Thursday, June 19, 2008

Northeast Montana to the Big Horns

Sunday and Monday, June 15&16, 2008

Set out to see the sites north of Ft Peck Lake that were listed on the Northeast Montana Birding Trail map. The town of Ft Peck was hard to find my way out of, even with GPS, but I finally got headed north, and in Glasgow was able to find some breakfast, a remote McDonald's, run by a single woman early on Sunday morning. Didn't really seem like a world conquering global corpse. The first place didn't really seem too promising, a wilderness study area on BLM ground, and twenty-plus miles each way from the highway. Within the first quarter mile there was a Short-eared Owl on a fencepost. At first I thought Barn, the facial disk was pronounced, but the range maps said think again, and it turns out that SEOW has a facial disk. This bird was pretty light also, maybe first year, I can't find an illustration. I never made it to the WSA, the road after maybe twelve miles wasn't maintained beyond the last ranch, and it looked a rutted muddy mess from that last gate. Didn't matter. I saw another pair of Godwits, Long-billed Curlew twice, two pairs of Sprague's Pipits, a McCown's Longspur doing its flight song, and the ordinary sparrow variety pack, as well as a Willet on a little pond. It was actually some of the best birding of the trip. After getting back to the highway, I realized I hadn't seen any Lark Buntings the whole trip, and I think of them as ordinary western grassland birds. So the fence-line monitor was turned up, and just before getting to Bowdoin NWR the first one appeared.

Here's a heads-up. If coming from the east don't get tempted to cut over from the highway to the perimeter road of the refuge, the old federal highway. Stay with the main road until you can come in from the west to the HQ/VC. That way you don't have to spend a half hour on one of those broken pavement car whipping miseries. Not much birding either. Once inside the refuge things were much better. There are a lot of alkali playas, and some fresher feed channels, maybe its irrigation water, and in places good numbers of ducks and some Herring Gulls, Phalaropes, and an occasional other shorebird even in the mid-season lull. I suspect it shines brighter when fall migration staging is happening and for shorebirds in the spring. For once there was a decent amount of wading and poking habitat.

Farther southwest from there the main road edges the Little Rocky Mountains, a high elevation outlier from the cordillera, high enough for a well developed conifer forest. The bird guide highlights a BLM campground in there, Camp Creek. I caught the host trimming the horse area, she told me of some birders just previously who had stayed for three days the birding was so good in the area. I believe it. In the campground itself I was treated to the sight of a multi-vehicle family leaving with their four 4WD trailbusters. Then it was quiet. And the birds were great, lots of warblers, including a surprise MacGillivray's. I never expect them, since it was a nemesis for several years. Also Redstart and Ovenbird., as well as Veery. And a Raven flying and calling from higher up the mountain. I should have stayed there, it was nice and not expensive, but I'd somehow become irrationally driven. From there it's a long straight downhill dirt road to another BLM area on the south side of the highway that looked like it had a road down to the MO River. The Falcon Montana birding guide described a Prairie Dog town on a wide bench down there, and I'd yet to see Burrowing Owl or Ferruginous Hawk, and the GPS maps seemed to show continuity of roads. It's actually dicey to trust them, since many are deeply outdated, containing false positives and negatives. There can be roads shown that haven't been used for years, or are locked farm/ranch roads. There can be very good, even paved roads on public lands, like National Forests, that aren't in the database. That would be telling before the day was over.

I got way back in there, way beyond where the roads were dozed or graded even every two or three years, and where they never bothered with any gravel. The wet spring had made it all various stages of muddy, from just soft to multi-rutted to gooshy to standing water to wheel sucking, heart-stopping-if-momentum-fails mud pits. Every few vehicles would try a new route around, just making the whole mess wider. There were places where the ruts were so deep that if I fell off the high sides, my wheels wouldn't have touched bottom. Just another day of birding. I passed one big western pickup, with a cowboy and his girl, and asked about the prairie dogs. She was helpful and said yes they were there, he was drunk and grudgingly diffident. Just enough to keep me going. I did finally give up when I got to places where the GPS showed nothing and several road traces split in several directions, none seeming right. There were a few dog mounds, but nothing I'd call a town. And I got gradually more aware that I had to re-cross each mud obstacle on the way back. Long story short, no tow-truck, no helicopter.

It's about fifteen miles further south to the turn off for the CM Russell NWR tour route. Russell is a huge refuge with parcels all around Fort Peck Lake. The tour route is at least a hundred miles from the VC, fancy that. But it was great. It starts high and dry across grazing land, then descends through a belt of Ponderosa forest, then back out to grasslands along the Missouri River, and back up into the forest before reaching the highway again after around forty miles. Good birds too, Mountain Bluebirds and Lazuli Buntings, Orioles along the river and Indigos there, A clearly and repeatedly singing Baird's Sparrow, and several Green-tailed Towhees. Once back at the pavement, it's just a little way across the river on a high bridge to a big BLM campground and boat launch. The river was really high, no banks showing, but that was a good place for vireos and flycatchers. It seemed overpriced, and there was enough daylight left to get in some significant miles, however it would be a good place for a base camp to work over that area for a couple of days. Between it and Camp Creek a person could have a serious three day pause with very good birding, maybe around early or mid May would be ideal to catch more migrants.

The road Atlas, National Geo that I favor for all the obscure campgrounds it plots, showed such a thing in Lewis and Clark NF south of Lewiston, about a hundred miles further. The Montana guide praised it as well. Got to Lewiston, got gas and more dismal fast food, the KFC had closed, even the gas station kid said it was a bad thing. Now here's one of those false negatives I mentioned. The GPS database did not show a road into the NF to Crystal Lake, and I followed a road it did show to the edge of the NF that ended up being a fishing access. It said no camping. I slept in the truck. The next morning with more persistence and breakfast, I found the road to Crystal Lake, well marked and well maintained, even paved inside the forest boundary, and not a trace in the GPS. But what a beautiful place. I was birding the campground when the host greeted me, said go ahead, not many people, the road had been impassable two days earlier, still snowed in. Again the creeks were raging snowmelt, and there remained a lot of patches in the campground. Good birds though, Ruby-crowned Kinglets doing their mating/territorial song, which seems different than the winter song I hear in Arkansas. Yellow-rumped Warblers, Pine Siskins, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Hermit Thrush, Mountain Chickadees and Juncos. That's a change of birds from the grasslands. I stayed for three hours including lots of stops along the road on the way down.

So the Montana summary goes like this: Started with 45 tics and added 68, making a total of 113 for the state. I actually saw 105 in two days, which seems real good. For one thing it means I feel no need to go back there again until the state changes its policies regarding the Yellowstone Buffalo. They kill them relentlessly if they wander outside the park, over an irrational fear of Brucellosis infecting the tiny local cattle population. I had considered not going this time, a real boycott, but it would have been my nose and my face. At least I bought no T-shirts and tourist gee-gaws, and hope I didn't do much for their economy, especially comforted that the profits of Wally come back to Arkansas, where I tile bathrooms for their employees.

It was vehicle maintenance time. I'd noticed some uneven tread wear, so figured I could find a Wally in Billings and get the tires rotated. That worked pretty much according to plan, also got an oil change, and was pleased at having some details under control. Lasted all the way to the next day. Then rather than get involved in the mountains, I headed southeast to Sheridan, WY. I had the ABA Wyoming bird-finder, it's getting pretty dated and is idiosyncratic from lack of a wide base of folks with input for most of the state. Most birding in Wyoming is around Yellowstone and the Tetons, period. The rest of the state is off the radar. Like most folks I had spent a fair time in the NW corner and had a decent WY list, but was missing some common birds; like Grackles and Red-wings, House Sparrows and Rock Pigeons. I had been up in the Big Horns once before, had been enamored, even when I woke up to several inches of snow, and was determined to stay another night. There were campgrounds southwest of Sheridan, that part I hadn't been in, so I ground my way a long drive up a really steep county road until I found a place that looked good, undeveloped wide shoulder, ate food, wandered in the forest, logged sightings in the computer and generally gave myself some mellow time. The plan was try for Gray Partridge in the morning way early. The unplanned was an owl in the night, soft hoots, figured it was a Saw-whet, went back to sleep, woke again to a different call, more drawn out, but that bird had to be sitting on a branch right over the truck. Loud and clear. A little study in the morning and some tape listening gave Northern Pygmy Owl. A real gift.


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