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.
Name: Many Glacier Campground, Swiftcurrent Motor Inn
Both the Many Glacier Campground and the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn are interesting birding spots, especially for nests. With this in mind, the main species of interest in the Campground and Motor Inn are Red-naped sapsuckers, Mountain, Black-capped, and sometimes Boreal Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos, Varied Thrush, and Red-breasted Nuthatches. Both areas have had nesting Cooper’s Hawks and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and are great places to hear Swainson’s Thrushes singing at dawn and dusk. Northern Pygmy-owl, Great-horned Owl, and Northern Saw-whet owl have been heard in the Swiftcurrent area, though none appear to be regular. If you happen to be camping in the early summer, you may be awakened by the bawling of baby American Crows. They are desperately hungry, apparently all the time, and let everyone within a quarter mile know about it. Especially early in the morning.
Also in the Many Glacier Campground are vultures, circling and circling each morning from about July 4 to September, hoping to get a campsite. Many Glacier is always one of the earliest campgrounds to fill in the morning. No reservations are accepted, so in order to get a site, it is necessary to get there early – usually before 8:30 a.m. Here’s how you do it: as you enter, grab a registration envelope, drive around and find a site where the little yellow ticket is not on the post, ask to make sure the folks in the site are really leaving, if so, put up your own ticket and a paper plate saying occupied with the dates you are staying, then go off birding until noon to give the current occupants time to pack up without you there watching their every move.
Surprisingly, the primary nest creator in the area is a fungus that causes heart-rot in quaking aspen trees. Without the help of this fungus, Sapsuckers and other excavators could never bore through the interior of the tree to build a nest. These then couldn’t be usurped by other bird species like chickadees, nuthatches, and Dark-eyed Juncos. All these birds rely on aspen and the fungus that attacks it for their survival. The GNP environment is full of an interconnecting web of interactions such as these! One of the issues with habitat fragmentation is that often some of the parts of the web are left out of any particular patch. And, the web in some cases falls apart, making it impossible for some species to continue to exist in these patches.
Name: The Many Glacier Road
Distance: 12 miles by car
Habitats: Riparian, forest and grassland
Starting at Babb, just south of the Cattle Baron Supper Club, there is a platform with an osprey nest. Another platform can be found a mile from Babb on the Many Glacier road. On the left (entering the valley) you’ll see a rocky creek, on the right, just past an old campground there are three telephone poles, one of which has an Osprey nest on it. Another nest is about five miles in from Babb along the creek. Osprey are the most likely seen raptor along the Many Glacier Road.
Another great spot to stop is a rather large pond less than a mile in from Babb. You’ll see a large beaver lodge way out in the pond and lots of beaver sign (cut trees and dams), near the road. Lots of wetland birds will be singing in the breeding season, such as Common Yellowthroat, Yellow Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Lincoln’s sparrow, Song Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Willow Flycatcher, and others. Often, Western Tanager are in the area and White-throated Sparrows have been heard nearby in early season. Common Loons have nested in a very close, obvious nest in the past as well as Red-necked Grebes. So, scan the water for those and other ducks and grebes.
Between Babb and the Sherburn Dam are lots of riparian wetlands. Watch for willows along the creek and pull over or park in a pullout. These wetlands are your best chance of seeing Black-headed Grosbeaks in the Many Glacier area. Because these Grosbeaks tend to be secretive, you’ll have to listen for the call, a quiet, whistled Robin-like song. Other species found in these wetlands include Common Yellowthroat, Yellow Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Lincoln’s sparrow, Song Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Willow Flycatcher, and others. Least Flycatcher and in the evenings, Common Nighthawk are sometimes heard along this bit of road.
At the Sherburn Dam about six miles in from Babb there are a few things to look for. Cliff Swallows nest colonially and build their large, mud nests on the water outlet structure. It takes about ten days, both males and females working together to build one of these nests and they continue to work on it throughout June and early July. Just west of the dam, fifty feet west of the “Glacier National Park” sign, on the north side of the road about 25 feet up the slope, there is a little patch that is perennially muddy. From this patch you’ll see an explosion of Cliff Swallows flying up, each holding a dollop of mud in their bills, construction material for their nests.
While you are down at the lake looking at the Cliff Swallow nests, go ahead and scan the shoreline for sandpipers. Both Solitary and Spotted are possible with Spotted being more common. Also scan the sky above the lake for Osprey, Bald Eagle, and Gulls. On the lake you are likely to see Common Mergansers and Common Loons.
Another species to try for in late May or early June at the Sherburn dam outfall is the Harlequin Duck. Harlequins are most commonly seen on the Upper McDonald Creek on the west side of the park, but they have been sighted some years just below the dam in the fast water there. Harlequins have also been sighted just above Red Rock Falls in Swiftcurrent Creek. It’s not typical to see them on the east side, but it’s worth a look.
Cruise in past the entrance station to the first of two large grassland patches. These, and especially the one at Windy Creek, are good spots for plains or grassland species. First of all, notice the spectacular wildflower display. We often get “bear jams” in Many Glacier when a bear is sighted near a road. In some years in this location there are “flower jams” as people pull over and jump out of the car, camera in hand, to bathe in the display of blanket flower, blue-pod lupine, silky puccoon, and wild geranium. Then, of course listen and watch for Clay-colored Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Cedar Waxwing, Tree Swallow, Barn Swallow, Cliff Swallow and others. While you are there, scan the lake for Loons and other waterfowl. Then, try looking for a Bald Eagle nest. From the large pullout with silvery-leaved bushes on the left about one mile in from the entrance station, look straight across the lake to the far shore. You’ll see a portion of shoreline that comes out toward you, then as you scan west, it curves back in to the south. From there, look up and to the left, following the hint of a diagonal line through the trees about one-third of the way up the treed slope. The nest is in a dead tree that looks slightly wider and grayer than the surrounding trees. It was active as of 2013. If you don’t see the birds on the nest, scan around in the area and on the shoreline. You may see the bright bald head of an adult nearby.
Twelve miles from Babb, you’ll see signs for the beautiful, rustic, and historic Many Glacier Hotel. For now, pass on by and park a half mile further at a long pull-out and sign for Swiftcurrent Lake. Here scan the lake for Common Mergansers, Common Loon, and Barrow’s Goldeneye. Scan above for Osprey and Eagle.
Continuing a quarter mile further, you’ll see a horseshoe shaped pullout for the Grinnell Glacier trailhead and a picnic area. Stopping here, you’ll sometimes see Gray or Stellar’s Jays, Black-capped, Mountain, or even Boreal Chickadees, Chipping Sparrows, and American Crows.
Your next stop along the road is the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn and the Many Glacier Campground If you want to stay at the Campground any time from July 4 through Labor Day, you've got to get your site before about 10 a.m. as this campground fills up very early. Birding the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn and Many Glacier Campground will be described later.
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"