Summer Birds – 2021

New birds are becoming quiet and are harder to find normally in July.  They can just plain disappear to get relief from the heat like we had in July.  The new birds dropped off considerably.  Five of the 6 new birds were spotted on the field trip to the Sluice Boxes.  Perhaps most surprising was the American Kestrel.  I didn’t see my first one until July 10th.  A Northern Waterthrush, the Red-naped Sapsucker, Cordilleran Flycatcher and a Warbling Vireo rounded out the new sightings.  Later in the month a Peregrine Falcon at Benton Lake completed the new birds for the month.  The river level at West Bank Park was fluctuating the whole month.  Some days there was a lot of mud bar exposure and others none at all. On low days the gulls would gather on the mud flats along with American Avocets, Killdeer and an occasional sandpiper.  One evening there were more than 40 Killdeer racing about – some days they all want to say something at the same time.  The interesting days are when they are silent and after I am finished counting, I am amazed that so many Killdeer can be so quiet.  Spotted Sandpipers seemed to have been successful again this year.  At times there are groups of 4 or 5.  Gull numbers and proportions change through out the month.  This year the predominant gull was California – they even hatched some young ones in the area of West Bank Park.  When the Franklin’s Gulls started to show up the California Gull numbers started to dip.  Shortly after Ring-billed Gulls were showing up.  Most years Ring-billed Gulls were the predominant gull.  By the end of July the California Gulls were in the minority.

August would prove to be just as challenging.  Although Yellow Warblers were still around few are singing.  The young birds just “chip”.  So do a lot of other young birds.  The river level still fluctuates.  On one particularly hot evening when the river was low, I went out for a walk because it was breezy and felt better than being stuck inside.  It was an interesting evening.  There were quite a few sandpipers.  Most appeared to be Semi-palmated Sandpipers.  I wished some to be Western but I think they were just juveniles with fresh plumages.  The yellow light due to the smoke can make judging colors difficult.  There were Solitary Sandpipers (one group of three which contradicted their name), Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpipers, Great Blue Heron, American Avocets, and a Black-bellied Plover (number 169). It was more enjoyable because I met two others bird watching that evening.  August 25th the river was dropping once again and there was shallow water – and more sandpipers.  Holy cow – 16 Stilt Sandpipers (number 170).  They were so obvious with their heavy, long, drooping bill and yellow legs.  They aren’t very large – there were some Lesser Yellowlegs and a Wilson’s Phalarope.  All a very similar size.  It was exciting to see – and they were back the next evening – all 16! And they have continued to the end of the month.  Amazing.  A visit to Giant Springs on the 29th did not result in a Neotropic Cormorant sighting, but a Brown Thrasher (number 171) was spotted lurking through bushes.  (The Neotropic, see page 6, was seen again on August 30th). Several fall warblers (Yellow-rumped, Wilson’s and Orange-crowned) were spotted as well.  Let the fall migration begin.

8 months into the year.  What will the fall warbler migration bring?  Will I find some of those “misses”?  Can I possibly get close to 200 species for Cascade County in one year?  It seems like a stretch at this point.  Stay tuned.  Beth Hill


First People’s Buffalo Jump – Field Trip Report June 26, 2021

First People’s Buffalo Jump – June 26, 2021

We had 5 people on different parts of our field trip to First People’s Buffalo Jump on June 26th.  It was sunny and got warm quickly.  We started at the lower prairie dog town on Ulm-Vaughn Road.  Western Meadowlarks were calling here and there.  Horned Larks were also flitting about.  We took the established walking trail through the prairie dog town pausing frequently to scan for Burrowing Owls.  First up was a pair of Long-billed Curlew.  They circled us, calling and complaining. Did they have some young hidden nearby?  With that thought in mind we didn’t linger too long.  The frequent scanning paid off – ONE Burrowing Owl was spotted near a prairie dog hole on the far side of the colony.  A spotting scope was very helpful in locating the small bird.  We looped around uphill hearing the frequent calls of Vesper Sparrows.  As we neared the top we heard the unmistakable call of a Red-tailed Hawk.  It wasn’t long before we spotted it on the cliff face.  It soon took to the air.  We wondered if there was a nest in the cliffs but didn’t see anything obvious.  Violet-green Swallows were enjoying the uplift by the cliff face.  Spotted Towhees were calling from the bushes, but could we find one?  Not yet.  A very plain sparrow called from the top of some grass – a Brewer’s Sparrow!  We went on to see and hear several more.  The Red-tailed Hawk had a mate because soon we had a different hawk soaring overhead.  As we finished this part of the walk a pair of Turkey Vultures skirted the area.  We headed up to the upper prairie dog town to walk the loop on the cliff overlooking the jump site.  Many Rock Wrens live on this face of the cliffs.  We finally spotted a Spotted Towhee and there were more Vesper, grasshopper and Brewer’s Sparrows.  A large flock of birds was flying about – Rock Pigeons!  A Killdeer, Brown-headed Cowbird, Grackle, American Robin and Black-billed Magpie rounded out the bird list.  It was sunny and getting hot.  We called it quits at 11 am satisfied with the challenges and rewards of grassland birding that morning (at least for the author).

Arod Field Trip Report – June 12, 2021

June 12 – Arod Lake Field Trip Report

With Dave and Vivi Shea in the lead we made our annual June visit to Arod Lake.  We always find something new and different even after I don’t know how many years (10?).  We had 10 people make the trip.  It was a cool pleasant day that was mostly sunny.  It isn’t hard to find the colonies of nesting American White Pelicans, California Gulls, Ring-bill Gulls and Double-crested Cormorants.  They are on islands in the lake.  With a spotting scope we could see several age classes of each.  The young cormorants were nearly the size of the adults, but still feeding by thrusting their head into a parent’s crop.  Their nests are on little piles of hay.  The gulls appear to just lay them on the ground in a scrape.  The pelicans have a small pile of plant material.  There were pelicans still sitting on eggs, some that were barely 24 hours old and others that were already developing their feathers.  We watched as one unfortunate one day pelican was grabbed by a California Gull – and swallowed.  We wondered how many new hatch birds (gulls, pelicans and cormorants) met the same fate.  There are thousands of gulls (both California and Ringbill) and hundreds of pelicans.  It can get noisy.  We walked around the lake to the headgate before returning to our cars.  We examined several teepee rings and various plants as well.  What else did we have on our Arod bird list?  Red-winged Blackbird, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Ring-necked Pheasant, Marbled Godwit, Wilson’s Phalarope, Mallard Duck, Cliff Swallow, Red-tailed Hawk (1), Grasshopper Sparrow (1), Franklin’s Gull (3), Marsh Wren, Common Yellowthroat, Sora (1), Black-headed Cowbird, Horned Lark, Black Tern (3)(the first Black Terns we’ve seen in our many trips), Killdeer, Forster’s Tern (1), Long-billed Curlew, Willet, Coot, Cinnamon Teal, Blue-winged Teal, American Wigeon, Canvasback, Pied-billed Grebe (1), Redhead, Northern Shoveler, Ruddy Duck, and Canada Goose.

4 of us from Great Falls decided to look for Chestnut Collared Longspurs that might be seen by driving “mud road” around Freezout Lake.  We drew a blank there but did find a nice Lark Bunting.  A “lifer” for 3 and a “FOY” (first of year) for the 4th passenger.  3 ½ hours later the bird list was nearly as varied as the Arod bird list.  There were hundreds of Wilson’s Phalaropes and Gadwall.  We saw a Sora take flight for about 20 yards.  They hardly have appendages that you could call wings.  There were more sparrows, teal, “brown ducks”, American Avocets, White-faced Ibis, Black-crowned Night Heron, pelicans, and a Clark’s and Western Grebe couple with a pair on kids on one parent’s back.  The little heads would pop up off and on as we watched.  It was a long day (although it seemed like minutes) packed with great birds, and great company.

June Birds – A Surprise Lifer

Front and Center
Do you see the white outline at the corner of the mouth? There is no orange above the eye, just the small patch. And the tail – pretty long.

June was a big surprise.  June can be considered a “slow” birding month because spring migration is complete, many birds have stopped singing to spend time with nesting activities.  Fall migration gets going in July.  But, if you don’t look, you won’t see them.  What was seen?  To start off – I managed to observe 104 different species.  The furthest trip was to Arod and Freezout Lakes on June 12th.  The biggest surprise and mystery was the report of a Neotropical Cormorant at Giant Springs State Park the morning of June 23rd.  Less than a week earlier the very first report of one in the state of Montana was in Billings.  It was still being seen when this bird was found.  Alex Lamoreaux was with a group of birders that spotted it and quickly reported the rare sighting.  I found out about it while I was waiting for “quitting time”.  I dropped everything, locked the doors and was headed out within 15 minutes.  The location was clearly described as “upstream of Steamboat Island” in the mix of Double-crested Cormorants.  I grabbed a field guide and reviewed the identification on the way to Giant Springs (I wasn’t driving).  My husband and I searched the area for 90 minutes.  A group of fledgling cormorants didn’t make the task easier.  We were looking for a 23” cormorant with a long tail, slim body and lacking the big orange gular pouch.  Even the fledglings Double-crested Cormorants were adult sized (33”).  I finally spotted something down on the “gull rock” that caught my eye.  It took off and flew upriver towards us and landed in the river.  It did some fishing, then was gone.  It appeared to be smaller and didn’t have a big orange area.  It was too far for pictures and no bird next to it to compare size.  I told my husband “I think that was it, but I’m coming back at first light in the morning to look again”.  We quickly found it on the morning of the 24th.  It was on the rocks above Steamboat Island where there are frequently cormorants and pelicans.  We spent a fair amount of time trying to get some good pictures.  I’ve seen it a number of times since then.  How long had it been there?  It wasn’t hard to find if you were looking for it, but it is easy to pass over a group of cormorants as “just cormorants”.  It is found year-round on the coast of Texas and into Mexico.  There have been a few reports of birds in South Dakota, Colorado, Utah, Kansas and other states around Montana.  It really wasn’t unexpected that it was finally seen and documented.  How long will it be around?  Will it return next year?  Are there others hiding in the state?  It is a “lifer” that I look forward to finding again.

There weren’t a lot of new birds to add to the year’s list this month.  The total is up to 162 species at the end of June.  Birds added were Common Nighthawk, Grasshopper Sparrow, Black Tern, Lark Bunting, Baird’s Sparrow, Neotropical Cormorant, Brewer’s Sparrows, Burrowing Owl, and White-throated Swift.

Summer Adventures

We have a few local (mostly Cascade County) birding trips planned this summer that you can join or use for inspiration to explore further on your own.  If you would like to join our group contact Beth Hill – grizhill@gmail.com for details, time, where to meet and get any last minute changes.


Walk and Weed – The weather has not been very cooperative for Saturday morning weed pulling.  Here is an incentive.  Beth Hill will lead a bird walk between 7 am and 9 am on June 5th, June 19th, July 17 and July 31 (all Saturdays).  Afterwards – at 9 am we will pull weeds for about an hour.  Bring gloves to protect your hands and a digging tool.  And binoculars for the bird walk!  Contact Beth Hill – grizhill@gmail.com if you are interested.  Of course, you can always come to weed and not walk.


First People’s Buffalo Jump – Saturday, June 26– Explore the prairie, cliffs and coulees.  This will involve walking.  We will start at the upper parking area and explore the lower prairie dog colony afterwards.  For details of when, etc.  Contact Beth Hill – grizhill@gmail.com


Sluice Boxes/Little Belt Bird Exploration – Saturday July 10 – this will be a series of short walks at several “birdy spots” including a level walk to the first stream crossing at Sluice Boxes.  Expect to find some summer residents of the higher elevations.  For details of when and where to meet – contact Beth Hill, grizhill@gmail.com.


Highwoods/Thane Creek – Saturday August 14.  Until we get to Thane Creek this trip will be a series of drive/stop/get out to look and listen.  There can be a surprising number of birds along the way if you just stop to look and listen.  Once at Thane Creek we can do some hiking – depending on the group and time.  For details of when and where to meet – contact Beth Hill, grizhill@gmail.com.