My 12 Best Bird Watching Spots in Montana You Should Try


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Montana is often called a big sky country because it has a low population and many open, wild places. This makes it particularly good for bird watching, and the state has more bird watchers than any other state. With so many options, it is hard to know the best birding spots. I have compiled this list of my top bird watching spots in Montana.

The best bird watching spots in Montana include those with many bird habitats, such as Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge and Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge. Some spots like Westby act as songbird migrant traps, where you can find many species in spring.

A table gives the most exciting birds you can see at my top 12 birding spots in Montana:

PARKINTERESTING BIRDS YOU CAN SEE
Bowdoin National Wildlife RefugeEared Grebe and Canvasback
Glacier National ParkAmerican Dipper and White-tailed Ptarmigan
Medicine Lake National Wildlife RefugeSharp-tailed Grouse and American White Pelican
Lee Metcalf National Wildlife RefugeTundra Swans and American Bittern
Westby ParkGray-cheeked Thrush and Black-and-white Warbler
Freezeout Lake National Wildlife RefugeRoss’s Goose and Snow Goose
Red Rock Lake National Wildlife RefugeTrumpeter Swan and Barrow’s Goldeneye
Benton Lake National Wildlife RefugeClark’s Grebe and Burrowing Owl
Kelly Island in MissoulaGreat Blue Heron and Wood Duck
Ninepipe National Wildlife RefugeRuddy Duck and Calliope Hummingbird
Charles M. Russell National Wildlife RefugeBlack-billed Cuckoo and American White Pelican
Pryor MountainBlue-gray Gnatcatcher and Black-throated Gray Warbler

Read below to learn more about my top birding spots in Montana, including which bird species you can find in these places.

Best Places to Bird Watch in Montana
Best Places to Bird Watch in Montana

TIP: If you are interested in checking out the best pair of binoculars for bird watching, we recommend a pair of waterproof and fog-proof 8 x 42 binoculars like the Celestron – Outland X 8×42 Binoculars (Amazon link).

Best Places to Bird Watch in Montana

Montana consists mainly of the prairie but also mountains, rivers, and arid grasslands. Many nature trails, refuges, and other spots are rich in birdlife. There is also a checklist of the birds of Montana that you can use when you visit the state.

  1. Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge

This refuge is in northeastern Montana and consists of many habitats, including grassland, prairie, and wetlands. Bowdoin has a reputation for being an excellent spot for bird watching. 

You can find various water birds in the wetlands, such as Canvasback, Bufflehead, Green-winged Teal, Gadwall, Redhead, American Wigeon, American White Pelican, and Eared Grebe.

Bowdoin has a bird checklist of 256 species, which you can carry while in the refuge. You can also see other interesting birds like the Chestnut-collared Longspur, Brown Cowbird, and Loggerhead Shrike.

You should also keep an eye out for the American Kestrel, Short-eared Owl, and Northern Harrier. The harrier is likely to be seen flowing low over grassy and wetland areas of the refuge.

  1. Glacier National Park

This park has beautiful scenery, cliffs, lakes, and forests of cedar, spruce, and aspen. You can see a range of different bird species here.

You can find an assortment of birds, including Harlequin Ducks and the American Dipper; the Dipper is found in the rivers.

Other birds you can look for here include Golden Eagles, Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpeckers, Steller’s Jays, and Mountain Chickadees. Many species of birds found here are classified as boreal forest birds.

You can take the Going-to-the-Sun Road in the summer from June to October. This will lead you to the highest areas of the park, where you can spot White-tailed Ptarmigan and Dusky Grouse. The North Fork area is fantastic for finding warblers and vireos at the end of May and June.

  1. Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge

This is a 31,700-acre refuge found in the northern part of the state of Montana. It is located about 30 miles from the Canadian border. There are wetlands, ponds, grasses, plains, and aspen patches in the refuge, providing many places for birds to forage and nest.

There are large nesting colonies of pelicans found in the refuge. You can see thousands of American White Pelicans in these colonies. 

There is a viewing blind that you can visit between April and May if you want to get a good look at the courtship behavior of the Sharp-tailed Grouse.

However, you have to book a time to visit the blind, so you must contact the refuge to find out more information about how you can reserve the blind.

  1. Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge

This refuge has a large number of bird species you can see. This is probably because of the many habitats found here. The refuge has ponderosa pine, grasslands, riparian vegetation, and wetlands.

A total of 240 bird species have been seen in the refuge, including species like the Osprey and Tundra Swan.

You can also find Trumpeter Swans and various waterfowl here on the wetlands. It would be best to look out for exciting waterfowl like the Hooded Merganser and Cinnamon Teal. 

In the reeds, you should check for American Bittern and Sora. These can be tricky to see (particularly the American Bittern) because of their secretive habits, but both species breed in the refuge. You can spot birds like the Vaux’s Swift and Lewis’s Woodpecker along the Kenai Nature Trail.

  1. Westby Park

This spot is in northeastern Montana and is famous as a songbird migrant trap. In other words, this patch of trees at Westby attracts migrating birds looking for a place to rest and feed.

Birds you can find here include Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Black-and-white Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, and Orchard Oriole. Many more warblers, vireos, and flycatchers may be seen during migration in Westby Park.

  1. Freezeout Lake National Wildlife Refuge

This refuge is located north of Great Falls. This is the spot to visit if you want to see a lot of Geese. You can see thousands of Ross’s Geese and Snow Geese here at the end of March. 

The other birds that are present and nesting here include Eared Grebes, Clark’s Grebes, Western Grebes, Black-necked Silts, Black-crowned Night-Herons, Wilson’s Phalaropes, and many more.

There are grasslands and shrubbery surrounding the wetlands, which provide habitat for birds like the Sharp-tailed Grouse, Northern Harrier, Chestnut-collared Longspur, Grasshopper Sparrow, and Upland Sandpiper.

  1. Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge

Red Rock Wildlife Refuge is located just west of the central part of Yellowstone and has a large wetlands area. Red Rock is considered a part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

There are also meadows, aspen and willow trees, and mountains found in Red Rock, which provide many places for birds to forage and nest. 

It’s an excellent place to see Trumpeter Swans, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Greater Sage-Grouse, American White Pelican, and Red-necked Grebes.

Various shorebirds like American Avocets and Wilson’s Phalaropes can be seen walking along and foraging on the edges of the water in muddy areas.

Raptors like the Ferruginous Hawk, Golden Eagle, and Bald Eagle can also be found. Golden Eagles can be seen in the mountainous areas of the refuge, while Bald Eagles can be seen near the water. It is good to keep scanning the skies overhead for any raptors that may be observed while in flight.

  1. Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge

This refuge is 12,383 acres in size and is found north of Great Falls. This refuge is an excellent place to see birds like wetlands or grasslands. 

At Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge, you can bird watch from the car as well since there is a Prairie Marsh Wildlife Drive that is just over 9 miles long. 

You can see Sharp-tailed Grouse in the refuge; they have their courtship display in spring. In the water, you can look out for Western and Clark’s Grebes, which breed in the area. 

You can also find Common Terns and Black Terns here. The grassland species to watch for at Benton Lake in the grassy areas include the Upland Sandpiper and Sprague’s Pipit, Chestnut-collared Longspur, and the Burrowing and Short-eared Owls.

  1. Kelly Island in Missoula

This area is on the Clark Fork River and is a terrific place to see wildlife, including birds. This island is 648 acres and consists of ponderosa pine trees, cottonwood trees, meadows, and wetlands.

There is a heron rookery on the island where Great Blue Herons nest. There are also nesting platforms for geese and boxes for Wood Ducks to nest in; these have been placed at various locations within the preserve. It would be best if you also watched for Bald Eagles and Lewis’s Woodpeckers. 

  1. Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge

This refuge consists of grasslands and wetlands. It is situated in the Flathead Indian Reservation and is only open at certain times of the year. Visit the website for more details on when the refuge is open.

The refuge is 1,770 acres in size. At least 243 bird species have been recorded in this wildlife refuge.

You can find birds such as the Ring-necked Pheasant, Short-eared Owl, Ruddy Duck, and Redhead. Calliope Hummingbirds and Clay-colored Sparrows have also been spotted at Ninepipe.

  1. Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge

This massive refuge of 1,100,000 acres, situated in the central part of Montana, is known for its range of habitats and birdlife. 

The habitats you can find here include wetlands like Fort Peck Dam, ponderosa pines, grassland, and meadows.

The refuge also occurs along the Missouri River. You can take a car drive that follows the river and provides opportunities to view birds from the car.

Birds like the American White Pelican, Osprey, and Spotted Sandpiper can be found near or on the dam. Riparian vegetation in the refuge often attracts bird species such as the Brown Thrasher, Black-billed Cuckoo, and Baltimore and Bullock’s Orioles.

  1. Pryor Mountain

The mountain and surrounding canyons are in the southern region of Montana and are a must-visit site for bird watchers.

Pryor Mountain and Bear Canyon are the only places in the state to see breeding Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. You can also find other birds in the juniper trees, for instance, Green-tailed Towhees. 

Other birds in Pryor Canyons include Black-throated Gray Warblers and Gray Flycatchers. The Black-throated Gray Warblers also only nest in this part of Montana. Other species to look out for in the area include Pinyon Jays, Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, Canyon Wrens, and Rock Wrens. 

Best Time to Bird Watch in Montana

There are certain times of the year when it is best to see the highest number of particular birds. For instance, spring is perfect for seeing warblers, orioles, and vireos. Winter is an excellent time to see waterfowl like ducks and teals, which can accumulate in large numbers on water bodies.

TYPES OF BIRDSSEASON
Grouse, warblers, and orioles Spring 
Ducks Winter
Best Time to Bird Watch in Montana

The Montana State Bird

Western Meadowlark: Montana’s state bird
Western Meadowlark: Montana’s state bird

Montana’s state bird is the Western Meadowlark. This is a conspicuous and stunning bird commonly found living and breeding in grassland habitats. You will often see a meadowlark singing loudly from a bush or tree. 

The bird is bright yellow on the underside with a black breast band. The upper parts of the bird are brown with streaks of black. The meadowlark is medium in size at about 8.5 inches long. They eat insects and also plant material.

Bird Watching Laws in Montana

According to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, taking, transporting, or selling any indigenous birds is illegal. The law also includes non-passerine birds such as raptors, cranes, egrets, and many other wild bird species.  

My Favourite Equipment for Bird Watching

Bird watching is one of the least expensive hobbies out there, but you still need some equipment to get the most out of it. 

The essential equipment to start bird watching is a pair of binoculars. My preference is 8 X 42 binoculars. The number 8 is how much the magnification is, while 42 is the field of view in millimeters of the lenses.

A pair of waterproof and fog-proof 8 x 42 binoculars like the Celestron – Outland X 8×42 Binoculars on Amazon is an excellent choice for both beginners and experts. 

In time, you can choose more expensive models and also opt to buy a spotting scope like the Celestron Ultima 80 on Amazon.

These are a lot more expensive compared with binoculars though, so if you are only a beginner, start with binoculars first. A spotting scope is only helpful for birds far away, such as out on a pond or seashore.

Bird Watching Ethics

There are a few rules or guidelines you should abide by as an ethical birder. These are listed below.

  • Do not enter private lands without prior permission from landowners.
  • Follow all the rules in refuges and reserves, including cleaning up any garbage from your campsite.
  • Do not disturb birds on nests.
  • Do not use apps and play songs to call up birds when they are hungry, tired, and breeding during spring and summer.

Conclusion

Montana has a lot of open space for wildlife. The large diversity of habitats also proves attractive for various bird species. The wetlands attract thousands of waterfowl and shorebirds each year.

You can also bird watch at a range of elevations to get a good variety of species. I would make a plan to visit Montana and choose the spots I mentioned above for birding.

TIP: If you are interested in checking out the best pair of binoculars for bird watching, we recommend a pair of waterproof and fog-proof 8 x 42 binoculars like the Celestron – Outland X 8×42 Binoculars (Amazon link).

Rae Osborn

Rae Osborn is an avid bird watcher and holds a doctorate in Biology. Her interests in birds began as a child growing up in South Africa. She has continued to study birds and has bird watched in the United States and South Africa.

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