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Birdwatching with Upper Missouri Breaks Audubon Club

Beth with bird bookFor a Saturday morning, I was up and moving fairly early. My electrical power went off around 4:45am, at least that's when I noticed the clock blinking. I didn't get up then but it seemed like I looked at the clock almost 30 times between then and 6:15.

MT Fish, Wildlife & Parks had partnered with the local Upper Missouri Breaks Audubon Club for an escorted birdwatching event at Giant Springs State Park.

I always say I am a "wannabe birder" - someone who has an interest in birding but the learning curve seems incredibly long. Individual bird calls, very detailed species names, less than stellar optics, all seem to challenge my birding capabilities.

At Giant Springs State Park this morning I joined local vet Beth Hill (our Upper Missouri Audubon rep), a visitor from Colorado and another local gal.

I could tell right away that I was at the bottom of the learning curve when it came to bird identification. I am always eager to learn though! Binoculars were available from MT FWP and I chose to borrow from them instead of using my inexpensive and old ones.  

Audubon groupWe started in the manicured lawn part of Giant Springs State Park. Beth checked her bird book right away to determine a species and I believe it was one of the flycatchers (possibly the least flycatcher).

The next bird we saw was the pee wee. Beth identified this right away by it's call and we hadn't even seen it. Yup, I was impressed! It wasn't too long before we saw one of my favorites - a yellow warbler. Maybe it's the bright color that makes it easy to see, maybe it's because they are frequently in groups - but I can always spot them. They are little but oh, so colorful.

As we wandered towards the springs area of the park Beth pointed out a great horned owl. I've seen owls in the park before but gosh, they blend in with the trees and I had a difficult time finding this owl. It was just one young owl sitting all by itselt, but it still looked fair sized on the tree branch. And, I didn't really see the bird until we were on the other side of the tree. What beautiful colors with several shades of tans and brown on the feathers - thank you MT FWP for good binocs!

We worked our way down to the Missouri River, then followed the river west. I was Cliff swallowssurpised to see quite a few walkers, no other birders, and we saw one photographer. The photographer had his camera set on a tripod and it looked like he was photographing cliff swallows.

The cliff swallows were fun to watch. Jeez, there were a lot of them. They don't show well on this photo but they were busy! In and out, zooming around. We wondered if they had young ones they were feeding. This type of terrain seemed well suited for their little mud huts.

Further along the trail we spotted an osprey in the air. As we watched, we saw several small birds picking on him. The osprey kept trying to get away but the smaller birds kept at him. My photo just shows one little bird but there were several who kept attacking the osprey.

Bullock's orioles, white pelicans, Franklin's gulls and California gulls, a bald eagle, kingfisher or kindbird (can't remember which one), catbird...and I know there were more. I wish I had taken my notebook with me but I was already juggling binoculars, a water bottle and a camera.

OspreyWe walked as far as the back area (river camp) of the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center. The area behind the center was filled with a variety of birds - we could have spent a lot more time there but Beth realized we were already over the planned time and she had to go to work.

Everyone learned something, we had a pleasant walk, saw an amazing amount of birds and made new friends. I'd say that was a good way to spend a couple of hours on a Saturday morning!

Central Montana's birding brochure is available at http://centralmontana.com/birding/ or by calling 800-527-5348 to have one mailed. It is a great free resource for 12 different birding routes in Central Montana.

Enjoy watching the amazing birds in Central Montana!




Pie Research Continues at Fairfield's Cozy Corner

Cozy CornerToday seemed to be a slow day in the office, or maybe I was just wishing it was. I decided to take a couple hours after lunch and drive to Fairfield, MT and do some pie research.

Fairfield is a small town about 36 miles from Great Falls. The town has about 700 people, many involved in agriculture. This community proudly states they are the Malting Barley Capital of the World. And, believe me, there is a lot of malt barley grown there. A massive irrigation system, Greenfields Irrigation, delivers water to all those barley fields so yields are high.

We hope to put together a pie trail throughout Central Montana, a fun way to showcase some of the great restaurants serving homemade pie. And...making homemade pies.

As I drove in to Fairfield I was amazed at how pretty the town looked. There were flowers in all of the planters on the streets and even US flags all down the main street. Then I saw a banner welcoming people to Fairfield's annual event called Swim Days, a fundraiser for the town's swimming pool.

Michelle Beachy pieIt's always great to have some one-on-one time with the pie baker at the restaurant and when I arrived they were really busy, especially because of their annual event. I repeat, really busy!

I told the waitress what I was doing after she gave me the list of pies in the cooler. I asked if the pie baker was available and the waitress quickly disappeared to check. The answer - of course the baker was available and I was welcome to go back in the kitchen and chat with her.

After visiting with Michelle, the owner and pie baker, I learned that all of their pie crusts are homemade, all of their pudding fillings are homemade and all of their fruit fillings are homemade. You can't beat that! She also whipped cream, none of that readymade stuff here.

The pie I saw being created was tripleberry with a layer of vanilla pudding (yes, homemade pudding), then the homemade tripleberry filling, then it was topped with real whipped cream. What a delight!

pie at Cozy CornerI asked what the local favorite pie was and Michelle said they all sold well, although favorites changed a bit seasonally. Then she said she thought chocolate cream was probably their largest seller.

They also own Golden Harvest Cafe in Dutton, MT and she said the best seller there was strawberry rhubarb.

Today's choices at the Cozy Corner included tripleberry, red raspberry, peanut butter and peach. I decided to try red raspberry and I was not disappointed. Yum.

The Cozy Corner is open Monday - Saturday from 6:30am to 3pm with longer hours until 8pm on Thursdays and Fridays.

If you are traveling along US Hwy 89 watch for Fairfield and...time your stop to have some homemade pie at the Cozy Corner. Well, anytime is pie time in Central Montana!




Rafting the Missouri River

Raft tripDuring the month of June it seems like we had nothing but rain in Central Montana. We don't usually complain about moisture but I was eager for summer-like weather. 

By the end of the month everything changed and now it seems like we have hit our summer high temps big-time. My answer to that was to cool down with a river trip!

We decided to spend about a half day on the Missouri River launching at a location called Mid Canon. That river launch is frequently mispelled. The launch is about midway through Wolf Creek Canyon...you get where I'm going with that! Many people call it Mid Canyon.  

Our raft trip was with Montana River Outfitters based in Great Falls, and they provided everything - raft, oars, dry bags and life jackets. We brought sunscreen. hats and several friends. After a safety talk we launched the raft.

I am always so amazed at the terrain in Wolf Creek Canyon. Interstate 15 south of Cascade cuts right through this beautiful rocky canyon and the scenery is jaw-dropping whether you are on the interstate, the frontage road or the river.

Rafting tripThe Adel Mountain range is on both sides of the Missouri River here. This unique geography was formed by volcanic rock.

The raft trip was wonderful. Not only did the water feel good, we also saw a nice variety of birds and several deer. We floated as far as the Mountain Palace take-out where our shuttle was waiting.

As we were climbing out of the raft and unpacking everything we saw a father and son launching in a kayak. They had a small dog with them and each had a fishing rod. Their actual destination was a secret but they knew the river, fished here frequently and had plans to catch something for dinner.

They made a colorful photo in their kayak.

There are several outfitters who work on Central Montana's rivers and streams. You can rent watercraft or have them guide and paddle for you.

We had such a good time and we all said...why don't we do this more often? Well, I hope we do!




Intrigued by Fort Assinniboine near Havre

Fort signFort Assinniboine is located about six miles from Havre on US Hwy 87. Ask a few Montanans if they know about it and you would probably get a mix of comments.

The fort sits just a bit off the highway and if you aren't watching for it you could easily pass it by - until now. Supporters of Fort Assinniboine have recently put up a new, brightly colored sign directing folks where to turn.

I've been fortunate to tour Fort Assinniboine several times. And, there is so much history there I learn something new each time!

The fort was constructed from 1877 - 1879. The United States Army had taken many losses during the Battle of the Little Big Horn in eastern Montana (remember General Custer?).

Several Indian tribes used routes that intersected near the area of Fort Assinniboine so this fort was strategically located to ward off any issues with them.

At first glance it didn't look like any frontier forts I have toured. No perimeter fence surrounds the fort and I always thought that was standard. The remaining buildings Fort Assinniboine barracks(originally over 100, now about a dozen) are all brick construction.

Wives and families accompanied officers stationed at Fort Assinniboine so there is a social hall where our tour guide said there would have been dances and other social events.

I think the remaining buildings look very regal. A brick tower stands at the end of a row of living quarters (today we would call them attached homes or condos!). Large windows, all trimmed in white, doorways with sidelight windows and a boardwalk line the living quarters. Pretty fancy digs for the late 1800's and you can see why this fort was dubbed "a grand military post".

John J. Pershing, aka Black Jack Pershing, had an early assignment at Fort Assinniboine, long before he became the highest ranking officer in the US military. At MSU Northern's campus in Havre one of the campus buildings is named Pershing Hall after Black Jack.

During Fort Assinniboine's operation there were two units of the 10th Cavalry stationed Entrance Fort Assinniboinethere. A large contingent of Buffalo Soldiers were also at the fort, something new to this part of the United States. Indians gave them the name "buffalo soldiers" after comparing them to plains buffalo (bison) because their fighting abilities reminded them of the mightly sacred buffalo.

Fort Assinniboine closed in 1911. Part of the fort land was given to Rocky Boy Indian Reservation whose land adjoined it. Another portion of the land was given to Hill County to create the county-operated and owned Beaver Creek Park.  

As you take the turn in to the fort today you see a sign for MSU Extension's agriculture experiment station. They use part of the old fort buildings and land to test varieties of crops that could be introduced to area farmers.

All tours of Fort Assinniboine are guided and there is a docent stationed there during the summer seven days a week (Monday - Friday from 9am to 5pm; Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5pm). A small fee is charged for the tours - well worth it!




Buffalo Tours on Fort Belknap Indian Reservation

Ft Belknap VICI recently visited Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, located near Harlem, Montana. If you are driving on US Hwy 2 in Central Montana you'll drive right through the northern part of the reservation.

Fort Belknap, established in 1888, is home to the Gros Ventre (pronounced Grovon) and the Assiniboine people. The word Belknap is pronounced with a silent "k" so it sounds like belnap.

Quite a few years ago a tribal buffalo herd was established and there are now about 300-400 in that herd.

This past year about 32 buffalo from Yellowstone National Park were relocated to Fort Belknap. This was an effort to keep the size of the Yellowstone population in proportion to the amount of food/grazing available in the national park.

My scheduled tour was to see the Yellowstone herd which was about twenty minutes south of the Visitor Information Center on Fort Belknap (see photo above). As we left the Visitor Center (at Don Addy Memorial Park & Campground) I saw lots of photo ops but I didn't want to delay our touring schedule so we didn't make any stops.

Ft Belknap buffaloAs we traveled south on Hwy 66 the terrain became rolling. Plenty of recent moisture had covered those rolling hills with lots of green grass. We turned off the highway into a fenced-off part of the buffalo pasture and one traveler with our group instantly saw the buffalo grazing on a hill in the distance.

The buffalo looked so docile - big and cumbersome - and like they couldn't run if they tried. Well, our tour guide told us they definitely could run and they can pretty much go where they seriously want to go.

Fencing surrounding the massive pasture was extra tall and very substantial. I can't even imagine how long it took to build that fence.

With the help of some long camera lenses we were able to get some nice photos. Some of the herd seemed to pose, others completely ignored us and kept grazing. I liked the calves, still much lighter in color than their parents. In the photos you can see how much the large buffalo were shedding.

This big, beautiful American icon is truly impressive and they are important to Native American culture.

Smokehouse GrillFort Belknap has plans to process buffalo jerky for retail sale. You can also order a buffalo burger at the Smokehouse Grille on the northern part of Fort Belknap.

The drive to the buffalo pasture was picturesque and we heard many oral history stories from our local tour guide.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching the buffalo in their natural environment and I learned some interesting history about the area.




Major Addition to Choteau's Stage Stop Inn

Stage Stop InnI've been hearing about the addition to the Stage Stop Inn on Choteau's Main Street for awhile so I was excited to see the finished product last week.

I've stayed at the Stage Stop before and have always like the fact that they tie in a local theme for decor. 

With rooms on two floors, a swimming pool, complimentary breakfast room and a nice lobby, it seemed complete. Well, their vision grew and so did the motel!

There are now a total of 77 sleeping rooms, with the additional rooms expanded to the north of the original structure and on three floors. If you are on the third floor facing west you'll have amazing views of the Rocky Mountain Front. 

Connecting the original hotel to the new part is The Livery Saloon, a small and cleverly decorated full-liquor lounge. An original sliding barn door screens off a handful of gaming machines from the main saloon.

Just beyond the saloon is the Rocky Mountain Events Center with 3,200 square feet of meeting/event space. 

Saloon Stage Stop InnThe entire meeting space can be broken down into four separate rooms, all with names taken from areas of the nearby Rocky Mountain Front -North Fork, South Fork, Our Lake and Ear Mountain.    

A top notch catering kitchen is just off the entrance to the Rocky Mountain Events Center and staff had prepared a handout listing items that are included or available for room rentals and also an ala carte menu for functions.

As I toured the "new" Stage Stop Inn I could hear the pride in voices of local residents who were seeing it for the first time.

Staff was excited (probably exhausted from last minute details) and everyone was enjoying this great addition to Choteau, Montana.




MT Fish, Wildlife & Parks Celebrates 75 Years

MT WildcatsWhat a grand celebration idea for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks for their 75th anniversary.

Tonight they held a concert at Giant Springs State Park on the east edge of Great Falls.

I had seen the information in the newspaper and I really like to support different events like this. But, I was lucky to have overnight family guests all weekend and I had a ton of things I thought I needed to get done before the work week began. If I skipped the concert and stayed home I thought I may get more done.

Oh, to heck with checking things off my list!

I grabbed a lawn chair, a jacket and my camera and out to Giant Springs I went.

One of the compelling reasons I went was I want people to be successful when they have events like these. I wondered if many would show up.

Our weekend weather had been one cloudburst after another. Today was the best day of the weekend but we still had quick rainshowers several times. I've learned never to Giant Spring upper parkingcomplain about rain in Montana. We are a state that has incredibly low humidity and not much rainfall. Our moisture comes during the winter months and melts in the spring so we aren't very used to rain.

Giant Springs State Park is just a mile or so past Eagle Falls Golf Course and just beyond the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center. As I approached Giant Springs I saw some flashing lights.

Fish, Wildlife & Parks had a truck parked with it's lights flashing in an effort to slow traffic down. They were directing traffic to the the upper parking and picnic area so I assumed at least the lower (and closest) parking lot was filled. That was a good sign that some folks were supporting this. Well, it ended up being a lot more than some! 

When I turned in to the upper parking area I didn't know if there were even any spots left and that's a huge place.

The attendant said to take a right, then another right, then look for parking. Jeez - I don't think I've seen that many cars there in a long time!

Giant SpringsGood weather (finally), noted musicians (Chester, MT recording artist Philip Aaberg and his group the Montana Wildcats), no cost - they probably all contributed to the success of this event.

Artist Monte Dolack introduced the group and they began playing. 

I looked around the crowd and I could see people fishing in the Missouri River, two people in a kayak, families visiting and kids playing. What a varied mix of people, and all seemed to be having a great time.

The gurgling of the giant spring combined with lots of bird chatter and happy people. You couldn't have found a more perfect setting.

I'm so thankful I went to this concert.  




Woodblock Print Exhibit at Bair Museum

Edith Freeman printsAbout one mile from the little town of Martinsdale is the prettiest ranch home setting. Years ago it was the home of Charles M. Bair and his family. After Charles' passing, his daughters Alberta and Marguerite lived on the ranch. Neither of the daughters had children, and the home, surrounding buildings and property were left as a museum for the people of Montana.

The 26 room home is certainly a treat to tour but the two-year old visitor center is on my "not-to-miss" list. It is completely climate controlled with lighting designed to not harm the artwork and a design to fit in with the ranch buildings.

There are permanent displays in the Visitor Center but a temporary display of Edith Freeman's woodblock prints in the Special Projects Gallery is what caught my eye on my recent visit to the Bair.

Montana native Edith Freeman (1913 - 1992) was an artist, teacher and rancher. She was born on her grandparents ranch near Broadview and later moved to Billings. After a teaching career in eastern Montana she retired and began a second career as a printmaker.

Tools woodblock printsEastern Montana's landscape is filled with yucca and sage, sandstone rims and cottonwood-lined creek bottoms. These were the topics of many of the woodblock prints on display.

The tools she used weren't delicate or complicated, they were actually fairly simple. The layering of colors and designs would be the complicated and detailed part of woodblock prints. You would want your color wheel handy in order to determine what color you would finally end up with after layers of colors.

This unique display is worth the drive. It will be at the Bair Museum, on loan from the Yellowstone Art Museum, until October 31, 2014.




Bair Museum near Martinsdale. Truly Amazing!

Bair Museum sheepwagonIt didn't start out to be a classic Central Montana road trip but it sure ended up that way!

Two of us were on our way to a meeting in Red Lodge, MT and decided to take a route that we hadn't done in awhile. About 25 miles east of Great Falls we turned south on to US Hwy 89 and started a stunningly beautiful drive on the Kings Hill Scenic Byway (more about the scenic byway in a future blog).

At the junction of US Hwys 89 and 12 we turned east. As we drove past Lake Sutherlin and the Bair Reservoir I saw no one fishing or camping. It was Sunday afternoon so perhaps everyone had gone home after a weekend of enjoying the outdoors but...someone could have had a private camping and fishing experience with your own lake, filled with a future dinner! 

We turned off Hwy 12 at the sign for Martinsdale and in just one mile the Bair Museum appeared. This huge complex includes the 26-room ranch home of the Bair Family - expanded multiple times over by Charlie Bair's daughters Alberta and Marguerite. Oh, to have been able to go shopping with those gals! After they spent several months a Cortes paintingyear traveling (in the US and Europe) exploring and shopping, they would return home, ship their items back and then have to add on to the house.

My favorite photo op when I drive up to the Bair Museum is the sheepherder's wagon shown above. On a docent-led tour of the family's home you learn the ranching and sheep raising history of Charlie Bair.

After we parked the car our first stop was the new (a couple of years old) museum and visitor center. What a showpiece - 7,300 square feet, completely climate controlled, museum quality design, and it fits right in with the other structures on the ranch.

We paid a nominal admission fee (yes, I qualified for the senior discount) and began slowly absorbing the stunning displays.

From Charles M. Russell paintings and illustrated letters to Joseph Henry Sharp oils, Native American artifacts and rugs, Edouard Cortes oils and Edward S. Curtis photogravures, it was a feast for the senses.

An interactive kiosk is placed in the gallery with Native American artifacts and it gave information about each piece in the display. We had planned a fairly quick Native Amer display Bairoverview/visit to the Bair Museum but it soon became a major stop on our drive.

An exhibit on loan from the Yellowstone Art Museum is displayed in the special projects gallery and features wood block prints by Montana native Edith Freeman. More on this to come! I can do an entire blog about this display and what I learned about printmaking.

Another long-term loan is a display titled The Big Elk Creek Cache. Artifacts found years ago and preserved by a local resident are a testament to Native American heritage in this area.

Volunteers at the museum were so helpful - both knowledgeable and friendly. There was just one other couple in the museum while we were there but the volunteers said it had been a busy day for them with a steady stream of visitors.

The Bair Museum is such a treasure. Visitors can learn an amazing amount of history, view eclectic displays in the home, and learn to appreciate the vast variety of art and art techniques once used.

Bair gift shopThere is also a gift shop with local and Montana made items and some additional displays about Charlie Bair and his ranching life.

The museum is open seasonally from May to October and it is just one mile from the little community of Martinsdale. Full disclosure here - a scrumptious piece of homemade rhubarb pie was consumed at the Crazy Mountain Inn in Martinsdale after our visit to the Bair Museum. All that touring makes me hungry!  

Start planning your Central Montana road trip and I highly recommend allowing plenty of time at the Bair Museum!




War Horse Natl Wildlife Refuge. A True Gem Near Winnett

Driving to WinnettI have known about War Horse National Wildlife Refuge for quite awhile. But, it's taken me quite awhile to get there and enjoy it!

Finally, an opportunity to be near Winnett happened and I told several people I was definitely planning on visiting War Horse.

I was driving east on MT Hwy 200 and looking for some type of sign that said to turn to go to the refuge. Information on U. S. Fish & Wildlife's website said to turn north at Teigen. I've heard of Teigen (pronounced Tay-gun) but didn't recall anything there. There are large, well-maintained ranch buildings and a sign that says Teigen ranch but most roads looked private.

I kept driving and about twelve miles past Teigen was the turn for Winnett. Winnett sits about a half mile off the highway on the south side. I drove around town and decided to stop at the Kozy Korner Cafe. While my breakfast was cooking I asked the waitress about the War Horse refuge. Bummer - she wasn't familiar with it but she was quick to say she hadn't been born and raised in the area.

War Horse signAnother customer came in and the waitress said she was sure he would know since he worked for the county road department. He was a wealth of knowledge and by the way he described the two lakes or reservoirs I sensed that he had a great fondness for the area.

He told me I needed to turn around and go back towards Teigen, the former townsite, which I would reach before I got to the ranch. There is an old two story building near the turn (a former hotel) and the county road is the Blakeslee Road.

My breakfast was ready and I ate it quickly because I was eager to get back on the road. As I drove back on Hwy 200 I couldn't believe I could have missed the sign for the refuge. Well, there is not a sign on the highway!

The old hotel was a photo waiting to happen though. I bet that was a neat old building in its prime. There is also a grain bin beside the hotel and I had been told to watch for both.

I never saw a sign for Blakeslee Road but I turned north there anyway. The terrain was a rolling plain and it was cattle ranching country. After going about 5 miles on this road I finally saw a sign that said War Horse Acid shale forestNational Wildlife Refuge. It was comforting to know that I had taken the correct turn!

One thing I wanted to see was the acid shale forest. I had learned about this from an avid birdwatcher who lived in western Montana. What a treat to see this amazing ponderosa pine forest. The soil is fragile and incredibly acidic and there is lots of shale, hence the name. The Bureau of Land Management has labeled the forest an area of critical environmental concern. It is a mystery to me how these pine trees grow in this area but they cover 225 acres. If you look closely you see very little grass, just bare shale soil under the trees.

Beyond the acid shale forest I found War Horse Lake. I parked my car near a cement bridge, grabbed my camera and walked along the lake. It was so quiet! Well, there were many birds chirping but no people, no traffic - nothing except the wildlife.

A killdeer was hopping along the shore and I wondered if there was a nest nearby. It kept going back and forth and I finally saw a second killdeer. Their call sounds like kill-dee, and that's how they got the name killdeer.

KilldeerThis area has good habitat for sage grouse, pronghorn (I saw several), prairie dogs, mule deer and rattlesnakes (thankfully I didn't see these).

There are actually three units in the War Horse National Wildlife Refuge - War Horse, Wild Horse (both north of the highway) and Yellow Water which is about 8 miles south of Winnett. A customer at the Kozy Korner told me he fishes at Yellow Water and catches trout that are stocked there.

My trip to Winnett reminded me that there are hidden gems all over this state and, I had just found another one!



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