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“Fall” Migration Beginning Soon

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors July-August 2016 issue

For waterfowl in Montana, fall migration might mean anything from green-winged teal moving through in late September, to snow geese stopping by in early November, to late-season mallards on the rivers in December, freshly arrived from Canada.

But for many shorebirds, “fall” migration has already begun, even though summer has barely started.

Shorebirds are small- to medium-sized birds with long, thin bills and legs. They typically feed along open shorelines and in wet grasslands. Birders have recorded 41 species in Montana. Most shorebirds just pass through each spring, but a dozen or so species hang around long enough to reproduce.

The first to nest in Montana—in late March—are long-billed curlews (see article on page 28). Soon after their eggs hatch in May, the adults head back south, often leaving as early as late June. Not much later, other shorebird species begin their fall migration, peaking in about mid-August.

Most North American shorebirds nest in the tundra of the far north, from Alaska east to the shores of Hudson Bay. They usually winter around the Gulf of Mexico, from Florida to Mexico, or even along the Mexican west coast into South America. As they head to their wintering grounds—an odd name for places they reach each summer before Labor Day—they pass through Montana.

The males of most species are the first to migrate south. Females and the young follow later. For instance, the male lesser yellowlegs leaves the Arctic after breeding ends, reaching Montana around the end of June. The adult female lesser yellowlegs is next to leave, abandoning her young and arriving here around mid-July. Finally, the young birds, on their own, migrate south and reach Montana by the end of July. Somehow the young are able to continue, unaided, to the species’ wintering grounds around the Gulf of Mexico. Remarkable.

When it comes to birders, some are casual, noting the arrivals and departures of easily recognized species like Bullock’s orioles and yellow warblers. But those able to tell a Baird’s sandpiper from a pectoral sandpiper go to Freezout Lake Wildlife Management Area (WMA) just for shorebirds.

One early August, for example, a report at Freezout of a single ruddy turnstone drew birders from Stevensville, Bozeman, and Kalispell.

The best viewing spot at Freezout, called the “Neck,” is a narrow stretch of land between Pond 5 and the main lake. Stop at the WMA entrance kiosk and pick up a brochure showing a map and a list of birds observed at Freezout.

Another good place to see shorebirds this time of year is Warm Springs WMA, just off I-90 about 25 miles northwest of Butte. Montana’s 21 national wildlife refuges also contain ponds and lakes that attract migrating shorebirds looking to refuel as they make their way south.

“The birds are looking for mudflats,” says Steve Hoffman, executive director of Montana Audubon. “Too much water, and they can’t wade. Too little and too dry, and they can’t get their bills down to crustaceans and other aquatic foods.” For viewing he recommends Harrison Lake (Willow Creek Reservoir), between Three Forks and Ennis, which often has a few big mudflats in August.

This gives you several prime locations for seeing shorebirds between now and the end of August. The only other advice I have is to look along the shoreline for birds with long bills. For any more detail than that, you’ll need to consult your bird guide.Bear bullet

Bruce Auchly manages the regional Information and Education Program in Great Falls.

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