REPORT: May 15-17, 2020 - Prairie weekend trip with Doug W.
Doug is a friend I met in Ohio and birded with for a day in Guatemala when we both happened to be in the country at the same time. He was spending the summer in Montana and wanted to see the prairie specialties that Montana has to offer.
We planned a quick weekend trip, leaving the Flathead Valley on Friday night and returning to Columbia Falls on Sunday afternoon.
The 6-hour drive to Malta went smoothly, with both Ferruginous Hawk and Burrowing Owl along the highway. We camped at Trafton Park in Matla and added Eastern Screech-Owl and Great Horned Owl to our list, both of them nest in the small park.
Saturday (16th) we spent the morning bird Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge. Bowdoin NWR is my favorite NWR in the state because of its absurd number of breeding marsh birds, in combination with prairie species around the perimeter. Doug’s main target for here was Baird’s Sparrow, a range-restricted prairie specialty breeding only in the northern shortgrass prairies. We started the auto-tour driving route around the wildlife refuge at about 6:30am, and our list quickly grew with all the breeding marsh birds like Cinnamon Teal, Northern Shoveler, American Avocet, Wilson’s Phalarope, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and Forster’s Tern. A couple miles into the route, in the grassland sections, we stopped to listen for sparrows and immediately found a singing Baird’s Sparrow right near the road that allowed for excellent scope views!
After we got our fill of this special sparrow, we continued down the auto-tour route racking up species. Sharp-tailed Grouse and Clay-colored Sparrows along the road, American White Pelicans, Willets, and Marbled Godwits flying around, and even a Short-eared Owl! The owl posed nicely near the road and we both got a few good photos of this partially diurnal species.
We completed the 15-mile driving route in about 4 hours, getting 79 species. We stopped at the visitor center and birded the groups of bushes and large
trees looking for migrating warblers. We found a few Blackpoll and Orange-crowned Warblers, but what really surprised us was the Moose that Doug found in one of the small ponds near by! Always interesting to see a Moose so far out in the prairie.
Left the refuge with 90 species of birds and Doug finding his lifer Bullock’s Oriole along the road on the drive back to Malta.
After lunch we drove the hour east to Glasgow, where we found a nice dirt road into Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land north of town. Most BLM land in eastern
Montana is still native shortgrass prairie, and this was no exception. We were surrounded by Chestnut-collared Longspurs and Baird’s Sparrows! We sat in the grass and photographed them for an hour and added Sprague’s Pipit to the list for the day.
Our next target was Mountain Plover, a unique and range-restricted plover that nests out in the prairie, well away from any water source. We started our drive down a long gravel road through more BLM land. This time, the prairie was punctuated by short Sagebrush and this change in habitat meant that instead of Chestnut-collared Longspurs, we were surrounded by hundreds of Lark Buntings. We came across a few more Sharp-tailed Grouse and Long-billed Curlew along the way as well. The biggest surprise was a single Greater Sage-Grouse we found out in the sage! I was fairly distant from the road and after a search for it on-foot in the sage, it flushed from under our feet! A fantastic way for Doug to get his lifer Greater Sage-Grouse.
Near the end of our drive, the habitat changed back to shortgrass prairie with some sparsely-vegetated areas; the perfect habitat for Mountain Plover. After a few stops to scan the grass, Doug spotted a plover on the side of the road a few hundred meters ahead of the us. A quick check in the scope revealed that it was our Mountain Plover, and Doug’s 4th lifer of the day! Using the car as a blind, we drive closer and got our fill of good looks at this great bird. The habitat was also good for McCown’s Longspur, and we spent a few minutes watching and photographing a male that was singing near the road. They remain my favorite prairie bird!
We set up our tents camped along a dirt road on BLM land, in preparation to visit a Greater Sage-Grouse lek in the morning.
After a good night’s sleep and a beautiful sunrise, we drove down the road and arrived at the lek at about 6:30am. The wind was stronger that morning, and although we spent half an hour scanning, we didn’t find a grouse. We did, however, get great looks at an Upland Sandpiper that landed on the road near us.
After we gave up, we started driving back and almost immediately spotted 3 Greater Sage-Grouse! We used the car as a blind and set the scopes up on the opposite side the car and rolled the windows down to see through the car. The three grouse eventually walked off into the sage, after we were able to really enjoy them through the scopes. A perfect way to end the weekend of birding!
We drove back to Malta, got lunch, and started the drive back to the Flathead Valley, arriving to my home around 5:30pm.
Our weekend total was 122 species of birds, 4 of them lifers for Doug, and for numerous species he had only briefly seen previously, we got much better looks at!