Bird talk

This time of year the Centennial gets VERY quiet. While it has always been obvious, it is even more obvious this winter with low snow levels and thus few winter guests.

While I love the quiet, in fact I crave it when I visit 'the real world', I never realized how much I noticed (and came to enjoy) the 'normal' winter sounds. That includes the ice booming and cracking on the lake, the wind whistling through the evergreens, the tick-tick of snow on my clothes, the whish-whish of my skies through the snow, and (if I head south) the distant soft trumpets of the Trumpeter Swans on Widgeon Pond.

This year the Trumpeters are gone - at least in our part of the valley. Widgeon is frozen - the first time in six years and due, I believe, to the Refuge's new plan which calls for the draining of Culver Pond. I miss the sound of my 'winter friends' chatting away in the distance.

Believe it or not, that is exactly what they were doing - chatting.

In the spring the valley is much noisier. Water rippling over small obstructions, cows lowing in the far distance, the babble of the lake against the shore, the splash of a fish catching breakfast, the rumbling of a rare vehicle engine, a child's lilting laugh caught by the soft breeze, and the whistles and songs and chit-chat of the returning birds. In the spring, the Centennial can be a noisy place - overflowing with nature's prattle. But is it that - is it prattle?

A couple of years ago a guest, recognizing my fascination with our feathered friends, recommended I purchase a book by Dr. Donald Kroodsma entitled 'The Singing Life of Birds.' To date I have not done so. However, thinking about the sounds I miss started me wondering about birds. Why did the swans continue to 'trumpet' softly for the two hours I watched them last fall? Obviously they were not disturbed. Could they have been 'talking'?

What about the ducks whose calls echo back and forth across the lake from dawn to dusk? Or the Sandhill Cranes whose haunting call always compels me to stop and listen? Or the eagles and hawks who scream overhead? Or the birds which sing in the willows just outside my window? Are they saying something I am not privy to understand?

I think most of us realize animals use sounds and body language to communicate. Ruffled Grouse beat their wings to attract mates. Songbirds sing glorious tunes to attract their mates. Male hummingbirds do arial acrobatics to show their worth to watching females.

The more I thought about it, the more intrigued I became. So, I turned to the Internet (what would we do without the Internet?). Here are a few things I learned:

Birds use both 'calls' and 'songs' to express themselves. Songs are typically related to courtship and are a compilation of sounds. Calls are short and usually express alarm or allow various birds to track one another's location.

Usually the males sing while females are limited to calls. (Boy am I glad for the male House Wrens. There is nothing like their "Good Morning" song to brighten my day!) Most birds sing when perched, but a few species sing when flying.

Finally, birds produce song in a manner similar to the way humans produce words - by forcing air through their throat. Amazingly enough, some birds have the ability to produce two sounds at once by independently controlling both sides of their trachea.

I'm not sure where you are right now. Maybe the birds are singing outside your window right now. Or, maybe like me, they have flown to warmer climates. Wherever you may be, I hope this little bit of information has increased your appreciation for the marvelous creation we call 'birds'! I know I'll listen with greater comprehension and understanding when my feathered friends return.

Lady of the Lake


That Mongolian Valley

Remember that Mongolian Valley I mentioned about five years ago? The valley which is supposed to be very similar to the Centennial? For those of you who do not remember - or have not been with me that long - here is the blurb:

    After living most of my life in Oregon, I found Montana's Centennial Valley - and fell in love. I'm convinced there is no place like it on earth (although rumor has it, there is a valley exactly like it in Mongolia - but I don't expect to go looking for it anytime soon).

Well, like so many things in life, there was more truth tucked away in that rumor than I realized. And so, after six years at Elk Lake I find out there really is a valley in Mongolia which closely resembles the Centennial Valley. Not only is it real - I have had the privilege of seeing pictures and learning much about the valley and the people who live there. In fact, with the help of Cliff Montagne, the guest whose slide show introduced me to that far off valley, I hope to share some serious details about the land, its inhabitants, and the work currently going on half a world away sometime in the near future. Until then, here is a bit to show the incredible similarities between Montana's Centennial Valley and its Mongolian cousin.

Where is this place? What is it called? How is it similar? Here are just a few facts:

The Mongolian valley which shares many similarities with Montana's Centennial Valley is Mongolia's Darhad Valley. It is located in northern Mongolia, just about 200 miles from Lake Bakal, the world's second most voluminous lake. Tell me this description from Waderson.com (a fly-fishing company) doesn't sound like the Centennial. "Travelling to Mongolia's famous Darhad Valley, you will fish two outstanding wilderness rivers during this two-week fishing adventure. This is a trip for the adventurous angler, who enjoys camping out, good food, excellent fishing and stunning surroundings, on a professionally outfitted trip. Enjoy wild-river fly-fishing for Taimen, Lenok Trout and Grayling."

Except for the 'famous' part (which, from my understanding this valley is 'famous' in much the same way the Centennial is famous - for its rugged, undeveloped, wild and pristine beauty), they could be describing Montana's Centennial Valley. Even the fish are similar - trout and grayling!

Similar also are the valleys' vegetation. Willows line the stream beds. Evergreens blanket the mountain's shoulders. Grass carpets the valley floor. In fact, an article by Tracy Ellis available on the MSU website (entitled "A Land Without Fences") paints an interesting and yet familiar picture. "In the Darhad Valley of north-central Mongolia, nomadic herders live with little in the way of roads, electricity, medical care or contact with the outside world. The landscape is vast grasslands and soaring, snow-capped mountains, where winter temperatures average minus 22 Fahrenheit." Sounds a LOT like the Centennial.

Not only are the fish similar, the some of the animals are familiar too. While the natives graze more sheep than cattle (sheep used to dominate in the Centennial as well), cattle do reside in the valley during the summer. In fact, like the Centenial, the Darhad Valley is only a seasonal grazing ground. In addition, the Mongolian nomadic herdspeople have to deal with large predators - primarily wolves!

The topography and origin of the valleys are also similar. Sitting at a 5,000 elevation, the valley is unhospitable in the winter, but offers wonderful summer pasture. Another similarity unique to both is, while both valley floors are primarily grasslands, both have sandhills. Both valleys are dotted with water - a river, several shallow lakes of varying sizes. Perhaps the similarities arise, in part, from both valleys being created by glacial flows which occurred during a similar time frame.

Unlike the Centennial, Darhad Valley lands are held in common (not privately owned). Yet, here again, there is more similarity than one might catch at first glance. Remember, much of the Centennial Valley is public land - either federal or state. However, the primary difference between the valleys is in the people. While the Centennial has a few year round residents (including yours truly), most of its residents are ranchers who have summer grazing (with real houses) in the Centennial but with a home base at a lower elevation. The nomadic herders who summer in the Darhad Valley are, perhaps, an even hardier breed. Not only do they travel cross country from winter to summering grounds, often without any wheeled vehicle to assist, they transport not only their families, their gear and their stock, but their homes!

One more similarity: both valleys are 'areas of interest' to Montanans. The Centennial gets a lot of attention, primarily from wildlife lovers and those who get intense pleasure from pure, unadulturated nature. However, it is also a wonderful outdoor classroom drawing scientific-types from all over the country - including from Montana's own state university in Bozeman. In similar manner, a group of people from MSU, led by the Montagnes, have (for the last several years) traveled to Mongolia to spend several months working in the Darhad Valley, searching for ways to help the nomads improve their lives and land management. Perhaps, then, the most unique connection between the Centennial and the Darhad is: the Centennial Valley serves as a training ground for those traveling to the Darhad Valley each summer. Wow! One just never knows how much truth is contained in the rumors they hear.

Lady of the Lake


Waiting For Winter

Well, we're ready. The lodge and cabins are geared up for the winter season --- but, lo and behold, where is the snow? This is our sixth winter in the Centennail, and the FIRST we have ever actually driven in, over Red Rock Pass, this late in the year.

While the snow up on top is 'doable', the snow through the refuge is not. This does not mean it isn't a grand time to be in the Centennials. Any time is a grand time to be in the Centennials as far as I am concerned. After all, the scenery is always amazing. And, who can say mountains don't look their best wearing their winter outfits?

Furthermore, up until a few days ago there were more elk in the mountains than I've ever seen this time of year. Well, to be honest, I didn't really 'see' them, but I saw their tracks. That has to count for something.

Actually I was amazed by the number of animals still around. Just a few days ago above the lake there were enough to nearly obliterate our snowmobile tracks from less than 24 hours earlier. In fact, in some areas they had litterally torn up the snow.

However, more elk are starting to show up in the Madison valley. I hope this means they know something I don't - something about a good snow storm on the way!

In this country, no snow usually means more sunshine. Thus we have enjoyed some spectacularly beautiful days lately. Deep blue skies. Brilliant sparkling snow. Dark evergreens standing guard on the surrounding hillsides. A gorgeous young bull moose. Numerous eagles and hawks. Scattered bunches of white-tail deer. An occasional fox or coyote.

One thing, however, I already miss. Winter in the Centennial has always been a time for the swans. Granted most of our birds leave for the year. However, since the Red Rock Lakes Wildlife Refuge was originally set aside to protect this magnificent large water bird, it seemed only natural a few would stay year round. Up until this winter, a few have complied.

I guess everything changes - but some things we wish could remain the same. I miss hearing the birds - their soft trumpeting chatter drifting across the still, snow-covered landscape as I traversed the south end of the lake. Not this year!

Years ago many swans wintered in the valley. At that time, the wildlife refuge fed the swans during the winter. Over time studies suggested this made the birds more dependent and less wild (something like the elk feeding grounds near Jackson Hole, I guess). Nonetheless, as long as open water remained, some birds continued to enjoy spending their winters here - I can certainly understand!

That, however, may have come to an abrupt halt this year. The latest comprehensive plan adopted by the refuge calls for the draining of Culver and McDonald Ponds (something local fishermen are not happy about) to create more Grayling habitat. While draining the ponds is a bit controversial, no one said it would result in the destruction of Trumpeter wintering habitat. It makes me wonder if they had calculated this effect.

It appears draining Culver Pond (which feeds Widgeon Pond - the one pond the refuge had decided to leave undrained) has allowed the water to cool to the point Widgeon Pond now freezes over. Furthermore, McDonald Pond, which froze partially, is also now fully ice covered (again probably due to the cooler water temperature because of lower water levels). Someone ought to ask the refuge if they had calculated on this. If so, why didn't they let the public know?

Maybe it doesn't matter to others. Maybe there just aren't enough folks around who appreciated the swans' presence. This 'folk', however, already misses their musical backdrop playing accompaniment to my shushing skies on the fresh snow (I am praying will soon arrive)!

Lady of the Lake