It’s hard to believe, but driving just fifteen minutes north of Great Falls, Montana, a town of 60,000 people, you can be at Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Covering 12,383 acres (19 square miles), this wetland refuge is sprawling. Birders have documented 240 species of birds there. Twenty-eight different species of mammals, including mule deer, white-tailed deer, pronghorn, muskrats, badgers, yellow-bellied marmots, coyotes and more enjoy the terrain at Benton Lake.
A crisp and wintry morning drive found me turning off Bootlegger Trail into the refuge. To the east the most amazing sunrise was peeking through the Highwood Mountains. My goal was to see the wildlife though, so I made a quick stop at the kiosk near the refuge entrance, unpacked my binoculars and started on the Prairie Marsh Wildlife Auto Tour drive. This 9-mile self-guided drive is a gravel road with numbered stops that matched the brochure I picked up at the kiosk.
At first I didn’t see many birds so I stopped my car and waited for about five minutes. Well…all of a sudden I started seeing and hearing different birds. I began driving very slow, literally inching along, and all of a sudden I saw motion ahead. A hen pheasant was taking her babies for a walk and they were going right down the middle of the gravel road. The hen disappeared into tall grass on the side of the road and finally, the chicks started to follow her. Note to self – wash the car window before trying to get photos through it! Opening my car door would have sent that family of pheasants scattering so I didn’t get any great photos.
It was so quiet and peaceful just driving around the refuge. I didn’t see any other vehicles until a bit before 8am when staff were arriving at the refuge office which is open Monday – Friday from 8am – 4pm.
Different seasons on the refuge bring in different wildlife. In spring, usually mid-March, Benton Lake gets migrating snowgeese and tundra swans as they make their way north from southern climates. Area grain fields surrounding Benton Lake Wildlife Refuge provide good feeding grounds for the migrating birds. Bald eagles and peregrine falcons also are plentiful in the spring.
Late spring, usually April – May, is the time to see the sharp-tailed grouse dance. I’ve only done this once and the first thing you need to know is that you get up early, very early, so you can be at the refuge and in the viewing blind before sunrise. It’s worth it though. The blind needs to be reserved ahead of time. The one time I’ve watched the grouse dance was amazing. The males basically show off, strutting around, tail-feathers fanned, an orange pouch that looks like an eyebrow, and they dance or drum the ground. I saw a young male trying to do this and it didn’t take long for one old male grouse to show him he wasn’t ready to compete yet. The females appear to be paying absolutely no attention to the males!
Warmer weather brings in shorebirds to the marshes and by June mostly all of the birds have arrived. I don’t keep a bird check-off list (it would be pretty small) but at Benton Lake is the first place I ever saw chestnut-collared longspurs and burrowing owls. The longspurs were right along the entrance road going in to the refuge – good spotting there – and the burrowing owls were at the north end of the refuge not too far from the edge of a field. I saw what was basically a big dirt mound, stopped to watch it for a minute, and all of a sudden a burrowing owl flew to the mound.
I was almost at the end of the auto tour drive and stopped to get another photo of sunrise. After that I started to get back in to my car and scared an owl that had been sitting not to far from me on a fence post. Darn, I would have rather had a photo of that instead of sunrise! The owl looked fairly light colored so it was either a snowy owl or a great-horned owl. Well, maybe I’ll see one next time.
As I was about ready to turn back on to Bootlegger Trail I had a stare-down with a coyote! That guy didn’t move for quite awhile. I’m sure he was hunting for breakfast but he had a watchful eye on me. After taking a few photos I finally drove off so he could get back to his search for food.
Central Montana has a birding brochure with 12 different trails highlighted and Benton Lake is one of those. You can access the brochure online here or stop at the refuge office for a copy.
Take advantage of our public lands – Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge is so close to Great Falls and is open year round. And, if you see an owl, send us a photo!