Early this July, Montana Audubon in collaboration with the University of Montana Bird Ecology Lab, completed another season of bird monitoring at the O’Dell Creek restoration area. Located about 4 miles south of Ennis in the beautiful Madison Valley, the O’Dell Creek restoration site has been a perfect example of restoration done right since the project’s inception in 2005.
More than 17 years have passed since rancher Jeff Laszlo realized the hidden potential of a degraded section of grazing land owned by his family for five generations. Years ago, water flowing from the several springs that form the headwaters of O’Dell Creek was diverted through miles of drainage ditches in an attempt to improve grazing conditions. Over time, a vast area that used to have pristine wet meadows, willow-lined meandering creeks and cattail marshes dried up, and some of the finest wildlife habitat in the Madison Valley was lost….temporarily.
Understanding the potential of the land, Laszlo shared his restoration vision with a host of federal and state agencies, non-profit groups, and private industries. With support and advice from these multiple partners, engineers from the River Design Group developed a restoration plan that was carried out over the course of several years. So far these efforts have created more than 15 miles of meandering streams that join together to form O’Dell Creek–and nearly one thousand acres of wetlands. As vegetation communities rebounded, so did the birds, fish, and other wildlife.
One of the reasons this remarkable restoration project stands out is the carefully planned, long-term
monitoring efforts that began during the early stages of restoration and has been ongoing since.
Monitoring of bird populations around O’Dell Creek has been a great way of measuring restoration
progress and success. Every year we document new species taking advantage of the ever-
improving habitat. Some riparian and wetland species, such as Red-winged Blackbirds, have returned and
bred in the area within a year or two of the main restoration efforts. More specialized species, such as Marsh Wrens, had to wait several more years until patches of their preferred habitat became large and natural enough to suit their needs. As of today, just about every patch of cattails within the restoration area is home to multiple Marsh Wren territories, and more than 120 bird species have been documented on site.
Our recent monitoring included point counts–a technique in which a technician stands at a predetermined point for 10 minutes and notes all of the bird species they see or hear within that 10 minutes–at more than 100 different locations. We also use playback surveys targeting secretive marsh birds such as Sora, Virginia Rail and American Bittern, as well as waterfowl surveys where duck pairs, individuals, and broods are counted from overlooks high above the restoration area with the help of spotting scopes. Highlights included daily sightings of at least three pairs of Short-eared Owl being dive-bombed by Long-billed Curlews, and Northern Harriers defending nests or young, and multiple, jaw-dropping instances of a Peregrine Falcon blasting through flocks of shorebirds and ducks (unsuccessfully).
It is a real treat to carry out surveys in such an inspiring place. Less than 20 years ago, pre-restoration, it would have been hard to find more than 5-10 breeding species around the O’Dell Creek headwaters. Today, well over 100 bird species regularly rely on the robust, restored wetlands and grasslands. Encouraged by the restoration success, some Granger Ranch neighbors have already joined the restoration efforts. Others will undoubtedly be inspired to do so, to the benefit of wildlife and humans alike.