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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.

Heading southwest 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.

Driving northeast 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.


6/20: Glacier National Park
A beautiful 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
The Isaac 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 Chipping Sparrow.

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 Satyr Anglewing.

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.

6/22: Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada
Armed with "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.

Sulphur Mountain: 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 Bighorn Sheep.

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
After a 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 song.

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.


6/24: Jasper National Park
Waking to 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.

Whistler's 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.


6/25: Jasper National Park to Ellis Bird Farm
Today our 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.

6/26: Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation; Benton Lake NWR; Malmstrom AFB, Great Falls, MT
This morning 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 time again.

We celebrated our last night of vacation with a great dinner at the Old Iron Works in Great Falls.

Total number of bird species seen -- 122. Life birds -- 4. Life butterflies -- 5.

©1999 Arlene Ripley and Doug Ripley