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Blane Klemek column: First encounter with mountain resident

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outdoors Bemidji, 56619
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One of the simple pleasures of hunting in the mountains is choosing the perfect place in which to eat and rest. The satisfaction I gain from breathtaking mountain vistas is always worth the extra effort or time it might take to find or reach such places.

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After a long climb one morning from the sagebrush valley floor where Franz Creek meanders lazily through, I found a quaint grassy glade on relatively flat ground. The clearing was ringed with quaking aspen trees and flanked by fir, spruce and pine.

At a location where the steep slope relented enough to where I could actually stand on the level, I took off my heavy backpack and placed it alongside a small aspen I had chosen for a backrest.

My boots came off too, for the rugged terrain was taking a toll on my right heel on this day. The sheltered slope, which effectively prevented the strong southerly wind from cooling me too quickly, coupled with the welcome warmth of a late October sun, would comfort both my soul and aching feet. It was time for a break.

While quietly savoring a peanut butter sandwich, venison jerky, some trail mix and a bottle of juice, I became completely captivated by the spectacular view of a beautiful mountain panorama that I had just spent the past two hours climbing.

I tried retracing my route with the aid of my binoculars: the creek, far below; the razor-back ridge I had once sat upon a few years earlier - the place I had picked sage from, crushed in my open palm and smelled deeply its aromatic scent, the wooded gulch where I encountered a muddy seep, and the far ridge, across the valley, some two miles distant, where I had left camp a full hour before sunrise nearly six hours ago.

I even lay down for a spell - not long, just a few minutes. I'm always too restless to fully relax and nap. Nonetheless, prone upon soft dead grasses and with a rolled-up jacket underneath my neck, it was easy enough to drift off for a bit.

As I watched a puffy white cloud change shapes as it was hurried along by powerful winds aloft, a rather large gray bird landed on the lower branch of a nearby aspen. At first, I thought it was just another gray jay, the beloved mountain denizen that inevitably shows up no matter where I went.

I quickly realized, however, that this bird was different, though similar to the gray jay in many ways. Gray indeed, large too, but its heavy and long and dark beak stood out as the primary feature so unlike that of the "camp robber" gray jay. Seconds later, upon recognition of my avian visitor, I smiled broadly at my first encounter.

"I know who you are" I whispered. "You're a Clark's nutcracker aren't you?"

Related to jays and crows, the Clark's nutcracker is named after the explorer William Clark of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition, who first recorded observing the interesting mountain bird in the year of 1805.

I've since learned much about the species. Like their cousin the gray jay, Clark's nutcrackers are notorious caching birds. They have extraordinary spatial memories that enable them to relocate in the wintertime most of the pine nuts and various seeds that they stored throughout the autumn months, even underneath several feet of snow. Up to 33,000 seeds are cached each fall by a foraging Clark's nutcracker.

The cones of several different pine trees, including piñons, are pried and hammered open by the powerful and sharp bills of Clark's nutcrackers. This amazing activity also explained what the unusual hammer-like sound was that I heard one afternoon on another of my breaks. The sound was not like the usual woodpecker, though nearly as loud as from a pileated woodpecker.

It was later in the week, as I stood for a moment taking in the sights, sounds and scents of another mountain break, that I watched a Clark's nutcracker position a ripe pinecone between its feet and strike hard its outer surface so as to break apart the near impenetrable protective exterior. The sound reminded me of someone clucking tongue against palate, but much louder.

Another unique feature of the Clark's nutcracker is its lingual pouch (a pouch behind its tongue). This pouch enables the bird to store many seeds, up to 90 depending on seed size, which it collects while foraging. When the pouch becomes full, the bird transports its seeds to different hiding places - typically beneath the soil of exposed slopes. Clark's nutcrackers can create as many as 2,500 caches of five-10 seeds inside each cache.

As good a memory as the Clark's nutcracker's is, it is believed that 25 percent of the cached seeds are never recovered. Whether it's a result of memory loss or simply the storage of 25 percent more than what any individual bird actually needs to survive any given winter, is unclear.

To the forest, however, leftover pine seeds are often a boon. If conditions are suitable, many of the cached seeds that are not found and consumed will germinate and grow into trees. Clark's nutcrackers, it turns out, serve an important ecological role, if not a symbiotic relationship, with the pine trees they depend on for survival.

In 10 glorious days in the Colorado Rockies, my new feathered friend and I met often on mountain slopes high and low in the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com

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