50 species on 50 days in 50 states shared with great people, visiting great places and having fun. That’s what this crazy idea of mine was supposed to be all about. Before reaching Montana, I had been successful in achieving that in 41 states. There had been a lot of planning and lots of good fortune – especially on the weather front where I had no rain or heavy wind that had interfered with any of the planning – with any of the birding. Truly wonderful birds, people and places. Planning for Montana was different than any of the previous states. It included a “leap of faith” – not my strongest suit.
We would be visiting friends of Cindy’s in Helena that were interested in birding and had birded in the area. I did some preliminary research for good birding spots in the vicinity and felt 50 species in a day should be doable if the weather cooperated. But the weather reports were iffy and we would be relying on these friends to plan the day. And it wasn’t clear even which day it would be as we would be visiting for several and there were non-birding things on the agenda. I “needed” my 50 species, but these were to be important new friends because they were important to Cindy and also because they were very interesting folks as well. I wanted to get to know them and for the visit to be successful and enjoyable. Preliminary communications were positive although less specific and detailed than my hyper-focused attention to the birding were accustomed to. Have faith Blair, have faith. Ok, but I could not fully dampen concern about my own lesser preparation.
Great birds, great people, great places and having fun were the starting goals for the 50/50/50 adventure, but along the way I have learned that there is another one that might be more important. Without losing my admitted intensity during this quest, I have tried to balance that with some elements of personal growth, faith in others, flexibility, patience and a greater appreciation of the journey and what it provides in addition to or maybe even in place of some numeric measurement of success. My ability to do this had grown, but there was plenty of room for further growth. All of this had occupied my mind before leaving Wyoming for Montana and I replaced worry with a strong belief that even if somehow 50 species were not found, other meaningful things would be and at worst, I would simply return to Montana at some other time – maybe tied in to a fishing trip or on the way to the Dakotas and that would be just fine. As it turned out I needn’t have worried in the first place, but especially reflecting on this now, I rank this realization and attitude adjustment as one of the best parts of my 50/50/50 Adventure to date.
Back to Birding – Part 1 – Getting to Helena, Montana
So much for introspection and self analysis – on with the birding and the many other great parts of this visit to the Treasure State. The drive from Jackson Hole, Wyoming to Helena, Montana through Yellowstone National Park was 315 miles and due mostly to low speed limits and slow traffic through the Park was projected to be 6 hours and 18 minutes. Even with an early start (thank you Cindy), after the four hours it took us to get through the Park exiting at West Yellowstone, it was after 11:00 a.m. It was another beautiful day and with a stop for lunch and some “casual birding” along the way, we projected arriving in Helena around 5:00 p.m. Around Hebgen Lake in Montana we found 19 species with nothing of note. We had a lunch at the Gravel Bar Restaurant in Ennis, Montana. It looked like fun and it was – the kind of place that we would look for wherever we stopped, avoiding the fast food chains and generally being pleased with the quality and finding some little surprise on the menu. Here it was that the Taco Salad included wagyu beef. As we left, we noted a House Sparrow and an American Kestrel.
Gravel Bar Restaurant
During my recent birding in Idaho, Utah and Wyoming, I had often found a little county road just off the highway that had more of a small farm/ranch agricultural habitat which had added new species for the day. There was no specific goal to look for 50 species that day as the plan was to go out the next day with friends Liz and Rick. Speeding past North Meadow Creek Road just out of Ennis, I recalled the previous experience and thought the road looked interesting. After a quick u-turn, we gave it a shot. As had been the case in those forays in the other states previously, we found some nice new birds. Of particular note were the numerous Eastern Kingbirds. As had happened on many “non-birding” days before, species were starting to add up and now we had seen 32 for the day.
Our Garmin GPS – both a best friend and biggest enemy on this trip – sent us on a circular and then back tracking route that added 15 miles to our journey, but we were still in good shape time-wise. About a half hour later we stopped at a tiny little wetland/marshy area alongside Highway 287 and added 6 more species including Common Yellowthroat, Marsh Wren and Great Blue Heron. It was happening again. Despite no planning and not much real habitat diversity, we now had seen 38 species. Maybe 50 species was possible. Given my introspective concern described at the start of this post, I thought that maybe we could find 50 this day and completely remove pressure for the visit with friends. Maybe…
Maybe got closer when Cindy spotted a pair of Sandhill Cranes in a field another 20 minutes ahead. It became closer again when a Mountain Bluebird flew across the field and then closer yet when I found a surprise Common Loon and a Northern Rough Winged Swallow in a small body of water a bit further along. It was about 3:30 p.m. We were about an hour and a half from Helena – right on time – and we had 43 species for the day. What might be next? Would the habitat change?
In another 20 minutes or so, we saw birds hanging around some cattle in the field. Another quick u-turn enabled us to identify our first Brown Headed Cowbirds of the day and then, returning to our northward route, we saw a pair of Western Bluebirds, two more Sandhill Cranes and a Mourning Dove. This had been the least focused, most casual and frankly uninteresting birding of the entire trip, but here we were at 46 species. Soon we would be on Interstate 15. We were only 45 minutes from Helena. If we could just find a forested area, surely we could find 4 more species. Fortunately you pass through just such an area in the mountains just before dropping down into Helena.
We took a detour off of I-15 onto Highway 282 and then onto Tizer Lake Road. We stopped at very promising habitat at the Tizer Arboretum and Botanic Garden. I heard songs that I could not identify but the place seemed to be mostly a commercial operation and we were not comfortable continuing onto the grounds. A short way further down the road, we turned onto Silver Gate Lane and BINGO!! “Peent, Peent, Peent”. I first heard and then saw a Common Nighthawk as soon as we got out of the car. “Yank, yank, yank” a Red Breasted Nuthatch was upset at something and seconds later a Cooper’s Hawk screamed past us. Maybe the Nuthatch’s call had given away its presence. There had to be another species around. And there was – a Mountain Chickadee joined the call of the Nuthatch and as I searched the canopy for either of these common denizens of the forest, I saw three or four Pine Siskins. Fifty species with one to spare and then as a bonus a beautiful Western Tanager posed for us as well.
We were a little late getting to Helena, but our hosts had been advised and dinner plans were casual and flexible. I even added a House Finch at a neighbor’s feeder upon arrival so we had 53 species for the day, “money in the bank” so to speak. It was time to relax, be on vacation, enjoy new friends and reflect on misplaced worries and how mighty damn fortunate I am to be able to participate in a world of wonder, beauty, surprises and lessons.
It had been another great day and the following ones would be even better.
I am pretty sure I had never been to Helena, Montana before and I knew very little about it. Our directions to the home of our hosts included a turn onto “Last Chance Gulch”. A colorful name for sure. Having no idea where Rick and Liz lived, I wondered if we off to some gravel road. Not at all, it is a major road coming into the city whose name is derived from the place where gold was discovered in 1864 and started the boom for this mining town that literally put it on the map. Unlike many other boom towns, Helena survived the depletion of the gold and became the Territorial capital in 1875 and the State Capital in 1894 when Montana became the 41st state in the Union. It remains the capital today with a population of 31,000 in a state whose population is just over one million. Montana is a very big state with a very small population. It also has a very large number of rivers full of trout and that will become important later in this post.
Liz Gans and Rick Newby were wonderful hosts with great life stories to share and an intimate knowledge of Helena and Montana having been fully involved in life there for many years. Neither beginning nor expert but very capable birders, they were fully engaged in my quest for 50 species and were eager participants in what turned into a very fun day. We compared notes and decided to concentrate on birding at the various ponds at Warm Springs with some stops at other habitat areas to pad our list.
As had been the case in my other 50/50/50 days, I accumulated some common and more urban series early on. Included on that list was one of what would be many Black Billed Magpies. Usually found in rural areas, they were common in the neighborhoods in Helena itself. I was very surprised to find one in the open on a rock pile close to our hosts home.
Black Billed Magpie
We thus had 9 species before hitting the highway out of Helena. Liz directed us to a forested spot just off Highway 12 hoping for a repeat of the experience Cindy and I had the previous day to get over 50 species. It also a gave us a chance to find a species that would be a lifer for Liz, a MacGillivray’s Warbler. It looked very promising when we found some Cassin’s Finches just before getting into the forest. But otherwise at least at the start, it was surprisingly quiet except for some very noisy American Robins.
Liz heard a call, over and over, that she did not know. Unfortunately neither did I but it was definitely a new bird for the day. Later after listening to a number of recordings, I am pretty sure it was a partial song of the Ruby Crowned Kinglet, a species I thought I had glimpsed briefly but never saw clearly. Otherwise, silence. In these situations, I often resort to a favorite birding standby – playing the continuing toots of a Pygmy Owl which often stirs small forest birds into noisy action, gathering to protest and challenge the owl’s presence. After several minutes of toots – nothing. We considered departing but then brought back the Pygmy Owl toots and now it worked. Often a Red Breasted Nuthatch is the first to respond joined soon thereafter by Chickadees. Neither responded here, but I began to hear calls including chip notes and the song of a warbler – a MacGillivray’s Warbler. A very active skulker, it put on a real show circling us, teasing us with short views and then disappearing in dense foliage. Liz was thrilled – especially when she was able to get a good enough view to see its bold white eye arcs. The light was bad and the photo is even worse, but those arcs are visible and validates the observation, always nice for a life bird.
The MacGillivray’s was not the only show. One song we heard was like a Robin’s, but different. I had learned to identify the song of the Warbling Vireo and called it out. It seemed to be reacting to the Pygmy Owl but was distant. Fortunately it did not take long to draw it in with playback of its own song and it gave us excellent if at first momentary views flying back and forth across our path before finally settling on an open perch where it continued to sing out its territorial imperative. Cindy recalled a similar experience we had in Eastern Washington on one of her first birding trips.
One more show. We had seen some sparrows low in the brush as the action heated up. A White Crowned Sparrow came into the open and was easily identified. But there was another sparrow as well and it was mostly hiding. I got a sufficiently good look recognized it as a Lincoln’s Sparrow – very appropriate in this somewhat moist forested habitat. I think this was a second lifer for Liz. Being able to see the fieldmarks and the buffy facial cast of the face and breast in a quick photo was very helpful and may have pushed Liz closer to adding some bird photography as part of her future birding experience.
Altogether we ended up with 11 species which after a slow start was terrific. One of the species was an empidonax flycatcher that at first I thought was a Cordilleran Flycatcher. Spending more time looking at photos and listening to songs at home, I am now changing my ID to a Dusky Flycatcher based on the absence of any crest and the length of the tail but could easily be convinced to change that ID again.
Possible Cordilleran Flycatcher turned into a Dusky Flycatcher
With the strong finish, we were now at 20 species and were back on U.S. 12 quickly picking up Common Grackle, Red Winged and Brewer’s Blackbirds, Brown Headed Cowbird, Barn and Cliff Swallows and Savannah Sparrow to get to 28 before hitting the Ponds.
There are ponds on both sides of the road. We started with the Ducks Unlimited Ponds at Warm Springs. Although we did not get great looks, or any looks at all for a couple of species, we had very good birds including a Long Billed Curlew and a Sora. Marsh Wrens, Yellow Warblers and Common Yellowthroats were singing everywhere. We spent an hour and a half in the area and with our list at 42 species, we gave in to hunger.
When Rick suggested we could find something good in Anaconda I probably winced. In my mind Anaconda, Montana meant pollution. Until 1980 when it was shut down, Anaconda was the home of a giant smelter that refined copper mined in nearby Butte and elsewhere. It was owned by ARCO who undertook remediation and cleanup of the heavy metal lead and arsenic poisons that came along with the extensive tailings. I had only a vague memory of the Environmental Protection Agency actions at the site – back in the days that the agency actually took on environmental problems – but that memory equated Anaconda with places I did not want to visit. It is a small town without much economic vitality. I envisioned bars and nothing more.
But Rick guided us to a really fun little place – a hidden fun gem – the Classic Cafe. A throwback to the 1960’s when Anaconda was still in business, we were greeted by two of the most unique tables I have seen – literally inside two car bodies. Very cute. Rick is a tall guy and there was not room for his long legs, so we actually ate at a more normal table. I do like the picture, though.
As with the Gravel Bar in Ennis and several restaurants that will come up later, this was another example of one of the joys of my 50 state adventure. Maybe especially in smaller towns, there are surprise opportunities for the unusual, the fun, the expression of other people’s passions and talents. The food was pretty classic American comfort food but was excellently prepared and served. This was also another example of the values of joining with local people. We never would have found this on our own.
Time to get back to the birds and we returned to Warm Springs – now on the other side of the highway – much more extensive and open ponds. We had picked up two more species on our lunch trip and were soon to add many more as over the next two hours as we found 42 species at these ponds.
Many classic wetland species – 9 duck species, Canada Goose, American Coot, Double Crested Cormorant, Red Necked Grebe, Great Blue Heron, American White Pelican, California Gull, the fish eating raptors – Osprey and Bald Eagle and Yellow Headed Blackbirds.
Red Necked Grebe
Yellow Headed Blackbird
We were all pleased to end the day with what we thought was 64 species. When I looked at photos later and found that we had also seen a Yellow Rumped Warbler, especially Rick was even more pleased because this put Montana one species ahead of Wyoming!! Now I have added the Ruby Crowned Kinglet so the official end count for the day was 66. I was also paying some attention to my Montana state list. I had birded Montana before on some fishing trip visits. With the birds added on this day, my state list was at 97 species. Additional incidental birding the next day with Liz and Rick when we visited Spring Meadow Lake and then later when Cindy and I were able to float the Bitterroot River brought that total to 103 – not a goal but a pleasing addition to the benefits of the trip. The important goal was the 50 species in a day. As had been the case in Utah and then Wyoming, 50 species were seen on each of two birding days in Montana as well. This was the 42nd state where the goals of my adventure was reached. It was going to get harder, but this was continued good momentum.
Anyone reading all of my blog posts might be tired of hearing it but I have not yet and hope I will never be tired of repeating that the best parts of my 50/50/50 Adventure are not about the birds, as great as many of those moments are. The best part is how following my passion for birding gets me out into so many great places and situations and brings so many experiences that I would otherwise miss. Liz and Rick had been terrific birding companions and we had seen the targeted 50 species. Now their roles changed to Helena guides taking Cindy and me to one of their favorite spots, one unique to Helena and one we would never have known about without them – The Archie Bray Foundation.
As described on its website:
“The Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts is a public, nonprofit, educational institution founded in 1951 by brickmaker Archie Bray, who intended it to be “a place to make available for all who are seriously interested in any of the branches of the ceramic arts, a fine place to work.” Its primary mission is to provide an environment that stimulates creative work in ceramics.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Bray is located three miles from downtown Helena, Montana, on the site of the former Western Clay Manufacturing Company. Set against the wooded foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the 26-acre former brickyard is internationally recognized as a gathering place for emerging and established ceramic artists. The nearby mountains and brick factory ruins provide a backdrop for the creative environment; more important is the dynamic arts community created by the resident artists that come to the Bray to work, share experiences, and explore new ideas.”
Our friends are deeply connected with this wonderful place, through their former work and continuing with support today and our visit to their home was also a visit to their collection of great ceramic pieces – a veritable museum itself. Cindy and I joined them in visiting the Bray and had a chance to speak with a number of artists, see works in progress and see many finished pieces – some appealing and some not but all incredible creations and impressive statements of the passions of their creators.
One last comment on our visit with Rick and Liz and Helena. On my own, food on these 50/50/50 trips is generally grabbed quickly and eaten but not savored or appreciated as anything other than sustenance. Among the benefits traveling with Cindy is that where feasible, eating becomes dining and we have had some great meals in fun places. We had been well hosted and fed by Rick and Liz and we had a small chance to reciprocate with a lovely meal at The Mediterranean Grill in Helena. Excellent food that we would love to have available home in Edmonds.
We left Helena headed for Hamilton, Montana on the Bitterroot River. If Washington had more Blue Ribbon trout rivers, much of the time I have spent birding may have been spent flyfishing instead. I could not pass on an opportunity for some fishing before returning to Washington and also to expose Cindy to one more activity I loved that I hoped she would as well. We had a long float on the Bitterroot with excellent guide John Gould. I always remind myself that it is called “fishing” and not “catching”. The catching could have been better, but the fishing was pretty good and it was a lot of fun.
Cindy had done a lot of salmon fishing but had never cast a fly. It is not the easiest thing to do. She had lots of frustration and never quite found a consistent groove, but she also had lots of good moments including hooking and landing her first trout on a fly, a beautiful Cutthroat Trout, one of several she would catch.
Cindy’s Cutthroat Trout
We never found a hoped for hatch so all of our action was on nymphs below the surface of the water. Not as much fun as dry fly takes on the surface, but there is not much better than setting a hook, playing and landing a powerful fish in a gorgeous trout stream. Not as often as I would have liked, but I had a dozen or so fish in the boat including some very nice Rainbow Trout.
Maybe next year we will return for more fishing and more catching as well.
One last Montana story. The night before going fishing, we were looking for a good dinner but every restaurant of interest was closing at 8:00 p.m. What was with that? One that was open later was the Skalkaho Steak House somewhat in the boonies about 10 miles from our hotel. I called to see if we could get a reservation and was told it was not necessary – tables were open. The drive up the Skalkaho Road was pretty and when we arrived we were not sure we were at the right place. There were NO cars in the parking lot. A sign said “Open”. Hmmm? A little girl was playing with a ball on the front porch and that was the only sign of life. Hmmm? By this time, it was fairly late and we knew that the only options would be fast food back in town. Let’s try it.
The little girl was Chloe. She was the daughter/granddaughter of the owners. She was 8 years old. She welcomed us to the restaurant, led us to a table, and brought us water, silverware and menus. We were the only guests in the restaurant and it was not a small place. The walls were lined with very serious, large, beautiful and professionally done trophies – not bowling or sports trophies – Elk, Deer, Antelope, Bighorns, Bear and Cougar. This was the West and it was like being at a hunting lodge. It was eerie being the only guests…but it was cool and fun. Our interactions first with Chloe and then with her grandma and then with our good (and well priced) steaks were treasured little moments in our trip – unlike any experience either Cindy or I had had at any other restaurant in our lives. No other diners arrived. Grandma explained that it had been very cold (including snow further up the valley as we later found out) and that people just did not come when it was cold. This was June 20th. We had worried about it being too hot. Not so. A little slice of life in rural Montana. Good times with good folks.
Skalkaho Steak House
Summing Up the Mountain States
Montana was everything I could have asked for on a 50/50/50 birding trip…or any trip. 50+ species on a day – twice. Great new friends. Unexpected good food. A deep look into the world of ceramics. Flyfishing (and birding) with the new lady in my life on a beautiful river with some feisty trout. Learning to have a bit more faith in others. Montana was another confirmation that this birding adventure was so much more than just birds and that it was both workable and working, providing rewards far beyond the investment.
We got back to Edmonds after a very long drive on the 22nd. On a brief detour to Turnbull NWR, we found some Black Terns – a FOY for Washington and the ABA area #293 for the former and #418 for the latter. In Idaho, Utah, Wyoming and Montana, on the trip I had a total of 156 species. Adding those on the journey to and from Washington brought it to 176 species. The Cassia Crossbill in Idaho was a new ABA Life Bird and it and the Flammulated Owl in Utah were new ABA Life Photos. It was a wonderful trip – 3700 miles of great birds, people and places. Time for a little rest and then try to finish the adventure with 8 states in the middle of the county.
Cassia Crossbill and Flammulated Owl – Best of the Birds