The First Far Eastern Foray and Buff-Breasted Sandpipers

Spring is on and the local birding has been spectacular, we’re nearing the frenetic peak of arriving migrants and the fields and hills are filled with birdsong and calls as territories are established and mates acquired.

On 19 May we made our first foray to the far Northeastern reaches of the state and experienced the full range of vagaries that Spring weather in Montana can offer. Our first destination was Malta, and all looked to be going well until we headed East out of Great Falls, where the wind began to howl and a veil of snow descended. The stretch of road between Lewistown and Malta can experience some of the most extreme weather in the state and with darkness approaching we decided to park the Subaru at Kiwanis Park in Lewistown, without even a thought of setting up our tent or even exiting the vehicle. Waking in the early morning hours we were greeted with a snow encrusted vehicle and the news of a Red Knot at Medicine Lake NWR!

We immediately set a course Eastward, leaving the snow behind as we descended from Judith Basin County and entered the high plains. A rest area stop at Mosby netted Lark Sparrow for the year, and it wasn’t long before Lark Buntings appeared along the roadside in droves. Route 200 had a big surprise in store for us, with over 10 miles of construction without pavement, which had become a bog with the recent rain and snow. We pushed on, arriving at Medicine Lake NWR late in the morning.

Setting up on the causeway on the Western side of the NWR we started scoping for the Red Knot…it was not to be! There was plenty of action, with Stilt Sandpipers, Sanderling and a Semi-palmated Sandpiper in close attendance and Forster’s Terns foraging in the waters nearby. After a half hour in a freezing gale we moved to the Southern entrance of the NWR and ran into a birder who said he had seen two Red Knots on the East side of Medicine Lake. We proceeded without delay…and dipped again! No Red Knots in sight, although several year birds were added as we observed hundreds of Cliff Swallows foraging low over the water, mixed with Black and Common Terns. Spring is a little late out there this year, and the wind prevented listening for any birds that might have been present in the marshy areas….think Nelson’s Sparrow!

The weather forecast had prompted discussion in the birding community of a major fallout of migrating warblers, as the end of May and beginning of June are prime time for these rarely seen species in Montana. We headed to Westby, hoping for migrant birds, and arrived at the city park to find only a few House Sparrows. Exploration of the roads North and South of town produced a few species including Piping Plover for the year. Cold temperatures and strong winds just weren’t giving in and bird activity was limited.

Traveling Westward we passed through Plentywood and Scobey, then Opheim and ended our day in Glasgow, where we surrendered to the cold and windy weather and got a room at our go-to there, the Cottonwood Inn and Suites, which deserves a mention as it’s nice and clean, on par with a new Holiday Inn Express sans a few amenities, at a more than reasonable price.

The next day found us in Trafton Park in Malta, with milder weather and even some sunshine, and nothing notable in the way of migrant warblers. The anticipated fallout never materialized on our route, and birders in other parts of the state experienced the same conditions, with very slow birding, strong winds and varied precipitation. No matter, we had the American Prairie Reserve to visit!

The White Rock Unit of the American Prairie Reserve sits East of highway 191 and North of the Missouri River Breaks, a 24 mile drive in from Malta, with plenty of fine birding on the way in. We had stopped to scope a water feature and to my surprise there were two Short-billed Dowitchers in the mix, another year bird! I was soaking in the songs of Lark Bunting, Western Meadowlark and Vesper Sparrow when my phone rang. I was surprised that I even had cell service here, and was glad that I did, as it was Pat Little calling from Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge and he was looking at two American Golden Plovers in full breeding plumage! It didn’t take long to make the decision to pack up the scope and head straight to Benton Lake, as we could make it with about an hour of sunlight left.

The weather kept improving as we headed Southwest, and by the time we got to Benton Lake the skies were bluebird, very pleasant after the previous few days of clouds, precipitation, cold temperatures and strong winds. The only problem was that the American Golden Plovers were not around, despite a comprehensive search of the area until sunset. There was some magic on the way out of the refuge though! I spotted what I thought were two plovers foraging in the area West of the entrance road, and quickly set the scope up to shoot some video, with just enough light left. My iPhone 13 Pro did a fantastic job with what light there was and I successfully got some good footage, although I missed a moment when a female Sharp-tailed Grouse approached the foraging birds and was violently attacked. Good entertainment! As I examined the birds and video footage I was having trouble getting an ID. They seemed like plovers, but weren’t in breeding plumage and bills looked too long and thin.

A post to Montana Bird Discussion on Facebook was in order, and it didn’t take long for Caleb Putnam to comment, “Why not Buff-breasted Sandpiper?”. Suddenly it all made sense. The foraging behavior, the thin bills, the plain appearance of the birds. I had a year bird, AND a life bird!

Buff-breasted Sandpiper, 21 May 2022, Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge

To be continued!

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