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Montana Migration Diaries: Exploring Shorebirds and Unexpected Encounters

By Ryan Healey & Lesley Howard, IBO Research Biologists

Shorebird Surveys in Eastern Montana

This year, we were excited to conduct spring shorebird surveys in Montana as part of the Intermountain West Shorebird Surveys effort, a multi-partner and multi-state study of spring and fall shorebird migration covering the interior portion of the Pacific Flyway. With such a large area to sample in a few days, they needed help to cover sites.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks funded IBO to coordinate data collection – primarily relying on local, shorebird-savvy birders – and we were able to help capture the spring migration snapshot, filling in the survey effort for full state coverage. So we were off to the far flung northeastern reaches of the state, to contribute to the dataset diligently being compiled by the Montana citizen scientist and birding communities across 13 other survey sites.

the logo for the Intermountain West Shorebird Survey. Art includes an American Avocet, Whimbrel, and Piping Plover
Logo Credit: Frances Ngo/Tracy Aviary

Originally from back East, our usual spring haunt during migration is the Atlantic coast – we were stoked for a chance to see the interior subspecies of Piping Plover. For us, Piping Plover are a harbinger of warmer, sunnier months and a very much welcome reprieve from what had been a long, snowy winter on snowshoes in southeastern Idaho.

Spring Birdwatching in Uncharted Territory

On April 22, we loaded up our truck and set off from Pokey (Pocatello, ID) toward Montana’s border with North Dakota, planning on doing some good birding, big-sky camping, and seriously gunning for that lakeside Piping Plover.

Lesley and Ryan smile for a selfie with their dog. the background reveals sandy cliffs at the shore of a large lake or reservoir
Our dog Perl might not be the finest at posing for a selfie, but she sure does love her job of guarding the car and keeping our seats warm during our surveys! (L-R: Lesley, Perl, Ryan) Photo Credit: Ryan Healey

In Great Falls, Montana, we quickly realized that the world was as snowy in lowland Montana as it was in the “smile of Idaho” known as the Snake River Plain. What had been a white Easter in both places was now rocking late spring blizzards and heavy snowpack into the latest fringes of April. The cold and snow followed us down from the mountains into the heartland and pretty much everywhere we were going, with frigid conditions persisting into the Great Lakes.

Challenges in the Snowy Wilderness

A biologist bundled up in winter gear hikes through deep snow. Green conifer trees and white snow-covered mountains are in the distance
Lesley hiking on the ridgeline of the Cotterel Mountains, a subrange of the Albion mountains, in Idaho, April 2023. Photo Credit: Ryan Healey

Our Piping Plover dreams quickly began to wither on the vine as we drove on into the heart of one of the snowiest springs on record in eastern Montana. Bummer.

Our first night camping on the Nelson Reservoir in east-central Montana in a three-season tent felt like mid-January, even though it was mid April. The only highlight was a Short-eared Owl in the dawn. It was made of tougher stuff than us. We decided that maybe the insulated 4-walls of a hotel room were more than just a luxury this trip. Gearing up for work that morning, in the dark and not feeling our fingers, was a lesson on springtime assumptions…what is the saying with assumptions? Even the moose were surprised to see us, not expecting anything lacking a thick fur coat that morning. But here we were, anxious for shorebirds.

an antlerless moose stands alert with stiff legs, looking straight toward the photographer (from a safe distance!). Last years' grasses and leafless russian olive trees in the background give the photo a very fall or winter-like look despite the fact that it was taken in spring
Surprised moose in the Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge. Photo Credit: Ryan Healey

That first day at the Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge proved us pleasantly surprised. Our scope was happy to meet a handful of eager arrivals; Long-billed Curlews grabbing breakfast in the grass, a few Marbled Godwit mingling with American Avocet and Greater Yellowlegs speckling the rare ice-free shoreline.

So… was it worth it?

Debatable at that moment with a negative degree windchill amplified from the 85% ice that was covering our survey site. But we still had all 10 fingers and the occasional Least Sandpiper and Wilson’s Snipe to keep things interesting on the datasheets. All species encountered that first day were equipped with heavy down jackets. Humans included.

a wide shot shows a curlew standing alert in a grassy field. behind it the background is blurred, but hints at a body of water and more grassland into the distance
The early curlew catches the snow flurry. Long-billed Curlew at Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge. Photo Credit: Ryan Healey

That afternoon, the snow and ice were showing signs of retreat – that prairie sunshine does wonders when it wants! Soon, water was everywhere. Too much of a good thing maybe? Flooding became a definite concern for us in the coming days, driving these wetland-adjacent roads. Almost overnight, a deluge of melt would swell the liquid world, cutting off access in some areas.

Roads became borderline impassible with possibly a moment or two stuck in the mud testing that border’s line (don’t tell Jay). But, the silver lining was that warmer, saturated conditions brought an increasing abundance of birds; waterfowl and shorebirds in the water and Burrowing Owl and lekking Sharp-tailed Grouse to the uplands. It seemed like the floodgates of migration were about to burst open.

But still no Piping Plover… our grail bird this trip.

a sharp-tailed grouse stands alert, looking back over its shoulder toward the camera. It nearly blends in to the surrounding tan grasses
Sharp-tailed Grouse at Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Photo Credit: Ryan Healey

Unexpected Avian Encounters

We made our way farther east to a wetland complex called Goose Lake near the borders of North Dakota and Canada. Great burgers and the chance to catch some unique birding (you can regularly catch two species of Godwit). The past few nights, temperatures had stayed consistently well-above freezing and that morning the sun was cooking. We rolled up on the wetlands for dawn, still cold, but we could leave the snow goggles in the truck.

A biologist is looking through a spotting telescope across the landscape and water. blue sky and white clouds are in the background and there is dry brown vegetation in the foreground.
Ryan scoping the water in hopes of spotting the ever-elusive Piping Plover. Photo Credit: Lesley Howard

We scored both species of Godwit, Hudsonian and Marbled, and a cloud of American Avocets, our biggest group all season. This area was speciose. There were clouds of cranes, ponds teaming with waterfowl rafts, and our shorebird numbers were cranking up, relatively speaking.

We actually began to catch the spring vibes of optimism, reflected in the songs of the grassland birds just beginning to pipe into that landscape.

nine American avocets stand together on a narrow grassy spit of land jutting out into a body of water. Their tucked heads along with large waves on the surface of the water suggest it's very windy
Group of American Avocet hunkered down on Nelson Reservoir, Montana. Photo Credit: Ryan Healey

As we made our way between vantage points down the border between Montana and North Dakota, we began to see large clouds of Lapland Longspurs murmuring to avoid a hungry Merlin. Evidently they had been held back by the late and prolific snows. Chestnut-collared Longspurs and a few Thick-billed chasing each other in the grass – the prairie was coming alive with the thaw.

There were hundreds, if not thousands of longspurs – it was quite a spectacle!

about 50 small brownish songbirds in flight against a blue sky
Large flock of Lapland Longspur in flight over Goose Lake Complex, Westby, MT. Photo Credit: Ryan Healey

The Journey’s End

We were posted up on our scope, tallying Avocets, Hudsonian Godwits and Willet above a beautiful salt pond “waste site”…

…any birder’s paradise of muck and hungry shorebirds …

…when we had a fantastic experience with a flyover of orange, black, and white. When you are counting, you are engrossed in the scene through 2 inches of glass, oblivious to your immediate surroundings (they should call it scope vision instead of tunnel vision).

A photo taken through the windshield of a vehicle. There is a locked gate in front of some water that is a sewer lagoon. There are 2 signs stating that it is a sewer lagoon and one says KEEP OUT. The cloudy skies look ominous.
We made a “pit stop” in Terry, Montana for coffee on the drive back home after surveys and took a quick detour to the Terry Sewage Ponds to try our luck for more shorebirds and ducks. Photo Credit: Ryan Healey

What tipped us off were the weird, out of place flight calls of the Smith’s Longspur. Cue: heads craned 90 degrees back and faces up. There they were and on they went, bouncing their way northwest to greener pastures.. An unexpected and great species.

The 4th accepted state record for Montana – the 1st in over 22 years!

The season waned, and still no Piping Plover. While things were trending up in terms of numbers, all things being relative these numbers were low compared to late summer. Late winters meant late Piping Plover but errant Smith’s Longspurs – proof that persistence can pay off – and all things considered, we were due back on the Snake River Plain for breeding season.

a graph shows the number of shorebirds counted on the Intermountain West Shorebird Surveys effort. in spring the graph shows around 3000 shorebirds were counted. In summer, just over 14,000 shorebirds were counted.
Number of shorebirds counted during the Intermountain West Shorebird Surveys effort. Counts during the summer were much higher than spring. Image Credit: Ryan Healey

This article is part of our 2023 end of the year newsletter! View the full newsletter here, or click “older posts” below to read the next article.

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