Wondrous ways to experience a season of change

Story & photography by Kay Bjork
Just when the landscape is drained of color and the skies are smudged by smoke, the air clears and leaves burst into flames of color, heralding the glorious fall season.

Autumn could be considered the drama queen of seasons with its flashy colors, extreme temperature changes, swirls and blankets of ethereal fog, delicate frost formations and wildlife’s frenetic mating, migrating and preparation for hibernating.

This is a favorite time for many, and with it come a wide variety of activities that are unique to fall. Get out and experience the season that was once called harvest but is also a time for fun. Take a hike or take a drive. Look past the color and observe the changes in wildlife and the magic of shifting weather. Hunt with a bow or a gun, or simply go hunting with your camera. Be flexible and ready for big weather fluctuations. It might feel like summer one day, followed by a shocking winter preview when you awake to a foot of snowfall. Here are a few activities and features to fill the wildly varying and exhilarating days of autumn.

Wild Horse Island

Fall is a great time to visit Wild Horse Island on Flathead Lake for solitude and, if you are lucky, a sheep show as rambunctious rams compete for ewes with head-butting battles. Hop on a trail and take time to stop and listen, because the crack of bighorn sheep heads smacking together at speeds of 20 miles per hour can be heard more than a mile away. These contests between rams may go on for 24 hours, enough to make you wonder about the victor’s actual success when the battle is over. “Sorry, honey, I have a headache.”

Bighorn sheep mating season spans the months of November and December, and lambs are born five to six months later. Ewes and lambs normally live in herds of five to 15, but in the winter they band together in groups of as many 100, so you might notice large clusters of ewes and young sheep in the fall. Rams roam in smaller groups of two to five.

There is plenty to explore on the 2,160-acre island, which also has 56 private cabins on portions of the shoreline. There is a variety of other wildlife, including mule deer with impressive antlers, soaring eagles and falcons, and waterfowl bobbing near the shore. There are also five wild horses that are pretty as a picture when grazing in the Palouse prairie grasslands.

The state park is operated as a primitive, day-use-only area reached by boat. Boats can be rented at private marinas in Bigfork, Big Arm and Polson, and there are six public landing sites at the island, but no public docks. Visit www.stateparks.mt.gov/wild-horse-island to obtain a map.

Please note that you should not approach or disturb wildlife, including the wild horses. Bring a pair of binoculars for a safe and respectful way to get closer. To protect wildlife viewing, dogs are not permitted on the island.

Interesting Tidbit: The origin of the island’s name lies in a legend that for centuries the local Native Americans used the island to pasture their horses to prevent them from being stolen by other tribes.

A high point on Wild Horse Island offers great views of Flathead Lake and the chance to spot wildlife.

National Bison Range

Plan a trip to the Mission Valley in September for a road tour through the National Bison Range on the scenic Red Sleep Mountain Drive before it closes for the winter, typically in early October. Change is in the air as cottonwood trees turn golden and the jagged Mission Mountain tops are frosted with snow. Migrating birds leave as wintering birds arrive, while elk begin mating rituals in September, marked by the bull’s bugling to attract females and ward off competition. Increase your chances of catching this show in early morning or late in the day, especially along Mission Creek. Deer courtship occurs a little later, in October and November. Take a walk on the one-mile nature trail that loops through Mission Creek at the day-use area, or jump onto one of the short trails located along Red Sleep Mountain Drive.

Bison mating season begins in July and can continue into September, offering a chance to witness the awe-inspiring growling, snorting, stomping and butting behavior of bulls competing for dominance.

The annual Bison Roundup occurs on Oct. 2-3, with viewing available at marked areas along catwalks and fence lines. The entire herd is gathered to administer vaccinations and conduct other tests to determine any additional necessary health care. Bison are also culled at this time, to be sold or donated to thin the herd. Stop at the Visitor Center, where there are exhibits, a video and knowledgeable staff to answer questions and offer current information about the Bison Range.

Interesting Tidbit: The National Bison Range was established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt when he directed Congress to establish a permanent national bison range. University of Montana professor Morton Elrod was commissioned by the American Bison Society (ABS) to search for a suitable location for the bison range.

Gulls take flight.

Bird Migration

Don’t forget to look up to catch the spectacular sight of flocks migrating south each fall. The fascinating V-formations of Canada geese and other migratory species are attributed to the birds’ efforts to conserve energy by taking advantage of the upwash created by the wings of the birds up front. Other scientific studies show that it is to help orientation and communication between the birds. Also watch for the beautiful dance of the European starling known as murmuration, as hundreds and even thousands of birds flow in rhythm.

To increase your chances of observing a variety of birds, visit one of the Audubon’s designated Important Bird Areas (IBA), established to identify and protect areas critical to bird conservation. Flathead drainage IBAs are located in Glacier National Park, Owen Sowerwine Natural Area and along the north shore of Flathead Lake. In the fall, tens of thousands of Central and Pacific migratory birds, including the Northern pintail, American widgeon, tundra swan and Canada goose, stop along the north shore of Flathead Lake to refuel for the migration south. There are overwintering areas offshore for up to 2,000 diving ducks, including redhead, canvasback, greater and lesser scaup, and tundra and trumpeter swans. It is also a major staging and roosting area for up to 5,000 gulls a day during both spring and fall migration.

Lone Pine State Park offers an opportunity to learn more about raptors during the Birds of Prey Festival with presentations, educational booths, bird displays and guided bird hikes. The event is held from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sept 16.

The Jewel Basin Hawk Watch, a cooperative project of the Flathead Audubon Society and Region 1 of the U.S. Forest Service, monitors autumn raptor migration at a site near Mount Aeneas in September and October. Check the Hawk Watch site for daily entries. If you hike in this area during this time, you are encouraged to contribute to the observation process.

Among the birds that hang around for winter are the bald eagle, magpie, black-capped chickadee, northern flicker, and the downy and hairy woodpeckers. Rough-legged hawks and northern shrikes return from their northern breeding areas in November and December.

Chair of Montana Audubon’s Bird Records Committee, Dan Casey, says the Mission Valley, which holds one of the highest densities of rough-legged hawks in the Western U.S, is one of the best places to see winter raptors. He also witnessed an amazing migration of snowy owls from Canada in the winter of 2005-2006. On your trip to the Bison Range, be sure and stop at the Pablo and Ninepipes National Wildlife Refuges, where you can see a variety of water birds that could include trumpeter swans.

For more details about bird habitat and seasons, as well as birding hotspots, visit the Montana Audubon Society website: www.mtaudubon.org/birding/birding-montana.

Bird Watching Tips

• Dress for variable weather conditions
• Bears can also frequent these areas, so carrying bear spray is recommended
• Leave pets at home
• Wear muted colors (including hats) because birds can detect and are distracted by bright colors
• Minimize movement and watch quietly
• Turn off your flash when taking photos because it can frighten the birds

Interesting Tidbit: Birds may fly from 15 to 500 miles or more, per day, during migration, depending on timing, destination and conditions along the route. Availability of food, water and shelter determines where they stop.

Hunting

Autumn is the most exciting time of the year for outdoor enthusiasts who hunt. The early alarm before there is a hint of light, followed by a steamy cup of coffee. The drive through shrouds of fog, a trek through a dark forest to a tree stand or knoll, and then the wait (and the hope that the “right” animal will appear). And, of course, the thrill of actually making the clean shot, which is often followed by the hard work of hauling the animal to the truck and eventually into the freezer, because even though some live to hunt, a few hunt to live.

A misty morning walk and bird hunt in the Swan Mountains.

Here is a summary of the general hunting season. Check for updates and additional information regarding archery and shoulder season hunting at the FWP Region 1 office on 490 N. Meridian Road in Kalispell or online.

Hunting Season Dates

Big game general season for deer, elk and mountain lion: Oct. 21 through Nov. 26
Two-day youth hunt for deer only: Oct. 19 and 20
Fall black bear hunt, moose, mountain goat and bighorn sheep: Sept. 15 through Nov. 26
Upland game birds — grouse, partridge and turkey: Sept. 1 through Jan. 1
Pheasant: Oct. 7 through Jan. 1

Interesting Tidbit: If you have surplus meat, consider donating to local food banks. The North Valley Food Bank even has a “meat crew” who will do the processing.

Fall Colors

A drive or a hike is a great way to view the spectacular fall color show, starring fiery fireweed splashed across mountainsides, yellow larch trees rising like torches amidst green evergreens, aspen leaves fluttering like golden coins, mountain ash bushes laden with orange berries, and corridors of red huckleberry shrubs lining trails.

The trail to Birch Lake in the Jewel Basin Hiking Area is splashed with bright fall colors.

Take a drive to Marias Pass for a couple of ideal autumn hiking options. Hike to Elkcalf Mountain on the east side of Highway 200, where you will find ruby huckleberry shrubs in stark, striking contrast to the gray snags and rocky terrain left by a fire that swept the area in 2007. The Firebrand Pass trail leads through groves of yellow aspen and across open slopes splashed with colorful foliage. Take a drive through East Glacier where the yellow aspen possess a storybook charm with their twisting, curling trunks.

Go down the Swan to witness the larches lighting up the valley in October. Sub-alpine larches turn on in September. Take a hike into less-traveled areas in the Mission Mountain Wilderness, on a trail in the Swan Range or up north in the Whitefish Range to catch the larch show.

Jewel Basin, known for its wildflowers, is just as stunning in the fall as a patchwork of color illuminates the slopes above and below the trail and along the shorelines of the many glimmering lakes that spatter the Jewel Basin.

Interesting Tidbit: Unlike other conifers, larch trees lose their needles in the fall.

Weather Wonders

From warm, sunny days toflurries of snow and sub-zero temperatures, autumn features wide weather variations, as revealed by the record lows and highs found on the Intellicast records as shown below:

September – Kalispell
Average high: 69 degrees
Average low: 37 degrees
Record high: 99 degrees (1967)
Record low: 7 degrees (1926)
October – Kalispell
Average high: 55 degrees
Average low: 28 degrees
Record high: 86 degrees (1992)
Record low: -4 degrees (1935)

Interesting Tidbit: Kalispell’s September record high and low temperatures were 92 degrees apart.