Local birder, Phil McBride, was our guide as we explored the farmland and grassy prairies out to the west of Billings and visited several sites mostly along the Yellowstone River which flows through the southeast part of the town. Phil’s knowledge of the area was invaluable.
Western Meadowlarks, Horned Larks, Western Kingbirds and Vesper Sparrows were numerous along the roadside fences as we made our way out towards the small town of Rapelje. Other grassland species seen included Upland Sandpipers, Lark Buntings and Chestnut-collared Longspurs. Ferruginous Hawks were the most frequently found raptors and, in common with at least three Bald Eagles, they seemed to be exploiting the ‘convenience food’ offered by countless Black-tailed Prairie Dogs. Several Burrowing Owls were ‘tenants’ in one of the Prairie Dog towns. A small pond provided a selection of common duck species plus about twenty Wilson’s Phalaropes and a handful of American Avocets.
Rapelje with a population of just over 100 people is best known for an annual mountain bike race that is held there but the town’s Stockman Café also seems to be the only place for miles around where you can get lunch, which we did.
Other sites visited included Itch-Kep-Pe Park in Columbus, Two Moon Park in Billings, Pictograph Cave State Park and one that the locals apparently refer to just as 56th Street Pond. Some of the highlights among the many birds seen were American Redstarts, Yellow-breasted Chats, Cedar Waxwings, Lazuli Buntings, Western Wood-Pewees and the first of many Sandhill Cranes of the tour.
Throughout our time in the Billings area it was hard not to be aware of the scenic, snow-covered Beartooth Mountains to the southwest. When we left Billings, heading for Cooke City, we went via Red Lodge and then took the famous Beartooth Highway that crosses these mountains, a road that has been described as the most beautiful drive in the Lower 48 States. It is 64 miles from Red Lodge to Cooke City and at roughly the halfway point the Beartooth Pass reaches its highest point at 10,974 feet. Birds at this altitude are few but American Pipits are reasonably common and Black Rosy-Finches are regular.
From Cooke City, our base for the next three nights, it is just four miles to the Northeast Entrance to Yellowstone National Park…