Black-headed Grosbeak are big, robin-sized birds that are a gorgeous combination of Black, yellow and orange. They are so striking that people often confuse them with Orioles. They also have a long and loud song, like a whistling Robin, that they will sing over and over. So, how is it that they can hide so well? You can hear the bird and know it is “just right there!” But, then you can look for ages, initially intrigued, then more and more annoyed as they continue to evade detection.
This relatively common phenomenon brings up a couple of interesting topics. Natural selection has caused these brightly colored birds to evolve adaptations to avoid detection by predators. Only the males that successfully avoid being eaten end up passing their genes on to the next generation. So, they tend to sit still while singing, making sighting them more difficult. Their songs also are difficult to localize. They often sound much closer and higher up then they actually are – they throw their voices.
This then brings up the question of how can evolution cause these birds to avoid detection on the one hand and yet be brightly colored and loud on the other. The simple answer is that natural selection is not the only mechanism of evolution. Survival doesn’t automatically cause your genes to make it into the next generation. You also have to reproduce. So, behaviors and characteristics that help females find you and recognize you as a particularly studly male (e.g. bright coloration and long, loud song) will be passed on in greater abundance to the next generation.
Just because they are brightly colored doesn’t mean they are easy to see.
The Two Medicine area has some of the best hiking and birding in Glacier National Park. Cobalt Lake up to Two Medicine Pass is one of my favorite trails, with jaw-dropping scenery, fields of flowers, and the potential, if you have the energy, to get up into the alpine with the possibility of seeing American Pipit, Rock Wren, Timberline Brewer's Sparrow, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch and, perhaps, White-tailed Ptarmigan.
This trail description starts at the junction of the South Shore Two Medicine Trail (described elsewhere) and the Two Medicine Pass trail, about 2.6 miles from the boat dock parking area at Two Medicine Lake. From the junction it’s another 3.2 miles up to the lake.
The first stretch of the Two Medicine Pass Trail brings you along the base of Mt. Sinopah where there is spruce-fir forest with several avalanche chutes. In the trees look for Mountain Chickadee, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Western Tanager, Pine Siskin and others.
The shrubby habitat of the avalanche chutes is pretty in its own right. Because there are few mature trees standing, these chutes have a lot of light making them great for shrubs, berries and a variety of wildflowers. Macgillivray’s and Tennessee Warbler, Black-headed Grosbeak, Lazuli Bunting, Chipping Sparrow and others prefer this type of shrubby habitat to the forest.
Once out of the avalanche chutes you will enter a short spruce-fir forest with some lodgepole and an understory of huckleberry and false huckleberry. Listen for Varied Thrush and Yellow-rumped Warbler. Rockwell Falls is neither the biggest nor easiest to view, but here you are and it is an exquisite falls anyway. Have a quick snack and then it’s switchbacks, making your way up into the hanging valley that contains Cobalt Lake. Stop along the way and enjoy the inspiring view back toward Two Medicine Lake. Olive-sided Flycatcher, Varied Thrush, Hermit Thrush, Fox Sparrow and Chipping Sparrow are in this area along with lots of bear-grass and pink spirea as the forest gets shorter and more open.
Once you are up in the hanging valley you’ll continue to walk next to the river coming from Cobalt Lake. As you get higher there is the possibility of Dusky Flycatcher, Pacific Wren, Hermit Thrush, Cassin’s Finch and Pine Siskin. There are some great canyon-like portions of trail with big mossy rocks along the way. If you time things right, the monkeyflower will be in bloom. Just before Cobalt Lake are some of the most amazing meadows full of pink Lewis’ monkeyflower anywhere in the park. Forget birds and enjoy the flowers!
Cobalt Lake is a gorgeous spot. The lake is small and blue and is flanked by rock walls extending up toward Two Medicine Pass. Definitely spend some time relaxing along the shore. There is a fine “beach” and my kids often like to take a refreshing dip or just wade in the water. If you are lucky and quiet you might catch sight of a water shrew working the rocks along the shore. Water shrews are very small, brown, mouse-like mammals with a long pointy nose. They will dive under the water to go after insect nymphs and larvae like caddisflies and mayflies. You’ll see them dive under, swimming frantically to search along the bottom. Then, as soon as they stop swimming, the air bubbles trapped in their fur with bob them quickly to the surface.
If you camp at Cobalt Lake, listen for White-tailed Ptarmigan screaming at sundown and just before sunrise. They live in the moist spots with growing vegetation high above the lake.
If you have the time and energy, you need to continue up toward Two Medicine Pass. It’s worth the effort. This is a great, but vigorous, addition to your hike as it takes you up into the alpine. Along the way, you’ll see White-crowned, Fox and the Timberline Brewer’s Sparrow. The Timberline Brewer’s Sparrow has a very plain breast with light striping on the head. You’ll see Gray-crowned Rosy Finch and American Pipits up high. Also look and listen for White-tailed Ptarmigan and Rock Wren.
As you drive through the park on the east side, you'll enter the Reynolds Creek fire from 2015. This fire started near Reynolds Creek southeast of Jackson Glacier Overlook and quickly “blew up,” meaning that it expanded its size greatly due to bad fire weather conditions. This fire shut down the road for a few weeks in 2015 and made it impossible for me to reach my main White-tailed Ptarmigan study site at Logan Pass for a while. Why did the park service let this fire burn so long?
They didn't. You may have heard that the National Parks have a “let it burn” policy. It turns out that this is only remotely true – they only let fires burn if they are really, really remote. They have to be on the west side, far from life and property, and, generally high on a mountain so they can’t possibly go anywhere. The Reynolds Creek fire was seen from the Going-to-the-Sun road and was immediately decreed a “full suppression” fire. Often in this situation a team of Smoke Jumpers is called to parachute in and start suppression activities. In this case, the fire was moving too rapidly, so little could be done until the weather slowed the fire down over the next few days. It is not atypical for fire to be controlled more by weather than by humans - try as we might.
So, we might cry in frustration at the sight of all the dead trees, but the birds don’t. Specifically, Black-backed, Three-toed, Hairy, and other Woodpeckers, Mountain Bluebirds, and Gray Jays will appreciate the insect smorgasbord. You see, living trees have defenses against insects feeding on them. But, when they die, it’s free food for the insects. Then, of course, that’s free food for the birds. Hawk Owls are also known to use recent burns as nesting habitat. So, over the next few years, it will be really interesting to bird the St. Mary Falls trail, most of which was burned.
Generally when I have a choice, I choose to stay at Fish Creek or Avalanche Creek campground instead of Apgar. Apgar is huge, often crowded, and not quite as pretty as the other campgrounds on the west side. Although this is a large campground with lots and lots of people, it can still be good birding. It is imperative, however, that you awake before everyone else. When you do so, you’ll have the place to yourself. And, Apgar is the best, easiest place in the park for Hammond’s Flycatcher when they are still singing in June and early July.
The campground is set in lodgepole pine forest and is rather open. Early morning, walk each loop while looking and listening. It is likely to hear a Hammond’s Flycatcher in each loop, but search especially in loops A, C, and D. While searching for Hammond’s also watch for Hairy Woodpecker, Cassin’s Vireo, Townsend’s Warbler, Western Tanager, Rufous Hummingbird, and Townsend’s Solitaire. Then, after you’ve had a good walk in Apgar and a breakfast bar, head off to the Inside North Fork Road and Christensen Meadow.
Just two thoughts on Dusky and Hammond's Flycatchers. First, Dusky likes open habitat with shorter trees, whereas Hammond’s is seen most often in tall, contiguous forest. Second, their full songs are very similar, with the minor but important exception that Hammond’s has two phrases that are more guttural or raspy than sweet, whereas Dusky has only one raspy phrase. Good luck. I won’t quibble if you just use habitat as the key.
You don’t even have to pay admission to visit one of the best early-season birding spots in the park. Just before entering the park at St. Mary, take a left, heading south along the road to the 1913 Ranger Station. You’ll travel a short gravel road to a parking lot. All along the way you are driving along a large grassland patch. Listen and watch for Savannah, Vesper, Chipping, Lincoln, White-crowned, and Clay Colored Sparrows as well as Mountain Bluebirds. It’s also a possible location for White-throated Swifts.
I always take the trail that goes south out of the parking lot, rather than up the hill to the 1913 ranger station. Mostly because it’s flat, but also because, unless you are birding late, the wind usually picks up through the day, so starting in the open area first seems like a good plan. After leaving the sparrows in the grassland, you’ll hit a very nice little wetland with often very easily observable birds. It’s a great spot to just hang out and see Northern Waterthrush, Common Yellowthroat, MacGillivray’s Warbler, American Redstart, and others up close. Redstarts will fly out from the willows, hover low over the little pond, snag an insect, and fly back. Watch for the Waterthrush walking along picking insects off the algae growing on the pond. Other species at this site include Lincoln’s Sparrow, Willow Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo, Yellow Warbler, Gray Catbird, Cedar Waxwing, and Black-headed Grosbeak.
From here you’ll enter a really cool Douglas fir forest. The firs are covered in a light gray-green “old goats beard” lichen. The understory is loaded with wildflowers such as heart-leaved arnica and baneberry. Watch for Pine Siskin, Mountain Chickadee, Western Tanager, and Ruby and Golden-crowned Kinglet. This forest is also good for Ruffed Grouse. Listen for them in June and early July. If you follow them to the sound of their drumming, you might catch the male up on a log, beating the air with his wings. He does this to attract females to his territory (Ruffed Grouse are polygynous – one male mates with multiple females). If successful he will jump down off the log and really strut his stuff, fanning his tail and extending the ruffs of feathers on his neck.
Continuing on you will enter a clearing with a fantastic array of wildflowers and some fun birds, too. Yarrow, cinquefoil, serviceberry, blue-pod lupine, stone-seed piccune, and blanket flower are common here. Immediately begin looking for Calliope Hummingbirds. There is often a male territory as you enter the clearing. Then listen for House Wren, Northern Flicker (red-shafted), Hairy and Downy Woodpecker, Red-naped Sapsucker, Macgillivray’s Warbler, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Warbling Vireo, Western Wood Pee-wee, Tree Swallow, American Goldfinch, and White-crowned Sparrow. The tree swallows nest in holes in the Douglas firs. Watch above for American Kestrel, Red-tailed Hawk, and Turkey Vultures. As you get to the junction, there will be a wet area on your left that often contains Black-headed Grosbeak. This and the next half mile is great for Least Flycatchers “che bik” -ing over and over and you may also hear Black-headed Grosbeak, Black-capped, and Mountain Chickadee in the short aspens and dead trees.
Feel free to continue toward Red Eagle Lake. Often your best chance at sighting a Northern Hawk Owl is along the next mile of trail toward the lake. Also listen for Alder Flycatchers in deep thickets of aspen and alder.
You’ll soon come to the namesake of the Beaver Pond Loop trail. The pond contains an active beaver colony with a large lodge and very tall dam at the north end. There is also a Bufflehead pair that typically nests at this location. Lots of wetland bird species, and listening and looking carefully you can often hear Olive-sided flycatchers, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Least Flycatchers, Chickadees, and Western Tanagers in the large trees surrounding the area.
Continuing on you’ll go through several more burned areas. Notice that some areas contain trees that have been completely killed by the fire and you’ll hear the wind fluting through the dead trees. But, you’ll also see stands of Douglas fir that were obviously burned (charred at the base), but not killed. Douglas fir are well adapted to fire in the landscape and have thick bark that can withstand a ground fire. They also perform “self-pruning,” losing their lower branches so that ground fires aren’t carried up into the tree. Watch for Black-backed Woodpecker in the Douglas firs that were stressed enough by the fire that they died slowly. Black-backs like to nest and feed in trees with bark still falling off. If the bark is completely gone, so are the Black-backed Woodpeckers. Enjoy the gorgeous Douglas firs as you head down to the 1913 Ranger Station to complete the hike.
Name: Many Glacier Campground, Swiftcurrent Motor Inn
Both the Many Glacier Campground and the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn are interesting birding spots, especially for nests. With this in mind, the main species of interest in the Campground and Motor Inn are Red-naped sapsuckers, Mountain, Black-capped, and sometimes Boreal Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos, Varied Thrush, and Red-breasted Nuthatches. Both areas have had nesting Cooper’s Hawks and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and are great places to hear Swainson’s Thrushes singing at dawn and dusk. Northern Pygmy-owl, Great-horned Owl, and Northern Saw-whet owl have been heard in the Swiftcurrent area, though none appear to be regular. If you happen to be camping in the early summer, you may be awakened by the bawling of baby American Crows. They are desperately hungry, apparently all the time, and let everyone within a quarter mile know about it. Especially early in the morning.
Also in the Many Glacier Campground are vultures, circling and circling each morning from about July 4 to September, hoping to get a campsite. Many Glacier is always one of the earliest campgrounds to fill in the morning. No reservations are accepted, so in order to get a site, it is necessary to get there early – usually before 8:30 a.m. Here’s how you do it: as you enter, grab a registration envelope, drive around and find a site where the little yellow ticket is not on the post, ask to make sure the folks in the site are really leaving, if so, put up your own ticket and a paper plate saying occupied with the dates you are staying, then go off birding until noon to give the current occupants time to pack up without you there watching their every move.
Surprisingly, the primary nest creator in the area is a fungus that causes heart-rot in quaking aspen trees. Without the help of this fungus, Sapsuckers and other excavators could never bore through the interior of the tree to build a nest. These then couldn’t be usurped by other bird species like chickadees, nuthatches, and Dark-eyed Juncos. All these birds rely on aspen and the fungus that attacks it for their survival. The GNP environment is full of an interconnecting web of interactions such as these! One of the issues with habitat fragmentation is that often some of the parts of the web are left out of any particular patch. And, the web in some cases falls apart, making it impossible for some species to continue to exist in these patches.
Name: The Many Glacier Road
Distance: 12 miles by car
Habitats: Riparian, forest and grassland
Starting at Babb, just south of the Cattle Baron Supper Club, there is a platform with an osprey nest. Another platform can be found a mile from Babb on the Many Glacier road. On the left (entering the valley) you’ll see a rocky creek, on the right, just past an old campground there are three telephone poles, one of which has an Osprey nest on it. Another nest is about five miles in from Babb along the creek. Osprey are the most likely seen raptor along the Many Glacier Road.
Another great spot to stop is a rather large pond less than a mile in from Babb. You’ll see a large beaver lodge way out in the pond and lots of beaver sign (cut trees and dams), near the road. Lots of wetland birds will be singing in the breeding season, such as Common Yellowthroat, Yellow Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Lincoln’s sparrow, Song Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Willow Flycatcher, and others. Often, Western Tanager are in the area and White-throated Sparrows have been heard nearby in early season. Common Loons have nested in a very close, obvious nest in the past as well as Red-necked Grebes. So, scan the water for those and other ducks and grebes.
Between Babb and the Sherburn Dam are lots of riparian wetlands. Watch for willows along the creek and pull over or park in a pullout. These wetlands are your best chance of seeing Black-headed Grosbeaks in the Many Glacier area. Because these Grosbeaks tend to be secretive, you’ll have to listen for the call, a quiet, whistled Robin-like song. Other species found in these wetlands include Common Yellowthroat, Yellow Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Lincoln’s sparrow, Song Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Willow Flycatcher, and others. Least Flycatcher and in the evenings, Common Nighthawk are sometimes heard along this bit of road.
At the Sherburn Dam about six miles in from Babb there are a few things to look for. Cliff Swallows nest colonially and build their large, mud nests on the water outlet structure. It takes about ten days, both males and females working together to build one of these nests and they continue to work on it throughout June and early July. Just west of the dam, fifty feet west of the “Glacier National Park” sign, on the north side of the road about 25 feet up the slope, there is a little patch that is perennially muddy. From this patch you’ll see an explosion of Cliff Swallows flying up, each holding a dollop of mud in their bills, construction material for their nests.
While you are down at the lake looking at the Cliff Swallow nests, go ahead and scan the shoreline for sandpipers. Both Solitary and Spotted are possible with Spotted being more common. Also scan the sky above the lake for Osprey, Bald Eagle, and Gulls. On the lake you are likely to see Common Mergansers and Common Loons.
Another species to try for in late May or early June at the Sherburn dam outfall is the Harlequin Duck. Harlequins are most commonly seen on the Upper McDonald Creek on the west side of the park, but they have been sighted some years just below the dam in the fast water there. Harlequins have also been sighted just above Red Rock Falls in Swiftcurrent Creek. It’s not typical to see them on the east side, but it’s worth a look.
Cruise in past the entrance station to the first of two large grassland patches. These, and especially the one at Windy Creek, are good spots for plains or grassland species. First of all, notice the spectacular wildflower display. We often get “bear jams” in Many Glacier when a bear is sighted near a road. In some years in this location there are “flower jams” as people pull over and jump out of the car, camera in hand, to bathe in the display of blanket flower, blue-pod lupine, silky puccoon, and wild geranium. Then, of course listen and watch for Clay-colored Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Cedar Waxwing, Tree Swallow, Barn Swallow, Cliff Swallow and others. While you are there, scan the lake for Loons and other waterfowl. Then, try looking for a Bald Eagle nest. From the large pullout with silvery-leaved bushes on the left about one mile in from the entrance station, look straight across the lake to the far shore. You’ll see a portion of shoreline that comes out toward you, then as you scan west, it curves back in to the south. From there, look up and to the left, following the hint of a diagonal line through the trees about one-third of the way up the treed slope. The nest is in a dead tree that looks slightly wider and grayer than the surrounding trees. It was active as of 2013. If you don’t see the birds on the nest, scan around in the area and on the shoreline. You may see the bright bald head of an adult nearby.
Twelve miles from Babb, you’ll see signs for the beautiful, rustic, and historic Many Glacier Hotel. For now, pass on by and park a half mile further at a long pull-out and sign for Swiftcurrent Lake. Here scan the lake for Common Mergansers, Common Loon, and Barrow’s Goldeneye. Scan above for Osprey and Eagle.
Continuing a quarter mile further, you’ll see a horseshoe shaped pullout for the Grinnell Glacier trailhead and a picnic area. Stopping here, you’ll sometimes see Gray or Stellar’s Jays, Black-capped, Mountain, or even Boreal Chickadees, Chipping Sparrows, and American Crows.
Your next stop along the road is the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn and the Many Glacier Campground If you want to stay at the Campground any time from July 4 through Labor Day, you've got to get your site before about 10 a.m. as this campground fills up very early. Birding the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn and Many Glacier Campground will be described later.
A few thoughts before we get started with the guide. First of all, this guide is written with May-September as the target months. Over ninety percent of park visitation takes places during these months. I’m sure there are cool bird happenings in the park at other times of year, but few people are there to witness them.
Secondly, if you haven’t noticed, these trees have leaves. And, they have them all year round. This is a good thing because there are a lot of leaf-gleener birds that feed on the insects that are associated with leaves, but as you no doubt know, leaves make finding birds difficult. There will be birds that you hear in the trees, but you absolutely can’t find.
Which leads me to a further point: It’s important to love not just the sight of birds, but the sounds and signs of birds, too. In May, June, and half-way through July, the birds do you the great service of yelling out and telling you who they are. Be very happy about this! Bird songs are beautiful, intricate things that are full of meaning. If you don’t know your bird songs yet, use this as an opportunity to learn. How do you learn bird songs? I’m sure there are a lot of useful quiz programs out there, but the one I use with my students is Thayer’s Birds of North America. In the program, which is mostly an electronic field guide, there is a great quiz function where you can set up which species you want to learn and have it quiz you by sight, sound or both. I’m always astounded that within a couple weeks my students can learn almost 100 bird calls. And, it transfers to the outdoors pretty well, too.
This leads me to another point: it gets really quiet in GNP at the end of summer and stays quiet until spring. So, I hope you enjoyed being able to locate and identify birds by their songs, because now things get a bit tougher! At this time of year you need to stop at every little squeak and chip, even if you know it’s just a Chickadee or Chipping Sparrow. After the breeding season, the birds are flocking and often several species will be in the same flock. So, be sure to look around when you see any bird during this season.
So here’s a bit of a touchy subject: playing calls to elicit a response from a bird is considered harassing the wildlife while in GNP. You can, however, use taped calls to remind yourself of what a bird sounds like. But, do it quietly. These birds have a very short time window in which to breed, so any issues that they encounter – like you, pretending to be a breeding male on their territory – may make it less likely that they are successful. This all fits into the “leave no trace” ethics. We want to enjoy the place, and the birds and other critters living here. But, we need to do so in a way that will not leave our footprint.
Lastly, bears. The rumors are true. There are bears in GNP. And birders often ignore the main precautions for hiking in bear country, to make noise and to make more noise when hiking at dawn and dusk. My advice to you is, even though it may go against every fiber of your birder being, go ahead and make some noise. Don’t use bells, they make a constant racket and you won’t be able to hear the birds. And, besides, you are often the only thing who can hear your bells, so you’re not doing yourself any good. I recommend using your voice “Hay yah! Ho Bear!” or “Hey shrew, coming through.” Something like that. Especially when you are going around a blind turn or in an area where you can’t see or hear very well. Let the bears and other predators know you are coming. This is the key to hiking in bear country: don’t surprise a bear.
I was leading a birdwalk with about sixteen folks in Many Glacier a few years back on a gorgeous morning in early August. The sun was shining bright. It was quiet enough to hear a pin drop, and, even though I preach “make noise” I wasn’t practicing on this day. Walking at a birder’s pace, I thought we were probably making enough noise, and besides, we were 30 feet from the main road into Many Glacier, how likely would it be to see a bear. Oh, and, we birders are the most observant folks on the planet, right? Always on the watch for any slight movement; listening for the tiniest of sounds. And missing a 250 pound bear eight-feet behind me and to my right, noisily munching serviceberries. Now I’m in a predicament. I’ve already passed the bear with about a quarter of my group. Do I try to back everyone up? Do I try to ignore the bear and hope to get everyone past without them seeing it and freaking out and without the bear seeing us and freaking out? Do I pull out my bear spray, spray the group and run?
I decided to back my birdwalkers up where we were then able to get some great pictures from a good distance away. As much as I dislike enjoying mammals on a birdwalk, this was a great sighting, and, as it turns out, not the only one for the day. We ended up seeing four bears on that three-hour birdwalk.
So, make some noise, whether you want to or not. I don’t think it makes it less likely that you will see birds. There was a study in the 90s by a researcher named Gutierrez that examined how birds respond to a human in their territory. Basically, he found that if a person was on the outskirts of the territory, the bird would quit singing. But, near the center of the territory, the bird would sing. One interpretation of this behavior is that the bird sings because when close, it knows you are not a threat. So, a possible extension of this might be that if you yell out, the bird knows it’s a human and not a predatory threat, so it continues to sing.
If you do see a bear on the trail, just back up and give it some space. Let it go about its business until it ambles off. Enjoy the sighting from a distance. Sometimes the bear wants to go where you are, or down the trail past you. In this case it may walk down the trail right at you even (and sometimes especially) as you are backing away. If so, get off the trail. Go up above the bear if you can and let it pass through. It’s not chasing, charging, or stalking you. It’s just walking, right? It just wants to use the trail instead of bushwhacking. Bears are smart.
Last thing about bears, if buying bear spray makes you more comfortable with hiking in glacier, then do it. I’ve carried the stuff for 19 years and have never used it. My can probably doesn’t even work anymore. Many more people than bears get sprayed every year, so be careful if you do buy some.
Several years ago we had a Ranger that was helping move some folks up the boardwalk at Logan Pass away from a bear who was trying to cross the trail. The bear was minding its own business, which made it especially difficult to get the people to move, but the Ranger was slowly kinda pushing the picture-taking mob up the slope. When, all of a sudden the bear makes three swift moves in the direction of the group. It was probably going after a ground squirrel or maybe it was just frolicking in the sea of delicious wildflowers, but in any case, it was not trying to eat a tourist. Unfortunately, that is not how one middle-age lady from Arkansas interpreted it. She pulled the safety off her already unholstered pepper spray, and while running up the boardwalk away from the bear, she shot the full can of spray over her shoulder and right into the face of the Ranger. The Ranger, now 50 feet down the trail near the advancing bear, was now completely incapacitated and was struggling to see out of his pain-seared eyes to find out where Mr. Bear was now. The rest of the group who previously had been too camera-happy to walk up the trail away from the bear, now watched like New Yorker’s at a mugging, the ranger, who, incapacitated and strongly seasoned with pepper, struggled to move up the trail. The moral of the story: humans are much more dangerous than bears. And, humans seasoned with pepper spray are a tasty treat for our furry friends.
Can you imagine what might happen in this situation now that people are allowed to bring loaded guns on the park trails?
In conclusion, be cautious. It’s a dangerous world out there, but not because of the birds. Maybe because of the non-human mammals. And mostly because of the humans.
Just a short note to go with the guide below...
Osprey are often confused with Bald Eagle. Osprey are actually only about 2/3 of the size, but size is often difficult to gauge in the field. Osprey also have more brown on the head and tail than an adult Bald, and they have very white and skinny wings. These last field marks can be very helpful when Osprey fly over, especially when you aren't expecting them. I was up at Logan Pass and saw two raptors high overhead and tried to make them into several other species until I finally realized they had skinny wings with lots of white underneath: Osprey. One study looking at osprey diving success in Yellowstone found that they successfully catch a fish almost 50% of the time. Spend time watching Osprey fishing in one of Glacier’s larger lakes and you may witness Bald Eagle harassing osprey for their catch.
Osprey were greatly affected by the use of the pesticide DDT in the 50's and 60's. The link between Osprey nest success and DDT was what led to the creation of the Environmental Defense Fund who were integral in the push for a nationwide ban. The ban was finally established in 1972, and since that time, Osprey populations have increased steadily. Some years, the St. Mary Visitor Center has a webcam set up on an Osprey nest just outside of the center.
Just this morning I was leading a birdwalk here in the Many Glacier Valley. It was a beautiful, overcast morning. Clouds were topping the peaks, covering them in a greyish-yellow, backlit blanket. It was cool enough for a light fleece and my twenty-two birdwalkers were listening to, then excitedly pointing out a Common Merganser with eleven chicks scurrying (can you scurry across water?) across the corner of Swiftcurrent lake right in front of the boat launch. It was cute and beautiful; funny and lovely. Mothers and fathers thought of their own offspring and how cute they used to be. Science geeks were developing hypotheses – was it us or the Barrow’s Goldeneye that made the merganser family flee? Bird nerds were interested in the raspy, guttural call she was making. Novice birders were counting the eleven heads in disbelief. But we were all excited and had pulses quickened by the sight. Two upper teenage boys came running down from their car in the pullout above, cameras in hand, ready to document the scene. “What are you looking at?” one asked. Someone in my group began pointing out the brood and explaining what we’d just witnessed. And that’s when it happened, as I, and probably the rest of my crew knew it would.
“Oh, we thought you were looking at a moose or something.” Dejected. Almost looking down their noses at the crazy group of people that were excited about a duck, they left.
Later, we watched a Red-naped Sapsucker feeding its young in the perfectly excavated cavity of a heart-rotted aspen. The adult male swoop-flew in from across the road carrying a grub – not to the nest tree, but next door, as always. He looked around, hoped across to the nest and squeezed into the romper room of screaming children. Then, made the impossible turn around in no space at all, emerging with a white fecal packet in its mouth and quickly flew off, bombing an unsuspecting car that had pulled alongside to see what we were seeing. “What are you looking at?” Can you guess what they did when they heard it was a bird? A woodpecker, no less?
They drove on.
Later, we were listening to a rarely-heard White-winged Crossbill on the way back from viewing a Dipper feeding its young by Wilbur Falls and seeing the needle-bill of a Calliope sticking out of a perfectly formed nest: a silver-dollar size upside-down coonskin hat of tightly-weaved lichens and spider silk. This Crossbill, the last bird of a fantastic morning of birding, where there were more exclamations of delight than on the fourth of July – at glorious views of a Calliope male, Yellow Warbler, White-crowned Sparrow, Macgillivray’s Warbler, and a Wilson’s Snipe, no less. A fantastic morning of birding in a reach-out-and-touch-them mountainous setting where we stopped to enjoy the romping of the Columbia Ground Squirrels as well as the bubbly-wren song of the Lincoln’s sparrow. We were having fun! All of us, from 8 to 80 years-old. Adorned with Aunt Eula’s cheap opera glasses to the near-infinitely perfect Swarovski glass. From the first-time birder excited about the orange-breasted, black headed thrush to the hard-core list-er enthralled with the Dipper baby-feeding frenzy. We were having fun, seeing the trees bejeweled with life, color, behavior, music, questions, and answers. And we didn’t notice the car that had pulled alongside.
“What are you looking at?”
We’re looking for the crossbill. Perfectly adapted to opening up pine cones and extracting the seeds. Big as a Robin, but bright red and white and black. A musical tinkling song that goes on and on. A modern day dinosaur – everyone loves dinosaurs! Right?
“They’re looking at a bird.” Is what we heard as they rolled their windows and their eyes at us and headed on.
It’s not a mammal.
What is it about the mammals? Why is it that when people ask me about what wildlife I’ve seen, they only mean big, furry wildlife? Why is it that the Ranger slide show on mammals is standing-room only while the bird talk, which my mother claims is the best she’s ever seen, always has at least a few empty seats. Why is it, that when I ask my audiences at these “Glacier is for the birds” slide shows, what they were hoping to see in Glacier, they mention bears, sheep, moose, goats, and, finally, Osprey, thanks to the one pair of birders in the room.
Why are we so enamored with the mammals? What is it about the mammals?
They are bigger than birds. Right? Wrong. Ask a shrew, or deer mouse, or bat, or vole. They don’t call them pocket gophers cause they are big. Stand next to a Sandhill crane and you’ll see a big bird.
They are easier to identify. Right? Nope. How do you tell a black bear from a grizzly bear? Color? Black bears can be brown, blond, cinnamon, or black. Grizzly bears can be brown, blond, cinnamon, or black. Grizzlies have a hump of muscle at their shoulders that tends to be the highest point on their bodies, whereas black bears are tallest in the rump when they stand on level ground. But, have you seen any level ground since you got to Glacier? Grizzlies have a dished face whereas the black bear’s snout is more dog-like. But it’s a judgment call and very variable. Grizzlies are bigger on average than black bears. But, have you ever talked to anyone who has seen a bear on the trail and not described it as at least huge if not ginormous? At least 500 pounds? Sometimes it’s just hard to tell what species you are looking at, even if you’ve been looking at them for the last 20 years. And that’s the biggest, baddest, predator mammal out there, that everyone wants to see. Even it is often difficult to identify. Unless you check the third molar on the top. If it’s over 1 ¼ inches, (a) it’s a grizzly, and (b) you are too close.
If Bears are hard to identify, how much harder are voles? Deer mice? Shrews? Even the three species of chipmunks are hard to ID. You have to use scientific names with most mammals because everyone calls them whatever their Daddy called them. E.g. woodchuck, groundhog, marmot are all Marmota monax. So, our three chipmunks are the least (Tamias minimus), yellow pine (Tamias amoenus), and red-tailed (Tamias ruficaudus). They are small, medium and large, respectively, but the overlap is huge. The least chipmunk is usually grayer and smaller than the other two, so it can often be teased apart – especially if it is in your hand. The red-tailed has a red tail, but so does the yellow pine. In fact, everything about the two is virtually identical or at least their variations overlap. So, what do you do to tell them apart? You examine the baculum, of course! That’s the penis bone… Are you frantically searching your mind for memories of this structure from your sex-ed classes in middle school? Don’t bother, we don’t have one.
If the penis bone is straight, it is the red-tailed chipmunk. If it has an arrow head at the end, it is a yellow pine chipmunk. Or, I should say, it “was” a chipmunk. Now it is dead and dissected. Mammals are not easier to identify than birds.
Mammals can kill us, and do more often than birds. So, I guess there is that. I’ll give you that one. Not sure why that would make us enjoy them, though.
Maybe we like the mammals because we are mammals ourselves? The taxonomists tell us that we have some pretty significant things in common with the mammals, like hair. All mammals have hair. Is that why we like other mammals so much? The hair? Then, why do we like looking at each other’s naked, almost hairless bodies, I wonder. At least boys do. I hear there is a major industry based on this fact.
If it’s not the hair, maybe it’s the ears. Almost all mammals have pinnae, or ear flaps sticking out of the sides of their heads. Is this what is so attractive about mammals? Kinda doubtful. Maybe it’s the mammary glands. Do we like mammals because they have such lovely mammary glands? I hope not!
I would suggest that we have some pretty important things in common with the birds as well. And, really, at least on the surface level, some of the things we have in common with birds might be more significant than what we have in common with the mammals. For example: What is the main sense that most mammals use to perceive their environment?
Smell. Most mammals use smell as their primary way to explore the world. Think about your dog. When you come home from being away, especially if you’ve seen another dog while away, what does your dog do when you first open the door? It smells your leg. And from smelling your leg it knows where you’ve been, what other dogs you’ve seen, what breed of dog they were, their gender, whether they were in reproductive condition or not, all this just from smelling your leg.
What about humans? Our main senses are sight and sound. Compared to other mammals we have such a pathetic sense of smell, that, from a dog’s perspective, it is almost worthless.
What about the birds? What are their primary senses? Sight and sound.
That’s why birds are brilliantly colored. Reds, yellows, greens, blues. Bright colors in striking combinations. Have you seen a Western Tanager? It’s like looking at the sun, a bright red head with sun-yellow below and a black wing. They are like looking at the sun, but rather than being blinded by brightness, you are blinded by beauty. And we appreciate that. We love beauty. Sunsets. Mountains. “Purple mountains majesty.” Visual art. Flowers. Even makeup.
What about mammals? They are black. They’re brown and white. They’re drab. They’re ugly! Compared to flowers? Compared to sunsets? Compared to…birds? They don’t hold a candle to what we consider beautiful.
We should like birds better.
That’s why birds sing beautiful songs. Because they have two vibrating surfaces in their sound-producing syrinx, they can sing two songs at the same time. They can sing harmonics on top of those two songs. They can fit in more changes in pitch and amplitude in a period of time than we can even discern. And we appreciate that. We love music. Classical, rock and roll, dance music, even rap.
What about the mammals? They squeak, they grunt, they growl…they sound terrible. Compared to classical music? Compared to rock and roll or even rap? Compared to…birds?
We should like birds better.
When are most mammals active? Day or Night? Most mammals are nocturnal, they are active at night. What about humans? I mean, other than high-schoolers… We’re diurnal, active during the day. What about the birds?
Most birds are diurnal. That’s why, when you go outside in Glacier, the behavior you see, if it’s not a squirrel or a bear on the slopes of the Many Glacier valley, is the birds. Birds are the ones behaving out there. Flitting through the trees. Flying overhead. Divebombing other, bigger birds in a “best defense is a good offense” strategy. They are singing, catching insects in their mouths as they fly twenty miles per hour. Or, if you are a Peregrine nesting on Haystack Butte, catching Robins in their talons as they stoop at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour.
We should like birds better.
What about diversity? How many mammal species do you think are on the mammal list for Glacier National Park? It’s a high number, considering it is one of the only parks in the lower 48 states that has all the top mammal predators that were here 200 years ago. Only two mammal species have been lost since that time: the woodland caribou and the mountain bison. Without these two, we still have 64 species on the mammal list for GNP. Can you guess how many bird species there are on the bird list?
Two-hundred and eighty. Four times as many as there are mammal species. Birds are hugely more diverse at over 9000 worldwide compared to the 4000 mammal species found across the globe.
We should like birds better.
In this blog and website, I hope to give you a sense of the diversity of birds in this park. You’ll learn where to find interesting species and the best birding hotspots. I’ll give identification tips that help me and hopefully will help you, too. Information about conservation, natural history, and human history may be interspersed as well.
But most of all, I hope you come away with a greater appreciation for birds and realize, if you haven’t already, that we should like birds better.
Top of page photo by Randy Patrick
David Benson Ph.D.
White-tailed Ptarmigan researcher and National Park Service Ranger Naturalist in GNP since 1995. "The Bird Ranger"