No matter what time of year you plan to visit West Yellowstone, a birding adventure awaits. Whether you are hiking through an alpine forest or snowshoeing along a riverbank, the Greater Yellowstone region hosts a rich population of birds for every season. Birding enthusiasts and casual watchers alike can revel in the majestic sights of migrating ducks, resident eagles, and wintering trumpeter swans.
Bird watching is an accessible, year-round activity for area visitors of all ages. Some of the best viewing occurs between May and October—migrating birds abound in the spring and fall while long summer days lend sight to bald eagles, osprey, and waterfowl along the Madison River. With just a pair of binoculars and a guide book (or app), explorers can begin to identify and document the area’s abundant bird population. During the spring, birding enthusiasts can identify upwards of 50 or 60 bird species over the course of a single day. Casual visitors can spot eagles, hawks, and ducks as they enjoy a day fly fishing on the Madison River, hiking in Yellowstone National Park, or taking a scenic drive along the north shore of Hebgen Lake.
The Greater Yellowstone region is home to a number of distinct habitats that host ever-changing populations of resident and migrating birds. Forests of native conifers, including dense stands of lodgepole pine, old-growth Douglas-fir, and Engelmann spruce, blanket the mountainsides and are home to red-tailed hawks, sparrows, and yellow-rumped warblers, among other species. Recently burned forests provide insect-rich feeding grounds for woodpeckers. Sage thrashers and sparrows thrive in areas of thick sagebrush cover while shorebirds and waterfowl frequent the region’s alpine lakes, winding rivers, and placid wetlands. Lucky birders might even catch sight of other regional wildlife, such as elk, bison, otters, moose, and bears, while exploring the ecosystem.
While visitors may be able to glimpse a hawk or an eagle overhead with the naked eye, a spotting scope or a pair of binoculars are a must to catch a close-up view of area birds. These tools will also help birders maintain a respectful distance to avoid disturbing the wildlife. A reference guide is an essential tool to get the most out of your birding experience. The West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce provides free area maps and birding trail brochures while field guides and reference books can be purchased in many local shops.
Where to Go
Some of the area’s best birding locations are just a short drive from West Yellowstone. Featured below are a few key locations for your next birding expedition:
- Yellowstone National Park
What better place to catch sight of a soaring bald eagle than in America’s first national park?
Nearly 300 avian species have been documented in Yellowstone National Park and roughly 150 species nest within its boundaries. The park has even been known to host some rare birds for the enthusiast’s bucket list, such as the great gray owl or the black-crowned night heron. Trumpeter swans from across the Rocky Mountains and Canada migrate to the park and the surrounding ecosystem for the winter.
- Earthquake Lake
Earthquake Lake, or Quake Lake, is a stunning sight for area visitors. An earthquake in 1959 triggered a massive landslide that blocked the Madison River and formed the lake. Bald eagles, osprey, and double-breasted cormorants nest in the bare timber that still rises from its depths while common mergansers sail across the surface. “There’s an eagle nest right where Beaver Creek flows into Quake Lake,” said West Yellowstone local Melissa Alder, describing one of her favorite birding destinations. “Across the river on the other side there are a couple of other eagle nests … it’s a really awesome spot.”
- Madison River
Just a few miles north of West Yellowstone, Highway 287 follows the north shore of Hebgen Lake before winding along the Madison River with several excellent birding spots en route, including Beaver Creek, Ghost Village Road, and Raynold’s Pass. The riparian habitat hosts an extensive collection of bird species, including bald eagles, geese, great blue herons, American white pelicans, and mallards, just to name a few. Explorers may catch sight of osprey diving for trout, American dippers bobbing in the fast-moving water, or even harlequin ducks passing through along their spring migration.
Take a day trip from West Yellowstone and visit Red Rocks Lake National Wildlife Refuge for a birding expedition in Montana’s breathtaking Centennial Mountains. Created as a protected area for nesting trumpeter swans, the more than 50,000-acre refuge is home to rich wetlands and more than 230 documented species of birds, including yellow-headed blackbirds, American kestrels, and occasional peregrine falcons.
The Greater Yellowstone region’s abundant bird population makes West Yellowstone an ideal hub for a birding expedition. Whether you are a birding enthusiast or a causal observer, the area’s diverse ecosystem offers year-round birding opportunities for your next adventure.
AUTHOR: CAITLIN STYRSKY
PHOTOS: DAVID LOEBL