Passing in a long cloud of wings
They’re headed down your way
They’ll be there in a couple of days
― Greg Brown, from his song Ella Mae
This is the time of year when we expect change. The leaves are changing, nights are longer and snow is creeping down the mountains.But if you’re a birder in the Madison Valley, this is a special season as thousands of migrating birds stop here as they make their way south.
On Ennis Lake, several thousands of waterfowl are taking a break in their southerly travels to feed in the shallow waters and build up their energy.
With a good pair of binoculars, you can see coots, Canada geese, ruddy ducks, redheads, scaup, mergansers, buffleheads, golden eyes, mallards, common loons, various kinds of grebes, widgeons and gadwalls. And that’s just at the lake.
If you looked closely in the trees and shrubs lining the Madison River south of Ennis Lake, you might see warblers, waxwings or finches.
All these birds are migrating. Some are moving south to warmer climates and will end up traveling as far as Central America. Some have migrated out of the surrounding high country to winter in the riparian habitats found in the valley bottoms.
It’s a unique congregation out there on the lake and it all could change with the next passing cold front, said Rick Northrup, game bird manager with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Some of the ducks, like the redheads and scaup, which are diving ducks, will stay ahead of the cold weather descending from the north.
“They’ll stick around until they’re some sense of weather change and then they’re on their way,” Northrup said.
Migrating waterfowl will actually begin a push south so as to make use of the cold north winds, he said. It helps them save energy and travel farther.
Other ducks, like mallards and golden eyes, will stick around even after it gets cold and the water begins to freeze.
Ennis Lake and the surrounding areas provide all these birds an important stop over point on their southern migration, said Amy Cilimburg with Montana Audubon.
“I know that people have been seeing an amazing concentration of birds on Ennis Lake,” Cilimburg said.Ennis Lake is one in a chain of several lakes that dot the landscape on the east side of the Rocky Mountains from the Canadian border south through Montana, she said.
“It’s a big open body of water and it’s in the right spot,” Cilimburg said.
Many birds will just migrate from one good feeding spot to the next on the way south, she said.
“If the feeding’s good they’re not in that big of hurry,” she said.
Ennis Lake and the riparian area south all the way to Varney Bridge is part of the Madison Valley Important Bird Area, as designated by the Audubon Society. It’s not only important for waterfowl, but songbirds and raptors as well.
Birds act much differently in the fall, than in the spring, Cilimburg said.
In the spring and early summer, people might be used to hearing lots of different songbirds along the river. But this time of year, they’re quieter and often migrate at night.
“When birds are migrating through, they feed and they leave and they’re quiet,” she said.
Some of the birds, both songbirds and waterfowl, will migrate at night. So you just wake up one morning and they’re gone.
Coots are like this, Northrup said.
People don’t think much about coots, but if you stop and watch them on the water, they’re an entertaining bird, often active in large groups – playing and fighting with each other.
But for some mysterious reason, they migrate at night, he said.
Some claim birds that migrate at night navigate by the stars, Northrup said.
Right now, coots are probably the most prolific waterfowl on Ennis Lake. One recent estimate pinned the number of coots on Ennis Lake at 45,000, Cilimburg said.
But it could be the next clear, starry night, they’ll look up and see their compass and be gone until next year.