The hazy, hot days of summer have slowed the animal activity sightings at the Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge, but that has not stopped the tourists, who have been coming from every corner of the country, as evidenced by the overflowing guest book at the Refuge center.
The wildlife sightings may have slowed, but they are still here, just a little harder to find. Early mornings and evenings, when the air is cooler, is the best time to venture out on the refuge with camera, binoculars, or just a sense of adventure. The key, this time of year, is patience.
While many people drive quickly through the Refuge, looking for the large mammals — moose, elk, bear — they miss the hidden gems. Stop. Pull over in a safe area and listen, watch, let the refuge reveal its hidden secrets, from Great Blue Herons to beavers, songbirds to fawns.
“I go to the refuge to see the progression of the animals and the land,” said photographer Sue Wilson. “I am always hoping to see wildlife and I rarely go through without seeing something. I have my camera with me 99 percent of the time, just in case. But I head out there without an agenda, as wildlife does not keep a schedule.”
As the season moves forward, the refuge is getting ready to say farewell to the three hummingbird species, the Rufus, Black-chinned, and the Calliope, as they begin their migration. Although they are still zipping around, the numbers are beginning to decrease. For those wanting to view them, there are several feeders located around the Refuge center.
Yellow-headed blackbirds are beginning to congregate in large flocks, the males a sea of bright bumblebee-like colors. Like synchronized swimmers, these enormous flocks seem to pour fluidly from one tree to the next, or across the open fields and wetlands.
“They have such a unique call,” said Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge Manager Dianna Ellis about the bird’s song that is often referred to as sounding like the grating of a rusty hinge.
The Canada Goose goslings have been growing up in the refuge through the summer, feeding heartily. They can be spotted practicing their flying skills. “They are in their family groups,” said Ellis, “as they fly from one wetland to another.”
A hike along Deep Creek may reveal treasures not seen on the tour road. “The river otter pups play in Deep Creek, swimming around the mother, diving deep and surfacing, showing their head and looking for mother and their siblings then disappearing in a splash,” writes Bonners Ferry Herald Outdoor columnist Don Bartling.
The refuge is undergoing some transformations this summer. They are in the process of a drawdown of Dave’s Lake, located in the northwest corner of the refuge, so they can replace the aging water control structure.
No action taken in the wildlife refuge comes without a consequence. “What we do is we draw down the water and let the soil dry out,” said Ellis. “When the soil dries out — in that process — you have the mucky soils, and that attracts a lot of birds, especially the blue herons.”
The birds, including the shorebirds which will be arriving soon, congregate to feast on the bugs and tubers that are exposed as the water recedes. It also allows some of the plant material to decay, providing nutrients that will rejuvenates the plant life.
New hunt blinds also dot the refuge landscape this summer, built by the Youth Conservation Corps, consisting of four high school students, in conjunction with other volunteers and KNWR employee Wayne Wilkerson.
“They are big, heavy duty structures with moveable benches inside,” explained Ellis. “With the outside, what Wayne does is he piles dirt and then the crew puts slash all around it so they look like beaver lodges, so it really helps to camouflage the hunters. They are nice, high and dry, not in the water.”
They have three waterfowl hunt blinds, as well as a deer hunt blind, that provide easier access for hunters with disabilities or hunters that may have a hard time walking any distance.
For now, the white-tailed deer are star actors on the wildlife stage for visitors to enjoy, not hunt. They appear in herds, enjoying the white flowering buckwheat that is planted by the Refuge. “The buckwheat is something that we have been planting,” said Ellis. “We are doing it to provide more flowers. It comes up really quick and also provides a lot of flowers for pollinators.”
Among the large-eyes does and fawns, young bucks feed and occasionally approach a doe, although rutting season is still some time away. Bachelor herds of majestic stags wear their growing antlers like crowns. When rutting season nears, they will break apart and set up their territories. For now, though, they graze side by side, offering viewers a rare sight of so many bucks in close proximately.
“Antlers are actively growing bone,” explained Ellis, “so with the change in daylight hours, it stimulates their hormones to change, so then they will start rubbing the velvet off, which is actually little fine hairs.”
Bartling writes, “The warm season is the time on the refuge when young wildlife is transitioning toward adulthood. They have become more mobile and independent since the first few weeks of their life in the spring.”
With rutting season still in the future, the time now is for the youth of the refuge. “At this time of year the refuge is teaming with wildlife; single and twin fawns chasing each other and dancing around their mother, goslings learning to fly unsteady in their landing, calf elk following its’ mother through Myrtle Creek onto the west bank, a calf moose being coaxed by the mother into the refuge forest for protection. Everywhere in the trees and bushes young birds are celebrating their voices and flapping their wings in the dawn of their life experiences,” Bartling writes.
However, the previous seasons may have taken their toll on the youth of the refuge. Where twin fawns are quite common, this summer has seen very few sets of twins. Ellis speculates that it could be due to the difficult winter, with it’s deep snows, that may have impacted the birth rates.
The Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge may appear quiet to those in a hurry to find the large reward, the moose, the elk, the bear; but to those who are willing to slow down, to enjoy the small miracles happening all around, the refuge is teaming with life, showcasing new generations just beginning their adventures.