A while back, I visited Costa Rica with my family, and for a few days we were joined by one of my grandmother’s friends, Oscar, an avid naturalist. One of my most vivid memories of the trip was the whole lot of us—grandma, my great aunt, and the pack of cousins—dashing up a very steep and very rocky mountain road because Oscar had spotted a quetzal—the beautiful national bird of Costa Rica. I still don’t know if the flash of green I saw was a quetzal, or simply a bit of tree, but I vividly recall the thrill of sighting an elusive bird, and the delight of being in a place of such natural beauty.
I rather thought I would be disappointed to return home to the arid mountains of Southwest Montana. I found exactly the opposite. What stays with me most from that trip is that when I returned home, I was struck by the extraordinariness of my own backyard. I’m not going to compare Southwest Montana and the Central American rainforest—that would be ridiculous—but the thrill of seeing a bird which, frankly, I’m not sure I actually saw, opened my eyes to the birds of my home. Before then, I had been aware of birds, but had not given them much thought. They were simply there, and I was indifferent to them. But no longer. The number and variety of Montana’s birds is astounding, and the closer you look, the more there is to see. Go out at dusk to one of the ponds that sit on the edges of so many of our towns, and you can’t help but be amazed by the multitude of singing, chattering, swooping, swimming birds you’ll spot. Make a concerted effort to spot rare species—by going to somewhere like Red Rocks Lakes—and you’ll be overwhelmed by what you find.
From sagebrush scrubland and prairies to pine forests and mountain peaks, Southwest Montana’s wide range of habitats supports around 230 distinct species of birds, not to mention the 60 or so other species that can be sighted as they migrate through state. The scope of birdwatching opportunity in Southwest Montana means that there is a large community of birders in the region (many of whom contributed to our special features page) and a vast amount of resources to help as you plan a birding trip. Our birding trails page highlights 11 of the best birding areas in the region, and you should also be sure to check out the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks comprehensive field guide, and the Montana Audubon page as well as this bird song database from MSU. The technologically minded should also definitely check out the Montana eBird app, which allows you discover birding hotspots, find out what other people have been seeing, and track and share your own sightings.