Bird Count Blues

A frigid day at Blacktail Mountain cross-country ski area

Tim Rains

Subject: Blacktail Mountain Cross-Country Ski Area

Let me set the scene: It’s January 15th, 2015. I turn 37. Every year on my birthday I perform an annual bird count. The last several years I have lived in cold (bitterly cold... Did I mention cold?) climates. The worst was Healy, Alaska, where I spent 15 minutes outside near the Nenana River at -45 degrees and counted one raven in the parking lot. Montana, I felt, might not fare any better. However, I headed out to Blacktail Mountain, with my camera, my skis, and my binoculars.

One mile in, the fog shrouds the trees in a frozen haunted embrace. I am skiing through a crystal, palatial wood. It would be enchanting. It should be enchanting, but it is cold. All I can hear is my teeth chattering echoed by what turned out to be one of three birds for the day, a black-backed woodpecker. I watch him chip away, while I chip away at my one small tangelo. If he is out here, I think, so can I be. I head up slope.

The fog breaks, and I am immediately surrounded by a vast chasm of white and blue. The wind blows through the tree, tinkling the ice like chimes and shaking sugar down from the sky. It is hot! I am sweating! Happy Birthday to me! There is nothing quite like the deep intensity of an alpine blue in winter. My energy is renewed, and I spot a yellow-crowned kinglet in a nearby tree. A great find, any day. However, lesson learned; this year I’m not taking any chances, by the time you are reading this. I will be sitting on a beach in Hawaii, with my binoculars, and my camera, and probably wearing flip-flops and a swimsuit.

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About This Blog

An explorer, wanderer, photographer-artist, Tim Rains is a national park ranger seeking out connection and community to Montana’s wild places.  Come, explore with him as he discovers why Montana's glacier country is considered "the last best place." Follow Tim on Instagram @rangerrains or view more of his work at

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