Winter Bird Watching

Just because winter weather has arrived doesn’t mean there aren’t a myriad of ways to enjoy our community trail system. Winter birdwatching is a great excuse to get outside and get moving. With the foliage cleared away, birds can be more visible and you might be surprised by the diversity you’ll find.

Montana is home to an impressive 427 species of birds. While most birds do leave the state in September or October and return in the spring, 40% of those species spend the winter right here. Crows, ravens and magpies are easily recognized but you might also find one of 36 species of waterfowl, 13 birds of prey, 16 types of sparrows, and almost all of Montana’s owls!*

A bird is considered ‘overwintered’ if it is seen regularly between December and February.  Needless to say, those are some tough birds. And, some species of birds can be seen here only in the wintertime, flying south to Montana in order to escape even harsher conditions back home. Of these nine species, the Rough-legged Hawk, Northern Shrike, and American Tree Sparrow are most common, but a clever birder might look for the Lapland Longspur, Snow Bunting, or Redpoll in plowed fields and along riparian areas where they are likely to gather after a heavy snow.

The key to winter bird watching is knowing where to look and one of the best places to start is on a GVLT trail, especially one with open water. Any active stream or river will likely attract a wide variety of birds, especially those that rely on aquatic plants and animals as a food source. Trails in and around the East Gallatin Recreation Area and Cherry River fishing access are a good choice if you are looking for waterfowl. Or, walk the Story Mill Spur Trail along the East Gallatin River and you’re likely to find numerous species there as well. On the south side of town, Sourdough Trail is delightfully alive with chickadee calls and woodpecker sightings in December. Follow the trail from Langhor Park and south to Sundance Springs, and you’ll encounter a variety of habitats, ideal for bird-watching in any season.  

*Swant, G. (Winter, 2009). Winter Birds in the Big Sky. Big Sky, Small Acres.