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"