We did it again – scheduled a great sounding field trip (3 days and 2 nights in yurts along the Judith River near its junction with the Missouri River) on a weekend when the forecast became cold and wet. The trip was cancelled and made a back-up plan to head west toward the front and stay on solid roads. Sunday May 19th looked like the best option. 3 of us decided to make a go of it. It was well worth going.
It was cloudy; we had a brief period of rain, conveniently timed for a lunch break, and later in the afternoon the wind picked up. It was really good weather for finding birds. We started at Freezout Lake – it took us 3 hours of looking before we headed toward Choteau. Stops included the garage site, vault toilet stops, tour route, the dike between pond 1 and 2, and Priest Butte Lake. We could have spent the whole day observing. We observed a Great Horned Owl on her nest with 2 fuzzy owls. At the same site we were seeing Lark, White-crowned and Chipping Sparrows. A dark headed small bird was flitting about a building. The tail flipped over the back and at first we thought “house wren” but when we were able to see it more clearly as it explored the building for an opening the dark head, plain wings, light chest all pointed to an Eastern Phoebe. Historically this was a spot for a Say’s Phoebe – it was clearly not a Say’s Phoebe. A highlight was the Short-eared Owl that was doing a mating flight – so high, almost out of sight, and then he would swoop down and “clap” his wings. None of us had seen that before. Candace could even hear the low frequency “whoooooot-whooooot”. At that time there was no wind. While we were standing there at the vault toilet (what a unique observation point) the swallows were buzzing around us – Barn Swallows and Tree Swallows. Ducks, Killdeer, Pelicans, Geese, Cormorants – quite a list could be made from an unexpected spot. Tour route highlights included a single Marbled Godwit, many, many Western Grebes that were “neck dancing” with their mates. None seemed to want to perform a ballet for us, many Black-necked Stilts and just a few American Avocets, and great looks at Marsh Wrens. Surprising was the hundreds (seemed like hundreds) of Yellow-rumped Warblers in the sagebrush. When we could get a close look they all had a white throat – Myrtle Warblers. From the dike between pond 1 and 2 we could see many of the swallows were Cliff Swallows – not many cliffs close by. Of interest was one Bonaparte’s Gull, a first winter plumage individual. Although we could not find any White-faced Ibis hiding we did see one Black-crowned Night Heron take off. It started raining by the time we got to Priest Butte Lake – that didn’t stop the Great Blue Herons from stalking something. There was actually 3 in one small reed bed near us. There were also many more swallows. We made lunch in Choteau while watching Chipping Sparrows, House Sparrows and Eurasian Collared Doves. The rain stopped so off we went up the Teton Canyon Road. Eureka Reservoir was thick with swallows. The roadside around the reservoir was thick with Chipping Sparrows and more Myrtle Warblers – again it seemed like hundreds. And then we got to the Mountain Bluebirds. Some were claiming nest boxes; others were just in flocks – flocks of blue flitting through the air. They were brilliant. As we crossed onto Forest Service Road three large “headless” birds came soaring into view (Turkey Vultures), and the habitat changed – here we saw Audubon’s Warblers, more Chipping Sparrows, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet and a road that was slick, rutty and rocky. It seemed like a good place to turn around.