A few thoughts before we get started with the guide. First of all, this guide is written with May-September as the target months. Over ninety percent of park visitation takes places during these months. I’m sure there are cool bird happenings in the park at other times of year, but few people are there to witness them.
Secondly, if you haven’t noticed, these trees have leaves. And, they have them all year round. This is a good thing because there are a lot of leaf-gleener birds that feed on the insects that are associated with leaves, but as you no doubt know, leaves make finding birds difficult. There will be birds that you hear in the trees, but you absolutely can’t find.
Which leads me to a further point: It’s important to love not just the sight of birds, but the sounds and signs of birds, too. In May, June, and half-way through July, the birds do you the great service of yelling out and telling you who they are. Be very happy about this! Bird songs are beautiful, intricate things that are full of meaning. If you don’t know your bird songs yet, use this as an opportunity to learn. How do you learn bird songs? I’m sure there are a lot of useful quiz programs out there, but the one I use with my students is Thayer’s Birds of North America. In the program, which is mostly an electronic field guide, there is a great quiz function where you can set up which species you want to learn and have it quiz you by sight, sound or both. I’m always astounded that within a couple weeks my students can learn almost 100 bird calls. And, it transfers to the outdoors pretty well, too.
This leads me to another point: it gets really quiet in GNP at the end of summer and stays quiet until spring. So, I hope you enjoyed being able to locate and identify birds by their songs, because now things get a bit tougher! At this time of year you need to stop at every little squeak and chip, even if you know it’s just a Chickadee or Chipping Sparrow. After the breeding season, the birds are flocking and often several species will be in the same flock. So, be sure to look around when you see any bird during this season.
So here’s a bit of a touchy subject: playing calls to elicit a response from a bird is considered harassing the wildlife while in GNP. You can, however, use taped calls to remind yourself of what a bird sounds like. But, do it quietly. These birds have a very short time window in which to breed, so any issues that they encounter – like you, pretending to be a breeding male on their territory – may make it less likely that they are successful. This all fits into the “leave no trace” ethics. We want to enjoy the place, and the birds and other critters living here. But, we need to do so in a way that will not leave our footprint.
Lastly, bears. The rumors are true. There are bears in GNP. And birders often ignore the main precautions for hiking in bear country, to make noise and to make more noise when hiking at dawn and dusk. My advice to you is, even though it may go against every fiber of your birder being, go ahead and make some noise. Don’t use bells, they make a constant racket and you won’t be able to hear the birds. And, besides, you are often the only thing who can hear your bells, so you’re not doing yourself any good. I recommend using your voice “Hay yah! Ho Bear!” or “Hey shrew, coming through.” Something like that. Especially when you are going around a blind turn or in an area where you can’t see or hear very well. Let the bears and other predators know you are coming. This is the key to hiking in bear country: don’t surprise a bear.
I was leading a birdwalk with about sixteen folks in Many Glacier a few years back on a gorgeous morning in early August. The sun was shining bright. It was quiet enough to hear a pin drop, and, even though I preach “make noise” I wasn’t practicing on this day. Walking at a birder’s pace, I thought we were probably making enough noise, and besides, we were 30 feet from the main road into Many Glacier, how likely would it be to see a bear. Oh, and, we birders are the most observant folks on the planet, right? Always on the watch for any slight movement; listening for the tiniest of sounds. And missing a 250 pound bear eight-feet behind me and to my right, noisily munching serviceberries. Now I’m in a predicament. I’ve already passed the bear with about a quarter of my group. Do I try to back everyone up? Do I try to ignore the bear and hope to get everyone past without them seeing it and freaking out and without the bear seeing us and freaking out? Do I pull out my bear spray, spray the group and run?
I decided to back my birdwalkers up where we were then able to get some great pictures from a good distance away. As much as I dislike enjoying mammals on a birdwalk, this was a great sighting, and, as it turns out, not the only one for the day. We ended up seeing four bears on that three-hour birdwalk.
So, make some noise, whether you want to or not. I don’t think it makes it less likely that you will see birds. There was a study in the 90s by a researcher named Gutierrez that examined how birds respond to a human in their territory. Basically, he found that if a person was on the outskirts of the territory, the bird would quit singing. But, near the center of the territory, the bird would sing. One interpretation of this behavior is that the bird sings because when close, it knows you are not a threat. So, a possible extension of this might be that if you yell out, the bird knows it’s a human and not a predatory threat, so it continues to sing.
If you do see a bear on the trail, just back up and give it some space. Let it go about its business until it ambles off. Enjoy the sighting from a distance. Sometimes the bear wants to go where you are, or down the trail past you. In this case it may walk down the trail right at you even (and sometimes especially) as you are backing away. If so, get off the trail. Go up above the bear if you can and let it pass through. It’s not chasing, charging, or stalking you. It’s just walking, right? It just wants to use the trail instead of bushwhacking. Bears are smart.
Last thing about bears, if buying bear spray makes you more comfortable with hiking in glacier, then do it. I’ve carried the stuff for 19 years and have never used it. My can probably doesn’t even work anymore. Many more people than bears get sprayed every year, so be careful if you do buy some.
Several years ago we had a Ranger that was helping move some folks up the boardwalk at Logan Pass away from a bear who was trying to cross the trail. The bear was minding its own business, which made it especially difficult to get the people to move, but the Ranger was slowly kinda pushing the picture-taking mob up the slope. When, all of a sudden the bear makes three swift moves in the direction of the group. It was probably going after a ground squirrel or maybe it was just frolicking in the sea of delicious wildflowers, but in any case, it was not trying to eat a tourist. Unfortunately, that is not how one middle-age lady from Arkansas interpreted it. She pulled the safety off her already unholstered pepper spray, and while running up the boardwalk away from the bear, she shot the full can of spray over her shoulder and right into the face of the Ranger. The Ranger, now 50 feet down the trail near the advancing bear, was now completely incapacitated and was struggling to see out of his pain-seared eyes to find out where Mr. Bear was now. The rest of the group who previously had been too camera-happy to walk up the trail away from the bear, now watched like New Yorker’s at a mugging, the ranger, who, incapacitated and strongly seasoned with pepper, struggled to move up the trail. The moral of the story: humans are much more dangerous than bears. And, humans seasoned with pepper spray are a tasty treat for our furry friends.
Can you imagine what might happen in this situation now that people are allowed to bring loaded guns on the park trails?
In conclusion, be cautious. It’s a dangerous world out there, but not because of the birds. Maybe because of the non-human mammals. And mostly because of the humans.
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"