October 15, 2017
The bird list might seem short, but the day was long in fun. The day couldn't have been much nicer for October 15th in central Montana. The sky was clear, the wind skipped over us for the most part and the temperature was pleasant. There were 11 on the trip - Carolyn, Candace, Velda, Kay, Aubrey, Emma, Sandy, Abby, Mike, Wayne and Beth. The group arrived at the guard station before 10 am and quickly assembled to head up the MIddle Fork of the Judith River to do some exploring. Wayne Phillips had put together a pretty good history of the cabin and the area - between the information provided by the Forest Service about the cabin and a personal oral history from Jean Setter. Jean has been a member of UMBA since 1981. She was born and raised on a homestead that eventually became part of the Judith Wildlife Management Area (WMA). As a child she took piano lessons from the wife of Ranger Myers at the guard station. She walked the 2 miles between the Setter homestead and the guard station. But more about that later.
Our walk up the river was punctuated by the calls of numerous Clark's Nutcrackers. There were either several dozen about or the same ones making circuits. There would be as many as 8 at one time. The Mountain Chickadees were more heard than seen. They were very active. Mike spotted a probably Hairy Woodpecker on our way upstream. On the return trip he scouted ahead of the group and found it on the same log. Everyone got a good look at it as it was grooming on a downed tree. Several Red-breasted Nuthatches were heard and seen. A nice look at a Townsend's Solitaire rounded out the observations. Common Ravens were heard as well as unidentified chips/tweets. Wayne and Abby both showed us how to identify a white spruce vs Engleman spruce, Douglas fir, snowberry vs wolfberry, willow vs birch and more. There were little surprises like several old wooden benches placed along the trail, an upside down rusted out vehicle, a coffer dam that had wooden slats (it apparently fed the ditch that led to a hay pasture next to the guard station). Somehow it was after 1:30 pm before we returned to the cabin and broke out the lunches.
We explored the cabin (3 bedrooms up, sitting room, office and kitchen down), ate then Wayne shared what he had learned about the cabin and Jean Setter. The cabin was built in 1908 from a forest service "kit". Even the box was used in construction - the lintel over one bedroom doorway had the shipping address - "Forest Service, Myers, Windham, Mont". The ranger paid for the front porch addition out of his own pocket. It was not a standard issue item. Apparently he had a choice - to purchase the porch materials or a level. The cabin has a porch. A barn had been built the year before and car garage was added later. Jean was quite involved in the restoration - sharing her knowledge of what it looked like when she knew the family and came over for piano lessons.
The willows along the river were checked out after lunch, but only more Mountain Chickadees were found. Instead of heading back at that point (it was already 3 pm - our planned departure time) we wanted to head over to see if we could find the route that Jean took to the station from the homestead and perhaps the homestead site itself. Our first attempt to find the homestead was still of forest service land and didn't look quite right. Another examination of the maps suggested trying a pretty rutted track that headed over to the WMA. It meant more walking. After we said good-bye to half the group - Wayne, Candace, Emma, Aubrey and Beth continued on. As we walked up the faint road some birds calling in the tree tops were suggestive of Crossbills - but couldn't be seen (darn). More Clark's Nutcrackers. Things kept looking better and better as we came to the property line of the WMA. A BIG open field that was surrounded by encroaching Ponderosa could easily have been a homestead that was running cattle. The grasses in areas were the non-native hay that would have been cut for horses and cattle. But where would you put a homestead? Candace spotted a faint road that curved around to an area that looked like it would have a water source and be somewhat out of the wind. We knew that the only thing left was the root cellar. Sure enough - root cellar, capped well head and probably an outhouse location were found. Perhaps the rocks that seemed out of place were part of the foundation or porch? Caragana planted in rows would have served as a wind break. Confident that we had found the old homestead site we took pictures to share with Jean and headed back to the car. Wayne was curious about the route to the guard station so Wayne, Emma and Beth headed down a draw that had been described by Jean. Sure enough - there was even a worn path all the way (game prints suggested that it wasn't used only by humans). She said it was about a 2 mile walk - which seemed about right - from homestead to guard station cabin.
Time to head home. Emma was staying the night - to enjoy the silence and starry night. It was already 5:45 pm. As we were buckling seatbelts Candace looked over at a fence post and asked "is that another nutcracker?". Beth put the binoculars on it and surprised everyone when she said - "No - that is a Blue Jay!" It was about the last bird we expected to find. All got a look at it. Behind schedule but satisfied with the day - everyone thought - "I'd like to come back again."
Last Chance Audubon and Montana Audubon in cooperation with Montana FWP and the US Forest Service initiated a Golden Eagle Migration Survey (GEMS) site at Duck Creek Pass in the Big Belts after recognizing the high potential for high numbers of migrating raptors, particularly Golden Eagles. This is the third year of the count. On September 30, despite the forecast of clouds, wind and chance of rain, 4 members of UMBA made the trip to take part in the days counting. Official counting is done by 2 paid observers. A standard protocol is followed that includes the bird species, adult or non-adult and if possible sex. Weather conditions are also noted on a regular basis throughout the day. Counting typically will begin about 9 am and continue until 6 pm. This year the count started September 15th and will run until November 13th (weather permitting). The site sits near the radio tower at Duck Creek Pass, 8200 feet. There was still considerable snow at the site on the 30th from snows earlier in the month. The walk up the steep road to the site was still mostly snow covered. It is a 1.25 mile hike with an 800 feet elevation gain. It was a good workout for even for youngsters. When we arrived at the parking area, felt the wind and saw the snow we quickly donned the winter gear we brought. The day before in Great Falls it was 75 degrees and sunny – it was a little disorienting to prepare to spend a day in snow, 30-40 degrees, wind and probably cloudy. I know I could have used those insulated boots instead of mere Gore-tex. The daypacks stuffed with layers were quickly emptied. We stayed at the counting site until 2 pm when clouds had dropped below the level of the mountain tops and there were a few raindrops. The observers left shortly after as the cloud level dropped below the count site. In 4 1/2 hours that we were there 33 Golden Eagles were counted. Other raptors: Sharp-shinned Hawks 8, Cooper’s Hawk 1, Red-trailed Hawk 3 (one a very light colored bird), Rough-legged Hawk 1, American Kestrel 1, Merlin 1, Unknown buteo 1(probably Red-tail), Unknown falcon 1 (probably a Peregrine), Unknown Eagle 1 (probably Golden). Not bad for a shortened day. During 1 one hour period we had 14 Golden Eagles fly by. The day before was sunny and warm with a season high count of 63 Golden Eagles for the day. We also saw: American Robins, Mountain Bluebirds, Common Raven, Clark’s Nutcrackers, Northern Flickers, a Blue Grouse, Black-billed Magpie, Gray Jay, Rock Pigeons and starlings seen on the trip. Once again a really nice fall trip in the mountains (the colors were fantastic!). To learn more about the GEMS visit: www.eaglemigration.org