What to do? Because of the wildfires in Washington, Oregon, and northwest Montana, the smoke hangs in the air like a hazy veil with air quality warnings made visible by fine ash wafting across the landscape. It is 42° with a slight breeze, conditions that make the air quality a bit better first thing in the morning. So grab your jacket and let’s head out the front door for a walk to 12-acre Cattail Lake to see the wilds of Bozeman at sunrise.
The sun is orange refracting through all the particles in the air, but at least today we can see the Bridger mountain range that graces northern Bozeman. By noon the smoke will envelop the landscape and the mountains will disappear from view. So let’s enjoy while we can.
Our walk winds along Cattail Creek which still flows even in our drought situation. Since there are many cattails in and along the creek, its small ponds, and the lake, its name was an obvious choice. It has been an unusually long summer season as well as hotter and drier than usual. This has pushed the plants and flowers two to three weeks ahead of the usual growing season. That means today we have full-blown autumn with some remains of summer, and birds and animals beginning preparation for winter.
As the trail curves around a small pond, we see male mallards, called drakes, in their eclipse plumage. Those with the blue wing feathers are males, but they lose their breeding colors, looking like the females, for about a month as they grow new feathers. During this time they cannot fly making them vulnerable to predators. Most all ducks do NOT quack, but mallards quack profusely and loudly.
Wait a minute, I just turned around for one more glimpse of the ducks and there’s a totally unusual sight–a hot air balloon. This is something we never see in Bozeman, and here they are, so low in the sky. The smoke is getting worse. We can hardly see the Gallatin Mountains that sit southeast of town. Can you see them?
We make our last crossing over Cattail Creek. We’ll soon be at lake’s edge. The fading flowers and grasses tell us autumn has begun–in August. We also have many bushes already filled with their fall berries, but luckily the bears to not come to town to feast on them in preparation for hibernation.
We also find one of our in-town predators lurking in the grass.
Here’s why. All around the lake blackbirds are filling the willows. They are gathering to leave for the season not to be seen until spring when they return to nest in the marshes along the creek and lake. Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds are mingling.
Oops! All these birds are really attracting the raptors in the sky (today a Swainson’s Hawk) and predators on the ground. They better keep a good lookout. Safety in numbers seems to be the rule this morning.
We have different kinds of ducks on the lake all donning their fall colors. Here’s a Ruddy Duck. We only see them here as they migrate in the spring and fall. These small stiff-tailed ducks dive for their meals. During the breeding season the males are vivid, swimming with their tails straight up in the air sporting their large baby-blue bills, black cap with white cheeks, and ruddy (reddish) body. They don’t like to mix with other ducks but seem to get along quite well with American Coots.
There are two Coots now. They will also be leaving us soon.
We have thistles spreading their seeds and the Common Sunflowers refusing to give in to colder nights brightening our trail.
The sunflowers are releasing their seeds for next spring’s generation of blooms. See them pushing out from the center button?
Others are fading away but not without a different kind of beauty to display.
The muskrats that live in the lake’s banks are collecting materials for their winter dens.
Muskrats are actually the largest member of the mouse family, most closely related to voles. The muskrat dives with ease. It can submerge for as long as 15 minutes allowing it to swim the length of a football field before surfacing. Not all muskrats live in the banks of ponds and lakes, but Cattail muskrats do. Their burrows are 15 to 50 feet long with underwater entrances. This lake completely freezes over in winter, but come spring thaw, you will see muskrats strolling the lake’s edge stretching their legs and enjoying the sun.
The House Finch brightens up the fading willows, and a Yellow-headed Blackbird has broken ranks to pose for us.
Our last bridge over the outlet stream that continues north. Because the Continental Divide twists and turns through western Montana, we have many creeks, streams, and rivers that run south to north. Being an Easterner most of my life, it was hard to get used to seeing water flow the “wrong” way.
Some of the thistles display new flowers, fading flowers, seed heads, and individual seeds ready for the next wind to carry them to their new home. The whole life cycle in one small space. Most of the thistles we see are invasive species like this Bull Thistle.
The Spotted Tussock Moth is in its winter survival mode. Also called a Yellow-spotted Tiger, this moth will remain a caterpillar through the winter to emerge as a yellow moth with brown wing bands next May. Look, there are lots more in these thicker willows.
As we round the bend toward home, we are greeted by two mallards happily ignoring us and searching for breakfast.
One more stretch of trail graced with sunflowers . . .
. . . and the sun higher over the mountains reflecting in the north corner of Cattail Lake.
Wild is a little tamer close to home, but always fun to explore. We’ll be out further from home when the smoke clears enough to get our air quality to healthy. Why don’t you check out your own bit of wild close to your home. You never know what surprises are in store for you. I’ll see you next time, as the smoke clears . . .