Raptors in Ronan – Mission Valley Field Trip Report

by Larry Weeks & Rose Leach

Saturday, February 23rd: Our late February field trip to the Mission Valley to look for wintering raptors has always been a favorite trip for the Chapter. And we weren’t disappointed. This year, we were joined by Lauren Heiser and Dan Ellis from KPAX for the first half of the trip. They filmed some birds and did a couple of short interviews with Rose L. and myself. They produced a short video that aired on the 5:30pm and the 10pm news, which turned out pretty well for our Chapter. They also seemed to enjoy the trip, and to appreciate our interests in our local birds and wildlife. Thanks, Lauren and Dan!

We started checking the various side roads out of Ronan by first traveling on Little Martin Road. We immediately encountered lots of Red-tailed Hawks, a few Rough-legged Hawks and many Bald Eagles of various ages. We also got good looks at American Tree Sparrows in an open field with weeds and grasses that were above the snow. This little winter visitor from the arctic is always a treasure for us to find on a field trip.

As we traveled north on Leighton Road, we continued to see lots of raptors—each seemingly a slightly different plumage or shade from others seen of the same species. On one quarter mile stretch, we also had 2 Sharp-shinned Hawks, a Merlin and an American Kestrel. After a pit stop in Polson, we went to the sewage ponds. On the entrance road, the lead car saw a perched Merlin, which was immediately harassed by a Great Horned Owl. The Merlin proceeded to dive bomb and call at the owl twice before leaving. This gave us great views of the banded tail and pointed wings of this small falcon. The sewage ponds did not have much open water, but there were both goldeneye species, and lots of Lesser Scaup.

Valley View Road continued to produce buteos, Bald Eagles and Great Horned Owls. One of the owls was close to the road and totally exposed for excellent viewing. We could easily study its white neck band and its ear tufts blowing in the wind. As we continued south on Moiese Valley Road, we found a mixed flock of birds in an open field that included juncos, a few American Tree Sparrows, and Horned Larks. In the flock of Horned Larks, several of us were able to find a few individuals with white throats—subspecies articola. This arctic subspecies only comes to Montana during winter. We looked the flock over carefully for any potential wintering Lapland Longspurs or Snow Buntings, but there were none in this flock. We studied the larks climbing up small flower stems above the snow, to find and eat remnant seeds, a necessary behavior for this prairie species during winter.

There was a large flock of 30-50 American Robins feeding on juniper berries near the Flathead River, at the bottom of the Moiese Valley Road. This small, habitat-diverse microsite is always good for birds. With the robins were a Townsend’s Solitaire, a few Black-capped Chickadees, and a male Hairy Woodpecker that was excavating seeds from pine cones located near the tip of a medium-sized Ponderosa Pine. We and the birds appreciated both the seeds and the fairly mild day, where the birds could find and consume this fat-rich food.

The Foust Slough had at least 1000 Mallards (or more) and 6 Trumpeter Swans. The water there looked black with mud or rocks—but these were actually all ducks! There were 20 people on the trip and we had 41 species. The breakdown of the raptors was 35 Red-tailed Hawks, 18 Rough-legged Hawks, 2 Sharp-shinned Hawks, 2 Merlins, 1 American Kestrel, 1 Northern Harrier, 27 Bald Eagles, and 6 Great Horned Owls. It is interesting to note that the Deer Lodge and Mission valley field trips were conducted during favorable weather conditions which were followed on Sunday by arctic blasts. What a difference a day makes!

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