Birding on Waterworks Hill

For those living in or visiting Missoula, the Waterworks Hill circuit makes a pleasant morning walk, and May, June and July are excellent times for viewing. The entrance is a short gravel road located off Greenough Drive. I like to start my hike by taking the Cherry Gulch Trail, the lower trail to the right, which circles up the hill via two switch-backs and then turns downhill back to the parking area. As you enter the short bushy and wooded area, you may see a Calliope Hummingbird perched on a tall brush proclaiming his rights to the area. I’ve seen male Lazuli Buntings fight over territory in this area. In the taller trees the Bullock Orioles hang their nest and hunt in the grasslands for food. In the underbrush the Spotted Towhees scratch and nest. On the edge of this area you may hear a Killdeer call. The Chipping Sparrows like the Ponderosa Pine.

All of the birds like the insect bounty the grasslands produce. Unless the day is wet and windy, Western and Mountain Bluebirds will be seen. The bright blue males like to sit on the fence lines near their nest boxes. The Western Bluebirds prefer the gulch area, which has scattered trees; while the Mountain Bluebirds find the top of the ridge more appealing. Bluebirds often double clutch in this productive area. Tree Swallows use many of the extra bluebird houses that the bluebirds reject. The Bluebirds like to feed close to the ground, while the swallows catch their prey on the wing. The Cliff Swallows that live under the Missoula bridges join in the flying insect hunt with their cousins, the Tree Swallows. The Eastern Kingbirds like to sit on the fences. Their cousins the Western Kingbirds come a little later and like to nest high up on the telephone poles. You will hear a chorus of Meadow Larks and Vesper Sparrows claiming their grassland territory.

In midsummer, you are likely to see a tiny Vesper Sparrow running like little mouse upon the trail in front of you. And of course there are Red-tailed hawks. The Red Hawks are prominent as they sit on telephone poles or soar through the air searching for ground squirrels. The American Kestrels join in the hunt for grasshoppers and an occasional Cooper’s Hawk feasts on small birds. One winter day the area seemed devoid of birds until a Merlin was discovered lurking about. It was also bird watching. This is just a few of the over sixty species I have observed on the Hill over the years. Take a walk on Waterworks Hill and discover it for yourself.

by Elizabeth Johnston

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