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Montana Tour 2019 [Trip Report]

Our visit to Montana in June 2019 was a great intro to the birds and wildlife of the state's mountainous west. The Trip Leaders were Ivan Phillipsen and Patty Newland.


Day 1 – Great Falls

Our group assembled for the first time in the early afternoon on this sunny, beautiful day in Great Falls, Montana. After an orientation gathering at our hotel, we took a short drive to the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center on the banks of the Missouri River. We walked the paved paths around the museum to look for birds among the cottonwoods and thick undergrowth of native plants. Many birds were active and singing here. Yellow Warblers were plentiful, and we enjoyed getting good looks at a handful of Gray Catbirds.

Back at our hotel, we took a short walk to the nearby pizza restaurant and had some nice time to get to know each other.

Day 2 – Benton Lake NWR and Road to East Glacier

This was a very full and rewarding day of birding and enjoying the landscapes of western Montana. We began by driving north out of Great Falls to the nearby Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge protects prairie grasslands and “pothole” wetland habitats teeming with songbirds, waterbirds, waterfowl, raptors, and more. We drove the loop road, stopping often to look at birds. We got good looks at Grasshopper Sparrows and some glimpses of Chestnut-collared Longspurs (both were species target species for the location). Other highlights included a multitude of Eared Grebes tending their nests, some Black Terns, and close looks at a couple Short-eared Owls.

We had a picnic lunch at Ulm Pishkun – Buffalo Jump State Park. After lunch and perusing the visitor’s center, we went up to the top of the bluff and had the pleasure of seeing the Prairie Dog town there. We also had nice views from the top and got to see some Sprague’s Pipits.

The road westward was quite scenic. The Rocky Mountain Front rose on the horizon to meet us. We arrived at our motel in East Glacier Park Village and were happy to find a lone Blue Jay flitting among the rooftops and pines near our lodging. We went out for dinner at a mountain cafe.

Day 3 – St. Mary Area of Glacier National Park

We woke to rainy weather and had to change our plans accordingly. We headed to the St. Mary entrance of Glacier National Park. On the road there, we got to see good examples of a landscape in various stages of ecological succession, from recent burns to mature forest.

The rain began to lighten when we entered the national park. The St. Mary Visitor Center was busy, unsurprisingly. Many of us checked out the interesting displays and also bought a few souvenirs. Then we headed outside to do some exploring. The rain ended, luckily, and we had a pleasant time looking at birds from the bridge across the St. Mary River. We got to see female Barrow’s and Common Goldeneye side-by-side for a great comparison. Back near our lodging, we went out to dinner at the Summit Mountain Lodge.

We stopped at Duck Lake, a short distance east of the park entrance, to look for birds and wildlife. We had a thrilling (yet safe) experience seeing a Grizzly Bear walking through someone’s yard along the lake shore. Wow!

Day 4 – Glacier National Park: Going-to-the-Sun Road

We spent this entire day stopping at various points along the world-famouse Going-to-the-Sun Road, in Glacier National Park. The road stretches all the way across the park in a generally west-east direction. This means that one climbs very high into the Rockies– seemingly headed straight for the Sun– before crossing the crest and dropping down to the other side. The route is incredibly scenic and awe-inspiring.

The weather turned out beautifully warm and sunny, and we had an awesome day. Despite the large number of tourists sharing the road with us, we enjoyed many quiet moments on trails and roadside pullouts throughout the day.

Logan Pass was our lengthiest stop. The mountain scenery was incredible. The pass had only recently been opened by snowplows and there was still lots of snow around. We weren’t able to find any Gray-crowned Rosy Finches, but we got very close looks at American Pipits. We also saw Mountain Goats! We took a nice walk through a mature forest on the west side of the crest after lunch.

The road finally left Glacier National Park on the west side and we arrived to Whitefish where we would stay for the next two nights.

Day 5 – The Flathead Valley

This morning we headed out from Whitefish into the surrounding Flathead Valley. We visited several birding hotspots in the valley, including a couple large ponds and a river bank. We had lots of fun scouring the ponds for waterfowl and waterbirds, as well as skulking songbirds such as Common Yellowthroat. We also got to see seveal Sandhill Cranes in the Valley. We had our picnic lunch at Whitefish Lake State Park.

In the afternoon we rode the ski-lift gondolas up to the top of Big Mountain. We had panoramic views of the valley and ranges to the east. We found some fun birds up there as well, including Pine Siskin, Cassin’s Finch, and Pine Grossbeak.

We had some free time to explore the charming town of Whitefish before sharing our last dinner together.

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Day 6 – The National Bison Range

Heading south from Whitefish toward Missoula, we spent several quality hours on the National Bison Range. This beautiful location is home to large herds of Bison as well as many other mammals and birds.

We drove the loop road and had a fantastic time spotting birds and mammalian megafauna. We got great views of both Lewis’s Woodpecker and Lazuli Bunting. Mammals we saw included Bison, Pronghorn, Elk, and a Black Bear.

We left after a picnic feast and headed to the Missoula airport. The Bison Range experience was a wonderful way to cap off our adventure in Montana.

Full bird list [download]

Bird Species Highlights

  • Sandhill Crane
  • Black Tern
  • American Bittern
  • White-faced Ibis
  • Lewis’s Woodpecker
  • Horned Lark
  • Gray Catbird
  • American Pipit
  • Sprague’s Pipit
  • Pine Grosbeak
  • Chestnut-collared Longspur
  • Yellow-headed Blackbird
  • Grasshopper Sparrow
  • Lazuli Bunting

Wildlife Highlights

  • Grizzly Bear
  • Black Bear
  • Pronghorn
  • Prairie Dog
  • Mountain Goat
  • Bison
  • Mink
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