Here’s the drill, it’s 6am, we are packed and checked out, breakfast is either consumed or in hand, and we are driving south of Havre, MT 10 miles to Beaver Creek Park. This 17 mile long park straddles the paved road giving easy access to several camping areas, fishing gems, and great places for birding.
Although I was tired and probably not ready to start, the first group of birds did get my attention. Think yellow, tons of yellow as in yellow rumped warblers! We decided they must have been moving somewhere and it really was fun to see so much yellow action in the bushes. As we worked our way through the long, narrow park and onto the adjoining Pah-Nah-To Recreation Area on Rocky Boy Reservation, our list grew. Cooper’s hawk, Eastern kingbird, tree swallows, barn swallows, cliff swallows, cedar waxwing, American redstart, spotted towhee, black-headed grosbeak and pine siskin. Some of these birds have small identifying marks that are just slightly different from another bird so it helps to carefully study each new find, carry a bird identification book and have good optics. We didn’t spend much time birding water areas here since we had covered that quite a bit with Freezout and Benton Lake but there are several, easily accessible areas that would offer good viewing for waterfowl.
Back on US Hwy 87, we traveled south to the restored homestead-era community known as Virgelle. After lunch we rode the free river ferry to cross the Missouri, one of three historic river ferries in northcentral Montana. Our afternoon birding stop was just off US Hwy 87 near Loma, MT at Wood Bottom Recreation Area managed by the US Bureau of Land Management.
The area is typical of many along the Missouri River, a fair amount of deadfall cottonwood trees and tall grass. We continued to see different birds here including turkey vulture, bald eagle, Wilson’s snipe and common grackle. My list was growing! Our overnight location was the beautiful Grand Union Hotel in historic Fort Benton, MT, just off US Hwy 87.
For some unknown reason, my birdwatching coach decided we could delay our next day’s start until 8am. It seemed like a dream but then I kept wondering what we were missing by not being out there earlier! We drove by Kingsbury Lake Waterfowl Production Area just past the small community of Geraldine. This is a huge lake area and does require a fair amount of time to walk back to the end of the lake. We used our scope and binoculars and then continued on gravel roads until we were almost near Geyser, MT on MT Hwy 3. Just before we entered Geyser, right along the road, we came upon a heron rookery. The sun was positioned perfectly so we had a great view of the heron shapes and nests.
Although we saw golden eagle, kestrel, black-capped chickadee, chestnut-sided warbler, Western kingbird and Eastern kingbird along the way, I was thinking the heron rookery would top my day. Let me warn you, on some days, I just might have three favorite bird sightings!
Beyond Geyser we approached Stanford, MT and turned south on Dry Wolf forest service road. This was an amazing treat because of the sheer number of bluebirds and bluebird boxes we saw on this well-maintained bluebird trail. Over 7,000 bluebirds have been fledged from these nest boxes since Great Falls resident Bob Niebuhr started the bluebird trail. The true blue color of the male bluebird really stands out along the foothills of the Little Belt Mountains here. While having lunch at Hughes Mountain Lodge we could even spot bluebirds by just looking out the windows. Amazing.
Working our way back to US Hwy 89, we came upon my most favorite bird – the red-naped sapsucker. This bird is on the cover of Russell Country’s beautiful birding brochure and it was my first-ever sighting of it. We spotted three red-naped sapsuckers who paid very little attention to us. It seemed like two of them were fighting and their red heads were easy to spot as they flew around. Truly, my favorite bird!
Our last birding stop of the day was at Sluice Boxes State Park just off US Hwy 89 south of Great Falls, MT. If felt good to walk along Belt Creek and the limestone cliffs, and we saw Swainson’s hawk, red-tailed hawk, long-billed curlew and white-throated swift. As we turned around to walk back to the parking area, something flitted by me very quickly. One bird that I had hoped to see was about to be recorded on our list – the calliope hummingbird. Although fast-flying, this little guy stayed in the same bush until all of us had seen him. I’d like to point out that I saw him first so maybe there’s a little future for me in birdwatching! We decided to rate our birding trip a huge success. Total birds spotted – 118. Wait a minute – on the drive back towards Great Falls, not too far off the highway we saw a wild turkey. Change that number to 119 and call this gal a birdwatcher!