Magpie on mountain ash

I cajoled my friends into a trip up to Polson to see the Snowy Owls. Besides the owls themselves, I promised them the best pie in Montana, which is to be found in the Ronan Cafe.

These lures drew three of my fellow writing students out of the woodwork – two poets and a fiction writer. None of these people were birdwatchers, as such, before coming to Montana, although one of the poets was outdoorsy in a hiking and skiing way. Now, the other poet had not one but two field guides, and the fiction writer was sporting a pair of binoculars borrowed from a professor. In the dry mountain air, my madness is a little contagious.

We set out towards Kalispell around ten, which is early in the morning for writers. Almost immediately, my fellows began discussing their love of Black-billed Magpies, one of which promptly flew over. Then a Raven passed us, sparking appreciative discussion of the wonders of corvids. It was a good start.

As we got further out into the rural reaches, Rough-legged Hawks became a regular sight. We also passed Golden and Bald Eagles, a few hardy Red-tailed Hawks, and what we thought was probably a Peregrine Falcon although (or because) it zipped by fast. A mountain range slipped away beneath us. We passed through a town called Paradise, Montana, where a woman was leading a horse across the lawn of the post office. We passed a decrepit mini-golf course where large plaster dinosaurs tilted drunkenly against the winter-sere lawn. It wasn’t until we stopped for good looks at an American Kestrel (a target species for both the poets) that we realized we had taken a wrong turn at the National Bison Range, and were now some sixty miles from our destination.

By this point, though, the others were having so much fun that they were willing to press on (despite the fact that the hour when I’d promised pie had come and gone.) We corrected course, and after many more Rough-legs and a few more eagles we found ourselves by the shores of the noble Flathead Lake, the largest natural body of fresh water west of the Mississippi.

A cruise by the shore revealed some Canada Geese, Common Goldeneye, and Bufflehead. But what we wanted was owls, so we set out for the open fields on the southern end of town.

My secret hope was to find a group of birders already in place, scopes on owls, and thus save ourselves some trouble. Alas, it was not to be. We saw not a soul in the fields as we cruised slowly, scanning for lumps of white. We saw not an owl either. We were all getting hungrier, and the road was rough on the fiction-writer’s Prius. After half an hour or so, we had seen all there was to see, and there were no owls.

I felt awful. My friends had given up their entire Saturday for a bust, and while a birder knows that dips happen, I had hoped to introduce them to the sunny side of the hobby first. But they were all polite, especially after we reached Ronan and ate. More than polite. They seemed quite happy with our five Bald Eagles, our three American Kestrels, our uncountable Rough-legs and Magpies, the single Downy Woodpecker we’d spotted clinging to a weed stalk near the field with no owls. And the pie. If you are ever in Ronan, Montana, try the pie.

Written by Carrie
Carrie Laben, after years of writing and birding in New York, moved to Montana to pursue her two great passions more effectively. She recently graduated with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Montana in Missoula. When she is not cranking out essays and speculative fiction stories, or wandering around on mountains failing to see the birds she is looking for, she is likely to be drinking one of the many fine local microbrews or attending a potluck with something from the local farmer’s market in hand. On Mondays from 3 to 3:30 Mountain Time you can find her answering questions about birds on live chat at