 miles west of Yellowstone National Park.  Look for cranes along creeks, wetlands, and open grassy areas.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Montana Birds: Cinnamon Teal

According to the Montana Field Guide, Cinnamon Teal are small, dabbling ducks. Both sexes have bright blue upper-wing coverts; wings lined white. Male in breeding plumage has bright rusty plumage on head, neck, and underparts; female mostly brown on upper-parts with dark streaks on underparts. Males in basic plumage are very similar to females.

Cinnamons show up in Montana around April 20 after wintering in southern California, Arizona and New Mexico, south thru Central America and northern fringes South America; peak migration is about May 15.

Preferred habitat is wetlands including large marsh systems, natural basins, reservoirs, sluggish streams, ditches, and stock ponds.

Omnivorous, the diet consists of seeds and emergent aquatic vegetation, aquatic and semi-terrestrial insects, snails, and zooplankton.

Single brooded, with 7 to 12 eggs per brood. Incubation period 21 to 25 days. Young are able to fly 49 days after hatch.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Dawn in Sage Grouse Country...

Picture this: As dawn rises, the sharp scent of sage mingles with the strange popping sounds of a gang of strutting sage grouse cocks. Inflating and deflating the two yellow chest sacs the cocks pirouette about the lek hoping to impress the hens lurking in the sage nearby. That only one or two dominant cocks ever get the chance to actually mate seems lost in the unfolding drama.

Starting usually sometime in March, lek activity peaks in mid April but goes on sometimes into early May. I have seen individual cocks strutting much later doubtless more just blowing off steam than any real idea of attracting a mate.

Unlike other gallinaceous birds--other grouse species, turkey, chickens and such--hens only mate once. Egg laying is delayed until later in mid May. Thirty days later chicks hatch. Precocious the brood leaves the nest right after hatching and, unlike other upland bird species, come the September hunting season very rarely do we find birds unable to fly well enough to keep up to mama.

Sage grouse and sagebrush are inseparable; take away sage, big unbroken tracts of sagebrush and grass and Poof! the big grouse are gone. Fragmentation is the biggest reason sage grouse populations are generally in decline. Lacking a grinding gizzard the diet is simple and straight-forward, sagebrush leaves, buds and berries (100% in winter), leafy greens and, especially early on the chicks gobble insects--ants are big--to get the protein fix necessary to kick start their growth hormones. Dissecting dozens of crops over the past 20 or so seasons I have yet to find more than one or two insects. And while I'm sure sage is sampled anytime until after mid-October most of the crops are stuffed with leafy greens.

As fall deepens toward early winter families and bachelor males come together in loosely scattered flocks on wintering grounds whose numbers are often mind-boggling. During winter workouts it is not uncommon for my dogs to point several scattered bunches of 25, 50 or more in a couple hour loop.  

To watch a short video of strutting cocks visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U7X9UIdKoF8