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Posts from the ‘Pine Butte 2012’ Category

Magpie Talk

          The robin flies low, just barley missing Nikki’s head. Then lands making a sharp“Chit Chit Chit” sound. A few more tail pumps and Nikki is bombed again. In our study of bird language this is fantastic. I feel a little bad causing such stress to the mother who feels that she needs to defend her nest with such aggression. But it is sure interesting to watch.

Nikki is really not that much of a threat. In fact most of the time Nikki can walk right by this robin with out her rustling a feather, so why the agitation today? It is not really Nikki that is causing this. It is the magpie sitting on her shoulder.

Nikki and I have had the opportunity to help rehabilitate this captive magpie destine for release. Magpies are curious and smart birds. They also have been known to raid the nest of smaller birds. The robin is so intent on defending he nest from the magpie that it thinks nothing of flying close to Nikki’s head. The magpie on the other hand would rather be somewhere else than sitting on Nikki’s shoulder. He squats trying to avoid being hit by this frantic mother.

This magpie has been a great teacher for learning bird language. Not only does he cause alarms in nesting song bird like in the video of the dark-eyed junco and robin. But he has keen eye sight. On one of our walks the magpie took on a very squat and defensive posture. It was as if he wanted to become invisible. In a moment we saw the cause.

A prairie falcon came gliding over the ridge.

Leaning bird language has been a fun. It has also helped tune my awareness of different relationships in the world. Once I started paying attention. I began to see the different alliances and conflicts. How the cotton tail rabbit and the Richardson’s ground squirrel will share the same wood pile, both will duck for cover when the robin gives the alarm of a weasel in the neighborhood.

The more tuned Nikki and I become to the language of the bird and other small mammals the more interactions of wildlife we notice. We hear when the goshawk hunts in the forest by the silence that follows her. We can tell when the harrier hunts on the edge of Pine Butte by the wing-shaped alarm of the ground squirrels the sweeps along in front of him.

If Nikki and I are really listening, we may hear the birds scolding the deer or coyote sneaking away from our approach…

As I continue to learn bird language I keep reminding my self that none of the noise the birds make is random. Each one has significance. I won’t always be able to know the meaning of each sound. But if I continue to be curious and ask my self what could that song or call mean. I continue to learn, and the window into the world of bird language may widen to be a door I can walk through.

Bird alarm video links:


The Birds and the Bears

Virgina Rail sneaking


Finally reappearing on the blog after two very busy weeks of Bear Workshop and Birding Workshop.

After a very dry winter, the Rocky Mountain Front is collecting some moisture. The rain is pelting from the trees onto the tin roof, and even the young bull moose who sauntered across Alice’s Ridge—in full view from the dining room windows—has gone to hunker in the trees.

We saw a tremendous amount of bear sign (tracks, clawed trees, fresh hair clumps on wire, grubbing for ants) however, it wasn’t until the Bird Workshop that we got a fabulous look at a Grizzly bear through the scopes.

This is wild country, with a lot of room. It makes for a great illustration of desirable habitat, but sometimes difficult country to find animals with enormous home ranges.

The birds are a little easier.

On the day we went to tour Freezeout wetlands, then drove back across the prairie past the Pine Butte Swamp preserve and into the mountains we saw a measly 116 bird species.


It was wonderful, but enough birds to make your head swim. Ornithologists and artists David Allen Sibley and Keith Hansen added some new bird species to the Pine Butte Guest Ranch bird list including: red-necked phalarope, stilt sandpiper, and sanderlings.

David Sibley and Keith Hansen really allow you to see the birds as they are, not as you expect to see them based on previous experience or habitat. Sibley and Keith see them as they would draw them, so unusual and rare birds do not escape their attention.

Speaking of drawing, guests and some staff got a drawing lesson from the masters themselves, using Skar-ta (the magpie) as a compliant model.

The kitchen prepared fabulous meals, and the rest of the staff kept everything running smoothly while we romped around chasing birds.

Here are some of our favorite photos from the past two weeks, including a link to some videos taken during the two weeks from the trail cameras.

Click on the following link:

The optics! (and more optics)

Sunset over the prairie

Big Horn sheep (not birds, but we watched anyway =)

Cecropia moth on Pine Butte

Northern water thrush

The Amazing Kitchen Masters (AKM’s)

OOoooohhhh Good Morning

Sprague’s Pipit, a rare and threatened bird, looking very dirt like.

David Allen Sibley and Keith Hansen teaching bird illustration techniques

Sibley finger paints and it still looks amazing!

Big Horn Sheep illustrating why wool is good for water

The Bear Tree (and eyes in the night)


The trail camera sees what moves around the fringes when we are asleep.

We hike up through the burn, and while I can go on and on about fire ecology, succession plant species, and amazing birds and animals, we see seeking out fire scars among the verdancy, I am focused on a particular tree today.

The Bear tree.

Or the Mountain Lion tree.

Or the Alice Gleason tree.

Or, by it’s scientific name, the pseudotsuga menziesii tree.

Many names for one tree; one enormous Douglas fir tree, somewhere close to ten feet in diameter, but no taller than its small offspring, crowding in around it. All the names for this tree tell us something about it: if you look closely at the thick bark, you can see the long, curly, blonde hairs of a grizzly bear that scratched his back on this tree in early spring, the shorter, brown hairs of a black bear, and the needle thin claw marks of a mountain lion that climbed up the branches in the dark of night.


Another wildlife camera picture

The couple that started this guest ranch in the 1930’s, Kenny and Alice Gleason, marveled at this venerable giant of the forest, and so to honor their dedication in preserving this incredible chunk of the Rocky Mountain Front—we call this the Alice tree.

It is, tagged by science, pseudotsuga menziesii— a Douglas fir tree. It’s only good enough to be a pseudo tree—a pseudo fir (tsuga)…not a real fir tree. You can see the difference between the Douglas fir and other true fir trees in the cones.

Pick up a cone, and look for the mouse sticking its head in to steal the seeds.

A mouse? In a mousetrap?

You have to use a little imagination, but not a lot. The three-pronged bracts protruding from the cone are shaped like the hind ends of mice, as though the mouse stuck it’s head into the cone, got stuck, and now the tail and two back legs are all that is visible.


These three-pronged bracts are diagnostic for a Douglas fir tree, so if the mousetrap sticks in your head, you can identify these trees from the California coast to the Rocky Mountains.

Below this tree shedding cones full of mice, are tracks. An expert tracker could tell you a lot about what has been here. I can tell you a little, but most of the story is hidden from me. Jeff can tell you more, because he has been working hard on his tracking skills.

A motion-activated camera fills in some of the story.

A long, furry trail in the night.

A nose, smearing the lens and readjusting the camera.

I can show just a glimpse of how much I miss. These tracks are all here, undoubtedly, but I don’t see them.  And we move loudly through the forest when we walk or ride, pushing wildlife out in front of us.


I’d hide that beautiful rack in the cover of darkness too (Elk)

That’s not always a bad thing. I certainly don’t enjoy surprising a black bear with cubs. I worry about them, incredible climbers though the cubs are, but surely that must be too high!

Since the wildlife usually moves around us—invisible, out of sight, or during the darkness—I want to show you a little of what the camera’s saw in 2010. Jeff set these up in places we walk or ride, but places that take a while to get to.


ImageMule deer


New fawn


The illusive, unsuspecting current (and former) Pine Butte Staff

The Aspen Stand

A black bear catches our scent, but because we are a long way away with a very large camera lens, can't spot us.

(Continued from last week’s post)

Why take you on this walk of words, you ask, if I’m not even at Pine Butte yet?

Because I want you to get excited to come visit the Rocky Mountain Front with me (and Jeff, several horses and two dogs).  And because I want to show you pictures, to jog your memory, or to show you something new you haven’t seen.

I want you to remember what you thought when you ate breakfast in the Lodge— your eggs to-order and that scone that smelled too good to resist—then we worked it off by hiking all morning.

If you never watched a black bear though my spotting scope, then I want the smudge of your eyebrow pressed against the glass as you see her dig up root bulbs, probably yellow bells and glacier lilies.

If you have, then I want you to disappear from the humming whir of your computer fan and the honk and rumble of traffic outside, and come visit where you can do ear Yoga—yes I said ear Yoga—stretching your hearing out to the soft sounds of nature.

This is me being sentimental, because I am getting excited to head back to Montana. I am listening to the bird songs, and pawing through my flower books and wondering where all that information went. It was in my head, and somewhere— somehow—it dribbled out and I left a trail of natural history knowledge on the ground behind me.

Except the natural history knowledge I that didn’t come from books; the experiences that are more than just a name and a fact. Those stories I tell you have a smell, a taste, a touch…they live in too many spots in my head for me to forget them.

It might take me writing these flimsy words to remember the real reason Soapberry (Shepherida canadensis) is called Soapberry, and the slippery taste on my tongue when I eat one to prove it to you. I’ll make the same pinched face when I try and eat a chokecherry before it’s ripe.

Chokecherry (Prunus virginianus)...the berry that taste great when it's ripe, and makes my toes curl when it's not.

But now I’m distracted, and we haven’t even gone anywhere.

Let’s hike right out behind the Ranch, because going up to North Yeager takes us into a lot of different habitats, and Jeff and I hike it for work and for fun.

And we get to start out in an Aspen stand, and understand that these are the signature trees of the Rocky Mountains for good reason.

They are stunning, and insanely cool.

Here at Pine Butte, we have decided that these hundred or so trees can be divided into two clones. The East Clone reminds me of Mr. Smith from The Matrix movie, making nearly exact copies of himself right down to that ugly wart. Except these are Aspens, so they all have the same genetic information that gives them a strange, somewhat undignified twist in their trunks, but they are still gorgeous.

I rub my hand on the white bark, and it comes away looking Geisha-white. This is how the Aspen keep their photosynthetic bark from sunburn.

You can really see the photosynthetic bark (green chlorophyll) when the aspen are wet.

I know, even the trees have to worry about too much sun damage. So slather on your sunscreen because you just realized you forgot to put it on, or rub some Aspen powder on your face. Either will work, but it’s hard to keep the Aspen powder from blowing off your face as we walk past the other Aspen clone.

This is how we have decided these are two separate clones, by watching them bud-out in spring and change colors in the fall.

The trees, roughly divided by a stretch of grassy field, dress up for spring and dress down for fall in two big blocks. The East block is usually a little quicker than the West block.

But don’t worry; they both get along. They may even be a male clone and a female clone (though I haven’t gotten the nerve to climb up the 40-foot trunks to check their sex in the spring).

A good fall in Rocky Mountain aspen country

But it wouldn’t really matter with Aspen, not in this century, because these clones spread rhizominously.

Yup. That’s a mouthful, and possibly not even a true word. Regardless, Aspens spread with rhizomes, which is a real word derived from the Greek noun rhizoun (to fix firmly) and a derivative of rhiza (root). Aspens spread via their roots, sending them out like giant underground fingers. Every so often, a stem pops out of the soil and an aspen trunk appears.

If you ever have the pleasure, or terror, of witnessing a tremendous windstorm or microburst (more common in Colorado) as it rips through an Aspen stand, you may get to see just how interconnected an entire clone is when the gigantic, shallow root system fails and the trees begin to fall like dominoes.

I’ve seen the aftermath, never the process (thank goodness) of an aspen rhizome clone being ripped from the earth.

Even a dead aspen is a great home. The soft bark is malleable enough for the weak-beak of a red-breasted nuthatch.

More on the amazing aspen next week, and if I stop talking and start walking, we’ll make it to the bear tree.

Getting Ready for Pine Butte Season Three (2012)-Nikki

Hiking at Pine Butte: The Warning

Let me give you the pre-hike warning.

Listen carefully, because this is very important.

Words are dangerous, because no matter how hard they try, they will fail.

They will fail.

The words will tell you that a Cassin’s vireo is whistling at you from the dappled sunlight in the aspen grove, but you won’t hear the sweet, beckoning call even if the words try to fool you into thinking you have.

The words can tell you that an Olive-sided flycatcher is belting out a bird cry of “Quick! Free beeer….Quick! Free beeerrr.” But you won’t laugh with me until you’re actually standing under the Big Sky Montana country on a hillside splashed in yellow blossoms of arrow leaf balsam root and now all you can think about is beer.

Olive-sided Flycatcher

You will be a little out of breath, because this is the thin, clean air of the Rocky Mountain Front and you have come from sea level.  I will be enjoying the break hiking up the mountain, because although I am acclimated to the elevation, and I swore I would exercise more this year, my runs are always shorter than my intentions. Plus standing here catching our breath, we let our eyes wander, and this is landscape is a feast for the eyes.

So consider yourself warned.

We are going on a walk of words, and this is the best that they can do.

And because these are my words, this is the best that I can do.

Lets start wrangling, because although you won’t be up with me, in thin, grey light a touch after five a.m., this is my favorite time of day and I want to share it with you.

Jeff coming in from the morning wrangle

The alarm goes off, and I can’t remember any of the reasons I like five a.m. A robin is softly testing the light with his voice as I put on thermals, because although this is summer, we are in the cold sink of a river bottom. By the time my horse puffs his way to the top of Marmot Rock in time to see the sunrise, I will be too warm and so will he. He will be busy scanning the grass-carpeted hillside for the rest of the horse herd, but I will be distracted.

I am looking out over the expanse of the Great Plains, and it is on fire.

The view from Marmot Rock at 6 a.m.

Not literally, though that may happen later in the summer, but this morning, the air itself is flaming orange and I can see as far as my eyes will stretch.

My horse spooks at a blue-grouse flushing from under his feet in the grass, and my attention returns to my job.

The horses are all the way over at Wire Flats. This is our unofficial nickname for the hidden meadow between two sections of sentinel, burned trees. In country this vast, you need words to communicate locations. We tried “you know, that meadow, just past the other meadow, down from Yeager Flats and when you turn left at the top of the hill.”

It didn’t work.

I know, imagine that.

So I canter over to Wire Flats and in the narrow, mucky drainage that is always a little too dark, and the trees a little too close for comfort, there are fresh bear tracks in the mud. I slow my horse, even though all he wants to do is bolt through and be out on the other side in the sunrise.

I will tell you that the tracks look like a black bear, with more curve at the top of the foot pad than a grizzly and shorter claws, but since I rode over them at a trot, I might be making the tracks fit my fleeting glimpse.

Black Bear track

But statistics will be in my favor. We see a lot more black bears than grizzlies. A lot. And it’s a luck morning wrangling when I ride silent and fast enough to catch a black bear at her breakfast.

Horses are not quiet animals, so we generally don’t sneak up on much. Sometimes, if the wind is blowing our sent away from the bear, and our sound is pushed away by the wind and sheltered by a hill, I see them before they lope away to hide.

Once, in a very late fall morning, I nearly rode into a black bear. Neither my horse nor I noticed it, because it was so dark in the thick, overgrown Douglas-fir forest and it looked like a shadow.

My horse and I both smelled it just before impact, and the clueless juvenile bear finally figured out that we were headed right at it.

I’m not sure who was more frightened, my horse, the bear, or me.

Nope. Didn’t need any more coffee that morning.

But that’s not the case this morning. I don’t run into any bears, and we pick up the stragglers on the mountain side, the sleek horses stuffing themselves with the rich grass and only following the rest of the horses when I turn my ride around and go back to push them on.

These horses know the drill, and for the most part, are compliant.

But there are always the ones that are not sticklers to routine. They would rather try and see if maybe, just maybe, today will be an unexpected day of lingering in the mountains.

I don’t blame them. These are mountains worth lingering in.

(To be continued next Monday…)