I’ll admit, when we checked out of the Fairfield Park Inn in Fairfield, MT at 6am for our second day of birding, I was tired. Surely, the same birds would still be there at 8am!
It didn’t take long for my enthusiasm to come back when we traveled west of Choteau, MT along Bellview Road and saw McCown’s longspur, Cassin’s finch, prairie falcons, kestrals, bluebirds, sharp-tailed grouse and sandhill cranes. I knew about bluebird boxes on the fenceposts but wasn’t aware of the much larger and higher up kestral boxes. Because of the open terrain here along the Rocky Mountain Front it seemed easier to spot some of the birds, especially the raptors. I also smugly felt that maybe I was just getting better at this! A few other species we spotted included Wilson’s snipe, bobolinks, marbled godwit and golden eagles.
We came back to US Hwy 89 and drove south to Freezout Lake Wildlife Management Area near Fairfield, MT. The marshes and grasslands are on both sides of the highway here so even for an amateur, you can spot birds as you travel this north-south highway. We took several of the driving loops through Freezout and found a great spot to set up our scope and really watch the birds.
We saw a fair amount of ducks here, also eared grebe and Western grebe. It sure helped to have good optics to detect the different markings. I’ve started my holiday wish-list with an upgrade of my binoculars. Several of our many sightings at Freezout included American white pelican, black-necked stilt, American avocet, Wilson’s phalarope and pheasant. My favorite bird here was the Forster’s tern. At first glance it looks like a remote-controlled toy shaped like a bird, winding itself up, then crashing straight down into the water in search of food. I was fascinated. We were at Freezout mid to late afternoon and birds were plentiful. This would be an easy stop for people traveling on US Hwy 89 any time of day.
Our next day found us leaving Great Falls and driving north about 12 miles to Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge. On the way to the refuge headquarters and visitor center, still in our vehicle, we spotted a chestnut-collared longspur. That was another bird on my list that I wanted to see ever since I had seen it grace the cover of northeastern Montana’s birding brochure. They seem plentiful and we saw several at Benton Lake NWR. After stopping at the visitor center, we began driving along the auto route, watching a huge variety of waterfowl. We also strolled on the new walkway built to enable viewers to get closer to the water. Sightings included eared grebe, white-faced ibis (an awkward looking bird), upland sandpiper, Wilson’s phalarope, Franklin’s gull, Western kingbird, red-winged blackbird and yellow-headed blackbird (easy to identify). Now, for my favorite at this site – we saw burrowing owls! They nest on the ground and the dirt where they nest is mounded. Other than that, the nest is difficult to spot because this one was just at the end of a farmer’s field. Benton Lake NWR proved to be a relaxing area for us, great sunshine, perfect temperatures.
We continued our drive on US Hwy 87 until we got to the junction of MT Hwy 223 near Fort Benton. Then we headed due north towards Chester and Lake Elwell, also known as Tiber Reservoir. The site we birded here was Sanford Park, a free campground managed by US Bureau of Reclamation.
We had the campground to ourselves and were able to sight an osprey as we arrived, then a Northern harrier, Ferruginous hawk, Eurasian collared-dove, least fly-catcher, loggerhead shrike, bank swallow, house wren, varied thrush, chipping sparrow and lark sparrow. The most memorable sighting at Sanford Park wasn’t a bird, it was a baby raccoon. We spent quite a bit of time watching this little guy practice his climbing skills. It’s easy to lose track of time and we ended up being slightly late to travel east on US Hwy 2 to Havre that evening. Our next day called for an early start so dinner was scheduled and bedtime was welcomed.