Birds

The Pryor Mountains are a very special place for members of the Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society.  When asked “what do the Pryor Mountains mean to you”, birders quickly respond with “some of the best birding in Montana!!!”

Bear Canyon, located in the southern part of the Pryor Mountains, was one of the sites in the very first suite of Important Bird Areas»  developed by Montana Audubon

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher in Bear Canyon (Photo by Radd Icenoggle)

It is the driest area in Montana and supports the state’s only stand of Utah juniper.  The scenery and habitats are spectacular and make for a unique Montana setting reminiscent of the Desert Southwest.  Bear Canyon supports more than a dozen species on the Montana Priority Bird Species List.  It has the highest known number of nesting Blue-gray Gnatcatchers in its foothill canyons that constitute the entire range of the species in Montana.

Lazuli Bunting in Bear Canyon (Photo by Radd Icenogle)

Dusky Grouse, Dendragapus obscurus. Courtship display near Big Ice Cave. (Photo by Dick Walton)

Another uncommon bird found in the Pryor Mountains is the Blue Grosbeak.  Named for its two most obvious field marks – deep blue color and thick powerful bill, it has heavy brown wingbars that set it apart from similar species.  Found in summer throughout most of the southern two-thirds of the United States, the breeding range has been moving northward for more than 25 years and may explain why it is now being seen in the Pryor Mountains.

The Pryor Mountains are a unique island landscape of near desert grasslands and shrub lands on the south slopes and deep conifer forests on the north slopes.  The limestone canyons are extraordinary.  The Pryor Mountains provide unique and diverse habitats for an exceptional variety of birds and a treasure of other wildlife species.  Sage Creek, Crooked Creek through the burn area, and the historic town of Hillsborough near Barry’s Landing are favorite spots for birding and walking and just enjoying the rugged outdoors.  The overlook of the Big Horn Canyon itself offers exciting action with falcons in flight and sometimes even capturing the swallows and swifts that are nesting in the cliffs.

Common Nighthawk (Photo by George Mowat)

Of course trips to the Pryors are not without their challenges.  There can be “over a foot of mud or it can be dusty as all get out or the snow can be deeper than a tall birder” but that is part of the overall beauty and uniqueness of the Pryors.  You can see birds in all habitats – riparian corridors, rich greenery, sagebrush flats, gentle mountains, and near desert terrains.  The Pryors are exciting, they are quiet, they are special, they are varied, they are worth preserving.  We like everything about the Pryors.

Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society hosts annual trips to the Pryor Mountains and welcomes new members.

Bear Canyon was identified by Montana Outdoors magazine as the third of “10 Great Spots to Watch Birds in Montana”

Click on thumbnails to enlarge more Pryors bird photos.

Bear Canyon Important Bird Area:

Site Description:

The IBA is centered around the lower and middle reaches of Bear Canyon (T8S, R26E, sects. 34 & 35; T9S, R26E, sects. 3 & 4), which sits less than 10 km from the Wyoming border in the foothills of the Pryor Mountains. This area is driest in Montana and supports the state’s only stands of Utah juniper. The scenery and habitats are spectacular and make for a unique Montana setting reminiscent of the Desert Southwest.

Ornithological Summary:

Bear Canyon supports breeding populations of more than a dozen species on the Montana Priority Bird Species List. It also has the highest known number of nesting Blue-gray Gnatcatchers among the handful of foothill canyons in the area that constitute the entire range of the species in Montana. The riparian corridor is home to a rich diversity of Neotropical migrants, and the adjacent uplands are inhabited by Common Poorwills, Loggerhead Shrikes, Sage Thrashers, Green-tailed Towhees, Pinyon Jays, and the occasional broods of Greater Sage-Grouse.

Conservation Issues:

Cattle grazing has affected the understory of the cottonwood gallery forest in some places, and offroad vehicles have resulted in increased erosion of the slopes adjacent to the canyon bottom. Owners of a limestone quarry on private land 6 km from the IBA would like to expand their operation onto federal lands, posing a potential threat to the site.

Click for IBA Map and Detailed Site Description