- Peeps from the Board: A Tale of Anna’s Hummingbirds
By Edward Monnig
Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina begins with the lines “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In Tolstoy’s novel, Anna acts with fierce independence against the strictures of her society and her family. She travels beyond the confines of her home in her search of love, fulfillment, and a new reality. Her story can be imagined as a rough parallel to the experience of Anna’s Hummingbirds in Missoula this winter.
The home range of the Anna’s Hummingbirds is generally along the west coast, west of the Cascades and the Sierras. Unlike the three more common hummingbird species in western Montana (Calliope, Rufous, and Black-chinned), Anna’s Hummingbirds are not long-distance migrants. They may move upslope in the mountains during breeding season, but do not escape winter with long migrations south to Mexico or Southeastern US.
Anna’s Hummingbirds have been spotted in the Missoula area in the summer and fall on occasion over the past several years, part of the long-range expansion of their home range to the north and east. Cornell Laboratories reports that in the late 1800’s the breeding territory of Anna’s was confined to southern California and northern Baja California.
My friend Tom first observed two Anna’s in the middle of November, as they tried to feed on an empty artificial nectar feeder still hanging outside his kitchen window. He dutifully filled it and retrieved it every night to keep it from freezing. The system worked well, and the birds visited regularly for several weeks. Then the serious cold hit, and the daytime temperatures rarely climbed above freezing. Not to be outdone, Tom, the creative engineer, rigged a heater that he attached to the feeder.
This outfit worked for another week or two until the very cold northeast winds spilled over the Lincoln saddle near his house. Soon after, Tom noticed a small ball of ice encircling the end of one of the bird’s beak, likely the result of dipping its beak in near-freezing feeder solution. Just like the hummingbird that jabs a bee or wasp and cannot extract its beak, this bird seemed doomed. Again, Tom was not deterred. He took a hair dryer and slowly approached the feeder. The bird sensed his good intentions and stayed while Tom defrosted its beak. He repeated this routine a second time later that day. Hope returned.
Those of us who have lived in Montana for a while know that these northeast winds are harbingers of the bitter cold. Soon the temperature fell below zero Fahrenheit. And the morning came when the Anna’s hummingbirds did not reappear.
Their adaptations to the wet, moderate weather of the Pacific Northwest had not prepared them for this unrelenting core cold. Like Tolstoy’s Anna and her lover, Vronsky, these hummingbirds had ventured into strange lands beyond their capacity to adapt. Unlike Anna they did not have the means to retreat.
It is, of course, too easy to anthropomorphize these wild creatures. Our nature sheds empathy for their distress and compels us to provide for them as we can. And we mourn their individual loss.
There is some solace in knowing that, as a species, Anna’s Hummingbirds are doing well. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey Anna’s Hummingbirds populations had increased by over 2% per year between 1966 and 2014.
The drive that pushed these two pioneers into Montana has served the species well as it expands into new and more hospitable territory. Yet that success as a species has come at the expense of some individuals, these tiny equivalents of the lone wandering wolf.
- Peeps from the President
By Rose Leach
Happy New Year! Because January is when our annual report to National Audubon is due, I am happy to report that I finished it on time, which is an enormous relief. We had some highlights this year, despite Covid dampening our in-person meetings until recently.
First, I want to recognize the herculean efforts from Jim Brown, Poody McLaughlin, Gerhard Knudsen, our student intern Clint Whittle-Frazier, Lena Viall, and our other partners and collaborators who collectively finalized our updated Grass Valley Important Bird Area (IBA) brochure and map. Having accurate information about land ownership and conservation lands in map form helps us when we offer testimony on local planning (which we do often throughout the year) and when we apply for grant funding. Hard copies of the brochure are available now, and you can download a copy of the IBA from our website. Thanks to everyone who made this years-long-effort possible.
Chapter volunteers have spent more than 3,000 hours on various project this year. One such project is the ongoing planning for the Fort Missoula Natural Area, aka the Gravel Pit ponds behind the soccer fields. The site is a true gem for our city, where open grassland habitat on McCauley Butte meets the Bitterroot River’s riparian habitat, and both are adjacent to two fairly large-sized open water habitats. The result of the close proximity of these diverse habitats is excellent bird and wildlife habitat in an easily accessible site. The current bird count for the ponds and some adjacent forested area is a whopping 224 species. For context, that is slightly more than half of the entire bird list for our very large and diverse state (442 species!). The official state list of Montana birds is available here.
The two ponds host significant numbers of migrating waterfowl, in part because they are relatively large and secure from roads, dogs, and other human disturbance during important migration seasons. This fall alone, the north pond had a Long-tailed Duck from November 12th until the ponds froze over in mid-December. This is a large sea duck not often found in Missoula County. The south pond had another sea duck—a Black Scoter (a female or first winter bird) for at least a day, as well as a late-season Common Loon, who also hung around till the ponds froze over. None of these species would be found and viewable in the Missoula area without the habitat and viewing opportunities afforded by these former gravel pit ponds.
Speaking of McCauley Butte, our Chapter has been working hard to provide meaningful input into a proposed subdivision on the north-facing slope of the butte. We have gathered data from eBird as well as our night-flight recorder system to help with our analysis. The area provides habitat as part of a larger migration corridor connecting the Bitterroot and Clark Fork valleys. Stay tuned for more on this effort.
The Chapter provided letters of support for a variety of planning and granting opportunities this year, as we have since our inception. One of the most consequential was our support of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ proposed management of the National Bison Range, which came to fruition this year. We received a nice thank-you from Council Chairwoman Shelly Fyant for our efforts, which is always great to hear.
The Chapter again partnered with Five Valleys Land Trust (FVLT) to do bird surveys on some of their lands of conservation importance. We often contribute dollars to the purchase of conservation easements through this partnership, which helps in their securing conservation grant funds. This year, they received an astounding 3.7- million-dollar grant for agriculture conservation in the Flint Creek Valley, where we have helped in bird and habitat surveys. We are proud and so pleased to help our conservation partner successfully obtain and implement this grant funding. If you would like to be involved in these surveys, keep an eye on the newsletter, or contact board member and FVAS founding father Jim Brown for more details. Partnering with others really gives us more bang for our conservation efforts.
Speaking of grants, we recently sent a letter of support to the Clark Fork Coalition to help them apply for funding for the proposed Grant Creek Restoration project, focusing on the part of the creek that flows through town, downstream of I-90 and down to the river. Imagine the benefits to our city with this successful project! Stay tuned for more on this topic, and thanks to our member and partner Will McDowell for connecting us to this project.
Now that I think of it, there are even more projects we have worked on, so much so that I will need another PEEPs to cover it all. In listing all that we have accomplished, I am so grateful for all our hard-working members and conservation partners in our wonderful community. Who knew that the drudgery of compiling our annual report would lead to this warm feeling? Happy late winter to all our readers and members, and we will see you in the coming field season for more conservation success stories.
- Peeps from the Treasurer
By Jean Duncan
Here’s to a birdyfull 2022! Our operating income for the year was $18,268, with expenses of $12,280, netting $5,987.
At the end of 2021 FVAS had assets of $197,041 of which $109,371 is in the Phil L. Wright Endowment. This endowment provides grants for UM student’s bird and habitat related research projects. Of the $77,313 in our general fund, $16,670 is restricted to habitat conservation and education.
Five Valleys Audubon Society donated $5,200 to several bird research and habitat protection nonprofits, including Montana Audubon. We are participating in on-going planning meetings about the former Knife River gravel pit ponds, located west of Fort Missoula Park, which are an important bird habitat area in the valley. We anticipate making a significant monetary donation to this project to back up our active participation in the planning process.
Please direct any questions about the finances of FVAS to Jean Duncan, gro.nobuduavfnull@rerusaert. We’re looking forward to another year of supporting birds and their habitat in Montana with your help and involvement!