The Two Medicine area has some of the best hiking and birding in Glacier National Park. Cobalt Lake up to Two Medicine Pass is one of my favorite trails, with jaw-dropping scenery, fields of flowers, and the potential, if you have the energy, to get up into the alpine with the possibility of seeing American Pipit, Rock Wren, Timberline Brewer's Sparrow, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch and, perhaps, White-tailed Ptarmigan.
This trail description starts at the junction of the South Shore Two Medicine Trail (described elsewhere) and the Two Medicine Pass trail, about 2.6 miles from the boat dock parking area at Two Medicine Lake. From the junction it’s another 3.2 miles up to the lake.
The first stretch of the Two Medicine Pass Trail brings you along the base of Mt. Sinopah where there is spruce-fir forest with several avalanche chutes. In the trees look for Mountain Chickadee, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Western Tanager, Pine Siskin and others.
The shrubby habitat of the avalanche chutes is pretty in its own right. Because there are few mature trees standing, these chutes have a lot of light making them great for shrubs, berries and a variety of wildflowers. Macgillivray’s and Tennessee Warbler, Black-headed Grosbeak, Lazuli Bunting, Chipping Sparrow and others prefer this type of shrubby habitat to the forest.
Once out of the avalanche chutes you will enter a short spruce-fir forest with some lodgepole and an understory of huckleberry and false huckleberry. Listen for Varied Thrush and Yellow-rumped Warbler. Rockwell Falls is neither the biggest nor easiest to view, but here you are and it is an exquisite falls anyway. Have a quick snack and then it’s switchbacks, making your way up into the hanging valley that contains Cobalt Lake. Stop along the way and enjoy the inspiring view back toward Two Medicine Lake. Olive-sided Flycatcher, Varied Thrush, Hermit Thrush, Fox Sparrow and Chipping Sparrow are in this area along with lots of bear-grass and pink spirea as the forest gets shorter and more open.
Once you are up in the hanging valley you’ll continue to walk next to the river coming from Cobalt Lake. As you get higher there is the possibility of Dusky Flycatcher, Pacific Wren, Hermit Thrush, Cassin’s Finch and Pine Siskin. There are some great canyon-like portions of trail with big mossy rocks along the way. If you time things right, the monkeyflower will be in bloom. Just before Cobalt Lake are some of the most amazing meadows full of pink Lewis’ monkeyflower anywhere in the park. Forget birds and enjoy the flowers!
Cobalt Lake is a gorgeous spot. The lake is small and blue and is flanked by rock walls extending up toward Two Medicine Pass. Definitely spend some time relaxing along the shore. There is a fine “beach” and my kids often like to take a refreshing dip or just wade in the water. If you are lucky and quiet you might catch sight of a water shrew working the rocks along the shore. Water shrews are very small, brown, mouse-like mammals with a long pointy nose. They will dive under the water to go after insect nymphs and larvae like caddisflies and mayflies. You’ll see them dive under, swimming frantically to search along the bottom. Then, as soon as they stop swimming, the air bubbles trapped in their fur with bob them quickly to the surface.
If you camp at Cobalt Lake, listen for White-tailed Ptarmigan screaming at sundown and just before sunrise. They live in the moist spots with growing vegetation high above the lake.
If you have the time and energy, you need to continue up toward Two Medicine Pass. It’s worth the effort. This is a great, but vigorous, addition to your hike as it takes you up into the alpine. Along the way, you’ll see White-crowned, Fox and the Timberline Brewer’s Sparrow. The Timberline Brewer’s Sparrow has a very plain breast with light striping on the head. You’ll see Gray-crowned Rosy Finch and American Pipits up high. Also look and listen for White-tailed Ptarmigan and Rock Wren.
As you drive through the park on the east side, you'll enter the Reynolds Creek fire from 2015. This fire started near Reynolds Creek southeast of Jackson Glacier Overlook and quickly “blew up,” meaning that it expanded its size greatly due to bad fire weather conditions. This fire shut down the road for a few weeks in 2015 and made it impossible for me to reach my main White-tailed Ptarmigan study site at Logan Pass for a while. Why did the park service let this fire burn so long?
They didn't. You may have heard that the National Parks have a “let it burn” policy. It turns out that this is only remotely true – they only let fires burn if they are really, really remote. They have to be on the west side, far from life and property, and, generally high on a mountain so they can’t possibly go anywhere. The Reynolds Creek fire was seen from the Going-to-the-Sun road and was immediately decreed a “full suppression” fire. Often in this situation a team of Smoke Jumpers is called to parachute in and start suppression activities. In this case, the fire was moving too rapidly, so little could be done until the weather slowed the fire down over the next few days. It is not atypical for fire to be controlled more by weather than by humans - try as we might.
So, we might cry in frustration at the sight of all the dead trees, but the birds don’t. Specifically, Black-backed, Three-toed, Hairy, and other Woodpeckers, Mountain Bluebirds, and Gray Jays will appreciate the insect smorgasbord. You see, living trees have defenses against insects feeding on them. But, when they die, it’s free food for the insects. Then, of course, that’s free food for the birds. Hawk Owls are also known to use recent burns as nesting habitat. So, over the next few years, it will be really interesting to bird the St. Mary Falls trail, most of which was burned.
Generally when I have a choice, I choose to stay at Fish Creek or Avalanche Creek campground instead of Apgar. Apgar is huge, often crowded, and not quite as pretty as the other campgrounds on the west side. Although this is a large campground with lots and lots of people, it can still be good birding. It is imperative, however, that you awake before everyone else. When you do so, you’ll have the place to yourself. And, Apgar is the best, easiest place in the park for Hammond’s Flycatcher when they are still singing in June and early July.
The campground is set in lodgepole pine forest and is rather open. Early morning, walk each loop while looking and listening. It is likely to hear a Hammond’s Flycatcher in each loop, but search especially in loops A, C, and D. While searching for Hammond’s also watch for Hairy Woodpecker, Cassin’s Vireo, Townsend’s Warbler, Western Tanager, Rufous Hummingbird, and Townsend’s Solitaire. Then, after you’ve had a good walk in Apgar and a breakfast bar, head off to the Inside North Fork Road and Christensen Meadow.
Just two thoughts on Dusky and Hammond's Flycatchers. First, Dusky likes open habitat with shorter trees, whereas Hammond’s is seen most often in tall, contiguous forest. Second, their full songs are very similar, with the minor but important exception that Hammond’s has two phrases that are more guttural or raspy than sweet, whereas Dusky has only one raspy phrase. Good luck. I won’t quibble if you just use habitat as the key.
You don’t even have to pay admission to visit one of the best early-season birding spots in the park. Just before entering the park at St. Mary, take a left, heading south along the road to the 1913 Ranger Station. You’ll travel a short gravel road to a parking lot. All along the way you are driving along a large grassland patch. Listen and watch for Savannah, Vesper, Chipping, Lincoln, White-crowned, and Clay Colored Sparrows as well as Mountain Bluebirds. It’s also a possible location for White-throated Swifts.
I always take the trail that goes south out of the parking lot, rather than up the hill to the 1913 ranger station. Mostly because it’s flat, but also because, unless you are birding late, the wind usually picks up through the day, so starting in the open area first seems like a good plan. After leaving the sparrows in the grassland, you’ll hit a very nice little wetland with often very easily observable birds. It’s a great spot to just hang out and see Northern Waterthrush, Common Yellowthroat, MacGillivray’s Warbler, American Redstart, and others up close. Redstarts will fly out from the willows, hover low over the little pond, snag an insect, and fly back. Watch for the Waterthrush walking along picking insects off the algae growing on the pond. Other species at this site include Lincoln’s Sparrow, Willow Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo, Yellow Warbler, Gray Catbird, Cedar Waxwing, and Black-headed Grosbeak.
From here you’ll enter a really cool Douglas fir forest. The firs are covered in a light gray-green “old goats beard” lichen. The understory is loaded with wildflowers such as heart-leaved arnica and baneberry. Watch for Pine Siskin, Mountain Chickadee, Western Tanager, and Ruby and Golden-crowned Kinglet. This forest is also good for Ruffed Grouse. Listen for them in June and early July. If you follow them to the sound of their drumming, you might catch the male up on a log, beating the air with his wings. He does this to attract females to his territory (Ruffed Grouse are polygynous – one male mates with multiple females). If successful he will jump down off the log and really strut his stuff, fanning his tail and extending the ruffs of feathers on his neck.
Continuing on you will enter a clearing with a fantastic array of wildflowers and some fun birds, too. Yarrow, cinquefoil, serviceberry, blue-pod lupine, stone-seed piccune, and blanket flower are common here. Immediately begin looking for Calliope Hummingbirds. There is often a male territory as you enter the clearing. Then listen for House Wren, Northern Flicker (red-shafted), Hairy and Downy Woodpecker, Red-naped Sapsucker, Macgillivray’s Warbler, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Warbling Vireo, Western Wood Pee-wee, Tree Swallow, American Goldfinch, and White-crowned Sparrow. The tree swallows nest in holes in the Douglas firs. Watch above for American Kestrel, Red-tailed Hawk, and Turkey Vultures. As you get to the junction, there will be a wet area on your left that often contains Black-headed Grosbeak. This and the next half mile is great for Least Flycatchers “che bik” -ing over and over and you may also hear Black-headed Grosbeak, Black-capped, and Mountain Chickadee in the short aspens and dead trees.
Feel free to continue toward Red Eagle Lake. Often your best chance at sighting a Northern Hawk Owl is along the next mile of trail toward the lake. Also listen for Alder Flycatchers in deep thickets of aspen and alder.
You’ll soon come to the namesake of the Beaver Pond Loop trail. The pond contains an active beaver colony with a large lodge and very tall dam at the north end. There is also a Bufflehead pair that typically nests at this location. Lots of wetland bird species, and listening and looking carefully you can often hear Olive-sided flycatchers, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Least Flycatchers, Chickadees, and Western Tanagers in the large trees surrounding the area.
Continuing on you’ll go through several more burned areas. Notice that some areas contain trees that have been completely killed by the fire and you’ll hear the wind fluting through the dead trees. But, you’ll also see stands of Douglas fir that were obviously burned (charred at the base), but not killed. Douglas fir are well adapted to fire in the landscape and have thick bark that can withstand a ground fire. They also perform “self-pruning,” losing their lower branches so that ground fires aren’t carried up into the tree. Watch for Black-backed Woodpecker in the Douglas firs that were stressed enough by the fire that they died slowly. Black-backs like to nest and feed in trees with bark still falling off. If the bark is completely gone, so are the Black-backed Woodpeckers. Enjoy the gorgeous Douglas firs as you head down to the 1913 Ranger Station to complete the hike.
Top of page photo by Randy Patrick
David Benson Ph.D.
White-tailed Ptarmigan researcher and National Park Service Ranger Naturalist in GNP since 1995. "The Bird Ranger"