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The Birds In Our Backyard

As a young child growing up on our family ranch east of Roundup, I was very fortunate to have my mother take me on nature walks. She would take every opportunity to share her knowledge of the birds in Musselshell Valley with me. We would walk a mile along the river valley, over the northern plains, and through Bull Mountains. Throughout my childhood my mother was building a deep love for the nature I grew up with.

I continued expanding my interest in birding more formally at Montana State University where I studied Rangeland Ecology and worked with the USDA Forest Service. I was always happy to meet up with other bird lovers and Audubon members who were always willing to show me a new species and share little known facts about birds that I had watched for years. One of my favorite such moments is when I learned our Montana state bird, the Western Meadowlark with its iconic yellow underparts and intricately patterned brown, black and buff upperparts is actually a member of the Blackbird family! To make sure other families and young children across the state have the same access I did to the incredible variety of birds in Montana, I worked with other birders across Montana to develop the Montana Birding Trail which includes the mile-long Roundup River Walk Heritage Trail.

Roundup is in the heart of The Musselshell Valley, with the surrounding plains to the north and Bull Mountains to the south. The landscape attracts a wide variety of birds for bird watching all year round.

Summer brings a large variety of migrant songbirds to our region while winters bring a number of species who fly south from Canada for winter. There is always the chance you will see any of our year round residents such as the American Robin, the Black-billed Magpie, Bald & Golden Eagles, and Red-tailed Hawks.

Photo: Ken Mirman/Audubon Photography Awards

The Western Loop of the Riverwalk Heritage Trail at the edge of Roundup is walkable in about 30 minutes, and includes several perfectly quiet spots to stop and listen to the incoming Warbler species in May, or Wild Turkeys year-round.

The Eastern Loop of the trail will take you up the foothills of the Bull Mountains where you will find a beautiful view of Roundup and will be joined by several pine loving species like Black-capped Chickadees and Mountain Bluebirds.

We are fortunate enough to have some rarer species of interest to help you complete your birding life list. Sage grouse have found refuge in the big sagebrush that covers the plains to the north of the Musselshell Valley. Their thunderous early Spring dances take place in short blue grama grass clearings called leks. The Greater Sage-Grouse display is among the most complex of bird mating rituals. Dozens of males strut, fan their tail features, and pop the yellow air sacs on their breasts to create a "wup" sound that can be heard two miles away. Beginning around dawn, and peaking in intensity at the time of the full moon, males display for three to four hours at a time. Locally, the sage grouse have laid claim to the Lake Mason Wildlife Refuge which starts just a few miles northwest of Roundup. While you are there, you will also have the chance to observe numerous duck species, waterfowl such as the American Coot and Bettern, and many shore birds.

Cassin's Kingbird | Photo: Gary Gray/iStock

The Cassin’s Kingbird, another one of the rare species in the valley, is not endangered but the Bull Mountains are the northern extent of this lemon-yellow flycatcher’s range. Cassin’s Kingbirds can often be observed during breeding season along the Old Divide Road off of US Hwy 87 South.

Huge Bald Eagle nests and Blue Heron rookeries are common in the cottonwoods along the Musselshell River. The eagles are well fed by deer sadly hit by vehicles along US Hwy 12. Many species of hawks also feed along the highway, both year long residents and migrants such as Rough-legged Hawks. Sandhill Cranes are becoming more common along the river valley and serenade us with their rattling calls from March to late September.

Photo: Jocelyn Anderson/Audubon Photography Awards

Pine beetle infestations in local Ponderosa Pines attract Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers and Northern Flicker. Red-headed Woodpeckers also occasionally show up in the river valley where there are wild chokecherries and apple trees.

Sheltered yards with several feeders attract birds as well and are very useful during the Annual Musselshell Valley Audubon Christmas Bird Count usually held in December. Several area residents also feed hummingbirds in the summer and take special care to quit feeding them in time for the tiny little birds to migrate south before Autumn storms strike.

Roundup and the surrounding Musselshell Valley are the perfect choice for your next birding adventure. These are a few of the resources I use in my local birding pursuits.

  • Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks publishes the Checklist of Montana Birds including which birds are year long residents as well as species here during the breeding season.

  • Montana Birding Trail brochures are available at many kiosks around Montana. Another opportunity to learn about birds of our area is our Annual 4th of July Bird Walk on the River Walk Heritage Trail west loop led by local birders.

  • When I run into a bird that I need help to identify, I consult The Sibley Guide to Birds written and beautifully illustrated by David Allen Sibley.

Happy Birding!


18 Common Birds Near Roundup, MT

Black-billed Magpie | Year Round | Habitat: River Valley & Prairie

Adult. Photo: Becky Matsubara/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Bald Eagle | Year Round | Habitat: River Valley

Adult. Photo: Bonnie Block/Audubon Photography Awards

Golden Eagle | Year Round | Habitat: Prairie

Photo: Mukul Soman/Audubon Photography Awards

American Robin | Year Round | Habitat: Shrubs in Winter River Valley in warm weather

Photo: Seth Davis/Great Backyard Bird Count

Great Horned Owl | Year Round | Habitat: River Valley (Nocturnal)

Photo: Ken Shults/Audubon Photography Awards

House Sparrow | Year Round

Photo: Ken Shults/Audubon Photography Awards

American Tree Sparrow | Winter | Habitat: Migrates to our area to over winter & then back to Arctic Circle often in flocks with House Sparrows

Adult. Photo: Robert Barnes/Audubon Photography Awards

House Finch | Year Round but most common at feeders in the Winter | Males have rose colored head & breast while females are entirely brown striped

Photo: Susan Hodgson/Audubon Photography Awards

Red-tailed Hawk | Year round | Habitat: Prairie creeks & river valley

Photo: Ray Whitt/Audubon Photography Awards

Black Capped Chickadee | Habitat: River Valley & Pine trees | Tiny black & white bird with chicka dee dee call

Photo: Aj Collette/Audubon Photography Awards

Rock Dove | Year Round | Often called Pigeon

Adults. Photo: Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Eurasian Collared Dove | Year Round | Invasive bird with ringed neck

Photo: Donald Metzner/Great Backyard Bird Count

Mourning Dove | Summer | Cooing call

Photo: Tom Warren/Audubon Photography Awards

Western Meadlowlark | Summer | Habitat: Prairie | medium sized bird with black wing bars | Montana State Bird

Photo: Becky Matsubara/Flickr (CC BY 2.0

Ring-necked Pheasant | Year Round | Introduced colorful birds | Habitat: River Valley & along roads

Adult male. Photo: Becky Matsubara/Flickr (CC-BY-2.0)

Yellow breasted Chat | Habitat: River Valley | Medium yellow breasted bird along Roundup River Walk Heritage Trail | has a varied call that includes a chat chat chat

Photo: Trish Gussler/Flickr (CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0)

Mallard | Habitat: River Valley | Green headed male in the early Summer & brown striped ducks the rest of the year

Photo: Gary Minish/Audubon Photography Awards

Common Raven | Year Roundup | Big black bird, larger than crows, mostly River Valley but goes wherever they can find food

Photo: Wendy Davis/Audubon Photography Awards

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