Monday, June 29, 2009

Great Birding Great Falls

This past weekend, Paul and I decided to have a little mini-getaway and explore the birding possibilities in and around Great Falls, MT. Great Falls sits east of the Rocky Mountain Front and mainly consists of prairie/grassland habitat but with the Missouri River flowing right through town, it adds a major riparian zone to the area. We got a total of 58 species of birds, which we consider very lucky as there was a stiff wind blowing pretty much the whole weekend, and, despite the wind, the mosquitoes forced us to bird from within the safety of the car Saturday evening. We also saw two types of snake and a handful of mammals during the trip.

Our first stop in Great Falls was the river trail between the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center and Giant Springs State Park. On one side of the trail is the mighty Missouri river and the other is sandstone cliffs. A colony of cliff swallows had taken up residence among the cliffs and we stopped to watch the activity and get some photographs (these are taken by my husband). The swallows performed an amazing ballet going back and forth from nest to food source. Two or three at a time would drop down out of the nests, swoop up and off to nab some insect and then return to the nest to deliver their prize. It was a non-stop aerial performance that I found mesmerizing to watch. It amazed me the number of people who walked right past this spot without even realizing they were there!

(Cliff Swallow)
We also saw or heard yellow warbler, gray catbird, bullocks oriole, cedar waxwing, white pelicans, belted kingfisher, and eastern kingbird. All this birding made me hungry (but then again, I'm always hungry) so we headed to dinner before our next birding stop.

After dinner, we drove north of Great Falls to the Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge to do some evening birding. The mosquitoes were thick on the car windows, like kids plastered against a candy store window - us being the candy in this case. I didn't dare roll down the windows to take any pictures, so I had to shoot everything through the dusty windshield. The most plentiful birds of the Refuge seemed to be marbled godwit and yellow-headed blackbird - they were everywhere! The evening sun lit up the yellow-headed blackbird's gorgeous plumage beautifully.
(Marbled Godwit)
We also had great looks at Wilson's phalarope, American coot, eared, Western, horned and pied-billed grebes. We spotted many ducks, including ruddy, shovelers (with babies!), blue-winged teal, and mallards. As if that wasn't enough, seeing white-faced ibis and sora rail around the lake, and then a chestnut-collared longspur in the grassland area, made our evening. We were exhausted by this point, so we headed back to our motel for a little shut-eye before our next birding destination.

Early Sunday morning we arose and headed southwest of Great Falls to the town of Ulm and the First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park. The morning sun cast such a beautiful golden light on the grasses waving in the wind and in the distance we could just make out the peaks of the Rocky Mountain Front. The state park is described on the Montana State Parks website in this way: "A visitor center and interpretive trails tell the story of this prehistoric bison kill site, one of the largest in the United States. For over six hundred years, Indians stampeded buffalo over the mile-long cliff. Now, the top of the jump gives you panoramic views of the Rocky Mountain Front, the Missouri River valley, and the buttes and grasslands that characterized this High Plains setting."

But just before the main entrance into the park, we spied a most wonderful sight perched on a fencepost - a short-eared owl! And we were on a rural road with no one else on it, giving us the chance to stop the car and watch. This was just too cool. Through the binoculars, its soft feathered feet reminded me of a rabbit's foot, except with deadly talons. And its eyes were so intense!
(Short-eared Owl)
Eventually our luck ran out and a car coming the other way spooked it and it flew off.

We then continued on up to the top of the buffalo jump and hiked through a huge prairie dog town. The prairie dogs set up the alarm as we walked, and kept an eye on us as we made our way across their territory. There was a lone long-billed curlew wandering amongst the prairie dogs, too. We scanned the town with our binoculars for signs of burrowing owls and kept scanning the ground with our eyes for rattlesnakes but we saw neither. The most dangerous thing we found was prickly pear cactus. We did see some abandoned burrows with a few prairie dog bones scattered around them. Not sure who had come calling for lunch in these cases.

We then headed down to the visitors center and discovered two families of Say's phoebe camped out next to the center. Both sets of parents were hard at work catching bugs for their fledglings. The photo from my last post was a picture Paul took of one of the fledglings waiting for mom or dad to feed it. We also saw grasshopper sparrows around the visitors center as well.
(Adult Say's Phoebe)
By this point the sun was well up into the sky and the day was promising to be quite a warm one, so we decided to pack it in and head home. The long car trip was spent recounting our adventures and our favorite sightings. I can't think of a way I'd rather spend a weekend, but it makes it that much harder to go back to work on Monday!


Laure Ferlita said...

Looks like a fabulous place to go birding! I was surprised to see that you saw an Ibis! Thought they were warm weather birds!

Thanks for sharing your trip!

Oh, loved, loved, loved the owl!!

youa said...

great photos.

Kelly said...

Wowsers!!! Lucky you. I've never seen a short-eared owl, and what a fabulous photo you captured of him. Gorgeous. What a birdland. I've never seen a Yellow-headed Blackbird either. That would make a lovely painting as well... Your little Cliff Swallow is adorable poking his head out, guarding his nest.