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Montana Birding and Nature Trail
Discover the Nature of Montana...

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Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge

Healthy Native Grasslands

Walk out in the grasslands and wildflowers surrounding Lake Bowdoin to listen to the spring symphony of birds that thrive in this important prairie landscape.


Species of Note

  • Baird’s Sparrows
  • Sprague’s Pipits
  • Chestnut-collared Longspurs
  • Grasshopper Sparrows
  • Yellow-headed Blackbirds
  • American White Pelicans
  • Black-crowned Night Herons
  • American Bitterns
  • White-faced Ibiss
  • Eared Grebes
  • Black-necked Stilts
  • Upland Sandpipers
  • American Avocet
  • Marbled Godwit
  • Long-billed Curlew
  • Franklin’s Gull
  • Black Tern.
Other Wildlife
  • Pronghorn
  • White-tailed Deer
  • Muskrat
  • Coyote
  • White-tailed Jackrabbit
  • Bull (gopher) Snake
  • Blazing Star (Liatris)
  • Prickly Pear Cactus
  • Scarlet Globemallow

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What to Do

Drive the 15-mile auto tour route along Lake Bowdoin and adjacent grasslands. Stop along the way and take a stroll. Visit the refuge office and nearby shelterbelt, pond and short trail leading to a photo blind.

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Field Notes

Far from people and close to wildlife, experience the stark beauty of the plains. Gaze at nearby pronghorn out your car window. Stretch your legs and step out on the grasslands in June to hear the melodies of Baird’s Sparrows, Sprague’s Pipits and Chestnut-Collared Longspurs. Watch the courtship flight of Longspurs—called skylarking. Listen to the cascading notes of Sprague’s Pipits singing and flying high above the wildflower-strewn prairie.

Migrating waterfowl by the tens of thousands rest, court and breed on Lake Bowdoin, once an oxbow of the pre-glacial Missouri River. Established in 1936 to preserve and enhance habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife, Lake Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge today is designated a Globally Important Bird Area by the American Bird Conservancy and a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network site by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences. Birders have recorded more than 260 species. The refuge is an Important Bird Area, as well as home to more than 26 species of mammals and several kinds of reptiles and amphibians.

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To appreciate why some birds are so closely linked to native grasslands, take a look at the Baird’s Sparrow. Researchers are studying the uncommon sparrow on the refuge to find out what it needs to survive. Moderately grazed, knee-high prairie with lots of litter (dead grass from the prior year’s growth), no shrubs and a diversity of grass and flower species fit the ticket. The sparrow depends on the grass litter for nesting, so if too much grazing eliminates old grasses, this songbird cannot nest successfully. The Sprague’s Pipit has a similar dependency on healthy native prairie.

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Cultural Connection

Why the name “Bowdoin”? Named for a long abandoned railroad siding town near here, only the grain elevator remains, which you can see from the auto tour route on the eastern lake shore. Stop #4 on the self-guided auto tour takes you to a much older human era. Walk out on a hill to see a ring of stones, signifying a tipi site. The lakes and marshes of Bowdoin long attracted nomadic plains people of the Cree, Gros Ventres, and Assiniboine tribes.

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Viewing Tip

Stop by the refuge office before you start birding. You’ll get tips on birds , unusual species and where to see them. A short trail leads to a photo blind overlooking a seasonal pond. The shelterbelts near the office are good places to look for warblers, flycatchers and white-tailed deer. Office hours are Monday through Friday, 7:30 am to 4 pm.

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Best Seasons

April-October with large concentrations of waterfowl in the spring and fall and an influx of shorebirds in late summer. June is the best time for viewing grassland songbirds.

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Getting There

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Turn south off of U.S. Highway #2 one mile east of Malta at the brown and white Refuge/Watchable Wildlife sign. Follow the blacktop road and directional signs approximately six miles to the Refuge entrance. The auto tour route is 15 miles long and open dawn to dusk.

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Rest rooms, accessible trail, photo blind, auto tour route, information kiosk. A bird list for the refuge is available at refuge headquarters.

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Bowdoin NWR, 194 Bowdoin Auto Tour Road Malta, MT 59538; Ph: 406-654-2863
Email: Website:

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