I drove north of Great Falls to Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge the other day in search of some beautiful and unobstructed sunrise views. The drive to the refuge, which is managed by US Fish & Wildlife Service, is a short twelve miles from Great Falls, all paved until you turn in to the refuge.
I kept looking to the east, planning for the best sunrise photo of the day. After about 5 miles I stopped at a roadside pull-out, grabbed my camera and stepped out in to the crisp morning breeze. OK, it was more than a breeze blowing across that beautiful grassland. I had taken my bulky jacket off when I got in my warm car so I took a couple of quick photos and jumped back in the car. The jacket was immediately put on and zipped to my neck!
No worries about not getting some good sunrise photos though – the views just kept getting more impressive as I traveled along. The Highwood Mountains were serving as a backdrop to the ever-changing sunrise and I made a LOT of stops and took quite a few photos.
The refuge was quiet with just a few vehicles at the administration office, probably staff getting ready for the day. I took the auto tour route although, as it weaved in different directions I kept glancing back at the sunrise. My final sunrise-photo-stop was rewarding and I silently praised myself for getting another great view. As I turned to get back in my vehicle I missed what was probably the best photo of the day. A large white bird which I’m sure was a snowy owl, took off from a fence post and my camera was off with the lens cap on so I missed the whole episode.
I kept driving through the refuge and almost drove into a brood of pheasants foraging alongside the dirt road. Getting close was difficult but I started taking photos from inside my car so I wouldn’t disturb them. As I inched forward they started to scatter and I made a note to save up for a better camera lens.
The sun was completely up by now but I still had some nice light for photos. I enjoyed the serenity of no traffic and the quiet prairie.
I was almost back to the paved road and caught some motion out of the corner of my eye. At first I thought it was a dog but soon realized it was a coyote in search of his morning meal. He stopped and looked at me for several minutes. I was in my car with the motor running and the passenger window down. Getting out of the car would have probably sent him running and I wanted a photo. He posed and I snapped away on my camera as the soft morning light glistened off of his thick winter coat.
When I got home I counted my successes. I saw a nice sunrise, several pheasants and a coyote. Not bad for a morning drive that was only about an hour long.
Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge is so close to Great Falls, so easily accessible, and so rewarding for wildlife watching.
Sometimes we take for granted what is right in our own back yard.