Montana's wildlife management areas are among the state's landscape treasures. They are oases for wildlife, including elk, deer, pheasants and migratory birds.
Freezout Lake WMA, in northcentral Montana near Fairfield, is the star attraction among these sites from mid-March to April when thousands of snow geese and tundra swans layover there.
"The spring migration is in full swing right now, we're seeing about 4,000 swans and 35,000 snow geese. At this point the numbers usually hold steady for a few weeks, with new birds arriving and others departing," said Mark Schlepp, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Region 4 wildlife area manager in Fairfield. "Observations of individual marked birds tell us that a bird's average stay is four and a quarter days."
Schlepp said it is an impressive experience to watch the number of swans and snow geese build into the tens of thousands of birds in just a few days.
For recorded updates on conditions and bird numbers at Freezout Lake WMA, call 406-467-2646 day or night. FWP updates the message any time there is a significant change.
The snow geese, tundra swans and other migratory birds come to Freezout to feed—in harvested fields of malting barley that surround the WMA-- and to rest in the ideal surroundings following a 1,000 mile flight from points south, including California and the Gulf States. The next leg of their journey is to Alberta and central Saskatchewan in Canada. From there they make their way to nesting grounds on the windswept, extreme northwestern Arctic coasts of Canada, Alaska, and Wrangel Island, Russia.
The best times of day to view the snow geese in action are sunrise to about 10 a.m. and from 4:30 p.m. to sunset when flights leave the WMA to feed in grain fields of the Greenfield Bench. Swans may be viewed from several parking areas or roads on the WMA as they feed and rest on the ponds and lakes. Bring plenty of food and water, warm clothing, binoculars, spotting scopes, and cameras. The WMA has camping spots, concrete latrines, picnic tables and stable roads.
For those interested in bird watching in general, Freezout Lake WMA boasts more than 225 observed bird species, of which 65 are commonly seen. There are numerous other less commonly occurring birds spotted throughout the summer months.
You may report bird species you observe to the Montana Natural Heritage Program on its Tracker, or on the form on the Freezout Lake WMA page on the FWP website. Data on the observations of particular species often proves invaluable to wildlife researchers.
You can also sharpen your bird watching skills on the Freezout Lake WMA web page by using the clickable list of bird species found there. A click on the name of a bird takes you to a full description and photo of that species. Print photos of your favorites to take with you and you'll have a personalized field guide.
To get to Freezout Lake WMA, go four miles north of Fairfield on Highway 89 to reach the FWP headquarters. In the entryway you will find a visitors' kiosk filled with informational brochures and birding guides.
The following bird species of concern have breeding-related observations at Freezout Lake WMA, according to the Montana Natural Heritage Program:
In addition, the following Montana species of concern have non-breeding related observations at Freezout Lake WMA:
Great Blue Heron