The long walk to count the Christmas chickadees

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So a couple of weeks ago I did a route for the Christmas Bird Count in Glacier National Park, which is to say I hiked to Avalanche Creek up the Going-to-the-Sun Road from Lake McDonald Lodge and then back down the McDonald Valley Trail back to the lodge.

I can sum up the journey in one sentence: Itís a long walk to hear a chickadee (notice I didnít say see a chickadee, because I never did get a good look at them. They were waaaayy up in the trees).

Still, they were my favorite species of chickadees to both hear and see, as they were chestnut-backed chickadees. Chestnut-backed chickadees sound like a black-capped chickadee with a cold. As their name belies, they have chestnut-colored backs and are slightly smaller than their black-capped cousins. Theyíre usually found in the big old woods around Avalanche Creek.

You have to admire chickadees. Theyíre one of the toughest birds in the woods, active in all sorts of nasty weather and singing to beat the band no matter of it.

The hike itself is a bit of a slog, so much so that even the boy didnít want to go and went back to bed. Iíve done the journey a variety of ways over the years in all sorts of weather, the worst being rain, of course.

The best trip was a ski on decent snow, greeted by a small flock of pine grosbeaks feeding on snowberries along the creek. Pine grosbeaks are a favorite winter bird.

This year, with the lack of snow, it was a hike all the way. The last human tracks ended just past Moose Country, a place that got its name from the moose that hung out there years ago. I think Iíve seen one moose myself in the past 20 years. Beyond Moose Country the snow was a bit deeper and fresh.

The birds were pretty quiet, though I did briefly see a black-backed woodpecker. It peeked around a trunk, scolded me and took off. Trees that looked like they might make it post Sprague Fire virtually all died over the droughty summer we had. The fire line is clear as day from the McDonald Trail.

The fire was bad news for old growth but is good news for the black-backed, which feeds on beetle larvae in the dead trees. Outside of burned forests, black-backs are fairly rare.

Other than that, I didnít see but two people the whole trip. Itís nice to view Avalanche Gorge in the quiet of winter, with no one around but the American dippers singing along the shore.

Makes the walk worth it, for sure.

Chris Peterson is the editor of the Hungry Horse News.

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