Clark’s Nutcrackers are amazingly intelligent birds that have been linked to the Whitebark pine trees that are beleaguered by disease and beetles, but it appears that their resourcefulness is helping them transition to other sources of livelihood.
The short answer: When it’s an American kestrel. The kestrel, sometimes referred to as a sparrow hawk, is actually the smallest species of falcon in North America, as well as the only type of kestrel found here. (And there is some debate over whether or not the American kestrel is a “true” kestrel.)
Spirited, social, active, acrobatic, gregarious, friendly. Maybe I should add ‘compassionate’- see the story below! Watching these little birds as they bounce along on the airwaves on their way to the bird feeder in the morning is mood-lifting. Always on the alert, head switching back and forth, they sound the first alarm when something of concern approaches.
Certhia americana is the only North American member of the Certhiidae (Treecreeper) family. Thanks to its long, thin tail, it measures 5.25 inches, but it appears to be about the same size as a Pygmy nuthatch, with which it could be confused. “A prisoner of the forest, the creeper seems unable to escape the gravitational pull of the tree trunk on which it creeps, ever upward” writes Bryan Pfeiffer. They live in mature coniferous forests, not wandering far afield.
Pat Jaquith’s wonderful post about nuthatches reminded me of how much I enjoy watching them. We have several bird boxes around our house, and pygmy nuthatches will regularly occupy two specific boxes–and, as you’ll see in the videos below, this can lead to some territorial issues.
We hit the jackpot on Nuthatch species– well, almost! Three of the four Nuthatch species in the US live here! We have Red-breasted, White-breasted, and Pygmy Nuthatches. While each has a favored tree species, our mixed forests are great places to see all of them. Nuthatches grab a seed, wedge it into a bark crevice and hammer it open as if using a hatchet – thus, their curious name! They are well-equipped for gleaning insects and seeds from all directions. Their clawed feet hook into bark providing sure traction as they cruise up, down, and around looking for food. While our environment provides everything they need, they are frequent visitors to bird feeders, gardens, and water holes, making even more opportunities to observe their acrobatic talents.
Skip’s journal post about Pileated Woodpeckers inspired me to add a few more images and some of my observations of these unforgettable birds that the American Birding Association has named the 2021 Bird of the Year.
Pileated woodpeckers are the largest woodpeckers in North America. (The ivory-billed woodpecker of the southeastern US swamps and marshes is larger, but it is considered “definitely or probably” extinct.) While pileated woodpeckers are not exactly rare in the valley–I’ve encountered them year ’round in the Happy Valley State Trust Lands and the Pig Farm State Trust Lands (see Locations)–they are infrequent visitors to areas of the valley with fewer trees and more houses. That’s why it’s such a rare treat to see one in the back yard.
The Dec 24 2020 edition of the Daily Interlake has a useful downloadable supplement (by Scott Heisel of the Lake County Leader) on winter birding day trips in the Flathead Valley and beyond. It’s a little difficult to locate, so if you missed the print edition, here is a PDF file of the article.
(Update: It’s now Dec 23 2020 and they’re still daily visitors to the seed, suet, and peanut butter feeders.)
The corvidae family of birds includes ravens, crows, magpies, jays, nutcrackers, and several other species known to be highly intelligent and capable of learning. This article suggests that ravens have the capacity for abstract thought, and this one demonstrates evidence of the same kinds of intelligence in crows. And anyone who has had the experience of having food stolen from their hands by a gray jay who has waited patiently for the perfect time to strike knows how intelligent those birds are.
Many birds migrate from a winter home to take advantage of an abundance of insects, longer periods of daylight for scavenging, and increased success in raising a brood in the north. As winter arrives and insects become scarce their survival depends on their returning to a warm climate where insects are available. Birds that depend on non-insect food sources and move from place to place in response to the availability of food sources, independent of season, are referred to as nomads. They often travel in flocks of the same species, searching out food, and moving on.
Clark’s Nutcrackers are year-round residents of the high country of the Rocky Mountains, often seen above treeline. But for some reason—either because their alpine food sources are scarce or because they found an abundance of pine seeds here in the valley, a flock of more than a dozen decided to briefly invade my yard this morning.
One of the most visually striking waterfowl you might encounter in the valley is the hooded merganser. Both males and females have distinct crests which they can raise and lower. The males are particularly beautifully marked, especially in breeding season.
Common Nighthawks are unobtrusive birds that don’t demand much attention but whose presence makes the environment a little more people-friendly. We may hear them without ever seeing them. They have evolved to hide from predators, and that may be what makes them so unknown to us.