Tag Archive: wildlife migration

Walking the Jumps


On my first day at American Prairie Reserve, I decided to walk the road to the Buffalo Jump by Jones and Telegraph Creeks.  I loaded up a pack with water, lunch, snacks, clothes, and binoculars, brought two cameras, and set off on foot, using the same mode of transportation as the Plains Indians to approach the site hundreds of years ago.

Why walk?  It’s a decent gravel road. Trucks haul trailers on this road. People drive and mountain bike it. Walking the road is unusual enough that a USFWS ranger stopped to ask if I needed help.

I could have gotten there in my car and then added on a whole lot more to my day, but there are many reasons to walk. First, because I can.  As a young-in-life owner of a fake hip joint, I know what it feels like to hobble in agony 1/3 mile down a flat road to the mailbox.  I know how small the world becomes when everything is about managing pain, how you lose peripheral vision and fight discouragement. Walking for me – and many people- is a restored blessing, and I don’t take it for granted.

I wanted to take it slow, look at the landscape, find the little things.  I couldn’t do that from a car or bike.  And finally, I’m so sick of sitting in a cubicle, a car, a train, a bus that I could run screaming. I wanted outside, sun and wind on my face.

After a mile or so past camp, I passed the Enrico Science Center, a remodeled ranch home. The vans you see parked there were assisting the 2016 Transect, an 11-day trek across North Central Montana hosted by APR.  I ran into the group and APR staff at the Buffalo Jump and was instantly converted by their sunny friendliness (shocking, as I live in the land of the notoriously unfriendly “Seattle Freeze”). dsc_0681_edited-1

browneyedsusanOn my trek to the jump,  I found butterflies, prairie dogs, and of course, bison.  I flushed upland birds (probably grouse), took pictures of tracks and scat, and put one foot in front of the other,  mile after mile.




Prairie dog- notice the ear bling indicating tagging and perhaps vaccination.

The road traverses into Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, and eventually crosses a bridge over what I believe is Jones Creek.  By that time I’d met the ranger, who sympathetically gave me his NWR map, saying I would need it, and recommending a trip to the elk viewing area on the auto tour road (later post on that).

The road wound upward to the top of a hill blanketed with clumps of yellow-flowered brush perhaps marking where long-ago tipis would have stood as the First Peoples prepared to herd bison to their death below.aprflowersbelowjump

Buffalo jumps may seem gruesome to us today because we don’t see our food die. Unless we’re farmers or hunters, harvest occurs in slaughterhouses far away from our tables. For all we know, steaks are made in a factory and shrink-wrapped in plastic and styrofoam.

First Peoples used suitable natural cliff formations in an organized effort to harvest an animal that at the time, was far more dangerous to hunt on foot.  Buffalo jumps are full of secrets from long ago:  no one seems to have a good handle on the dates they were used, and conventional wisdom about their use falls all the time. The only thing that seems sure is that Plains Indians stopped using the jumps when horses became available.

Like me, the Plains Indians would have reached the jump on foot.  Unlike me, they were supremely fit, trained, acculturated, and prepared for a dangerous effort critical to their survival.Experience and ritual guided a highly coordinated effort.

Buffalo jumps are sacred to Native Americans even though all known jumps have been excavated, sometimes for bones to be used as fertilizer and other times to either steal or preserve the past. Out of respect, I ate my lunch across the road from the jump, where I met the friendly people on the APR Transect.

I didn’t really know what to look for at these sites until I later visitied the Madison Buffalo Jump. There, I was enlightened by excellent, informative signage, and could imagine the drive up a ramp behind the jump, and the massive processing occuring near a creek below the jump.  I’m glad there isn’t signage at APR- it would have stood out by a mile in the landscape- but I will go there again with wiser eyes after having done some reading.

On the return trip, I passed two little snakes in the road, enjoying the heat of day.  One was a Western rattlesnake, the other I can’t tell (looks like a prairie hognose, but doesn’t have the upturned nose- so much for pictures on the Web).

I thought about all the perils the Plains Indians faced just trying to survive.  Weather, starvation, predators, snakes, childbirth, and on and on. If I had lived then, I would have been among the women processing bison for hide, meat, brain, sinew, bladder.  One of the women working for the survival of my people. And yet, the only thing I have in common with those brave, strong women was that I came to the site on foot.



The unwitting subject on top of the jump gives a sense of scale.



ShortieRoots2The short-eared owls aren’t yet rare, but we still stand breathless waiting for them to fly moth-like as they hunt at sundown.  We listen for their raspy barks in flight, watch for them to land on a post, rootwad, or elderberry stem,  then their heads to wither us with the piercing owl stare.  I know they are reliable here at the Welts-Samish restoration area, overwintering before returning to northern breeding grounds.ShortieSunset

On a cold, sunny afternoon, we are all here chasing nature:  the duck hunters, the bird watchers, people taking kids for a walk, wildlife photographers, and me.

It dawns on me that nature used to chase us, and if we were chasing nature, it was just to get a meal.  Now, we chase what’s left of nature just for the experience.  Big game hunters spend tens of thousands of dollars on multi-day journeys to go on safari far away.  People fly to remote Churchill, Manitoba to view polar bears from the safety of lodges and snow buggies. Big Year birders look plain crazy to me, burning fossil fuels to tear around the world just to sight as many bird species as possible in a sort of manic stamp-collecting competition.

But I’m just as guilty of leaving a trail of carbon as I chase nature: flying to Costa Rica and driving from the Cloud Forest where the vanishing resplendent quetzal lives to the Osa Pensinsula to find the engandered Baird’s tapir.  I will be flying to Whitehorse in the Yukon to see the Northern Lights.  I’ve driven several times to Montana to hike and camp where grizzlies and bison roam. This year, I took three flights on my first trip to the barren and beautiful Canadian Arctic.


I’d rather walk out the back door and see nature, so I’m doing as much restoration as I can. A long-eared owl stopped by for a couple weeks in 2012. Shorties stop by my property  every year in the fall, but they never stay. This fall, one landed in my pasture to snatch up a rodent, and did fly-overs for about a week.  I was hopeful for a winter resident, but it eventually flew away.  The hoots of great horned owls and screeches of barn owls in our fields at night don’t bode well for the long-eared owls and shorties.


Long-eared owl at my house; attention posture

Highly nomadic and migratory, short-eared look for open grasslands where ground shelter is decent and rodent hunting is good.  Samish Flats makes good overwintering ground for a number of raptors even with duck hunters lurking in blinds around the area.

I’ll keep working on my habitat so I don’t have to wander far to see owls.  I’ll not put up farm lights that pollute the night sky with glare and make it impossible to see blood moons and northern lights on the rare occasions we see them. But I’ll still have to get on a plane to visit polar bears and tapirs, and will have to road trip to see bison and grizzlies, long gone from most Western landscapes. Like everyone else in this changing world, I will chase nature.


My fuzzy picture of the September 27 blood moon, from my pasture




Calm river in early fall

Calm river in early fall

Autumn is a season of giving and a prelude to the fear winter brings.  Gentle storms wash loosen leaves from trees, to be gathered in piles for mulching summer-parched plants.  Fruits, berries, and seeds that escape the beaks of birds drop to the soil to become next year’s volunteers. Pumpkins and squash wither in the chill and spill meat and seeds when mice make holes in their softened husks. Throughout my little landscape, plants bed themselves down with needles and leaves that will cushion them when rains pound and nourish their growing roots as they sleep.

Rainbows Mean Rain

Rainbows Mean Rain

Some rain has fallen, an antidote to a terrible, dry summer with historic stretches of heat and skies smudged with wildfire ash. The rivers ran low and hot, choking fish and shutting down fishing. Berries mummified on branches and canes.  If we had lived in a time before grocery stores, we would worry

about the coming winter.

Calm river below smoky skies

Summer’s smoky skies- there are mountains behind that smog

After a couple rainstorms, plants bloom again as if spring has arrived.  Grass springs back to life in the emerald green of first warmth even as the days become shorter and colder. The harvest moon looms large over the damp pasture at night as young coyotes steal under fences, hunting rabbits and voles.

Hey wait! It's fall, not blooming time!

Hey wait! It’s fall, not blooming time!

A late visitor- red admiral butterfly visiting a coneflower

A late visitor- red admiral butterfly visiting a coneflower

The barn swallows left after Labor Day, tiny agile pilots navigating the incredible journey to Central America.  Now snow geese are back from the opposite direction in the Arctic, their barking unmistakable on a foggy morning when they can’t be seen flying overhead.  A Stellars jay has returned after the summer, with its straggling imitation of a red-tailed hawk that impresses no bird foraging in the yard. A surprise visitor appears one sunny afternoon- a red admiral butterfly apparently affixed  to a coneflower bloom.  It seems late for this butterfly, but with an expanding crop of nettle to lay eggs on, it may be the product of multiple hatches this year.

Open-faced dahlias continue feeding bees

Open-faced dahlias continue feeding bees

Pacific chorus frogs croak from trees and shrubs on damp days.  There aren’t many frog-friendly days, what with the strong El Nino that is creating havoc elsewhere.  Here, we are still too dry.  My cedars are flagging, and a noble fir sacrifices needles on some branches that jump out visually when they turn yellow. Fall is usually a good time to plant trees and shrubs potted and tended over the summer, but this year, my shovel turns up dust a foot deep.

As I put my landscape to bed, clean gutters, and spread gravel in paddocks, I wonder what will be left on the other side of winter.  Will it be our turn for historic, destructive storms like the rest of the nation experienced this year?  Will my horse with his decaying ligaments still be alive?  Will the roof last, or will more windstorms peel off enough shingles to warrant an emergency repair? Will the river swell and breach the dikes with typhoon moisture from Japan, swept in on tropical winds from Hawaii? Or maybe we’ll sit parched all winter, with no snow for skiing this winter, or next summer’s river flows.

I’m always dubious about autumn- the gifts it presents are perhaps an apology for what comes next.  I’m sure people from time immemorial have looked askance at autumn, unsure of what the next months would bring. For thousands of years, people must have hoped for somewhere else to be the bullseye when the monster winter storm or evil deep freeze set in. They must have flipped a coin or a chunk of bone or a point carved of rock, anything to ward off the worst of winter while they still had a chance.  We’ll see.  We’ll see what’s left next spring.

Autumn Sunrise

Autumn Sunrise

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