Sacajawea Audubon

Bird of the Month

November 2016 - Townsend's Solitaire

Townsend's Solitaire (L. Harris photo)

Townsend's Solitaire (L. Harris photo)

Myadestes townsendi

Length: 8 inches

Weight:  1.2 ounces

The Townsend's Solitaire is a slim gray bird that nests in the high mountains of Montana and other western states.  It's long tail, bold eyering, buffy wing patch and short bill are distinctive, as are it's ringing call and burbling song, often heard throughout the fall and winter months.  During winter, both male and female descend to the valleys and are highly territorial, defending patches of juniper trees against other solitaires and other birds, such as robins.  Violent fights break out in defense of their winter territory.  They feed largely on juniper berries in the non-breeding season, and solitaires who successfully defend a good supply of berries survive the cold winter months better than birds on smaller patches.

The Townsend's Solitaire places its nest on the ground, but may nest above ground in a live tree.  They are fond of nesting along cut banks, using nooks or hollows underneath an overhanging root or rock that shelters the nest from above.  The cup is made of pine needles and lined with grass stems and strips of bark and placed on a platform of twigs.  The female will lay a clutch of up to 6 eggs.

The oldest recorded Townsend's Solitaire was at least 5 years old when it was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in California.

July 2016 - American Dipper

American Dipper (Lou Ann Harris photo)

American Dipper (Lou Ann Harris photo)

Cinclus mexicanus

Length: 7.5 inches

Wingspan: 11 inches

Weight: 2 ounces

The American Dipper, North America’s only true aquatic songbird, is a year-round resident of Montana.  Fly-fishermen will be well acquainted with the dipper, also known as an “ouzel”.  This chunky gray bird prefers a fast-flowing stream where they swim or walk on the river bottom to catch aquatic insects and larvae.  They also eat dragonflies, worms, small fish and fish eggs.

The male and female share nest-building duties and will select a site in a rock crevice, behind a waterfall, in an overhanging stream bank or under a bridge.  They create an intricate ball-shaped nest that features two layers. The outer shell is made of moss and the inner chamber has a woven cup of grass & bark.  Since the nest location is close to water, the moss layer helps absorb moisture.  It’s interesting to note that the site selection takes into account security from flooding.  The female lays 4-5 white eggs, incubating them 14-17 days.  The nestlings fledge after about 25 days.

The dipper’s distinctive traits include frequent bobbing up and down (dipping) while perched on a rock, a blinking white eyelid and feeding behavior of jumping or diving into turbulent water.  The American Dipper seems impervious to frigid winter temperatures, and indeed, has a specially adapted low metabolic rate, extra oxygen-carrying capacity in its blood and a thick coat of feathers.  Dippers don’t migrate south, so they usually have to move to bigger unfrozen rivers in winter.

The elaborate song of the dipper was once described by John Muir as “that of the streams refined and spiritualized. The deep booming notes of the falls are in it, the trills of the rapids, the gurgling of margin eddies, the low whispering of level reaches, and the sweet tinkle of separate drops oozing from the ends of mosses and falling into tranquil ponds”.  The song is piercing, varied and loud. and can be heard 100 meters away.  Listen for the song of the dipper even in mid to late winter.

The oldest American Dipper on record was over 8 years old, when it was recaptured and released in South Dakota.



June 2016 - Black-headed Grosbeak

Pheucticus melanocephalus

Black-headed Grosbeak (Lou Ann Harris)

Black-headed Grosbeak (Lou Ann Harris)

Length:  7.5 inches

Wingspan:  12.6 inches

Weight:  35-49 grams

The Black-headed Grosbeak is a chunky neotropic songbird that breeds in Montana.  The male is very showy with his black, white and cinnamon plumage.  The female is less flamboyant in color.  The song of the Black-headed Grosbeak has been described as a "drunk robin".  Both the male and female sing and have the unusual habit of singing from the nest.  Both equally share the nesting duties of incubating eggs and feeding nestlings.  The female builds a loosely constructed nest of twigs, stems & pine needles, lining the cup with hair, string and rootlets.

The massive beak of the grosbeak is made for cracking seeds and crushing hard-bodies insects.  The Black-headed Grosbeak's scientific names are appropriate.  Melanocephalus means "black-headed" and its genus name, Pheucticus, refers to the Greek word phycticus, meaning "painted with cosmetics".  You will find grosbeaks in lush riparian habitat, such as cottonwood or aspen stands near a stream.  Black-headed Grosbeaks spend the winter in central Mexico and migrate north in April/May.

The oldest known Black-headed Grosbeak was 11 years, 11 months when it was recaptured and released during banding operations in Montana.

Source:  Cornell Lab of Ornithology

May 2016 - Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird (L. Harris photo)

Eastern Kingbird (L. Harris photo)

Tyrannus tyrannus

Length: 8.5  inches

Wingspan: 13-15 inches

Weight: 33-55 grams

The Eastern Kingbird is one of three kingbird species that makes its home in Montana during spring and summer.  With  a black head, dark gray upper parts, white underparts and a white tip on the tail, the Eastern Kingbird is truly a sharp-dressed bird.

The kingbird is part of the flycatcher family.  It eats mostly flying insects and maintains a breeding territory that it defends vigorously against all other kingbirds and other species, thus earning its scientific name Tyrannus, which means “tyrant, despot, or king”.  This refers to this aggression.  Research shows that a breeding pair of Eastern Kingbirds will reunite the following year, using the same territory.

As a flycatcher, the kingbird doesn’t learn its song as other songbirds do, but simply is born knowing it.  In fact, their young begin to give adult calls at about two weeks of age.

Kingbirds perch on shrubs, or fenceposts or telephone wires, flying up to catch insects in midair.  They prefer large insects, which they take back to their perch, beat them and then eat whole. Adult Eastern Kingbirds feed their young for about seven weeks, and as a result raise only one brood per season. They like a variety of habitats and are the most widespread of all North American kingbird species, with the exception of northern Canada and the southwest U.S.

During the winter, which they spend primarily in Western Amazonia, their lifestyle changes completely.  They forage in flocks in the forest canopy along rivers and lakes and eat mostly fruit.

The oldest Eastern Kingbird on record was 10 years, one month old.

Source:  Cornell Lab of Ornithology

April 2016 - Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark (L. Harris)

Western Meadowlark (L. Harris)

Sturnella neglecta

Length: 9-1/2"

The flutelike song of the Western Meadowlark, our state bird, is always a welcome sound in the spring. This chunky robin-sized songbird is often more easily heard than seen. The meadowlark is a bird of native grasslands, prairies and agricultural fields.  It is a colorful member of the blackbird family with a bright yellow breast crossed with a black “v”.

The female does all of the nest building, incubation and most of the feeding of the young.  The male usually has two mates at the same time.  Meadowlarks are ground nesters.  The female uses her bill to shape a cup-like depression in the soil, often using a cow footprint, and then lines it with soft, dry grasses and pliable stems.  She will sometimes create a waterproof dome over the nest by weaving together grass and shrub stems. This will take her 6-8 days to complete.

Meadowlarks are varied in their diet.  They will forage for grain in winter and early spring, insects in late spring and summer, and weed seeds in the fall.  During hard winters, they may even feed on roadkill.  Like other blackbirds, meadowlarks use a feeding behavior called “gaping”.  This involves inserting their bill into the soil and forcing it open to create a hole, giving them access to insects that most birds can’t reach.

John James Audubon gave the Western Meadowlark its scientific name, Sturnella (starling-like) neglecta, claiming that most explorers and settlers who ventured west of the Mississippi after Lewis and Clark had overlooked this common bird.

The oldest Western Meadowlark on record was at least 6 years, 6 months.

Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology 

March 2016 - Mountain Bluebird

Mt Bluebird pair (L. Harris)

Mt Bluebird pair (L. Harris)

Sialia currocoides

Length:  7"  Weight:  1.1 oz.

That shocking flash of blue on our otherwise dull brown spring landscape can only mean one thing: a Mountain Bluebird has returned from his wintering grounds in the southwestern U.S. to claim his breeding territory. The overall sky blue color of the male Mountain Bluebird is unmistakable. The female is a more drab gray/brown with just a hint of blue on the wings and tail. This member of the thrush family doesn't always act like a thrush, preferring to catch its insect prey by "sallying" down from a perch or hovering like a kestrel until it sees a grasshopper or caterpillar.  The Mountain Bluebird is a secondary cavity nester, meaning it will use a vacant cavity made by woodpeckers.  With the demise of natural cavity nest sites through logging, etc., the introduction of man-made nest boxes have made a big difference in the bluebird's nest success.  The Gallatin Valley is lucky to have several monitored bluebird "trails" on our county roads.

Mountain Bluebirds begin nesting in late April, with the female doing all the nest building while the male keeps a close eye on her. She then lays a clutch of 4-7 light blue eggs, incubating them for 14 days. While she is incubating, the male will bring her food. After the eggs hatch, both adults are very busy feeding the hungry nestlings from sunup to sunset. Once the nestlings fledge (about 18-21 days), the male will continue feeding them for another 2 weeks until they learn to catch their own prey.  The female will find another nesting location, mate with a different male and lay a second clutch of eggs.

It's interesting to note that female bluebirds select a mate purely by the location and quality of the nest site he offers her, not by his attributes as a singer, flier or appearance.

The oldest Mountain Bluebird on record is 9 years old.

Source: All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

April 2015 - Sandhill Crane

Photo by Lou Ann Harris

Photo by Lou Ann Harris

Grus canadensis

Length: 47.2"  Wingspan: 78.7"  Weight: 119-172 oz.

It’s a sure sign of spring. You hear it distinctly: that loud, bugling call. Of course it belongs to the Sandhill Crane. These large gray birds with the red patch on their crown are a regular spring and summer resident of the Gallatin Valley. Sandhill Cranes gather in great numbers in March on Nebraska’s Platte River before dispersing to their respective breeding grounds.

Cranes mate for life and are known for their exuberant dancing skills, which is an important part of their annual courtship. In fact, Sandhill Cranes choose their partners based on dancing displays. They stay with each other year-round. They build a large bulky nest in a small isolated marsh or bog. Both male and female gather nesting material, such as cattails, reeds or bullrushes. They toss it over their shoulders to form a mound. The female usually stands on the mound and arranges the material. Although the female lays two eggs, only one nestling typically survives to fledge. Incubation takes an average of 30 days. Once hatched, the nestlings, or “colts” as they are known, can leave the nest within 8 hours. The juveniles will stick with their parents for 9 to 10 months, staying together as a family unit through fall migration and winter.

The Sandhill Crane’s diet is heavy in seeds and cultivated grains, but also includes berries, tubers, small vertebrates and invertebrates.

The oldest Sandhill Crane on record was at least 36 years old. Originally banded in Wyoming in 1973, it was found in New Mexico in 2010.

Source: All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

November 2014 - Northern Shrike

Northern Shrike (Photo by Ed Harper)

Northern Shrike (Photo by Ed Harper)

Lanius excubitor

Length: 10"  Wingspan: 12"  Weight: 2.5 oz.

The Northern Shrike, another songbird that makes its winter home in Montana, is a predatory songbird.  They make their living by preying on insects, small mammals and songbirds.  Known as “butcher-birds”, shrikes impale their prey on thorns or barbed-wire.  They also store excess prey this way to eat later.  This is a smart adaptation to survive periods of food scarcity.  Shrikes have an amazing memory for the location of their stored victims. Their hunting strategy is to sit and wait on a conspicuous perch, then swoop down and seize their prey near or on the ground with their feet or bill.  The prey are then carried to a structure where they can either impale or securely wedge it for eating. They kill by biting through the neck. Shrikes are able to carry prey equal to and exceeding their own body weight.

The Northern Shrike is fairly unmistakable in appearance. Adults are medium-sized with gray above and white below, black and white pattern on the wings and a narrow black mask.  The tail is relatively long and black with white outer edges. The bill is black, and similar to raptors, toothed and hooked at the tip.

Both the male and female Northern Shrike sing throughout the year, the male especially in late winter and early spring.  Their song is a medley of low warbles and harsh, squeaky notes.  Their call is a rapid rasping “aak-aak”.  They are a bird of open country, including shrubby fields and forest edges.

The Latin name for the Northern Shrike, Lanius excubitor, means “Butcher watchman”.

Sources: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

October 2014 - Rough-legged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawk (L. Harris photo)

Rough-legged Hawk (L. Harris photo)

Buteo lagopus

Length: 20"   Wingspan: 53"   Weight: 25-49 oz.

As fall progresses into early winter, Gallatin Valley residents will begin to see a familiar winter resident.  The Rough-legged Hawk is a true arctic species and breeds in the far north of both the Old World and New World. They prefer open country, primarily boreal forest and open tundra and build a bulky stick nest near the top of a cliff or outcrop.  Caribou bones have sometimes been found as nest material. In mid to late September, these hawks begin migrating south and many begin to arrive around Bozeman in late October and early November.  The Gallatin Valley is the Rough-legged’s winter “Riviera”, with abundant small mammals to eat and relatively moderate temperatures and snowfall (as compared with the Arctic).

They are a large hawk, similar in size to a Red-tail Hawk. On a perched bird, look for a dark “mascara” line through the eye, pale streaked chest and broad dark belly.  For a bird in flight, look for long and broad wings with black marks underneath at the wrist.  If you see a large hawk hovering in flight, it’s probably a Rough-legged Hawk.  This is often how they hunt for prey.  The name “Rough-legged” Hawk comes from their leg feathers which reach all the way down to their toes.

Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of North America

September 2014 - Bobolink

Bobolink (Photo by Lou Ann Harris)

Bobolink (Photo by Lou Ann Harris)

Dolichonyx oryzivorus

 Length: 5.9-8.3"   Wingspan: 10.6"      Weight: 1-2 oz.

 Now that bird migration is upon us in the Gallatin Valley, it’s a perfect time to talk about one of the kings of songbird migration, the Bobolink. The Bobolink travels some 12,500 miles to and from the southern interior of South America every year, and over its lifetime it may travel the equivalent of 4 or 5 times around the circumference of the earth. A migrating Bobolink can orient itself with the earth’s magnetic field, thanks to iron oxide in the bristles of its nasal cavity. Bobolinks also use the night sky to guide their flight. Normally a daytime forager, the Bobolink sometimes feeds after dark on bright nights during migration, to build their fat reserves for the long flight over the Gulf of Mexico.

In it’s breeding plumage, the male Bobolink is unmistakable with a white back and black underparts, giving it the nickname “skunk bird”. The male Bobolink is also known for his long, burbling song, often sung while flying in a helicopter-like pattern.

Bobolinks molt all their body feathers twice a year. When the male grows new feathers on his wintering grounds, they have yellowish tips, which gives him a brown and buff plumage. Eventually the pale tips wear off to reveal his striking black-and-white breeding colors.

Bobolinks prefer to nest in meadows and irrigated hayfields, which is why you’ll find them in the Gallatin Valley. The female builds a nest on the ground of grasses, weed stems and sedges.  She then lays 3-7 irregularly spotted bluish or reddish eggs, which she incubates for 11-14 days. The young fledge 11 days later.

The species name of the Bobolink oryzivorus means “rice eating” and refers to this bird’s appetite for rice and other grains.

Source: All About Birds - Cornell Lab of Ornithology

July 2014 - American Goldfinch

Spinus tristis

American Goldfinch (L. Harris)

American Goldfinch (L. Harris)

Length: 5"  Wingspan: 9"  Weight: 0.46 oz.

The American Goldfinch is a year-round resident of Montana. Known by some as a “yellow canary”, the adult male goldfinch is bright yellow with a black cap, black wings with white markings, and a pinkish orange bill. The female is a dull yellow overall with blackish wings. They have strong, short legs that enable them to balance on seedheads, sometimes hanging upside down as they forage.

The breeding season of the American Goldfinch is tied to thistle plants, whose fibrous seeds are incorporated into goldfinch nests and also fed to their nestlings. This means goldfinches nest later than other North American songbirds, waiting until June or July. Goldfinches are strictly seedeaters or “granivorous”, only inadvertently swallowing an insect now and then.  It takes the female about six days to build an open cup nest of rootlets and plant fibers lined with plant down. It is often woven so tightly that it can hold water. The nest is usually placed in a shrub or tree sapling in an open setting.   A clutch of 2-7 pale bluish eggs are laid over several days and incubated for two weeks. The nestlings fledge 11 to 17 days later.

The American Goldfinch is seasonally dimorphic, molting its body feathers twice a year, once in late winter and again in late summer. The appearance of winter birds is quite different, with drab unstreaked brown plumage and blackish wings.

Goldfinches are gregarious throughout the year, forming flocks with other finch species, such as Pine Siskins and Common Redpolls. They are common and welcome visitors at bird feeders and prefer sunflower and nyjer seeds. Their bouncy flight pattern, along with their “po-ta-to-chip” call is unmistakable.

The American Goldfinch is the state bird of Washington, New Jersey and Iowa.

Source: All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

-Lou Ann Harris


June 2014 - Yellow-headed Blackbird

Yellow-headed Blackbird (L. Harris)

Yellow-headed Blackbird (L. Harris)

Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus

Length: 9.5"  Wingspan: 15"  Weight:  2.1 oz.

A fairly common bird of Western marshes, the Yellow-headed Blackbird nest in cattails, bulrushes and reeds, often alongside the smaller Red-winged Blackbird. With a golden yellow head, black body and a white patch on black wings, the male Yellow-headed Blackbird demands your attention. Even more so is the male’s strange song, which features a few musical notes followed by a screeching buzz, rather like a heavy door swinging on a rusty hinge. This song is the reason they have earned the nickname, “screaming yellow zonker”, and you can’t help but smile when you hear it.

Yellow-headed Blackbirds breed in loose colonies. Males defend a small territory of prime nesting reeds and may attract a harem of up to 8 females to nest within his area. The female builds the nest by herself, weaving strands of wet vegetation, collected from the water’s surface, around 4-5 upright stems. She then adds more strands and supports before forming an outer wall and an inner cup of the same materials. The male will help feed nestlings, but usually only the first nest established. The other females have to feed their young all by themselves. Because Yellow-headed Blackbirds build their nests over water, the nestlings sometimes fall in and have to swim short distances to vegetation.

Yellow-headed Blackbirds are medium-distance migrants, spending the winter in the Southwest and Mexico in huge flocks, before heading north in the spring to breed in the West and Midwest of the United States and into Canada. They eat mostly insects in summer, and seeds the rest of the year. They will visit feeders to eat seeds and grain, including sunflower seeds.

In 1825, Charles Lucien Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon, gave the first detailed description of the Yellow-headed Blackbird. Their scientific name, xanthocephalus means, “yellow head”.

Source: All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

-Lou Ann Harris



May 2014 - Western Tanager

Photo by John Harris

Photo by John Harris

Piranga ludoviciana

Length: 7 -1/4”   Wingspan: 11.5”   Weight: 0.98 oz.

There are not too many birds that breed in Montana that can beat the Western Tanager for sheer gaudy color. The male sports a bright yellow body, black wings, back & tail, and an orange-red head.  The female is more subtly colored with a greenish yellow rump and nape, and grayish back. The Western Tanager gets its scarlet head feathers from a rare pigment called rhodoxanthin.  Because they can’t produce this substance themselves, they probably obtain it from insects in their diet.  They primarily eat insects during the nesting season, especially wasps, grasshoppers, beetles and dragonflies.  Before swallowing dragonflies, they clip off the wings and sometimes the legs and head as well.

This long-distance migrant spends its winters in Mexico and Central America.  They migrate north at night, usually alone or in small flocks. During migration, they frequent a variety of habitats, including parks, gardens and suburban areas. Western Tanagers range farther north than any other tanager, breeding northward to a latitude of 60 degrees, where they spend as little as two months before migrating south.  In Montana, Western Tanagers nest in open coniferous forests.  The female builds a rather hastily assembled nest of twigs, roots, moss and grasses, lined with horsehair or cow hair, feathers and soft plant fibers.  She then lays 3-5 blue or bluish green eggs over a period of days and incubates them for two weeks.  The nestlings grow quickly and fledge (leave the nest) after 11-15 days.

The song of the Western Tanager is reminiscent of an American Robin, however it is shorter and raspier in tone.

Like most songbirds, Western Tanagers have a fairly short lifespan in the wild. The oldest Western Tanager on record, a male banded in Nevada in 1965, had lived at least 7 years and 11 months by the time it had been recaptured and released in Oregon in 1971.  The oldest in captivity reached an age of 15 years, 4 months.

Source:  All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

-Lou Ann Harris


April 2014 - Long-billed Curlew


Photo by L. Harris

Numenius americanus

Length: 231”  Wing Span: 35”  Weight: 1.3 lbs

The month of April signals the return of many migratory birds to our state, including species in the shorebird family.  One of those is the Long-billed Curlew.  The Long-billed Curlew is the largest shorebird in the world and one of only 12 shorebird species that breed in Montana.  They nest primarily in short-grass or mixed-prairie habitats as well as agricultural fields.  The male uses graceful flight displays, resonant calls, and ritualized fighting to establish a breeding territory.  The female will select one of several scrapes made by the male, usually near an object like a dirt mound or a cow patty. The pair then deepens and lines the scrape with grasses, twigs, pebbles, bark, and dry dung. The male and female share incubation duties and both will aggressively defend their nest. However, the female abandons her brood 2-3 weeks after hatching, leaving their care to the male.  Despite this behavior, the same male and female often pair up again the following year.

The long decurved bill for which they are named ranges from 5 ½ to 6 ½ inches in length, and is over a third of the curlew’s total body length.  It is specially adapted for probing for earthworms and other deep-burrowing prey. The sexes are similar in appearance, but the female has a longer bill with a more pronounced curve at the tip.  The curlew’s large size, long, decurved bill and buffy cinnamon color help distinguish it from all other North American shorebirds.  It’s interesting to note that the Long-billed Curlew has also been known as the “candlestick bird”, and that Candlestick Point in San Francisco was named after this indigenous bird and subsequently Candlestick Park.  There are many collective nouns for a group of curlews, including a “curfew”, “game”, “head”, “salon”, and “skein”.

-Lou Ann Harris