By Martin Kidston
A small geological oddity in the western reaches of the Missoula Valley provides cool water and tall grass to more than 200 species of birds, some so rare that even birding experts get excited when they spot one.
In 2006, thanks to the robust efforts of Montana Audubon and the Five Valleys Land Trust, among others, this unusual fen on the Deschamps family ranch was included in the larger Clark Fork River-Grass Valley Important Bird Area.
The designation remains significant, serving as a continental Important Bird Area. It also allows conservationists to focus their efforts on protecting places in the valley that promote species diversity.
“The whole purpose is to find areas that are highly significant for birds and call attention to that, and focus conservation on those areas,” said Jim Brown, a member of both Five Valleys and Montana Audubon. “There’s a very high diversity of bird species that utilize this area.”
The small wetland on the Missoula Valley ranch owned by Charlie and Nancy Deschamps alone supports 230 different bird species, from migratory songbirds to raptors. They include bald and golden eagles, red tail hawks, rough-legged hawks and northern harriers.
The fen is also home to the rare swainson’s hawk, and that’s enough to get Brown excited. He toured the Deschamps property this week with Missoula County commissioners and a host of open-space committee members (see accompanying story).
“The last time I heard from the Raptor View Research Institute, there’s only six breeding pair in this whole greater Missoula area, from here to Huson – as far as you can look,” Brown said. “The swainson’s hawk feeds in this area every year, and there’s been one nest up here in the draw. That’s a special bird. They go all the way to Argentina for the winter. It’s the longest flight of any raptor in North America.”
The wetland is fed by an artisan spring and the collection pool remains at a constant temperature. In the summer, it provides food and coverage for a number of species. In the winter, it doesn’t freeze, allowing raptors of all types to winter over.
It’s also home to a population of voles.
“There’s a couple of special birds that are grassland only, and one is a long-eared owl,” Brown said. “It stays in the daytime in these brushy draws, but it’s a grassland bird, so it comes and flies at night and searches for voles. The high vole population is a special attractant to these raptor species.”
Brown, who caught the birding bug when he was 15 years old, knows other secrets held by the small Missoula Valley wetland. One of those secrets includes the short-eared owl, a species in decline.
“It’s considered to be a species of conservation concern,” he said. “This year, we came in here and found 32 of them sitting around. That’s really unusual. There’s no recent nest records, but who knows, Charlie (Deschamps) has been seeing some little owls around, so maybe they would be nesting. That would be a major raptor to support on this property.”
According to the groups behind the Clark Fork River-Grass Valley Important Bird Area, wetlands occupy less than 4 percent of Montana, yet they’re used by more than 80 percent of the bird species found in the state.
The groups found 13 bird species of conservation priority nesting in the study area, including Lewis’ woodpeckers, red-naped sapsuckers and red-eyed vireos. The settling ponds at the former Smurfit Stone Container Corp. millsite downriver are used by 27 species of migratory shorebirds.
The area designated as an Important Bird Area in the Missoula Valley parallels the Clark Fork River from Huson to Reserve Street. Since the designation, 1,390 acres have been protected by conservation easements and 160 acres have been purchased for public use.
If the Deschamps family ranch is accepted as a conservation easement, the efforts to conserve important bird habitat would expand by 554 acres and include the unusual artisan wetland.
“The other amazing thing, there’s a lot of neo-tropical migrants that come up here to nest and breed and so forth, then they go to Mexico and Central America for the winter,” said Brown.
While the count includes a number of songbirds, including catbirds, warblers and buntings, Brown notes an additional species of interest, that being the bobolink. As it turns out, it likes the tall, wet grass surrounding the spring on the Deschamps family ranch.
“When we did bird surveys throughout this whole Missoula Valley as part of the Important Bird Area, the only breeding population of bobolinks was right here,” said Brown. “Here were about half-a-dozen breeding pair. That’s a real special bird. The only place I know of where they nest in the valley is right here.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org