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A Report from

Montana, 7-12 July 2005 ,

Andy and Ellen Stepniewski

We spent six full days birding and hiking Montana, sampling four of its many mountain ranges, visiting a number of prairie areas, both shortgrass and tallgrass, and finally, enjoyed sampling a number of the states very productive marshes and pothole lakes. We relied on Terry McEneaney’s A Birder’s Guide to Montana (1993. Falcon) to guide us to the key sites. We found this an excellent resource; I particularly like its habitat approach to birding and its emphasis on ethical birding practices. For hiking, we relied on guides, most published by Falcon Press, to the state’s mountain ranges.

ABSAROKA MOUNTAINS (7 JULY). We left Yakima about 7 PM on the 6th. Ellen and I alternated driving through the night and arrived at Red Lodge east of Yellowstone by about 7 AM. From there, we wanted to visit the Beartooth Plateau south of town. The Beartooth Highway was made famous years ago, by the late CBS reporter Charles Kerault in his weekly segment “On the Road.” He stated simply “this is America’s most beautiful highway.” It accesses a vast area of beautiful alpine, dotted with many lakes, all framed by rugged peaks.  Soon after leaving Red Lodge, we noted signs “Beartooth Highway Closed.” We learned huge slides in May, triggered by heavy rains on a deep snowpack, has triggered massive rockslides, obliterating a portion of this route. We needed an alternative. Ellen quickly perused the hiking guide and selected another part of the region: the Hellroaring Plateau. We reached this area by crawling up a very rough old mining road starting from Limber Pine Campground south of Red Lodge. This road ends at the edge of the plateau at 9,600 feet elevation. From there, we ambled west over the rocky alpine terrain, climbing to a minor peak about 10,500 feet elevation. Dry tundra, with Potentillas, Dryas, Moss Campion, and a variety of other colorful wildflowers, enlivened the stony ground. We admired the lichen-splotched boulders, some of the very most ancient rocks in the state, The most common bird in this dry tundra habitat was  Horned Lark. These birds are variable in appearance across their vast range; here we noted a slight yellowish tinge to their throats, unlike the white-throated birds of the Cascade Mountains or arctic populations. In a swale about a mile up the trail, in a habitat with dwarfish willows, we noted a few American Pipits and a pale-lored race of White-crowned Sparrow new to me, which sang a song vaguely reminiscent of Golden-crowned Sparrow “oh-dear-me,-tleeee-tlooo...” Higher on the plateau, we headed to large snowbanks on a north-facing bowl. Here we encountered Black Rosy Finches, both dull patterned juveniles and a few brightly patterned adults.

BILLINGS AREA PRAIRIE (8 JULY). North from Laurel we followed McEneaney’s site guide to Eastlick Road. In this area of marginal farmland, some prairie survives. We arrived early in the morning to find a short-eared Owl cruising over the prairie and many whistling Black-trailed Prairie Dogs at their “town.” These squirrels were probably a mainstay prey item for a pair of Ferruginous Hawks nesting (with two half-grown young) on a power pole literally right over the colony. We enjoyed observing other widespread North American grassland birds such as, Long-billed Curlew, Burrowing Owl, Say’s Phoebe, Horned Lark, Vesper Sparrow, and Western Meadowlark. More of interest to us was Sprague’s Pipit, which we only heard, and many beautiful Chestnut-collared Longspurs. The longspurs were performing their flight song displays a lot at dawn but quickly became quiet within an hour after sunrise, perhaps due to the lateness of the season. I think we both agreed that longspurs are indeed delightful creatures. We searched diligently for the other prairie longspur, the McCown’s, to no avail.

From here, we headed towards Harlowton, wending our way across a landscape mosaic of wheatlands, and saline sinks. We detoured briefly into Hailstone NWR, a small refuge, where we swelled our trip list in earnest, seeing Eared Grebes, distant waterfowl, Willets, Marbled Godwits, and Franklin’s Gulls. North to Ryegate on US-12 was a lonely stretch of pretty country, with badlands and coulees, grown to scrubby Ponderosa Pine and Rocky Mountain Juniper. This stretch did not seem particularly birdy, but we did see White-throated Swift, our only observation in the state. At Ryegate we paused to photograph the town tavern which advertised an annual “Testicle Festival.” What a Chamber of Commerce will do to promote!

HARLOWTON PRAIRIE (8 JULY). Olin Pettingill’s classic A Guide to Birdfinding (1983. Houghton Mifflin) mentions shortgrass prairie near Harlowton as a good site for McCown’s Longspur and Mountain Plover. I birded this road in May 1997 and found both species. I wanted to share this great place with Ellen and hoped it was still good habitat. We were not disappointed. Though we arrived at midday, we saw many birds, including a few Long-billed Curlews, many Horned Larks, plus the advertised specials. We censused Haymaker Road north from US-12 10 miles and tallied 175 McCown’s Longspurs. The first juveniles were out on the road, seemingly independent of adults appearing to snatch insects that were abundant in the warm sunshine. Male longspurs were sprinkled along the fence lines. We were treated at most every stop to the magical display flight of this species. Birds of this open habitat such as Sprague’s Pipits and Horned Larks perform display flights over their breeding territories, the finale including a steep descent to the ground. Likewise, longspurs also perform flight displays high in the air, but end theirs, with wings held upwards in a V to break their speed, like a parachute. Thse displays were most memorable, one of the highlights of birding the prairie. 

Ellen picked out an adult Mountain Plover along the gravel road. Stopping, we noted two downy chicks busily picking at insects on the hot road surface. I wondered if this species is really as rare as recent estimates suggest (< 1000 birds globally). If true, this area warrants recognition and protection.

Another highlight here was a “Prairie” Merlin, its plumage colors much like a Prairie Falcon save for the unpatterned face and pale blue-gray wings, munching away on a small passerine. The odds were, dinner for this handsome little falcon was one of our longspurs!

GREAT SNOWY MOUNTAINS (8-9 JULY). Heading north, the hiking guide tempted us to try a trail in the Great Snowy Mountains, eastern outliers of the Rockies. As soon as we made camp at Crystal Lake, 6,200 feet elevation, we started up the trail, though it was  late afternoon (5 PM!) and climbed towards the crest at more than 8,000 feet elevation. The forest was composed of species wed to a continental climate; we noted lots of Engelmann Spruce, Douglas-fir, and Lodgepole Pine, with a scattering of Subalpine Fir and picturesque Limber Pines. The trail was good and climbed steadily to limestone talus slopes at 7,600 feet elevation. Ellen continued up to the crest while I started the descent. I observed Mountain Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Winter Wren (ravine), Yellow-rumped Warbler, and Red Crossbill. Ellen had better luck and encountered a Blue Grouse by the trail at 7,500 feet elevation. She reached the crest to find a rather unappealing view, so quickly turned around to rejoin me. We were back down to our vehicle by 8 PM, in time for a brisk swim at the now-deserted lake.

The following morning, we birded to nice riparian-lined valley bottom north towards Lewistown, finding many nice birds, including Calliope Hummingbird, Red-naped Sapsucker, Dusky Flycatcher, Gray Catbird, and MacGillivray’s Warbler. Most notable were a couple singing Ovenbirds in the closed aspen forest mantling the opposite side of the valley about halfway down.

We enjoyed Lewistown, a pretty town with nice residential districts. We began wondering why some towns in Montana appeared prosperous and attractive and others seemed in decline, I suppose a question for those interested in Cultural Geography.

Heading towards the Missouri River, we stopped to examine a roadkill Sharp-tailed Grouse that turned out to be a good move, as we missed entirely sighting a live bird. 

RUSSELL NWR. (9 JULY). It’s a long drive northeast from Lewistown to the Missouri River crossing where we poked about the James Kipp Recreation Area in the CM Russell National Wildlife Refuge. The river here has lots of impressive cottonwood gallery forest with a well-developed understory, which McEneaney specifically states

“most impressive is the impressive number of Brown Thrashers milling around in the understory.” Well, we spent at least an hour, complete with CD, blasting (unethically) Brown Thrasher song from the car towards the understory. Did a thrasher poke its head into view? Nope! I suspect the birds were present but unresponsive, as thrashers seem wont to be, maybe due to the lateness of the season. We did note lots of Least Flycatchers and Common Grackles, including recently fledged young, species indicating a transition to the “East.”

A hot dry wind did not dissuade us from taking the 17-mile refuge auto tour. At first, this drive follows the river, with lots more impressive gallery forest, then through open weedy fields, followed by a steep ascent through badlands to the scruffy, sage-dotted prairie above. We were surprised to spish in a Green-tailed Towhee, in a habitat of scraggly Ponderosa Pine (shorter needles and darker bark than their much more impressive western cousins) and Rocky Mountain Juniper, seemingly odd habitat for this species. The National Geographic Field Guide shows a disjunct population, indicated by a tiny dot, at this spot in Montana, so our observation apparently fits an established pattern.

BOWDOIN NWR (9-10 JULY). We arrived at Malta (perhaps the most depressed appearing towns we met with in the state) in north-central Montana late in the afternoon of the 9th. As the weather pattern looked unstable we hurried off to nearby Bowdoin NWR in case the next morning’s weather was even more lousy. It was windy, unfortunately. We heard both target birds here: Sprague’s Pipit and Baird’s Sparrow, but did not get good views of either.

The morning of 10th thankfully brought more tranquil weather but a passing thunderstorm still threatened. The calmer conditions brought out lots of mosquitoes, however. If it’s not one thing, it’s another with Montana’s whacky weather.  We had a great morning here, noting close to 100 species. Starting at dawn, we drove the refuge auto tour route in reverse, doing the west and south portions first, thinking we would have a better crack at Sharp-tailed Grouse. Well, Sharp-tailed Grouse eluded us, but we did see plenty of shorebirds. We noted 13 species on the refuge, including our trip’s only Black-necked Stilt, Least Sandpipers, Stilt Sandpipers, and Long-billed Dowitchers. The Stilt Sandpipers surprised me a little; here were about 10 adults still in pretty crisp breeding attire, a plumage virtually unknown in Washington. Other interesting birds included White-faced Ibis, including nearly grown young, our only Virginia Rail of the trip (!), a lone Bonaparte’s Gull, Common Tern, Short-eared Owl, Loggerhead Shrike, and Brown Thrasher (finally), right behind the visitor center. We spent an hour or so birding the prairie back from the north shore. There, we had a stunning view of a Sprague’s Pipit right on the auto tour road, and had reasonable looks at Baird’s Sparrow. The patterns of sparrow distribution on this prairie I discerned during my 1997 visit I believe I observed again in this tallgrass prairie habitat. In the mound and swale habitat here, I believe core habitat for Sprague’s Pipit and Grasshopper Sparrow is the south aspect of the mounds, typified by xeric elements in the vegetation (including cactus). Baird’s Sparrow and Chestnut-collared Longspur, on the other hand, were tied to the moist hollows or north-facing aspects. Savannah Sparrow, both Ellen and I agree, seemed a generalist and occurred throughout the prairie. Because ecotones occur over the space of a few meters, all these species, on casual inspection, might appear to be widespread over the prairie. I do not believe this to be the case, however.

We spent an hour at Nelson Reservoir, just northeast of Bowdoin NWR, checking it out for Piping Plover. Water levels were high, however; there did not appear to be any suitable shoreline present for this or other waders. Of interest, we did note 14 juvenile Hooded Mergansers, a good addition to our trip list and a Common Loon.

It was now time to start the homeward journey. We sped west along US-2, through hundreds of miles of agricultural country towards the Rockies.

BROWNING PONDS TO EAST GLACIER. At Kipps Lake just east of Browning, we counted 102 Marbled Godwits by the west shore. I wondered if they were staging here in preparation for their migration across the Rockies to the Pacific. At 6 PM, they all lifted off and flew west, disappearing up the valley to the west. I fancied they had indeed set off on a night flight to their ocean estuaries and beaches. We also noted many Franklin’s Gulls, Western Sandpipers, and numbers of Red-necked Grebes.

We found vacancies in a nice little lodge in East Glacier, moved in, then hit The Restaurant Thimbleberry for dinner. It was crowded with many Amish and other tourists, but eventually we were served a nice supper. Afterwards we visited Froggy Flats, an area of wet fields and aspen woods just north of town. Here, we bumped into the group of Ohio Amish who were on tour, all with binoculars! We showed them Cedar Waxwings through our scope and a few other common species. I searched for Mountain Goats on the mountains above, but all white specks we studied turned out to be rocks. Darn! The moment they left I spished and a Northern Waterthrush popped into view, gathering lots of insects in its bill, poised to take to its nest once we left.

GLACIER NATIONAL PARK (10-12 JULY). Our main target bird in Glacier National Park was White-tailed Ptarmigan, so we took McEneaney’s advise and headed straight to the Logan Pass Visitor Center and trail to Hidden Lake. When we arrived at 7 AM, there were only 10 cars in the seemingly excessively big, parking lot.

The Hidden Lake Trail has been engineered to handle crowds. The initial section is on a raised boardwalk. I saw almost no evidence of damage to the alpine communities, in stark contrast to trails in similar settings in Mt. Rainier or Garibaldi Provincial Park (British Columbia). On our return we met head-on crowds snaking their way up the boardwalk and then saw the reason for the expansive parking lot. It is obvious Glacier Park is an international destination; we heard various European and Asian languages while out on the trail. After driving both sides of the Going-to-the Sun Highway, I can easily see why this place draws so many folks. Simply stated, the scenery of castellated peaks, glacier oversteepened valleys, and verdant mantle of meadow and forests is stupendous.

On the trail, we easily saw American Pipit and Gray-crowned Rosy Finch, but the ptarmigan, as usual, remained elusive. Compensation bounded along in the form of five Bighorn Sheep rams, which posed nicely on a ridgeline not far above us. Talking with several park employees, querying them “where’s the ptarmigan,” Piegan Pass came the answer.

Though it was noon, we set off up the Piegan Pass Trail, not really thinking we would make the 4.5 miles to the pass. I became a little alarmed along the trail as it was apparent we were walking through nice habitat for Grizzly Bears. At first we did not bump into any other hikers so I was about ready to suggest we turn back. By and by, we met others, then others, so it was clear this was a well-populated trail. I became more at ease. We met a bunch of college students studying the alpine ecology of the area. I was envious they were spending several weeks in this park!

It is a nice trail to the pass, with bridges at stream crossings, and stunning scenery along the way. It was not super good for birds or wildlife though we did see our first American Three-toed Woodpeckers in the spruce forest on the lower part and a threesome of Mountain Goats resting on a ledge near Piegan Pass. The pass was a delightful spot, with lots of Hoary Marmots and Columbian Ground Squirrels and a large expanse of dry alpine (Dryas mainly) on the broad slope south from the col. We spent an hour traipsing this wonderful slope, hoping to spot our ptarmigan quarry. In the end, we had to be content with grand views of the Garden Wall and other beautiful peaks that encircled us. Indeed, this is a grand spot!  Though dry alpine, we did note singing American Pipits. This was our only strictly alpine bird species on this hike. Back at the trailhead Ellen spotted an American Dipper rocketing into the Siyeh Creek culvert as it passes under the Going-to-the Sun Highway. Shortly it e-emerged and I had a chance to admire this sleek beauty, our only one of the trip.

The drive west from the pass was slow due to construction and heavy traffic. At one construction stop, at the Big Loop, a Black Bear ambled about the road edge while I observed a Nashville Warbler in the scrub up from the road, another first for our trip. At the east end of Lake McDonald, we watched swifts, both Black and Vaux’s, hawking for insects over the calm lake in the early evening light. Very high overhead an immature Bald Eagle soared (windy 4,500 feet higher in elevation?) over the summit of Mt. Brown. A singing American Redstart in a nearby riparian thicket gave us our best view of this species on the trip.

We arrived at dusk at Fish Creek Campground on the southwest shores of Lake McDonald which surprisingly had vacancies. Here we heard our first Cassin’s Vireo for Montana.

INSIDE NORTH FORK ROAD (12 JULY). We broke camp before dawn on the morning of the 12th and headed north on the Inside North Fork Road to Dutch Creek. Much of the way to this creek traverses several huge burns, with the biggest acreages burning in 2003. At Dutch Creek Ellen was first to spot a Northern Hawk Owl perched atop a snag. I walked about north of the creek and soon noted another owl, this one a fledged juvenile (still with a few downy feathers). This was a stakeout spot for the owl; we did not blunder into it on our own! At one point, we watched an American Kestrel dive-bomb the owl, at which the owl merely flinched. By and by, a large SUV came along, on the Moose trail, which they had just seen. We shared the owl through our scope and they all seemed pleased to get an intimate view of this lower 48 rarity. I pitched my usual story on the usual whereabouts of this species: Canada and Alaska, and its diurnal habitats. Brushy patches along the creek were filled with birds, including Red-naped Sapsucker, MacGillivray’s Warbler, and Lincoln’s Sparrows.

We birded the road in reverse at a slower pace, stopping to look for woodpeckers and other birds such as LeConte’s Sparrow in the sedge meadows. We missed the LeConte’s, but found both American Three-toed, Black-backed, and Hairy Woodpeckers, and many Olive-sided Flycatchers. Wilson’s Warbler and Pine Grosbeak were other new species for our list.

Though we had visited both the Absaroka Mountains and the Great Snowies, which both show western affinities, we added 29 species on our combined East and West Glacier Park bird list. This surprised me; I did not think we would add so many here.

It was only mid-morning but it is a long drive to Yakima from Glacier so we started the drive, abruptly re-entering civilization north of Kalispell.

A couple city parks in Kalispell provided a good reststop on the trip home and were also good for three more “trip” birds: Wood Duck, Pileated Woodpecker, though I had just told Ellen finding the advertised Pileated would be “impossible” in the heat. Ellen's sharp eye caught a heat-stressed male panting while it was spying on us from the back of an aspen bole. Finally, we glimpsed several Northern Rough-winged Swallows.

South from Kalispell, we decided to get adventuresome and take the Brown’s Meadow Road through the Salish Mountains in the Flathead National Forest. We stopped a few times, trying to find a Pacific Slope (or whatever they are here) Flycatcher, but had no luck. Near the highest point on the route, in a stand of forest with many mature Western Larch we found Williamson’s Sapsucker; according to McEneaney, “Kalispell” is a good spot for this species.

We crossed the beautiful Clark Fork in Plains and poked about the nice Ponderosa Pine forest and riparian habitat along the river. Black-chinned Hummingbird at a home along the road with a string of feeders was a good find here, as were several Lewis’s Woodpeckers, including a recently fledged bird, screeching for food while panting from atop a tall cottonwood snag.

AN ADVENTURE  TO I-90. Our final hours in Montana were spent on a gravel road servicing a major high voltage transmission tower line that climbs south from Thompson Falls over a 6,000 foot elevation ridge descending to I-90. The ascent was straightforward and in an hour we crested the ridge just west of the Mt. Bushnell Roadless Area. It surprised me to see Mountain Hemlocks here, I’d thought this maritime species was limited to a small area in the wettest part of the Selkirks of British Columbia. Checking the Peterson guide out to Western Trees (1992. G. Petrides and O. Petrides), I see it is actually widespread on Montana’s western ranges. It appears scarce or absent to the east as in the main ranges of the Rockies.

South from the crest of this ridge at a junction, we both pondered the DeLorme Atlas map closely and agreed we needed to “make a left.” Within 15 minutes, we both sensed the road we thought we were on, which should have descended directly south to I-90, was not matching the topography. We were heading east and staying quite constant in elevation. Luckily, we noticed a small house in the forest under the power lines, with a truck revealing somebody might be at home. Ellen inquired, finding the mid-60-ish fellow friendly and willing to redirect us. Our mistake: we had needed to make a right. At any rate, I wondered how many dwellings, inhabited by antisocial types might be tucked away in Montana’s hinterland!

We were soon back on track and heading west into Idaho, which takes an hour to drive across. Then, it was a Mexican dinner in Post Falls, arriving home near Yakima about Midnight.

Finis! With 199 species of birds on our Montana trip list!

Andy and Ellen Stepniewski

Wapato WA


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