Wild Things: Bird Watching in Montana
February 28, 2009
Walking through the tall sagebrush toward a prairie pothole lake, a sharp-tailed grouse springs up under foot. As it flies over the small pond, the elegant heads of western grebes turn upwards to the rushing grouse. In the distance, a lone lark sparrow sings from a weathered fencepost. The wind sends waves of motion across the plains.
Montana is blessed with a wealth of breeding birds and those that migrate though the state. In fact, Montana has the highest per capita number of bird watchers as any state in America, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
We have vast stretches of open, wild land that provide habitat for many species that are declining elsewhere. Birding in Montana presents a unique set of challenges. Gumbo roads, freak June snowstorms, and vast distances all make the Montana birding experience unique. However, birding in Montana offers the adventurous birder great rewards, like greater sage grouse gathered on the lek, or a prairie falcon soaring high over the plains as it scans for prey.
If you're a birder, or just want to be a bird watcher, here are some of the top places in Montana to find your quarry.
Top Montana Birding Spots
Freezeout Lake Wildlife Management Area
Every spring, Freezeout becomes a spectacle with no equal in the state. Hundreds of thousands of snow and Ross' Geese descend on the lake as a stopover on their migration to the Arctic. Along with geese there are a host of waterfowl, including the rare Eurasian wigeon. As summer heats up, Freezeout becomes the home to many wetland-associated species such as white-faced ibis and black-crowned night-heron.
Fort Peck National Wildlife Refuge
Twisting along the central part of Montana, Fort Peck is a collection of diverse habitats within close proximity of one another, and along with these habitats comes a diverse suite of birds. Mountain plovers, which typically live on prairie dog towns, can be found on the benches above the Missouri River. Common poorwills call out during warm evenings above the Ponderosa pines. The riparian areas are home to black-billed cuckoos and brown thrashers. Bullocks, Baltimore and orchard orioles fly and sing amongst the tall cottonwoods near the reservoir, which has more miles of shoreline than California.
Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge
In the high, lonesome Centennial Valley, the Red Rocks National Wildlife Refuge is one of the most remote birding hotspots in Montana. Below the towering Centennial Mountains, the upper and lower Red Rock lakes are home to eared and western Grebes. Long-billed curlews and marbled godwits give their piercing calls while pronghorn antelope race across the sage.
Bannack State Park
Bannack State Park and the surrounding area is the place to see species usually associated with the vast seas of sagebrush of the Great Basin. Sage thrashers sing from atop the sage. Greater Sage Grouse have their leks or breeding grounds in the open areas with short grass amongst the sage. This is also the only spot in the state where sage sparrows have been documented.
Westby City Park
Every spring and autumn this park is filled with migrating warblers. Most of the species are birds that do not breed in Montana, but are found here while migrating. Black and white and blackpoll warblers are likely to be seen. Westby is akin to Mecca each August and September as birders from around the state descend on the small town, which in the northeast corner of Montana is as close to Canada and North Dakota as you can get.
Glacier National Park
Harlequin fucks resting on boulders amid McDonald Creek, white-tailed ptarmigan hidden in the alpine tundra, and chestnut-backed chickadees flitting in the boughs of western red cedar are all sights to be seen in Glacier National Park. The park has birds normally thought of as Pacific coast and boreal forest species.
Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge
Red-necked grebes, gulls and terns are at home in the Mission Valley's Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge. A colony of double-crested cormorants can be seen on an island.
Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge
An important stopover for migrating birds, Medicine Lake is superb throughout the year. Species that breed only in the extreme northeastern corner of the state call Medicine Lake home. These species include Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrow and sedge wren.
Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge
Along the banks of the Bitterroot River, the large pileated woodpecker dwells on the Ponderosa pines of the Lee Metcalf. The exposed mudflats are an attraction to migrating shorebirds, such as lesser yellowlegs and western sandpiper, in the fall.
The only location in Montana to find the blue-gray gnatcatcher is in the Pryor Mountains. Green-tailed towhees sing from the junipers and limber pines. The Pryor Mountains are a one of a kind experience for the birder willing to travel to the southern border of the state.
- Radd Icenoggle is a birder and photographer from Bozeman, Montana. To learn more, log on to: