Two Leks, a MEGA and Gravy

I’ve just had one of the finest 72 hour periods of birding that I’ve ever had. Two life birds, a mega rarity and incredible views of the Great State of Montana.

May 6

When the alarm jolts you out of REM at 03:30 it better be important. And it was. We were scheduled to meet Sharon Dewart-Hansen to visit a blind at a Sharp-tailed Grouse lek at Benton Lake NWR. She and her husband Douglas met us just inside the entrance to the NWR and we proceeded to the blind, parking nearby and walking a short distance in the pre-dawn darkness and joining John Olson. The birds were already present and as the sun climbed higher into the sky lekking activity increased, with pairs of males interacting and engaging in their dominance displays. Benton Lake NWR had conducted a burn earlier in the year, and the main area of the lek had moved just West of the blind, but the majority of the activity was still easily visible. We even had some males move directly in front of the blind, offering excellent views.

Displaying Sharp-tailed Grouse at Benton Lake NWR.

After leaving the blind we followed Sharon and Douglas for a quick tour of the NWR, which offered a large diversity of species, including hundreds of Franklin’s Gulls and views of my first of year Wilson’s Phalaropes.

Franklin’s Gulls at Benton Lake NWR.

We then headed North to the Missouri River Breaks to check out the riparian there and drive the auto tour route, which was relatively quiet given the early date, although the Northern stretch above the Breaks did produce many Chipping Sparrows and several singing Green-tailed Towhees, another year bird!

We ended in Trafton Park in Malta, where we spent the night, and heard the ever dependable Eastern Screech Owl…another tick for the year.

May 7

Another early rise…..I woke at 4:10 a.m., Di was already up, and we decided that it was early enough for a run to a Greater Sage Grouse lek outside of Fort Peck, whose location we had courtesy of John Carlson. We arrived at the lek just after 7 and after scanning the sage for a moment we had them! 36 birds present, almost all males, with 12 relatively close to the road. We observed for a few minutes.

The weather was variable with rain in the area and we knew that Bentonite Road, outside of Glasgow, would be impassable if there was precipitation. This was our opportunity for Mountain Plover, a life bird for both of us. We chanced it and had incredible luck, with showers moving to the North and South of us, and just as we reached the 20 mile mark from the start of the road the skies cleared, the sun broke out and Di spotted a single Mountain Plover which had landed in the road in front of us. Check!

Mountain Plover on Bentonite Road, Southwest of Glasgow

Bowdoin NWR beckoned, and we drove the auto tour route there, amid periods of wind, rain, and relative calm. It was spectacular, with 3 Black-bellied Plovers foraging near the boat launch which flew as soon as I had the scope on them, but gave us a close flyby moments later with great looks. Chestnut-collard Longspurs were in abundance, Western Meadowlarks everywhere and we even observed Burrowing Owl just off the road around the 4 mile mark.

Chestnut-collared Longspur at Bowdoin NWR.

I finally decided to check my email back at then entrance and was flabbergasted to see that a GARGANEY was being seen in Billings, just a hair shy of 4 hours South of us. I immediately gassed up in Malta and bolted South.

The drive gave us some of the finest views of Montana that I’ve ever had, with the sun setting and numerous storms broken up by bluebird skies. We knew that we wouldn’t make it to Billings before dark, so pulled into the town campground in Roundup to spend the night.

May 8

Up at 04:30, and heading towards the Garganey in minutes. We got to the Shiloh Conservation Area parking lot adjacent to the 48th Street gravel pits and were surprised to find an empty parking lot. Which didn’t last long as John Carlson pulled in a few minutes later! We all geared up and took a roundabout approach to the gravel pits at John’s suggestion to avoid flushing any birds. The Garganey wasn’t present so we fanned out to begin the search. Over an hour of scoping gave great views of courting Eared Grebes and a huge diversity of waterfowl and other birds, including my first of year Peregrine Falcon, finally! We met back up with John, who was about to take off, when he spotted the Garganey dropping in, right in front of us! Another idyllic birding moment ensued, with the sun breaking out and offering perfect light for viewing. Absolutely incredible looks were had of the this mega rarity, a male in full breeding plumage. We were living the dream!

Garganey, a mega rarity and Montana’s 4th state record.

Basking in the glory of witnessing such a stunning bird we decided that it was time to point the trusty Subaru towards home, heading North from Billings and taking the scenic route. The birding day wasn’t close to over yet! A stop at the Broadview pond offered up two Red-necked Phalaropes, a bird that I was hoping to get early in the year. More incredible views greeted us as we moved West through variable weather towards Helena, where we spent over 20 minutes driving in an early Spring snowstorm before looking for reported Great-tailed Grackles, which we dipped on. No matter. The past few days had offered incredible birding experiences and Di and I rode the high of seeing two leks and a MEGA rarity all the way home!

eBird Trip Report.

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