Montana is the fourth largest state in the US, it encompasses a diverse range of terrain ranging from western prairies, and badlands, to numerous mountain ranges part of the Rocky Mountains. Its diverse range of terrain and abundant national parks brings flourishing flora, fauna, and birding hotspots. Despite Montana’s size, it is sparsely populated with only 1.14 million inhabitants, the largest town is Billings with a population of just 120,000. Montana is known as ‘Big Sky Country’ – a truly fitting description for the wide open land throughout the state.
This state’s diverse habitats make Montana an incredible place for birding. Some key birding hotspots include the Bridger Mountains, Custer-Gallatin Mountain Range, Cottonwood Reservoir, Beartooth Mountains, Great Plains grasslands, Pryor Mountains, Missouri River, and the Pictograph Caves.
The Bridger Mountains are known to be one of the busiest migratory routes for the Golden Eagle in North America – up to 2,000 eagles have been recorded in a season. Bear Canyon near the Pryor Mountains is known to have Montana’s first nesting records for the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and the Black-throated Gray Warbler. The Cottonwood Reservoir is perhaps one of the most impressive sites with masses of wintering and breeding waterfowl and shorebirds and hundreds of thousands of birds migrating in spring and fall to seek out this area for their needs. The forests in the various mountain ranges provide the habitat for over half of Montana’s birds. The Beartooth Mountains sit at the northern segments of Yellowstone NP (the first US National Park) and have several popular birding trails. In the center of the state lies the Great Plains grasslands; a variety of prairie birds can be seen here including Baird’s Sparrow, Sprague’s Pipit, and both Thick-billed and Chestnut-collared Longspurs. Over 200 species of birds can be seen in the Missouri River area. Finally, birding is one of the most popular activities at the Pictograph Caves State Park, an area famous for cave drawings dating over 2100 years old as well as 30,000 archeological artifacts and 20,000 animal remains.
Around 434 species of birds can be found in Montana as of 2018 according to the Montana Audubon Society, though by now, more may be found.
Owen visited Montana on a birding trip at the end of June 2022 with his guide Steve Huggins. The trip concentrated on the Custer-Gallatin mountains near Bozeman, Cottonwood Reservoir, the Great Plains Grasslands near Harlowton and the Pryor Mountains south of Billings. Here he photographed many colorful birds as well as new birds he had not seen before, including the Western tanager, Steller’s Jay, Lewis’s Woodpecker, Thick-billed Longspur and Calliope Hummingbird, as well as some old favorites like the Burrowing Owl and and Yellow-headed Blackbird.