Most people think of Yellowstone National Park when selecting a wildlife tour in Montana. Covering the eastern half of the state, the Montana prairies are replete with fascinating wildlife species but few venture here to explore. Naturalist Journeys offers one of the few guided birding and nature tours to the prairie, a wildlife ecotour that clients find rewarding. Naturalist Journeys owner and veteran guide Peg Abbott says, “Our Montana Prairie Spring Birding Tour, a top birding and nature tour among our itineraries, is a high-value choice for the birder or adventure traveler in tune with nature. Animals are here – it just takes a careful eye to find them. On the prairies, the terrain is vast, the species are elusive, and it takes time to see subtle differences of habitat in the open landscape.”
After a week with expert guides, Montana prairie birding and nature tour participants hone their identification skills, and learn to use vegetation as signals for what species to expect. Prairie Dog towns are home to Mountain Plovers, Horned Larks and Burrowing Owls. Areas with higher grass provide cover for Upland Sandpiper and Sage Grouse. Wetlands encourage a host of species to breed including Black Terns, American Avocets, Wilson’s Phalaropes and Black-necked Stilts.
Sorting out the intricate plumage patterns of grassland birds such as Sprague’s Pipits, McCown’s Longspurs, Bairds and Grasshopper Sparrows – all signature species of the Northern Great Plains—takes a practiced eye, a thorough knowledge of behavior and recognition of song. Many prairie birds hurl themselves skyward to sing, having evolved in a place with few perches. Naturalist Journeys guides can filter the sounds with fine-tuned ears but say that clients vote Western Meadowlarks as the most memorable and melodic of the tour; their dawn calls an auditory signature of the prairie. Naturalist Journeys nature groups are out early, taking in the dawn symphony of bird sound, and looking for mammals such as Pronghorn with their young, elusive Swift Fox, predatory Badgers, and Bison, returning in number to their historic range on places like the American Prairie Reserve.
Once found, prairie wildlife species often provide birding tour participants with good viewing and photo opportunities. The life habits of various species are fascinating to observe. Marbled Godwits are large and vocal species often aggressive when disturbed. Our guided birding tour groups have even had them seemingly attack the car! Long-billed Curlews emit loud, evocative calls. They are strong flyers that migrate at times in a single flight, all the way from Montana to wintering grounds of Mexico. Mountain Plovers, a prize species to find due to their secretive habits and declining numbers, have unusual mating strategies.
A host of predatory birds keep all smaller species on the alert. Prairie Falcons attack like bullets and seem to come out of nowhere. Rough-legged Hawks and Northern Harriers swoop low with great agility, while Golden Eagles simply overpower their prey. Ferruginous Hawks sometimes lumber on the ground in search of grass-fed rodents. All have hungry young to feed, as do Red Foxes and clever Coyotes.
Naturalist Journeys’ top-rated birding and nature tour begins and ends in Billings, Montana. Guided groups travel a circle route north to Fort Peck, Glascow, Malta, the Little Rockies, and the American Prairie Reserve before returning to Billings. Tour highlights include visits to Bowdoin and Charles Russell National Wildlife Refuges.
Conservation is an important theme on this tour. The World Wildlife Fund (Northern Great Plains) and the Nature Conservancy (Northern Montana Prairies) have extensive conservation projects in the region, some in partnership with the Bureau of Land Management which manages much of the land. Tourism is still rare in Montana’s small agricultural communities and ecotourism may help communities diversify in a declining economy. This year’s Montana Prairie Spring, a top birding and nature tour for this travel company, is scheduled for June 8 – 15. Join us for a grand travel adventure in what has been called America’s Serengeti!