Thursday, February 14, 2013

Audubon Adenvture: Mission Valley, MT

As I have stated in recent posts, I am really excited about the wildlife here in Montana.  I like seeing the bald eagle that fishes the river across from my house gliding around the mountains in the afternoon.  I like that I can look over to the field behind my neighbor's house and see deer.  So, when I saw in the Missoula Events Twitter feed that a local Audubon society was doing a day long event I was excited to sign up.

David?  Not so much.  I think his original reply was, "Do you need me to go?"  After that reply?  No.  So I resolved to go with or without him.  It turned out that Diana was willing to join me so I didn't end up alone.

Nor did Diana and I stay alone long.  The group was to meet at the "field house" at the university.  I know what a field house is but when we arrive, we are unsure which building it might be.  We are driving around looking for people who might be interested in spending the day looking for birds when we see a young man in the parking lot.  Diana speaks to him through the window and he says that he is looking for the same group.  So I say...wait for it...

"Do you want to get in the car?  You look cold."

I KNOW.  Totally a Criminal Minds moment.  The second the words were out I knew that I shouldn't have said them and I certainly should have asked Diana first.  I looked over to her and said, "Is that okay?" and she said it was.  So, he gets in.  I told Diana later that he seemed okay because he was walking around with a lunchbox at 7 am.  Diana said it is the lunchbox that he carries the head of his previous victim in.

He didn't murder us.  In fact, he spent a lot of time against the window asleep like this.  He also wasn't alone in the back seat since we adopted a young woman too.  The young man even accused me once of acting like his mother because I offered him fruit I brought.

Mission Valley is an area approximately an hour north of Missoula.  We go to a gas station after leaving the university to pick up a few more people for our caravan.  This gas station has everything - gas, snacks, outdoor equipment, clothing, cowboy boots, gifts.  Hunter (the young man in my back seat) bought some chips and a drink which he then left on top of my car when the group started an impromptu meeting in the parking lot.  When I came out, I moved my car and realized there was stuff on the roof.  I then proceeded to dump his entire bag of chips out in the parking lot.  I went in to buy a replacement but he had gotten the last one of that flavor.  I bought two others and hoped he would get over it.  So far, we are not off to a good start.

Things don't get a lot better.  Diana and I both though we would be driving to one or more places and then getting out to look, possibly to hike in to an area.  That didn't happen.  The whole plan is to drive around and to mostly stay in the car.  We are driving down dirt roads and the birds we are viewing are WAY in the distance.  The leader in the front car drives, someone spots something, there is a lot of back and forth on the walkie-talkies (the one we were issued is being managed by Hunter) and we stop.  Sometimes we get out.  The first time we get out, I forget to turn my headlights off so my car starts making noise.  I say something to Diana.  The bird flies away.

At this point I am told, not very nicely I might add, that we need to be quiet because birds are sensitive, especially those we are looking for today.  Taking photos from this distance, in or out of the car doesn't produce good images.  I had the best lens I own on but they were simply too far in the distance most of the time.  If I remember correctly, that is a rough-legged hawk.

Let me just say that a group of people running around with their scopes and cameras getting excited about various birds, shutting car doors, etc. aren't quiet.  I got in trouble right away but nothing is ever said - at least not that I hear - to any of the other offenders.

I also find it weird that when we do get out of the car, it is sometimes right in front of a house.  When I took the photo above, we are on a city street, cars pulled on to the almost non-existent side of the road (except me, I am in front of the house, still on the road).  These people are all pointing their binoculars, cameras and scopes at a person's house.  The woman living there actually came out to see what was going on.  I can see how it would be a little disconcerting to look at the window and see that sight.  It is amazing that no one called the police.  One of the men rushes up to explain and to hand her binoculars.  She seemed less than enthusiastic to look at the bird in her tree - a bird she probably sees every day or doesn't care is there to start with.

At one point, we all pile out to look at an owl.  The main reason I came is because the information about the trip specifically listed owls as a bird we would see.  I want to see an owl so much that I get out of the car even though there are several large dogs rushing out and barking at us.  One of them appears to have the worst case of mange ever.  I try to ignore them and they don't appear to be doing more than barking at the others.  It is important to note that I am really afraid of dogs.  I have a dog but that does nothing to stop me from being afraid of other dogs.

I go over and I cannot see the owl.  Several people try to explain where it is to those of us who don't see it.

There it is right there.  Next to the branch that goes straight down.  Not that one, the other one.  See right there.  Yeah, I still didn't see it.  

I have no idea how the guy in the lead saw it from the moving car.

Look again.  Can you see it now?  The only thing that finally helped was it moved.  I saw the movement.  Again, it is really too far away and too close to the color of the tree for me to photograph it well.

And then it left and I wasn't at all ready to take an action shot, as you can see here.

So back in the car for more driving.  We make one more trip back to the gas station for bathroom break and snacks.  After that, we are supposed to look for snowy owls.  We found one.

On the roof of a house.  Once again we are in front of a house looking towards it with all manner of equipment.

I am excited about the owls but this still isn't what I expected.  I didn't think we would be looking at owls sitting on houses.  I had something more wildernessy in mind.  When our next stop is a golf course where a serious discussion ensues over the possibility of a particular kind of goose being present in a group of "regular" Canadian geese, Diana asks if I want to bail.

Yes, yes I do.  Actually, I have wanted to bail for a while and it turns out she has too.  Plus, I just got in trouble again.  This time I am the next to the last car when they decide to pull over by the golf course.  The car behind me comes around and tells me I need to pull off the road better.  THERE IS NO SHOULDER.  THAT IS SOMEONES YARD.  Plus, there are no cars coming behind us.

If it weren't for the promise of the snowy owl, Diana said she would have mentioned bailing back at the gas station.  Now to see if our adoptees want to stay or go.  Hunter stays and sleeps all the way back to his house.  The girl, Morgan, gets her things from my car and goes on with the others.  I hope they found the rare goose.

Diana and I agree that at least we know where to go.  Next time, we will go back and get out of the car.  Plus, I was interested in more than just birds.  I saw tons of things I wanted to look at or photograph but mostly couldn't due to trying to keep up with the group and the fact that I was driving (Diana did offer to drive).

Like these horses which I photographed from the car while we stopped so the leader could investigate a possible sighting.  I wanted to shoot from another angle though because there was a tree that was very orange behind them but we started moving and I had to go on.

Or these people ice fishing, also taken from the car.  We could have gotten out and walked around near here but the group kept going.

The next day, David and I decided to get out and drive around some of the roads around our house and see what we could find.  The funny thing is that I got better bird pictures doing that than I did with an actual group of people looking for birds.

A magpie about to take flight.

A red-winged blackbird.

A goose, although I don't think this one is Canadian.  More like Plastic.  But he makes a nice hat.

This was the best part.  We stopped when we wanted, for birds or otherwise.  I am not knocking the Audubon group or their interest.  More power to them.  But that wasn't for me.  I want to get out of the car or to stop the car when and where I want to.  And that isn't something that is easy to do with a group that large.  Birds are great but there is so much to see that I am not ready to limit myself in that way.

Here are some more images from the outing with David.

Blue-sky Barn

Cross in the Clouds

Winter Berries

Can I Help You?

Plaid Fisherman

Mountaintop Peek (Get it?  That one's for you dad.)


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