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Birding in Montana: A Birdwatcher's Paradise

While Montana is known for stunning landscapes and diverse wildlife, it also offers endless opportunities for extraordinary birding and birdwatching adventures. Whether you're a seasoned birder or a beginner, Montana's wide range of habitats is sure to provide exciting sightings and memorable experiences.


Montana--a bird paradise and a must-do for birdwatchers


Montana boasts an impressive number of bird species, with over 445 recorded. Approximately 250 species regularly breed in Montana, a portion of which are year-round residents. Another 65 species are regular migrants, passing through for brief periods during the spring and fall, and are typically observed each fall. The remaining 130 species fall into varying degrees of occurrence from occasional (not typically observed annually), to rare (less than 20 confirmed records) to extremely rare (less than 3 confirmed records). (Nathan Kohler personal communication)


Montana’s breathtaking landscapes provide a stunning backdrop for birdwatching. Imagine scanning the skies for raptors while enjoying panoramic views of snow-capped mountains. Montana's landscapes are not only visually stunning, but they also offer a variety of habitats for different bird species, ranges of prairie grassland habitat within the many broad river valleys, woodlands full of deciduous and coniferous trees, broad intermountain valleys containing rivers and streams, lakes, ponds and wetlands, scrubs and shrubs, and varieties of agricultural lands.


A variety of rare and unusual bird species can be observed in Montana with a little effort. In fact, any bird watcher considers Montana to be a great destination in the lower 48 to see the owls and even the Gyrfalcon, which are circumpolar--which means they also nest in polar areas. Specifically, the Gyrfalcon nests in North America and in the far northern regions of Asia and Europe, including Iceland and Greenland.


Travel to any area of Montana, and there is something special to see there.


Lewis Woodpecker on a fence post
Lewis’s Woodpecker: East of Deer Lodge, Powell Co., MT, May 14, 2020. Photos by Nathan Kohler

In northwest Montana, one can observe:


  • Harlequin Duck

  • White-tailed Ptarmigan

  • Black Swift

  • Northern Hawk Owl

  • Boreal Chickadee

  • Varied Thrush


In western Montana, other possibilities include:


  • Barrow’s Goldeneye

  • Spruce Grouse

  • Great Gray Owl

  • Boreal Owl

  • Black-backed Woodpecker (mainly restricted to burned coniferous forest)\

  • Canada Jay

  • Gray-crowned and Black Rosy-Finches

  • Pine Grosbeak

  • White-winged Crossbill

  • Townsend’s Warbler.


Eastern Montana prairie and shrub land species include:


Black-backed Woodpecker in a tree in Montana
Black-backed Woodpecker (male): North Hills, Helena, Lewis and Clark Co., MT, Nov 24, 2020. Photo credit: Nathan Kohler
  • Greater Sage Grouse (some populations in the southwest)

  • Sharp-tailed Grouse

  • Dusky Grouse

  • Mountain Plover,

  • Upland Sandpiper

  • Long-billed Curlew

  • Sprague’s Pipit

  • Thick-billed (formerly McCown’s), chestnut-collared Longspurs,

  • Baird’s Sparrow.

Winter sightings might include the Snowy Owl and Gyrfalcon. 

 


 Southwest Montana offers several renowned birding hotspots, including:


The Warm Springs Wildlife Area (WMA) is particularly unique, comprised of three areas: ARCO Ponds, Ducks Unlimited Ponds, and Job Corps Ponds. Warm Springs WMA serves as a key stopover point for many migrating bird species. During spring and fall, millions of birds pass through the state as they journey to and from their breeding grounds. This creates prime birding opportunities providing flocks of birds in impressive numbers. When visiting this WMA near Anaconda, MT, keep an eye out for waterfowl, shorebirds, and songbirds as they use Montana's wetlands and river valleys as resting and refueling stops along their migration routes.


The Big Hole Valley is known for its expansive coniferous forests, offering excellent opportunities to observe species including Clark's Nutcracker, Mountain Bluebird, Pine Grosbeak, and Black-backed Woodpecker. This scenic valley is home to a diverse range of bird species and is an important nesting area for waterfowl and raptors. The valley is also known for its rich riparian areas, wetlands and grasslands.which attract a variety of migratory songbirds. You might even be privileged to spot a Greater Sage Grouse (GSG). GSG are being studied by Fish and Wildlife among others to help define land management action in the Upper Big Hole Valley and across southwestern Montana (Boccadori, V., T. Cross, J. Magee, J. Salix, and M. Crawford,: Greater Sage Grouse in the Upper Big Hole Valley, 2018 - 2022, Final Report, December 2023).


The Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest is the largest national forest in Montana, and has a variety of coniferous habitats, including Douglas Fir and Lodgepole Pine forests. Among other birds in the forest, you may spot:


  • American Three-toed Woodpecker

  • Red-breasted Nuthatch

  • Townsend's Warbler

  • Western Tanager

  • Boreal Owl


And while you're in the area, don't forget Georgetown Lake. More than 170 species of birds have been observed there!


Grant-Kohrs Ranch and Arrowstone Park are riparian areas along the Clark Fork River. Shrubs include several species of willow, chokecherry, Wood’s Rose, and Water Birch. A series of small ponds and wet areas support horsetails, rushes, bulrushes, and sedges. Grant-Kohrs habitats include ponds and wet marshes, riparian/stream, short grass prairie and hayfields. Avian species are abundant, and include, among others, the:


  • Wood Duck

  • Gray Partridge

  • Great Blue Heron

  • Osprey

  • Bald Eagle

  • Sandhill Crane

  • Golden Plover

  • Western Wood Pewee,

  • Eastern and Western Kingbird


In coniferous habitats--listen! You may need to rely on vocalizations for identification, and specific bird songs and calls are abundant. Given that the time of day influences bird activity, early mornings and evenings can be the best times to spot and hear them. The edge of the mixed forest, deciduous tress and especially riparian areas are places where bird activity is increasingly likely.


Habitat Conservation


With its rich biodiversity and abundance of bird species, Montana's birding hotspots are valuable and warrant habitat conservation efforts. Protecting and preserving these habitats is essential to ensure the long-term survival of Montana's bird populations. Since 2006 the University of Montana Bird Ecology Lab has banded 35,433 birds through the USGS Bird Banding Program.


  • Wetlands are critical habitats for many bird species, providing breeding grounds, feeding areas, and important stopover points during migration. Protecting and restoring wetlands in Montana is crucial to maintaining healthy bird populations. Conservation organizations such as Mt Wetlands and Waterfowl and government agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and local land trusts, collaborate on wetland restoration and enhancement projects. These efforts involve creating and maintaining wetlands, controlling invasive species, and managing water levels to optimize habitat conditions for birds.

  • Riparian areas, the transitional zones between land and water are vital for many bird species, particularly those that rely on water sources for nesting, feeding, and shelter. Maintaining healthy riparian habitats involves restoring native vegetation, implementing stream bank stabilization measures, and reducing impacts from agricultural and industrial activities.

  • Grasslands, Montana has some of the most extensive grasslands in North America. Southwestern Montana hosts sagebrush-steppe habitat in some of the high mountain plains such and the upper Big Hole Valley and native grasslands in the Deerlodge valley. Native grasslands themselves are in a decline and, as a result, many bird species are in a widespread decline, Mt Audubon-Grasslands.

  • Coniferous forests provide a diverse range of bird species, from common resident birds to rare and migratory species. During the 19th century mining and smelting boom, many of the surrounding conifer forest were utilized for smelter furnaces and mine structure. Fortunately, these have recovered and now provide excellent forest habitat.


Get involved


Montana is a great place to get involved in citizen science projects related to birding. By participating in bird surveys, you can contribute valuable data to ongoing research and conservation efforts. Projects such as the Montana Bird Conservation Partnership and Montana E Bird provide platforms for birders to share their sightings and contribute to a better understanding of bird populations and distribution. Mt Wetlands and Waterfowl and the University of Montana Bird Ecology Lab are using science based methods to understand and create a positive change in bird habitat and understand avian ecology in southwest Montana.


Experience and Enjoy


With its diverse ecosystems, abundance of species and stunning landscapes, Montana is a bird paradise. Whether you're exploring the mountains of Southwest Montana or the Clark Fork River Valley, you're bound to have incredible birding experiences.. Please remember to respect the birds and their habitats by observing them from a safe distance and minimizing disturbance.


Clark Fork River runs through Montana.
The Clark Fork River runs through Montana and supports hundreds of varieties of birds and birdwatching experiences.

For a particularly unique opportunity to visit all three habitat areas with several of Montana's premier experts, check out Wings of Conservation--A Birding Experience for Avian Enthusiasts. At this inaugural annual event that goes beyond the ordinary, Wings of Conservation will delve into the heart of avian conservation and habitat preservation and provide unique experiences with a wide array of bird species. Here, we will explore the vibrant world of woodland, aquatic, wetland and open habitat birds and their ecosystems–and the unique nature of Anaconda environments–with expert-led, hands-on field experiences and insightful educational sessions led by Montana's premiere Avian experts. Space is limited.


So, pack your binoculars, grab your field guide, and head to Montana for a birdwatching adventure you won't ever forget!




References Cited:

Boccadori, Vanna: Mt Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Todd Cross, Ph.D. Crosswinds Ecological Consulting, LLC; James Magee, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Jessie Salix, USFS Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. Madi Crawford USFS Beaverhead-Deer Lodge National Forest. 2023, Ecology of Greater-Sage Grouse in the Upper Big Hole Valley, Montana 2018-2022, December 2023

Nathan Kohler; Retired, Deerlodge Montana Personal Communication






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