CHARLO – The crowd watching a coyote gnaw on a dead goose looked like a line at the buffet table, waiting for the glutton to go.
Several yards to the left, a bald eagle occasionally ruffled its wings while maintaining its side-eye. Triple that distance to the right, a golden eagle stayed perfectly still, as if denying it had any appetite. Double that span again to the left, and a second coyote paced in short arcs, acting both hungry and intimidated by the competition. From a hillock straight back from the shore of the Ninepipes Reservoir, a whitetail doe poked its head just above the shrubline and watched with all the impassivity of a vegetarian at a wiener roast.
The Ninepipes National Wildlife Refuge isn’t only for birdwatchers, especially as fall settles over the Mission Valley. Last week’s scavenger tableau presented a great lesson in dominance as the first coyote finished its fill and the bald eagle flapped over to dig in. The second coyote also made its move – or moves – extremely peculiar ones. As the eagle flared and glared, the coyote made clumsy wobbles while wagging its tail at odd angles. After a few minutes it became apparent it had tried to circle around the eagle, only to step into a boggy bit of the shore and sink almost to its belly; the dance was a struggle to escape the muck. The golden eagle stage right remained impassive.
The abrupt weather changes of October can make for great wildlife watching, according to Five Valleys Audubon habitat chairman Jim Brown of Missoula.
“Any time these cold fronts move through, that’s a good time to get looking,” Brown said. “They often stimulate bird movement.”
In the Mission Valley, that means the scattered trumpeter swan couples may soon be joined by tundra swans migrating through. Telling the massive birds apart can be tough at a distance: Brown said the main difference is in the beak, with tundras’ sloping inward while trumpeters bulge outward. On the wing, good luck unless you hear them call – then the trumpeter’s namesake makes it easy.
Mornings and evenings on isolated lakes offer the chance to hear common loons make their Halloween-tinged cries. A few flocks of white pelicans remain buzzing around the Mission Valley potholes.
While the Freezeout Lake wildlife refuges get lots of goose migration action at this time of year, they also attract lots of hunters. That makes the occasional flocks of snow geese and American coots fun to spot on the west side of the Continental Divide.
A variety of grebes hang out in the Mission Valley, including Western, red-necked and eared grebes, along with double-crested cormorants, black terns, Forster’s terns, Caspian terns and great blue herons.
In addition to the multiple federal, state and private waterholes in the Mission Valley, birders can find success at Brown’s and Upsata lakes near Ovando off Highway 200, as well as the chain of lakes from Placid to Swan in the Seeley-Swan Valley along Highway 83.
The Five Valleys Audubon brochure "Birding in the Missoula and Bitterroot Valleys" features extensive lists of bird species that rarely, occasionally, uncommonly or commonly occupy their favorite habitats, broken out by season of abundance. The brochure also has detailed directions to many productive watching areas.
Close to Missoula, birders can easily reach the wetlands of Milltown State Park by Bonner. Common goldeneye ducks, mergansers, and bald eagles cruise the Clark Fork River shorelines along the Kim Williams Trail.
West of town, the Kelly Island Fishing Access Site gives access to 631 acres of state-owned land, where one might spot turkey vultures, bald eagles, pileated woodpeckers, red-naped sapsuckers, Vaux’s swifts and yellow warblers.
To the south, the Maclay Flats area along Blue Mountain Road has lots of great horned owls, northern pygmy owls, red-tailed hawks and other birds of prey.
The Bitterroot Valley south of Missoula teams with bird habitat that can be explored on public land. The Teller and Lee Metcalf wildlife refuges near Victor and Stevensville, respectively, may have the most concentrated collections of species to spot. But the fishing access sites of Chief Joseph, Poker Joe, Woodside and Hannon Memorial also attract birders to their riparian perches.
Just in time for the fall birding season, Five Valleys Audubon is revising its Clark Fork River-Grass Valley Important Bird Area brochure in late October or early November.
For example, the Missoula Valley has some of the best winter raptor habitat around, with lots of red-tailed hawks, rough-legged hawks and northern harriers hunting rodents in the Grass Valley area between Missoula and Frenchtown. The summits of Mount Jumbo and Mount Sentinel are also good for watching bald and golden eagles flying south at this time of year.
“That’s an international program managed by the Audubon Society to identify critical habitat and species of concern,” Brown said of the Important Bird Area. “The IBA in Missoula has continental significance, because of some of the species it pulls in here.”