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Shoulder season got you down? Try birding

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A Clark’s Nutcracker perched on a tree branch. ADOBE STOCK


The arrival of longer and sunnier days means the return of eye-catching migratory birds to western Montana. Now’s the time to see the Western Tanager, often sighted in trees along the banks of rivers, and whose flaming yellow bodies and red heads recall something you’d run into on the banks of the Amazon as opposed to the Yellowstone River. Now’s the time to see the iridescent reds and pinks of the Lewis’s Woodpecker, often observed darting to and from dead cottonwoods, catching flies mid-flight. Or you might be lucky enough to see the long-tailed, orange and black sparrow with burning red eyes called the Spotted Towhee, often heard before seen on mountainsides as they rummage the brush.  

It’s time to awaken your inner birder. Perhaps you’re the fly-fisher in need of a new hobby while spring runoff gorges the rivers. Or maybe you want to clear your mind in the wake of another long, verging-on-unbearable winter in Montana. Or perhaps you want to enliven your backyard with a feeder and play host to charming visitors who’ve arrived from across the continent to grace you with their presence. Maybe you want to feel more present, alleviated of your all-too-busy mind. Birds are the ticket, and your curiosity and attention are all that’s required.

Let’s say you’re on the lookout for birds while on a casual hike in the mountains that surround the town of Big Sky. You hear a “krawwwww,” and spot a robin-sized grey bird atop a lodgepole pine. You raise your binoculars and mentally note its black wings and stark dagger-like bill. A soft breeze then rustles the trees, and your new friend is airborne. There’s no more effort needed for remembering its features; its spread of operatic black-and-white wings and striped tail are unforgettable.

Later, you work to identify the species. You might use a field book or borrow the assistance of a bird-identification app (my usual method of choice). You soon realize it was a Clark’s Nutcracker, a member of the Corvid family, which includes magpies and crows (hence the “krawwwww.”) They are described as an “uncommon” sighting, which fires a few endorphins. This bird uses its powerful bill to bust open pine cones and collect and carry up to 90 tree seeds in a pouch located in its throat. According to the Montana Field Guide, it caches upwards of 90,000 seeds, burying them across the landscape come late summer and fall. Then you learn that this bird can remember where it buried 40,000 of them throughout the winter, even locating them if buried beneath several feet of snow. How’s that for intelligence?

And it’ll come at no surprise that this seed distributing bird is an ecological powerhouse, preserving its own existence as well that of the trees whose seeds it spreads. It especially has an intertwined relationship with the endangered white-bark pine, a gnarled, straggler-like tree that grows at the highest possible elevations and usually defines the tree line. According to Cornell Lab, it’s been estimated that virtually all the white-bark pines distributed along tree lines in the Northern Rockies were born of seeds buried and uncollected by the Clark’s Nutcracker. 

Comprehending such evolutionary compatibility might make you question whether there are creatures more apt for Earth than us. You might think of your place in the world and feel a part of a larger whole. And all you did was look up while on a hike and wonder about what caught your attention. 

I started paying attention to birds a short three years ago, and what keeps me looking up is the fact that every bird I’ve learned about reveals a story as special as the Clark’s Nutcracker’s. For instance, whenever I see the emerald and ruby plumage of a flying Calliope Hummingbird, I think of its tiny heart, and how that heart, while beating a lightning 1,200 times a minute in flight, very well may have powered a recent journey all the way from the jungles of southern Mexico to breed at high elevations in the Montana Rockies. 

Or, when watching a pair of Common Loons hunt fish in Seeley Lake, I may think about their ability to hold their breath for 15 minutes and dive to depths of more than 200 feet, using sight alone to chase down fish after fish. I might reflect on how Loons are monogamous creatures, and that this pair had likely gone their separate ways to ocean coastlines for winter migration, only to meet again at this very lake.

When I observe birds, my mind stills into an awareness of the world outside of me instead of the one constructed by the at-times-uncontrollable stream of thoughts in my head. This goes for whether it’s a first sighting or the same one for the hundredth time. I’ve slowed down for a conscious pause to consider and appreciate life instead of letting it fly by, and all that’s required is my curiosity and attention.

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