Looking from Bird Viewing Area – Photo Credit: Linda Winnie

About 150 people gathered Saturday evening, October 6, to celebrate the completion of Flathead Land Trust’s West Valley Wetlands Conservation Project, and the Grand Opening of the Project’s new West Valley Bird Viewing Area.

The Project has placed conservation easements on 400 acres in the West Valley Ponds Complex, which is a critical staging area for migrating Sandhill Cranes. Each fall hundreds of Sandhill Cranes gather here to prepare for migration, garnering grain from the agricultural fields in the area, and roosting at night in the wetlands near several of the ponds. The map below shows the locations of the conserved lands and the bird viewing area.

Funding for this 1.4 million dollar conservation project was provided by multiple grants, as well as by donations totaling $150,000 from local organizations and individuals. Flathead Audubon contributed $15,000, gathered in donations from its members.

The Project included establishment of a ¼ acre public bird viewing area that overlooks a 45 acre pothole wetland that is one of the roosting sites.

Pothole and Wetland below Bird Viewing Area – Photo Credit: Linda Winnie

The viewing area was developed and funded by Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. It features informational signage and space for parking. Planned future improvements include landscaping with native vegetation and permanently mounted spotting scopes.

FWP has recently released a short video about the viewing area, which features Chris Hammond (FWP Non-game Biologist), Laura Katzman (Land Protection Specialist with Flathead Land Trust), and Denny Olson (Flathead Audubon’s Conservation Educator).

Chris was involved in developing the bird viewing area. Laura planned and spearheaded the Wetlands Conservation Project, and promoted inclusion of a public bird viewing area. Flathead Audubon recognized her for these achievements at their October meeting. Denny is, of course, well known to Flathead Audubon members and supporters. Listen for his Sandhill Crane imitation near the end of the video.

To get to the bird viewing area, go to the intersection of West Valley Drive and Reserve Drive and from there go north on West Valley Drive about one mile, where you will see a sign saying ”West Valley Wildlife Viewing Area”. Just beyond the sign is a gravel road heading east. Turn onto this road, and go about ¼ mile. The viewing area is on the north side of the road. To find the location of the viewing area on Google Maps, search for “West Valley Bird and Wildlife Viewing Area”.

FAS Crane Watchers – Photo Credit: Linda Winnie

Sandhill Cranes are commonly seen in the West Valley Ponds area spring through fall, along with ducks and grebes, geese and swans, shorebirds, and hawks.  The cranes are most numerous in September and October, when they gather there to stage for migration. The best times of day to see cranes from the new bird viewing area in the fall are between sunset and the half hour after sunset, when the cranes come to roost in the shallow water of the pothole wetland below the viewing area, and around sunrise, before they leave to feed in the nearby fields during the day.

Photo Credit: Gael Bissell