A Birder’s Paradise Awaits in Northwest Montana
Situated at the center of Northwest Montana’s Flathead Valley, the vibrant city of Kalispell offers the best of what people appreciate about Montana. But we aren’t the only species to think highly of the 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 designed by Audubon as Important Bird Areas. More than 100 species of birds have 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 rubycrowned kinglets. About halfway up the trail, the habitat becomes wet subalpine forest and brushfields. Here you will find Pacific wren, hermit thrush and varied thrush, as well as fox and white-crowned sparrows. Look from raptors from the summit house deck. Plan at least 2–4 hours to hike up, and 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. Doublecrested 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 most years; and a wide variety of species can be found reliably on a drive around the south and east end 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.
The area around Kalispell boasts numerous other prime birding areas — not least of them Glacier National Park, a place renowned for its natural beauty and thriving ecosystem. Learn more about birds of Glacier National Park, or click here to download Glacier’s birding check list. You can also learn more about Flathead Valley birds and their seasons with the Flathead Audubon Society; or download a detailed brochure and birder’s map of the area.
Kalispell is the gateway to Glacier National Park, Flathead Lake, Whitefish and all of the recreation, art, shopping, lodging and adventure that northwestern Montana has to offer. Getting to Kalispell has never been easier thanks to direct air service from Seattle, Las Vegas, Oakland, Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago, Salt Lake City and Atlanta — as well as daily Amtrak service to Chicago and Seattle. Visit www.DiscoverKalispell.com for more information.
Tags: Birding Montana, Danny On Trail, Flathead birding, Montana Audubon, Owen Sowerwine, Smith Lake