[Tweeters] East Meets West in NE Montana (long)

Gina Sheridan gsherida8502 at yahoo.com
Mon Jun 22 00:42:47 PDT 2009

Having contemplated a June trip to northeastern Montana for some time, Dennis Murphy joined me on a week long venture that would focus on specialties of the northern Great Plains. My other goal was to hopefully find some of the eastern birds that find their western range limit in extreme eastern Montana and to see how they mix with their western cousins. Utilizing the ABA guide for Montana and perusing some of the reports on the MOB list serve, I mapped out a course that would concentrate on a route from Great Falls to Havre, to southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, down to Malta, out to Fort Peck, and back through the upper Missouri Breaks of Charles Russell NWR.

On our afternoon of departure (Saturday, 6/06/09) out of Spokane, a cold weather system out of Canada had substantially dropped temperatures through the Inland NW. Fortunately, the broken cloud deck didn't look particularly threatening, and some sunshine managed to occasionally beamed through.

During this travel day, I picked up my first Montana state lifer. At the East Lolo Pass rest area, we found a singing WILSON'S WARBLER. In Missoula, our best bird was a LAZULI BUNTING.

Our first stop on the next morning (Sunday, 6/07/09) was at the Gold Creek Rest Area. Surprisingly, we quickly found a NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH singing from an exposed snag, and an Elk on a hillside. Some of the other birds that we saw here included WARBLING VIREO, RED-NAPED SAPSUCKER, HOUSE WREN, YELLOW WARBLER, HOUSE WREN, BROWN-HEADED COWBIRD, BREWER'S BLACKBIRD, and RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD.

Along Hwy. 12, west of Avon (Powell County), we were pleased to find BOBOLINK, TREE SPARROW, and EASTERN KINGBIRD. East of Avon (MP 17), we enjoyed the sight of two SANDHILL CRANEs with a lanky, buff colored chick.
Nearby, a WILSONS' SNIPE flew over the road.

On MacDonald Pass, light snow was falling and the temp had dropped to 30 degrees. Checking out a stand of scaled Ponderosa Pines for Three-toed Woodpeckers, we had to settle for NORTHERN FLICKER and PINE SISKIN.

A quick stop in Spring Meadow State Park (Lewis & Clark County), netted us VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOW, ROUGH-WINGED SWALLOW, HOUSE FINCH, EURASIAN COLLARED DOVE, RING-BILLED GULL, and LEAST FLYCATCHER. A field west of the park held seven Mule Deer with three fawns. At the community of Birdseye, we saw our first MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD. On the sagebrush plains north of Silver City, we saw BREWER'S SPARROW, VESPER SPARROW, and WESTERN MEADOWLARK.

Working the riparian sections of Little Prickly Pear Creek, we found TOWNSEND'S SOLITAIRE, GRAY CATBIRD, SPOTTED TOWHEE, BULLOCK'S ORIOLE, DUSKY FLYCATCHER, LEAST FLYCATCHER, NO. WATERTHRUSH, BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEE, MACGILLIVRAY'S WARBLER, AMERICAN DIPPER, SONG SPARROW, DOWNY WOODPECKER, YELLOW WARBLER, and we heard RUFFED GROUSE drumming. Mammals along this route included White-tailed Deer, Least Chipmunk, and Columbian Ground Squirrel.

CURLEW, SHORT-EARED OWL, and Richardson's Ground Squirrel. On nearby Priest Lake, we saw several SPOTTED SANDPIPERs. Strangely, we didn't see one even one grebe at the designated "Grebe City" section of Freezeout Lake.

After an overnight in Great Falls, we drove through patchy fog up to Havre. During the morning (Monday, 6/08/09), temperature stubbornly remained around 39 degrees. Within sight of Big Sandy, we saw an ungainly Northern Pocket Gopher cross the road.

South of Chinook (Blaine County), we arrived at Bear Paw (Chief Jospeph) Battlefield National Historical Park. Birds that we encountered there included WILLOW FLYCATCHER, C. YELLOWTHROAT, CLAY-COLORED SPARROW, VESPER SPARROW, GRAY CATBIRD, NO. HARRIER, BUFFLEHEAD, AME. GOLDFINCH. As we were about to leave, I heard a BAIRD'S SPARROW singing near the parking lot. With a bit of effort, we managed to obtain some decent views of one of our most desired target species.

Continuing south of the battlefield park, we birded a rich wetland and pond on the entrance road to H. C. Kurh Reservoir. While BOBOLINKs sang from the wet meadow, we scoped out CANVASBACK, PIED-BILLED GREBE; BARN, TREE, CLIFF, and ROUGH-WINGED SWALLOWs; WILLETs, W. PHALARPOPEs, and AME. GODWITt. On the Kuhr Reservoir, there was a pair of RED-NECKED GREBEs and more EARED GREBES.

On the gravel road near Crown Butte, we saw a LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE. At the south end of the Bowe's Oil Field, we stopped to view CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPURs, LARK BUNTINGs, and LONG-BILLED CURLEWs. A roaming Badger (life mammal for Dennis) added to the excitement.

Hearing a singing SPARGUE'S PIPIT, we were finally rewarded with fantastic views of highly territorial pipit that flew in and flashed it's showy white-rimmed tail flicked downward at a 90 degree angle from it's body. At times the pipit landed right in the road, perched on a fence, and then went back to skulking in the grass. This Sprague's Pipit was the second target bird that we picked up out of the "big three" (Baird's Sparrow, Sprague's Pipit, and Mountain Plover) that I especially wanted to see. The lively pipit put on a fantastic show!

Rather than bird just the known hot spots, I wanted to explore some off the beaten track areas too. In the early evening we drove up from Havre to the Canadian border. Although we had some difficulty finding the unmarked entrance road, we probed into Creeman Coulee NWR. On this short-grass prairie, we had crippling views of displaying McCOWN'S LONGSPURs and CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPURs. Meanwhile, Dennis photographed a COMMON NIGHHAWK was that snoozing on a fence post.

In particular, I was entranced with McCown's Longspur elegant dihedral tip of the wings as it glided down from some lofty height back down to earth. While McCown's was engaged in this aerial display, it was continually singing it's sweet warbling tune.

In the northern reaches of Hill County, there were plenty of raptors hunting the abundant Richardson's Ground Squirrels. NORTHERN HARRIER, RED-TAILED HAWK, and SWAINSON'S HAWKs were all represented. However, FERRUGINOUS HAWKs were especially common up there. In fact, we found one large Ferrugionous Hawk nest that contained three downy white chicks in it.

Our foray into Canada's prairie provinces began on Tuesday morning (6/09/09). Crossing over the border via the Port of Wild Horse, we began ticking off Alberta provincial life birds such as CALIFORNIA GULL, HOUSE SPARROW, CLIFF SWALLOW, CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPUR, McCOWN'S LONGSPUR, HORNED LARK, FERRUGINOUS HAWK, NO. HARRIER, BREWER'S BLACKBIRD, BARN SWALLOW, VESPER SPARROW, SAVANNAH SPARROW, W. MEADOWLARK, RED-TAILED HAWK, SWAINSON'S HAWK, and MALLARD. Our short time in Alberta came to an end as we crossed over into Saskatchewan.

As we worked on our nascent Saskatchewan list from Hwy 13 (near Govenlock), we picked virtually all the same birds that we saw in Alberta, and added AMERICAN COOT, BREWER'S SPARROW, SHORT-EARED OWL, and AME. WIGEON. In Consul, we added MOURNING DOVE, ROCK PIGEON, BREWER'S BLACKBIRD, EASTERN KINGBIRD, and HOUSE SPARROW.

En route to the Centre Black of Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, we crossed the highly productive wetlands nestled in Frenchman Valley. Some of the birds here included RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD, NO. PINTAIL, BLUE-WINGED TEAL, WILSON'S SNIPE, WILSON'S PHALAROPE, C. RAVEN, CANADA GOOSE, RUDDY DUCK, SORA (h), and BOBOLINK.

While waiting out some rain showers in the forested Cypress Hills, we saw some birds around the lake such as GREAT BLUE HERON, DC CORMORANT, BC CHICKADEE, PINE SISKIN, C. TERN, AME. ROBIN, MALLARD, SPOTTED SANDPIPER, HOUSE WREN, DE JUNCO, and HAIRY WOODPECKER.

Since the park received heavy snow on Saturday, we were hiking through several inches of it in the shady forest of White Spruce-Lodgepole Pine. The Highland Trail traversed boreal forest, riparian woodland, open meadows, and aspen groves.

Birds that we encountered along the trail were RING-NECKED DUCK, RUBY-CROWNED KINGLET, AME. WHITE PELICAN, VEERY, SONG SPRARROW, C. YELLOWTHROAT, AME. REDSTART, OVENBIRD, YELLOW WARBLER, TURKEY VULTURE, WARBLING VIREO, and RED-NECKED GREBE. As we progressed around the trail, the sun broke through and the snow was melting.

Heading back southward, we saw a MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD. In the late afternoon, we birded the town of Eastend, SK. The residential west side of town was quite birdy and had a few lingering migrants. We found YELLOW WARBLER, YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER, YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKER - 2, NO. FLICKER, BALTIMORE ORIOLE, C. NIGHTHAWK, BLACK-BILLED MAGPIE, HOUSE FINCH, AME. GOLDFINCH, and LARK SPARROW.

On a pond south of Eastend, SK, we saw WILLET and NO. SHOVELER. In Arena, SK, we wrapped up our birding day in Canada with AMERICAN AVOCET, KILLDEER, and MARBLED GODWIT. White-tailed Deer and Pronghorn Antelope were seen too. Eventually, we crossed back in the U.S. via the Port of Morgan, and spent the next couple of nights in Malta, MT.

On Wednesday morning (6/10/09), we were grateful to see sunny skies and warmer temps. Entering Bowdoin NWR (Phillips County), we were met by some special birds such as MARSH WREN, C. YELLOWTHROAT, LEAST FLYCATCHER, FRANKLIN'S GULL, CALIFORNIA & RING-BILLED GULL, C. TERN; BLUE-WINGED, CINNAMON, & GREEN-WINGED TEAL (only one Green-winged was seen our trip); WHITE-FACED IBIS, BROWN THRASHER, WESTERN WOOD PEWEE, CLARK'S GREBE, WESTERN GREBE, EARED GREBE, SHARP-TAILED GROUSE, BALTIMORE ORIOLE -2, CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPUR, COMMON GRACKLE, GRASSHOPPER SPARROW, CLAY-COLORED SPARROW, and plenty of other waterfowl. On the first portion of the auto loop, we had crippling views of SORA and VIRGINIA RAILs. At station # 10, we had nice views of a SPRAGUE'S PIPIT that was engaged in it's aerial display.

Territorial MARBLED GODWITs often stood in the road and defied us to advance. We saw another Godwit swoop after a NORTHERN HARRIER and pluck at it's tail feathers.

Between Station #3-4, BAIRD'S SPARROWs were very common. We heard them singing everywhere, and had fantastic views of several of them. With regards to Baird's Sparrow, I noticed that in flight the high contrast (almost checkered looking) back pattern of black and gray, and the light gray outer tail feathers were quite prominent. Baird's often had a light buffy wash across the upper chest and face, and had strong buffy-orange colored patch on the upper nape. It is interesting that both Sprague's Pipit and Baird's Sparrow share some similar plumage characteristics (i.e. the almost identical streaked breast pattern, larger looking eye, and strongly patterned back).

Back at the refuge headquarters, we noticed that a couple of birders from Maryland (Ed Boyd & Jim Stanz) that we had conversed with earlier, had entered in the log book that they had heard a Sharp-tailed Sparrow at staion #9. Although we tried for it that afternoon, we dipped on that.

We did chat with Bruce Barbour who was the refuge manager, and he suggested that might try for our target Mountain Plover and Burrowing Owl in the prairie dog town at Hewitt Lake NWR and have us tips for Wood Duck. Before we departed, we walked the wooded trail around the Display Pond and observed SWAINSON'S THRUSH and an EASTERN KINGBIRD chasing a GREAT HORNED OWL.

On the dam side of Nelson Reservoir, we saw three COMMON LOONS in alternate plumage. Driving over the washboard road around Hewitt Lake was
teeth jarring experience, and we had difficulty locating the prairie dog town. A local rancher helped us out by giving us directions, and drove along a the BLM/NWR border fence and found the dog town.

Although we were assiduous in our search, we failed to find the plover or owl, but we did see a pair of UPLAND SANDPIPERs, and LONG-BILLED CURLEWs. Thinking that rolling sagebrush covered hills in this area seemed like good Poorwill habitat, we decided to try for that after dark.

While working for Poorwills in the dark, we were amazed at how many COMMON NIGHTHAWKs there were flying about. Some nighthawks were on the road too, but we dipped on Poorwill. The pump station in the natural gas field was quite loud and annoying too. Our only mammal of the evening was Mountain Cottentail.

Our first stop of the next morning (Thursday, 6/11/09), was at the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum in Malta that is conveniently situated on the bluffs of the Milk River. Our first state lifer of the day was WOOD DUCK on the river.

Although we attempted follow-ups on bittern and Sharp-tailed Sparrow in Bowdoin NWR, we dipped on both. We did see BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT HERON, and I heard a YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT.

Skimming the waters of Nelson Reservoir were COMMON NIGHTHAWKs that seemed to be impersonating Black Terns. A final check of the prairie dog town in Hewitt Lake NWR failed to deliver any Mt. Plovers or Burrowing Owls. However, we did have closer views of the pair of UPLAND SANDPIPERs.

Treking farther east to Glasgow (Valley County), we drove south on Bentonite Road. In the riparian area near the edge of town, we saw WOOD DUCKs, and a LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE. Up on the Bentonite High Plains, we saw both MCCOWN'S & CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPURs, LB CURLEWs, MARBLED GODWITs, WILLET, and a flock of a dozen male GREATER SAGE GROUSE.

Around 15.5 mile mark, we flushed a pair of MOUNTAIN PLOVERS from the shoulder of the road. One plover landed on the road itself, and the other began hunting insects on an alkali flat. We had spectacular views of our third and final member of our "Big Three" target species.

In the late afternoon, we birded some around Fort Peck. Near the dam, We quickly found FIELD SPARROW, LARK SPARROWs, TURKEY VULTURE, SPOTTED TOWHEE. Within the city limits of Fort Peck, we saw CHIMNEY SWIFTs and CHIPPING SPARROW. One of the big attractions of Fort Peck, is the mixture of eastern (finding their western most limit here) and western birds.

On Friday morning (6/12/09), we birded the nature trail in the Downstream Recreation Area. Here we found YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT, WESTERN WOOD PEWEE, LEAST FLYCATCHER, BALTIMORE ORIOLE, ORCHARD ORIOLE, and a fly over BLACK-BILLED CUCKOO. Desiring to see some of the more local eastern rarities, we called upon local birding expert Charles Carlson.

While we chatted with Charles and his wife Jean, we saw plenty of birds in the Carlson's backyard. COMMON GRACKLE, BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK, BLUE JAY, BROWN THRASHER, BULLOCK'S ORIOLE, and RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH were some of the more memorable visitors that we saw.

Later, Charles was gracious enough to take us to some of the prime spots for state rarities. At our stop at Roundhouse Rec. Area, we saw a PIPING PLOVER and COMMON TERNs. In the floodplain woodland below the dam, we saw EASTERN BLUEBIRD, EASTERN KINGBIRD, CLAY-COLORED SPARROW, FIELD SPARROW, LARK SPARROW, RED-HEADED WOODPECKER, YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT, SPOTTED SANDPIPER, and COOPER'S HAWK. Several of these highly localized species would have been nearly impossible for us to have found without Charles's expert help.

One of the remaining prairie species that had continued to elude us on this trip Burrowing Owl. Our attempt to find the owl in the Manning Corral Dog Town in the West Unit of Charles M. Russell NWR (Phillips County), was the big target bird of the late afternoon.

Due to conflicting maps directions and our failure to find the dog town in the refuge, we checked innumerable dirt side roads. While we were searching for our quarry, we did run across a SAGE HEN with several chicks, WILLET, LONG-BILLED DOWITCHER, UPLAND SANDPIPER, and a SAGE THRASHER (at Lark Reservoir).

Finally, we ran across an Iowa State grad student who was working on Mt. Plovers. Paul (can't remember his last name), informed us that the Manning Corral Dog Town in the ABA Guide is defunct. He recommended that we try a large active dog town around Wrangler Reservoir (15 miles east on Dry Fork Road.

On our drive out there, we saw more SAGE GROUSE and LB CURLEWs. Arriving at Wrangler Reservoir, we began scanning the dog town. Although it took us at least twenty minutes to find them, we did see MOUNTAIN PLOVER - 3 (all in one scope view) and two BURROWING OWLs. At long last, we were thrilled to have ticked off the Burrowing Owl for our Montana state list. Mammal-wise, we saw Pronghorn, White-tailed Jack Rabbit, Richardson's Ground Squirrel, Black-tailed Prairie Dog, and Mt. Cottontail.

Rolling into the town of Zortman at 10:00 PM, we managed to find a motel. We had dinner in the rowdy saloon and enjoyed plenty of local color. It was Friday night reverie with Indians from the rez and the local cowboys.

Awaking to glorious sunshine in the morning (Saturday, 6/13/09), we walked around town. Zortman is nestled in an isolated range called the Little Rocky Mountains. As WHITE-THROATED SWIFTs wheeled overhead, we heard WILD TURKEY, and saw an OVENBIRD.

Finishing breakfast, we birded the Camp Creek Gamp Ground. The riparian areas here were incredibly birdy. After I just said that Veery should be in here, I heard one. Veeries were thick in there, and we had great views of one. Other goodies that we quickly found were AMERICAN REDSTART, OVENBIRD, YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER, MACGILLIVRAY'S WARBLER, ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER, WESTERN TANAGER, MOUNTAIN CHICKADEE, CHIPPING SPARROW, and DUSKY FLYCATCHER. On the plains south of Zortman, we witnessed the strange sight of a LB CURLEW calling and chasing after a pair of circling GOLDEN EAGLEs.

The Little Rocky Mts. was an amazing area with a high density of desirable birds, and I wished that we had more time to bird it. However, we had to be back in Spokane by that evening.

Finally, we made a stop in the Upper Missouri Breaks of James Kipp Rec. Area (a unit of Charles Russell NWR in Fergus County). The "Missouri Breaks" is the name for the landscape of rugged forested buttes and benches that are interspersed with deep coulees surrounding the Missouri River. When we stopped in a fine stand of tall cottonwoods, we obtained point blank views of our only RED-EYED VIREO of the trip, and we saw another YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT for good measure.

With a bird trip list of over 140 species for Montana (over 30 were state lifers for me), enjoying quality time with difficult-to-find northern plains species (i.e. Baird's Sparrow, Sprague's Pipit, Mt. Plover), seeing fun mammals, meeting friendly folks, birding a day up in the prairie provinces of Canada, and visiting remote, seldom visited areas of the state, we were extremely pleased with our week long visit to the Big Sky Country.

Gina Sheridan
Spokane, WA

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