Montana birding: Keep watching your feeders!

Montana birding: Keep watching your feeders!

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During spring migration and arrival of breeding birds in the Upper Clark Fork basin there is always a chance for a rare bird to occur at your feeders. That’s what I love about birding, you never know when the unexpected species might present itself. You need to purposefully spend more time glancing at your feeders as you pass by your windows in May and early June. Typically, rare bird only stop at feeders for short periods of time for water or feed and move on.

I had one of these unexpected experiences on May 1 this spring. I walked through the dining room and looked at the thistle feeder and saw what I immediately thought was a dark American goldfinch. Instantly, I corrected myself and correctly identified the species to a lesser goldfinch. We observed it for two days, then we left for seven days and did not see it upon returning home. I have only seen the species 13 times in North America, making it a rare bird for me. More interestingly is that I have only seen it once in Montana. The date was June 29, 2007, just north of the rimrocks  in similar habitat in Billings.

Looking at the Montana Natural Heritage Program (MNHP) website the species has been observed 32 times statewide. However, I am aware of at least four sightings for the species this spring. Mine in Powell County, two in Missoula County, and one in Valley County.

This species has not been seen before in either Powell, Granite, Deer Lodge, or Jefferson counties. That’s kind of exciting that I got an observation for a species that has not been seen in the Upper Clark Fork valley before. The point is, as citizen scientist watching birds, you have the opportunity to significantly add data to ebird, and the Montana Natural Heritage Program’s databases. It is rewarding to do so. If you don’t know how to submit sightings contact me by email.

If you look at the distribution map on the MNHP website, you can see that its normal range is far south of Montana. All of my other sightings were in Texas, California, Arizona, Utah and Nevada.

The species appears to be rather new in Montana with the first sighting near Glasgow May 26, 1996. The first sighting west of the Continental Divide occurred May 5, 2011 in Missoula (Birds of Montana — Jeff Marks)

Lesser goldfinches can be distinguished from the more common American goldfinch (5,613 observations in MNHP database) by a number of features. The lesser is smaller at .33 ounces versus .46 ounces for the American. Additionally, lesser appears less bright with a green back and dark bill. There is a sub-species of the lesser with an all-black back. Most sightings of males have been green-back like the one at my feeder. The American has a yellow back and pinkish bill. Most noticeable the black on the head of the lesser covers the entire top of the head forming a cap, and on the American the black is on the forehead only. You can see these differences in the photos with this article.

Stay alert this spring, and perhaps you will have the good fortune, as I did, to a get a rarity at your feeder.

Gary Swant of Deer Lodge taught biological sciences at Powell County High School for 25 years. After retirement he founded GoBirdMontana,, an environmental consulting and bird guide service. He can be reached via email at This column features bird species of the Upper Clark Fork River Valley from Butte to Garrison. Swant hopes the column will inspire people to take an interest in observing birds.


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