For this year’s big trip, my wife and I joined some friends (Sara, Charlie, Shelby, Andrew) at Sara’s family cabin near McAllister, near Ennis, near Bozeman, Montana. We covered a lot of territory in 5 ½ days, including a day trip to Yellowstone. The western wildlife was great, especially the mammals. This was my first trip to a new state where I got at least as many lifer mammals (6+) as birds (6). The weather was a nice break from east coast humidity; other than one slightly rainy day, we had sunny skies and (dry) highs in the 70s almost every day.
We flew into Bozeman late Sunday night, made the dark and rainy drive to McAllister, and stayed up late hanging out with the crew (who had preceded us by several days). Not much else to say about this transit day.
The forecasters predicted a rainy Monday around McAllister, so I figured this would be as good a time as any to make a solo sojourn in the eastern part of the state, where the weather was better. I woke up too early with too little sleep (it’s a vacation, right?) and made a coffee-fueled 2.5-hour drive into Wheatland County. The drive was spectacular and exposed me to the rugged Montana landscape: rocky gorges, river valleys, steppes, and grasslands, with snow-capped mountains rising in the distance at every turn. I also enjoyed Montana’s speed limits; most rural two-lane highways allowed up to 70 mph, and the interstate featured an 80-mph speed limit.
So, what drew me to Montana’s central plains? Birds, of course. On a trip to Colorado a few years back, I saw most of the common Rocky Mountain bird species (including 48 lifers), leaving relatively few new bird targets for this trip. However, several uncommon grassland specialists breed in the northwestern Great Plains, so that’s where I headed. This was a birding-by-car adventure. Driving through Wheatland County, I got fleeting glimpses at a Prairie Falcon hovering over the road (I should have pulled over for a photo). I spent most of the morning around Lower Nihill, Old Gap, and Oka Roads—about 14 miles of dirt roads surrounded by shortgrass prairie and some cultivated agricultural land. It was extremely windy. The wind turbines were happy about this, but I suspect this may have dampened bird activity. I managed to see only two of my six grassland target species: Thick-billed Longspur (formerly McCown’s Longspur, but Mr. McCown got cancelled) and Chestnut-collared Longspur. Nonetheless, it was a good morning for birding, and I saw nearly a hundred Horned Larks, many Long-billed Curlews, a Wilson’s Phalarope, Western Meadowlarks, Vesper Sparrows, Savannah Sparrows, Brewer’s Blackbirds, American White Pelicans, a Swainson’s Hawk, and an assortment of ducks.
The Wheatland County mammals eclipsed the birds. First, there were Pronghorn, North America’s only native antelope. These spunky ungulates are apparently ubiquitous in Montana. Second, I saw dozens of Richardson’s Ground Squirrels, my first new mammal of the trip. Third, I saw a family of Swift Foxes—an adult and 5 cubs—playing near their den in the middle of a prairie. That was probably my favorite mammal sighting of the trip, and my second mammal lifer.
On the way back home, I stopped at Cremer/Rupert Road, a scenic and bird-rich hotspot in Sweetgrass County. I saw a lot of good birds, including Common Nighthawk, Sandhill Crane, Long-billed Curlew, Wilson’s Snipe, Cliff Swallow, Vesper Sparrow, Bobolink, and Western Meadowlark. I also saw a Rocky Mountain Mule Deer and heard some Boreal Chorus Frogs (a lifer, and one of only two amphibians encountered on the trip).
After the long drive back, I finally rejoined my wife and friends in the early afternoon, connecting at a trailhead just north of Ennis Lake. Recent reports of Mountain Lion and Grizzly Bear activity forced us to postpone the hike and drive into Ennis to buy bear spray. While we were in town, we ended up “hiking” a short but scenic trail along the Madison River. Notable birds there included Common Mergansers, Black-billed Magpies, Yellow Warblers, and Western Tanagers, among others. The magpies were ubiquitous throughout the Madison River valley (and really all of Montana), and one of my favorite birds of the trip.
Our crew spent the early evening at Clute’s Landing on the west edge of Ennis Lake (a short walk from the cabin). There were some good birds on the lake, including a Western Grebe, perhaps a hundred American White Pelicans, Franklin’s Gulls, and some distant ducks. But as with most of the trip, the mammals were the main attraction. Unidentified ground squirrels—they may have been lifers, but the three possible species (Richardson’s, Wyoming, and Uinta) are basically indistinguishable either—roamed the neighborhood, along with Pronghorn in an adjacent field. But the real treat was a distant group of 30 Rocky Mountain Elk (18 cows and 12 calves) seen in the floodplain where the Madison River meets the lake. Also present in the floodplain were some White-tailed Deer.
Back at the cabin, we were treated to one final mammal show between dinner and a late game night. Countless bats streamed out of the cabin around sunset, flying inches from our face and occasionally stopping to rest on exposed timbers. I’m fairly sure they were Little Brown Myotis (mammal lifer #3); a large colony has used the cabin as a summer roost for years, perhaps decades.
Tuesday morning began with some local lake birding, walking from the cabin down to the lake. The best bird was a Ferruginous Hawk, but I also enjoyed watching the magpies and tanagers that seemed to cover every fencepost. Morning mammals included a Mountain Cottontail, a pair of Pronghorns, and more unidentified ground squirrels (which I’ll stop mentioning).
We drove into Bozeman, checked out the town—a cool spot—and had a truly amazing brunch/lunch at “Jam!” before dropping Shelby and Andrew off at the airport. On the way back, we stopped at a very random, very local, and very impressive hat store in the middle of nowhere; I left with a lighter wallet and nice felt Stetson.
Next, my wife and I hiked the circularly named Trail Creek Trail (a trail named for a creek that was named for a trail?). The trail led us up the side of Beartrap Canyon, starting where the Madison River leaves Ennis Lake, then transitioning from a lush, forb- and flower-filled slope to arid hills dominated by juniper and sagebrush. It was a good thing we brought our bear spray. After several miles, we topped a hill and were greeted with a formidable sight: cattle. Now, we’ve shared plenty of trails with cows in the past (with no trouble), but this was a wholly different experience. Maybe a hundred bovines clogged the trail, including bulls, cows, and calves, and they wouldn’t budge. We tried going off-trail, only to find ourselves pinched between two groups, mooing loudly and aggressively staring at us. After multiple apparently aggressive cows made moves in our direction, we decided to cut our losses and head back the way we came.
The birdlife on the trail was less hostile than the mammals. The most interesting birds included a Dusky Flycatcher (a visually unremarkable lifer, identified only by its song and habitat), many Warbling Vireos, a couple Clark’s Nutcrackers, Mountain Bluebirds, Green-tailed Towhees, and a MacGillivray’s Warbler. If I had brought my camera (and had more time), I would’ve also scored a handful of lifer butterflies and a dragonfly or two, but this was a hike, so I let them fly by unidentified.
After the hike, we took a scenic (if a little harrowing) dirt road drive down the Beartrap Canyon to the dam that created Ennis Lake. It was interesting to see a dam in the middle of a gorge. The “lake” immediately behind the dam was really just a deep river for several miles; not until the canyon abruptly opens into the floodplain does Ennis Lake become recognizable.
An unexpected mammal was waiting for us when we arrived back at the cabin: a young Striped Skunk, foraging in the yard in the middle of the day! It was very approachable—nearly oblivious of my presence—allowing for some great photo opportunities. This was the first live skunk I’ve ever seen (and mammal lifer #4 of the trip).
We spent the late afternoon in downtown Ennis, including a rooftop bar and a good dinner. Around sunset, we moseyed back home along the east shore of the river and lake. Wildlife highlights included a young bull Moose (!) and a Great Horned Owl with two almost-independent owlets. A Common Nighthawk, some Sandhill Cranes, and a Bullock’s Oriole were nice, too. The amount of White-tailed Deer was also pretty staggering; we probably saw 100, more than I’ve seen in one place before. Apparently, the local White-tails are concentrated around the floodplain and the Mule Deer are more common in the arid hills.
I started Wednesday morning early with a canoe trip around Ennis Lake. The aluminum canoe was enormous, and not the most practical vessel for a solo adventure, but it worked. To get to the lake, I shoved the canoe hallway into the back of the Tahoe and drove very slowly. Once on the water, I also paddled very slowly (less by choice) to where multiple channels of the Madison River meet the lake in 2-mile-wide marshy delta.
The birding was great; perhaps the best of the trip. I saw a Tundra Swan (rare in the summer); 7 species of ducks, including Cinnamon Teal and Northern Pintail; dozens of Eared Grebes and a half-dozen Western Grebes; Sandhill Cranes; charismatic shorebirds, including a dozen Black-necked Stilts, nearly 50 American Avocets, and a handful of Wilson’s Phalaropes; Franklin's, Ring-Billed, and California Gulls; American White Pelicans; and a variety of passerines, including Willow Flycatchers, Marsh Wrens, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and Yellow Warblers.
After I returned to the cabin, I had another photo session with the Striped Skunk, along with a couple Mountain Cottontails (who were more wary of the skunk than I was), a Rocky Mountain Mule Deer, and a couple damselflies that were either Boreal or Northern Bluets (a would-be lifer, but these two species are nearly indistinguishable).
Our team then took the dirt roads into the nearby Tobacco Root Mountains (Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest), eventually reaching Upper Sureshot Lake (7300’) for a picnic. It was an incredibly scenic and relatively private place to hang out. The wildlife nearby was as good as can be expected (i.e., very good). We saw a cow Moose (both on the way in and on the way back out) and lots of Columbian Ground Squirrels (mammal lifer #5); I saw a few Spotted Sandpipers and Golden Eagles, and heard a Olive-sided Flycatcher and Warbling Vireo (among other birds); I heard Boreal Chorus Frogs and saw one other frog underwater (possibly a Columbia Spotted Frog, a would-be lifer); and I saw a Two-banded Checkered-Skipper (lifer butterfly). We also attempted some fishing; Sara brought one almost all the way in.
Back at the cabin, we grilled dinner and had a low-key night, capped off by a Great Horned Owl that landed in a backyard tree, mobbed by magpies.
The entire household awoke early Thursday (not just me, for a change!), with big plans: a day trip to Yellowstone. You can read about—and see photos from—our adventure on this separate blog post.
We crammed a lot into one day, and everyone was exhausted by the time we got home. After a frozen pizza dinner, we enjoyed a double rainbow in the yard (with both ends visible) and a sunset that colored the distant snow-capped mountains pink with rain. A fitting end to a colorful day!
My wife and I began our last full day with a big hike in the Tobacco Roots, starting at the North Willow Creek trailhead. Our round trip was about 8 miles and 1600 feet of elevation gain. A flooded creek crossing after a couple miles caused us to re-engineer our route away from our intended stop at Hollowtop Lake; this turned out for the best and exposed us to more varied scenery. After we departed the lush creekside and adjacent meadows, we passed through a nice stand of coniferous forest before reaching more rocky meadows and a small lake. Towards the end of the hike, we even found some snow on the ground (though we were still thousands of feet below Hollowtop Mountain and the other snow-capped peaks. The weather was terrific, as was the wildlife. We encountered dozens of Columbian Ground Squirrels, an unidentified chipmunk, and a Red Squirrel, but the real mammalian highlight came at the end of the hike. Just as we were approaching our car, a Long-tailed Weasel (mammal lifer #6) scurried across the gravel road carrying a ground-squirrel in its mouth. What a sight! Among other birds, I heard and saw a Hammond’s Flycatcher (lifer), a couple Evening Grosbeaks, and heard a singing Lincoln’s Sparrow and a MacGillivray’s Warbler. I also was able to visually ID two new butterflies: Pacific Orangetip (by the dozens) and a Western Pine Elfin, along with many unidentified species.
After the hike, we enjoyed a low-key afternoon hanging out in McAllister and Ennis; the ladies went downtown, and the guys hung out in the yard. While I was sitting in the hammock reading a book, a Peregrine Falcon blasted through the yard with a recently caught Starling in its claws. That’s a pretty good yard bird!
Our crew eventually headed to the Norris Hot Springs (just north of McAllister) in the late afternoon. On the way, we pulled over for a pair of Moose hanging out just 30 yards from the road. The young cow was briefly entangled by a short barbed-wire fence; the young bull made it over more smoothly. Of course, this was the one car ride where I didn’t have my camera with me! This was an unusually good year for Moose sightings around Ennis Lake, and our third Moose sighting of the trip (Charlie and Sara’s fourth).
Norris Hot Springs was better than I expected. It’s a natural hot spring converted into a relatively large wood-lined pool, with excellent food and drink options. It was the perfect place to unwind after our hike. Remarkably, the hot springs also attracted my favorite lifer bird of the trip: Pinyon Jays! This is normally a difficult bird to find, but (as I learned after the fact) large flocks apparently visit the bird feeders at the springs. The feeders were empty, so only a couple showed up for us, joined by a striking male Yellow-headed Blackbird. It’s always a nice treat to see good birds while enjoying human comforts!
For better or worse, I woke up before dawn Saturday morning and couldn’t go back to sleep, so I started my day with some stargazing. The moon joined an impressive alignment of our nearest planets, and I got decent looks at Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn through the spotting scope at the cabin. (I may have missed Mercury, which was apparently also in alignment at the time.) As usual, it was pretty easy—but still exciting—to see some of Jupiter’s moons and Saturn’s rings.
As dawn approached and the temperatures began climbing out of the 30s, I was joined by several of the resident bats and a Great Horned Owl. I then hopped in the car for a sunrise birding loop, starting on the east side of the Madison River upstream of Ennis Lake and proceeding around the east and north sides of the lake. The birding was excellent. Of the 69 species observed, the most interesting (i.e., mostly Western) species included Trumpeter Swan, Common Merganser, Eared and Western Grebe, Franklin’s and California Gull, Willow, Least, and Hammond’s Flycatcher and Western Wood-Pewee, Western Kingbird, Warbling Vireo, Black-billed Magpie, Violet-green Swallow, Rock Wren, Spotted Towhee, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Brewer’s Blackbird, MacGillivray’s Warbler, and Western Tanager. Other interesting species included an assortment of ducks, Sandhill Crane (with downy young), American White Pelican, Northern Harrier, American Kestrel, Marsh Wren, and Orange-crowned Warbler. I encountered surprisingly few mammals on this trip, other than White-tailed Deer.
After I returned to the cabin, my wife and I packed up and headed to the Bozeman airport for a long day of travel back home. We can’t wait until our next trip out west!
Summary by the Numbers
This trip featured a lot of travel time and mileage, mostly by plane (~4000 miles), followed by car (630 miles in our rental plus around 400 in local vehicles), on foot (24 miles), and by canoe (3 miles). I took 1518 photos with my camera, and perhaps a hundred more with my phone; with a couple hundred “keepers.” I saw 117 bird species, including 6 lifers (bringing my total to 461 species). Most birds (113 species) were seen in Montana, with a mere 29 birds in Wyoming while at Yellowstone. I saw at least 17 species of mammals, including 6 identifiable lifers and 1 new subspecies; up to 3 potential lifers went unidentified. I encountered only 2 species of amphibians (1 identifiable lifer) and no reptiles at all. As for invertebrates, I identified only 7 species of butterflies, but all were lifers. The single odonate I was able to photograph turned out unidentifiable.