Many traveling birders choose the Northwest for their expeditions considering the impressive range of bird species encountered. The state of Montana is a solid destination in that regard when you take into account the diversity of habits. It lets birders explore various natural features from grasslands and prairies to mountains and water bodies. Montana is a recommended place to visit if you want to observe waterfowl and shorebirds but there are many other captivating bird species that shouldn’t be missed. Find out which are the best birds to see in Montana by checking out our selection down below.
Before we’re getting more familiar with the highlight birds in this state, it’s recommended to get yourself prepared with some birding gear such as:
When it comes to birding equipment, binoculars can be easily considered the foundation of the hobby. Ideally, you shouldn’t make too many compromises when selecting a good binocular for the job. It’s strongly recommended to invest in a high-quality model from a trusted brand. The Nikon Monarch 5 Series represents an excellent choice offering premium optics and superb durability.
- Field Guide
Modern birders will most likely opt for digital field guides but if you prefer an old-school feel, the paperback option is the way to go. It goes without saying that a targeted field guide for the area you’re exploring will significantly improve the entire birdwatching experience. Take a look at the Birds of Montana field guide that allows users to identify and compare the birds in the state as well as get other relevant information.
- Camera Backpack
When you’re adventuring in more challenging environments, it could pay off to have reliable protection for your delicate equipment such as DSLR cameras. Not just any backpack will do as you need to find a high-quality unit that provides a good mix of durability and comfort. This Lowepro ProTactic backpack seems like one of the best solutions to protect and organize valuable camera gear.
1. Harlequin Duck
Montana is one of the few states in the US where you can observe the beautiful breeding plumage of the harlequin duck. This is a highly attractive waterfowl that can pique the interest of birders and non-birders alike. Breeding males show off extravagant body and facial markings in different shades of dark blue, chestnut, and white. Female harlequin ducks have a dull gray-brown appearance. Look for this stylish bird along Montana’s rivers and streams in the summer. When it comes to vocalizations, this duck’s strange squeaking can take you by surprise.
2. White-tailed Ptarmigan
Widespread in western areas of Canada, the white-tailed ptarmigan reaches certain areas in Montana as its range extends very little to the US. This is a small game bird that shows different plumage colors depending on the season. It’s certainly more attractive to spot during the winter when it becomes camouflaged with its pure snow-white appearance. White-tailed ptarmigans can be difficult to see due to the bird’s preference for high-mountain habitats. The stocky grouse spends all its time at high elevations so it will take some hiking to reach it.
3. American Avocet
Shorebirds can be regularly observed in Montana. One particularly graceful example is American avocet. This striking wader has long legs and a slender body that give it a uniquely elegant look. You can also recognize an American avocet by its characteristic upturned bill. This shorebird can be spotted in Montana during the summer breeding season which provides birders the opportunity to spot the rusty head and neck feathers. Nonbreeding adults can be distinguished by their simple grayish white head. The tall American avocet enjoys foraging in shallow wetlands.
4. California Quail
The California quail is quite common in scrubs and other areas with dry vegetation in the western US. This game bird’s range extends to small pockets in Montana where it can be seen year-round. Identifying a California quail involves looking for some distinctive characteristics. Male birds have a particularly plump appearance and a comma-shaped crest. As opposed to the plainer female, the male quail is also characterized by striking black-and-white head markings going down its neck. Birders can often encounter groups of California quails foraging on the ground.
5. Vaux’s Swift
A fairly common swift, the Vaux’s species can be spotted in western areas of Montana. This is an aerial forager that’s fun to observe in action. It’s usually seen only during the flight when it shows off its insect hunting acrobatics. The Vaux’s swift roosts and nests in groups. Your best bet for finding this bird is to look to the sky in mature evergreen forests in the swift’s range. Invest in some powerful binoculars to be able to scan the skies thoroughly above the treetops. Also, don’t forget to search for this bird only during the summer.
6. Eastern Kingbird
Eastern kingbirds are very widespread in Montana during the summertime. They’re worth seeking out just to observe their strong territorial behavior. This flycatcher can often harass crows, hawks, and any other bird intruding in its area. You can recognize the eastern kingbird by its black-and-white plumage and a large head that’s particularly dark. Increasing your chances of spotting an eastern kingbird can be easily done by exploring overgrown fields or other grasslands. The bird is usually perching in an open area or hunting insects in the air.
7. Marbled Godwit
With an eye-catching bill and speckled plumage, the marbled godwit is a striking shorebird to see. This bird has a fairly restricted range but it’s particularly widespread in Montana during the summer. The bill of the marbled godwit stands out not just because of its swordlike shape. It has great visual appeal due to being bicolored as well. The shorebird uses its bill to probe the mud for crabs and other aquatic creatures. Marbled godwits can be found foraging in shallow waters and are often recognized by the large body size and bill appearance.
8. Short-eared Owl
Despite being very widespread in North America, it has now become increasingly rare to spot a short-eared owl. Montana birders can find this type of owl in daylight more often compared to other species. The bird has a year-round presence in most parts of the state. Compared to other owls, the short-eared species lacks prominent ear tufts. It features great streaking while distinctive barring can be seen during the flight on the bird’s wings. The head of this owl can help you recognize it as it shows piercing yellow eyes against a pale face.
9. Vesper Sparrow
If you go birding in Montana during the summer, there are lots of interesting tiny birds you can spot. The vesper sparrow is a good example. This is a widespread species in the state’s grasslands and fields. It can be identified by its characteristic brown streaks and a conspicuous white eye-ring. Vesper sparrows create some captivating musical performances with sweet-sounding trills. Searching for this bird shouldn’t pose too many challenges if you listen closely to its vocalizations. The sparrow tends to sing from tall perches and isn’t usually hidden from view when foraging.
10. Swainson’s Hawk
Another common summer visitor in Montana, the Swainson’s hawk is an elegant bird of prey dressed in colorful plumage. The hawk has broad wings that are used in soaring. Similar to other species, the Swainson’s hawk features two different color morphs. The light one shows a distinctive brown head and upper breast. While its underparts are pale, the flight feathers show dark trailing edges. Dark morphs are more varied in their plumage, ranging from grayish and rusty to dark shades of brown. Look for perching Swainson’s hawks in conspicuous places like isolated trees in open areas.
11. Upland Sandpiper
A shorebird of grasslands, the upland sandpiper is an eye-catching appearance in Montana. It boasts an elegant look with a slim bill and thin neck. The bird relies on natural prairies for its nesting sites but can be found foraging in all kinds of croplands and pastures. It steers clear of wetlands as opposed to other shorebirds. The speckled brown upland sandpiper can be observed in the breeding season in Montana. You might be able to get a good look at its territorial performance that usually involves flight vocalizations.
12. Calliope Hummingbird
Hummingbirds lovers won’t be disappointed if they choose Montana as their next birding destination. The western parts of the state act like solid breeding grounds for the calliope hummingbird. The male has a distinctive magenta throat and performs dazzling dances to attract a mate. Despite its tiny size, this hummingbird can be easily found in meadows and open forests if you have some patience. Calliope hummingbirds have a tendency to return to their favorite perches. You can also try listening for the bird’s distinctive zing call and sputtering buzz that can be heard in the breeding season.
13. American Three-toed Woodpecker
Unless you plan on visiting the northern areas of North America, it’s safe to say that Montana is one of the best places to find an American three-toed woodpecker in the US. This is an unobtrusive species that has a year-round presence in the western forests of Montana. The bird can be distinguished from other woodpeckers by its black-and-white plumage and variable barring. Males also feature a yellow crown patch. The American three-toed woodpecker is more often spotted in disturbed forests such as areas affected by wildfires. It’s specialized in bark foraging after insects.
14. Hammond’s Flycatcher
The Hammond’s flycatcher is a tiny bird that lives in the coniferous forests of Montana. Its range reaches the western areas of the state in the summer and the southern parts of Montana during migration. The olive-green appearance of the bird isn’t particularly helpful to distinguish it from other similar flycatchers. You can avoid confusion by listening for the Hammond’s species characteristic song performed by the male bird. The song has short but clearly separated parts. Hammond’s flycatchers prefer foraging close to the tree’s canopy so more performant binoculars are strongly recommended.
15. Mountain Chickadee
With a year-round presence in Montana’s dry evergreen forests, the mountain chickadee shouldn’t be missed in your explorations. This is a small and inquisitive bird that can be distinguished from other similar species by its white eyebrow stripe. Other characteristics used to recognize it are the small bill, long tail, and black cap. Mountain chickadees are sometimes seen in mixed flocks of tiny birds. Even though the bird lacks an impressive appearance, it’s worth seeking out just for its upside-down hanging behavior and scolding calls.
16. Townsend’s Solitaire
Another bird you can observe in western-mountain forests is the Townsend’s solitaire. This is an attractive songbird that’s fairly widespread in Montana. It’s dressed in a subtle gray plumage with a very distinctive white eyering. Even if it doesn’t look particularly colorful, the Townsend’s solitaire is worth searching for just to be able to hear its sweet jumbling song. Despite being fairly common, this isn’t a conspicuous bird so it can be a little challenging to find. It usually sits perched motionlessly atop trees and shrubs when performing its characteristic song.
17. Varied Thrush
More common in the Pacific Northwest, the varied thrush has a small presence in Montana as well. This is a shy bird that prefers dense forests for their breeding grounds. Your best bet for finding it is to rely on the sweet, echoing vocal performance of the thrush. This species can be identified visually by its blue-gray back and rusty orange underparts. Females have a browner appearance but feature the same burnt-orange patches. Note the orange eyebrow stripe. Varied thrushes can be usually seen foraging on the ground in forest understories.
18. Pine Grosbeak
With a limited range in the US, the pine grosbeak can be considered an uncommon sight outside its favorite coniferous forest habitat. This is a plump type of finch with a different look depending on the bird’s sex. Males have a rosy red plumage whereas females show golden yellow looks. Pine grosbeaks have conical, thick bills that are used in foraging after seeds, tree buds, and needles. These birds live permanently in the westernmost areas of Montana but they’re particularly easy to find in the summer. That’s when birders can hear the rich, warbling singing of this finch.
19. Mountain Bluebird
The mountainous regions of Montana are worth exploring to discover a nice assortment of bird species. A beautiful one to see is the mountain bluebird. Despite its name, it’s fairly widely distributed across different habitats as the bird doesn’t favor higher elevations exclusively. This type of thrush shows an eye-catching blue plumage (for the male) and has a habit of nesting in cavities. Mountain bluebirds are flycatchers that aren’t easily scared by humans. Look for them in Montana during the summer where they have a considerable presence in forested areas as well as more open country regions.
20. Dusky Grouse
Here’s a must-see bird if you visit the mountain forests in Montana. The dusky grouse is a permanent resident in western areas of the state and shows off many interesting qualities. The male bird is more impressive-looking with its courtship display. It features reddish air sacs and distinctive red eyebrows that make it stand out against the plain gray-brown look of the female. It’s best to search for dusky grouses during early spring when they’re engaged in characteristic mating performances. Birders determined to spot this bird will have to deal with some challenging mountain hiking.
21. Trumpeter Swan
Trumpeter swans are some of the most impressive birds you can see in Montana. They’re not particularly widespread in the US as they’re only seen in certain lakes, rivers, and marshes. Compared to the more common tundra swan, the trumpeter species is almost double the size. It maintains a graceful appearance with its white plumage and sinuous neck. Birders will be delighted to see this swan in flight when it shows its broad, white wings in full glory. Another distinctive feature of the trumpeter swan is the black facial area on its face that features a similarly-colored bill.
22. Barrow’s Goldeneye
Montana is a great state for seeing attractive duck species. A solid example is the Barrow’s goldeneye. This is a brilliantly patterned bird as the male features a purple triangular head with multiple white patches on black wings. Female Barrow’s goldeneyes aren’t as eye-catching but they show off gray-brown plumage with a similar head shape. These ducks can be encountered year-round on mountain lakes and only in the winter in some areas. Distinguishing between Barrow’s and Common goldeneyes can be done by looking for the characteristic facial crescent.
23. Red-necked Grebe
With a striking plumage and fascinating mating display, the red-necked grebe is a great attraction for birders in Montana. It’s commonly spotted in the summer on the lakes in northwestern parts of the state. Aside from the distinctive red neck of breeding grebes, this bird can be identified by its stout bill, black cap, and large overall size compared to similar species. The red-necked grebe places its nests on floating vegetation. Nonbreeding birds are clean gray-white. They rely on surface diving when it comes to foraging behavior.
24. White-faced Ibis
Not to be confused with the glossy ibis, this species has a characteristic white border on the face. Breeding adults have a striking plumage in tones of dark green and maroon. Notice the legs of the birds which show off a more vibrant shade of red. The white-faced ibis has a fairly important presence in the summer in Montana’s marshy regions. These birds are expert waders and can be observed feeding in shallow waters on aquatic invertebrates using their characteristically long, curved bills.
25. Clark’s Nutcracker
A typical year-round resident of Montana, the Clark’s nutcracker is frequently spotted in the coniferous forests of the state. The mostly gray birds feed on pine cone seeds which they transport in special mouth pouches to hide for later use. This bird can resemble the look of a jay and shows the most eye-catching appearance during flight when it flashes the white outer tail feathers. As opposed to other birds in mountainous forests, the Clark’s nutcracker is fairly easy to find. It hangs around conspicuously in open areas. Birders can listen carefully for the nutcracker’s distinctive call that has some grating qualities.
26. Yellow-headed Blackbird
The breeding range of the yellow-headed blackbird includes the entire state of Montana. This distinctive blackbird nests in marshes but can be spotted in various habitats including farm fields. The male is more colorful as it draws attention with its bright yellow head contrasting against the black body. Flying yellow-headed blackbirds will also show a characteristic white wing patch. Without relying on the bird’s harsh call and buzzing songs, it can be quite difficult to spot this blackbird, even if you search its favorite freshwater wetland habitats. That’s because the bird can often sit hidden in dense vegetation.
27. Ferruginous Hawk
Montana birders looking for raptors won’t be disappointed if they manage to get a good look at a ferruginous hawk. Among North American hawks, this is the largest species. It shows light and dark color morphs. Light ferruginous hawks are much more common and feature broad wings with many rusty spots on shoulders and legs. Compared to the rare chocolate-colored dark morph, the light one has elegant white underparts. Ferruginous hawks can only be found in Montana during the summer. Even when they’re soaring high in the sky, the birds of prey can be recognized easily by their pale plumage.
28. Red-naped Sapsucker
The red-naped sapsucker is a common woodpecker found in the western half of Montana during summertime. Both males and females feature characteristic red patches on the head and chin. Male red-naped sapsuckers have a more prominent red chin while females can be distinguished by a small white patch in the same place. This woodpecker species has a particular taste for sugary sap so if you notice little drilled holes in trees when exploring aspen or birch forests, that could be a strong sign of the bird’s presence.
29. Ruffed Grouse
Another interesting grouse species worth searching for in Montana, the ruffed grouse is a permanent resident of the state’s southwestern forests. It’s easier to hear than see in most cases due to the secretive nature of this game bird. The ruffed grouse isn’t particularly colorful considering the intricate brownish patterns that provide it with solid camouflage in its natural environment. It earned its name from the special mating display when the male grouse fans its tail and makes a distinctive ruffed collar of black feathers. Another essential part of the display is the strange drumming sound made by the bird.
30. Bullock’s Oriole
With a flame-orange appearance and upside-down dangling behavior, the Bullock’s oriole is a bird to look out for in Montana. It’s fairly widespread throughout the state in the breeding season. This oriole species prefers open woodland habitats where they create characteristic hanging nests. Females have a duller gray-and-yellow plumage compared to the males but both sexes feature a sharply pointed bill. This is used by the birds when foraging for insects or eating fruit. Bullock’s orioles are very vocal birds so you should be able to discover hidden birds in the forest just by relying on their whistling, chuckling song.