Site A: Greater Yellowstone Ecoregion
The World famous, most-visited National Park region on Earth is home to more than 200 species of breeding birds. The diverse and stunning landscapes of Yellowstone National Park and the surround Wilderness areas, not to mention the scenic Grand Tetons National Park, include habitats ranging from Sagebrush Steppe and grasslands up to alpine forests and tundra above treeline. The wide river valleys and incredible access into pristine habitats provide outstanding proximity to some of the most-wanted birds and mammals of North America and allow for outstanding photography opportunities possible only here. While many of the visitors to Yellowstone National Park and Grand Tetons come for the geothermal features (after all, it is the World’s largest volcano) and landscapes, the visiting birder will find himself/herself in the backcountry with Grey Wolves, Grizzly Bears, Badgers, River Otters, Coyote, Red Foxes, Bighorn Sheep, Mountain Goat, Elk, and Moose in search of desirable Great Grey Owls, Northern Pygmy Owl, Northern Saw Whet Owl, Boreal Owl (rare), Dusky Grouse, Greater Sage Grouse, Trumpeter Swan, Harlequin Duck, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Williamson’s Sapsucker, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Pine Grosbeak, and Black Rosy Finch, to name a few. With ample time, a visit to iconic geothermal features like Old Faithful Geyser, Mammoth Hot Springs, and Grand Prismatic will require driving some of the more productive stretches of highway for Bison and Elk herds, which are often within feet of the road! Given the rightful popularity of the area, infrastructure is great. Fine dining options are numerous, accommodations ranging from clean but economic up to world-renowned luxury accommodations with en-suite jacuzzi tubs and heated flooring. A few local bird-enthusiasts are happy to cater to birders through Air BnB and vacation rentals, as well as simply invite us to enjoy the species visiting their feeders which include Western Tanager, Bullock’s Oriole, Black-headed Grosbeak, Cassin’s Finch, Red Crossbill, Hairy Woodpecker, Red-breasted and White-breasted Nuthatches, Calliope and Broad-billed Hummingbirds and the stunningly beautiful Evening Grosbeak. This are has it all, for every visitor, including families. Wildlife watching, photography, the best fly fishing on Earth, hot springing, hiking, and cultural opportunities at the Museum of the Rockies, Buffalo Bill Museum, and several concert venues and social events in the quaint cities of Bozeman, Livingston, Cody, and Jackson are some of the other enjoyable activities the visiting birder can enjoy.
Site B: Prairie Specialties of Central Montana
Perhaps the single most imperiled habitat in North America is the shortgrass prairie. Montana has the largest, contiguous, tracks of shortgrass prairies in the United States, with a healthy does of tallgrass prairie to boot! With a backdrop of towering mountain ranges and beautiful, wide, rivers such as the Missouri as the backdrop, Montana is the place to come enjoy these open habitats. While a few hours at the right spot can yield most of the prairie specialists such as Golden Eagle, Prairie Falcon, Ferruginous Hawk, Short-eared Owl, Upland Sandpiper, Sprague’s Pipit, McCown’s and Chestnut-collared Longspurs, Grasshopper and Baird’s Sparrows, a full day is required to enjoy photographic opportunities, soak up the astounding display flights of these entertaining species, and visit adjacent habitats. A few of the harder-to-find, rarer species we will look for include Greater Sage Grouse, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Gray Partridge, Mountain Plover and LeConte’s Sparrow. Adjacent pine slope and riparian areas often harbour Clark’s Nutcracker, Pinyon Jay, Green-tailed and Spotted Towhees, Lark Sparrow, Yellow-breasted Chat, Least, Dusky and Willow Flycatchers, Cassin’s Kingbird, Plumbeous Vireo, and more! Accommodations and dining in the region are limited but of very good quality and surprising variety, given the rurality and vast distances between towns and people. Nowhere else in the state is it more noticeable or appreciable that Montana benefits from the 3rd lowest population density in the United States of America, then while exploring the great state’s prairies. From a general naturalist and photographic standpoint, this region is wonderfully rich. Pronghorn, Mule and White-tailed Deer, Coyote, Red Fox, Black-tailed Prairie Dog, White-tailed Jackrabbit, and Wapiti (Elk) are all relatively common. Butterflies are abundant in the Spring. Snakes frequent the roadways for easy viewing including Bull Snake, Western and Checkered Garters, and, with luck, Rubber Boa or Prairie Hognose! With a little extra time, one might venture a bit farther towards the Northeast, to find Sedge Wren, Nelson’s Sparrow, and the opportunity for migrant shorebirds including Baird’s, White-rumped, Semipalmated, Pectoral, and Stilt Sandpipers, Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstone, Long-billed Dowitcher, Wilson’s and Red-necked Phalarope, Marbled Godwit, and Long-billed Curlew, all in breeding plumage!!!
Site C: Glacier National Park and the Flathead
Glacier National Park is the backcountry hiking capitol of the lower 48. It also happens to be the most photographed National Park in North America, and with good reason. The geology and glacial erosion of the tri-divide area of Montana, in Glacier National Park, is unique and nothing short of breath-taking. With names like Rainbow Peak, and the Goat Haunt, the truth of the colors and beauty and one sees in Glacier National Park meet every expectation that the imagination creates. That same dramatic geology also hosts an amazing diversity of habitats, ranging from Pacific Northwest rainforest, to alpine scrub, down to Sagebrush steppe. Wildlife viewing opportunities along the Going-to-the-Sun road rival Yellowstone National Park’s experiences, with Grizzly Bear, Black Bear, Mountain Goat, and Hoary Marmot being some of the highlights. For the visiting birder, a few days in Glacier offers the chance to see species typically considered endemic to Boreal forests of Canada, rainforests of the far Northwest, and tundra of the highest Rocky Mountain peaks. Basing a visit to the park out of the West side offers an incredible array of accommodation level and dining opportunities to enjoy, while exploring the park’s bounty. By venturing to the far corners of the park of both sides, the following incredible list of special birds can be seen: Trumpeter Swan, Harlequin Duck, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Ruffed, Spruce, and Dusky Grouse, White-tailed Ptarmigan, Horned and Red-necked Grebes, Black and Vaux’s Swift, Calliope Hummingbird, Wilson’s and Red-necked Phalaropes, Golden Eagle, Northern Goshawk, Western Screech Owl, Northern Hawk-Owl, Barred Owl, Boreal Owl (rare), Northern Saw Whet Owl, Long-eared Owl, Williamson’s Sapsucker, Lewis’s, American Three-toed, and Black-backed Woodpeckers, 8 species of Flycatchers, Cassin’s Vireo, Chestnut-backed and Boreal Chickadees, Pacific Wren, Varied Thrush, Grey-crowned Rosy Finch, White-winged Crossbill, Slate-colored Fox and LeConte’s Sparrows, and 11 species of breeding Warblers! With time, extending the visit for a day onto the prairie habitats of North-Central Montana can create the complete Montana experience, netting most of the prairie specialists that entice birders out of the mountains under the Big Sky. For the visiting naturalist, the floral variety and corresponding butterfly show from late-May through August is unbelievable, and the mammal and photographic opportunities undeniably world class.