Whether you’re looking for one of the Nifty Fifty or trying to spot a rare bird for your life list, Gillette is great place for birding. In fact, you could spend a whole season here and still miss some of the rich diversity of bird species. It raises a question–how can you maximize the great birdwatching potential here if you only have a week, or even a few days?
Birdwatch in Different Habitats
A common mistake is visiting different birding sites that all contain the same habitat. Logically, doing this will offer you chances to see only so many different birds, because the same species will be attracted to the types of food and shelter found there. The areas in and around Gillette offer three excellent habitats featuring a variety of avian residents and visitors.
- Thunder Basin National Grasslands
True to its name, the Thunder Basin National Grasslands is a fairly level plain broken up by rolling hills and a few steep escarpments, all featuring beautiful grasses blown by semi-arid southwest winds. This habitat will offer you opportunities to see local grassland and shrubland bird species. For example, there are over forty breeding pairs of Northern Sage-grouse, whose famous lek mating ritual is seldom seen. The Wyoming state bird, the Western Meadowlark, is often spotted here. Keep an eye out for its black and white-striped head and striking yellow breast.
Sometimes you’ll hear this bird before you see it, so listen for a flute-like 7-10 note melody ending with 3 descending notes. Another distinctive call you may hear is the loud, rattling call of massive flocks of Sandhill Cranes, though you may notice smaller groups and individuals here as well. Thunder Basin also hosts many raptor species, like the Ferruginous Hawk, Bald Eagle, Prairie Falcon, Red-tailed Hawk, Golden Eagle, Merlin, and Swainson’s Hawk as well as Great Horned Owls and the famous Burrowing Owl. Camping is allowed in Thunder Basin, but there are no developed campgrounds, so come prepared or make plans to stay in town if you’re a novice camper.
- Bighorn National Forest
Photo Courtesy of jorsym
Since you’ve already visited grasslands, skip the grass-covered lowlands at the foot of the mountains and start climbing! This alpine habitat includes some areas that are closed to motorized vehicles, so prepare for a hike. The quiet, high-up places in the Cloud Peak Wilderness section offers you the peace and quiet to listen for the high pip-pip-pip-it call of the American Pipit. Look for other birds of the alpine tundra breeding here, like the Horned Lark. The mountain forest, with its untouched trees, attract birds like the Clark’s Nutcracker and cavity-nesting birds like the Chickadee and various woodpeckers.
There is also excellent riparian habitat here, and it combines with the proximity to mountains and canyons to create “funnel” areas where you can literally sit and wait for birds to fly through. This is a great opportunity to spot nesting American Dippers as well as Belted Kingfishers. The old-growth trees in Bighorn National Forest also sometimes provide a rare chance to see Purple Martins nesting in natural cavities, rather than the human-made nesting locations upon which they now depend almost completely elsewhere. There are many camping options here, including cabin rentals, but be sure to make a reservation at busy times. A word of warning: watch out for bears!
- Keyhole State Park
This bustling state park is known for its recreational activities and large reservoir. It hosts a large number of residents birds and migrant species alike, and it’s easiest to fine ones you may not have seen yet by focusing on the aquatic habitat and the areas where the treeline meets open spaces. The busier, more developed nature of this park means you’ll see a lot of species like Red-Winged Blackbirds and Wild Turkeys that are not shy around people but won’t be found in an urban environment because of a lack of resources. Aquatic birds like the Double Crested Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, and Black Crowned Night Heron, and Long-Billed Dowitcher also call Keyhole State Park home.
Best of all, all three species of Bluebird nest in Wyoming during the summer, so lucky birdwatchers may find them all here. The Mountain Bluebird is the most widespread, so listen for its musical flight call as you watch for the fascinating “hawking” behavior they display while hunting for insects. The proximity of large pine trees to the beaches creates opportunities to see a diversity of species from your picnic table. Keyhole State Park has a mix of developed and undeveloped campgrounds, so plan your accommodations accordingly.