If you had to pick one word to describe the birding habitat of Montana it would likely be diverse. From the near-rain forest conditions of the northwest to the arid plains of the east to the alpine tundra of the south, Montana has birding opportunities in abundance. It is the fourth largest state, over 147,000 square miles in area, containing part of the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains, the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers, Glacier National Park and the northern edge of Yellowstone National Park. You might hear the call of Chestnut-Backed Chickadees at elevations of just above 1800 feet near the Kootenai River, or watch Black Rosy Finches feeding at the edge of a receding snow field at almost 11,000 feet on the Beartooth Highway in July. A birder who is willing to spend a few weeks travelling the state in early summer could tally a list of 200 species or more.
Montana has some unique opportunities for birding, such as the Bridger Mountains near Bozeman. In October it is the site of the highest concentration of migrating Golden Eagles in the lower 48 states. From the top of the mountains above Bridger Bowl Ski Area, you can watch the eagles migrate (almost 2000 per season in some years); as well as over a dozen other raptor species. Hawkwatch International has had two observers at the observation point for the last several seasons, taking a census of the migrating eagles and other raptors, and they will gladly point out birds to any visitors who have the fitness and stamina to make the climb. On the way up and down you might see Rock Wrens, Green-tailed Towhees, Blue Grouse and Gray Crowned Rosy Finches. If you can handle the two-hour walk and 8600-ft (2646 meter) elevation, it is well worth the effort.
Gathering points for birders are often the many national wildlife refuges and wildlife management areas in the state. From Medicine Lake in the northeast to Ninepipe in the northwest, to Red Rock Lakes in the south, Montana's refuges are rich in species and habitats. Freezout Lake WMA is a staging area for over 100,000 Snow and Ross's geese in spring and fall migrations. Benton Lake NWR, only a short drive from Freezout, boasts nesting species such as Short-eared and Burrowing Owls, White-faced Ibis, Chestnut-collared Longspur, Loggerhead Shrike, Franklin's Gull, Vesper Sparrow and Sharp-tailed Grouse, as well as many waterfowl and shorebirds. In May and June the refuge provides a blind for public viewing of dancing Sharp-tailed Grouse.
Another spectacular pair of birding areas is Ninepipe NWR and the National Bison Range in north-western Montana. From a single observation point in the wetland areas of Ninepipe you can see abundant waterfowl, Bald and Golden Eagles, nesting colonies of Great Blue Herons and Double-crested Cormorants, several species of hawks and falcons, American Avocets and Black Swifts, all under the backdrop of the beautiful and rugged Mission Mountains. The nearby National Bison Range complements Ninepipe with grassland species such as Grasshopper Sparrow and Gray Partridge, as well as higher altitude species like Clark's Nutcracker, Lewis's Woodpecker, Mountain Bluebird, Red-naped Sapsucker and Townsend's Solitaire. Looking out over the valley from Antelope Ridge, you can imagine the days when tens of thousands of bison roamed the state grazing prairie grasses, and providing cowbirds' original native habitat – their own backs.
A sudden change in habitat and elevation, such as from Ninepipe to the Bison Range and Mission Mountains, is typical of many of the best birding areas of Montana, especially in the western half of the state. There are several small and isolated mountain ranges rising up out of the prairie, and wide river valleys separating steep mountain ranges, such as the Centennial Valley - the location of Red Rock Lakes NWR. At this refuge Swainson's Hawks nest within 20 yards of the road, fledgling Bald Eagles test their wings over the water, flocks of American White Pelicans soar with a grace and poise like no other bird, and Trumpeter Swans share the waters with Long-billed Curlews, Cinnamon Teal and Clark's Grebes, to name only a few. Spectacular birding surrounds the refuge for miles on all sides.
Montana is known as Big Sky Country, a fitting description of the wide open land found in most of the state. One advantage of these big skies is the great raptor viewing at almost all times of the year. For a great day of raptor watching in the prairie wind, visit the Kevin Rim (say Kee-vin) where sandstone cliffs rise dramatically from the mixed grass prairie north of Great Falls. The world's highest nesting density of Ferruginous Hawks is here as these regal buteos hunt the ground squirrel colonies dotting the countryside to the south and east. Golden Eagles, Prairie Falcons, American Kestrels and Red-tailed Hawks share the Ferruges' abode as well. Watch for Great-Horned Owls and a potential Merlin, too. Both McCown's and Chestnut-collared Longspurs as well as Horned Larks and Sprague's Pipits pirouette over the lands bordering these cliffs. The farmlands and ranchlands on the way to and from the Kevin support puddle ducks (Gadwalls, the 3 western North American teal, Northern Shovelers, among others) in wet years, with Long-billed Curlews, Short-eared Owls, Northern Harriers, and Swainson's Hawks rounding out some further notable species. Isolated pairs of Burrowing Owls can sometimes even be found along a roadside culvert or washout so keep your eyes peeled along the road!
When birding Montana there is one book you should always carry in addition to your field guide: Terry McEneaney's Birding Montana. It is an essential and comprehensive companion for anyone birding in the state. Besides the thorough information on bird species, birding areas and tips on the unique characteristics of each area, McEneaney gives sound advice about travel, equipment, hazards and precautions, the kind of advice that often makes the difference between a bad trip and a great one. It covers 45 major birding areas in the state, with excellent maps and directions. Buy this book. It is as complete and accurate as they come.
additional material from Eric Atkinson - firstname.lastname@example.org
Number of Species
Number of bird species: 410
Fatbirder's very own checklists are now available through WebBirder
Montana Bird Distribution
The 6th edition will be published this year . An extremely useful booklet that carries the official state list of birds as well as maps for the occurrence of every species in the state by 1/4-degree blocks of latitude and longitude. Contact Montana Audubon (see below) for publication details.
Western Meadowlark Sturnella neglecta
Guides & Tour Operators
Local birders willing to show visiting birders around their area…
CloudBirders was created by a group of Belgian world birding enthusiasts and went live on 21st of March 2013. They provide a large and growing database of birding trip reports, complemented with extensive search, voting and statistical features.
2005 [July] - Andy & Ellen Stepniewski
We spent six full days birding and hiking Montana, sampling four of its many mountain ranges, visiting a number of prairie areas, both shortgrass and tallgrass, and finally, enjoyed sampling a number of the states very productive marshes and pothole lakes. We relied on Terry McEneaney’s A Birder’s Guide to Montana…
2012 [Aprl] - Denver Holt
2012 [June] - Terry McEneaney & John Coons
…In all, we tallied 184 species of birds and 26 species of mammals. Highlight birds included: Boreal Chickadee, Black Swift, Sage Sparrow, Alder and Gray flycatchers, McCown’s and Chesnut-collared longspurs, and Short-eared and Burrowing owls. Our mammal list was equally impressive with Gray Wolves, Grizzlies, Moose, Mountain Goats, and Bighorn Sheep topping the charts for large mammals, while the rare Pygmy Rabbit won the prize by far for the top small mammal….
2013 [April] - Denver Holt
…The Barn Owl roosted calmly in an old barn. Based on its color, it looked to be a female. In between the horses and mules and their droppings, we set our scopes and viewed the owl from 50 feet. As usual, Great Horned Owls were common and we found at least 10 nests with moderate to large-sized chicks—superb looks. The density of Great Horned Owls here is one of the highest I know of anywhere, with a pair about every square mile, or equivalent to every old farm house with mature trees…
2013 [June] - Terry McEneaney & John Coons
…Our bird experiences were not too shabby either, and included: a female Peregrine Falcon delivering food to hungry young; a Golden Eagle being harassed by two ravens; Long-billed Curlews being wigged out by a marauding Golden Eagle; flycatching Lewis’s Woodpeckers; an Eared Grebe floating with young on her back; a Ferruginous Hawk being harassed by Lark Sparrows; and a Burrowing Owl greeting sunrise, to name a few…
2014 [January] - Terry & Karen McEneaney - Yellowstone in Winter
The 2014 Field Guides Yellowstone In Winter tour materialized into a wonderful experience, right up there as one of the best. 2014 also marked the 15th anniversary of our inception of the YIW tour. We think it offers a perfect Yellowstone winter experience, combining Yellowstone birds and mammals with the field experience of your guides, former rangers in the park….
2015 [April] - Denver Holt - Montana Owl Workshop
...Short-eared Owls were observed conducting a variety of behaviors, ranging from hunting low over grasslands, or engaged in territorial skirmishes with neighboring Short-eared Owls. We also had some great looks at aerial courtship displays, also known as ski-dancing.
2015 [January] - Denver Holt
...American Kestrels were somewhat easy to find. Here we were able to see the differences between males and females. Males are more abundant during winter in western Montana and normally outnumber females by a ratio of 3–1. Two Merlins provided an opportunity to discuss adult and juvenile plumage, as well as sub-species recognition. The Taiga and Prairie Merlin were both seen. Neither observation was outstanding, but one Merlin allowed our group time to work over field marks. Two Prairie Falcons provided outstanding observations. We were able to distinguish them as adults and even to suggest sex...
2015 [June] - Terry McEneaney - Yellowstone to Glacier
...Highlight birds included: Harlequin Duck, Trumpeter Swan, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Golden Eagle, Ferruginous Hawk, richardsonii Merlin, Black and Caspian terns, Clark’s Grebe, Alder, Cordilleran and Gray flycatchers, Cassin’s Vireo, Pacific Wren, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Chestnut-collared and McCown’s longspurs, Upland Sandpiper, Varied Thrush, Pygmy Nuthatch, Veery, Tennessee, Nashville and Townsend’s warblers, Yellow-breasted Chat, Sagebrush, Clay-colored and Fox sparrows, Lewis’s Woodpecker, Bobolink, California Quail, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, White-tailed Ptarmigan, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, and super looks at five Black Swifts.
Places to Stay
RiverBend is nestled in the Rocky Mountains of North West Montana. Mornings begin with spectacular sunrises and the call of any number of local birds. Montana's Heaven on Earth Ranch…
Audubon Society in Montana
Audubon's local chapters can bring you bird walks, advocacy campaigns, nature outings, educational programs and other events. And with more than 500 chapters around the country, there's likely to be one nearby!
Bitterroot Audubon Society
The Bitterroot Mountains of Western Montana are the back-drop for some wonderful Birding experiences. Bitterroot Audubon, is a Chapter of the National Audubon Society and Montana Audubon. We hope to pass along Birding News and Views in Western Montana…
Five Valleys Audubon Society
The Five Valleys Chapter is one of nine chapters in Montana. We promote conservation of natural resources by encouraging the enjoyment of wildlife, educating others about wildlife and the need to live in harmony with natural recourses, supporting research, and advocating actions that favor environmentally sensitive uses of resources…
Flathead Audubon Society
Our mission is to conserve birds, wildlife habitat and ecosystem diversity. Awareness and appreciation of the natural world is promoted through education activities and advocacy programs. We work with diverse groups and agencies to achieve sound decision on natural resource issues. Our community outreach includes school programs, work projects and field trips. While focusing our efforts in northwest Montana, we believe in the protection of the earth and all its inhabitants…
Gallatin Wildlife Association
The Gallatin Wildlife Association (GWA), formed in 1976, is a non-profit 501c(3) corporation. GWA, representing hunters, anglers and other conservationists, has established itself as a leader in wildlife habitat protection and conservation issues in southwest Montana and elsewhere. GWA’s membership works hard to protect habitat and conserve wildlife for future generations…
Last Chance Audubon
Last Chance Audubon meets at 7 p.m .the 3rd Tuesday of the month at the large meeting room of the Lewis & Clark Library in Helena…
Mission Mountain Audubon
Mission Mountain Audubon is the newest Audubon chapter in Montana. The chapter meets the second Tuesday of the month at the Polson City Library Meeting Room… 48901 Hwy. 93 Suite A-179 , POLSON, MT 59860 Tel: 406-883-3611
The mission of Montana Audubon is to enable Audubon members in all chapters across the state to work together so that Montana ecosystems will continue to nourish birds, other wildlife, and the human spirit for future generations.
Montana Bird Records Committee
The Montana Bird Distribution web site houses information on where birds are found in Montana. The Montana Bird Distribution Database was originally created in 1991. It contains information about each species recorded in the state, either breeding, migration or wintering areas as well as basic information on every bird record submitted - the who, what, when and where…
Montana Bird Conservation Partnership
The Montana Bird Conservation Partnership is a broad coalition committed to the conservation of all birds and their habitats across the state of Montana…
Nature Conservatory in Montana
Opening page photo of Red Rock River In Montana's Centennial Valley is brilliant. Welcome to the Nature Conservancy of the Big Sky state! Here you'll find stories and information on the many ways we're working to preserve the diversity of living things by protecting the habitats -- land, water and air -- in which they live. Our cover photo shows the beautiful Red Rock River in the Centennial Valley, where our work with ranchers and other agencies is helping preserve wildlife habitat in one of the most ecologically intact valleys in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Read how one ranching family we're working with is making a difference…
Pintler Audubon Society
Pintler Audubon meets at 7:30 p.m. the 4th Tuesday of the month. Meetings alternate between Dillon and Butte… 710 S. Atlantic St., Dillon, MT 59725
Sacajawea Audubon Society, serving southwest Montana, was organized in 1967. It is one of ten Montana Chapters of the National Audubon Society Chapters and has approximately 300 members. Meetings are held on the second Monday of each month, September - May, at 7:00 p.m. and the location of the meeting is announced in our newsletter and in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. Most meetings are held at First Security Bank West, in the downstairs community room. First Security West is located at 670 South 19th Street in Bozeman. Visitors are always welcome, and meetings are free…
Upper Missouri Breaks Audubon
Upper Missouri Breaks Audubon meets at 7 p.m. the 2nd Monday of the month at the Fish, Wildlife and Parks building in Great Falls… PO Box 2362 Great Falls, MT 59403 - Beth Hill, President
Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society
Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society sponsors field trips, 'bird tours', a Christmas Bird Count and various conservation and educational projects. We welcome new members as well as business and occasional travelers to the Billings area who are interested in birds and bird habitat to join us. YVAS meets every 3rd Monday at 7:00 pm…
University of Montana - Avian Science Center
The Avian Science Center is an institute within the University of Montana that involves faculty, students, and the general public in high-quality bird research, monitoring, and education related to the birds of Montana.
Bitterroot National Forest
Leave your stress behind! You will find this spectacular 1.6 million acre forest in southwest Montana and Idaho to be a priceless national heritage. Half of the forest is dedicated to the largest expanse of continuous pristine wilderness in the lower 48 states -- the Selway Bitterroot, Frank Church River of No Return, and the Anaconda Pintler…
Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge
Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is located 7 miles east of Malta, Montana on Old Highway 2. The refuge is named for a small railroad siding town which was located just south of where the Dry Lake unit lies today. All that is left of the old town site are crumbling cement foundations and the grain elevator which can be seen from the Auto Tour Route along the east shore of Lake Bowdoin…
Charles M Russell National Wildlife Refuge
The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge is a land of sweeping vistas, native prairie, broad mesas, forested coulees, carved badlands, and fertile river bottoms. Much of CMR's landscape today remains as Lewis and Clark first saw it - wild, remote, and rich in wildlife.
Lee Metcalf Wildlife Refuge
The Lee Metcalf Wildlife Refuge provides a unique opportunity to witness the relationship between tree-nesting geese and osprey. Although refuge management has emphasized Support for waterfowl, many other species of wildlife have benefited, the most significant being the osprey.
Makoshika State Park
Here, wind and water erosion are constantly changing the landscape, creating a wide range of odd-shaped sandstone knobs and caprocks. Evergreens stand in contrast to the red scoria on other hillsides, while sagebrush, cactus, yucca, summer wildflowers and range grasses add even more variety. Mule deer, though good at hiding in the parks many coulees, can be seen, especially in the early morning or evening. Coyotes, bobcats, turkey vultures, prairie falcons, golden eagles, meadowlarks and mountain bluebirds all reside in the park.
Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is situated on the glaciated rolling plains of northeastern Montana. This refuge lies within the highly productive prairie pothole region which extends from southern Canada through northeast Montana, the Dakotas and western Minnesota. The region contains many thousands of small wetlands which produce over 50 percent of the waterfowl originating in the contiguous United States. Medicine Lake NWR lies in the mixed grass and short grass prairie transition zone. Marshes, shelterbelts, croplands, grasslands and large water bodies provide both migration and nesting habitat for a vast array of wildlife…
Ninepipe & Pablo National Wildfowl Refuge
This exceptional wetland complex contains over 800 glacial potholes and a 1,770-acre reservoir. About 200 bird species have been recorded. A jointly managed viewing area is just off US Highway 93 on the east side of the reservoir, about 0.75 mile south of the junction with Secondary Route 212. An access road and paved trail provide for waterfowl and shorebird viewing; the trail is barrier-free. Nesting great blue herons and double-crested cormorants can be observed from the road on the west side of the refuge. Follow SR 212 along the north shore for 2 miles to the dike entrance to view ducks, grebes and short-eared owls. Duck Road offers viewing of pothole ponds for about 2 miles: to reach it, turn west off US 93, 1 mile north of SR 212. Superb viewing of raptors in winter.
Checklist - Birds of Montana
Wildlife in Montana
Welcome to our Montana Field Guides. These guides and this website are a collaborative effort between the Montana Natural Heritage Program and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The Animal Field Guide provides information on identification, habitat, ecology, reproduction, range, and distribution of Montana's animals; new features include a hierarchal approach to finding an animal of interest, thumbnail photos of the animals and additional links. The Plant Field Guide offers information on plant species of concern, including references and photographs.