by Terry McEneaney…
The year 2013 marks my 45th year of going to Freezout Lake to view the spring migration of Snow Geese. Interestingly enough, 2013 marks the 20 year anniversary of my book Birding Montana. My how time flies. This trip to Freezout never ceases to amaze me. But in the past, this annual pilgrimage to the spring birding Mecca of Montana always involved two days, and an overnight stay or two either camping at the lake or staying in the town of Choteau. This year I decided to try something different, so it was decided to go from Missoula to Freezout Lake, and back to Missoula in a day. It was a long day I might add, encompassing a total of 13 hours (which is equivalent to 780 minutes or 46,800 seconds). Useless statistics you might say. Not so, if you equate we saw more than two birds per second for the entire 13 hours of birding.
I led a group of 17 adventurous birders in five vehicles, with that group size breaking down as the day waned. We left Missoula before sunrise, and returned to Missoula near sunset. Earlier reports from Freezout Lake indicated the Snow Geese had already reached its peak and had moved on heading north. For those wondering was the trip worth it I was not concerned, since I had a good feeling about the trip beforehand. My experience with Freezout has taught me to see it for yourself, since any spring field trip to Freezout is a crapshoot of bird migration timing coupled with weather. My biggest concern was the snowstorm the day before, and the road conditions particularly going up the Blackfoot and over Roger’s Pass on March 24, and the marathon trip. The day started out cold (-3F at Roger’s Pass) and ended up in the 40 F’s at Freezout and 50’sF in Missoula.
We were rewarded from the fruits of our labor in so many ways. First we saw in excess of 900 elk or wapiti, dozens of mule and white-tailed deer, and pronghorn, a single coyote, and glimpses of recently emerging Columbian and Richardson’s ground squirrels. Our first omen of a good day started west of the Continental Divide, when we found Pileated Woodpecker flying ahead of the car caravan and landing in the sun at the top of a large conifer. East of the divide it was slow birding until we came across a recently arrived Ferruginous Hawk on territory, as we experienced it nest building. Then there was an adult female Golden Eagle perched on a rock outcrop and the fun began. There are no words to describe the look and feel of being on the Rocky Mountain Front, and the day we chose for this field trip happened to be a rare day in the annals of Freezout birding. What was lacking on a trip this time of year was quite rare —there were no bluebirds and yes NO WIND.
We arrived at Freezout only to be reminded why the name Freezout is well deserved. The water at Freezout was ice covered and the ground frozen. There were a few open leads in the ice, thanks to waterfowl spending the night. This time of year can be traditionally cold, but without much wind and a good amount of sun this was a day to be remembered. We took a break as we arrived mid-morning and waited for awhile taking in the warm sun and watching the landscape for birds, then after sizing it up we went for the chase. We ended up in the perfect location, as skeins or waves of Snow Geese came from the east and south and landed in the barley field near us. It was a toss-up what was better, the sights or the sounds of Snow Geese or both. Later in the day they ended up in two large flocks, one on the main lake and one on Pond 5. But the entire day was like this either magnificent or brilliant.
In summary, we ended up with 80,000-100,000 Snow Geese (including over a dozen “blue morphs”), and approximately tens of thousands of Northern Pintail, and two to three thousand Tundra Swan. Not bad for iced-up conditions. Besides the impressive squalls of Snow Geese, we found 11 Eurasian Wigeon. This is the most Eurasian Wigeon I have ever seen in Montana at any one time. Other birds worth noting were Trumpeter Swan, Cinnamon Teal, and expected waterfowl and raptors of different persuasions and color morphs.
There is an Irish saying “Good things come to those that wait”. At the end of the day our wait paid off, with a grayish chocolate plumaged juvenile female Gyrfalcon perched on a pole. We had a lot of smiles and laughs throughout the day, including the leader’s car rolling slowly down the hill only to be saved by Bill Thomas. The leader was prepared to run very fast had Bill not saved the day. Near the end, we birded Trixi’s only to find an old Bald Eagle in the watering hole as the group toasted to a very fine day of birding “Freezout style”. As we entered Missoula, with the sun setting in the west, and we were reminded of the great time we had and that not all trips to Freezout end up as memorable as the spring Freezout Lake Field Trip 2013.