Monday, September 28, 2020

Everything’s ‘just ducky’

| June 14, 2020 1:00 AM

In the wake of a global pandemic, protests and political pandemonium, my recent forays to do some springtime birdwatching have provided me with a much welcome respite.

The lakes and creeks in Northwest Montana are teeming right now with colorful breeding waterfowl and a kayak can get you up close to many species.

Mother’s Day weekend we camped on the Thompson Chain of Lakes west of Kalispell. The Middle and Lower Thompson lakes are connected by a reedy thread of water and each environment offers something new around the bend. Much of the lakeshore is thick with marsh grass and cattails — the ideal place to find waterfowl. With binocs on board I paddled from one lake to the next and back, each day counting new species. A waterfowl ID course I’d been studying online and my trusty Sibley field guide have both helped cultivate my skill set.

I was, however, duped by a fake heron homeowners had propped up in front of their house, The homeowners were likely watching me, slapping their knees as I squinted hard into my binoculars for any sign of movement (in defense, herons do like to “pose” for long periods) … until I spotted the imposter’s pedestal.

If you’re into ducks, correctly identifying a species is a feather in your cap. As if observing the first male hooded mergansers puff up their white head crests while cruising with their chic females with their frosted brown crests fluffing in the breeze isn’t enough, sorting out redneck grebes from horned grebes made my tours all the more fun. Even more entertaining was the handsome pair of loons taking turns diving and surfacing, at times popping up so close to me my binocs were useless. From dabbling to diving ducks, the Thompson Chain of Lakes raises the bar for waterfowl watching.

Recently, we headed out to Smith Lake — me with my kayak and my husband with his 12-foot fishing boat and restored ’60s-era Evinrude motor. The lily pads have already covered a significant amount of the lake since the last time we’d been there — Smith Lake is, after all, a wetland habitat. Still, I easily found and navigated the entrance to Ashley Creek (which won’t be the case much longer as the flora gains ground in the warm weather). I was the sole person paddling up the creek, but waterfowl were plentiful. Not long after entering the creek the first of several great blue herons I’d see that afternoon lifted off. Next, I sneaked up on a magnificent pair of trumpeter swans gracefully profiled on the water’s edge. They casually looked my way, then slipped into the creek and glided upstream a ways before taking off in tandem, their wings, spanning nearly 7 feet, drumming as they rose, honking above me.

After a 2 ½ mile trek upstream under overcast skies with a gentle tailwind, I turned back downstream. Apparently, the resident birds are used to having the place to themselves because I rustled up yet another couple of herons, a trio of handsome sandhill cranes and myriad ducks before paddling back to Smith Lake, which, together with part of Ashley Creek and the surrounding wetlands, is under conservation easements thanks to partnerships with landowners, land trusts and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, protecting the habitat and bird sanctuary into perpetuity.

A day on the water glassing waterbirds is always a heart lifter, and, in these crazy times, a fine way to find both solace and refuge.

Community editor Carol Marino may be reached at 758-4440 or by email at