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Swan song
A male trumpeter swan raising three babies on his own in the Blackfoot Valley made for the most captivating nature story last year.
Photo by KURT WILSON/Missoulian

As we bid farewell to 2003 and its remarkable story of three cygnets and their devoted father, one can only wonder what's in store for 2004?

What are we most looking forward to in the year to come?

The surprises.

After all, who would have guessed the most captivating nature story of 2003 would be that of a male trumpeter swan and his three motherless babies?

Indeed, the long-necked cygnets were a well-kept secret until September, when they were carried back to the pond north of Lincoln where their parents built a nest and planned for a family.

By then, the young trumpeters had survived the loss of their mother (in a collision with a powerline), a hasty relocation to the Montana Waterfowl Foundation in Ronan (still inside their eggs), and incubation by a surrogate swan mom. The real test, though, was their return to the upper Blackfoot Valley - where the father trumpeter remained after losing both its mate and offspring.

Would the cob, as male trumpeters are known, attack the young swans or accept them as his own? And if he did take them in, could he teach the cygnets to fly before winter came to the Blackfoot?

The answers were among the sweetest surprises of the year in our little slice of the natural world.

Not only did Dad welcome the kids back into his folds, but he tended them tirelessly throughout the fall and - yes - taught them to fly just as winter came calling.

But will the swans return to the Blackfoot this spring?

And what story will nature tell in 2004? What surprises await in the out-of-doors?

JANUARY

Find an animal's tracks in the deep winter snow and you've found an adventure.

Winter is the season for tracking some of the forest's most hardy inhabitants: lynx, bobcat, wolf, fisher, coyote, deer, elk.

Bookstores carry an abundance of field guides to animal tracks these days, including Donald Stokes' "Guide to Nature in Winter."

"It is hard to equal the excitement of searching for the magical trails of animals imprinted in the snow's surface: the fox's night wanderings, the crow's landing or part of the mink's circuit," he writes.

"When looking at animals, we often miss the secrets of their private lives, since animals have invariably seen us first and are reacting most to our presence," he says. "But the trail records the animal when it was alone in nature and brings us closer than ever before to its normal habits and perceptions of the world."

Here are a few of Stokes' pointers for beginners:

A track that appears to be nearly a straight line of single prints is characteristic of all canines (dox, fox, coyote), felines (cat, bobcat, lynx) and ungulates (deer and elk). It is produced by walking or trotting.

Raccoon prints have five clear toes on both hind and forefeet. You'll find them not only in the snow, but left as muddy tracks on your back porch.

All felines have four toes in a circular print with no claws showing. All canines have four toes in an oval print with claws showing.

A skunk is a slow-paced animal, so leaves a meandering trail of small, round prints as it hunts for hibernating insects and rotting fruit. Skunk tracks always end at a ground den or similar lodging.

FEBRUARY

What's all this about flying south for the winter? Spend February celebrating the true "snowbirds" - those stout species that believe western Montana is "south."

In the Mission Valley, you'll find a bounty of over-wintering hawks: Cooper's, rough-legged, red-tailed, sharpshinned, kestrals, merlins and prairie falcons. They use weeping birch for hunting perches. And fence posts.

Anywhere you can find open water along the Clark Fork River, you'll likely find waterfowl that decided this was as far south as they wanted to go for the winter. Mallard ducks and Canada geese are our most common wintertime guests.

Look, too, for bald eagles and osprey perched in the treetops near open water. Ice fishers they are not.

And while you're out, start watching for signs of spring. No kidding. The late naturalist-writer-public radio commentator Kim Williams always spent the third weekend of February searching for spring: robins whistling for mates, starlings staking out their territories, postal workers in Bermuda shorts.

MARCH

Seems we're always looking for ways to read the weather - almost always to no avail.

As March blows into western Montana, we'll no doubt be treated to a quickly changing menu of meteorological treats: blizzards, balmy springtime afternoons, gray rain that freezes after dark.

This year, try minding these signs of bad weather:

If a pig gathers leaves and hay, a storm's brewing.

When spiders repair their webs and make them larger, bad weather is on the way.

Birds flying low in the sky portend rainy weather.

When the moon wears a halo, we'll soon see either snow or rain.

An evening rainbow portends rain the following day.

APRIL

When spring comes to the upper Blackfoot Valley, it will be time to watch for Lincoln's historic trumpeter swan family.

The cob and his three cygnets left the pond alongside Bouma Post and Pole in late October, on opening weekend of Montana's big-game hunting season.

They showed up in Jackson, Wyo., a few weeks later, minus one of the young swans. No one's seen the family since Nov. 18, despite many pairs of eyes watching for the cygnets' distinctive orange leg bands.

Tom Hinz, coordinator of the Montana Wetlands Legacy, isn't worried, though. "They are probably being seen often these days," he said. "It's just that unless they are standing on ice or a shoreline near the water, people wouldn't know that they are looking at banded birds."

So he's waiting for spring, knowing that when the ice and snow pull away from the upper Blackfoot's ponds and marshes, the trumpeters will know it's safe to return.

Whether they show up early or late in the month depends on the "depth" of the winter, Hinz said. But if they made it through to season's end, they'll be back.

Trumpters know the way home.

MAY

Native storytellers know of a starving old woman who was comforted by a red bird, an ambassador from the sun.

"A new plant will be formed from your sorrowful tears," the bird said. "Its flowers will have the rose of my wing feathers and the white of your hair. It will have leaves close to the ground."

"Your people will eat the roots of this plant," the bird told the old woman.

And although bitter because of her sorrow, the plant would be nutritious and would save the people from starvation, the red bird promised. The people would see the plant and be grateful, saying:

"Here is the silver of our mother's hair upon the ground and the rose from the wings of the spirit bird. Our mother's tears of bitterness have given us food."

May is the month to hunt for bitterroots in the Missoula and Bitterroot valleys. Indians once dug great quantities of the roots each May, although they took care not to take too many - lest the plant disappear.

White settlement has not been so attentive to the bitterroot's needs. Subdivision and development has eliminated most of the traditional bitterroot hunting grounds.

Look for the deep pink to whitish blossoms on open hillsides and rocky breaks, beginning in May but continuing into June. Bitterroots open their buds in the hottest part of the day, showing up to 18 elliptical petals in a rosette fashion.

These plants hug the ground on short stalks. The leaves are narrow and fleshy, and form a flat circle on the ground.

True to the storytellers' words, these flowers are bitter but beautiful survivors.

JUNE

One of the most unusual solar events will occur this June, but it will happen under cover of darkness in western Montana. If you want to see the transit of Venus, says University of Montana astronomer Dave Friend, you'll have to head east. The best vantages in North America will be on the East Coast, especially in the Northeast.

Here's what will happen: On June 8, the sun will be partially eclipsed by the planet Venus. It's a phenomenon called a transit, or crossing, and no one alive today has ever seen a transit of Venus.

Only three objects periodically cross in front of the sun. Once a year or so, the moon eclipses the sun. Thirteen times every century, Mercury does the same. Then come transits by Venus: 13 times every 1,000 years.

And while western Montana will miss transit of Venus, we will be treated to other celestial wonders in 2004.

In the early evening of Feb. 27, we'll be able to see Venus, Mars, Saturn, Jupiter and the crescent moon spread out across the nighttime sky.

On Oct. 27, we'll be treated to a total lunar eclipse, as the moon slides into the earth's shadow. Totality will last and last, from 8:25-9:45 p.m., turning the moon a dull reddish-gray color.

And on Dec. 7 and 8, we'll find an alignment of the moon, Jupiter, Mars and Venus. The planets will be fairly close in the sky, with the moon moving around amongst them.

JULY

The full moon in July is called the Hay Moon because it gives farmers extra light by which to bring in freshcut hay. It could also be called the Logan Pass Moon, since dozens of intrepid hikers, bikers and skiers take advantage of the light to hike, pedal or ski along Glacier National Park's Going-to-the-Sun Road.

This July, we'll have two chances at full-moon fun - on the second and the 31st. Which, of course, makes the moon's second appearance a "blue moon."

Astronomically, there's an easy explanation for two full moons in the same month: every year has 12 months and 12.333 full moons. So, on average, there are two full moons in the same month every 2.73 years.

Historically, it's also an easy lesson: When Julius Caesar created the Julian calendar in 46 B.C., he knew that each of his 12 months should have 29.5 days to correctly correspond to the lunar phases.

But the emperor believed some months should be longer, in honor of their namesakes - including himself. That's why there are 31 days in July, and this year two full moons.

AUGUST

The Nez Perce Indians named this month "Wa-Wa-Mai-Khal" in honor of chinook salmon, which migrate in August to the rivers' headwaters to spawn.

It is also "Ta-yum," or the time of midsummer heat. And that's why we suggest these outdoor pursuits during August: Dip your feet in a mountain stream. Camp alongside a glacier-fed lake. Listen for loons calling from the Clearwater Chain of Lakes. Watch the Perseid meteor shower, the grandest of the year, late at night on Aug. 12.

In western Montana, relief from the heat typically comes packaged as the August singularity, a sudden change in weather that comes around the 22nd. The air starts to smell like autumn not long thereafter and the first hint of yellow tints cottonwood trees in the river bottoms.

Change is coming, August says, and the promise is always kept.

SEPTEMBER

This fall, do a good deed for the many black bears and occasional grizzlies who live among us in western Montana. Quickly pick the apples from your trees, so as not to encourage bruin visits. The more time bears spend in our backyards, the more likely they are to develop habits that will get them killed.

In Missoula, the Great Bear Foundation will even pick your apples for you, in hopes of reducing human-bear troubles.

In fact, biologist Jamie Jonkel of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks hopes everyone who lives in bear country - and that includes most of us - will make these New Year's resolutions:

To bear proof all cabins, sheds and garages with sturdy shutters and doors.

To store pet and livestock food in a building or bear-proof container. And to do the same with garbage.

To eliminate all open dumps.

To educate all children about mountain lions, bears and other wildlife.

To never feed or use salt to attract deer, elk, bears or other wildlife.

OCTOBER

Hunters are thick this month, archers already, then comes pheasant hunting, then general big-game season. The Hunter's Moon is Oct. 27.

Migrants are common as well. Rough-legged hawks arrive in western Montana each October from the arctic, as do tens of thousands of snow geese and tundra swans. Take a trip to Freezeout Lake, on the Rocky Mountain Front near Fairfield, to see - and hear - the great congregation.

Look, too, for shorebirds: American avocets, black-necked stilts, killdeer, snipes and phalaropes, marbled godwits and whimbrels. Who doesn't like the sound of their names? Or their long, long legs and nearly-as-long bills?

There's almost always a surprise among the migrants. One October, a mockingbird was spotted in Missoula.

NOVEMBER

Finally, an explanation for all that excessive eating come Thanksgiving Day: we must be storing up for hibernation.

A long winter's nap sounds like a good idea this time of year. Darkness overwhelms the daylight. Cold wins out over warmth. Before long, you start to wonder: Where did everybody go?

This time of year, University of Montana professor Kerry Foresman devotes two weeks of class time to the study of hibernation. "Most people don't understand what animals are doing when they hibernate," he says. "They don't just fall asleep, then wake up in spring."

Hibernation is an animal's attempt to cut back on food at a time of year when there's not much available. Think of a year's supply of food as a box of cereal, says biologist James Halfpenny. During the summer and fall, we eat all the cereal. During the winter, we eat the box.

So say goodbye this month to marmots, ground squirrels, chipmunks, woodchucks, woolly bear caterpillars and painted turtles. And pass the cereal.

DECEMBER

Find your Christmas card in the wild this December: a female kingfisher posed on a river's-edge willow, snow dusting her spiked crown, feathers fluffed against the cold, rattling her holiday greeting.

Join your local Audubon Society chapter - Five Valleys Audubon in Missoula or Bitterroot Audubon in Hamilton and Stevensville - for their annual Christmas bird count.

You'll be sure to find a scene worthy of Hallmark: feather-ball chickadees playing tag in a hawthorne thicket, a goldfinch zipping past, a northern flicker - the woodpecker's cousin - flapping and coasting in mid-snow squall.

Come to the Christmas census and you'll be sure to end 2004 with another of nature's glorious surprises. One December, 6,000 red-winged blackbirds took flight over Mullan Road west of Missoula just as the Auduboners approached. Then came a raven without a tail - all wing and darkness. And finally, a courting pair of white-breasted nuthatches, climbing fuzzy-head-first down a tree trunk, looking for love - and insects.

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