Bosque del Apache in New Mexico has a well-deserved reputation among photographers as a great place to photograph wintering waterfowl, cranes, and other wildlife. Another spring hot spot that is much less known but well worth a visit is Freezeout Lake in north-central Montana.
Snow Geese heading from their wintering grounds in the southern states use Freezeout Lake as a rest stop on the journey to their breeding grounds in the Arctic. Several hundred thousand snow geese and around 10,000 tundra swans (as well a pintails, mallards, goldeneyes, other waterfowl, raptors, and many passerines – more than 200 species total) can be found here, with peak numbers occurring at the end of March,
I drove to Freezeout on March 17, 2010, thinking that the mild winter and early spring would have the birds arriving earlier than usual. I was so wrong. The lakes/ponds that constitute Freezeout Lake Management Area (managed by Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks) were still mostly frozen, and the birds numbered “only a few thousand.”
There are a series of roads and “human rest stops” throughout the interior of the management area. I chose to camp at the westernmost site, furthest from the highway and the main access road. Most of the roads are graveled and passable during wet weather. However, a secondary access road (not marked on the highway) is composed of ungraveled clay and is not passable in even the slightest rain. Heed the warning signs!
A few years ago I ignored the signs during a light rain, and I ended up stuck on this backroad. It was well below freezing at night, so I just figured I would wait for the road to freeze before making my way to safety. At 2:00 a.m. I poked my head out of my camper and saw a weather front coming in from the north. I didn’t know if it was a warm or cold front, but the worst possible scenario, in my mind, was increasing temperatures and more rain – I could be out there for days. I decided to give it my best shot. Several thrill-seekers in 4WD vehicles had passed by me during the day, creating rough ruts in the road. I hit these ruts, and for about 300 yards my wheels were spinning faster than the truck was moving, the truck bounced crazily (if I got thrown out of the ruts, I would certainly end up in one of the water-filled ditches on either side of the road), and I had a death-grip on the steering wheel. I can’t describe the relief I felt when I crossed over the cattle guard and hit gravel. Never, never mess with clay roads (known locally as gumbo).
Camping at Freezeout Lake during the peak of the migration is an experience that absolutely must not be missed. At night I was the only person for miles, and in the darkness the constant calling of thousands of snow geese (depending on the campsite, they may be close or distant) along with the yelping wails of coyotes calling back and forth had a primeval feeling to it, far removed from the sounds of civilization that we experience most of our days.
The photos that most of us want occur near sunrise during “take-off” when the geese head out to the surrounding fields to eat. The constant calling of the birds suddenly increases in volume and intensity (saying “get your cameras ready”), and in a few seconds the birds ascend and begin to fill the sky. Depending on the distance to the flocks, cloud conditions, and the flock’s position relative to the rising sun, photos can vary from huge masses of birds, detailed photos of individuals or small groups, to distant silhouettes. During the day, birds will come and go, and this is the best time to try your bird-in-flight photography skills.
Because of the distance, I used my 500mm f/4 lens most of the time. During the day, especially if the sky is clear, a 400mm f/5.6 or 300mm f/4 (in the Canon family) may be most useful. Lens choice will be based on distance and the composition that one desires.
Hunting is allowed at Freezeout, and as a result the waterfowl tends to be more skittish than in areas where hunting is prohibited and visited only by birdwatchers. This makes longer lenses more useful.
Birds are certainly not the only photographic subject at Freezeout Lake. The “Big Sky Country” is famous for sunsets, and the cloud patterns and rural landscape are a great combination.
Freezeout Lake Wildlife Management Area is located in north central Montana 40 miles west of Great Falls along US Highway 89 between Fairfield and Choteau. There are turnouts and parking areas to area from US Highway 89 and from Frontage road from Fairfield year-round. Interior roads are open to vehicles from March 15 to the beginning of waterfowl hunting season in the fall. Dike-system roads are closed to vehicles, but they are great for hiking to get closer to the birds.