Big Sky Country

Written by Pam Garrettson
Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Pam Garrettson.Montana is big sky country, and for a couple of east-coasters (Brent’s from Maine; I’m from Maryland), it can feel both freeing and disconcerting. We’re surveying 200m on either side of an east-west line, and often can see far beyond that. From a high bluff at the end of a segment east of Miles City, we guessed we could see a couple hundred miles. At home, well, you can’t see the forest for the trees. In this mostly treeless landscape, wildlife often make do without. We had puzzled over the number of great-horned owls we’d seen, then Brent came upon a nest on the ledge of a cut-bank stream (see photo). It wasn’t a great spot, because one of the chicks had fallen to a lower ledge, but it appeared fine and a parent was tending it. Surveying the occasional wooded stream can be very exciting; migrating warblers and sparrows often just pile in, lacking alternatives.

Being able to see so much country at once, it’s clear that these landscapes are heavily impacted by human activity. Though we can work a whole day and see hardly anyone, nearly all the land is either heavily grazed pasture, or corn and wheat stubble, neither of which is good nesting cover for upland-nesting ducks. Dry conditions make it worse; then farmers can plow right up to wetland edges (photo) and grass remains sparse and brown. In east-central Montana, dry conditions remained the norm, and the ducks we saw tended to gather on the few remaining stock dams. Farmers weren’t too happy about it either.

We now wait in northeastern Montana for the weather to clear so we can survey our last air-ground segment, near the Canadian border. Here, water conditions look better. In addition to the half-inch of rain yesterday, the region got a lot of snow, and folks told us the last of it melted just a couple weeks ago. When this area is wet, it can be good pintail country. We’ll see what we find.

This Swainson's Hawk eying the grasslands for the next meal.

This Swainson's Hawk eying the grasslands for the next meal. Photo by Brent West, US FWS

I jumped these blue-winged teal surveying a wetland.

I jumped these blue-winged teal surveying a wetland. Photo by Brent West, US FWS

Blue-winged teal pair flying away.

Blue-winged teal pair flying away. Photo by Brent West, US FWS

You can see even when there is water there might not be to much nesting habitat.

You can see even when there is water there might not be to much nesting habitat. Photo by Brent West, US FWS

This Canada goose was nesting on an island in a stream. She thought she was hiding keeping her head low.

This Canada goose was nesting on an island in a stream. She thought she was hiding keeping her head low. Photo by Brent West, US FWS

I spotted this Great Horned Owl chick on a cliff side. I saw mother close by.

I spotted this Great Horned Owl chick on a cliff side. I saw mother close by. Photo by Brent West, US FWS

I hiked around the cliff to snap a closer picture.

I hiked around the cliff to snap a closer picture. Photo by Brent West, US FWS

Looking across this lonesome landscape one can see many homesteads long forgotten.

Looking across this lonesome landscape one can see many homesteads long forgotten. Photo by Brent West, US FWS

Pam in front of small wetland.

Pam in front of small wetland. Photo by Brent West, US FWS

It gets windy on the Plains!

It gets windy on the Plains! Photo by Brent West, US FWS