Learning the Art of Birdwatching
When you retreat to our 6,600 acres of Montana wilderness, we invite you to tap into the world of the bird population that surrounds us. From the tiniest Rufous Hummingbird to the most majestic Bald Eagle, there’s magic to be found in every flit and flap.
August in Montana brings an exciting phase of migration. Raptors, such as hawks will begin their fall journey, and colorful songbirds like warblers pass through on their way to Central and South America. Hummingbirds and early waterfowl sightings add to the spectacle. During this time, you will encounter an array of migratory birds along their own remarkable path.With the help of seasoned guide Samuel Gluster, enjoy these tips for birding and look out for these ten winged wonders as you hike, bike and explore Western Montana during our all-inclusive activities.
Five Tips for Montana Bird Watching
1. If you are unable to identify the bird you’re seeing, try taking a picture and renting out one of our guide books in Rod and Gun (or at a local library). Learning about the local birds can help you commit patterns and colors to memory.
2. The Philipsburg valley has a diverse habitat. The ability to explore from open meadows/fields to a creekside shore can be done in minutes. Look to move around on property to increase your chances of spotting unique species!
3. Checking out a pair of binoculars will up your game on finding birds, as well as identifying details to narrow down species.
4. Bird apps such as Merlin are great tools to help you identify bird calls and sounds that you can hear.
5. Different times of the day may display different species, so try getting up early to catch the morning flight of some waterfowl, or sitting on a porch as dusk to an owl hooting. Patience can go a long way when looking for certain critters.
Naturalist Sammy G’s Guide to the Birds of the Ranch
Members of the crow family, these birds possess a high intelligence and have been known to recognize and remember faces. They frequently pick ticks from the backs of large mammals such as deer, elk and moose. Probably the most-seen bird on the ranch, they can be identified by their long tail during flight and colorful blue/green feathers. They are often found flying across the road.
Although a member of the crow family, when Captain William Clark first saw one in August of 1805, he thought it was a woodpecker. He and Meriwether Lewis collected a specimen in Idaho on their return journey a year later. It was one of three new bird species brought back from their expedition. They are often found below the tree lines across the shooting and archery ranges, as well as higher up in the forest.
A common woodpecker found across America, look to find these guys on the ground. It’s not where you’d expect to find a woodpecker, but flickers eat mainly insects, digging for them with their curved bills. When they fly, you’ll see a flash of color in the wings – yellow if you’re on the East Coast, and red if you’re on the West Coast. Their tongue can stick out two inches past the tip of their bills. If our tongues were the same proportion, they would be around two feet long.
An iconic bird that cartoonist Walter Lant used as a model for his most famous cartoon character, Woody Woodpecker. Admired by many, they are the largest woodpecker in North America and can be found near dead or dying trees on property such as cottonwoods and aspens, as they attract good roosting and nesting habitat. Trails like Mary Beth and Mallard Pond have a few nests where they can be seen. Look to see that red crest atop their head for an easy spot.
The most common type of hawk in North America, Red-tails can be seen soaring above open fields, slowly turning circles on their broad, rounded wings. Other times, you’ll see them atop telephone poles on the way to and from Philipsburg. Hollywood uses their shrill cry whenever any hawk or eagle appears on screen, no matter what species. Look to catch that glimpse of rust red on their tail when they are flying.
North America’s only aquatic songbird, American Dippers are found alongside whitewater creeks and streams, rhythmically bobbing on top of rocks and logs (hence the name) and then disappearing for long moments to forage for aquatic larvae underwater in the stream. You may see dippers flying low to the water upstream or downstream, but rarely any distance away from the water. If you see many of them on a creek, a fly fisherman should know that there are many nymphs nearby and may look to tie on a sub surface pattern!
Seeing a flash of cerulean blue will likely be how you spot these beautiful birds. Mountain Bluebirds like mountain meadows in burned or cut-over areas, or where prairie meets forest, especially in places where people have provided nest boxes. (You can find these boxes on the main road on the jack link fence.) Look to see them perched on fence posts or flying through open meadows while you’re on horseback or a hike. Sometimes they resemble a tiny American Kestrel with their long wings, hovering in flight looking for insects.
Our nation’s emblem since 1872. They are most spotted flying up and down Rock Creek but can also be seen sitting in trees perched above looking for fish. Their white feathered heads gleam in contrast to their chocolate brown body and wings for an easy identification. Juvenile birds take on average five years to get their adult plumage and can be mistaken for young Golden Eagles often. Their eyesight can spot an object as small as a rabbit from a distance of almost two miles!
Actually a shorebird you can see in mountain states, Killdeer are graceful plovers common to open lawns, golf courses and rocky meadows. We usually spot them along the horse pastures out past the Trapper/Paradise intersection. They are known for their noisy cry and are mostly found on the ground. An incredible sight to see is their “broken wing” act, where they will fake an injury in an attempt to lure a predator or threat away from their nest. Once far enough away, she will fly off, leaving them far away from the camouflage eggs.
The state bird of Montana and five other states, Western Meadowlarks are most seen atop shrubs or posts in an open field, identifiable thanks to a vibrant yellow breast crossed by a distinctive, black V-shaped band. The males sing a beautiful song that is worth recognizing, as you will often hear them before spotting them! John James Audubon gave the Western Meadowlark its scientific name, Sturnella neglecta, claiming that most explorers and settlers who traveled west of the Mississippi after Lewis and Clark had overlooked it compared to its counterpart species, the Eastern Meadowlark.
A sign of spring after a long winter, these birds can be spotted in the breeding season by visiting cattail marshes and other wetlands. Where there’s standing water and vegetation, Red-winged Blackbirds are likely to be the second-most common birds you see and hear on property. Every pond on the ranch will hold these birds year-round, especially the Welcome Pond and in front of Cattail. Pick up the app “Merlin” to use a Shazam-like recording to hear their songs.
One of the most common thrushes in America, Robins are easily recognized by their warm orange breast, dark head and gray wings. Usually found singing in treetops or tugging earthworms out of the ground. American Robins can have up to three broods in one year, and have iconic blue colored eggs which can help stave off “brood parasites” – birds that lay eggs in the nests of other birds – such as Cuckoos and Brown-headed Cowbirds. There are many nests spotted on site such as on tree branches or on building posts. Look to find them year-round on property.
North America’s smallest falcon, the American Kestrel is one of the most colorful of all the raptors. Males have steel-blue heads and wings, with a rust-red back and tail. Females have the same warm reddish on her wings, back and tail. They hunt for insects and other small prey in open territory and perch on wires or poles – or hover facing into the wind, flapping and adjusting their long tails to stay in place. Look to spot them on the irrigation poles in pastures and meadows on property.
The Belted Kingfisher is one of few birds in the animal kingdom where the female is more colorful than the male. Males have one blue band across a white breast, whereas females have a blue and a chestnut band across their chests. They are common along streams and shorelines across North America, using the open space above the water as a flyway. They also perch on riverside branches and telephone wires. You’ll hear their loud rattling call before you see them, so look for them flying over you when fishing. There are a pair of them near the Skalkaho Bridge, as well as others on the power lines near the east fork of Rock Creek.
A small songbird that sings its name, in a scolding call, the Mountain Chickadee is found in heavily wooded forest and mountain trailheads – and they’re guaranteed to be spotted on property near the archery ranges and on hiking trails. The more “dees” you hear in the call suggests a greater threat among predators or danger nearby. Case studies suggest that a half-ounce Chickadee needs to eat about 10 calories per day to survive. That’s equivalent to about one-twentieth of an ounce of peanut butter for humans. If you are ever on a ski mountain and have the patience to feed them, they will sometimes land in your hand to grab a snack if they deem you to be safe and still. View a reel of Samuel practicing this art.
A bird of summer here in Montana, Western Tanagers have an eye-catching plumage of a fiery red/amber orange head and a bright yellow body with black wings. They get their red feathers from a rare pigment called rhodoxanthin, obtaining it from insects in their diet. This species ranges farther north than any other tanager; in the chilly northernmost reaches of their breeding range, Western Tanagers may spend as little as two months before migrating south. Look to see this from June to late October before they migrate.
An invasive species in the United States, first brought by Shakespeare enthusiasts in the nineteenth century, these guys are now among the continent’s most sighted songbirds. Originally, 100 birds were set loose in New York’s Central Park in the early 1890s. They were intentionally released by a group that wanted America to have all the birds that Shakespeare ever mentioned. It took several tries, but eventually the population took off. Today, more than 200 million European Starlings range from Alaska to Mexico. Both males and females have a beautiful array of plumage, with iridescent feathers that will shine in the sunlight.
Catching a glimpse of these birds is sure to brighten your day. Rufous Hummingbirds will begin to return to their breeding/summer territory at the arrival of spring here in Montana! It has one of the longest migratory journeys of any bird in the world, as measured by body size. At just over 3 inches long, it’s a roughly 3,900-mile trip. Listen to hear a deep buzzing before seeing them fly by while looking for nectar. These hummingbirds are one of the fastest in America, and their wingbeat frequency has been recorded at 52 to 62 wingbeats per second. The best way to see them is at a nectar feeder in the summer, so consider putting one up to help them out for a quick drink. They have an excellent memory for location – some birds returning from migration will remember where a feeder had been the previous year, even if it has been moved!
Fall Migrations at The Ranch
With summer approaching its final months, birds of the season are on the move both to and from Montana. While hummingbird will begin their great migration to Mexico, flycatchers such as the Eastern Kingbird will begin to arise in numbers as the fly hatches number off. Cedar Waxwings will move in greater flocks on the route south as the weather changes, stopping in Montana until October. Early waterfowl migrators such as Cinnamon and Blue-Winged Teal will start to depart to southern states, as Geese and more local waterfowl will begin to arrive in Montana until water freezes over. Raptors such as Eagles, Hawks, Ospreys and Kites will continue to nest throughout Rock Creek and other bodies of water were fishing or small game hunting is plentiful, or until food availability fades off. We hope you enjoy searching for these wild treasures of the Treasure State.