By Paula Smith
The morning of Saturday, April 30 was cool and cloudy. Six birders met in Ronan for a morning of wildlife viewing on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Our trip leader, Janene Lichtenberg, Chair of the Wildlife and Fisheries Department at the Salish Kootenai College, was going to guide us in exploring some of the Mission Valley’s thousands of prairie potholes at the base of the spectacular Mission Mountain range.
Janene first led the group to the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge where we observed large numbers of water birds, including several Trumpeter Swans. We also observed Short-eared Owls flying over the surrounding prairie, as well as the emblem for Mission Valley conservation, a Long-billed Curlew.
Next we crossed US Highway 93 and explored the area surrounding Kicking Horse Reservoir. Here the term “potholes” took on another meaning! There were moments when we were skeptical that our car could emerge from the huge potholes in the roads. It was in this area that we noted that there were Cinnamon Teals in each and every prairie pothole. In the grassy areas between potholes masses of Blue Camas bloomed. A Common Loon, Eared and Western Grebes, Cormorants, Great Blue Heron, Black-necked Stilts, American Avocets, Northern Shovelers, Green-winged Teals, Ring-necked Ducks were among the many birds observed at Kicking Horse Reservoir.
Between the Kicking Horse Reservoir and Crow Creek to the north, Janene showed the group the last remaining unplowed original clump grass prairie in the valley, vegetated by rough fescue and Idaho fescue. This beautiful site is now protected by the tribes. We found larkspur, geum triflorum, lomation, cerastium, arrowleaf balsamroot, wild strawberry, and kittentails in bloom. Bear diggings attested that this area is frequented by many wild animals.
Our tour of Mission Valley potholes and prairies concluded with a discussion of the morning’s observations over soup and sandwiches for lunch at Stella’s in Ronan.