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Birding Yellowstone and Glacier National Park in May-June, 2021 (1 Viewer)

lgonz1008

Well-known member
United States
Finally got to do a trip outside of my home state in over a year, and I have to say, it felt great, though I missed more than a few targets I had, but that's expected in every birding trip.

The trip overall provided me a chance to show my family some of the great sights and wildlife from the Western US, and while we lost a day at Yellowstone NP due to a flight problem, seeing a grand total of 130 bird species and 16 mammal species is not too bad when you only have 1 week of travel and are with non-birders. The itinerary below will summarize what was done each day, some of the highlight species and the eBird checklists for each day.


May 29, 2021: Traveling from Miami, FL to Billings, MT

Today is a day I hope to never go through again in my life, got up early and were on time for the airport, but things didn't go as planned which resulted in missing the flight by 2 minutes and seeing the door close as we were in front of the gate, but American Airlines was not so kind to let us go through, so we could leave for our layover in Dallas-Fort Worth Airport in one hour, but from there to Montana would be about 6 hour wait. The day was lost but thankfully, I was able to make a checklist and added my first ABA record of Great-tailed Grackle from the airport. So not all was lost but we arrived in Billings about 9PM local time, the car rental went smoothly and probably the best rental I've ever had in my life courtesy of Alamo (that poor car came with me new, I returned it after having seen most trails in Yellowstone and traveling the length of Montana, so I can confirm it is road ready!). We entered our hastily booked hotel for the night and just slept because the trip was starting for real the next day. (eBird checklist: https://ebird.org/checklist/S89214307)


May 30, 2021: Birding around Billings, MT and driving down to Emigrant, MT

Got up really early and decided to take a walk around the hotel while my family were still resting, didn't get a big list, but got some good shots of House Finch and my only sightings of Common Grackle for the trip, so I guess that's notable? The hotel also had a decent population of Richardson's Ground Squirrel in the lawns, which made it the first mammal of the trip (eBird checklist: https://ebird.org/checklist/S89258711)

From there I changed the plan to enjoy the morning around the Billings backroads to see some birds and mammals that if we had gone by the original itinerary I would have missed, but at the current time, it wouldn't do us much better to drive all the way to Yellowstone and miss the prime morning hours. The first stop along the way was on Buffalo Trail Road, which gave many views of ubiquitous birds for most of the trip like Common Raven, Red-tailed Hawk and a swallow colony that was too far to see in details, but flyover birds revealed that Barn, Cliff and Bank Swallows were present, either in those cliffs or the nearby farming areas. From there, I drove back to the main road and drove around the town of Molt, birds like Horned Lark and Western Meadowlark posed for photos, but my highlight came in the form of a singing Lark Bunting which marked my first lifer for the trip. Proghorn Antelope was common by the road which excited my family as it was a big mammal. (eBird checklists: https://ebird.org/checklist/S89289621 & https://ebird.org/checklist/S89289664)

From here the drive kept going to a hotspot known as Eastlick Road that gave faraway views of my only Say's Phoebe of the trip, but also had up close views of Long-billed Curlew (one of my favorite shorebirds, though it was far from the shore), a pair of Eastern Kingbirds that were playing with me as they would stay in front of my car multiple times as I made stops hoping for the many Vesper Sparrows seen would turn out to be a longspur species, spoilers they never were. A stop was also made at the famous Prairie Dog Town which failed to show a single Burrowing Owl, but instead we got great views of dozens of Black-tailed Prairie Dogs. (eBird checklist: https://ebird.org/checklist/S89289723)

The final stop of the morning was in a place simply called, Big Lake, wish I had a better name, but that's what eBird calls it. Naming aside, this is probably one of the most memorable places I've been to in the US, from a non-birding perspective, it's a boring looking lake with some mosquitoes, but considering I was to see 35 different bird species in little under an hour, I'd say this is a pretty good place for a birder! Highlights included over 80 Eared Grebes, some of which were doing mating displays, along with over 40 Wilson's Phalaropes, my second lifer in the form of California Gull, and many waterfowl such as Northern Pintail, Bufflehead, Redhead being the standouts. On the drive out of the area, more Proghorn were enjoyed along with the first sightings of Mule Deer. (eBird checklist: https://ebird.org/checklist/S89289526)

From here, it was a break for lunch and buying some grocery items, before making a 2 hour drive to the quiet town of Emigrant, MT which would be our base for 2 nights. The place we stayed at was a nice home and it provided plenty of sightings to more birds than was expected from a house next to the main road. Some highlights seen from the back porch today and the days to come included Cassin's Finch, Wilson's Snipe, Black-billed Magpie, Osprey, and 3 different species of sparrows, along with my only rabbit of the trip in the form of Mountain Cottontail. (eBird checklists: https://ebird.org/checklist/S89312823, https://ebird.org/checklist/S89322206, https://ebird.org/checklist/S89393165 & https://ebird.org/checklist/S89415363)

However, since the sun wouldn't set, we decided to make the drive to Yellowstone and at least see the entrance to the park, the first thing to greet us outside of the horrid traffic that was a precursor of tomorrow and the slopes, it was a small group of Bighorn Sheep on the cliffs along with dozens of Violet-green Swallows. The drive was made up to the visitor center area for the Mammoth Hot Springs where we saw our first Elks and Uinta Ground Squirrels. (eBird checklist: https://ebird.org/checklist/S89318445)

From here, the drive was made back, but it left a sour taste that I feel needs to be addressed for anyone looking to visit this great park. While Yellowstone is the original national park of not just the US but the whole world, it makes sense that it is heavily visited, but this doesn't do justice to the fact that I could see more people inside of the park than I saw in any of the roads in the whole of Montana. The sights are awe inspiring, but it is hard to feel like you're in nature when around Old Faithful you have 4 parking lots, 2 lodges, 1 cafeteria, 2 gift shops, 1 general goods store and a visitor center. Simply put, Yellowstone came off to me as the Disney idea of what a national park is, it's for a lot of people, but it just made me regret even more the fact that I lost a day and couldn't do more backcountry to find the harder to see birds and mammals. With that out of the way, please continue reading, overall the park is great but it should be noted that doing a regular loop will give you little to no sightings of the rare wildlife the park offers like Gray Wolf, either of the bear species, American Beaver or any number of the more specialized birds like American Dipper, almost any woodpecker species and Great Gray Owl.


May 31, 2021: Yellowstone National Park

If you read the paragraph above, you'll know my feelings on Yellowstone, but this is the result of no proper planning on my part, the fact that I lost a day due to flight problems and that I was with non-birders/hardcore nature lovers. I'm sure this park has a lot of hidden secrets I'll need to see in the future like the Roosevelt Tower that was closed when I went or the Lamar Valley that didn't fit into the day we had in the park so had to be scrapped for giving my family a chance of seeing the natural spectacles of the park.

But let's not be negative and keep going, the first stop of the day was made in the Mammoth Hot Springs Area which gave not only beautiful views and comparatively alone time with this site, I was also able to enjoy Violet-green Swallows that were nesting in the rock formations coming out of the springs. (eBird checklist: https://ebird.org/checklist/S89338391)

From here, a drive was made to Bunsen Peak and Swan Lake, White-crowned Sparrows and Yellow-rumped Warblers were singing in the pines and the bodies of water were home to Lesser Scaup, American Wigeon and a pair of nesting Trumpeter Swans. Swans are probably not birds that amazes many people in the Northern states and countries, but as someone who lives in a state that even seeing a Canada Goose in my local patch it's considered a rarity, it brings me great joy to see these exclusively Northern birds in their breeding grounds. The next stop was Roaring Mountain, which wasn't that amazing for me, but being able to get up-close and photograph Common Ravens, it's an experience I will always be thankful as an avid lover of Corvids. (eBird checklists: https://ebird.org/checklist/S89389420, https://ebird.org/checklist/S89389460 & https://ebird.org/checklist/S89389478)

After a gas stop, we made our way to the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone, which is truly one of the highlights of the park, if you can find a parking spot, I highly recommend spending at least 30 minutes here just to enjoy the waterfalls and the raging river. Bird wise, the place was pretty barren, but since I was in the right habitat for it, I was able to see up close my only Lincoln's Sparrows of the trip. (eBird checklist: https://ebird.org/checklist/S89389501)

From the falls, a drive through Hayden Valley was made with a total of 21 bird species seen, not much can be said of this valley except to watch out for tourists forgetting that they are trying to take selfies with the largest mammal on the continent, the American Bison. I'm not sure why so many people were trying to win the Darwin Award while on the park, but I can at least say that seeing such a large animal and not be in a zoo setting, truly humbles you. The birding highlights included a beautiful male Common Merganser rapidly moving on a stream, multiple Savanna Sparrows and a Bald Eagle on the nest. (eBird checklist: https://ebird.org/checklist/S89389534)

A brief stop at Lake Yellowstone gave me a moment of peace to find some songbirds that we very welcomed as break from all the waterfowl seen. These came in the form of Mountain Chickadee, Gray Catbird and a lost juvenile Bullock's Oriole that was desperately trying to find nectar in the pines, not sure how to explain to him that wasn't an option. Barrow's Goldeneye would prove to be very common around the lake, which allowed me to see 2 separate flocks with around 30 birds in them. The West Thumb Geyser Basin, is another highlight of the park and for me it was my favorite stop of the trip because I was able to get a parking lot lifer in the form of Canada Jay, I saw the beautiful bird as I parked and got out of the car, but soon as taking just one shot, the pair of birds disappeared. Least Chipmunk and Red Squirrel were also seen in the conifers leading up to the Geyser Basin. (eBird checklists: https://ebird.org/checklist/S89389562, https://ebird.org/checklist/S89389636 & https://ebird.org/checklist/S89389662)

Final stop of the park was in Old Faithful, which you are already aware how I feel about this place, but the geyser was beautiful to see and a bit funny hearing so many people heckle it for being "late" to erupt. (eBird checklist: https://ebird.org/checklist/S89389688)


June 1, 2021: Emigrant, MT to Kalispell, MT

Today was the longest day of driving in the trip, with a total of 5-7 hours on the road, I was thankful someone swapped with me for 40-60 minutes so I could take a quick nap and recover halfway through it all. But, I still managed to make an early morning stop in the hopes of finding one of the many target game birds I had on my list, sadly I could not find myself a single Ruffed Grouse in my short time at Mount Ellis. However, after spending 2 full days with almost no songbirds, this stop was like gift from heaven with a grand total of 22 of the 25 birds seen were delightful songsters that were going all out in their mating calls, many of these birds were also only seen (some were heard only later) on this short hike like Black-headed Grosbeak, Warbling Vireo, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and Dusky Flycatcher. One brief roadside stop by Salmon Lake, allowed us to enjoy from the car close up views of a pair of Trumpeter Swans along with seeing an adult Bullock's Oriole fly across the road. (eBird checklists: https://ebird.org/checklist/S89424669 & https://ebird.org/checklist/S89447301)

When we finally arrived to our cabin for the next few nights, I can only say that it was a great home base that was as far away from human occupancy as you could be except for the home of the owner of the cabin that was about 40-50ft away from ours. The house was in a small clearing next to prime habitat and it was stuck with feeders that proved to be a nice surprise when the one hummingbird feeder was visited by all 3 hummingbird species you can get in the area: Rufous, Calliope and Black-chinned (this last one was a lifer for me). Other birds of note were Swainson's Thrush, Mountain Chickadee, Downy and Pileated Woodpecker (sadly the only woodpeckers I'd encounter outside of Northern Flicker in the whole trip), and Wild Turkey. Mammals seen around the property included Racoon and Columbian Ground Squirrel. (eBird checklists: https://ebird.org/checklist/S89457690, https://ebird.org/checklist/S89473542, https://ebird.org/checklist/S89514161 & https://ebird.org/checklist/S89557618)


June 2, 2021: Birding around Kalispell, MT

Family decided to take the morning off at the cabin, so I chose to take a somewhat relaxed morning of birding by going around different hotspots in the area that could provide me with lifers/trip birds. The first stop made was also the place with the largest checklist of the trip with a whopping 45 species (yes Neotropic birders can laugh at this number, but all the way up in Montana, this is a good species count), the place of choice was Smith Lake WPA, a medium sized wetland that had enough stands of trees in the neighboring houses to give a decent number of wetland and grassland species like Trumpeter Swan, Black Tern, Wood Duck, Gadwall and lifer birds like Red-necked Grebe and Ring-necked Pheasant, along with a good number of woodland species like Cedar Waxwing, Red Crossbill, Willow Flycatcher and American Redstart. (eBird checklist: https://ebird.org/checklist/S89483222)

The next stop was in the West Valley Ponds, in hopes of finding a Clay-colored Sparrow that had been reported, but sadly dipped on the bird, in exchange loads of American Coot and Yellow-headed Blackbirds showed off well alongside Spotted Sandpiper, Ruddy Duck and the ever present Vesper Sparrow (which is contender for the most commonly seen sparrow of the trip). I quickly moved to my next spot in hopes to find at least one Williamson's Sapsucker, but similar to the Clay-colored Sparrow, this was a dip, but the walk around still proved to be successful with multiple Bald Eagles flying over, Dark-eyed Junco moving about close to me but the birding winner being a pair of singing Brown Creepers right next to the trail! A very cooperative Yellow-pine Chipmunk also proved to be a nice distraction from the lack of woodpeckers. Final stop of the morning was in Whitefish Mountain Resort, the sadly didn't yield much of anything except for close up views of the ever present Pine Siskins. From there I decided to call it a day and rest for at least one afternoon of the trip since I was lacking in sleep hours from the excitement of birding in a new place, something that's all too common with me. (eBird checklists: https://ebird.org/checklist/S89485467, https://ebird.org/checklist/S89490238 & https://ebird.org/checklist/S89493701)


June 3, 2021: Ninepipe NWR and National Bison Range

Originally planning to see if we could enjoy Glacier National Park, this was quickly scrapped when the park service informed us that we couldn't enter the park without an online pass that is nearly impossible to get unless you came to the park before 6AM or after 5PM, that was fine for me and my family, so the backup plan of visiting Bison National Range was made as my brother did not feel like the bisons in Yellowstone truly lived up to the experience courtesy of the many people with selfie sticks trying to take pictures with them. I happily obliged since I already had the place in my mind to see a few grassland species I couldn't see elsewhere.

Before the bisons however, I decided to make a stop at Ninepipe NWR based on a recommendation and I'm glad I did, this is one of those places that you don't often hear being talked about that deserves more attention. The place is a single road that stops in close to a bathroom and 2 really short trails. These trails however, get you closer to the main lake that was home to 15 Trumpeter Swans (the most I've seen of this species anywhere), Western and Clark's Grebes, American White Pelican and 3 different species of tern, Black, Forster's and Caspian. The surrounding grassland and smaller ponds also gave great views of Ring-necked Pheasant, American Avocet, 10 different species of ducks. (eBird checklist: https://ebird.org/checklist/S89539048)

After getting our fill of the swans and other birds, we moved to the Bison Range, there are two trail options, a short 1 hour drive that takes you directly to the where the herd tends to graze and a longer 2-3 hour drive that goes up a mountain through a gravel road but gives you access to the good habitats of the range. I took the later and highly recommend you take it too unless you have someone in your group that is morbidly afraid of moving in gravel roads at a steep incline (there were 2 in my car but I only came to know once we were well into the loop and sadly I couldn't turn around since the loop is a one-way road). Bird wise the range is mostly vacant of them, outside of the ubiquitous Western Meadowlark, except for the places that had bushes growing close to the streams, in these spots Lazuli Bunting and Spotted Towhees sang to their heart's desires, Bullock's Orioles pushed around Brown-headed Cowbirds that tried to get close to their nests and further up the mountain in the forested peak, Hammond's Flycatcher and Western Wood-Pewee were calling under the watchful eyes of a Red-tailed Hawk. Once you got closer to where the bisons were, Kingbirds, both Western and Eastern, American Goldfinch and a Grasshopper Sparrow were seen. From there, we were in the middle of a 100 plus herd of American Bison, the herd had everything from mothers with their newborn calves to angsty teenagers and an old bull that looked like he was proud to say nobody will take me down from my throne. After enjoying them for a good 20 or so minutes, we drove out and went out to get lunch before taking a break in our cabin before going back to Glacier NP. (eBird cheklist: https://ebird.org/checklist/S89550228)

We arrived at Glacier past 5:30 due to a very time consuming train, but from there we where able to drive the part of the Going-to-the-Sun road that was open at this time of the year, which only led up to Avalanche Creek, since today was mostly a getting a feel for the place kind of walk, we pulled up to the Avalanche Creek parking lot, I moved ahead in a slim hope to find one of the many singing Varied Thrushes and surprisingly, I did! The bird flew right in front of me and landed close to the trail, I was able to snap a few crappy ID shots before the bird walked off and hid in the understory. Overall, I was already on cloud nine since I was able to get my biggest target so easily and I didn't mind that my walks and drive through the rest of the park that afternoon didn't yield much in the way of wildlife, just a lot of beautiful landscapes and views of the grand Lake McDonald. (eBird checklist: https://ebird.org/checklist/S89571647, https://ebird.org/checklist/S89571609 & https://ebird.org/checklist/S89571565)


June 4, 2021: Glacier National Park

Today we got into the park well before 6AM and I was able to enjoy parts of the park that normally are empty from birdlife due to the high numbers of tourists. One such spot was Apgar Visitor Center that had recently reported sightings of Ruffed Grouse, but sadly I could not find the bird before I was rained out, however, the 30 minutes of walking provided great views to a family of Swainson's Thrushes along with a family of Dark-eye Juncos, but the highlight was being able to see and hear my first Cordilleran Flycatcher, a bird that while not exactly rare, is not too common in this part of its range. (eBird checklist: https://ebird.org/checklist/S89583207)

My next target was the Inside North Fork Road which goes through burned pineland that was prime habitat for all of the woodpecker species I was sorely missing for the trip, namely the beautiful Lewis's Woodpecker, sadly the fear brought by the Bison Range drive forced my parents to put the foot down and say no to this amazing drive that would have likely given me most if not all of the woodpeckers I needed along with some other targets. Instead the drive was short lived but not without adding a few trip species like Belted Kingfisher by a stream, and in the bushes a beautiful chorus that included Pacific Wren, Wilson's and MacGillivray's Warbler among other birds. Not fully ready to give up, I tried driving through the parallel Camas Road, that while it did not give me any views of the sought after woodpeckers, it had great moments of early morning peace like a displaying Wilson's Snipe and a pair of breeding Chipping Sparrows. (eBird checklists: https://ebird.org/checklist/S89584321, https://ebird.org/checklist/S89602638 & https://ebird.org/checklist/S89602678)

From here, we decided to go back to tackle Avalanche Creek again, but this time my brother and I chose to do the hiking trail to the lake and I can only say that it was one of the best experiences I've ever had on a hiking trail, the creek is beautiful and cooling, the many views points on the trail itself show off waterfalls, glaciers and conifer forests that are difficult to imagine anywhere close to where I live. Bird wise, the trail was very kind since it was early morning and from the parking area alone I was able to add my final lifer of the trip in the form of one of the hardest to find ABA megas, the Black Swift. Three of these flying cigars kept me company to get a proper ID for about 5 minutes before disappearing and later on in the trail, the views of the much more widespread Vaux's Swift helped me confirm the ones I saw in the parking area were indeed the hard to find Black Swifts. The rest of the trail provided provided repeated views of Varied Thrush, Hammond's Flycatcher and when we reached the lake a pair of Barrow's Goldeneye competed with a pair of Steller's Jay as the best bird around. Mammal wise, both Red Squirrel and the Red-tailed Squirrel were relatively tame allowing for close up views of these charismatic rodents; but the mammal that left a unique impact was an extremely tame Mule Deer that allowed close up views that while me and my brother would not care much for them, the 100 plus kids that came as part of a school field trip would probably still remember it many years later, hopefully sparking a love for nature and conservation in them. (eBird checklist: https://ebird.org/checklist/S89602538)

The day ended in the cabin with close up views of a female Black-chinned Hummingbirds chasing out a male Black-chinned, a Rufous and a Calliope Hummingbird from the feeder. (eBird checklist: https://ebird.org/checklist/S89626388)


June 5, 2021: Departure from Kalispell, MT to Miami, FL

All good things must come to an end and this morning, we finished packing up to go to the Glacier International Airport to take out flight back home, however, I was blessed to have one last bird added to the trip list when I heard a unique call that's only heard in the Northern forests and lakes, a Common Loon, yes a common bird for many, but it is a bird that I've never seen in breeding plumage (sadly this remains the case at the time of writing this), but similar to hearing an American Bittern doing a mating call, this loon provided me with a memorable experience as it is one of those birds I have high on my list just to hear their unique song. (eBird checklist: https://ebird.org/checklist/S89649237)

The flights home were uneventful, but I was sorely reminded how awful the Miami International Airport is in everything compared to other places in the US, but beyond that, great trip, a few hiccups along the way but still a successful one and one I'd like to do again in the future, but later in the season to target some of the species I was closed off from seeing due to the snow.


Thank you for everyone who read this report, hopefully the images taken and placed on the checklists were well received and if you need any detailed logistics let me know.
 
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qwerty5

Well-known member
United States
Nice report, sounds like an awesome trip! I agree with you on Yellowstone, an awesome place with too many people. I feel like it's big enough one can still find awesome places off the beaten path. It's not near as bad as places like Grand Canyon or Zion National Park.
 

lgonz1008

Well-known member
United States
Nice report, sounds like an awesome trip! I agree with you on Yellowstone, an awesome place with too many people. I feel like it's big enough one can still find awesome places off the beaten path. It's not near as bad as places like Grand Canyon or Zion National Park.
Considering the park is bigger than 2 US states, I'd believe those awesome places are there, similar to Glacier. Although it wasn't as obvious in Glacier because we went before the park was fully opened and we hit the roads/trails early morning or late afternoon (which surprisingly, the birds weren't as common in the last few hours before sunset here as they are in most places I've been to).

But looking at the parks you mentioned, I want to do Grand Canyon, but it's not a place I see myself just going on my own since my limited time off is for birding trips, so if I go there, is for a family trip or as a side stop in a bigger birding trip.
 

qwerty5

Well-known member
United States
Considering the park is bigger than 2 US states, I'd believe those awesome places are there, similar to Glacier. Although it wasn't as obvious in Glacier because we went before the park was fully opened and we hit the roads/trails early morning or late afternoon (which surprisingly, the birds weren't as common in the last few hours before sunset here as they are in most places I've been to).

But looking at the parks you mentioned, I want to do Grand Canyon, but it's not a place I see myself just going on my own since my limited time off is for birding trips, so if I go there, is for a family trip or as a side stop in a bigger birding trip.
I've heard the southeastern corner of the Yellowstone is extremely remote, I'd love to hike in there sometime. When my family visited the parks in late July 2015, Glacier did not have near as many people as Yellowstone, even in the popular areas.

Grand Canyon and Zion were the least conducive parks to birding iirc, though I was a very beginner birder when I was there and didn't pay a lot of attention. They were both covered in people, with bus shuttles everywhere. Large parts of Zion were accessible only by the park shuttles.
 

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