With our northward path into Montana and southern Alberta, we had reached the southern-most extent of the breeding range for a number of birds that we are accustomed to seeing in the winter time. As we drove back from our foray into Yellowstone, a group of four sandhill cranes flew across the highway at an altitude of about thirty feet and a range of about fifty feet, giving us an excellent view. I checked the range map and discovered that while the breeding range is largely far to the north in Canada, there is an area on the eastern slope of the Rockies in Montana where they breed.
At Big Timber, while we sat watching the river, three spotted sandpipers regularly flew up or down the river in formation, about six inches above the water. As we went north and encountered the land of small, permanent wetlands, the number of species multiplied: Ringbilled gulls, Franklin gulls, avocets, black-necked stilts, whimbrels, all kinds of ducks, pelicans of course, Canada geese (yes, they are found in places other than parks), yellow-headed blackbirds, and I swear I saw some kind of rail run across a road. It was amazing how much birding can be done from a motor home traveling down the highway at 55 mph, but many of the wetlands were right along the shoulder and the added height of the motorhome is a viewing advantage. It also helps that I’m familiar with most of these species. Coming into Great Falls, I spotted what looked like a group of five egrets flying along a river. We have egrets at home, but in Montana? Sure enough, the range map says that Snowy Egrets breed in the area. New birds require a much longer look and there are plenty of birds I see that I can’t identify to my satisfaction.