Prairie Falcon

The Five Valleys Audubon Society is one of the most congenial groups of birders I have ever gone on a field trip with. Every time I go out with them, which is not nearly often enough, I end up with great sightings, often of surprising birds, in gorgeous landscapes.

Last week’s trip to the Mission Valley was no exception. The meeting point was the parking lot of a gas station in Polson. No sooner had we assembled, used the restrooms, and (at least in my case) stocked up on salted nut bars than a big, beautiful Ferruginous Hawk soared up and landed on a telephone pole just across the road. It sat serenely while we scrambled to set up scopes and get our looks, and only took off as we did so ourselves. Ferruginous Hawks breed in the grasslands of eastern Montana, but they are rare in the mountains and in winter, so this bird was certainly a surprise.

Less surprising, but in some ways just as stunning, were the sheer numbers of Rough-legged and Red-tailed Hawks we encountered along our way. Nearly every telephone crosspole had one of these birds, and we got to see a good variety of plumages, including a couple of nice Harlan’s Hawks.

Other raptors dominated the day as well. We spotted low-soaring Northern Harriers and phone-wire American Kestrels as we cruised past wintery fields. In the little town of Charlo a single handsome Merlin got us all out of the cars and even attracted the attention of the folks at Tiny’s Tavern, who wandered out to look through our scopes. A vast congregation of Bald Eagles kept watch over a herd of cattle about to calve, up to seven in a single tree — no doubt awaiting delicious placentas. And not far from that scene was my personal highlight of the day, when my life Prairie Falcon swooped across the road, circled back, and came over the car only a few feet above my head, then perched with prey and let us all observe her clearly for several minutes. A second Prairie Falcon just up the road – this one a young male – gave even better, closer looks. It was truly a fantastic bird-of-prey day.

Barrow's Goldeneye pair

Other types of birds were less prominent, but we still got a few goodies – early Red-winged Blackbirds, American Tree Sparrows, Bohemian Waxwings, an appropriately lone Townsend’s Solitaire and an American Dipper and Great Blue Heron in Crow Creek. Plenty of Crows and Ravens, of course. A trio of Gray Partridge scurried out from a lawn and across the road just behind us, and Ring-necked Pheasants flushed ahead of us from the cover of a stack of hay bales.

At the waste water plant in Polson, a small patch of open water held a large flock of mostly Barrow’s Goldeneye and Lesser Scaup, with a few Common Goldeneye and Mallards in the mix. Further up the river a pair of Common Mergansers swam swiftly out of view. We concluded the days by unsuccessfully scanning a golf course flock of Canada Geese for Cackling Geese, then returned to Missoula chilly but triumphant.

The Mission Valley is a beautiful place, justly storied, and I can’t recommend its winter birding potential highly enough.

Images courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

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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 DaysAtDunrovin.com.