The Freezeout Lake waterfowl migration.
Whooooshhh… the sound was deep, like a muffled explosion. I looked up into the sky’s soft palette for the source of the sound, but saw no plane above me. My eyes dropped to ground level and there it was: thousands of snow geese lifting off. Display and sound were equal in immensity as all wings took flight.
The Freezeout Lake Wildlife Management Area lies between Fairview and Choteau on US Hwy. 89. In late March and into April, the place teems with chattering honks and quacks from 100,000 snow geese—the main ingredient in this remarkable fowl migration, all of whom have come here to take a break. Freezeout is a rest stop en route to their final destination, the Arctic Circle.
It’s an ideal location, nestled between the Rocky Mountain Front and a series of vast grain fields. The volume of birds is almost inconceivable, and the spectacle is one of flight, feeding, and fraternization, all in one magnificent scene.
High snowfalls, as we had in 2018, can alter the migration timing and thus the viewing and photographic opportunities. I traveled to Freezeout between spring blizzards, practically flying there in howling wind, which didn’t cease upon my arrival. The main lake was still mostly frozen and the geese were mere specks in the distance. In the late afternoon, they suddenly lifted off in an encapsulating swarm. I hastily photographed, not knowing if anything would be in focus. And then… they disappeared. I soon realized that their feeding grounds were in the windswept fields across the highway. Once there, they had a feast—and so did I, photographing them from sunset to sunrise. I now began to understand the rhythmic pattern between grain feasting and lake resting.
The best times for viewing the flight swarms are sunrise till mid-morning and late afternoon till sunset. In their dizzying mass lift-off from Freezeout Lake, en route to the fields, the Rocky Mountain Front provides a dynamic backdrop.
In addition to snow geese, up to 10,000 tundra swans have been reported, along with herons, ringbilled terns, and a variety of other waterfowl. Smaller ponds in the area host many of these birds as they dip and bathe and forage in the thawed waters. Gravel roads meander near the ponds, making the viewing and photo opportunities that much better. If the snow geese are across the highway feeding, be sure to check out the swans flying in to these other ponds. Their swarms might not be as gigantic as the geese’s, but, their flight and backdrop is equally striking.
Check the weather before you go and call the Freezeout WMA at 406-467-2646. Note that grain-field roads turn to slick mud after a wet storm. When you get stuck and start sliding off the road, you’ll miss the fowl flight. Otherwise, you’ll have a great time viewing and photographing this massive waterfowl migration.
Carol Polich teaches photography through the Adult Community Education program in Bozeman.