Big Sky = More Birds: Birding the Flathead.
Humans aren’t the only creatures to think highly of the Kalispell area. Year after year, thousands upon thousands of birds flock through the area along a major north-south migratory route, stopping off at Flathead Lake and in the many healthy riparian areas that speckle the valley floor. Together with the vast population of resident birds, they prove a major draw for birders near and far, who know this area as a prime place to add entries to their life lists.
One of the prime locations to observe birds in their natural habitat is the Owen Sowerwine Natural Area, a pristine riparian area situated right on the eastern outskirts of Kalispell at the confluence of the Stillwater and Flathead rivers. Managed jointly by Flathead Audubon and Montana Audubon, this 442-acre parcel is Montana’s first and only state-designated Natural Area, and one of a handful of Montana sites designated by Audubon as an Important Bird Area. More than 100 species of birds have been identified on the property, including hooded mergansers, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, long-billed curlews, Vaux’s swifts, Calliope hummingbirds and others. The site includes a rookery of more than a dozen great blue heron nests.
For those seeking close encounters with birds of the forests, the Danny On Trail is a popular option. Named for a favorite local outdoor enthusiast and naturalist from Whitefish, the trail starts from the base of the Whitefish Mountain Ski Resort and ends at the Summit House on the top of Big Mountain, gaining about 2,000 vertical feet along the way and passing through some wonderful birding habitat. This is an excellent place to see orange-crowned, yellow-rumped and MacGillivray’s warblers, as well as golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets. About halfway up the trail, the habitat becomes wet subalpine forest and brush fields. Here you will find Pacific wren, hermit thrush and varied thrush, as well as fox and white-crowned sparrows. Look for raptors from the Summit House deck. Plan at least two to four hours to hike up, wear good hiking shoes and take a lot of water.
A short drive west from Kalispell takes you to Smith Lake Waterfowl Production Area — a complex of large, shallow wetlands, peat marsh, agricultural lands, willow and some dry coniferous forest. Not surprisingly, the area serves as a year-round haven for a rich diversity of birds and other wildlife. Red-necked, eared and pied-billed grebes breed in numbers here, as do black terns. Double-crested cormorants, great blue herons and bald eagles loaf on pilings in the marsh, and thousands of waterfowl stop over during migration. Several pairs of sandhill cranes nest here most years. A wide variety of other species can be found reliably on a drive around the south and east ends of the area — including wood ducks, American bitterns (at dawn), willow flycatchers, and both mountain and western bluebirds. Recent rarities here include yellow-breasted chats and alder flycatchers.
Download a detailed birders map and brochure here. Also, check out the Flathead Audubon Society’s website, where you can often find information about upcoming birding excursions as well as other area information.
MORE PLACES, MORE BIRDS
Lawrence Park — This city park is located below the Buffalo Hill Golf Course at the north end of Kalispell. Lawrence Park includes a developed park, wetlands, mature trees and a walking/biking trail through mixed riparian habitats along the Stillwater River. A variety of woodpeckers nest here, from downy to pileated. Wood ducks are easily found. Black-chinned hummingbird and Lazuli bunting are among the more interesting breeding species, and Cooper’s hawks have also nested in the past. At the south end of the park the swampy tangle supports red-eyed Vireos and black-headed grosbeaks in the overstory, northern waterthrushes and yellow warblers in the understory. Listen for blue jays. Open year-round.
Directions: From downtown Kalispell, follow Highway 93 North (Main Street) across Highway 2; 1/4 mile bear right on Main Street where Highway 93 veers left (follow public golf course signs). The entrance to Lawrence Park is on the right, just before the road heads uphill to the golf course.
Lower Valley (Road) — The area known as “Lower Valley” extends from Kalispell to Flathead Lake. A number of farm roads, including Lower Valley Road, Farm Road, and N. Somers Road meander through farmlands and past pothole wetlands, oxbow sloughs, and riparian areas.
Church Slough, about 5 miles from Highway 93 just east of the Ashley Creek bridge, is one of the best places for migratory waterfowl in early spring. There are thousands of tundra swans, geese, and ducks in late March and early April. It is the most reliable place in the Flathead Valley to find greater scaup and Eurasian wigeon. The pothole wetlands support breeding eared grebes, redheads, ruddy ducks, common goldeneyes, other ducks and small numbers of black terns. Sora, Virginia rail and Wilson’s phalarope families can be seen in summer, followed by a wide variety of sandpipers (mid-August is best). Breeding clay-colored and savannah sparrows are abundant. Common breeding raptors species include red-tailed hawk, bald eagle and northern harrier. Rough-legged and red-tailed (including Harlan’s) hawks, falcons and even the occasional snowy owl hunt the lower valley fields in winter. The Blasdel Waterfowl Production Area (WPA) on North Somers Road is the only sizeable piece of public land here, and offers grassland, shrub and wetland birds such as short-eared owl, northern harrier, marsh wren and several sparrow species. The WPA is closed from March 1st through July 1st to protect nesting birds.
Directions: Lower Valley Road is accessible from Highway 93 (along with Willow Glen Drive) at the Toyota dealership intersection south of Kalispell. Turn east from Highway 93 and proceed south and east to Highway 82.