Since moving to Montana, I had been doing casual birding around Livingston. Spoiled by the warm, dry weather in southern California, from where I had just come, the cold, windy weather in Montana made me reluctant to go outside for long periods of time.
Finally, I had had enough. I had to go for a serious bird watching trip. It was time to go on a local birding expedition outside of Livingston to start finding some of Montana’s winter specialties.
I had searched for these guys, with brown, grey, and pink plumage, while back-packing in the eastern Sierras in California, a few months before, in September. One book, "Discovering Sierra Birds" by Keith Hansen, had described them as being abundant above 10000 feet. I spent several days above 10000 feet, examining every small bird I saw. None were rosy-finches. Maybe they were moving to lower elevations because winter was coming. I kept my eyes peeled below 10000 feet. No rosy-finches. I had my boyfriend, Aaron, looking too. No rosy-finches.
After we moved up to Montana, I started perusing my field guides. I learned that grey-crowned rosy-finches were found in Montana in the winter. Good, I would find them here.
I set up my first serious Montana birding trip. My next tasks, after creating my most wanted list, were checking e-Bird, an online birding database that is popular among birders, and the Montana Outdoor Birding Group message-board. I focused on mentions of my most wanted birds, in particular the Pink Ones….aka, rosy-finches. I found several reports of sightings. In the end, I decided to head to the Shields Valley, since several life birds were possible there, including rosy-finches.
A couple of miles up the road, I noticed a big fluffy bird of prey sitting on a fence post, by a pasture full of cattle. It was a rough-legged hawk, a common winter raptor in Montana. Arctic breeders, they have fluffy plumage, dainty beaks, and small feet, and are probably one of the cutest hawks out there. It was sitting in a good spot for a photo. I took note of it, and when I turned around, I made a point of stopping to try for a picture.
Cars can make pretty good blinds. The hawk did not mind my car, my open window, or me pointing a camera at it. I felt optimistic about getting a great photo. Unfortunately, I accidently triggered the timer on the camera, causing the camera to beep loudly. The hawk minded this beeping a great deal, and took off over the backs of the cattle, landing in a tree too far away for a good photo. Oh well, maybe another day.
I continued on to my original destination. I drove through the valley slowly, watching for small birds along the road and in the fields, looking for longspurs, snow buntings, horned larks, and, of course, rosy-finches.
I encountered no small songbirds the entire length of the road. There were groups of pigeons hanging out here and there, lots of black-billed magpies, more rough-legged hawks (none in a good place for a photo), bald eagles, golden eagles, and ravens. At one point I spotted some fat brownish birds in a field near the road. Since sharp-tailed grouse was on my most wanted list, I stopped. They turned out to be gray partridge, an introduced gamebird. So, not sharp-tailed grouse, but still a new bird to me.
Outside of Clyde Park, I spotted an interesting scene: a road-killed deer covered in black-billed magpies. Magpies are common in the American west, and considered a pest by some. But I think they are one of the most beautiful birds, with their crisp black-and-white plumage, and long elegant tails, tinged with rainbow iridescence. This was a great opportunity to get photos of magpies, so I took the opportunity to get several dozen.
It dawned on me…ROSY-FINCHES! In front of the barn! Four of them! Surprise!
Such is the world of birding. Sometimes, the most desired birds show up when you least expect them.
I deemed my birding trip for the day a success.
Shields Valley (Rt 89, Shields River Rd, and Rt 86)
Rough-legged Hawk (one lucistic!)
Bald Eagle (observed pair by nest on ranch)
Eurasian Collared Dove (gas station parking lot)
Sunset Hills Cemetery, Bozeman
more Black-billed Magpies