One of the things I like best is squeezing a little birding in on non-birding trips. It appeals to my sense of efficiency and environmental responsibility and presents the chance to check out places that may be off the beaten birding path, not to mention that it saves my non-driving self from having to beg people for rides just to indulge my hobby. In short, as ways of birding go, it’s low-impact.

So when I got a chance to go to a weekend writer’s retreat on Flathead Lake, I was excited. Writing AND birding (AND, inevitably, a *ahem* few glasses of wine with fellow creative types)? Sign me up!

Flathead Lake is huge – the largest natural freshwater lake in the western contiguous US – and relatively pristine for its size. We stayed at the Yellow Bay Biological Research Station, a cozy collection of buildings located, logically enough, on a slope overlooking a bay lined with yellow sandstone on the eastern shore of the lake. Though the climate of the area is described as mild, this needs to be understood in Montana terms. Yes, the surrounding region is famous for its fruit crops, such as cherries and wine grapes. But yes, it also snowed on April 16 while we were there.

It is also incredibly beautiful, part of the aptly named Crown of the Continent ecosystem, cupped in the dramatic Mission Mountains behind a wall of glacial moraine.

Getting there was half the fun, involving as it did a drive up from Missoula and then along scenic, winding Rte 35. Car birding often leans heavily on large birds, but those were abundant and confiding. Sometimes a little too confiding, like the Wild Turkey that wandered out into the road in front of us and brought us to a stop for nearly a minute. We also spotted Raven, Bald Eagle, Black-billed Magpie, and the inevitable Canada Goose. Mammals were mostly represented by Mule Deer and a handful of debatable Elk. Alas, my hoped-for Tundra Swan did not materialize despite the proximity of Swan River National Wildlife Refuge.

Another Roadside Attraction

Once there, most of the afternoon and evening was spent in obtaining food, and writing, and in writing-related beverage-consumption activities – although I did go on a group walk that yielded little in the way of birds, but much in the way of inspiring views, inspiring rock formations, and finally a clump of deer hair and bear scat that inspired us to turn around. It wasn’t until the next morning, when I rose early and alone, that I got down to serious birding business.

Migrants, alas, were not yet much in evidence aside from the Canada Geese (mild climate my foot.) However, the year-round stalwarts – numerous Red-breasted Nuthatches with their cheerful squeaks, Northern Flickers, an appropriately lone Townsend’s Solitaire foraging on the rocky beach, and another Wild Turkey that burst the air in its escape as I walked by. As the cold began to get to me and the others began to stir, I spotted a single Osprey hunched on a tree watching the lake, my FoS and beautifully reflective of my own mood of combined peace, wistfulness, and desire for breakfast.

Serious birders may object that this is not a terribly exciting list, and serious writers may object that I didn’t get a whole lot accomplished on that front either. But I did return inspired on both fronts. Which for me is, far more than rarities and big lists, what it’s really all about.

Image by Ryan Hagerty, courtesy of NFWS.

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