Spring Migration on the Fort Missoula Ponds, 2023

by Poody McLaughlin, aerial photos courtesy of Jim Brown (photographer) and Erick Greene (pilot), 5/30/2023

On Mother’s Day the chapter wrapped up a series of nine spring migration surveys at the Fort Missoula Ponds. Beginning in late March and ending mid-May we documented the birds’ usage, especially for waterfowl, of the two ponds and the riparian area adjacent to the Bitterroot River.

The weather on the first survey March 26 was snowy with the South Pond totally frozen and the North Pond mostly frozen. Nonetheless we heard meadowlarks singing brightly through the snow and chill. A coyote crossed the frozen south pond. Our cool, late spring meant that the South Pond remained frozen until the April 10 survey. Although deeper than the South Pond, the North Pond was completely open by April 4. 

In addition to waterfowl usage of the ponds we wanted to record the species’ pulses of migration. On the initial survey of 3/26 on the North Pond there were high numbers of Northern Pintail (an early migrant) and American Wigeon. The Bucephala genus — Bufflehead and Common and Barrow’s Goldeneyes – were regulars on the North Pond through most of the surveys along with Hooded Mergansers. Great Blue Herons were active at the heronry flying in with nest material. Speaking of pulses, we counted 50 Western Bluebirds in one active flock in the riparian habitat. The birds were acting like it was Spring despite the weather!

Three grebe species were found on both ponds over most of the surveys: Horned, Eared, and Red-necked. For three surveys beginning 4/24 there were 2 Common Loons on both ponds, generally one loon on each. 

The South Pond attracted many waterfowl species on 4/24: Snow Geese, Redhead, and high numbers of American Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, Ring-necked Duck, and Lesser Scaup. An uncommon Red-breasted Merganser was on the South Pond on 5/4. The South Pond also hosted 26 Ruddy Ducks on the 5/14 survey. One Eurasian Wigeon was among several American Wigeons on the North Pond on 4/4.

On his 3/29 survey, Thomas Kallmeyer captured a Prairie Falcon (in photos) flying over the ponds. Red-tailed Hawks nest in the vicinity and were seen on all surveys. Osprey first appeared on 4/14 and on subsequent surveys. Before the Osprey’s arrival, Turkey Vultures were initially seen on 4/10. Cooper’s Hawk, American Kestrel, and Great Horned Owl rounded out the predators’ presence.

Among smaller species, the meadowlarks were a constant auditory presence throughout the surveys. In the riparian area, Red-naped Sapsuckers first appeared on 4/14. On that survey we found an American Pipit on the North Pond. Savannah and Lincoln’s Sparrows were first reported on 4/24 in the North Pond area. Those hardy Yellow-rumped Warblers showed up on both pond areas on 4/24, along with Wilson’s Snipe on the North Pond. Vesper Sparrows arrived later with Yellow Warblers and Vaux’s Swifts on 5/4. Orange-crowned Warblers were first sighted in the river riparian vegetation on 5/10.

The hardy Yellow-rumped Warblers were no hardier than the 25 volunteers who braved all sorts of weather conditions. Thank you to all of you, and I hope that our discoveries outweighed the wet boots and optics!

Soon I will write and submit a report on these findings to the city. With this third survey (preceded by last year’s breeding bird surveys and fall migration surveys) we have collected a full year of data for the Fort Missoula Ponds parcel. This information and data will provide the city with a strong case to maintain this parcel as a natural area. Despite its history as an industrial site, the ponds attract a diverse array of species, both for breeding and for migration. Imagine the lure to birds if the habitat were improved! Stay tuned for how you can participate in the public’s input for the future management of this incredible parcel. At the earliest, the city will produce a final report with management options late this fall, depending on funding. Sometime this winter we may have the opportunity to weigh in on the future of this special habitat.

View reports on our efforts at the Fort Missoula Ponds in 2022:

Fall 2022 Bird Survey Report

Spring 2022 Breeding Bird Survey Report

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