Posts Tagged ‘Montana’

On Thursday morning, I got “permission” from a local Montana birder to try Bannack Bench Road again when I called for advice.  “The roads dry quickly and the storms don’t usually come until late afternoon.”  So, I hoped to hit a sweet spot in the middle of the day.  The beginning of the road was great, but it soon starting getting sticky.  But, I heard birdsong, so I just pulled over and shut the engine.  I continued to hear the bird and then I found him at the top of a distant bush with his head thrown back in full song.  I hoped that this was a Gray Flycatcher, so I made a couple of quick voice recordings and tried to get a photo, but my camera wouldn’t focus.

Before I had time to play with camera settings, a local rancher came by and stopped to see if I was OK.  He said I should be OK for another mile or so, but that I should turn around at the next cattle guard.  Then we talked for a while, about how he loved Montana, how he is trying to save the Greater Sage-Grouse on the land he uses, the local roads.  I showed him an illustration of a Prairie Falcon and he was sure they were “just over the ridge there.”  But, of course, that was an inaccessible location for me.  I can’t regret the 20 minutes or so we talked, but after he left, I could not re-find my singing bird.  Also, storm clouds gathered while we were talking and he left me with instructions to turn around right then.  If I got stuck he would have helped me, but I would have been embarrassed by my foolishness.  The rancher told stories of people calling for a tow truck and being asked if they had a good book.  At least one person was stuck for over 24 hours.  Friends, you may have worried about people, bears, or rattlesnakes, but the real danger out here is the roads.

I reluctantly left Bannack and headed to Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park, where I arrived mid-afternoon.  The park is beautiful and I wish that I’d had the time and energy to hike some of the trails or take the tour of the caverns.  I explored just a little of the park before it started raining.  I headed to Bozeman for the night.

It was raining when I woke up yesterday morning and I half-way expected a call from Ron Farmer cancelling our birding.  But, Ron picked me up as planned and we spent several hours birding from the car.  Ron took me to his reliable Sage Thrasher spot and we did see one bird.  The bird was wet and I didn’t really get a great look, but it was a lifer.  We spent the rest of our time looking for Prairie Falcons to no avail.

Ron dropped me back at my hotel and I took a nap.  When I awoke, the skies looked a little less rainy, so I headed back to the spots that Ron had showed me that morning.  After watching for Prairie Falcons for over two hours (mostly in the rain), I decided to go look for the thrashers again.  I drove up and back the road in intermittent rain with just one brief sighting.  I started for a second round and immediately saw this Sage Thrasher perched on a fence post in a brief moment of sun.

Sage Thrasher

Thrilled that I finally had a photo, I headed back to my hotel and started thinking about today.  I had planned to drive the Beartooth Highway and look for Black Rosy-Finches at the pass, about 10,000 feet of elevation.  I expected them to be right by the road.  But, I started thinking about whether or not I would be comfortable driving the road and googled “Is driving the Beartooth Highway scary”?  Well, the answer is that yes, for me, it would be as I am terrified of cliff edges.  I have no idea why I did not think about the narrow mountain road with steep ascents and decents and hairpin turns before the trip.  I fell asleep with no plan for today.

This morning, I decided that I would check Bear Canyon Road in the Pryor Mountains for Sagebrush Sparrows.  It took a while to drive from Bozeman, so I started down the road at 12:30 PM.  I did not find the sparrows, but I did receive confirmation from an expert that my recording from Thursday was indeed a Gray Flycatcher, another life bird.  Bear Canyon Road was another of those isolated spots that I love and I enjoyed it.  Here are a few images from this afternoon.

Common Raven on nest

A bird that reminded me of the Southeast US.

Loggerhead Shrike

A little sparrow that I believe is a Brewer’s Sparrow, or maybe it’s a Clay-colored Sparrow.  Birder friends, can any of you identify this bird for me?  (Update: the sparrow has been confirmed as a Brewer’s.)

Brewer's Sparrow

Brewer’s Sparrow

A view of the Pryor Mountains. Yes, that is snow on the peaks.

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It was sad to leave Canada on Tuesday, but I was also excited to head back to Montana, a state that I immediately liked when I first arrived earlier in my trip.  Back home in North Carolina a few weeks ago, I had sent a message to Last Chance Audubon in Helena about the possibility of observing Flammulated Owls.  Webmaster Stephen Turner replied to my message.  Not only would he take me to try for the owls, Stephen and his wife, Patty, invited me to stay at their house.

I arrived at the Turner’s home about 3:30 PM, just enough time before dinner for Stephen to take me to look for Gray Partridge at a restricted access property owned by a local land trust.  Two birds flushed from almost under our feet shortly after we started walking down the dirt path.  It was too fast for a photo, but I did see the birds.  That happened so quickly that we still had time for a quick trip to Mount Helena City Park.  I got my life Calliope Hummingbird in North Carolina earlier this year, but I wanted to see an adult male and Stephen knew a spot.  Just as promised, the little beauty was sitting on his favorite perch.  He was just a little too far for good photos, but we did get great looks.

Calliope Hummingbird

Stephen’s birding buddy, Bob Martinka, joined us for a lovely dinner of Patty’s jambalaya, a wonderful change from road food.  We headed out for more birding and went to the Flammulated Owl spot just as it was getting dark.  The birds are heard here every year, but previously they had not been reported before June.  We were happy to hear two Flams calling as soon as it got dark.  And, then another owl starting calling – Northern Pygmy-Owl.  They had never heard it at that location before.  What a fantastic surprise!  One bird flew in to the tree right where we were standing.  While we were not able to see the bird, it was exciting to hear it so close.

The next morning Stephen and Bob took me out to look for Williamson’s and Red-naped Sapsuckers.  The Red-naped Sapsucker was supposed to be the easy bird of my targets in Helena, but we worked hard for both woodpeckers.  But, we did see both and I even got a photo of my life female Williamson’s Sapsucker.  It’s a really bad photo, but special because it’s my lifer and, amazingly, I was even the first to see her.

Williamson’s Sapsucker (female)

With help from Stephen and Bob, I had FIVE life birds in less than 24 hours!  Birders talk about the importance of local knowledge and this proved it for me.  I never would have found any of these birds without their help.  They knew exactly where to go for each of these species.

I am now stuck in Dillon, where I learned late yesterday afternoon what happens to the nice gravel roads when it rains.  I drove to Bannack Bench Road to check it out and nearly got stuck in the glue-like muck.  I had planned to spend the morning on that road, but more rain is forecast, so I’m looking for Plan B.  It’s all part of the adventure!


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I left Minot yesterday morning and headed to Lostwood NWR as planned.  I loved the quiet and solitude of the gently rolling grasslands.  I did not see anyone on the entire 8-mile wildlife drive.  The only sounds were birds and the gentle breeze.  I didn’t see anything unusual there, but I am enjoying the common western birds.  Meadowlarks are everywhere and they seem to sing non-stop.

Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark

After Lostwood, my day did not go as planned because I could not resist more birding.  I soon saw a little lake on the side of the road with 150 Franklin’s Gulls.  How could I not stop for these beauties?  Many had the beautiful pink blush of fresh breeding plumage and all were gorgeous.

Franklin's Gull

Franklin’s Gull

This little lake also contained about 100 Ring-billed Gulls, ducks, grebes, and phalaropes.  Yellow-headed Blackbirds were busy singing and nest building on the side of the lake closest to where I stood.  And, none of the birds seemed to mind my presence at all.  The weather was absolutely perfect, sunny and just the right temperature.  It was one of those magic moments and I could have stayed there forever.

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Yellow-headed Blackbird

So, now I was behind schedule and I really needed to drive to Glasgow, Montana. But, no.  I passed the entrance to Medicine Lake NWR and I just could not drive by without doing another 9-mile wildlife drive.  Again, I did not see anything unusual, but it was enjoyable.  This time I saw one other vehicle on the drive.  It was fun to see a bird in breeding plumage that I usually see only in winter, Forster’s Tern, right by the side of the road.

Forster's Tern

Forster’s Tern

It was turning out to be a long day, but I was determined to check out Bentonite Road outside of Glasgow when I arrived.  This would be my best opportunity for Mountain Plover and I wanted two chances to drive the road.  It was 7:15 PM when I started down the rough gravel road.  And, I would have to drive 17 miles on this road to get to the first place that the plovers are usually seen.  It was difficult to even be sure that I was on the right road, but I managed to do it.  And, just at mile 17, a lovely, graceful Mountain Plover flew in close to the side of the road.  I had a great look and then he was gone.  I drove another mile and then turned around, hoping to be back at the hotel by dark.

I was thrilled to have seen the plover on my first attempt, but my luck for the day was not over yet.  While hurrying to get back, I flushed a female Greater Sage-Grouse from the side of the road.  She flew just a little way and then froze, so I got photos.

Greater Sage-Grouse

Greater Sage-Grouse

Greater Sage-Grouse

Greater Sage-Grouse

This was another bird on my most wanted list and I could not believe my luck in getting it right away.  Just as I was almost back to town, I saw a pair of Ring-necked Pheasants right on the road.  What a day!  I fell into bed very tired and very happy.

This morning, I drove Bentonite Road again and saw two plovers today.  This time, I got photos.

Mountain Plover

Mountain Plover

Wilson's Phalarope

Wilson’s Phalarope

Wilson’s Phalaropes are very common out here I enjoyed close of views of several on my way back to the hotel.  Like all phalaropes, the females are the pretty ones.

I checked out of my Glasgow hotel at 11:00 AM this morning and drove north to Canada.  After crossing the border, I drove through the East Block of Grasslands National Park over to the west side, where I am staying.  My targets here may prove more challenging – Sprague’s Pipit and Baird’s Sparrow.  The birds are plentiful here, but not easy to find.  Also, McCown’s Longspur was not as easy as I’d hoped, so I need to find it here also.  But, I will be here for four nights and I am sure that I will enjoy my time, whether I get my target birds or not.  What will I see here?

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