Put your birdwatching skills to the test this spring with a trip to Gardiner, Montana, the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park. With at least 136 species of birds to admire, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is a perfect place to visit in spring as many species arrive on migrations and are courting, building nests, and establishing territories.
Before you get here, we suggest you familiarize yourself with Yellowstone birdwatching locations easily accessible from Gardiner: the northeast region including the Northern Range and Lamar Valley, the southeastern region including Hayden Valley and Yellowstone Lake, and the western region including Norris and Old Faithful geyser basins. A map of Yellowstone can be found by clicking here or by visiting the Gardiner Chamber of Commerce online.
After familiarizing yourself with the area, develop a plan of action. Birdwatching takes patience and each location deserves at least a day if you have time. We suggest you stay a couple nights in Gardiner and use the North Entrance to the park as your basecamp.
Once here, maximize your time spent looking for birds by grabbing coffee and breakfast to go from one of Gardiner’s many restaurants. Grocery and supply stores in town provide snacks and beverages for picnic lunches.
Northern Range and Lamar Valley
The northeastern region of Yellowstone is characterized by mixed evergreen and deciduous forests, wide-open sagebrush steppe grasslands, and towering mountains breaking the skyline. After ascending a winding road from Gardiner into Mammoth Hot Springs, turn left toward the Northeast Entrance town of Cooke City, Montana. The road passes through forested areas before entering grasslands punctuated by marshy depressions. Look for flashes of color in the sagebrush indicating migratory songbirds and pause at pullouts to take in the sights and sounds of riparian wetlands. The willow-encompassed eastern edge of Lamar Valley at the confluence of Soda Butte Creek and the Lamar River offers excellent bird habitat.
Species to Look For:
- Mountain bluebirds – These iridescent-blue songbirds flit through forests and sagebrush seeking insects and are some of Yellowstone’s earliest spring migrants.
- Western meadowlarks – Standing stout and upright atop sagebrush, these grassland occupants let forth loud, warbling calls and sport bright-yellow bellies.
- American dippers – These gray-brown birds perch along rivers and streams bobbing up and down before diving underwater in search of insects.
- Willow flycatchers – Wetland inhabitants, these olive-colored birds catch insects midair, have a “fitz-bew” call, and nest primarily in willows and shrubbery.
- Red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds – Listen for the raucous calls of these wetland inhabitants, identifiable by their namesake red and yellow colorations.
Hayden Valley and Yellowstone Lake
Bookended by the Upper and Lower falls of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon on the north and the sky-blue waters of Yellowstone Lake on the south, the southeastern region of Yellowstone is characterized by a vast, tree-rimmed grassland known as Hayden Valley. From Mammoth, continue southbound and drive 45 minutes through Swan Lake Flat to Norris Junction. Here, turn left (east) to head to Canyon Village and then south toward Hayden Valley and Yellowstone Lake. The area is rich in wildlife including bison, wolves, and grizzly bears and hosts a wide variety of avian species ranging from raptors to waterfowl to songbirds. The lake, which you can tour by boat, supports a notable population of nesting shorebirds.
Species to Look For:
- American white pelicans – These large white birds have expanding yellow bills and fish shallow water in groups on Yellowstone Lake and the surrounding area.
- Bald eagles – Perched in trees overlooking rivers, these raptors hunt for fish and birds and are identifiable by their white heads and tails.
- Red-tailed hawks – These rusty-tailed raptors soar, circle, and call high overhead while hunting rodents, rabbits, and other creatures on valley floors.
- Great blue herons – Prehistoric looking with dagger-like beaks, long s-curved necks, and spindly legs these birds stalk waterways for fish and amphibians.
- Canada geese – These gregarious birds inhabit mudflats around rivers and streams where they nest, socialize, and feed on grasses.
Norris and Old Faithful:
The western region of Yellowstone is characterized by varying terrain interspersed with some of the world’s most famous hydrothermal basins including world-class features like Old Faithful Geyser and Grand Prismatic Hot Spring. From Mammoth, continue southbound through Swan Lake Flat, a glacial valley surrounded by sculpted, snow-capped mountains. After crossing the Gardner River look for wildlife in the trees and willows before continuing straight through Norris Junction toward Old Faithful. Stop at as many basins as time allows: Norris, Artist Paint Pots, Lower, Midway, and Upper geyser basins have places to park and boardwalks for you to get out on and explore. A number of birds inhabit these highly specialized basins and the terrain in between.
Species to Look For:
- Mountain chickadees – These compact, black-and-white, cavity-nesting songbirds flit vocally through coniferous forest in hierarchical groups seeking seeds.
- Common ravens – Known for their intelligence and brazen attempts to steal food from humans, these big black birds nest conspicuously near human activity.
- Sandhill cranes – Often heard before being seen, these graceful, earth-hued birds blend in with the sagebrush grasslands and have distinct bugling vocalizations.
- Cinnamon teals – These chocolate-brown colored waterfowl scoot around the edges of marshlands making an almost growling “krrr” call in courtship.
- Killdeer – Tan and white with notable black neck bands, these fast-moving shorebirds can be found skittering around hydrothermal basins in search of insects.
If you're hoping for guidance on how to take that perfect picture as a birdwatcher, try booking a custom tour with either Touring Wonderland - Yellowstone Photography Tours, a local company that specializes in photography tours in Yellowstone, or In Our Nature Guiding Services, a Gardiner based company offering half and full day guided birding excursions. You can also purchase a high-quality bird photograph at Yellowstone Wild The Gallery located on Park Street in downtown Gardiner. For a more in-depth understanding of birds and their migrations consider registering for an educational course through the Yellowstone Forever Institute.
Chelsea DeWeese is a freelance writer who pens from her hometown of Gardiner, Montana, the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park.