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Flight Check

Bird watchers explore local habitats

 

A group of bird watchers lift their binoculars to look out over a pond at the scenic pullout south of Ronan along U.S. Highway 93 on Saturday, eyeing various species, enjoying the spring weather.

“It looks like we’ve got ducks,” Pat Jamieson said. She leads the group through a field trip to peer into various potholes and wetlands, mostly around the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge. She gave a talk in Polson during a Mission Mountain Audubon meeting the evening before the walk to kick off the trip.

“The common mallard is pairing up,” she says to the birdwatchers, as ducks floated over the pond together. She points out that the females are brown so they can hide as they sit on their nests. Early spring is the best time to see active birds and bright feathers, she said.

The group moves to the next pond across the highway, noting the reflectors on the power lines to warn swans of the danger.

“Power lines are the biggest cause of death for swans,” she said.

Jamieson worked with the National Bison Range for 20 years in the visitor’s center, organizing workshops, scheduling, and ordering supplies. She retired early a few years ago due to budget cuts, so she started volunteering to take people on field trips and educational tours, something she loves to do.

She has a vast knowledge of wildlife, which can be accessed faster than a Google search. People ask her questions like, “Why doesn’t a duck’s feet freeze in the winter?” She accurately answers each question.

She took her first college class focused on birds in 1979, eventually earning a wildlife degree from the University of Montana and another degree in recreation. She also spends a lot of time reading about wildlife. She especially likes birds.

“I don’t know why birds caught my eye, maybe it was something from childhood,” she said. She remembers her mother being an avid backyard bird watcher.

She leads the caravan of 10 carpooling people to show them different spots to watch birds. Dozens of coots are swimming around at Kicking Horse Reservoir.

“Don’t forget your land use permit if you go on tribal land,” she said.

As the trip moves to the ponds in the Ninepipe area, Jamieson notes that several groups work together to maintain wildlife habitat in the area, including the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and local landowners.

“The private land is on an easement so people can’t dig up the ponds. Grazing is okay, farming is okay, but they can’t drain the ponds or build 20 houses,” she said.

She points toward a meadowlark. “Look close,” she said. “The meadowlark can hide its yellow breast and blend in with the brown background to hide. During mating season, they puff up.”

Jim Boyer is one of the bird watchers. He became a wildlife enthusiast after he retired from fixing power lines. “My favorite bird to spot is the loon,” he said. “I love walking out by the lake, hearing that lonesome cry.”

Jamieson sees one of her favorite birds flying through the air. “If I could be a bird, it would be the raven,” she said. She likes the way they appear to be doing acrobatic tricks in the air as they fly.

Gretchen Schnitzer spots a wigeon in one of the ponds near Charlo on Logan Road through her binoculars. She says they have a white patch of feathers on the top of their heads that makes them look a bit bald.

The group finishes the tour around noon, just as the birds begin to take an afternoon nap. “It’s best to get up early to see birds,” Jamieson said.

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