Alumroot and Penstemon in rock cliff.

A cool breeze and cloudy skies greeted the half dozen naturalists as they met along the Kootenai River near Libby, Montana. The group discussed strategies to see more birds, the keys to identifying Rocky Mountain Region wildflowers and shrubs, how to better tune into the natural world and the day's plan.

Shortly thereafter, we hit the road. The first private land location was a series of large, medium and small ponds with interlacing wetlands, and surrounded on three sides by mature and younger coniferous forest.


Beargrass in bloom.

Along a hillside, we utilized a screen of taller trees and quietly meandered towards a vista point. As we did, woodpeckers called out, pileated and hairy, as well as singing red-winged blackbirds.

Keeping safe space, we moved slightly downhill as ducks softly quacked and shorebirds sounded off. They knew we were coming. We halted momentarily, and began to scan.

Scanning for birds and wildlife is a skill that professional ornithologists and research biologists use. In its best form, there is a bit of art to it. One must be quiet, while thoroughly scanning in an organized fashion so nothing is missed.

Body movements must not be too obvious, as to scare off wildlife, but still allow the observer to examine every detail at distance, in depth and sufficiently enough to discern the difference between natural camouflage of the creatures themselves and the vegetation and terrain.

Taking our time, we spotted American widgeon (bald pate), ring-neck ducks, Canada geese in reed mat nesting areas, western painted turtles on logs and a muskrat swimming.


Great blue heron takes off and flies by us.

We also saw our first wildflower of the day, the yellow pond lily. Then a large great blue heron lifted from his stance in the water, and flew circling away at 40 yards.

We then made our way up towards a sub-alpine zone location, stopping and hopping out of our vehicles to scope for birds and identify wildflowers and shrubs.

Near a small creek and mini-meadow, we saw northern flycatchers and varied thrush, as well as mariposa lilies, red-osier dogwood, horsetail and serviceberry.

We talked about wetland grasses, and shared the old saying, “sedges have edges, rushes are round, and grasses have nodes that are easily found.”

As we wound our way up in elevation, the sky began to clear. We then began to hike in a short way.

There was bear sign all around us. Along the elk trail was the scat of deer, elk, moose, coyote, snowshoe hare and grouse. The pleasant fragrance of beargrass emitted from their blooms up here at the higher elevation mountain site.

We stopped at a beautiful ridge meadow and were treated to a world of color. Orange Indian paintbrush, yellow arnica, white beargrass blooms, blue penstemon, Wild rose pinks, and a myriad of other natural color splashes.


Loon at distance in reeds.

We stopped, gave each other some space and quietly took it all in.

Jumping back in our rigs, we busted over the mountain pass and were gifted to some spectacular scenic views of the still snow capped Cabinet Mountains.

The now stronger winds were keeping the bugs down and gently nudging the clouds into swirling forms heading south east. We stopped and popped out, checking a rocky outcrop that presented us with more wildflowers, including pretty white alumroot growing precariously out of a rock crevice right along with blue penstemon.

We snaked down the mountainside, heading for our next location, a mature, older growth riparian stringer along a high flowing creek. We entered a whole new world of natural beauty here.

In this forest realm we encountered large diameter Engleman spruce, western larch, grand fir and western cottonwoods. They both stood tall and lay low on humus beds, put to sleep by Father Time. But not in vain did they fall.

Between those living and those returned to earth, wet and cool habitat surviving plants now thrive. We walked through and studied wild sarsaparilla, the greenish-white flowering forest forb that Native Americans harvested and boiled the roots to make a beverage and used medicinally as a gentle stimulant.


Stump and rejuvenating riparian plants.

We noted twinflower, with its pink blossoms, and white blossomed bunchberry dogwood, known for its decorative attire with bright red berries. The regenerating trees were abundant in this stand, with club moss, various fungi and the stunning reddish-purple to pink flowered spotted coral root below them.

Sign of long past human harvest was also evident on the forest edge, in stumps of trees fallen for timber and in sections of cottonwood bark removed by artists to carve. Above in the canopy of trees hung lichen of lungwort, common witches hair and edible horsehair, used by Native Americans as emergency food after boiling and forming into small cakes.

If balance is respected, nothing goes to waste in the wild.

The last stop on the itinerary for the day was a bit of a gamble, but such is life. Scouting is one of the main practices of any ethical guide of any outdoor pursuit. A good scout will put time and effort into giving his or her participants a good chance of succeeding at their pursuit. Whether it be hunting, fishing, birding, wildflower study or photography, the guide who is sincere will give it their best effort. They will put in their own time to do some reconnaissance.

Even then, there is no guarantee.

We walked a short distance into the lake shore reeds. We would be at a safe enough range to not disturb the birds we wanted to see. Within minutes, we were able to glass and find the object of our study here. The male and female common loons had been successful so far, as the juvenile was hanging close to them. As we watched, the male continued to dive for fish and strayed aways from the others.

Our group photographer of the day, Keith Kuczka, took a few pictures, and we began to head out, so as not to disturb the loons.

It was then that the female gave her haunting wail contact call to locate her mate, who popped up a couple of hundred feet away. We all gave an amazed smile to each other, whispering that the call was such a beautiful exclamation point to our day together.

The companionship seemed to seal even more at that moment. We had indeed shared many gifts this fine day.

Outdoor Columnist

Brian Baxter is project coordinator for Silver Cloud Associates, LLC, a natural resource information and outdoor educational company based in Libby. He has over four decades in the field and has been writing outdoor articles for over 20 years.

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