by Denny Olson

Owen Sowerwine

Our Local Outdoor Classroom

 A couple of days ago, I led a small group of three on a field trip to Owen Sowerwine, that roughly 442-acre parcel of State School Trust land located along the Stillwater and Flathead Rivers just east of Willow Glen near Kalispell. The trip emphasized the transitions that wildlife and plants undergo in the fall. The yellow leaves were wafting their way to the ground, and compared to the loud spring cacophony, bird song was infrequent and confined to the wintering-over few. I had low expectations about spotting birds, but I should have known better. 

Mixed flocks of Black-capped and Mountain Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos, Red-breasted Nuthatches and follow-up Downy Woodpeckers and Blue Jays moved busily through the woods in their disorganized buffet lines. The Chickadees gave their “3-dee” typical “Humans here. Ho hum” calls — announcing that we posed no culinary threat to them. Roasted Chickadee is not usually on our menu, and they know it.

Further on, the chatter became dead silence for a few minutes when a Sharp-shinned Hawk flew over. We looked at Great Horned Owl and Pileated Woodpecker nests from this spring, as I described how the fuzzy owl and scraggly woodpecker chicks can actually seem cute when they beg. Just then a Pileated flew to a dead snag above us, immediately followed by a tiny male Sharpie whose eyes were clearly bigger than his abilities. The woodpecker parried with him, sharp beak to small talon, until the Sharpie realized he was half its size and he was way over his head. End of drama.

It brought back memories of leaning against a tree in Owen Sowerwine and having a Pileated tail brush my hat as it landed, and the many times the woodpeckers have given a show to my field trip charges. With witnesses, we have watched single Merlins herding a thousand Bohemian Waxwings, waiting for the one that drops back just a little… I’ve watched nesting Goldeneyes with 8 chicks making a living on the large Owen Sowerwine slough, as well as mom Wood Ducks with smaller broods and male Hooded Mergansers bobbing and stretching their giant white crests for the girls. That led to thoughts of watching the power of the normally dry fossil channels transforming into raging Stillwater River Channels in late May and June, flushing the system and rearranging flora and fauna almost every year. 

In the spring and fall, Owen Sowerwine is a superhighway of migrating waterfowl on the river and songbirds in the trees — one hundred and fifty-six species so far. They travel the length of the great system of valleys called the Rocky Mountain trench, stretching from Southern Idaho to the Yukon. Its designation as an Audubon Important Bird Area is an understatement. When we understand that black cottonwood river bottom like Owen Sowerwine represents less than a single percent of the habitats of Montana (and most of that river bottom is developed or urban), it is hard to exaggerate its importance to natural systems in our State.

This wild area, a designated Important Bird Area by Montana Audubon, is an absolute treasure to have literally adjacent to the Kalispell city limits. Because of its convenient location, it has provided years of unparalleled educational opportunities for local students — ask any kid field trippers from the adjacent Montessori School, or middle schoolers from Evergreen, West Valley, Cayuse Prairie, or Fairmont Egan Schools all of whom have participated in Flathead Audubon’s Conservation/Education program over the last decade or so. Research says that kids get happier, healthier and smarter through these outdoor experiences in wild areas. Keanu, our newest International Baccalaureate Flathead High School apprentice, was along on the latest field trip. In this next year, he’ll be doing research and education projects on breeding birds, native plant restoration, invasive species, and impacts of deer browsing on cottonwood seedlings. And being multi-talented, he will hopefully complete some artwork destined for one of our Winter Birds of Prey Learning Kits.

Owen Sowerwine has been a giant wonderful outdoor classroom used by local residents, families, individuals, and Flathead Audubon’s Conservation/Education program for the last 40 years through various Flathead County, Flathead Audubon, and Montana Audubon’s agreements with DNRC. These agreements have helped keep this land open to public hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing, and individual uses as well as for conservation/educational purposes for all this time. Funds from these agreements have supported K-12 public schools of Montana. A new proposal by Flathead Land Trust to purchase a conservation easement on this School Trust parcel will insure it will continue to be available to the public much as it has been for the last 40 years (see companion article and Flathead Audubon website) and it would contribute significantly to K-12 common schools.

This could potentially be one of those “everybody wins” situations, with the biggest winner being the plants and animals that have called that river bottom “home” for thousands of years.