Birding Trails in Central Montana

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From the frenzy of a marsh in June to the chorus of grassland birds at dawn; from the bright colors of a mountain bluebird in the foothills to a Clark's nutcracker flapping across breathtaking mountains, the birding trails in Central Montana are packed with amazing sights and sounds for bird lovers.

In a place where fewer than 30 miles stand between the prairies and the continental divide, the Rocky Mountains truly earn their name. Dramatic cliffs provide an abundance of secure nesting sites for raptors, which feed on the nearby plains. Life zones march up to the mountains as the forests change, featuring birds from Lazuli bunting and red-naped sapsucker to Townsend's warbler and pine grosbeak. Island mountain ranges, scattered on the sea of grass to the east, add even more forested land to explore.

Grasslands along the Rocky Mountain Front are some of the largest expanses of unbroken prairie in Montana, supporting outstanding populations of long-billed curlews, chestnut-collared longspurs, Sprague's pipits and ferruginous hawks. The grasslands, a mixture of private cattle ranches and public lands, are a high conservation priority. Agencies, nonprofit organizations and local citizens are working to protect this national treasure.

Lakes, prairie marshes, fens and rivers all act as bird magnets in this water-limited area. The cottonwoods that grow along the rivers don't occupy much of the landscape, but they support an exceptionally high diversity of bird species.

All this varied habitat creates a special place for birders who keep a life list. Specialties include chestnut-collared and McCown's longspurs, sharp-tailed grouse, long-billed curlew, Sprague's pipit, Baird's sparrow, Say's phoebe, calliope hummingbird, Lazuli bunting, red-naped sapsucker, cordilleran flycatcher, Steller's jay, gray jay, Clark's nutcracker, pine grosbeak, Cassin's finch, spruce grouse, varied thrush, Townsend's solitaire, Townsend's warbler, mountain chickadee, western tanager, American three-toed woodpecker, ferruginous hawk, golden eagle, Swainson's hawk, bald eagle, prairie falcon, peregrine falcon, white-throated swift, burrowing owl, great gray owl, northern pygmy-owl, Barrow's goldeneye, eared grebe, white-faced ibis, Wilson's phalarope, yellow-headed blackbird, American avocet, black-necked stilt, Franklin's gull, black tern and gray partridge.

East and West mix here, so bird watchers from both sides of the country find something new - like American dipper and rock wren for Easterners, brown thrasher, upland sandpiper, ovenbird and alder flycatcher for Westerners.

Don't overlook the various owl species. You'll have a good chance of sighting burrowing owl, short-eared owl and great horned owl. Chances of finding other owls are slim, even with our information, but eastern and western screech-owl, northern pygmy-owl, long-eared owl, snowy owl, northern saw-whet owl and great gray owl are all possibilities.

Timing is important to view two bird-watching treats. During the spring migration, tens of thousands of snow geese visit Freezout Lake Wildlife Management Area. While they wait for Canadian wetlands to thaw, the snow geese fill the skies with goose music when they lift off in awesome flocks to feed in nearby grain fields. Also in spring, birders can view the courtship dance of the sharp-tailed grouse from a blind at Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Yes, the males really do raise an orange eyebrow and puff out a violet neck sac as they dance their mincing steps!

Fact is, Montana has more bird watchers per capita than any other state. Come to the 13 counties known as Central Montana and find out why!

Pointers for Wildlife Watchers

  • Keep the welfare of wildlife first. Stand well back, especially around nests and dens, feeding and display areas.
  • Don’t attract threatened, endangered or otherwise sensitive species with recordings.
  • Be mindful of grizzly bears along the Rocky Mountain Front. Keep your food in a vehicle or bear-proof container. Refrain from hanging seed or hummingbird feeders. If you intend to hike, learn about grizzlies and carry spray in a holster.
  • When bird watching from a road, pull safely to the side or use a gate approach when you stop. Make sure hills and curves don’t hide you from behind.
  • Don’t enter private property without permission.
  • Don’t walk through prairie dog towns.
  • Be courteous to other recreationists.
  • Follow agency regulations for each site, including leash rules for dogs.
  • Stay on roads and trails.
  • Dispose of waste.
  • Leave what you find so others can enjoy it.
  • If you camp, use established fire rings or lightweight stove for cooking.


Download the “Birding Trails in Central Montana” Brochure

Central Montana Birding