State of Montana

Western Meadowlark Sturnella neglecta ©Robert Royse Website
Birding Montana

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.

  • Jeff Pentel

    additional material from Eric Atkinson -

Number of Species
  • Number of bird species: 433

    (As at October 2018)

    State Bird - Western Meadowlark Sturnella neglecta


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Useful Reading

  • Birding Montana

    | By Terry McEneaney | Falcon Press | 1993 | Paperback | 200 pages, Photos, illustrations | ISBN: 9781560442325 Buy this book from
  • Birds of Montana

    | By Jeffrey S Marks, Paul Hendricks & Daniel Casey | Buteo Books | 2016 | Hardback | 660 pages, 16 colour photos, 73 colour illustrations, 155 colour distribution maps | ISBN: 9780931130199 Buy this book from
  • Birds of the Inland Northwest and Northern Rockies:

    | (Includes Idaho, Eastern Washington and Oregon, and Western Montana) | By Harry Nehls, Mike Denny & Dave Trochlell | R W Morse Company | 2008 | 422 pages, colour photos, maps | ISBN: 9780964081062 Buy this book from
  • Montana Birds : A Pocket Folding Guide to Familiar Species

    | By James R Kavanagh & Raymond Leung | Waterford Press | 2001 | Unbound | 12 pages, colour illustrations | ISBN: 9781583551110 Buy this book from
Museums & Universities
  • 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.
  • Audubon Society in Montana

    Offices & Chapters; Centers & Sanctuaries; Upcoming Events
  • Bitterroot Audubon Society

    Thank you for visiting the Bitterroot Audubon Society's website. Please use this site to learn more about our organization. You will find information about upcoming events like evening programs and field trips, recent bird sightings, current projects we are working on, and links to other information on birds and their habitat.
  • Five Valleys Audubon Society

    The Five Valleys Audubon Society is a chapter of the National Audubon Society serving the Missoula area. Our chapter formed in 1977 and is one of nine Audubon Society chapters in Montana. We promote the conservation of natural resources through our birding, education, and conservation activities.
  • Flathead Audubon Society

    The Flathead Audubon Society is a local chapter of the National Audubon Society. Our mission is to: conserve birds, wildlife habitat and ecosystem diversity; promote awareness and appreciation of the natural world through education and advocacy; work with diverse groups and agencies to achieve sound decisions on natural resource issues; provide community services such as school programs, work projects, and field trips. While our efforts focus on northwest Montana, we believe in the protection of the earth and all its inhabitants.
  • Gallatin Wildlife Association

    Facebook Page
    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

    On January 19, 1971, a group of Helena birdwatchers gathered to organize a local Audubon chapter, led by Vince Yannone (who became the chapter’s first president), Sid Martin, Bob Cooney, and Virginia Bompart. The next month the following officers were put forward: President, Vince Yannoe, Vice President, Phil Schlamp, Secretary, Lorelei Saxby, Treasurer, Geri Brusset. The Board of Directors included Virginia Bompart, George Holton, Ron Keim, Sid Martin, and Bob Miller. In those early days...
  • 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
  • Montana Bird Records Committee

    The Montana Bird Records Committee was formed in 1991 to objectively evaluate reports of rare birds. The MBRC has three main functions: (1) to evaluate written reports and supporting documentation for the occurrence of rare birds and other unusual observations (e.g., out-of-season or outside normal range within the state) in Montana; (2) to maintain an official list of Montana birds; and (3) to maintain an official tally of the number of accepted records for each “rare” species (i.e., species documented 20 or fewer times in the state).
  • Montana Audubon

    Our mission is to promote appreciation, knowledge and conservation of Montana’s native birds, other wildlife, and natural ecosystems to safeguard biological diversity for current and future generations. Founded in 1976, we have built effective programs in public policy, education, and bird conservation to serve our members and Montana’s nine community-based Audubon Chapters.
  • Nature Conservatory in Montana

    We work across the state of Montana to protect critical lands and waters on which all life depends. Together with our partners, we have conserved 1 million acres—one acre for every resident.
  • 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

    The mission of the Sacajawea Audubon Society is to build on an interest in birds to promote the conservation of our natural environment through enjoyment, education and action.
  • Upper Missouri Breaks Audubon

    Montana Upper Missouri Breaks Audubon is located in central Montana. Interested in birds, habitat, and education? Monthly meetings are Second Monday of the month at 7 pm (September through May) at the MT Fish, Wildlife & Parks offices located near Giant Springs Park: 4600 Giant Springs Road; Great Falls, MT 59405
  • Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society

    “Building on the tradition of special interest in birds, Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society is organized to promote enjoyment and protection of natural environment through education, activism, and conservation of bird habitat.”

Abbreviations Key

  • IBA Beaverhead Sage-steppe

    InformationSatellite View
    The Beaverhead Sage-steppe IBA is a complex in southwest Montana and encompasses extensive high elevation basins and intermountain valleys dominated by native sagebrush shrub-steppe. The IBA represents the largest intact sagebrush habitats that remain in southwestern Montana, in extent and continuity and supports significant numbers of Greater Sage-Grouse--at least 3% of the state population. The IBA encompasses at least 29 known lek sites (3% of the leks in the state), and supports at least 730 male grouse in the breeding season (>3% of the state population of surveyed male grouse).
  • NF Bitterroot

    WebpageSatellite View
    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…
  • NWR Bowdoin

    WebpageSatellite View
    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…
  • NWR Charles M Russell

    WebpageSatellite View
    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.
  • NWR Lee Metcalf

    WebpageSatellite View
    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.
  • NWR Medicine Lake

    WebpageSatellite View
    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…
  • NWR Ninepipe

    InformationSatellite View
    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.
  • NWR Red Rock Lakes

    WebpageSatellite View
    Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge is located in the scenic and isolated Centennial Valley of southwestern Montana, approximately 50 miles west of Yellowstone National Park…
  • SP Makoshika

    InformationSatellite View
    Montana's largest state park features badland formations and the fossil remains of Tyrannosaurus Rex, Triceratops and more. You'll find a visitor center at the park entrance with interpretive exhibits great for kids.
  • WMA IBA Canyon Ferry

    InformationSatellite View
    This state-owned wildlife management area consists of four ponds dredged in the 1970s at the south end of Canyon Ferry Reservoir, which is an impoundment of the Missouri River. More than 300 small islands were constructed in the ponds to provide nesting substrates for birds. Canyon Ferry supports one of only four breeding colonies of American White Pelicans in the state. The colony was discovered in 1989, when 13 nests were counted. It has grown substantially since then, with 1,804 nests tallied in 2000. From 1991 to 1996, 1,537 young pelicans were banded here. Double-crested Cormorants, Ring-billed Gulls, and Caspian Terns also nest on the islands.
Guides & Tour Operators
  • Big Sky Safaris

    Tour Operator
    Bespoke nature tours - I'm a biologist, writer and wildlife illustrator and photographer based at the University of Montana in Missoula. I study wild birds at the National Bison Range and Yellowstone National Park. I've also spent time doing research on the behavior, genetics and evolution of zebras in Kenya, mice in Eastern Europe, and cuckoo finches and honeyguides in Zambia. At the moment, I'm writing an illustrated popular science book about bird family life for Princeton University Press.
Trip Reports

Click on WAND to see Fatbirder’s Trip Report Repository…

  • 2014 [01 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 [06 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.
  • 2016 [06 June] - Terry McEneaney

    ...Traveling from Yellowstone to Glacier, including the off-the-beaten-track special places in between, is one of North America’s greatest wildlife experiences. We covered approximately 2,000 miles in the western third of the Big Sky state, and had a wonderful time on this 2016 tour. We had the opportunity to experience Montana’s unique mountains and isolated valleys, high-elevation alpine peaks and low-elevation shortgrass prairies, marshes and lakes, riparian zones and rivers, humidity and dryness, forests and grasslands, blue sky and cloudscapes, wind and rain, snowfields and glaciers, sunrise and sunsets, remoteness and wildness -- and, of course, stillness and silence....
  • 2017 [06 June] - Terry McEneaney

    Highlight birds included: Harlequin Duck, Tundra Swan (yes), Trumpeter Swan, Greater Scaup, Common Loon, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Great Egret, Clark’s Grebe, Golden Eagle, Ferruginous Hawk, Black Tern, Caspian Tern, Upland Sandpiper, Sprague’s Pipit, Wilson’s Phalarope, Alder and Cordilleran Flycatcher, Cassin’s Vireo, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Burrowing Owl, Black-backed Woodpecker, Lewis’ Woodpecker, American Dipper, Chestnut-collared and McCown’s longspurs, Varied Thrush, Veery, Tennessee and Townsend’s warblers, Yellow-breasted Chat, Clay-colored and Fox sparrows, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Golden-crowned Kinglet and seven Black Swift. Our long mammal list was equally impressive. We observed 3 grizzlies, 10 wolves, 5 black bear, 4 moose, 20 mountain goats, and the myriads of elk, bison, bighorn sheep, mule and white-tailed deer, and pronghorn. Our rarest mammal for the trip was a River Otter swimming a stock pond in the Mission Valley.
  • 2019 [06 June] - Ivan Phillipsen

    Our visit to Montana in June 2019 was a great intro to the birds and wildlife of the state's mountainous west.
  • 2019 [09 September] - Pat Lueders - Yellowstone in the Fall

    PDF Report
    Our journey to Yellowstone National Park, Montana, and Idaho had a great beginning with our visit to the Jackson Hole & Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center in Jackson, Wyoming. Located at the National Elk Refuge, we birded around the surrounding wetland and grassland habitat, quickly finding a Wilson’s Warbler, and Blue & Green-winged Teal. American Wigeon, Ring-necked Duck, Redhead, and Common Merganser were swimming in Flat Creek.
  • 2022 [06 June] - Ian Merrill

    PDF Report
    Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming
Other Links
  • 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.

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