More than 260 species of birds are found in the varied habitats of Glacier National Park. That is a large number of species for an area so far north. Variable climatic conditions created by the Continental Divide yields a patchwork of aquatic, riparian and terrestrial habitats ideally suited for birds.
American Dippers Cinclus mexicanus
Dippers, also known as Water ouzels, prefer cold, swift rivers and streams. They may be spotted on a rock midstream vigorously bobbing up and down, or “dipping”. Their long wading legs have feet with no webs so locomotion upstream is provided by thrusting their stubby wings and tail and "flying" underwater. They have clear, retractable nictitating membranes over their eyes and special flaps to close their nostrils. The dipper's oil glands are ten times as large as most other water birds, and the oil gives them a distinctive rotten fish smell. The oily outer shell of feathers, combined with a thick layer of under-down, gives them the ability to dive under ice during midwinter.
Clark’s Nutcracker Nucifraga columbiana
Named after Corps of Discovery explorer William Clark, Clark's nutcrackers are found in the West from central Canada to northeast Mexico. While they feed on insects, berries, and occasional flesh from carcasses, their primary food consists of pine seeds, most notably those of the white pine and whitebark pine. Their powerful bills allow them to pull seeds from pine cones, and a single bird can cache as many as 98,000 seeds in a season for later consumption. Often these stored seeds grow new trees, resulting in renewed habitat for the pines. The ability of Clark’s nutcrackers to perpetuate whitebark pine growth has been negatively affected across their range due to blister rust infections, pine beetle outbreaks and effects from long term fire exclusion. Studies are being undertaken to determine the possible effects to these birds if whitebark pine continues to decline.
Common Loons Gavia immer
Common loons are found in Alaska, Canada, parts of the northern US, and as far east as Greenland and Scotland. They specialize in catching fish for food, sometimes diving as deep as 200 feet to obtain them. Their nests are built on islands or near remote lakes to discourage ground-based predators, but their eggs and nestlings can be eaten by birds, turtles, and even fish.
Estimates from data collected over the past 20 years suggest that Glacier National Park harbors approximately 20% of Montana’s breeding loons, yet reproduction rates appear to be lower than other parts of the state. Evidence indicates that loons, listed by Montana as a Species of Special Concern, are adversely impacted by humans at nesting sites. A Citizen Science project is underway to monitor the loons. Watch a video on the project.
Eagles Bald (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)and golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos)are the largest aerial predators in Glacier. The lakes and rivers of the region provide bald eagles with a variety of fish, their primary diet, while golden eagles hunt rabbits, marmots, ground squirrels and other mammals as opportunity provides. Both are listed as a Species of Concern in Montana. Once listed as an endangered species, bald eagles have increased in numbers and were removed from the endangered species list in August of 2007. Currently, research into golden eagles is aimed at obtaining accurate population counts to determine if their numbers are increasing, decreasing, or stable.
Harlequins Histrionicus histrionicus Glacier Park is perhaps the best place to see harlequin ducks in the lower 48 states. These "clown ducks"—males are paintedwith distinctive slate blue, chestnut, and white markings—seem to frolic as they swim and dive in swift rivers and streams, like the turbulent water of McDonald Creek.A sea duck, this species arrives in the spring and is often seen diving underwater to eat insects and mollusks. Their densely packed feathers insulate them from the cold and make them exceptionally buoyant.Their peculiar barking call can often be heard above the roar of rapids when feeding and they emit a squeaking sound during courtship rituals. Watch a video about a recent harlequin study.
Northern Hawk Owls Surnia ulula
Named for its falcon-like wing shape and long tail, the northern hawk owl is non-migratory, staying within its breeding range and living in boreal forests. Hunting during both daytime and night, it perches on trees and uses its great speed to overtake prey, which can be a variety of birds and small mammals. Hawk owls sometimes use their exceptional hearing to dive for rodents below the snow. They have been known to attack humans if they approach a nest containing young.
In Glacier National Park, only one reliable sighting of northern hawk owls was recorded prior to 1990. Between 1990 and 1998 four nesting sites were documented—all within post burn areas. By 2008, 14 nesting sites produced 33 young in Montana, all of which occurred in post burn forests of Glacier.
Ospreys Pandion haliaetus
Often seen hovering high over open water, ospreys are large, slender-bodied hawks with long, narrow wings and long legs. They feed almost exclusively on live fish, diving feet first to grab them. Barbed pads on the soles of their feet help ospreys grip the slippery fish. Ospreys build large, bulky nests made up of sticks and lined with bark, sod, grasses, vines, and algae. Their nests are found in an open area on top of dead trees, poles, cliffs, or human-built platforms.
Ptarmigans Lagopus leucurus
White-tailed ptarmigan are the only bird species to remain in the alpine during winter. Feathers on their legs and feet help with conserving body heat, while nostril feathers warm inhaled air before it enters the bird’s body. Camouflage is an important part of their defense as their brown feathers change to white during the winter months. They walk on the deep alpine snows with feathered feet which increase the surface area of their feet by four times, much like snowshoes.
In the old growth forests of the McDonald Creek area, swifts often appear at dusk to feed on hatching insects. They bathe while skimming calm water and splash themselves with their tails; they even mate in flight.
Black swifts and Vaux's swifts eat many insects, but are known more for their nesting habits. Vaux's swifts are colony nesters that use huge hollowed snags in the old growth forest for their roosts and nests. They emerge by the hundreds like bats from a cave at feeding times. Black swifts also nest in colonies—often in precarious places. They prefer the safety of nests constructed on rock walls behind waterfalls. Both types of swifts have the ability to go into a state of semi-hibernation when food is scarce. Their high metabolism would cause them to starve within a day or two without eating.