The final day of my son Braden’s and my Big Year of birding. For the last twelve months, Braden and I had scoured Montana—and visited Texas, California, Arizona, and Florida—trying to see as many birds as possible. We had tallied 337 species and had run out of time to add more but decided to go out on one last birding trip with Braden’s friend Nick Ramsey just to see what we could see. We drove to Maclay Flat and began crunching through the snow when Nick suddenly halted. “Look!”
Twenty feet up in a birch tree at the edge of a snow-covered field sat a brown fuzzy blob.
“Northern Pygmy-Owl!” Braden exclaimed.
The owl was getting mobbed by chickadees and nuthatches who, as potential prey items, were less than thrilled by the predator’s presence. In our rubber boots, we clomped out into the field to watch. When we returned to the trail, however, the owl suddenly left its perch and landed in a tree only twenty feet from where we stood. We slowly approached and sank to our knees to photograph the impressive animal. Then we backed away, unable to keep grins from stretching across our faces. We had searched for birds all over the country but now, at the last possible moment, our best Big Year experience had greeted us right here in our home town.
Missoula, or even Montana, rarely tops birders’ favorite locations lists, yet the Treasure State offers one of our nation’s best birding experiences, not just for the 400-plus species that have been found here, but for the spectacular scenery birders get to experience while pursuing their quarry. Every part of the state offers interesting birds to find and observe, and Missoula County is no exception. Spring obviously brings the largest influx of species, but every season—even winter—offers its own delights.
A surprising number of species overwinter in the Missoula area, from chickadees, nuthatches, and finches to ducks, raptors, and my personal favorite—woodpeckers. Owls in particular seem easier to spot in winter, including Northern Pygmy-Owls, Northern Saw-whet Owls, and spectacular Great Grays, one of America’s most impressive winged predators. Even better, cold weather brings special avian visitors that are entirely absent the rest of the year.
You may already be familiar with Cedar Waxwings, but our colder months offer the opportunity to see large flocks of their equally gorgeous relatives, Bohemian Waxwings. American Tree Sparrows, Common Redpolls, Northern Shrikes, and Snow Buntings help round out Missoula County’s must-see winter birds, while no winter is complete without a complement of Rough-winged Hawks gracing our skies, their dark underwing patches distinguishing them from any other raptor. All of which raises the question: Where can you see these and other species?
Five Valleys Hotspots—and Beyond
Maclay Flat is as good a place as any to launch your winter birding. As you walk the main trail you are likely to see Red-breasted Nuthatches, Black-capped & Mountain Chickadees, Brown Creepers, Red Crossbills, and Downy Woodpeckers. Keep a special eye out for Northern Pygmy-Owls, and Barred and Great Gray Owls.
Fort Missoula offers a variety of microhabitats including the gravel quarry, which is currently fenced off, but will hopefully soon be a bird sanctuary. In fall, Braden and I have been lucky to see rare migrants such as Pacific Loons, Surf Scoters, and Long-tailed Ducks here, but in winter look for Northern Shrikes, Common Redpolls, and Merlins—one of our smaller falcons.
Other popular winter birding places in Missoula include the Grant Creek Trail, the “M” trail, Moccasin Lane, and Kim Williams Trail. If you’re up for a short road trip, Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge near Stevensville often hosts a good variety of waterfowl, raptors, and songbirds, while Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge south of Ronan might give you an exhilarating experience with Short-eared Owls.
Worried that birding might cut into your skiing time? Have no fear. Our regional ski areas are excellent places to see higher-altitude birds such as Mountain Chickadees and Pine Grosbeaks. Steller’s Jays, Canada Jays, Clark’s Nutcrackers and other birds in the corvid, or crow, family are particularly prominent in ski area parking lots, but fair warning: corvids are some of the world’s smartest birds, so keep an eye on your lunch!
Sneed B. Collard III is the author of more than 85 children’s books and the humorous memoir, Warblers and Woodpeckers: a Father-Son Big Year of Birding, a Montana Book Award Honor recipient. Follow Sneed’s and Braden’s birding adventures at fathersonbirding.com, and email him at SBCollardiii@gmail.com to inquire about personalized birding tours of the Missoula area.