Go to this refuge on the Bitterroot River south of Missoula for swans, hawks, warblers, kinglets, woodpeckers, and owls.
By Susie Wall | Published: 2/14/2014
Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge receives an average of only 12 inches of precipitation each year, but it’s far from dry. It borders the Bitterroot River, and its ponds, marshes, river bottoms, and forests are fed by the runoff of the Sapphire Mountains to the east and the Bitterroots to the west. The environment is diverse, perfect for year-round resident birds, summer breeders, and spring and fall migrants.
I became hooked on my inaugural trip when a Great Horned Owl glided past me, a snake dangling from its beak. On my most recent visit, a pair of Sandhill Cranes danced about, one bird flinging clots of dirt at its mate.
Fortunate visitors will catch a glimpse of resident Trumpeter Swans in one of the numerous ponds. You can’t miss Gadwalls, Hooded Mergansers, and Western Grebes. Look for Sharp-Shinned Hawks and Northern Harriers in the meadows, or move into the forests to see warblers, kinglets, woodpeckers, and owls. Watch for nesting Wood Ducks, Osprey, and Bald Eagles. Even flocks of common Canada Geese look beautiful here, as they soar past the majestic Bitterroot Mountains in the distance. — Susie Wall
At a Glance
Click on the coordinates below to view location:
River, cottonwood forests, ponds, grasslands, shrubs, mudflats, and hedgerows.
Mostly flat. 2.5 miles of nature trails, including a half-mile wheelchair-accessible section. Easy to bird from car.
More than 235 species. Common Loon, Pied-billed, Horned, and Western Grebes, Great Blue Heron, Snow Goose, Trumpeter and Tundra Swans, Wood and Ruddy Ducks, American and Eurasian Wigeons, Cinnamon Teal, Canvasback, Red-breasted, Hooded, and Common Mergansers, Bald Eagle, Osprey, Northern Goshawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Ring-necked Pheasant, Sandhill Crane, Killdeer, American Avocet, Northern Pygmy-Owl, Common Nighthawk, White-throated Swift, Belted Kingfisher, Red-eyed Vireo, Pygmy Nuthatch, Bohemian Waxwing, Western and Mountain Bluebirds, Orange-crowned Warbler, American Tree Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, Common Redpoll, Evening Grosbeak.
When to go
Year-round. March through May and September through November for migrating birds.
Refuge headquarters features nature center, maps, gift shop, and restrooms. Check with staff for the latest sightings. Information kiosks throughout the refuge. Non-flush toilets are located at beginning of river trail.
National wildlife refuge. Open year-round, dawn to dusk. Free.
Early mornings are best. Weather can change quickly. Refuge is open to hunting in the fall; check with staff for best visiting times.
For more info
Travelers’ Rest State Park
26 miles north of Stevensville on Mormon Creek Rd. west of Hwy. 93. Grosbeaks, buntings, Lewis’s Woodpecker.
Bass Creek Nature Trail
About five miles northwest of Stevensville on Bass Creek Rd. Bobolink, Red Crossbill, Clark’s Nutcracker, Northern Goshawk.