BONNERS FERRY — As the stifling heat and oppressive smoke of summer gives way to cooler air, the fall colors of the Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge come into focus with a crisp clarity. Like the changing of an outfit, the refuge is renewed and transformed. Each season brings a new version and a new adventure waiting to be explored.
The fawns that began in the spring, that frolicked and grew through the summer, now grow sleek and fat, with a thick coat of hair, watching the falling leaves and early snowflakes with wondrous eyes.
“It was interesting the other day, when I was coming in and we were first getting the snow, the white-tail deer were just running around and being really silly with the cooler weather,” said Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge Manager Dianna Ellis.
The wetlands have dried out significantly, and the cooler weather has set the rotation of migratory waterfowl into play. Many that nested and reared their young in the Refuge over the summer, have moved on to warmer climates, replaced in smaller numbers by those traveling from the far north.
“When we get these systems coming through,” explained Ellis about the recent snowfall and drop in temperature, “that is really what will push some of these birds to come down out of Canada and come through. There were still some Tundra Swans, and Tundra Swans only nest up on the tundra, so that is telling us that we have some movement way further north that is starting to come down through.”
Steve Jamsa, an accomplished wildlife photographer, well known for his emphasis on birds, said, “My favorite things of the refuge in the fall are the fall colors, also the waterfowl migration is happening and the swans and northern ducks arrive on their way south.”
The stunning white swans, with the majority being the Tundra Swan, and occasionally Trumpeter Swans as well, will be visible as they pass through this fall. The Trumpeter Swan is the heaviest living bird native to North America, with a wingspan that may exceed 10 feet, while the smaller Tundra Swan can be distinguished by its high pitched, often quavering, call.
For those seeking out the majestic white birds, Ellis advises, “There can be Trumpeters that come through, but the majority are the Tundra swans.”
Other waterfowl can still be seen. “A lot of people have been seeing Wigeons, we get American Wigeon that come through,” said Ellis. “I think there were a few Pintails that were seen. Still some Canada Geese and I think there is still some Coots around. I think there is some Green-winged Teals as well.”
The migrant waterfowl don’t follow a direct path, rather allowing the weather to dictate their route, leaving sightings in the Refuge unpredictable. “They are opportunists, so they are going to go where is there available food or open water, because the ducks and geese, they all will spend the night on water,” explained Ellis. “A lot of times, like later this month or next month, if there is still migrants coming through, even though our wetlands might be frozen up, they will spend the night on the river, then come into the Refuge to feed during the day, and they will be in the grain field.”
Even as the wetlands freeze up, if there are pockets of open water, the waterfowl will stay there. Their movement creates water circulation, keeping the water from freezing.
Don Bartling, an avid photographer and writer of the Bonners Ferry Herald weekly outdoor column, writes, “As the fall weather gets colder the ponds freeze and the once abundant Canada Geese, Mallards, Gadwalls, Northern Pintails, Green-winged Teal, American Coot, and Black-capped Chickadee, either migrate or look for food elsewhere. The Refuge in fall is a quieter place, many of the birds have left with their young to go to warmer milder climates for the winter.”
Fall has brought a bird of prey to join those that spend the winters in the Refuge, the Rough-legged Hawk, also known as the Rough-legged Buzzard. “They are kind of neat looking,” said Ellis.
The Rough-legged Hawk, is a medium-large bird of prey, found in the Arctic and Subarctic regions of North America during its breeding season, before migrating south for the winter. On the Refuge, they can often be seen in the overhanging branches along the S curves that snake through the open fields. “I will usually see one sitting right there,” said Ellis. “I think at any one time, we have had maybe ten to a dozen or so, hanging around in the Refuge.
Flocks of small white birds, who earned their nickname “snowflakes” due to the swirling motion the flock makes as it flies through the air before settling in winter fields, are Snow Buntings. They have been sighted and might be found by bird enthusiasts in the Refuge.
“They nest in the high arctic tundra and then you will start seeing them come through this time of year,” explained Ellis. “They will be in pretty big flocks.”
Friends of the Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge board member and wildlife photographer Annie Pflueger spends much of her time exploring and recording the Refuge through her photography. “Generally my favorite thing about fall is moose, the whitetail bucks looking for love, and of course the fall colors, especially on Myrtle Creek,” she said.
Moose sightings have been scarce recently, but there has been a bull and a cow spotted by a hunter in the Refuge, as well as a spotting along Westside Road, close to the Cascade Pond Overlook. For those patient and persistent enough, a moose sighting is often the ultimate reward.
“The photo ops on the tour route are great as the deer and moose are on the move, you may catch a herd of elk out in the fields also, and don’t forget the Bald Eagles,” said Jamsa.
The Bald Eagles are beginning to be spotted in pairs, most often along the Kootenai River and Riverside Road, on the way to the Refuge. “This time of the year, they start doing some nest building,” Ellis explained. “They keep returning to the same nest, so they do what we call ‘housekeeping’, adding sticks to it, and so they are renewing their bond because they will mate for life, like geese and swans mate for life.”
Love is in the fall air for the deer, elk, and moose, as well, as fall is the heart of the rutting season.
“It is the daylight hours that stimulate the rutting season and then that’s when, for the bull moose, the bull elk, the whitetail bucks, that’s when their hormones will change, their necks will swell, they start marking their territory,” said Ellis.
Visitors to the Refuge may observe the males rubbing the velvet from their antlers, pawing the ground and urinating to mark their territory, or sparring or fighting with one another. They tend to be more active and less cautious than usual, making sightings more prevalent. This can also be a problem for drivers, so it is best to exercise caution when driving this time of year.
Bartling enjoys his visits during the fall to the Refuge, watching wildlife, birding and photography, walking his dog or just taking a leisurely drive. “The plants and flowers have faded, but for a few short weeks autumn brightens with its own beautiful color as the leaves turn from green to gold, orange, and red,” he writes. “When the leaves fall from the trees, winter begins in earnest.”
While snow has come early this year, it has not hidden the brilliant fall colors gracing the trees, nor has it interfered with the natural progression of the wildlife, as they transition from summer to winter. Fall brings its own distinctive flavor to the Refuge, and there is still time to get out and enjoy the unique intricacies of the season.
For information about joining the Friends of the Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge there is a meeting at noon on Tuesday, Nov. 14, in the Ed Barn at Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge.