[Tweeters] A bird quest in central and northeastern Montana (a bit long)

Byers byers345 at comcast.net
Sun Jul 28 22:37:56 PDT 2013

Hi Tweeters,

Link to photos of some of the birds mentioned in the report below:

Back in 2009 Gina Sheridan, who no longer lives in Washington and whom I
only know through her reputation as an ace birder, went on a week-long
birding trip to Montana. She wrote about the results of her trip (140+
species) in a long post on Tweeters. I was intrigued by her trip because
one of her aims was to see birds in eastern Montana that we normally
associate with the eastern US. I printed out her report, and, finally, this
year Bill and I made a trip to Montana to see what we could find. One big
difference between Gina’s trip and ours was that she traveled in mid-June
and we went in mid-July, so we were bound to miss some of her birds, but we
thought we might pick up others.

Our first serious birding was on the afternoon of July 18, when we visited
Benson Lake NWR, just north of Great Falls. It was hot and windy and most
of what we saw were ducks in eclipse plumage with large broods of babies.
There were dozens of Eared Grebes with babies of various ages, hundreds of
immature Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and Marbled Godwits. Our most
interesting sighting was a Peregrine Falcon sitting in a tree about 15 feet
from the auto tour route.

The next day we arose early and were driving up Hwy 80 from
Stanford where, within about a mile of one another, we saw both Gray
Partridges and two Upland Sandpipers. Later in the morning we stopped by
James Kipp Recreation Area in the western Missouri Breaks part of the CM
Russell NWR. There had obviously been heavy rainfall in this area a day or
two previously. Mud was everywhere in the campground and the place was
buggy, but we found Least Flycatchers, Red-eyed Vireos, Yellow-breasted
Chats, American Redstarts, and one Lazuli Bunting, among other birds. The
Missouri River was also very muddy looking. I doubted the people fishing
there were going to have much luck.

We had lunch in Camp Creek Campground, a site that is highly
recommended by birders. Ovenbirds are frequently found here. Alas, it was
the middle of the day and we only heard Mountain Chickadees and a Western

Our final exploit for the day was locating a Prairie Dog
town about ½ mile off of Hwy 191 on the road that goes from 191 to
Lodgepole. There we found Burrowing Owls and, on the other side of the
road, one Long-billed Curlew.

The next morning we explored the country south of the town
of Chinook, which is on Hwy 2. We drove to the Bear’s Paw Battleground,
where Chief Joseph fought his last battle and then looped around to the west
and then north to get back to Chinook. There were many, many sparrows
(Song, Lark, Chipping, Grasshopper, Savannah, Vesper, and Clay-colored),
Lark Buntings, and a few Chestnut-collared Longspurs on this road. We also
found a pair of Sprague’s Pipits at the Kuhr Reservoir, off of rte. 240. We
also found Gray Catbird and Say’s Phoebe at the battlefield site.

In the afternoon we moved on to Bowdoin NWR a few miles east
of Malta. There we observed some of the many ducks and shorebirds that
nest in this area. We saw Bobolinks, many Wilson’s Phalaropes, Caspian,
Common, and Forster’s Terns, Franklin’s Gull, Baird’s and Stilt Sandpipers,
Long-billed Dowitchers, White-faced Ibis, American Avocets, and Black-necked
Stilts. On a good day in spring, one can easily see over 100 species at
this location. On this hot July afternoon, we were happy to see what was
still there to see.

We wanted to try to find Mountain Plover on this trip. It
breeds in several places in north central and northeastern Montana. The
place we chose to look was Bentonite Road, southwest of Glasgow, which runs
for miles into a dry fairly flat land used primarily for cattle grazing. We
got there early on the morning of July 21 and drove out almost 18 miles on a
sometimes rutted, sometimes one-lane dirt road, checking the place where
Gina Sheridan had seen these plover in 2009. We saw lots of other great
birds: about 15 Sage Grouse—all females and juveniles—in three different
locations, about 8 Loggerhead Shrike all in the same area. Could they be an
extended family? Hundreds of Horned Larks, Meadowlarks, and Vesper
Sparrows. One Prairie Falcon. But no Mountain Plover. When we got back to
Glasgow, we called, a well-known local expert Chuck Carlson. He told us we
had stopped short of the best place to see the plovers. So we would have to
try again.

The next morning we visited Chuck and Jean Carlson in Fort
Peck. They have a wonderful backyard bird sanctuary and regularly host
birders like us and even birding tours to see what’s coming to their
feeders. This morning it was Brown Thrashers, Baltimore Orioles, Blue Jays,
and Black-headed Grosbeaks. We also spotted two Chimney Swifts across from
their house in front of the Fort Peck Hotel.

In the afternoon we headed back out to Bentonite Road, this
time going past the old Bentonite processing building and down a hill into a
large herd of cattle. This time luck was with us and we caught a brief
glimpse of 3 or 4 Mountain Plover flying in front of our car, landing so we
could get a good look, then taking off and vanishing. That was it, but we
felt very satisfied that we had found this elusive bird.

Our total species count for this trip was just over 100.
I’m sure if we went back in June we could easily have added another 20.

Good birding, Charlotte Byers, Seattle

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