Choteau will host its first-ever “Wild Wings in Choteau” weekend — a three-day festival celebrating the annual waterfowl migration — on March 22-24 with events planned at the Stage Stop Inn and the state’s Freezout Lake Wildlife Management Area.
“We thought we’d give it a try and see if we could bring some people to stay in our motels, eat in our restaurants, enjoy Choteau,” one of the organizers, Julie Ameline, said during an interview. “We are so excited that this is going to take place.”
Ameline is the director of the nonprofit Old Trail Museum in Choteau. She is the co-chairwoman of the birding festival, sharing organizational duties with birding enthusiast Nancy Milewski. They are on a committee that includes Maggie Carr and Yve Bardwell of Dropstone Outfitting, retired biologist Dave Shea, bird watcher Mike Schwitters, Stage Stop Inn co-owner Barb Bouma and community member Polly Cunningham.
Ameline said the idea for the birding festival grew out of the Montana Economic Developers Association community assessment, which the Choteau-Area Port Authority facilitated here last year.
Out of the MEDA assessment, a group formed to explore tourism- and recreation-related issues for Choteau and then members of that group broke down into a smaller committee that would focus on a spring shoulder season event for Choteau.
The idea of capitalizing on the waterfowl migration seemed like a natural since the migration of thousands of tundra swans, snow geese, Ross’s geese, Canada geese and other birds every spring already draws people from across the state to the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Freezout WMA, located on U.S. Highway 89 between Choteau and Fairfield.
They named the new event, “Wild Wings in Choteau” and picked a date that coincides with the beginning of the migration and with the Old Trail Museum’s annual Wild Game Feed potluck and benefit auction.
“Because the birders participate in our Wild Game feed, we decided to make sure it was on the weekend we do that,” Ameline said.
The event is being advertised in print, on social media and on the radio, and the group has invited Audubon clubs from throughout the region.
The group has received funding for promotions and other expenses from MEDA (a $500 grant) and from the Choteau Tourism Business Improvement District ($1,000).
The event begins on Friday, March 22, at 7 p.m. with a showing of the film, “Winged Migration,” at the Stage Stop Inn convention center. The movie is free to the public.
On Saturday, March 23, from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., there will be guided tours of Freezout Lake WMA. The motel will have breakfast ready, starting at 5:30 a.m. for guests who want to go on the tour.
Those wanting to go on the tour should meet at the motel front doors at 6:30 a.m. People can drive their own vehicles or for $5 ride a van provided by Dropstone Outfitting, which can seat up to 12 people.
Anyone wanting to ride on the van should contact email@example.com or call her at 406-461-2114 to reserve a space.
FWP wildlife biologist Brent Lonner will be at the Freezout headquarters to answer questions from visitors and to help people get to the viewing spots. Shea, Schwitters and Milewski will serve as tour guides.
At 1 p.m., Schwitters, a world-renowned master birder, will be back at the motel to present a slide show and lecture titled, “White Geese over Montana.” The lecture is free and will be given in the breakfast room.
At 5:30 p.m., the doors will open in the convention center for the OTM Wild Game Feed. Admission is by freewill donation. As in the past, the feed will feature potluck wild game and non-game dishes prepared by OTM board members and community members. The event includes a silent auction, live auction and 50/50 drawing.
Sunday, March 24, will be the last day of the festival. Again, there will be guided tours of Freezout, leaving the motel at 6:30 a.m. with space on the Dropstone van available.
Ameline said the organizers’ main goal is to bring commerce to Choteau during the “shoulder” season — the spring and fall seasons that bracket the busy summer travel months.
The motel already sees an uptick in reservations around the bird migration as people come from around the state and as far away as Washington state to watch the birds make their pit stop at and around the Freezout Lake complex as they fly north to their nesting grounds.
Ameline said the Wild Game Feed is the museum’s main annual fundraiser. “It really benefits to try to get this a little bit bigger,” she said.
Ameline and Carr, in a separate interview, both said they hope Choteau residents turn out for the festival too.
“We want the townspeople to be able to partake in this too. There are a lot of people who don’t go out and see the geese. There is an opportunity for them to come out and have expert guides show it to them,” Ameline said. When she was busy raising her family, they never found the time to go and see the geese, and now she wishes they had.
Carr said she and her business partner, Bardwell, were happy to help out with this event because they too want to see more people enjoy the region’s natural resources and the birding festival just makes sense. They hope the event is a success this year and grows in the future.
She said she hopes the festival raises community awareness of the migration, adding that she would love to see local schools organize field trips to show the migration to children.
“This year, I just hope it puts us on the map,” she said, but added that she hopes the festival becomes an annual event and grows. “We’ve got ideas for the future as to where it could go,” she said.
Carr said she tries to get out to Freezout during either the spring or fall migration, but added that a person doesn’t even have to be interested in birds to be impressed by the scene.
“It’s one of those things, that regardless of whether you like birds, to see hundreds of thousands of birds together, taking off or landing, is really incredible,” she said. The sound the birds make is entrancing and the way they all move together in different visual patterns is phenomenal, she said.
Anyone wanting to make reservations at the Stage Stop Inn for the Wild Wings weekend can call 466-5900 or go online to www.stagestopinn.com.