Bird Sightings for February 2023

Feb 9 – I spent the morning at Giant Springs again today (February 9). We found the pair of great Horned Owls right off sitting almost next to each other in a spruce tree. There wasn’t a dense number of birds on the river, but the numbers added up. Common Goldeneyes, Buffleheads, Mallards, Canada Geese, Hooded Mergansers (12-15), Common Mergansers (5-7), American Coots. I didn’t go downstream below the hatchery to see if Redheads and scaup (Greater/Lesser – both have been seen) were in the groups I could see in the distance. As expected, there were House Finches, Chickadees, and a few Starlings. Also noted were: Sharp- shinned Hawk, Bald Eagles, Pied-billed Grebe, Ruddy Ducks (2), Downy Woodpecker, Magpies (one group of 13+), Common Raven, Belted Kingfisher, American Robin, Townsend’s Solitaire, Bohemian Waxwings (42!) (They do like to be in crowds). Beth Hill

Feb 11 – A (very white) leucistic Magpie was seen out a window at Benefis East (Lab) last fall & this week. – Nora Gray

Feb 15 – Shane Sater writes about his recent raptor survey in the Helena Valley (in his blog below). https://

Shane Sater’s blog is highly informative, and beautifully illustrated. Highly recommended. Wayne Phillips (Copied from the blog) Jan 18 Today we’ve found 11 red-tailed hawks and 37 rough-legged hawks. We’ve counted 12 bald eagles, three merlins, one sharp-shinned hawk, and one northern harrier. No survey will find everything that’s present. Today we haven’t found prairie falcons or American kestrels, for example, two uncommon winter raptors that we know birders have seen quite recently in this area. But by repeating these surveys in the same way each time – and by conducting them not just here, but in hundreds of other places across the northwestern United States – a detailed picture of our wintering raptor populations is beginning to emerge. Shane Sater, a scientist with a passion for the landscape.

Feb 16 – I’ve had no new recent sightings. The same old Canada Geese and Mallards by the hundreds at Giant Springs today. There was more ice along the edges of the river and some interesting frozen water droplets. The other day I had 9 American Robins grazing in the picnic area of the park, but not today. I am seeing 2 Great Horned Owls on every visit. They move around from tree to tree but are often together or within eyesight. Nesting for Great Horned Owls can be late February through March in Montana. I haven’t seen them in the nest box tree. – Beth Hill

Feb 17 – For the first day of the Great Backyard Bird Count I thought I’d check out a different area so I took a drive around Highland/Gibson Flats/Gerber Rd/Fields Rd/Lower River Rd this morning. I was hoping I’d see a few raptors. Well, I saw 20 magpies at Highland Cemetery, along with 4 Eurasian Collared Doves. I spotted 5 rooster pheasant in fields along Gibson Flats Road. That was pretty much it, another magpie and about 40 geese on the river. It seemed so empty. I hope we see a few more birds Saturday when the ‘raptor route’ will be checked out. – Beth Hill

Feb 18 – On the second day of the Great Backyard Bird Count Velda and I drove the raptor route from Great Falls to Cascade and back. It really was a nice day, not too windy. Temperatures ranged from 32-42 de- grees. A few flurries as we neared Ulm at the end. Our first Bald Eagle was in the field just before the Big Bend fishing access. It was on a carcass that attracted a couple ravens and magpies. The same field also had 6 or more rooster pheasants. When we saw Rough-legged Hawks they were in pairs (twice) and a single bird. Yeah – just 5. A single Golden Eagle that was sitting in a tree within spitting distance of a pair of Bald Eagles. The rapid flight of a bird with “pointy” wings caught our attention. When it tilted the dark “armpits” were clearly visible – we had a Prairie Falcon! There was one group of about a dozen ‘huns’. We saw some unidentified “little brown birds” flit away to disappear several times. Some showed some white, others did- n’t. They got noted as “LBB”. Overall, not a large number of raptors or birds total but a satisfying half-day looking for birds.

We recorded: 190 Canada Goose, 9 Mallard, 1 Common Goldeneye, 4 Common Merganser, 12 Gray Partridge, 7 Ring-necked Pheasant, 17 Rock Pigeon, 2 Eurasian Collard-dove, 1 Golden Eagle, 14 Bald Eagle, 5 Rough-legged Hawk, 1 Prairie Falcon, 29 Black-billed Magpie, 1 American Crow, 5 Common Raven, 3 Europe- an Starling, 1 diurnal raptor sp. Comparing the 2023 February count with the 2022 February count there is quite a stark difference – about half as many raptors. I hope it was just the day. – Beth Hill

Feb 18 – I went to the cemeteries, not much too report. Highland: 26 Magpies, 2 Pigeon, 1 Eurasian collared dove. MT Olivet: 5 Chickadees, 1 Nuthatch.

Feb 25 – The only interesting Birds (that I’ve seen lately) are two Oregon Juncos that continue to hang around. – Richard Mousel

Feb 26 – I saw the first California and Ring-billed Gulls this morning at Giant Springs. I was looking yesterday but didn’t see any. Today….as soon as we stopped the car at Steamboat parking area they were there on the ice and bouncing in the air. Their flight is so different than all the overwintering ducks there is no miss- ing them. – Beth Hill

Feb. 28 – Today I made a quick trip out to the West Bank area the first thing I saw were 8 big, bulky, upright standing birds…. all Bald Eagles. They were a mix of all ages. There were another 150 and counting Canada Geese coming in to land at the tip of the big island. It wasn’t long until one took off, then another and then ALL the geese, soon there was just one. There were some other walkers headed in the direction of the geese that may have triggered the mass exodus. Later that afternoon, my husband filled the feeder and stood still while Chickadees descended on the feeder. He said he counted 20!!! Usually, we will see 4-6 at a time and it seems like more. – Beth Hill

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Bird Sightings for January 2023

We (Beth Hill, Marge Wilson and Jan Wilson) drove a total of 176 miles on a day that went from partly cloudy to partly sunny to mostly sunny. It was 30-40 degrees (mostly 30-32 degrees) with wind that wasn’t noticeable. There was more snow on the ground as we headed north, but plenty of open ground. We were surprised to see so few raptors for the amount of ground covered. There were Bald Eagles at strategic spots – Tiber Dam and Carter Ferry where there was open water, waterfowl, etc. Golden Eagles were on prairie areas as were the Rough-legged Hawks and Prairie Falcon. We commented that Sanford Park and the VFW campground should be explored in spring, summer and fall.

The detailed report can be viewed here:

What has been remarkable about local birds in January has been how un-remarkable they  have been.  Here in  Great Falls once the ice melted at Giant Springs and the hunting season ended the waterfowl seemed to be somewhere else.  There were countable numbers of all the winter ducks from Common Goldeneye, Bufflehead and even Mallard Ducks.  There has been a pair of Pied-billed Grebes that have been spending the whole winter around the spring.  Off and on several Ruddy Ducks show up.  One can almost always find 5-15 Hooded Mergansers and a handful of Common Mergansers.  At the bird feeder there are almost always Black-capped Chickadees flying in and out and a mob of House Finches.  There is at least a pair of Downy Woodpeckers that know where the suet block is located.  Beth Hill

Bald Eagles have suddenly been showing up in numbers since January 23 when Beth Hill saw NINE sitting on the ice near the refinery at one time.  They quickly flew off.  The next day 5 were observed.  Beth continued to see Bald Eagles daily on walks along the river in the area between Garden Home Park and Black Eagle Dam.  On the 28th she saw 5 Bald Eagles (and a raven or crow) below the 15th St bridge and not much later Marge Wilson reported 9 Bald Eagles.  On the 30th there were at least 9 hanging around the Garden Home Park area not far from the boat ramp.  They were coming and going all morning.   At times 8 could be seen at once, but adding up the “white heads”, “dirty white heads” and “non-white heads” there were at least 9.  With all the different head colors there were all age classes coming and going.  As well as 2 ravens.

Wendy Kamm was out on January 26 in Fort Benton and found a lone Greater White-fronted Goose.  It had an extensive “white front” around the bill base and did not appear to be a domestic Greylag goose.

Has winter brought any interesting or different birds to your feeder or your walk routes?  Let Wayne Phillips know by contacting him at:

Bird Sightings for December 2022

Dec 14, Marge Wilson saw a strange looking bird at Giant Springs late Sunday. She shared a picture during our meeting Monday (Dec. 12) evening. It had a white blurry patch on the side of the face. I wondered is it a?… Tuesday morning and afternoon we spent a lot of time watching a Longtailed Duck feeding at Giant Springs. That is surely what she saw. I hope it hangs around so we can see it during count week and even better on the 17th. Beth Hill

Dec 14, Hi folks I just got a report of a very large group of birds in a field area beyond the Buffalo Jump (near Ulm) that sound like they are snow buntings. It would be outside our area but keep your eyes open. – Arla Eckert

Dec 15, We have a Longtailed Duck for count week. Hope she sticks around to be found on Saturday. – Beth Hill

Dec 15, We have a Slate-colored Junco for count week. – Richard Mousel

Dec 18, Good morning! Here are the species to look for to add to UMBA’s CBC count week: Gadwall, Greater Scaup, Barrow’s Goldeneye, No. Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Peregrine Falcon, Mourning Dove, Hairy Woodpecker, Mt Chickadee, White-breasted Nuthatch,Song Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Red- poll. Happy frigid hunting! – Nora Gray

Dec 18, For count week: Barrow’s Goldeneye, California Gull. – Beth Hill

Dec 18, I saw a Sharp-shinned Hawk in my feeder area for count week. – Velda Baltrusch

Dec 18, we have a hairy woodpecker joining us every day. – Marjorie Everson

Dec 22, whether you took part on the 17th or just looked out at your feeder, even if you watched birds well outside the Great Falls count circle, would you share your sightings?

My highlights might be actually seeing the Longtail Duck on count day, not just count week. The classic Rough-legged Hawk that soared overhead that we saw through the leaves of the park was thrilling. Yes, leaves. Some of the big cottonwoods at Giant Springs are still holding their leaves. A California Gull was add- ed to count week and I saw it twice during the week, not on count day. – Beth Hill

Susan DeBacker – from Duck Lake (near Glacier Park) reported 47 Snow Buntings, 12 Black-capped Chicka- dees, 2 Mountain Chickadees, 1 American Crow,3 Black-billed Magpies, 1 Hairy Woodpecker and 1 Downy Woodpecker. She saw the same birds all of count week.

Knaphus’s (near Ulm) reported that among their count week birds was a Goshawk hanging around the wind- breaks for several days. A Northern Shrike haunted the feeder area after the cold settled in. It caught at least one House Sparrow.

Dave Shea (near Choteau) had very little activity around his place. No Common Redpolls this year, a few House Finches, many House Sparrows. He has seen Black-billed Magpies, Sharp-shinned Hawks, Rough- legged Hawks and Bald Eagles.

Jeff McPartlin took a drive around the countryside during count week and saw 2 Gyrfalcons, Rough-legged Hawks, Golden Eagles, Merlins, Bald Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks, a Prairie Falcon and an American Kestrel. He said that where he normally would see thousands of waterfowl in some warm water canals (never freeze over) he saw no birds. There were MANY Canada Geese in fields between Fairfield and Choteau.

Dec 25, Needing to get outside for a daily dose of fresh air I walked along West Bank Park trail even though almost the entire river between Central and 9th St bridges is frozen. I started off with hearing the rapids call notes of a Merlin. It was quickly located high in a large cottonwood tree. Maybe it had been around for some time since there were only a few chickadees visiting the feeder today. Later I found a Mandarin Duck with the 155 Mallards at the water treatment outflow. That was a first. Surely it came from a local backyard flock. – Beth Hill

Dec 26, It is so much easier to be outside watching birds the past two days. It is still mostly geese and mal- lards. There had been thousands of geese that had been spending the whole day near Garden Home Park must have been out feeding (finally) because there were fewer than 100. That gave the Common Golden- eye and Barrow’s Goldeneye a chance to swim in their favored waters. One surprise was a Mandarin Duck. I saw it Christmas Day at the outlet of the water treatment plant. Today I saw it halfway between the rail- road bridge and Central Ave West bridge from the River’s Edge Trail. It was surely an escapee from a local backyard flock (like the geese and domestic ducks that show up now and then). And yes – lots of dead geese. I counted about 60 between Sacajawea Island and Garden Home Park. – Beth Hill

Dec 26, Folks walking along the southwest portion of Rivers Edge Trail early Monday (12/25) spotted what appeared to be geese standing immobile, with their feet frozen in ice. By dusk, several were crumpled over, confirming they hadn’t made it. – Peter Johnson

Dec 31, I carried my spotting scope and counted dead geese from West Bank Park to Garden Home Park. I spotted 85. I didn’t count dismembered geese (there weren’t many). They are scattered about frozen in the ice in various postures. Watching the ill geese everything is consistent with the highly pathogenic avian influenza (bird flu) that has been devastating the poultry industry this year. It’s still around. Beth Hill (Send your bird sightings to Wayne Phillips ( or join the UMBAbirdshare group and share your observations there.

Bird Sightings for November 2022

3 Oct – Six large Turkey Vultures perched on the spiky dead top of a spruce tree near our house, pruning and enjoying the last rays of the setting sun. A first for us here and unusual for a city residential neighborhood. A Crow and a Sharp-shinned Hawk also stopped briefly on nearby open tree tops while the Vultures were sunning themselves. – Marilyn Schneider & Wayne Phillips

30 Oct – It seemed futile, but I did an evening run out to Benton Lake this evening.  It was still blowing whitecaps on the lake.  All the ducks were very skittish and nothing was very close.  Coots would “run” across the water but went sideways instead.  There were hundreds of coots.  A lot of ducks and just 8 Tundra Swans.  I did see a Northern Harrier and my first Rough-legged Hawk of the fall.  – Beth Hill

31 Oct – It paid off trudging against the wind. In the middle of a raft of Ruddy Ducks and Lesser Scaup was a “big Ruddy” – actually a female Surf Scoter.  I found her twice today.  The raft was mid-river not far below the “big island”.  So equally hard to see from West Bank or East Bank (a scope really helped). This evening she spent most of the time sleeping, like all the others in the raft (probably exhausted from bobbing in the wind).  I did get to see her grooming and doing some wing flapping which helped nail the identification.  There were also a couple of nice-looking Barrow’s Goldeneye and a couple of female Red-breasted Mergansers. – Beth Hill

1 Nov – This morning (OK – it was between 11 and noon) I ventured out to the West Bank to see mostly gulls – with a twist.  There were a bunch of little gulls with dark bill, white heads that had a black “spot” behind the eye area – winter plumage Bonaparte’s Gulls.  They (33 of them) were walking and swimming between the Ring-billed Gulls.  I could see a dozen Barrow’s Goldeneyes and today there were some females with the natty looking males.

This evening I went back out for a quick check.  It was weirdly calm and warm.  Lots of gulls again.  No Bonaparte’s but there were 2 big, dark first year gulls – Herring Gulls.  It was about time to go in (the sun was below the horizon) when all the gulls scattered, the coots scattered, the geese and mallards scattered.  It had to be a Bald Eagle – finally there it was.  It circled through the milling birds several times.  I wondered if it was the same one that put a scar into the gulls yesterday then soared right in front of me to land in a cottonwood nearby.  It was almost eye level and 20 feet in front of me – I think we were both surprised. – Beth Hill

2 Nov – We have Snow Geese flying over our place, headed south.  Kris was out for about 30 minutes and saw 6 V’s with anywhere from 75 to 300 each.  Winter must be coming! – Kitty & Kris Knaphus

3 Nov – Did anyone else step outside this morning and see hundreds of Snow Geese headed south?  There were a lot after sunrise, but it kept up all day.  Interspersed were groups of Tundra Swans.  1000 plus spent the night on the Missouri in the refinery area.  We saw at least 500 leave and there were still maybe that many on the river about 8:30 am.  Giant Springs finally had some waterfowl.  A couple hundred Lesser Scaup with some Redheads in the mix.  We saw one Common Loon and several Western Grebes.

The West Bank area had even more Scaup and Redheads.  Lots of Northern Shovelers, Green-winged Teal and Mallards.  Finally, the Buffleheads had some competition.  I saw the same group of Pelicans I saw last night in the morning.  In the evening I saw the continuing Ross’s Goose.  There were a few stray young Snow Geese.

The next few days may continue this push of migration in front of that zero-weather expected next week. – Beth Hill

4 Nov – I saw 21 To 25 western grebes off Westbank around 3 this afternoon.  – Arla Eckert

5 Nov – Just had about 30 snow geese fly over…and then another 60. – Richard Mousel

6 Nov – 1,000 Snow Geese at Benton Lake; they were feeding in a hillside 1/2 mile south from pond 2. I would have missed them but the park ranger drove by and pointed them out. – Jan Wilson

5 Nov – Saturday evening there weren’t many ducks out on the river.  A bunch of Ring-billed Gulls, Buffleheads, a few leftover Lesser Scaup, the 22 Western Grebes, a Common Loon and a few Ruddy Ducks. There was one new arrival – a Long-tailed Duck.  The wind was still fierce at the time. – Beth Hill

6 Nov – Sunday morning – hundreds of ducks.  There were probably more than 400 Mallards, another 150 plus Lesser Scaup, always the crowd of Buffleheads, some Northern Pintails, Northern Shovelers, a few American Wigeon and Green-winged Teal and 2 Common Loons. I watched 16 Tundra Swans leave the area. I saw a report of a (female) Surf Scoter. The Long-tailed Duck was still hanging around.

The big group of ducks is probably best seen from the east side of the river (from the tennis court area). I wonder how long this fall-out will hang around with the bitter cold coming the next few days. – Beth Hill

6 Nov – Just had 19 swans fly over. – Kitty & Kris Knaphus.

6 Nov – I counted about 36 sleeping swans from West Bank at noon today.

The ‘fall out’ continues.  – Beth Hill

7 Nov – Lots of Snow Geese continue to fly over this AM.  We were doing other things outside and didn’t get counts but there has been a fairly constant parade of large V’s going over.  We have about 6 inches of snow here so far. – Kitty & Kris Knaphus

7 Nov – We’ve had a lot of snow geese flying over Fort Benton in the past week. – Wendy Kamm

9 Nov – It doesn’t take long for the river to freeze over in the West Bank Park section.  There was a little rim of ice yesterday but today the river was mostly ice.  A few birds in small pockets except one large pocket that was attracting Canada Geese.  I watched the numbers double between 4:30 and 5:00 PM Wednesday evening – from over 600 to well over 1200.  They were streaming to the river in large groups from the north.  I spotted one clearly Cackling Goose, it was barely bigger than the Common Goldeneyes (they are finally back in numbers).  There were several others that were on the pretty small size.  A few Snow Geese were arriving with the Canada Geese – I saw a total of 7.  It was neat to listen and watch them arrive at the only open patch on this stretch of river. – Beth Hill

9 Nov – Watched a black-billed magpie in hot pursuit of a small songbird this morning, doing an apt imitation of a raptor. The songbird dodged, but the magpie did, too. By now the action had gone from four feet above the snow to right in the snow, where the magpie pivoted, grasped the bird, and delivered a few blows with its beak. It ate, scattering feathers in the process, for about 10 minutes, then carried off the remainder of its meal to a more secluded place in the windbreak. I found a scattering of feathers on the snow at the fight site, after I bundled up to see if I could identify the victim’s species with a close look (answer: no). I think I’ll assume it was a house sparrow until I know otherwise. This is the first time I’ve seen a magpie attempting to capture a bird in flight.  – Liz Larcom

9 Nov – I have regular magpies under my feeders. I’d be horrified if they got one of my chickadees, juncos, nuthatches, or the solitary harris sparrow!  It’d be ok if they thinned out the house finches.  – Susan Hillstrom in Choteau

12 Nov Hundreds if not thousands of waterfowl at sunrise.  The noise was incredible. Mallards and geese were the greatest number.  They started leaving about 9 am, so if you came later in the morning, you would not have seen the crowd.  The several hundred Common Goldeneye stayed.  I counted over 200 Bufflehead and did not get all of them.  The Common Goldeneye were 2-3 times (or maybe 4times) as common as the Bufflehead.  There were Redhead, Lesser Scaup, a few Common and Hooded Mergansers, American Wigeon, Ring-necked Ducks, the obligatory hundred plus Coots.  A single Long-tailed Duck and a Pacific Loon (great photo confirmation showed the thin chinstrap besides the lack of the neck “notch”.  The pair of owls were located.  Little birds were harder to come by.  I added some seed to the feeder and had a Downy Woodpecker fly off the suet block, the Chickadees were grateful for the refill.  I also saw House Finches at the feeder. – Beth Hill

13 Nov – We had Cranes flying over, headed south most of the morning.  Never saw them, due to the low clouds but could hear them.  – Kitty & Kris Knaphus

13 Nov – Took a drive along the river yesterday – in a short time in a relatively close space on the river downstream from Giant Springs, I saw a pelican, a swan amongst coots, and a bald eagle on the ice feeding on a fish. I have a few faithful chickadees at my feeders, lots of sparrows, an occasional finch or two, and a pair of downy woodpeckers. Saw a northern flicker out front hammering in a Russian Olive tree, too. The Collared Eurasian Doves are hanging around en masse and chase the smaller birds out of the feeders and scatter seed onto the ground my squirrel friend brought a second squirrel to the squirrel feeder and then a third……..  I took all feeders down, including the squirrel’s nut/acorn jar and am just using one large glass dish filled with birdseed and a suet block that hang from under the metal porch roof. I don’t think the squirrels can get to it and hope they find a better buffet.  – Bev Axelsen

15 Nov – There were a lot of geese and mallards early.  Once they leave you can spot the other birds on the river.  There were 3 pelicans still around – 2 were traveling together.  The Pacific Loon surfaced very briefly and like before he gives you a couple seconds then he dives and 5 minutes later you still don’t know where it resurfaced.  Songbirds are limited.  I did hear and locate 3 American Tree Sparrows.  We didn’t find the owls Tuesday day, but the last time we saw both.  The bird feeder had a lot of activity from House Finches, Chickadees, Juncos (on the ground) and a Downy Woodpecker.  I saw 2 young squirrels scrounging for leftover.  – Beth Hill

22 Nov – We saw some interesting birds at our bird feeder at Giant Springs Tuesday, the 22nd.  An American Goldfinch and Harris Sparrow were surprises.  The usual House Finch, Chickadee, Junco mob and a stealthy Downy Woodpecker also showed up.

Turning around to watch the river we saw several different age classes of. And Eagles.  There are hundreds of Mallards and Canada Geese, but the numbers vary every day and with the amount of ice and whether there are hunters active.  A single Western Grebe and a couple of Pied-billed Grebes seem to be regulars.  Yesterday one of the Pied-billed Grebes came up with a fish as wide as its head….and it managed to swallow the whole thing.  I don’t know how it fit.  A tiny bit of tail hung out for half a minute, but then it went down.  I don’t know how it could move after that meal. – Beth Hill

23 Nov – A lone Slate-colored Dark-eyed Junco has been hopping around on the ground underneath our bird feeder for the last few days, but never flying up to the feeder to compete with the 4-6 Black-capped Chickadees, up to 50 House Finches, a few House Sparrows, a daily visit from Downy Woodpecker, and an occasional Red-breasted Nuthatch, and a Flicker, and of course the predatory visits by the Sharp-shinned Hawk. – Wayne Phillips and Marilyn Schneider