Birds of the Rockies and Prairies - Birding with David Sibley, Keith Hansen, John Carlson, Jeff Wohl & Nikki Mann

Morning at Pine Butte Ranch                                                   Derek Rogers
On May 26, 2012, I landed in Great Falls, Montana. It was 33 degrees Fahrenheit and the snow was falling. While I didn't pack for winter weather I was prepared with the right gear to feel comfortable. "Spring in Montana" is what John Carlson and the other local folks would say with a slight chuckle. Despite the unexpected snow, and dry Montana cold, I was ready for a week of intense birding. I traveled with friend Mike Scheibel who shares the same dedicated passion in finding and observing birds. We were picked up in Great Falls by Nature Conservancy staff and volunteers and headed to Pine Butte Ranch. The ranch is owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy's Montana Chapter. The ranch is located about an hour west of Choteau (pronounced sho-toe) on the south bank of the Teton River at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. This would be our base for the next 6 days from where we would travel to various locations within the foothills of the Rocky Mountain Front.

John Carlson Hiking Up Foothills

It was great to meet the crew we would be traveling with. You find that these types of trips tend to attract "like-minded" crowds and individuals. Including Mike and I, there were 12 folks on the trip. John Carlson was the first leader to arrive. I was fortunately able to check out John's excellent blog, which includes his photography, prior to the trip. John, among many other things, sits on Montana's avian records committee. He is an authority on the birds of Montana and it was great to be in his company. You could see that he truly loves birds and birding. Here is a link to John's blog:

During the first couple of days, John, in collaboration with naturalist Jeff Wohl and Nikki Mann, led us to some incredible places. Jeff and Nikki are some of the best Naturalist's that I have ever met and it was a special treat to be in their company. They were an added, unforeseen bonus and they made the trip that much more special. I felt compelled to add their names to the "trip title" as it wouldn't have been the same without them.

Mike Scheibel, Nikki Mann & Jeff Wohl @ The Ranch

We travelled to Pine Butte Swamp Preserve on Monday, May 28th with John, Jeff, Nikki and the gang. At that point I had already seen some of the most stunning landscapes and picked up several new life birds. Then we showed up at the preserve. Pine Butte Swamp is the largest wetland complex along the Rocky Mountain Front, which is fed by the north and south forks of the Teton River. It is surrounded by steep buttes and hills and offers some great wildlife viewing. Within minutes of our arrival Jeff pointed out some fresh to-the-day Grizzly Bear tracks. Later that week, we would see a large, presumably male Grizzly Bear tromping along a distant hill near the preserve. Some of the highlighted birds at Pine Butte Swamp were Red-necked Grebe, Golden Eagle, Prairie Falcon, Swainson's Hawk, Marbled Godwit, Sandhill Crane, Clay-colored Sparrow, Rock Wren, Clark's Nutcracker, Bobolink and so many more.

Pine Butte Swamp Preserve                                                                                                                                      Derek Rogers

David and Keith                                Photo:Derek Rogers

Later that afternoon, David Sibley and Keith Hansen arrived at the Ranch. It was great to finally meet these guys. I have been using David Sibley's bird guide since I started watching birds in 2004. His illustrations and descriptions have helped me find and identify hundreds of birds. I find his artwork to be extremely accurate and superior when compared to most other field guides. While staying on the topic of great artists I now have to include Keith Hansen. Shamefully, I have never heard of Keith until I booked this trip. I took a sneak peak at some of his work and was amazed at the beauty. Great color, amazing accuracy and some captivating scenes. Keith showed us a quick slide show of some bird plates that he created for his new book, Birds of the Sierra Nevada, which is going to print now! I believe he said 6-8 months before it's available for purchase. This is a must have for my bookshelf. We were treated to a drawing and painting demo by the two masters, David Sibley and Keith Hanson. They created images using a live tethered Black-billed Magpie named Skarta. It didn't take them long to whip up these great pieces.

The rest of the week was filled with intense birding. Early to bed, early to rise, I never once saw the night sky in Montana. It was still twilight at around 10:00 PM. I'd wake up every day between 5:30 - 6:00, bird the ranch with the crew, have breakfast and head to our planned destination. We visited several sites that offered good habitat variety. You have to diversify if you want to see different bird species.

American Dipper

Red-naped Sapsucker

Gray Jay

Mountain Bluebird

Mountain Chickadee

Macgillivray's Warbler
Above are just some of many images and species that we saw during the trip. You can click on the Flickr link, located on the right hand column of my blog page to access all of the other photographs from the trip. There is also some pretty neat digiscope video footage of American Dipper and Macgillivray's Warbler that you should check out. This was a trip of a lifetime and I won't forget the experience. From the stunning landscapes, Macgillivray's getting harassed by a Rufous Hummingbird, the "butterfly-like" flight of the McCown's Longpsur, our incredible leaders and enthusiastic crew, this trip is forever burned in my brain. Thanks to all for an incredible week of birding (and mammaling, which is a whole different story).

Here is my list from the trip:

Species List:
*indicates personal new ABA species
*Clark's Grebe
*Western Grebe
Eared Grebe
Red-necked Grebe
*American White Pelican
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron
White-faced Ibis
Trumpeter Swan
Snow Goose
Canada Goose
Northern Pintail
American Wigeon
Northern Shoveler
Blue-winged Teal
*Cinnamon Teal
Green-winged Teal
Lesser Scaup
Ring-necked Duck
Common Merganser
Ruddy Duck
Hooded Merganser
Turkey Vulture
*Golden Eagle
Bald Eagle
Northern Goshawk
Northern Harrier
Red-tailed Hawk
*Swainson's Hawk
*Ferruginous Hawk-light & dark morph
American Kestrel
*Prairie Falcon
Peregrine Falcon
*Gray Partridge
Ring-necked Pheasant
Virginia Rail - heard
Sora Rail - heard
American Coot
Sandhill Crane
Black-necked Stilt
*American Avocet
Spotted Sandpiper
*Long-billed Curlew
Marbled Godwit
White-rumped Sandpiper
Stilt Sandpiper
Wilson's Snipe
Wilson's Phalarope
*Red-necked Phalarope
Bonaparte's Gull
*Franklin's Gull
Ring-billed Gull
*California Gull
Caspian Tern
Common Tern
Forster's Tern
Black Tern
Rock Dove
Mourning Dove
*Eurasian Collared-Dove
Belted Kingfisher
*Calliope Hummingbird
Rufous Hummingbird
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
*Red-naped Sapsucker
Northern Flicker - "Red Shafted"
Least Flycatcher
*Dusky Flycatcher
*Hammond's Flycatcher
Western Kingbird
Eastern Kingbird
Warbling Vireo
*Cassin's Vireo
Gray Jay
*Clark's Nutcracker
*Black-billed Magpie
American Crow
Common Raven
Horned Lark
Tree Swallow
*Violet-green Swallow
Bank Swallow
Cliff Swallow
*Mountain Chickadee
Black-capped Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Marsh Wren
House Wren
*Rock Wren
*American Dipper
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Mountain Bluebird
Varied Thrush
*Townsend's Solitaire
American Robin
Swainson's Thrush
Gray Catbird
*Sprague's Pipit
Cedar Waxwing
Orange-crowned Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
*Townsend's Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler - "Audubon's"
American Redstart
Northern Waterthrush
*Macgillivray's Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Wilson's Warbler
*Western Tanager
*Black-headed Grosbeak
Chipping Sparrow
Clay-colored Sparrow
*Lark Bunting
Vesper Sparrow
Lark Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Grasshopper Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco - "Oregon" & "Pink-sided"
White-crowned Sparrow - "Oriantha"
*McCown's Longspur
*Chestnut-collared Longspur
*Western Meadowlark
Red-winged Blackbird
Yellow-headed Blackbird
*Brewer's Blackbird
Brown-headed Cowbird
Common Grackle
*Cassin's Finch
American Goldfinch
Pine Siskin
House Sparrow

Grizzly Bear
Bighorn Sheep
White-tailed Deer
Mule Deer
Bighorn Sheep
Mountain Goat
Black-tailed Jackrabbit
Mountain Cottentail
Snowshoe Hare
Pine Squirrel
Yellow-bellied Marmot
Richardson's Ground Squirrel
Colombian Ground Squirrel
Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel


  1. Really bumping shoulders with the best now, wow! Your photography is getting sharp Derek. Might need to visit for a LI bird tour/surf casting trip this October.


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