(click on photos)
(click on photos)
(click on photos)
(click on photos)
(click on photos)
(click on photos)
(click on photos)
The Rocky Mountains
A June trip to Montana and Alberta, Canada
June 16-26, 1999
June 16 – 19, 1999 Great Falls, Montana
June 16 found
me winging my way to Great Falls, Montana where the North American
Bluebird Society Convention was to be held. Arriving in late morning, I had some time to
explore around Great Falls before my obligations began. The Missouri
River flows through the town and consists of a series of lovely falls,
giving the town its name. Lewis and Clark passed through this area on
their great trek and there is much history, including a beautiful new
interpretive center at Giant Spring State Park located along the river.
I observed many Cliff Swallows flying about and gathering mud for their
nests that were numerous along the rocks at the top of the falls. During
short walk around the park, I found Western Grebes, Canada Geese,
numerous Yellow Warblers and California Gulls, American White Pelican,
Western Meadowlark, Gray Catbird, House Wren, and American Goldfinch.
Early next morning,
6/17, was the first of the organized field trips. The large group of
participants filled about 6 busses and off we drove to explore the Front
Range of the Rockies. Heading west, the scenery became more and more
beautiful. Flat plateaus led to distant snow-capped peaks silhouetted
against the cloudless deep blue sky. A rest stop along the Missouri
River on Hwy. 15 found Common Raven, Black-billed Magpie, Common
Merganser, Cliff Swallow, White-throated Swift, Yellow Warbler, Osprey,
Red-tailed Hawk, Belted Kingfisher and Red-winged Blackbirds. As we
proceeded into Lewis and Clark County, bird highlights were Brewer’s
Blackbird, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, and American White Pelican. A
stop at one of the many bluebird trails maintained by members of
Mountain Bluebird Trails found nesting Mountain Bluebirds and Tree
Swallows – such perfect habitat for these birds. For lunch we were
taken to Blacktail Ranch near Wolf Creek, a lovely guest ranch where we
could explore the beautiful setting at our leisure. It was a delight to
find both Ruby-throated and Costa’s Hummingbird here as well as Lazuli
Bunting, Western Wood Peewee, Swainson’s Thrush, and Pine Siskin.
Western Tiger Swallowtail butterflies were numerous. On the drive back
to Great Falls we were fortunate to observe a nesting pair of
Ferruginous Hawks, one light phase, the other dark, near their nest.
The convention itself
was wonderful! A full agenda with exceptional speakers, great field
trips, excellent meals, and productive meetings.
6/19: Gates of the
Mountains, Freezeout Lake WMA.
Due to work
obligations Doug didn’t arrive in Great Falls until late Friday night,
missing all of the convention
events. So it was after the Friday night banquet that I drove to the
Great Falls airport to pick him up. We did have all day Saturday to
explore the area before leaving for points north on Sunday. Our first
stop on Saturday was the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail
Interpretive Center -- an impressive structure and interpretive display,
located right on the banks of the Missouri River overlooking the falls.
From the overlook we saw numerous American White Pelicans, Cliff
Swallows and Canada Geese and enjoyed hiking along the bank of the river
where we admired many of the late spring wildflowers.
through some spectacular country, along the same route taken by Lewis
and Clark, we drove toward Helena with the plan to take the "Gates
of the Mountains" boat trip on the Missouri River. This turned out
to be a spectacular voyage. The captain provided some of the most
informative narrative we have ever had on a guided tour. The steep rock
walls (the "gates") that surrounded the river in this area
provide homes for eagles, Osprey, and Big Horn Sheep, all of which we
observed. In one area we were shown some petroglyphs on the rock face. A
Red-necked Grebe was observed on the water, while a very rare flowering
plant, Kelseya uniflora, discovered on the Lewis and Clark
expedition, was found growing on the canyon walls. I was amazed and
pleased to find a new butterfly, Weidemeyer’s Admiral, flitting about
the boat during one of the stops. After disembarking,
we went into the small store at the marina to get a cold drink. On the
way up the stairs I heard the chipping of a Yellow
Warbler and it didn’t take me long
to locate the bird and its pretty little nest in a small tree right
against the wall of the store. The bird seemed to go about its business
of collecting insects and feeding very small (and invisible to us)
young, while people trudged continually up and down the stairs just
under the nest.
along Highway 15, we came across a large herd of Big Horn Sheep,
consisting of 10 adults and 5 young. Since this was our first "big
game" of the trip, we took far too many photos! As we got closer to
our next destination, Freezeout Lake WMA, we passed scenic grasslands
and marshy areas where we began to see some shorebirds and waders.
Willets, Marbled Godwits and Common Snipe were particularly plentiful
and vocal at one stop.
Arriving at Freezeout
Lake in early evening, we drove some of the refuge roads and were awed
by the great numbers and variety of shorebirds. I’ve never seen so
many Wilson’s Phalaropes in one spot! Other highlights here were:
Yellow-headed Blackbird, Common Yellowthroat, Lark Sparrow, Willet,
American Avocet, Gadwall, American Coot, Blue-winged and Cinnamon Teal,
Savannah Sparrow, Black-crowned Night Heron (numerous), Horned Lark,
Ruddy Duck, Northern Shoveler, Bufflehead, American Widgeon, Canvasback,
Forster’s Tern and Black-necked Stilt.
morning greeted us as we checked out of the Heritage Inn in Great Falls
and headed northwest to Glacier National Park. We decided that a quick
stop at Freezeout WMA was in order since we had enjoyed it so much last
evening. The morning light was not the best for photographs, but since
some of the birds were so close, I snapped off a few shots. I especially
like the ones of the Killdeer and Black-crowned Night Heron. At one of
the stops we heard not only the tinkling song of the Marsh Wren but a
calling Sora and the unmistakably strange call of the American Bittern.
The wren was engaged in nest building and we got a fairly good view of
the nest and watched it make a few
visits hauling in the fuzz from the cattails. It seems like that would
make a very cozy lining.
Our first encounter
with wildlife today was along Hwy 2, a reliable spot for Mountain Goats
known as the "Salt Lick." Here we got some very close views of
these interesting animals. We then proceeded on to Essex and the Isaac
Walton Inn, a favorite hotel where we had previously stayed on a past
trip. This inn was originally built as a residence for the railroad
workers whose job it was to keep the tracks cleared in winter and who
operated the helper engines to assist trains over the nearby Marias Pass.
It was on the drive to this hotel, several years ago that we came across
the half-dozen Grizzly Bears feeding on the spilled corn where a train
had derailed -- no such luck this time. After checking in and enjoying
one of their fine lunches (Doug had to rush out every time a train
stopped or passed by) we drove on to the west entrance of Glacier
National Park and proceeded to drive the Going-to-the-Sun road.
Following the McDonald River, we made stops at McDonald Falls and then
Cedar Trail where we took a short hike. It was here that we picked up
our first life bird of the trip. Sitting by a rushing creek feeding the
McDonald River, I happened to glance up at the spectacular cliffs that
surrounded us and noticed swifts flying about. They were smallish and
brown – Vaux’s to be exact and I was very happy to see them, having
missed them last August while on a trip to the Pacific Northwest.
Proceeding up the
highway toward Logan Pass we made many stops to inspect the beautiful
wildflowers and spectacular views. Some of the flowers blooming along
the roadside were Mariposa-lily (Calochortus sp.), Scarlet Paint
Brush (Castilleja miniata), Penstemon sp. And Beargrass (Xerophyllum
tenax). As we approached the summit it was not hard to believe that the
pass had been open only a few days. At least 10 feet of hard-packed snow
formed a wall on the side of the road!
Heading back to Essex
around 9:30 PM, we encountered a large brown Grizzly Bear which stepped
out of the woods onto the road. Fumbling to get the right lens on the
camera, and wondering if it was too dark, we managed to get only the
"impression" of the bear as it retreated up a
wildflower-filled meadow. It even stopped and looked back at us and had
it been lighter, would have made as spectacular photo.
6/21: Isaac Walton
Inn to Canmore, Alberta, Canada
Walton Inn is a popular cross-country ski destination in winter. Thus
there are many trails through the woods appropriate not only for the
skier but in the snowless months for birders and hikers. This morning we
took a short hike along some of these trails. Our reward was a nice
variety of birds: Rufous Hummingbird, Townsend’s Warbler,
Yellow-rumped Warbler, McGillivray’s Warbler (very common), Varied
Thrush, White-throated Swift, Barn, Violet Green and Cliff Swallows,
Pine Siskin, American Crow, Common Raven, Swainson’s Thrush and
Along Hwy. 89, three
miles south of the east entrance the park, a short drive down a gravel
road found Pretty Shootingstar (Dodecatheon pulchellum) beautiful
Yellow Glacier-lilies (Erythronium grandiflorum) along with
Stellar’s Jays, White-crowned Sparrows, Veery, and a few new
butterflies -- Mourning Cloak, Sarah Orangetip, Western Pine Elfin and
The drive from
Glacier National Park up to Alberta was mostly uneventful as it swings
back out to the flat prairie land devoted mainly to agriculture. As we
approached Calgary, we were surprised to find an immense area of urban
sprawl across the prairie. One after the other, new housing developments
were springing up as far as you could see. It was a relief to retreat
back to the mountains and the town of Canmore, where we would spend the
next two days while exploring the Banff area.
National Park, Alberta, Canada
"A Bird Finding Guide to the Calgary Region" which thankfully
included Banff National Park (but alas, not Jasper), we set out this
morning to do some exploring. After a brief stop at the Visitors
Center in the very touristy town of Banff (but with a most spectacular
setting), we drove to Vermillion Lakes. We didn’t find any of the
birds mentioned in the book here, in fact, it was very quiet. We did
find Round-leaved Orchid (Amerochis rotundifolius) blooming here and
finally found a bird -- a Common Yellowthroat.
We then tried the
Marsh Loop trail and were surprised to see a warning sign at the start
of the loop. We thought we’d be worrying over Grizzly Bears and here
we were being warned about the female elk that apparently become very
aggressive during calving season. We didn’t have to worry though,
because we never even saw an along the trail. The most interesting thing
about this walk turned out to be the hot springs that fed the lake below
the boardwalk. In these warm waters live the Banff Long-nosed Dace (a
small native fish) and a variety of plants that are nurtured by the warm
waters. Once again, we had to learn about the human element interfering
with nature when we read that the waters also contained various tropical
fish such as Neon Tetras.
The weather was not the best today, but it was typical for this month
and latitude. A little sun, then clouds, maybe a light sprinkle and then
sun again. Nevertheless we thought the 8 minute gondola ride to the
summit of Sulphur Mountain (7500 ft) would be worth it and it was.
Enjoying the panoramic view of the Banff townsite, Lake Minnewonka and
the surrounding area, we took the boardwalk that leads to a small
weather station. On our way, we found Gray Jays and Clark’s Nutcracker’s
with young. The highlight was finding several Boreal Chickadees, our
second life bird for the trip. We also enjoyed close encounters with
Leaving the Banff
area we took the Bow Valley Road (1-A) towards Lake Louise. Our
guidebook mentioned stopping at an area called the Muleshoe Trail for
Hammond’s Flycatchers. Since it was getting on in the day, I didn’t
expect to find them. However, after we parked at the picnic area and
found nothing, I re-read the directions and found that we needed to
cross the road and walk into the aspen woods. As we did that, we
approached a burned area. Just then, I heard the call of an empid that I
didn’t recognize – it had to be Hammond’s. Sure enough we found
several, all calling and hawking from the lower
branches of the aspens. As we were crouched down watching the
flycatchers and listening to a Red-breasted Nuthatch, a dark woodpecker
flew to a burned tree almost right in front of us which I recognized as
a Three-toed. Two life birds in a matter of minutes! Then a gorgeous
male Western Tanager appeared. Our good spirits were somewhat dampened
when we went to leave, finding a large elk blocking our path! I kept
thinking of those warning signs and we took a huge detour through the
woods to avoid it. Thank goodness it was only a lone male. Had it been a
herd, I’d have been in a panic.
Our next stop was the
famous and scenic Lake Louise. The water is the most interesting blue
color, a result of the glacial silt sometimes referred to as "rock
flour," which is the fine particles of silt which remain suspended
in the water. The resultant blue color is from the scattering of the
blue and green spectrum and the absorption of the remaining colors.
6/23: The Icelands
Parkway to Jasper National Park
delightful full breakfast at the Georgetown Inn (which was included with
the room), we packed up the car and headed north to Jasper. Taking the
Minnewonka loop to Lake Minnewonka and Two Jacks Lake, we encountered a
large herd of elk crossing the road. Very young spotted baby elk
followed three or four of the females. We stopped at Johnston Canyon and
took the short but scenic hike along the narrow canyon to the scenic
falls. The rushing water made it virtually impossible to hear any bird
Arriving back in the
Lake Louise area we decided to divert to Moraine Lake, another scenic
alpine lake surrounded by steep cliffs and glaciers. We took a short
hike along the lakeside and were rewarded with three new species of
birds – Harlequin Duck, Spotted Sandpiper and American Dipper.
We then continued
north on Hwy 93, the Icefields Parkway. In the shadow of the Great
Divide, this road follows the headwaters of three major river systems
and is named for the chain of huge icefields that dot the Eastern Main
Range which are the highest, most rugged mountains in the Canadian
Rockies. We were fortunate that the sun was out for most of this journey
and the views of the lakes, mountains and glaciers were stunning. On one
of the lakes we found a Common Loon and too many Brown Headed Cowbirds.
We also added Golden Eagle to our list along this route. We also had
wonderful opportunities to photograph Bighorn Sheep, Mountain Goats and
Moose, all against a most spectacular setting.
A stop at Peyto Lake
found both Western Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla occidentalis) and
Globeflower (Trollius laxus) in bloom along the trail. The view
of Peyto Lake and the surrounding mountains from the observation
platform is probably one of the most photographed in the park and I’m
running out of descriptive words to describe the beauty of this area!
In the evening (thank
goodness it remains light until 10:30 at this latitude) we arrived at
our destination, Becker’s Chalets. What a lovely setting this was
along the fast-flowing Athabasca River which included a view of Mount
Kerkeslin. We enjoyed a delicious dinner of buffalo prime rib and wild
game sausage in the gourmet restaurant and retired to our log chalet
looking forward to the adventures to come.
brilliant sunshine, I looked out the window to find an elk grazing in
the woods just outside. However, we were fooled by the sunny start to
the day because before we knew it clouds had moved in and by mid-day it
had begun to rain lightly.
Mountain: Our destination this morning was to the base of Whistler’s
Mountain, where we would take the Jasper Tramway up to the summit (7472’).
Fortunately the weather held and we enjoyed not only the view but also
seeing the alpine wildflowers that grew along the trails. Here we were
able to photograph the Hoary Marmot, whose whistling call is what gave
this mountain its name and observe closely the activities of the
Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel. Willow Ptarmigans are supposed to be
nesting in the alpine scrub but our attempts to find any failed. Nor did
we see or hear any Pikas, another alpine rodent we hope to find up here.
Other areas that we
visited on this day were:
Medicine Lake, fed by
the Maligne River but with no obvious outlet. Instead the water flows
underground for many miles until it exits in areas such as Maligne
Canyon. The Maligne River is home to the largest concentration of
Harlequin Ducks in Jasper. These ducks breed exclusively on white water
rivers and are uniquely adapted to feed on the rich concentration of
aquatic insects found in the river rapids. Many areas of the river were
closed off in this area to protect the breeding ducks as this
specialized habitat and their low reproductive rate make them vulnerable
to disturbance. We did not observe any ducks on the rapidly flowing
river, which was probably just as well.
Maligne Canyon, where
the Maligne River plunges into a steep-walled gorge of limestone
bedrock, was a wonderful hike where we discovered flowering Common
Butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris), an insectivorous plant, and the
spectacular Yellow-lady’s Slipper orchids (Cyprepedium parviflorum)
growing on the steep, moist banks. Fauna seen here included Winter Wren,
Dark-eyed Junco and Bighorn Sheep.
National Park to Ellis Bird Farm
journey north ended and we packed up to head back to Great Falls, MT. A
short stop at the thundering Athabasca Falls, found a forest floor
carpeted in Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) and several areas
thick with blooming Venus’-slipper orchids (Calypso bulbosa).
We made a brief stop at the Columbia Icefield, the largest icefield in
the Canadian Rockies, which spreads across the Great Divide covering an
area the size of the city of Vancouver.
Late afternoon found
us driving east through pouring rain to the town of Lacomb, in central
Alberta where we were to visit the Ellis
Bird Farm and meet a friend, Myrna Pearman, who works there. After a
short tour (in a steady downpour) we enjoyed a most delicious afternoon
tea of scones and berry tart in the lovely tea room, while having a nice
visit with Myrna.
Birds of Prey Foundation; Benton Lake NWR; Malmstrom AFB, Great Falls,
we drove to Coaldale, stopping in town to photograph a nicely perched
Swainson’s Hawk, and visited the Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation.
Besides an impressive display of raptors, this is largely a
rehabilitation center for birds of prey, running solely on private
funding. We enjoyed watching the Saker
Falcon (Falco cherrug) put on a hunting demonstration.
The afternoon found
us back in Great Falls, MT. The gray skies had now departed for warmth
and sunshine. We decided to explore Malmstrom Air Force Base and found
some nice habitat where we saw lots of Lark Buntings, Western
Meadowlarks and Horned Larks. Not far from Great Falls is Benton Lake
NWR, which like Freezeout Lake WMA, had a tremendous number of
shorebirds and waterfowl. We especially enjoyed watching the male
Chestnut-collared Longspurs that give their flight song while descending
and then land on a conspicuous perch, only to repeat the action time and
We celebrated our
last night of vacation with a great dinner at the Old Iron Works in
Total number of bird
species seen -- 122. Life birds -- 4. Life butterflies -- 5.
©1999 Arlene Ripley and Doug Ripley