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Arctic Bird Migration is Here

August 16, 2010 | by Bruce Auchly
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For waterfowl hunters, fall bird migration might mean a flock of snow geese at dawn or a December flock of common goldeneyes on the Missouri River.

But for those who pay attention to Arctic nesting shorebirds like long-billed dowitchers, the peak of fall migration is right now. And the place to go is Freezout Wildlife Management Area off Highway 89 between Fairfield and Choteau.

From Alaska east to the shores of Hudson's Bay, shorebirds have nested for a millennia or two. Many winter in around the Gulf of Mexico, from Florida to Mexico, or even along the Mexican west coast into South America. And as they head south, they pass through Montana.

Back in the spring, the males typically arrive first to display, breed and leave. That's right, they do their part and leave. Females and the young birds follow later.

Not all, however. Male lesser yellowlegs leave their arctic breeding grounds after the breeding ends, arriving at Freezout the end of June. Next up the adult females, who leave their young, head south and stop at Freezout about mid-July.

Then, the young birds on their own, with nary an adult in sight take off around the end of July and somehow, someway manage to fly to the species' wintering grounds around the Gulf of Mexico. Remarkable.

That drama and many others are played out on the shores of Freezout and Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge north of Great Falls.

When it comes to bird watchers some are casual, noting the arrivals and departures of more easily recognized species like orioles and yellow warblers. But those who have developed a knack for the intricacies of telling a Baird's sandpiper from a pectoral sandpiper, go to Freezout just for shorebirds.

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

The best viewing spot at Freezout, perhaps, is a place called "the neck." It's a bit of land between Pond 5 and the main lake. Stop at the WMA's entrance kiosk and pick up the Birding at Freezout Lake brochure. Besides a map, it contains a list of birds observed at the WMA over the last quarter century and a few notes on seasonal birding highlights.

The best way to find out what shorebirds currently are stopping at Freezout is subscribing free to the Montana online birding list . Better bookmark it. The site lists e-mails from birders notifying each other of sightings.

There one would have first learned August 1 about the ruddy turnstone at Freezout. And discovered that by August 4 it was no longer seen.

But don't wait for an e-mail followed by an overnight mad dash. Go now and see what Arctic shorebirds are flying through Freezout. Just don't forget the binoculars and birding guide.