A Silent Hunter

by Laura Thomas

A large, grey-blue bird is a silent hunter as it moves through the reeds. It can become  a statue when it stands with neck stretched out, hunting on the banks of the water’s edge. This elusive bird is as shy as it is quiet; in fact you may only see it after it has taken flight. Its huge wings, five foot in length and large body with its long legs trailing out behind it, make it seem as if you’re seeing a pre-historic bird, but in reality you are seeing a Blue Heron.

 My husband and I enjoy going out to Murphy Lake, near our home, for we never know what we will see there. On this particular day, as we were sitting near the water’s edge, with a camera in hand. My husband leaned over and whispered to me, “Look, Honey, a heron is in the cattails. Do you see it?”  “Ooh yes”, I said. And at first all we could see was the beck of the heron as it slowly, silently moved through the cattails. Then its head came into view. It saw us and stopped, watching for any danger, ever vigilant. The heron was watching us as closely as we were watching it. I could hear the camera shutter clicking busily as my husband took pictures. Then suddenly the heron was out in the open and it raised both of its wings as it readied for flight. I was spellbound as I watched this magnificent bird take flight. “Did you get that picture?” I ask. “Yes, I believe I did”, my husband said, as he took one last picture of the heron as it flew away.

We decided to come back the next day, wondering if we’d be so lucky as to see the Heron again.  Our second trip was not a disappointment. We found the heron already hunting, standing on the bank. This time the heron wasn’t as shy, as it seemed to know we meant it no harm. We watched as this magnificent bird, slowly, almost impperceptively, stretched its long graceful neck, out over the water. And then it froze, in place like a statue waiting for a fish to come close. The bird stood for some time, in this position just waiting for its breakfast, but with no luck. The heron then decided to wade out into the water, to see if the hunting would be any better. We watched this heron, realizing we were seeing something not often witnessed. When the heron finally left, we also left our observation spot and I decided I wanted to know more about these birds.  Here’s what I found:

Blue Herons have a subtle blue grey plumage. They are a tall elegant bird, standing 3.5 to 4.5 feet tall, with a wing span of 5.5 to 6.5 feet, but despite their large size they only weigh between 5 and 6 pounds. They have long curving necks and long dark legs. In flight they fold their neck back over their shoulders, thereby allowing the five foot plus wings to take deep, lazy beats, with their legs straight out behind them. The heron is found foraging along rivers, lakes and marshes, and sometimes will be seen in fields and wet meadows. They build their nests in trees, ranging from flimsy to elaborate, and add to their nests every year, which can be up to four feet in diameter. Both sexes are similar in color, except at breeding season when the male’s colors are more vibrant and plumes of feathers streak from his crown and his throat. A pair in turn will incubate eggs for about 28 days and each care for the young for up to 60 days.  These great birds are common throughout the U.S. Rocky Mountains. It was a pleasure to be able to observe this great bid in action and to watch it in its environment as it was hunting. An experience we will remember for a long time.

A Lake Adventure

by Laura Thomas

Murphy Lake, Fortine, Montana – photo by Laura Thomas


My life has opened a new chapter. All my life i have loved the outdoors and all the creatures that inhabit the wild places; yet I had never had the opportunity to learn about or experience those things, until now, ad my heart has been overjoyed by the experiences, let me explain.

There are many adventures one can be on, and putting a camera in my hands has proven to be not only fun but rewarding as well. And has given me a good excuse to be outside, no matter the weather, good, bad, or beautiful. It’s all part of the discovery of the world that surrounds me.  And going to “Our Lake” as I call it, has proven to be an experience of seeing, and hearing things not experienced before.

Our first trip to our lake was early spring, on a rainy, chilly day. The snows and ice of winter still clung to the landscape, letting us know that we were one of the early arrivals to the lake. The ice that covered the face of the waters was receding, and there was open water along the edges of the lake. As we stood there watching, I saw something dark swimming in the water. At first I thought, beavers, but when the animals came up on the ice, it was very clear we were not seeing beavers. We were seeing otter, two of them. Watching I was mesmerized, the otters frisked about on the ice as if showing off. Then suddenly they dived into the open waters, gone from view. I was fairly shaking with excitement. “Did I just see what I thought I saw?” I asked my love, “Yes” he assures me. And while I have seen pictures of otters, it was my first time to witness them in the wild. What an experience.

On a return trip to Our Lake, the day was cloudy and the wind was blowing hard across the waters, making it chilly. And once again, no other people save us were there. We hear something, listen. Calls ring out from across the lake and while hidden from our view, the calls are distinctly Canadian geese. The calls we were hearing were of their early spring courtship rituals and of establishing territories in which their young will soon arrive. The geese come out into view, honking and splashing in the water as the male chases off rivals. The pair are swimming with each other in unison, when suddenly they lift themselves from the waters to the sky, as one. “It’s beautiful”, I say as I catch my breath at the sight of the pair as they fly over my head. “A sight not often witnessed”, says my love, as we stand side by side, holding hands.

Our Lake again calls us to come for a visit and we are eager to go. This is our third trip in as many days and once again we find the parking lot free of other cars. I’m sure it’s because it’s raining, for many people don’t want to be out in the rain and be miserable. Yet, I find the rain adds to the atmosphere at the lake. Today we take a walk around the bend, following the trail along the lake. We find a spot to set up the camera and tripod along the shore, where we have a good view of the activities on the water. There ducks swimming, knowing its both male and females, though we can’t identify them then, we find out they are hooded mergansers. The male is in his full regalia for spring courting. He has a brown, tan colored body, black head with a white hood; he stands out beautiful, against the dark waters. As we were watching these ducks there are two large dark forms swimming towards our vantage point. “Oh, honey, look, they are the loons, the first pair of the season.” Loons are elusive creatures preferring to keep away from others and humans, so to see the pair, well what a sight to behold. They black with white strips and white spots on their body, they glide through the water with ease. And while we didn’t get to hear their call, it is a wild, wolf like call that is haunting to hear. As we walk away from the lake, a realization sets in. I have come away from the lake with new found experiences of seeing sights and hearing sounds not experienced before. I also realize I want more of this.

River Walk

by Laura Thomas

As spring advances, the temperatures are finally coming up. The snows are melting as the sun warms the earth, and it makes one feel like it’s time to be out of doors and enjoy the day. We decide it’s time to go for a walk to enjoy the sunshine, the fresh smells on the crisp winds that are still present this early in the year. The walk we choose to go on was following the Tobacco River.

As we walk along, the sounds of spring are all around. The birds that have returned are adding their voice of gladness to the day. The river is also talking, now that the grip of ice is gone from it. We move along the trail, looking for a way down to the river banks, “There is one”, says my love. At the bottom of the path we find a small tributary of the river that is off the main waterway and looking closer, we could see the telltale signs of beaver and muskrats.  Suddenly, two Canadian geese fly up in front of us. I think they were as surprised to see us as we were them. “Hey that’s what a camera is for,” my love teases me. “Oh right”, I say as I and try to get a picture only to discover the battery is dead.  We both laugh and I say, “Better bring an extra battery next time”.

We follow this small tributary, and then come out to the main river. “There, look,” my love says and points down the way, “There are the geese we scared, along with some ducks swimming on the river.”  We stand there quietly on the bank, for some time, taking in all the sounds. The river’s flow is faster here and a sound arises as it moves to its destination. The birds chime in, and with the wind moving the trees, it makes for a beautiful melody. The wind also brushes against our cheeks, flushing them pink from its chill as the sun warms our backs. “Oh did you hear that?” says my love as we look at each other.  An owl hoots.  “Yes”, I say excitedly, “There it is again, we must be near its nest”. We start back towards the main trail as the owl hoots several more times. This is a special treat, to hear the owl, on an already wonderful outing.

Look Down the Tobacco River

June Book News

 Book launch! So exciting, I’m babbling. AS THE CHRISTMAS COOKIE CRUMBLES, my fifth Food Lovers’ Village Mystery, will launch June 8 in trade paperback, e-book, and audio! (Read an excerpt and find the order links on my website.) I’ll be celebrating in towns large and small — Seattle, Augusta, Billings, and Bozeman. (Details on my website, under News and Events.)

And I hope you’ll join me for cookies and more at the Christmas in June book launch party at the Bigfork Art and Cultural Center, from 4-6 on Saturday, June 9. I’ll talk about the book, how it came to be, and other mysteries (grin!), and sign books. The art center’s “Year of the Bird” exhibit will be on display, and all my books will be available. I hope to see you there — or somewhere else along the road!

Happy reading!

Natural Observers: Susan Fenimore Cooper, Mary Hunter Austin, and Nan Shepherd

By Karen Wills

Nature writing reaches my heart. It does that through poetic, detailed description of an outdoor setting. In the last months I’ve read three wonderful books by women nature writers. Let’s consider them from earliest to most recent.

Susan Fenimore Cooper, James Fenimore Cooper’s daughter, founded an orphanage in Cooperstown, New York, a town established by her grandfather. She made a success of the enterprise in every way. In 1887 she also wrote Rural Hours, nature writing that covered a year in Cooperstown season by season. Much of it appeared as journal entries recorded after walks that ranged over the countryside. Both writer and artist, she also made watercolors of birds, flowers, animals, and the lake near the town that drew her to its shores over and over. Her writing was accurate and poetic.  “Spring has a delicate pencil; no single tree, shrub, plant, or weed, is left untouched by her, but Autumn delights rather in the breadth and grandeur of her labors, she is careless of details. Spring works lovingly-Autumn, proudly, magnificently.”

Already sorry for the damage caused by the post Civil War increase in America’s population, she also conveyed a warning familiar to modern conservationists. “The rapid consumption of the large pine timber among us should be enough to teach a lesson of prudence and economy on the subject.”

Mary Hunter Austin wrote a collection of nature essays, The Land of Little Rain, in 1903. mary austinShe focused on the Mojave Desert including Death Valley. She considered Nature as an entity with a beneficial connection to Native peoples and recent arrivals alike. She mixed small matters of opinion in with the big themes.  “This is the gilia the children call ‘evening snow’ and it is no use trying to improve on children’s names for wildflowers.” She is poetic. “The origin of mountain streams is like the origin of tears, patent to the understanding but mysterious to the sense.”

Finally, there’s Nan Shepherd who wrote her best-known work, The Living Mountain, with a mountaineer’s authenticity. Her setting is the Cairngorm Mountains of Northern Scotland. Writing in 1944, she shared her belief in nature’s grand unity. “The disintegrating rock, the nurturing rain, the quickening sun, the seed, the root, the bird—all are one.”

Each of these writers had a poetic respect and thorough knowledge of her most favored area of the natural world. We are the richer that each shared her love of nature with us.


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