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What are these Sounds? UPDATED!!

If you read Jim Corbett’s books, you will know that he started his tracking apprenticeship at a very early age. Corbett describes that when he was around eleven years old, he decided it was imperative if he wanted to be a tracker to identity every sound in the forest.  Corbett grew up in the jungles of India. Identifying sounds not only was a way of ‘knowing’ the forest, but also vital to his safety.  Birds especially can alert one to danger in a landscape with tigers and leopards.

I think what made me decide to begin this audio task in the landscape of my home in the Absarokas was the night I was sleeping in the backcountry and I heard a loud scream in the middle of the night.  My companion was sound asleep.  My dog was by my side.  The screech was not a person, but it was blood curdling. That was the beginning.  I began recording this last winter.

Winter nights bring many new sounds.  I put out a microphone and recorder while I slept.   Some sounds were easy to identify like these wolves singing https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?url=https%3A//api.soundcloud.com/tracks/212590774&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true“>


Other sounds much harder and I needed help like this Screech Owl.


One night I got very lucky and got this cougar.



Spring arrived and so did many local birds–Robins, Mountain Bluebirds, Townsend’s Solitaires, hawks, and one of our resident owls–the Boreal Owl.  For several years I’d tried to identify their primary sound when they are beginning to nest, a series of low toots.  They will call for several weeks, or months, starting at dusk, and they are difficult to locate.  I’d never seen one, but now easily can identity their call.

The last several nights I’d heard strange noises outside my window that sounded like very loud mice, or strange squirrel sounds. It’s hot, and I sleep with the windows open. The squirrels are all asleep at midnight, and mice are very quiet.  Also, these noises appeared to shift from one location to another much farther away, then back near my window. I looked outside but could see nothing because it was dark.  Then this morning, around 4:30 a.m., just before first light, I heard the sounds again, right above my window.  I got out of bed, walked to the picture window and looked on the roof of the porch overhang. There sat two owls, medium sized, no tufts. They were making these strange ‘Skiew’ noises.  Boreals? What were they doing around my house these last nights?  What was this communication all about?

UPDATE!!!   I sent this tape to several experts.  One identified them as fledglings and probably Boreals. Dan and Cindy Hartmann of Silver Gate, MT.,who specializes in photographing Boreals and Great Gray owls, identified them as Great Gray chicks.  Dan thought he heard a ‘whoo’ in the background of the tape.  Although I was looking up at the two birds sitting on my roof in essentially a dark situation, I judged them to be about 10-12″ tall. Based on that, Dan said Boreals would be smaller as chicks.


Boreal Owl. They are very secretive owls

Knowing your Place is not just about knowing terrain, or identifying tracks, trees or flowers, or even understanding ‘bird language’ as Jon Young teaches.  It is a constant exercise in using all our senses and an immersion in our natural state of Wonder.

Hawk and Eagle day

My neighbor called the other night.  They own a horse camp for teenagers.  The kids were doing volunteer work, stacking timber in piles that the forest service had recently cut down for a fire break alongside their property when they found a young red-tailed hawk on the ground.  The hawk was large yet too young to have yet fledged and was starving.  Probably the FS had inadvertently cut down the nesting tree.

My neighbor called me because I volunteer at the Buffalo Bill Museum of the West in the Draper Lab and know the person who runs a bird rescue program called Ironside Bird Rescue.  The young red-tailed was in bad shape, holding its head under its wing.  But my neighbor was able to feed it some elk meat and brought the bird over to my house that evening in a large box.  Since I was going to work in the morning, I brought the bird to Ironside.  Susan Ahalt of Ironside took the bird inside–weighed it, handed the Red-Tailed to me so she could find some food.  The bird was so weak it didn’t even struggle.  But Susan found it three mice which she cut up and the Red-tailed gulped them down.

At the Rescue center

At the Rescue center

Susan said that if the bird survives, then she will first test whether it can feed itself on it’s own.  If it can, then she will release it back in Sunlight area where it was found.

The young Red-tailed

The young Red-tailed

Red Tail baby in its cage.

Red Tail baby in its cage.

Cutting up mice for the young Red-tailed

Cutting up mice for the young Red-tailed

I had to rush off because today was a great field trip with the Draper lab folks.  Chuck Preston, museum curator, has been conducting a five year Golden Eagle study, locating nest sites and documenting how many chicks are produced and what food they are eating.  Today we were off to band a young fledgling.

The museum purchased a drone and we were going to try it out.  The drone sounds like a hive of bees. Unlike a regular model airplane, the drone has a GPS, can hover, has a camera that sends back real-time film to a laptop, and essentially looks and acts like something from ‘Back to the Future’ movie. We were going to use the drone to try and scare the young bird off the nest and onto the ground where it could be banded.

Drone over nest with Heart Mountain in background

Drone over nest with Heart Mountain in background

The drone and the laptap where the live feed comes out.

The drone and the laptap where the live feed comes out. You can see the camera eye down below

Since there were several of us there, we all got into positions on the cliff near the nest in order to track where the bird might fly.  The young fledgling can’t fly far, and will invariably fly downward, but it could go up to a mile or two off before landing.

I hiked up to the cliff edges and could see the drone hovering above the nest.  Apparently, it didn’t bother the bird in the least.  Meanwhile, mom was flying around high overhead wondering what all these people were doing near her baby.  In good years the parents will have two young.  In lean years only one chick or they won’t nest at all.

Finally, our intern Nat hiked to the nest and the bird flew down about a quarter of a mile downwind.  This was a feisty male and certainly didn’t like being handled, a good sign he was in excellent condition.  But Chuck is an expert handler and brought the bird into the shade.  He measured and weighed the chick, then banded it’s leg.

Weighing the bird

Weighing the bird



Banding the bird

Banding the bird

He released it as close to the nest as he could, knowing it would climb it’s way back in, but in a few days would be off on its own.

What a great day for raptors!

Chuck Preston with chick after banding

Chuck Preston with chick after banding

Fall is a’coming

The Clark’s Nutcrackers are congregating, waiting for the Limber Pine cones to ripen.  You can tell they’ve arrived as they are a noisy bunch.  As Jays, they are super-intelligent birds.  Every year they cache tens of thousands of seeds and are able to memorize the location of their stashes.  Clark Nutcrackers have a distinctive ‘wing-whirl’, which is a loud noise they make when flying.  Although the pine cones aren’t ready yet, they seem anxious, waiting for just the right moment to steal the seeds away from the waiting red squirrels who also cache the cones for winter food.  I’ve been watching the birds  eating insects while they while away their time.

This year is not only a bad cone year for White Bark pines, but the Limber Pine cone production is  down as well.  This bodes poorly for bears.  But the good news is that with all the rain we’ve had, the berry crop is up.  The chokecherry crop is one of the best in years and I’m waiting with my trail cam for some bears to spend time stripping the berries off the branches before the birds get to them.  The bears seem to know the exact time when they’re ripe, and come around for that week only. And with all the beetle kill, the forests are opening up and changing.  I’ve seen new understories packed with chokecherry bushes–all full of cherries.  

Grizzly bears evolved in the plains.  They can’t climb trees like their forest adapted cousins, the black bears, and their massive claws were meant to dig out roots.  Pushed from their native habitat into the mountains, they prefer burn areas and meadows, places that emulate their native past.  Our mountain forests are rapidly changing with all the downed timber, creating good habitat for the Great Bear.

Young bear yesterday coming to look for berries

Young bear yesterday coming to look for berries

The little forest next to my house is a perfect example and a fine study area of a rapidly evolving landscape.  With seven springs emerging from the limestone base, there is sufficient water ground water.  The  old growth Englemann Spruce are dead and dying, falling to the ground and leaving large openings where new chokecherry bushes, dogwoods, raspberries, gooseberries, and aspens are rapidly emerging.  This is an area we specifically asked the Forest Service NOT to put in their logging plans.

In contrast, the lands adjacent to the springs are private and were logged by the homeowners through the State Forestry Office (who were concerned about fire protective barriers) 5 years ago.  Approximately 90% of the trees were cut or were blow downs.  This land too has aspens, gooseberries, and grasses–but much of it has a very high ratio, maybe 10:1, of invasives, particularly Canada Thistle.  The combination of moisture, sun, and rapid disturbance provided a perfect storm for the invasives.  The invasives rob moisture and space for other natives that might get a stronghold.  In the non-logged side, the lesson is clear:   slower is better and the forest can naturally restore itself with little interference by man.


Weasels and birds

A pair of bluebirds has been nesting here for over a month.  They laid a clutch around May 25 which didn’t hatch until several weeks ago (unless perhaps, when I go to inspect the box, they built a nest on top of the old unhatched eggs).  From what I’ve seen and read, bluebird eggs should hatch within about two weeks so this was very unusual.  I had been checking the 5 eggs every few days, till finally, on June 25, they hatched.

The father is an especially watchful and concerned dad.  He is always checking on the hatchlings, and he was always checking on the eggs too.  Three eggs hatched and lately, as they’ve been growing, the parents have been busy feeding those hungry youngsters.

Concerned dad

Long-Tailed weasel

I just returned from a Bioblitz over the weekend in the Pryors.  I headed out to check my trail camera in the woods and upon my return the bluebirds were really upset, making a big racket right outside their box.  I stood watching fairly close, wondering what the fuss was about.  Then I saw.  A head popped out of their house, and suddenly a long-tailed weasel emerged.  He ran off into a ground squirrel hole quick as a flash. Then I went to check on the babies.  One had fledged and was alive in the grass, but the other two were dead in the box.  If only I’d been a bit quicker I might have scared that weasel off.

I watched the birds for the next several hours.  The weasel returned for his prizes and carried them back into the hole, while the fledgling made his way through the grass uphill into deeper cover.  While the upset parents kept an eye out for the weasel, they also fed and protected their only baby that was left.

fledging hiding in bushes, making it’s way farther from the nest box

Meanwhile a menagerie of other bird species were coming around, interested.  Juncos, a female bluebird, and especially a pair of chipping sparrows wondered what the fuss was about, sometimes helping to scare off the intruder.  One of the most fascinating things was to watch the response of all the neighboring birds over the course of the several hours the bluebirds were upset.

That weasel, or its offspring, may have been the one that ate my pika two years back.  Oddly, he seemed to know exactly when to make his move for the birds–when they were just about to fledge, still helpless yet nice and plump.

mom still feeding the one chick left in the bushes

I rarely see weasels although I know they are around.  But being opportunistic carnivores, they have impeccable hunting skills.  Since I’ve watched this pair of bluebirds year after year, I feel a kinship with them and wanted to drive off that weasel.  I even tried to get my dog to flush him out.  Maybe the fact that the dog and I were gone for 3 days gave this weasel his bold chance.   Yet nature has it’s own ways and my human interference, well-intentioned though it may be, is probably more of the problem than a solution.

Owls and more Owls

It seems that nature study comes to a person in batches.  In other words, what you think you want to study might not be what presents itself.

Last week on my way to town there was a road kill Great Horned Owl.  He seemed in good shape so I called the museum where I volunteer preparing specimens and asked if they wanted it.  Since they already have plenty of Great Horneds, they passed, but  this owl was a sign of what was to be a week full of owls.

The next morning, at 6am, I heard a strange owl call from the nearby forest.  I thought it might be a Great Gray, and sure enough, when I listened to its call, it was.   He was passing through on his way to a location north of here–maybe Reef creek or even Yellowstone.

The following week at the museum I was given a Long-eared Owl to prepare.  The tag said it was found in my area in Sunlight.  Her wing was broken and she’d died in rehab.  I suspected it had been struck by a car.  But when I saw the Game Warden the following day he told me he’d found a Long-eared Owl on the road before the area was opened to the public May 1st.

“That’s the owl I just prepared.  Unfortunately, it died in rehab.” I told him.  Who knows how it broke its’ wing.

Long eared owl

With all this owl activity, I decided to walk through my nearby woods with the intent of finding a roost.  A pair of Great Horneds live there.  Last year I watched one being mobbed by a Cooper’s Hawk.  Great Horneds are considered the ‘Lions of the Forest’.  They eat a lot of different foods, large and small.  When I was helping with a Spotted Owl study in California, we learned that Great Horneds kill Spotted Owls.  Watching that Coopers Hawk continuously swoop and peck at the Great Horned sitting on a dead fallen log confirmed how tough these owls are.  That Great Horned was unperturbed; in fact, he acted like the Coopers was an inconvenient fly.

Great Horned Owl

It didn’t take long before I found a large cache of pellets beneath a dead spruce.  The tree even had some owl feathers hanging from a high branch.  I threw them all into a bag and brought them home for inspection.

My stash of pellets

Just the week before my boss at the museum, Curator Chuck Preston, put a vole skull under a microscope to demonstrate how to determine its’ species.   The secret is to count the middle set of upper molars.  One species has four closed triangles while the other species in our area has three.

I dissected all the pellets and found that this owl was feasting on voles.  Dozens of voles and just voles were in these pellets.  Using a hand lens to see the molars, I determined these were all Montane voles (Microtus montanus).

Montane vole

With over 30 Montane voles in these pellets, there were two other distinct skulls, much larger, and from a different species of vole.  This was the Water vole (Microtus richardsonii).

Yesterday on a hike up Tipi Gulch, I came across another Great Horned Owl roost with some recent (seemed like that mornings) pellets.  Inside were several Montane voles and one Water vole.  Voles must be on the upswing and doing fine here this year.  Voles also don’t hibernate and are active at night.  Rabbits on the other hand have been scarce.

It was fun, and interesting, to check out what these owls are eating.  So much activity in such a tiny forest nearby.  Yesterday I retrieved my trail camera that was set up by my spring where I get my water.  Look what else is traveling through these woods.  As Thoreau says, you can spend a lifetime exploring a twenty mile radius.

Wolf with bad left hind leg

Bird Language

It must be early spring, although the weather is continuing to feel like its June–in the 60’s and 70’s.  I’m no birder, although I am trying.  Plant people just can’t understand studying things that flit around, throw their voices, and are almost invisible to the naked eye.  I hear a song or see movement, bring my binoculars up to my eyes, search the trees and see nothing.

I know a very knowledgeable horticulturist.  She is the principle grower of native seeds in Northern California.  She decided to begin to study birds, and the first time she went into the field with a birding group, she didn’t even think to bring binoculars.  I suppose, like myself, she figured these animals would just show themselves and sit still for her like our wonderful plants do.

That being said, here’s my observations on what’s arriving so far.  All winter long in these mountains above 7000′ you can see Red-breasted nuthatches and Chickadees.

Red-breasted nuthatch

Grouse, Turkeys and Dippers are occasionally spotted too.  But the heralds of new spring are the beautiful bluebirds.  The pair that nests here every year has returned, checking out all my homemade boxes.

Male bluebird

I’ve been seeing large groups of sparrows (don’t ask me what species, please).  Their melodious songs are filling the woods.  The other day I saw a ‘Slate-colored’ Junco.  I had to look him up because I wasn’t sure what I was seeing.  Usually I see the black-capped Juncos around here, and they are back as well.  No warblers yet, but the Robins have been here for over a month.  They migrate elevationally, with many wintering in Cody at 5000′.  I don’t know if this is the way that its always been.  That’s hard to imagine with the stories about classic Wyoming winters.  No flickers yet, but I’ve seen Downy Woodpeckers for over a month also.

Sandhill Cranes, another sign of spring, aren’t up this way yet, but I know they are down in the desert so I should hear their classic call soon.

Sandhill crane in my valley last year

As far as eagles and hawks, Bald and Golden Eagles are year all winter, but the other day I saw my first Red-tailed of the season, and yesterday was a real treat.  In a small wooded area where I know I might catch a glimpse of a breeding pair in season, I saw a single Northern Goshawk.


It’s time to begin again my new practice I started last year.  Its a Jon Young ‘Understanding Bird Language’ special.  The idea is simple: everyday go and sit for 1 hour in the same spot–your secret spot–and simply listen to the birds.  Over time, with only the aid of identifying only 4 or 5 ground birds, you will start to understand when the birds are happy and in baseline, and when they are sounding alarms.  This basic awareness can help you know when and what type of predators are lurking.  Alarms vary depending upon whether its a ground predator such as a weasel or a large bird of prey overhead.  It takes practice and persistence.  But its a fun, relaxing meditation.  I highly recommend Young’s instructive tape set available through his website on Bird Language.

The Chipping Sparrow

Several days ago I went to a little spot near my house and sat underneath a Douglas Fir.  It was a random choice, but in a few minutes I noticed a tiny nest on a low branch.  As I watched, mom and dad Chipping Sparrow were taking turns feeding three very tiny newborns.  I’ve been going there everyday for the past four days, sitting under the tree for about an hour, watching those good parents bring in food.

Mom feeding babies first days

Those babies are always hungry and their parents seem haggard.  I’ve gone at random times of the day, and the parents spend their whole time catching food and bringing it in.

Close up of hungry baby, almost hairless

Newborn sparrow

How much they they’ve grown in such a short time!  On the first day they were ugly little half-bald things, and now they look like almost grown chipping sparrows (without the typical coloration yet).


Four days later, how much he's grown


Besides these sparrows, I’ve been watching a robin sitting everyday on her nest in the corners of my home and a bluebird mom in one of my boxes.  It makes me think:  human mothers that are neglectful or unfit should be made to spend a few seasons watching, everyday for hours in the spring, these birds and how they care for their young.  They are good and tireless parents and perfect models.

The Emergence of the New

Today was just one of those glorious days, the kind of day I’ve been missing and forgotten what it feels like.  A day that is the harbinger of spring. Warm in the sun, no wind, the body just responds and feels good, happy.

I’ve spent the last few weeks, in a random way, making 4 new bluebird houses.  I’ve gotten attached to MikethehowtoGuy whose simple guidelines I’ve followed, with a few modifications since I don’t attach my houses to poles.  Two years ago I made an observation house and took photos of eggs to babies.  That house was cruder but did the job.  The first year no birds used it, but then I heard it sometimes takes 2 years before they take up residence and sure enough it did.  These houses have a clean-out flip-out side door and are not for observation.  They take about 2 hours to make and are easy for a beginning carpenter like myself.

My new bluebird box

Another new box 5' up on a tree

Today as I was putting the finishing touches on my last house, last years’ pair of bluebirds came to inspect their old house.  What a welcome sight!  I greeted them and asked where they’d been, what mysteries they’d seen, how they’d fared on their long journey.  I felt a kinship with them for I too spend a few months in the winter working in California.

Old observation box that is in use

Just last week I saw a bluebird in the desert and my heart jumped, for I knew they’d be up here soon, the first heralds of spring.  Then I heard a chorus of Sandhill cranes, yet another indication that our long and cold winter is coming to a close.

In another month the hawks and eagles will begin nesting, along with my pretty bluebirds.

Golden eagle nest from last year with cliff swallow nest below.

The elk will move up country to calf in the Lamar; the wolves and coyotes will have their litters and settle into their dens; and the earth will be renewed once again.

Having lived all my life in California, the appreciation of new life isn’t quite as obvious there. Their seasons are wet and dry, and liveably warm all year.  The best time to plant is in their winter, and the time to rest is in the dry heat of the summer.   So I’m appreciating this obvious renewal.

In our modern world, we seem to always be on the road to ‘elsewhere’, that elusive moving target of completion of tasks, errands, or even our well-being and happiness, somehow always lies in the future.  But these little bluebirds today, back from their long sojourn, happily checking out their old home, reminded me:  Go slow, for life is a circle and all comes to pass in good time.

Bald eagles, coyotes and a kill

An old cow elk broke her leg trying to get over the fence when a car drove bye.  Didn’t take long for the predators to bring her down.  Yesterday early morning I drove up the road and found 5 coyotes on a kill.  Usually coyotes can’t bring a large elk down, but they might have in this case.  She was an easy kill.  Since I didn’t see any wolves around and the carcass was less than half eaten and still warm, not frozen, I assumed they were the culprits.  I watched them for over a good hour. One dominant coyote was chowing down.  Another bold coyote kept slinking around, trying to get in a few bites, but the big male wouldn’t have it.

This video doesn’t exist

Once the male got his fill, he’d go off somewhere, leaving the carcass for the secondary prowler.  She or he started tugging and pulling off the meat.  She got in about five or ten minutes before Mr. Big Man came back who then, with some posturing and fighting, threw her off.  Three other coyotes, not so bold, hung out in the trees.

Coyotes waiting their turn

Two beautiful Bald eagles waited in the trees, along with several Golden Eagles.  I watched a Golden and a Bald tug at each other in mid-air before going to their respective perches.  Of course, tons of magpies and crows waited.

It was cold outside, about 5 degrees.  I came back in the late afternoon, hoping to get some closer photos of the Bald eagles.  By now it was hovering near 0 degrees.  A beautiful Bald Eagle sat in a leafless aspen along with a Golden and some crows.  I zigzagged closer and closer.  I kept shooting and wondered how close I could get before she took flight.  I’ve actually seen this pair of Balds hanging around the valley a few weeks ago.  I knew the dog could get real close without disturbing her.  After all, the dog is essentially like the wolves or coyotes that she tolerates around kills.  In fact, I’ve watched coyotes eating a carcass with the crows around, or even a Bald eagle chasing a coyote off a kill.

Just when I saw her get a little ruffled and ready to fly, I backed away.  My hand on the camera was freezing!  Numb.

I drove up the road, watched the elk for a time in the beauty of the chilled sunset, then drove back home.  It was getting dim.  The birds, all of them, were gone.  The kill still there.  I wondered–where did those eagles go at night.  They’d been sitting out there all day, in fact I’d watched them for over an hour without them moving.  The cold didn’t bother them.  But they’d gone somewhere to bed down.  Where does a bird that big go to rest for the evening?

0 degrees sunset

Squirrels, Bears, and birds: What’s the connection?

The Clark’s Nutcrackers have been very busy over the last month.  So have the squirrels.  They’re both competing for the Limber Pine seeds that grow around here.  The birds extract and stash seeds.  The squirrels create middens with stored seeds and cones.  The bears let these animals do their work, then rob the middens.

Clark's Nutcracker

It is really amazing to watch the Nutcrackers.  They are so adept at using their beak to extract the seed.  Limber pine cones are full of sap, really sticky.  I’ve watched a bird work a cone, sometimes to just get sap or a bad seed.  The bird cleans it’s beak quickly and works another seed hole.

Squirrels too can work a cone very quickly and efficiently.  Both squirrels and Nutcrackers seem to know exactly which seed is viable or not.  I’m sure it has something to do with its weight.  Sometimes I find a cone on the ground with a few seeds left in it.  Invariably those seeds are empty, either with worm holes or they just didn’t mature.

Meanwhile, after working hard on caching all these seeds, the bears are coming around robbing all the caches they can find.

There’s a black bear working my neighborhood intensely, day after day.  His scat is everywhere,  mostly full of pine shells.  The scat even smells like pine nuts…you can smell the rich fatty odors.

Loaded with pine nut debris

Yesterday I drove down my driveway only to find a huge stump in the middle of the road.  I got out to move it, I looked up the hillside where it had rolled down from, and saw that this bear had completely worked over an old middens.  He’d turned over the soil so much that the chickadees were having a field day.

Dug out middens on my hillside near the house

What a nice circle of feeding and robbing…birds and squirrels feed the bears who feed the birds.

Squirrel above robbed middens angry at me. "I didn't do it" I told him