Oct 23

Birds: A Diversity of Feathered Friends

by Diane Cochran

Montana is home to more birdwatchers than any other state, and, with almost half the birds in North America sighted here, it’s no wonder.

Of the 900 species of birds on the continent, 427 can be seen in Montana at some point during the year, and 260 of those nest here, said Steve Hoffman, executive director of the Montana Audubon Society.

That variety stems in part from the state’s diverse habitat. Montana is brimming with wetlands, forests and grasslands, all vastly different habitats that attract vastly different types of foul.

Variety is just one factor that makes Montana a great place to be a birder. Another is how easy it is to find the birds that live in or migrate through the state.

“A lot of bird spots are accessible,” Hoffman said. “You can drive there.”

Forty percent of Montanans consider themselves birdwatchers, according to the U.S. Forest Service. How can you join their ranks?

Getting started

You will need a good bird guidebook, and you don’t have to lug around a paper version.

“All of the most popular field guides are available for your smart phone,” said Kristi DuBois, a wildlife biologist for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

 Birdwatching applications also work on other devices, such as tablet computers, DuBois said. In addition to helping to identify a bird’s physical features, many apps play bird songs.

For birders using such apps in the field, DuBois recommended listening with headphones to avoid harassing birds. Birds can be distracted from important mating and feeding rituals if they perceive a recorded call as a threat.

Once you have a guidebook, consider enrolling in a beginning birdwatching class. Chapters of the Audubon Society across the state regularly offer fieldtrips led by expert birders, and the group hosts a traveling Wings Across the Big Sky conference every June. Audubon also offers education materials by mail or e-mail. More information is available at www.mtaudubon.org.

Where to go

Birds often nest near along river bottoms, so “Any float trip along any major river will get you a lot of birds,” Hoffman said.

The state’s national wildlife refuges are another great place to look for birds, especially water fowl. Hoffman’s favorite is Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in the Centennial Valley near West Yellowstone, where birders can see trumpeter swans.

“It’s very remote, and it’s just a really spectacular place to go birding,” he said. “It’s so scenic and hardly anyone goes there.”

Hoffman also recommends Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Great Falls, Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge near Ronan, and Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge near Malta.

For high mountain forest habitat, try Glacier National Park. Driving across Logan Pass will put you in the habitat of white tail ptarmigans, great gray owls, gray-crowned rosy finches and northern hawk owls.

For a real treat, plan a trek to Freezeout Lake south of Choteau in mid-March. That’s when 100,000 to 300,000 snow geese stop over on their migration to the Arctic.

What to look for

With so many birds out there, picking a first quest can be overwhelming. Make it easy – start with one you already know, said Dan Casey, Northern Rockies conservation officer for the American Bird Conservancy.

“Pay attention to a common bird, like a robin,” Casey said.

You will be amazed how little you’ve noticed about a robin beyond its red breast. Look carefully at its other markings, watch its behaviors and listen to its song, Casey said. This will help you practice your observation skills and give you a baseline bird with which to compare others.

After that, try spotting these recommendations from Casey:

Goldeneye duck. These white and black water birds are quite entertaining during the spring mating season. Males attract females by throwing theirs heads all the way onto their backs and uttering a grunt whistle.

Ruddy duck. This diving duck with the funny name also has a quirky mating ritual. Males pound their bills, which are electric baby blue, on their chests at the surface of the water to create bubbles.

Eastern kingbird. Easy to spot without binoculars or a spotting scope, this bird a talker. “They’re very vociferous, very loud,” Casey said. “They’re very cantankerous. They like to chase off crows and magpies and hawks.”

Rough-legged hawk. You’ll see these birds of prey as you’re driving down the highway in the winter. They will be sitting on fence posts or hovering in the air as they hunt.


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