I. Bitterroot River Fishing Access Sites
The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks manages nine fishing access sites along the Bitterroot River between Lolo and Conner (see map). Signs on Highway 93 mark roads to each site.
The amount and quality of habitats vary, most provide a mix of cottonwood and Ponderosa pine with a shrubby understory that holds many birds. Expect typical bottomland and riverine species such as Spotted Sandpiper, Osprey, Belted Kingfisher, woodpeckers, Dusky Flycatcher, Willow Flycatcher, Western Wood-Pewee, Gray Catbird, warblers, Bullock’s Oriole, Song Sparrow, and Black-headed Grosbeak. American Dippers occur during winter.
J. Lolo Pass
Drive south of Missoula to Lolo, then go west on Highway 12 for 33 miles. Watch for American Dippers along Lolo Creek, especially in winter. At the pass take the Packer Meadow Road, which winds into Idaho and back to Montana and Highway 12. A Lolo Forest map would be helpful if you drive the loop.
In Packer Meadow and the surrounding spruce-fir forest, look for Three-toed Woodpecker, Rufous Hummingbird, Hammond’s Flycatcher, Steller’s Jay, Gray Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, Winter Wren, Chestnut-sided Chickadee, Townsend’s Warbler, Varied Thrush; Lincoln’s, Fox and White-crowned sparrows. In early summer, Packer Meadow and forest openings are good for viewing wildflowers. Boreal Owls can be heard at night in late winter along the cross-country ski trails.
K. Bitterroot Canyons
Going south on Highway 93, the Bitterroot Mountains rise to the west, where swift mountain streams have carved numerous dramatic canyons. Many of these have good trails that afford excellent birding such as Bass and Larry Creeks (20 miles south of Missoula) and Kootenai Creek (23 miles from Missoula).
American Dippers are common along these streams. The canyons are good for Pacific Wren and Rock Wren; if lucky, you might hear the beautifully cascading song of the Canyon Wren. The canyon walls provide excellent nesting sites for Peregrine and Prairie falcons, Golden Eagles, Turkey Vultures, and White-throated Swifts. Western Screech-Owls and Pileated Woodpeckers nest in the cottonwood trees along the streams. Larry Creek has an especially nice riparian zone where you can find Red-naped Sapsuckers, Red-eyed Vireos, and warblers.
L. Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge
This 2,700-acre refuge is located 25 miles south of Missoula and is composed of a series of ponds and sloughs as well as an extensive riparian area along the Bitterroot River. At either Florence or Stevensville, take the highway east of the river to the refuge entrance.
More than 225 species have been recorded on the refuge, including 98 species of confirmed nesters. This refuge is an important stop for migrating waterfowl. March and April witness the full contingent of grebes, ducks, geese, and swans, including the occasional Eurasian Wigeon and Ross’s Goose. Soras and Virginia Rails, and occasionally American Bitterns, are heard in the marsh areas. Marsh Wrens are common in the cattails. Bald Eagle and Ospreys can be seen from the road that winds through the refuge. In riparian areas, look for Great Horned Owls and Pileated Woodpeckers.
In summer, especially when cloudy, look high over the ponds for Black Swifts.
M. Teller Wildlife Refuge
Public access is permitted from the Woodside Fishing Access (east side of the bridge across the Bitterroot River on the Corvallis Cutoff Road between Highway 93 and Corvallis).
Please stay on the main trail to the north or to the river side (west) of the trail. Access to the area east of the trail requires permission from the refuge manager (phone: 406-961-3507).
The accessible area provides typical bottomland habitat dominated by Black Cottonwoods and Ponderosa pines over a dense understory of shrubs. Typical species include Great Blue Heron (a rookery south of the Woodside Bridge is visible until leaf-out in April), Osprey, Long-eared Owl, woodpeckers, Gray Catbird, Warbling Vireo, warblers, and White-breasted Nuthatch.
The birding is best in spring and summer.
N. Kiwanis Park, Hamilton
The main access is behind Westview Junior High on Main St. west of downtown Hamilton.
This small area offers a variety of habitats including young and old cottonwood forest, a cattail marsh, shrublands, the Bitterroot River, and associated sloughs. Expect to see typical river-bottom species including Wood Duck, Osprey, Spotted Sandpiper, Great Horned Owl, Belted Kingfisher, Lewis’s Woodpecker, Western Wood-Pewee, Gray Catbird, Yellow Warbler, and Bullock’s Oriole. Vagrants sometimes show up here. Birding is good year-round, but spring and summer are best.
O. Coyote Coulee Trail
Follow Lost Horse Creek Road west 2.5 miles from its junction with Hwy 93 about 9 miles south of Hamilton. Turn right on Forest Road 496 at the school bus turnaround where the pavement ends and follow the road for 1/2 mile to the parking lot.
The trail crosses several small creeks and goes through a mix of aspen-dominated riparian areas and second-growth ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir before it reaches the coniferous riparian zone along Camas Creek.
Expect birds typical of all these habitat types, such as woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, kinglets, warblers, Warbling Vireo, Cassin’s Vireo, Western Tanager, Chipping Sparrow, and Dark-eyed Junco. This trail opens up early due to the low elevation, and deer and elk are often seen here.
P. Lake Como
Find this large, beautiful mountain-ringed lake by following the paved Lake Como Road west from its junction with Hwy 93 about five miles north of Darby. Follow signs past the beach area to the campground and the Lake Como National Recreation Trail.
The trail passes through old-growth ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir for much of the seven-mile trip that circles the lake.
Expect typical forest birds such as Pileated Woodpecker, chickadees, nuthatches, kinglets, Western Tanager, Cassin’s Vireo, and Yellow-rumped Warbler. Near the head of the lake the trail bisects a 1988 fire that resulted in hundreds of snags that attract woodpeckers, Olive-sided Flycatchers, and Mountain Bluebirds. American Dippers nest above the bridge over Rock Creek at the head of the lake. Ospreys and Bald Eagles are possible.