Montana Birding

Report by Paul and Sally Bartho

13 April to 18 May 2016

Sally and I were invited to my nephew’s wedding in the USA. We took the opportunity to go to the wedding as well as to spend time with my sister, Tania and her husband, Doug in Montana. Of course we managed quite a lot of exciting birding while there – most everything we saw was a “lifer”.

View of Tania and Doug's home with the Mission Mountains behind.
View of Tania and Doug’s home with the Mission Mountains behind.

Our timing was such that we arrived in time to see the last of the winter migrants leave. And just as we were leaving the summer migrants were starting to arrive.

My wish list included a visit to Yellowstone NP and Sally had hopes of visiting Glacier NP as well as seeing a bear (from a distance) as well as a Bald Eagle.

After a day and a half travelling from Durban, we arrived at my sister’s home in Ronan – about an hours drive north from Missoula Airport. Several days were spent there recovering from the long journey before we set off by car for the wedding.

The first morning we awoke to find it was gently snowing – like a northern picturesque Christmas scene. And just outside was an American Robin to complete the picture.

Most every day we went out it was cold cold cold. Then as the day progressed it slowly warmed up to maybe only one sweater!

The wedding was in Eugene, Oregon – just over one thousand kms of driving over two days. We had not gone far before we had some excitement. An unexpected pleasure of seeing our first bear – a brown Black Bear – spotted by Doug.


Our hotel in Eugene for three nights was right on the Williamette River with a large park with wetland areas beside it.

With what little time we had on our hands we managed to spend several hours birding along the river and into the wetland areas – where we saw some colourful and unexpected birds.

After a lovely wedding, it was back to Ronan – another 2 day drive.

Ronan is a small town in the independant area governed by the Salish and Kootenai First Nations peoples.

Ronan, Montana- North West USA
Ronan, Montana- North West USA

We spent the next four weeks based in Ronan with my sister. Their home is at the base of the Mission Mountains – an impressive range of tall peaks – covered in snow for much of the year.

Ronan is a short drive from the impressive Flathead Lake – the largest lake in the NW of USA.

Doug decided to take us hiking up into the Mission Mountains along a trail in the North Crow valley – a trek uphill about three kms long – each way. Usual safety precautions were taken – clothing for all weathers, water and of course bear spray (pepper spray).

So we get going and Sally and I fall behind every so often, catching up only when Doug and Tania stopped for us. On one of these separations we notice a fresh steaming pile of poo on the path.

Bear Scat
Bear Scat

By the size and volume it had to be a bear. Now was the bear crossing the path or following the others? Good question. Fortunately Tania was not too far ahead so we took her lead and followed her. Wild life roams freely throughout the area and is often seen around homesteads. Bears are a nuisance with garbage left for collection.

Ronan is very close to Flathead Lake which is a geological phenomenon. To read about the geology of Flathead Lake click here and read a short and simple explanation of the formation of the area.

Prior to leaving for America, we identified quite a number of potentially good birding sites – predominantly wetland areas. The habitats were generated by the end of the Ice Age when the glaciers retreated and are mainly wetland areas – great for winter migrants.

Ninepipes National Wildlife Refuge and Pablo Reservoir are the two largest wetland areas closest to Ronan. Unfortunately because of their size the birds are often distant objects. However wherever you drive there are numerous smaller ponds in which we encountered many different waterbird species and within close range.

Some of the other places we visited were a bit further afield – mainly around the Flathead Lake: Safe Harbour Marsh, Kerr Dam, Bigfork, Swan Lake, Ducharme Lane and Polson’s Boettcher Park. And south of Ronan to the National Bison Range. Also to a reservoir close to Hot Springs called Lonepine. It seemed everywhere we went we picked up new species.

We also visited Glacier National Park – mainly to see the mountains and to do a little birding. However not knowing the birding spots cost us. We were limited to driving around Glacier Lake as the main pass will not be cleared of snow and debris until the end of June.

It was only towards the end of our stay that we met some birders – Raylene Wall and Jim Oates – who took us out.

Raylene with Paul
Raylene with Paul

And they took us to special places to find birds other than waterbirds. It was a magical experience and we were so fortunate to have met them. We were meant to have spent the first day doing a Long-billed Curlew count – however Raylene decided she was going to spend the day birding with us instead – and what a day from 07h30 to 20hoo!! (Does not get dark till around 21h00). Our second outing with Raylene was just as hectic and equally profitable – magic.

Of course it was not only the birds that were interesting – it was also the critters. Here are some photos;

My wish list came true we went to Yellowstone National Park for a weekend – far too little time to see it properly. However we made good use of the time and because we went with Tania and Doug were able to pack in a lot – their knowledge of the area was invaluable.

We stayed in the cheapest place in West Glacier that we could find – just at the entrance to the park itself. (R1000 per night for a room with bathroom – no cooking facilities).

Our first day was spent in the Old Faithful area – the upper Geyser Basin. A huge cauldron of some 32 geysers spread over a vast expanse with boardwalks all around. Off the boardwalk and you tread onto the morass at your own peril!

Geysers are unpredictable however most have a very approximate time when they are expected to blow. Doug and Tania led and over the 9 hours we were able to watch seven geysers blow – which apparently is really good for one day’s viewing and good timing on our part to be at the right place at the right time.

However it was not the only excitement we had walking around. Someone noticed a Grizzly bear on a distant slope. We managed to see it before it traipsed off. Then as we headed for what turned out to be our favourite Geyser – Artemesia – walking through the woods there grazing in the path ahead was the Grizzly bear about 50 metres away. Fortunately a ranger had joined the party and he told us that the Grizzly knew we were there and was contentedly feeding. So for half an hour we noisily (advised) watched until it disappeared. Meanwhile a Bison watched us closely. The ranger left and we nervously continued to Artemesia.

Tania, Doug and the Bison.
Tania, Doug and the Bison.

Artemesia was our favourite geyser because you could feel the ground rumble and thump as the explosive water shot out and unlike some of the others it lasted for a while.


The following day we drove the route to Yellowstone Lake to the east of Old Faithful. Stopping numerous times to look at the views or to spot birds. As in most National Parks in the USA you are allowed to walk about at your own risk. We saw some spectacular scenery in this area.

In total we identified 143 species of birds – most were “lifers” and 2 were heard only. (Mountain Chickadee and Virginia Rail). Of those we managed to get photos of 132.

The following were seen in Montana unless otherwise shown in their caption.

Wild fowl were aplenty but waders few and far between. They had obviously mostly gone by the time we arrived.

American Robins were everywhere and Red-winged Blackbirds haunted the reed beds along with their Yellow-headed cousins.

So many new species for us that it is hard to say which were our highlights. For me it was the Golden Eagle. For Sally it was the American Dipper – and watching him in action dipping in the fast flowing current.

We were thrilled with what we saw (Birds and critters) and also with how many birds we were able to photograph.

Some enjoyable American quirkiness to finish.

Hope you enjoyed the read.

Paul and Sally Bartho

Sunset - last day
Sunset – last day

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