Friday, May 15, 2015

Montana Birds: Long-billed Curlew

North America's largest shorebird, the Long-billed Curlew breeds in the grasslands of the Great Plains and Great Basin; they winter on the Texas coast, south to interior Mexico, where you can find them in wetlands, tidal estuaries, mudflats, flooded fields, and occasionally beaches.
Both male and female incubate the eggs. and both are aggressive in defense of nests and young. The female typically abandons the brood two to three weeks after hatching and leaves brood care to her mate. Despite the obvious faux pas in domestic relations the pair often mate again next year.

Insects, aquatic crustaceans and invertebrates dominate the diet but the long, curved bill allows allows foraging for deep-burrowing earthworms, shrimp and crabs. The also eat grasshoppers, beetles, caterpillars, spiders, and occasionally small animals.

The female’s bill is longer than the male's, and a different shape—flatter on top with a more pronounced curve at the tip. The juvenile's bill is distinctly shorter during its first few months, but before the first year ends may equal the male's length.

Curlews appear to be declining on the Great Plains, but  numbers are slightly up in some western areas—the Columbia Plateau and Rocky Mountains. Much more numerous in the 19th century, but numbers fell in response to over-hunting and conversion of grassland breeding habitat to agriculture and development.  Habitat loss and projected effects of climate change will likely precipitate continued population declines.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Montana Birds: Sandhill Crane

Sandhills mate for life; oldest sandhill on record lived at least 36 years, 7 mos...ChucknGaleRobbins photo

Sandhill cranes are big—4 feet tall, with wing spans approaching 6 feet—and imposing what with their long legs and neck, rapier-like bill and those piercing eyes—powerful enough to scrutinize the slightest suspect movement at unbelievable distances.

Their spectacular mating dance—bowing, leaping, hopping, skipping and pirouetting—all the while yodeling that loud unmistakable rolling rattle which can be heard miles away—is well, inimitable, and among the most remarkable in all nature.  One nature writer compares it to the sound of “fingernails drawn along the teeth of several combs,” undulating up and down and amplified by the birds’ exceptionally long windpipe.
Omnivorous, cranes have been know to dine on berries, seeds, snakes, amphibians, mice, voles, and just about everything else out there.

The nest is a simple affair, a shallow depression lined with dry grass and weeds, maybe a few feathers. Typically the female lays 1-3 spotted, grayish brown eggs; both parents incubate the eggs which hatch in about 30 days. It is not uncommon for just one egg to hatch. Sandhill chicks, “colts” can run and swim just a few hours after leaving the nest.

Fossil records indicate the sandhill has been around for millions years. Long-lived, sandhills mate for life. The oldest sandhill on record was at least 36 years, 7 months old. Originally banded in Wyoming in 1973, it was found dead in New Mexico in 2010.

...Many sandhills which nest in southwest Montana overwinter here in Whitewater Draw, in southeast Arizona's Sulphur Springs Valley between Wilcox and Douglas. This January day a couple years ago biologists estimated 25,000 sandhills were using the Draw... 

Recent surveys put the Rocky Mountain population at about 20,000 cranes. In Montana about 500 hunting permits are issued annually. Sandhills, which nest in southwest Montana, winter in the Sulphur Springs Valley in southeast Arizona between Wilcox and Douglas or across the border in New Mexico at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

In western Montana, one of the top spots for viewing cranes up close is the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Beaverhead County, 50 miles west of Yellowstone National Park.  Look for cranes along creeks, wetlands, and open grassy areas.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Montana Birds: Cinnamon Teal

According to the Montana Field Guide, Cinnamon Teal are small, dabbling ducks. Both sexes have bright blue upper-wing coverts; wings lined white. Male in breeding plumage has bright rusty plumage on head, neck, and underparts; female mostly brown on upper-parts with dark streaks on underparts. Males in basic plumage are very similar to females.

Cinnamons show up in Montana around April 20 after wintering in southern California, Arizona and New Mexico, south thru Central America and northern fringes South America; peak migration is about May 15.

Preferred habitat is wetlands including large marsh systems, natural basins, reservoirs, sluggish streams, ditches, and stock ponds.

Omnivorous, the diet consists of seeds and emergent aquatic vegetation, aquatic and semi-terrestrial insects, snails, and zooplankton.

Single brooded, with 7 to 12 eggs per brood. Incubation period 21 to 25 days. Young are able to fly 49 days after hatch.