For my first post it only seems fair to write about my walk that made me decide to create a blog. At the time of this post, I am studying wildlife biology at the University of Montana in hopes of flying off to Alaska and having a great adventure. But for now, I am two years into my undergraduate and, more recently, enjoying some time off for Winter Break.
January 3rd was a lazy Saturday and I needed to get out of the house. For today’s walk, I chose Maclay Flats, a simple nature trail that reminds me of a wonderful place called Norm’s Island in my hometown Billings. It complements the Bitterroot River with a fanfare of Cottonwoods surrounded by the warm embrace of Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir, a Missoula special. With a pleasant and winding trail, a couple worn signs giving a brief natural history and plenty of wagging tails and smiling faces, Maclay Flats makes for a perfect afternoon escape. The only thing missing when I stepped out of my car and breathed in the sweet aroma of the Ponderosas was a companion of my own, furry or otherwise.
Ready to leave the parking lot behind, I made my way into the first stand of pine, my mind beginning to drift. Before long though, my attention focused on the tapping coming from the branches above. About 10 little birds with orange bellies and distinct black and white stripes on their heads were gently tapping on the tree trunks. I realized they were Nuthatches when I saw their signature move, they were walking upside down on the trunks as they continued their relentless tapping. Unlike the Northern Flickers that pound holes in to trees for nests, Nuthatches search for bugs beneath the bark by gently tapping to find their hollow tunnels. Grinning at their identification, I listened a little while longer before continuing down the trail.
|Nuthatch, (Picture from Britannica)|
Reaching the far end of the property, I passed by a couple, pulling their little girl on a sled. I could not tell who was having more fun, the little girl giggling in her carriage, the father pretending to be a horse or the mother making random baby noises in the background. Either way, it was enough to make me chuckle as I walked by, greeting them with a head nod and my usual, “nice day for a walk, isn’t it?” They agreed and continued their procession. That is why I love the outdoors and going for walks, I always see something new and am guaranteed to be happier when I finish. Up ahead is the border of the river, a stand of Quaking Aspen blocking my view from the gurgling river I know lies beyond.
Walking through the Aspen I am again greeted by the gently tapping of a group of Nuthatches, this time searching the bare Aspens for the evidence of their dinner. Again I stopped and watched them, mesmerized by their colors and behavior. In Billings, the overpowering ecosystems are sagebrush prairie atop the Rims, 1400 foot tall sandstone bluffs that line the northern edge of Billings, and the riparian wetlands surrounding the Yellowstone River. Neither of which are popular with Nuthatches, so I am intrigued by such a gathering of birds that I am not familiar with. Continuing on, I finally find myself overlooking the river.
It is a classic display, I turn the corner and find myself standing amongst the ancient Cottonwoods that hold the banks of the river. There is a slight edge of ice on either side, groaning and occasionally cracking as the warmer temperatures and water wear away at it. To my left there is a slight disturbance that causes the water to continuously overlap and crash into a triangle of riffles. Upstream, I can see chunks of ice bobbing as they are carried by the gentle exhale of the river. Scanning the tree tops, I spot a Bald Eagle, sitting atop its iconic perch of outstretched Cottonwood. I would like to see it fly, so I stand their silently and wait. The symphony of the river washes over me, accented occasionally by ice crashing into the river and the Eagle, stoically conducting from above. I wait and listen for a long time, remaining still as others walk past me on the trail, respecting my intimacy with silence.
There was no great crescendo, no grand finale of the Eagle taking off, instead the wind and song brought a chill encouraging me to applaud early and take my leave. Walking slow enough to let the river fade away to a dull humming, I thought about what I ought to do tomorrow. Ahead of me I saw Blue Mountain and smiled, remembering a day hike that led back to a fire watch tower. Grinning as I crossed back over the parking lot to my car, I said to myself, “that’ll do.”