Montana’s 5 Best Bird Watching Spots This Summer

Written by Shaunice Lewis
Updated: September 27, 2022
Image Credit © gpointstudio/Shutterstock.com
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Montana is full of beautiful scenery and bustling with wildlife. So it’s the perfect state to go bird-watching. There are so many wide open spaces accompanied by unobstructed views of the clear, bright blue sky. It’s no wonder that so many people make this one of their number one places to visit for bird-watching activities. Read on to learn more about the best locations in Montana for bird-watching.

1. First Peoples Buffalo Jump

Size: 1,481 acres

Number of bird species spotted: 150+

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Birds to spot: raptors, swallows, golden eagles, Swainson’s hawk, short-eared owls, sharp-tailed grouse, gray partridge, long-billed curlew, and grasshopper sparrows

First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park (formerly known as the Ulm Pishkun State Park) is a land that was used for over 1,000 years by Native Americans. It has what is considered to be the largest bison cliff jump site that can be found in North America. At this park, you can find trails, picnic areas, and locations to educate visitors on the rich history of hunting on the plains.

Some of the birds that you can find here include raptors, swallows, golden eagles, Swainson’s hawk, short-eared owls, sharp-tailed grouse, gray partridge, and so many others. There are sandstone cliffs that you can reach by trails which are perfect viewing spots for bird-watching. The best time for watchers to spot migratory birds here is from the middle of May through the middle of July. You can even spot some birds at the park all the way up until September.

Birders can find rock wren near the cliffs and even burrowing owls near the prairie dog town area. Other birds near the prairie include long-billed curlew and grasshopper sparrows. There is one main trail that can be accessed and it is located right at the visitor center. There are a few other unnamed trails throughout the park as well that stretch further out from the main park area. The main trail you’ll find at the park is the Taft Hill Loop. It’s a three-mile-long trail that usually has light traffic and allows you to navigate the park easily. It’s great for all skill levels when it comes to spotting birds and other wildlife. Be on the lookout for snakes as well, which can be commonly found along the trail.

Fastest Birds in the World: Golden Eagle
Golden eagles are one of the most majestic birds you may spot while bird watching in Montana.

©MehmetO/Shutterstock.com

2. Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge

Size: 15,551 acres

Number of bird species: 263

Birds to spot: bald eagles, spoonbills, puffins, condors, solitary sandpiper, cedar waxwing, western meadowlark, red-headed woodpecker, European starling, and others.

The Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge was first established in 1936. The park’s primary purpose was to preserve as well as enhance the feeding and breeding habitat for the migratory birds and other wildlife in the area. The refuge is comprised of wetlands and prairie grass habitats that are home to 263 different species of birds, as well as 26 different species of mammals. There are also amphibians that call the Bowdin Refuge home as well.

At this refuge, you can find a wide variety of birds including bald eagles, spoonbills, puffins, condors, and many others. There is a 15-mile tour that is self-guided and takes you around Lake Bowdoin. On this tour, you will find a variety of habitats that are home to some of the most amazing birds. Some other birds you will find at Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge include solitary sandpiper, cedar waxwing, western meadowlark, red-headed woodpecker, and European starling.

Beyond bird-watching here at the refuge, there are many other fun activities to participate in including things like hunting, fishing, photography, and environmental education. There are brochures that you can use which have maps of the area, the different types of bird species that can be found, as well as general information regarding the other nearby National Wildlife Refuges.

3. Freezeout Lake Wildlife Management Area

Size: 11,350 acres

Number of bird species: 243

Birds to spot: herons, ducks, swans, shorebirds, snow geese, yellow warbler, common nighthawk, western wood-pewee, upland sandpiper.

The Freezeout Lake Wildlife Management Area is surrounded by shortgrass prairie and near the base of the Rocky Mountain Front. The site includes a large lake that also has small ponds and plenty of green vegetation. It is a wetland/prairie habitat with at least 243 different types of bird species that have been documented. This park is a breeding ground for many different types of waterfowl, and hundreds of thousands of birds migrate through the area each year.

In early spring there have been as many as 300,000 white geese (Snow and Ross’s) that migrate through the grounds. Summer is also a great time for bird-watching here at Freezeout Lake, with thousands of shorebirds stopping by in late summer during their migration. They make the stop here before flying on to areas further south for the winter.

Some other birds you will find here include herons, ducks, swans, yellow warbler, common nighthawk, western wood-pewee, upland sandpiper, willow flycatcher, eastern kingbird, Lewis’s woodpecker, American redstart, sage thrasher, sharp-tailed grouse, merlin, wood duck, barn swallow, western tanager, cackling goose, and even bald eagles.

baby swans taking a ride
Swans are among the many birds you may be lucky enough to spot in some of Montana’s parks mentioned in this article.

©iStock.com/Lemanieh

4. Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge

Size: 2,800 acres

Number of bird species: 242

Birds to spot: blackbirds, wrens, sparrows, warblers, chickadees, shorebirds, flycatchers, herons, waterfowl, raptors, mallard, wild turkeys, osprey, red-tailed hawk, eastern kingbird, tree swallow, European starlings.

Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge is full of diverse habitats that are home to some of the most interesting bird species. The refuge was first established in 1964 as a 2,800-acre refuge in Bitterroot River Valley located in southwest Montana. The habitats consist of gallery and riverfront forest, wetlands, wet meadows, and grassland benches.

As far as the climate goes, the Lee Metcalf NWR receives a yearly average of about 12 inches of rain per year. This doesn’t mean that the location is dry, however. It is located near the Bitterroot River and all of its marshes, river bottoms, forests, and ponds all receive their water from runoff created by the Sapphire Mountains to the east, as well as the Bitterroots to the west.

Some of the birds you can find in these areas at the refuge include mallard, wild turkeys, osprey, red-tailed hawk, eastern kingbird, tree swallow, European starling, American redstart, pine grosbeak, bank swallow, common grackle, western tanager, black-necked stilt, trumpeter swan, and many others.

Beyond birdwatching, there are many fun recreational activities that can be done here at the refuge. There are special community events that take place regularly including the Scarecrow Festival, Creamery Picnic, Bitterroot Birding, Welcome Back Waterfowl Day, and the Nature Festival.

Birds with yellow chests: Western Tanager
Western tanagers are sure to brighten up any bird-watching trip.

©iStock.com/mtnmichelle

5. Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge

Size: 1,770 acres

Number of bird species: 243

Birds to spot: ducks, blue herons, double-crested cormorants, grebes, and short-eared owls, trumpeter swan, mallard, ruddy duck, ring-necked pheasant, clay-colored sparrow, and the calliope hummingbird.

The Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge is a wetland complex of land containing over 800 glacial potholes on 1,770 acres of land. They have a wide range of animal species to find there thanks to their conservation efforts. There are over 250 different bird species for bird watchers to spot there and a beautiful habitat to find them in. There is access to a barrier-free paved trail at the park to make bird watching for shorebirds and waterfowl easier.

Some of the bird species you’ll find here at this refuge include ducks, blue herons, double-crested cormorants, grebes, short-eared owls, trumpeter swan, mallard, ruddy duck, ring-necked pheasant, clay-colored sparrow, and calliope hummingbirds. There are many other species of birds to find here as well. The refuge is located in the Rocky Mountain Trench at the base of Mission Mountains and was formed during the Pleistocene era by glacier movement.

There is also a lodging facility called the Ninepipes lodge that’s a wonderful place to stay while exploring all that the area has to offer. Some other activities that can be done here include hiking, wildlife viewing (of animals such as antelope, elk, whitetail deer, mule deer, and black bears), and even horseback riding.

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Young woman with binoculars in the woods

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About the Author

Freelance writer specializing in natural health and wellness.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

How many bird species are there in Montana?

There are at least 429 different species of birds throughout Montana.

What is the most common bird in Montana?

The American Robin is the most common bird that can be found in Montana.

What is the official state bird of Montana?

The official state bird of Montana is the Western Meadowlark.

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Sources
  1. Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks, Available here: https://fwp.mt.gov/stateparks/first-peoples-buffalo-jump
  2. Discovering Montana, Available here: https://discoveringmontana.com/state-parks/first-peoples-buffalo-jump/
  3. Audubon, Available here: https://www.audubon.org/important-bird-areas/freezout-lake-wildlife-management-area
  4. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Available here: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/lee-metcalf
  5. Visit Montana, Available here: https://www.visitmt.com/listings/general/wildlife-management-area/ninepipe-national-wildlife-refuge