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'This Is One Of Those Wonders Of Nature:' Birds, Spectators Flock To Freezout Lake

Thousands of birds fill the pre-dawn sky as people watch through spotting scopes from a line of trucks and cars.
Rachel Cramer
Yellowstone Public Radio
Thousands of white geese fly above spectators at the Freezout Lake Wildlife Management Area near Choteau, Mont. on March 26, 2021.

During a typical spring, several hundred thousand ducks, geese, swans and other migrating birds rest and refuel near Choteau before continuing their journeys north. Wildlife officials track the number of waterfowl at the Freezout Lake Wildlife Management Area each day, as well as the growing number of visitors from across Montana and neighboring states.

Before the sun is up, Nancy Milewski drives her truck past barley fields to reach what she calls her “perch.”

“Oh, it's a beautiful clear morning. Oh. And look at the moon. Yeah, there. Isn't that special," Milewski says.

From the top of a hill, it’s just light enough to make out a lake and several large ponds below. The headlights from half a dozen vehicles circle the dark water bodies while Milewski rolls down her window and sets up a spotting scope.

She’s one of two Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks employees who count migrating swans, white geese and ducks from March through mid-April at Freezout Lake, a 12,000 acre Wildlife Management Area.

“There’s a nice bunch," Milewski points out. "So, there’s at least 10,000 rimming what we call pond six."

As the moon dips behind the horizon, more headlights appear below, most of which are headed for pond six.

Milewski drives down the gravel road, past the FWP buildings and packed campground until she reaches a line of 40 vehicles parked on the side of the road. People dressed in big puffy jackets and winter hats are standing in the field. Some have set up camping chairs.

Milewski points to the white shapes on the water.

"So some of these white birds are swans and some are snow geese. So I think we’ll stop right here," she says, turning off the truck.

Nancy Milewski looks through a spotting scope out her truck window.
Rachel Cramer
Yellowstone Public Radio
Nancy Milewski with FWP uses her spotting scope to observe white geese feeding on barley leftover from last fall's harvest in a farmer's field near Freezout Lake Wildlife Management Area on March 26, 2021.

As the Rocky Mountain Front begins to blush with morning light, the tundra swans and white geese, which includes lesser snow geese and Ross’ geese, continue their gregarious morning chatter.

Twenty more vehicles show up.

And then, suddenly, thousands of white geese lift up from the water. They form a moving mosaic against an indigo sky before stretching out into long, wavy lines, flying east.

This morning, the flock is flying just a few miles to nearby farmers’ fields to eat barley leftover from the fall harvest.

But after a few days of resting and replenishing their fat reserves, the white geese will continue flying north to their Arctic nesting grounds. In the fall, many of the same geese will pass through Freezout again, on their way south to central California.

As many as 300,000 white geese and 10,000 tundra swans pass through Freezout in the spring.

Russ Lawrence from Hamilton is one of the spectators who came out in 20 degree weather this morning.

"You might not be able to see the caribou migration in Canada or Alaska. You might not be able to see the wildebeest in the Serengeti, but you can come here and watch this. And it is exactly the same kind of feeling. This is one of those wonders of nature. It's a pretty cool experience. Downright cold," Lawrence says.

“I came because I wanted to be close to seeing though when they all just lift off the water and you hear that wonderful sound," says Maureen Powell, also from Hamilton. She says this is her second time coming to Freezout Lake for the bird migration.

“I'm here with my wife, Terry, and some friends," says John Vori. "And we've come up here for every year for 15 years. It's just an annual thing. It's a tradition for us. We just love it, you know, to see the geese, to hear them, and the camaraderie. We often times run into people that we know from other places.”

Over the last 30 years, the number of spring bird watchers, like Lawrence, flocking to Freezout Lake has been on the rise, while the number of upland and waterfowl hunters has declined. Brent Lonner, who oversees the wildlife management area for FWP, says the peak visitor day in the spring, recently more than 100 vehicles, is now higher than the peak in the fall.

“So it makes you wonder in time, if this is going to be kind of the more, the new normal," Lonner says. "Wildlife viewing is growing of interest. Hunting as a whole in the nation is there. On a national perspective, it's probably declining some. Montana's pretty stable, but wildlife viewing, all things wildlife viewing is definitely increasing.”

New this year, FWP launched an online dashboard with migration updates, daily observations and weather conditions to help visitors plan their trips.

A spokesperson for the Choteau Chamber of Commerce told YPR the community sees an influx of visitors for about three weeks during the spring waterfowl migration. While three-fourths of the visitors pass through, he said others stay for a night or two at the local motels, hotels and campgrounds.

Lonner says the increase in bird watchers is an interesting trend.

“Freezout was purchased and managed and continues to be managed primarily with sportsman's license dollars," he says.

In the 1920s, the development of a nearby irrigation reservoir caused a lot of water to collect in the Freezout Lake area, a natural glacial basin.
Lonner says the highway and railroad tracks would sometimes flood.

“At times, they'd have huge botulism die offs out here. Because of the stagnant water, so thousands and thousands of birds would die.”

To address this, the state’s wildlife agency in the 1950s purchased the land and turned it into a wildlife management area. The agency created a gravity fed system with dikes and ditches to control the water levels, built islands to provide waterfowl nesting and roosting sites, and added roads and other visitor amenities.

Lonner says there have been conversations at the national level about implementing new ways for wildlife watchers to help pay for conservation and wildlife management on public land.

"There's been just talk about it but no real push to go that direction. I don't know if there's a true need as of yet. Maybe in time, there will be,” Lonner says.

Back in the truck, Nancy Milewski continues counting waterfowl at each of the ponds. She uses a spotting scope and a clicker for the more than 2,000 swans out today. For the 27,000 white geese, Milewski says she relies on pattern recognition.

“That's why I love counting them in the sky, because for me, I know what a hundred looks like and it's just, boom, boom, boom. And so if I know what a hundred looks like, if I can count to a hundred. Yeah. And then it's 10,000," Milewski says.

As Milewski drives back to Choteau, a shimmering, undulating mass off in the distance hovers above one of the ponds. She pulls over to watch as the flock swoops and turns in intricately coordinated patterns before settling back on the water.

Milewski says she never gets tired of seeing it.