One of the major tools of the trade, a spotting scope, allows for birders to see the nuances in bird behavior.

The beauty of birding

Big Sky’s Hummock’s Trail earns distinction of being a birding hotspot

Self-professed bird nerd John Parker with the Sacajawea Audubon Society seems continually distracted, but really his focus is on everything but the humans in front of him during the Hike Big Sky Tuesday hike on July 9. He has his eyes in the sky, focused on a mated pair of red-tailed hawks “displaying for each other” flying in tandem, with relaxed legs, he explained.  His ears are turned toward the shrubs and trees at the South Fork Loop Trailhead across from Hummocks, which earned the distinction of being a birding “hotspot” of Gallatin County with Cornell University Department of Ornithology’s project – eBird. The online tool for documentation of bird sightings turns those sightings into “science and conservation.” Parker explains how Big Sky has unique ecosystems that harbor a lot of birds, which are difficult to find in most parts of the United States. 

“Oh, right here, a violet green swallow,” he says and turns mid-conversation. Birders are often easily distracted, those with whom they interact just have to get used to it, he explains with a shrug and a grin. It is currently peak breeding season, which means peak birding season and “the last hurrah” he says and explains the flurry of activity will end in another week or two. 

He notes that a nearby “purdip, purdip” is a western tanager, which is tropical and only in Montana from May until September. They spend the rest of their time in Central America. The shrubs and forest produce dizzying flashes of color and sound as a golden crown kinglet and a mountain chickadee also visit. Parker spots 19 species within 30 minutes of stopping at the trailhead. 

Big Sky Community Organization (BSCO) program manager Mackenzie Johnson points to a bush and says excitedly, “That’s a yellow warbler!” Parker confirms it. Johnson then explains that that knowledge is retained from one of her husband’s college courses, when they would go hiking for bird identification. 

This and other Hike Big Sky events are a partnership between Visit Big Sky and BSCO, Johnson explains. The partnership is mutually beneficial – Visit Big Sky has people stopping by all the time wanting to go hiking and BSCO wants to highlight BSCO trails. 

“We hear a lot that people are very scared of bears and they want to hike with a group,” she says and explains this gives people the opportunity to learn about the area, local hiking trails and feel more comfortable via an introduction with other hikers. 

Hike Big Sky initially began as Hike and Learn and continues to be free to the public – visitors and residents alike. 

Parker says he regrets not getting into birding until his 30s. He loves that it is something accessible for everyone: Those who can hike can hike to find birds. Those who are homebound can put birdfeeders in their yards. 

“You can do birding anywhere anytime. You can bird in New York City. It’s available to anybody,” he says and notes that the hobby can be as challenging as someone wants to make it. 

The resilient little creatures’ incredible migrations – the perpetual drive to survive is something that fascinates him, he says. 

He appreciates that Montana has some rare woodpeckers: the three-toed and the black back woodpeckers. The black back woodpeckers depend entirely on burn areas. Yet another great mystery of ornithology, Parker points out: How do they find forest fires? 

“They arrive shortly after a fire,” he says. “They pick under the loose bark for insects. They’re at the fire for those insects, which last three years and then they leave.” 

As he says goodbye to participants and packs up his spotting scope he says he is heading down to the Bacon Rind fire south of Big Sky on 191 to see if he can find any black back woodpeckers. 

Birding is a tremendous tourism driver. What is even more impressive is the revenue stream coming in from ethical birders. Theirs is a culture that emphasizes the avoidance of disturbing birds, other people and the natural environment, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. 

 According to a study by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, birders spent an estimated $15 billion on their trips and $26 billion on equipment in 2011. Trip expenditures included 52 percent in food and lodging, 34 percent in transportation, and 14 percent in other costs such as guide fees, user fees, and equipment rental. 

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