FOOD, FLIGHT, PHYSIOLOGY AND FORTITUDE
Patsy Eckert, Ennis resident, started bird watching with her husband 30 years ago. They sketched the birds they saw and bought books to help identify species. Eventually, they acquired binoculars, Nikon cameras, a canoe and a Jeep. They used that canoe to go around the south side of Ennis Lake to find a variety of shore birds including killdeer, willets and avocets.
Eckert could recite different types of birds she has seen around Ennis with ease and spontaneity. Mid-conversation she would remember a species she had not yet mentioned and rattle off a handful more. Different ecosystems nearby lend themselves to a variety of birds—snowy owls, sandhill cranes, Canadian geese, mallard ducks, kestrels, kinglets, nuthatches, meadowlarks.
“You just never know what you’re going to see,” she said.
Up to 300,000 snow geese and 10,000 tundra swans make pit stops at Freezout Lake near Choteau to rest and find sustenance after the 1,000-mile flight from California, the Great Falls Tribune reported. In 2019,
Freezout was frozen when the snow geese returned.
Ennis Lake is also a stopover point for birds traveling north. If found frozen, ducks would probably decide to skip the lake as they depend on water for habitat. Blue birds need water mainly for drinking and could pause on the frozen lake to rest. The same goes for snow geese and tundra swans at Freezout— some stop and visit nearby ponds and some continue flying.
Variation in species produces variation in migration distances. Long-distance migrants, like flycatchers and warblers, fly to Central and South America for food. Medium to short-distance migrants, like mountain bluebirds and western meadowlarks, visit northern New Mexico or Texas and arrive in Montana earlier. The first blue bird sightings were towards the beginning of last week.
Migration, much like hibernation for bears, is all about food. Birds fly south for the winter to make use of different food sources and come back home when their staple foods are back in stock. Fluctuations in daylight are environmental cues that let birds know migration is coming, but they also have quite the tuned biological clock. Zugunruthe, or ‘migratory restlessness,’ uses genetics and that clock to tell birds migration is upon them without needing environmental triggers, an article from The Spruce explained.
Like bears and ungulates, birds have a variety of physiological changes that bolster their migration process, The Spruce discussed. Packing on extra pounds, going on short flights to strengthen wings and molting to produce new, aerodynamic feathers are a few examples.
Birds’ gonads shrink to decrease overall weight and the amount of energy needed to fly. Hemoglobin levels increase to deliver more oxygen to muscles in order to produce less sore- ness and disorientation.
Resident birds around the county, like bald eagles, magpies, common ravens, mountain chickadees and woodpeckers, stay locally and cache food for winter months. They do not rely on water sources and are tough enough to survive cold winters.
“I watch my chickadees here in my yard and they’re constantly taking seeds and caching them around the yard,” Lou Ann Harris, president of the Sacajawea Audubon Society, said.
As the days get longer and humans relish in sunnier days, bluebirds make their reappearance. Males travel first to secure nest locations. Competition is tough, and they rely on preestablished locations as bluebirds do not excavate their own nests. Females arrive later and choose their mate not on looks or song ability, but on the location of the nest.
“They start window-shopping. They start looking for just the right location for their nest,” Harris said.
Birds are habituated to coming back to the same spots during migration each year. If that area has been developed, they may be at a loss.
“These migration corridors go back probably thousands of years and these birds, each generation, learns from the parent. In a lot of cases they learn from their parent where to go and where to stop, and over the decades, a lot of these places are no longer available,” Harris said.
Ennis Lake is established as an Important Bird Area (IBA). IBAs exist to remind people the importance of habitats to bird populations, in this case, to common loons. “It’s a really important stopover for them on their way to Canada to nest,” Harris explained.
Eckert’s biggest tip for aspiring bird watchers is to get a bird book. Her husband preferred an Audubon book while she chose The Golden Bird book. Bird watching requires a lot of patience and stillness, aided by binoculars and folding chairs. “You have to look to the edges,” Eckert’s husband would say. The congruence of a tree line and a meadow are the best spots for sightings.