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

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Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge Complex

Prairie Potholes Brimming With Life

Sheltering one of the largest breeding colonies of American White Pelicans in the world, the refuge in Montana’s far corner has become a premier birding destination.


Species of Note

  • Chestnut-collared Longspur
  • Baird’s Sparrow
  • Sprague’s Pipit
  • Le Conte’s Sparrow
  • Nelson’s Sharp-tailed sparrow
  • Bobolink
  • Marbled Godwit
  • Willet
  • Wilson’s Phalarope
  • American Avocet
  • Sharp-tailed Grouse
  • American White Pelican
  • Western Grebe
  • Clark’s Grebe
  • Horned Grebe
  • Eared Grebe
  • Franklin’s Gull
Other Wildlife
  • White-tailed Deer
  • Pronghorn
  • Coyote
  • Mountain Cottontail
  • White-tailed jackrabbit
  • Richardson’s Ground Squirrel
  • Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel
  • Northern Pocket Gopher
  • American Beaver
  • Northern Grasshopper Mouse
  • Arctic Shrew
  • Pygmy Shrew
  • Painted Turtle
  • Plains Garter Snake
  • Smooth Green Snake
  • Northern Leopard Frog
  • Western Chorus Frog
  • Woodhouse’s Toad
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What to Do

Plan on spending plenty of time birdwatching in this rich complex of wetlands and grasslands. The expansive north tract includes the 8,218-acre Medicine Lake, 17 potholes and grasslands. A smaller Homestead Tract shelters more wetlands and prairie. The refuge complex extends to 45 Waterfowl Production Areas open to birdwatching.

Pick up a map at a kiosk at the refuge main entry points or headquarters foyer. Stop in the visitor reception center or call ahead for information. Follow the Wildlife Drive that starts near the town of Medicine Lake and passes through grasslands and east past lakes and ponds.

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Field Notes

Following the wildlife drive, you park at Sayer’s Bay. Outside on a breezy day, listen to the wild cacophony of thousands of quacking, honking, whistling waterfowl in spring or fall. On quieter early summer days, you can count the ducklings trailing close to their parents, and watch for other birds and young. Continue on to Pelican Overlook to watch the comings and goings of the American White Pelican colony on Big Island. Bridgerman Point is a great spot for Double-crested Cormorants, herons, gulls, terns and ducks.

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Geologic events of the past have proved pivotal to habitats today—and this refuge is a prime example.
Remnants of the ice age, prairie potholes in the plains are lifesavers for birds in a dry and harsh land. Islands in the potholes offer safe nesting places for white pelicans and other colonial nesters. At the other extreme, you’ll find sand dunes formed thousands of years ago during a long drought. Designated a Wilderness area, the sandhills are home to sensitive plants like smooth goosefoot, pale-spiked lobelia and Plains phlox, as well as amazing insects, like tiger beetles—the speediest land insects in the world.

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Cultural Connection

President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge in 1935, at a time when prairie droughts contributed to unprecedented declines in waterfowl. Starting in 1937, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built many of the roads, dams, dikes, fences and buildings that are still in use today. Long before then, American Indians hunted the plentiful animals and wildlife. We know of the tribes’ long presence by stone artifacts and ancient campsites on the refuge.

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Viewing Tip

Be prepared for weather extremes. Spring is the windiest time of year, with gusts occasionally at more than 50 mph. Temperatures range from above 100 in summer to 45 degrees below zero in winter.

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Best Seasons

April – October
June: prairie songbirds

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Getting There

View Google Map

From Medicine Lake, Montana, go 1 M S on MT HWY 16 to gravel Refuge entrance road. Refuge Headquarters and information kiosks are 2 miles E.

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Information kiosks, rest rooms, visitor reception area, wildlife drive, bird list, seasonal grouse viewing blind. A bird list for the refuge is available at the refuge. Refuge office open Monday-Friday, 7 a.m. to 3:30 pm.

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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge, 223 North Shore Road, Medicine Lake Montana, 59247. Phone 406-789-2305.

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