Wednesday, June 15, 2011
From Helena to the Bridger Mountains
This eleventh day of my heartland birding tour was for once an easy drive. This was a day to explore the Bridger Mountains and revisit familiar places along the way. Helena is near the Missouri River. As you probably know from all the flooding news the Missouri River watershed is a major contributor to the problems in the Mississippi River region. The huge snow pack will melt a lot of water yet to cause problems well down stream.
So I started the morning birding my way through the Missouri River valley. My route was south on U.S. 287, east on U.S. 12, and south on U.S. 89. I mention these route numbers because all are scenic and classic American roads. About a few miles from where 287 and 12 divide on a bend of the Missouri River is where all the Mountain Men would converge after their fur expeditions to meet at what they called the “rendezvous”. One of those classic trappers was Jim Bridger for whom the mountains I am staying in are named.
I birded the upper State Wildlife Areas of Canyon Ferry Lake for mostly riparian species with lazuli Buntings being the most significant species there. U.S. Rte 12 climbs out of the valley and into the short grass hills and eventually into Helena National Forest. I birded Deep Creek, which like every other watercourse in the west, was raging wild. Birds along this creek and adjacent pine forest included Townsend’s Solitaire, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Song Sparrow, Warbling Vireo, and the Pink-sided form of Dark-eyed Junco.
Things got interesting once I got back out on the prairies where Rte 12 connects with U.S. 89. Within the first mile on Rte 89 I saw a Golden Eagle sitting on a hillside. Off in the distance I saw a bird soaring and took a better look. I watched the falcon shaped bird, and when it banked, it showed black auxiliaries (arm pits) I knew it was Prairie Falcon. As I watched it get closer the bird flew directly at me and swooped at what seemed like the last instant up to a utility pole. As soon as it landed it began calling. It was awesome! But wait, there’s more. A Pronghorn was strolling along in the area and a Common Raven flew by, a pair of Lesser Scaup sat lazily on a tiny pond, and there was a pair of Sandhill Cranes in tall grass just beyond the pond.
In about 30 miles I saw 5 Golden Eagles. They were perched atop utility poles and soaring in a clear blue sky. One young Golden Eagle was being relentlessly harassed by a Swainson’s Hawk. That’s one brave or really dumb hawk. Actually harassing Golden Eagles seems to be the national pass time for Ravens, hawks, and gulls.
I made my annual Mecca to Cottonwood Lake for its bountiful waterfowl, some shorebirds and regular flotilla of American White Pelicans. It is surrounded by snow capped mountains and it is a really cool stop on a very cool road. I heard and saw a Brewer’s Sparrow in the sage that rims this side of the lake. By the way the one thing missing at this lake is its namesake. There is not only no cottonwood trees there but not one tree anywhere near. Go figure.
I stopped I Wilsall, Montana before heading up into the mountains. This little teeny town is in the middle of the mountains. Three snow capped ranges, the Crazy Mountains to the east, the Bridger Mountains to the west, and the Absoraka Mountains to the south. It reminds me of Alaska where mountain chains are landmarks nearly everywhere you go, at least in the Kenai Peninsula.
Montana Rte 86 winds along the Flathead Creek up into the Bridger Mountains. It too is a pretty drive. I found the Battle Ridge Campground where I am now camped and merrily typing away as it ours rain off the mountains. It turns out that I have already explored here before and had forgotten all about the place until I arrived. I added Hammond’s Flycatcher, Dusky Flycatcher, Willianson’s Sapsucker, and Lincoln’s Sparrow for this trip and all those birds are good ones that are not guaranteed.
So I ended up with 82 species for the day from three locations. My camp is set up and I am going to fix dinner and get some rest for the trip to and first day in the one and only Yellowstone National Park.