A Visit to James Kipp Recreation Area, Bowdoin NWR, & Charles M Russell NWR

Updated: Aug 30, 2020

Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge is just east of Malta, MT. The refuge itself is just over 15,000 acres, and one very large reservoir. The refuge also has one of our favorite things to do, an Auto Tour Route! The route is 15 miles around the main body of water. It goes through marshes, lakeside, through grasslands, and some minimal tree areas. Bowdoin is also the top eBird Montana hotspot for 'number of species recorded.'

Warning: It is one of those birding spots though where, especially the first time, it can just shut you down. You are standing near a shore, there are groups of 5-100+ birds here...there...over there...and just beyond that, big flotillas of more birds, and if you had a spotting scope, you could probably stand in one spot for hours and do nothing but count species and totals and still be overwhelmed. At first, your heart leaps in ecstasy, followed by the lament of not being able to see it all. It's still worth it!

This spot is a good example, and it's like this all around the reservoir. Oh, look, pelicans! And 100 other birds flying off behind them.

American White Pelicans

Or this, can you name every bird in the photo?

Shorebirds! Everywhere!

What to do.

So I'll stick with some of the highlights as far as birds for this first part. You've got to get up here to see the other 990 for yourself!

Black-necked Stilt

Immature Black-necked Stilt
Immature Black-necked Stilt

Long-billed Dowitchers with a Wilson's Phalarope - I should say here that we are hoping for maybe 4-5 life birds, new birds to us. A Short-billed Dowitcher (which looks 99% like a Long-billed) would be one of those. Alas, we did not find one. The hard part about being an intermediate birder is you know what you see, and you see what you know, and you know enough to look closer if something is different, but trying to spot the 1% difference between two very similar birds, trying to find something more uncommon in with the common can be a Herculean task for someone at my level. It's one of the nice things about taking a complete novice out, is that they see EVERYTHING, not just what they expect to see and hear.

Long-billed Dowitchers & Wilson's Phalarope

For instance, and this one is still a matter of discussion, this is probably, according to one of my Wyoming eBird reviewers and a knowledgeable birder, a Forster's Tern. Yet another person who also sounds knowledgeable says it looks like an Arctic Tern (which he was along on a research trip there 20 years ago when they were found breeding at the refuge, though that shouldn't be), he's reached out to an expert, and yet another person swears it is a Roseate Tern, which only happens on the very edges of the eastern US coastlines. Yet another says Common Tern.

Meanwhile, this is likely a Common Tern according to one expert, Forster's to another because "we can see the molt break in the middle of the primaries (in the right-wing)" and to me, that's like trying to learn a foreign language from a native speaker. Adowhat? It always makes me appreciate the uber birders in my life though. The people who just intuitively can look at a bird and see things like that.

It's also a lot of...okay, all your sandpipers look alike, but you have the slightly droopy bill, now if I could just see if your legs are yellow or black? Instead, you stand there like na na na ha not going to show you! Ah, the challenges of birding...

Baird's Sandpiper
Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow hunting along the shoreline, this little fellow would hop about looking for insects in the muddy bank. Finally a bird I know!

Black-bellied Plover

The treat about birding where you have a huge volume of birds is the Easter egg hunt. The one thing that is different, that stands out, and this bird was it our first trip out. This is a Black-bellied Plover, still in breeding plumage. I've seen migrants in Wyoming once or twice, and wintering down along coastal Florida and Texas, but never in breeding duds!

Bobolink - female

This one stumped me. It's a female Bobolink, in cattails, not on the grassland, and looks nothing like the male plumage.

Grasshopper Sparrow

There are Grasshopper Sparrows, which like Savannah have a yellow spot between the bill and eye. But the Grasshopper has a darker yellow, smaller bird, thicker bill, plain breast.

Long-billed Curlew - always a nice bird to find, usually out in pairs in grassland and sometimes sagebrush areas, and often very skittish. Perhaps being in a crowd makes them feel safer.

Long-billed Curlew

A nice contrast to the downturned bill of the Curlew is the upturned bill of the Marbled Godwit (another 1% chance - Hudsonian Godwit we did not find) but at least it's long, thick bill with the pinkish base fading to a black end makes for helpful ID markers.

Marbled Godwit

There are also a few raptors out at Bowdoin, including this lovely Prairie Falcon, which has a bird kill.

Prairie Falcon

Now that we had the lay of the land down, and sort of knew what to expect to find and where, we decided to go up again. The first time we drove along and realized that the highway south from Billings to Malta goes right through Charles M Russell National Wildlife Refuge as well. There is a small camping area there, James Kipp Recreation Area with a boat ramp to launch into the Missouri River. There are two (at least as far as we could tell) tent-only areas, though we ended up on a pad (which was like concrete and we couldn't get a tent stake into) because the tent areas were a little tighter and more filled in. Each spot was well spaced out too, unlike some camping areas where you are elbow to elbow with your neighbor.

We got there about 8:30 pm, got set up and retreated to the tent as the bugs came out. We laid there listening for owls and heard a Great Horned. The downside of this area, which I didn't realize until we picked a spot, paid for it, and started to set up camp, was it was close to the highway and bridge, and so the road noise seemed really loud. Next time I think I'd go with the tent area closest to the river for that reason, along with having soft grass to stake into.

At 5:50 am the bird song woke me up, Western Wood-pewees, so I got up and walked around for about an hour.

It made me feel all 'Lewis & Clarky' to be on the banks of the Missouri River.

Missouri River

A few of the morning birds...

American Goldfinch

Belted Kingfisher
Eastern Kingbird

Below is the aforementioned Western Wood-pewee. Their call is a phwee, phwee....like a weak coach's whistle. It is one of the easier flycatchers to ID because of the call.

Western-wood Pewee

By 7:30 we were decamping. A bird that had a lot of reports here back about 6-8 weeks ago are Black-billed Cuckoos. It is breeding range for them, but they are so shy, rarely move, and only have a soft coo, coo, coo sound that they are hard to find. I didn't find any this trip, but related to how I would do things if we came back, I'd spend more time just ambling around the camping area listening for them, and a little earlier in the year.

Heading way north, we spotted Gray Partridge, Greater Sage-grouse, and this Upland Sandpiper along the highway.

Upland Sandpiper

I love these guys, because they are fence post and wire sitters, unlike most sandpipers, and easy to ID and spot. However, they are unusual for Wyoming, though not uncommon in Montana, so it's always fun to find one wherever you chance into one.

At Bowdoin again, and early to get a little more small bird activity before it got too hot...

Common Yellowthroat

Marsh Wren

Orchard Orioles were about as well, female...

Orchard Oriole - Female

...and male, in this light he looks almost all black, but you can sort of see his dark orange chest.

Orchard Oriole - Male

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow, note the lighter yellow, slimmer and longer bird, streaked breast, unlike the Grasshopper.

There are Franklin's Gulls here by the 100s, if not 1000s!

Franklin's Gulls

Some of the shorebirds...White-faced Ibis (yeah yeah, I didn't name it), which has some amazing iridescent plumage I can never quite capture. I was also, like last week, struggling with the light and heat shimmer.

White-faced Ibis

Willets were abundant as well, and they may be plain in color and identifying markers, but they are beautiful in their simplicity.


Wilson's Snipe, just off the visitor's center parking lot, of course, not the shore, as we started the auto tour.

Wilson's Snipe

American Coot - this little guy is really young,

American Coot

and I didn't see any parental units about, but he seemed to be motoring along okay.

Now, this was pretty neat, though I'm not sure what the composition is. There are a lot of dried up mud and salt (I guess) flats there. I imagine about two months ago the wetland areas were amazing, but as it gets hot, it pulls back and dries up. Even over seven days, whole areas that had been underwater now were not. This was a small spot that had been water last week, but this week was crystallizing into something blue, or just reflecting the sky, I don't science enough to know. Whatever it is, it was beautiful.

It felt like finding a frozen pond in July in the heat of the summer, a little surreal.

We lucked into a Short-eared Owl on this trip. It was along the dirt road, and flew off, landed on a rock. We've had a good year for these guys, which makes me happy. I think it was watching the American White Pelican flying over because it kept looking up like "did you see that pterodactyl up there?!"

It is varying degrees of buggy out here. A lot of grasshoppers, but minimal mosquitoes, it's the flies that bite though. Today my back looks like I have the pox, because they seem to know to go for places you can't reach or won't notice until it is too late, and they go right through clothes. There are times I'm standing out determined to get the shots, and I can feel them nipping away, usually at my back or ankles. Biting flies seem impervious to bug repellent too. I have a mesh jacket and hood, but we couldn't find it in the travel tub. A good reminder for a gear check before we head out again.

Today, I just sit here with my tube of hydrocortisone cream and try to dab instead of scratch.

Despite that, we started into the loop again for a last quick look. The first stop is a boat ramp, and I think I could just sit at this spot for hours, and may someday, because the activity changes there hour by hour. I had a feeling...and found some Black Terns! They are already losing their dark breeding plumage.

Black Tern

This one is probably a first year.

Black Tern

What's good eatin' around here. If you are a bird or a fish. Note there is no fishing allowed at the refuge, and no recreational boating.

We stopped in Malta at the Trafton Park rest area. There is a great old trestle bridge there, no longer in use, and a short trail. It's a nice little city park with some good bird sightings, but on this day it was hot, windy and quiet.

The old Palace Theater marquee is still really neat.

Palace Theater - Malta, Montana

Like a lot of small, old towns, the architecture can be a real treasure.

Going south again, we took the Charles M Russell Auto Tour Route. The first part of it, five of 19 miles, is managed by the BLM and was mostly sage and grassland. As you go south, it is national forest, finally getting back toward the Missouri about 13 miles in, coming out just over the bridge by the Jame Kipp campgrounds. It was 90-96 degrees on this leg of the trip, and not much was out in the heat.

Charles M Russell National Wildlife Refuge Auto Tour Route

Katydid! "I didn't do it!" she says.


I was hoping the last leg would run right by the river or at least the trees, but not so much. It was often 1/4 to 1/2 mile away, so my hope to see and hear cuckoos (yah yah, look in the mirror) was again dashed.

Solitary Sandpiper

I did; however, luck into a pair of Solitary Sandpipers...which is another bird that always seems to be looking at the UFO that is about to abduct you while you are too busy watching birds to pay attention to the invasion...

Cedar Waxwing
Cedar Waxwing

...and a few Cedar Waxwings at a small wetland.

There is a neat old homestead out here, a few outbuildings also still remain. It's really humbling to think of the people who came out here without much but determination and decided to try to eke out a living in such a faraway place.

There are a lot of places up here like this and more waiting to be explored! Remember to travel safely and follow the pandemic protocols for the locality you are in.

#ecotourism #birding #travel

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