Wad of coots huddled together on Ennis Lake today.

Cruising and birding with Janet today, we witnessed carnage, slow suffering and death. Any year when Ennis Lake does a quick freeze like this year, hundreds if not thousands of coots are too slow to flee and actually freeze solid in the ice, feet first. They don’t die immediately. They sit in helpless, huddled masses…refusing to fly…until they are interred in a graveyard of ice.

Western grebes trying to urge coots to flee.

Today we witnessed unusual behavior. In a tiny circle of open water, a hundred coots were floundering and freezing to death and in their midst, a handful of Western Grebes were herding and cajoling and prodding the flock to “get up”…”get out of here”…”fly away now”. But the dumbstruck mud hens would have none of it. Some would flap their wings and give up. Others waddled aimlessly across the ice only to return to the inevitable watery grave, oblivious to death.

Soon the bald eagles will come…and the goldens…the ravens and magpies…sharpening beaks and talons for dinner. When darkness closes in, so must the coyotes, padding a quick-step across the ice, lining up at the table. We saw feathers and body parts scattered across the ice. And everywhere the black blobs of feathers quivering…stuck…waiting to die.

Photos by Janet Dochnahl.

Death and suffering is part of nature and somehow in Montana, especially in the winter, it is always just around the corner.