23 February 2012

February in the Bitterroot.

Nearly a month ago, Bitterroot Bill (the yellow-bellied marmot, cousin to groundhog Punxsutawney Phil) predicted the imminence of spring--or, more accurately, he didn't show himself at all on the overcast Groundhog Day at the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge. That may be hard to believe with all the winter storm warnings we have been getting, but we can always hope.
© Sara J. Call 2012
There's quite a bit less snow in the Bitterroot Valley, and quite a bit more sun. I drive out there every so often to get out from under the grey skies that have been frequenting Missoula Valley as of late. Even when the sky is overcast in the Bitterroot, it will open up to let rays of sun burst through, which is always wonderful. Last week, I drove down through Stevensville and took a loop through the Lee Metcalf Refuge to catch those rays of sunlight. There's a surprising amount of bird-watching to be had along the ponds, even now. Before long, I'm sure one will be able to spot a muskrat or two patrolling the thawing waterways.
© Sara J. Call 2012

Briefly, some interesting history about Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge: it was founded in 1963 and renamed to 'Lee Metcalf' in 1978 in honor of the late senator that helped establish conservation projects across the state of Montana. The refuge is a total of 2,800 acres. Natural trails wind through 160 acres of ponds, sloughs, and river bottoms. While it predominately caters to providing habitat for migratory birds, the refuge also contains plenty of other creatures: beavers, muskrats, osprey, and yellow-bellied marmots, to name a few. Fish are also protected residents. The habitat is actively managed, meaning that people control water levels using siphons and pumps; provide weed control using fire, mechanical means, and sometimes cattle; and allow sportsman to come birding during hunting season. All of the management techniques are necessary to help maintain healthy wetlands and riparian areas in the refuge, where the riparian zones are human-enhanced and dependent on periodic drawdowns.

The Bitterroot Range provides a wondrous backdrop to the wetlands. I saw dozens of ducks (mallards and others) and Canada geese, and watched an American coot dabbling near the shoreline, tipping forward and bobbing with tail pointing skyward for a few moments before settling back upright on the water to swallow whatever he had found to eat. 

© Sara J. Call 2012

© USFWS Mountain Prairie

A great blue heron stood reflected in a small pond as the sun set, and the clouds were splashed with an amazing array of pink and purple that we rarely see in Missoula skies. Before I could document the moment in a photo, the heron hunched his lanky frame and lifted away into the dusk, scattering droplets of water like beads.

 In the coming months, the red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds will return, which is my favorite time of spring. You can definitely bet on good birdwatching at Lee Metcalf NWR, year-round. 

See our spring post on the birds of Lee Metcalf from last year here.

"Get Ready For Spring" - NBC Montana, 2 Feb 2012
"Lee Metcalf Refuge Revitalizes Pond with Fire, Cattle" - 4 Nov 2011
Montana Birding Trail - Lee Metcalf NWR
USFWS Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge website
Wikipedia entry

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