Snow goose migration begins at Montana’s Freezeout Lake; here’s how to find stunning views – Great Falls Tribune

Near the southern edge of Teton County, where the earth begins to buckle and rise toward what ultimately becomes the Rocky Mountain Front, the first act in a ballet as old as time has begun. The snow geese are returning to Montana.
Each year, halfway through the month of March, tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of snow geese arrive in central Montana. It’s a midway resting point for their 2,000-mile migration from winter feeding grounds in the Central Valley of California and northern Mexico to their breeding grounds on the arctic coast of Alaska and western Canada.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Freezeout Lake just south of Choteau is Montana’s primary snow goose staging area. As many as 300,000 snow geese and 10,000 tundra swans rest there before flying northward.
“I like to tell people you don’t even have to be a ‘bird-person’ to appreciate this,” said Maggie Carr, organizer of the Wild Wings Festival in Choteau. “It’s just a sheer natural phenomenon that is amazing.”
In Montana, most of the birds cross the Rocky Mountains south of Helena, then fly north toward Freezeout Lake Wildlife Management Area. The birds sleep on the lake during the night, then head to nearby fields at sunrise to feed on waste grain. The cycle is repeated in the evenings when the birds return to the fields before settling down on the lake for the night.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the snow goose is one of the world’s most abundant waterfowl species. Biologists estimate that there are around 15 million lesser snow geese, divided into three separate populations.
The western population breeds in colonies on the arctic tundra, where each female builds a shallow nest lined with plant material and down from her body. The snow goose is also an extremely chatty bird. Its “whouck” or “kowk” call, made repeatedly while in flight and in flocks on the ground, fills the air this time of year all around Freezeout Lake.
In a language known only to the geese themselves, the flock will signal amongst themselves and then at a moment’s notice rise as one from Freezeout Lake’s waters. The effect is overwhelming. The combined sound of perhaps 100,000 pairs of wings flapping in unison resembles that of a crowd cheering at a sports stadium.
“It is really one of the most phenomenal things to witness in central Montana wildlife-wise,” Carr said. “Taking kids out there is a super-cool thing to do because they just get blown away by it. It’s breathtaking.”
In recent years the snow geese migration has proven to be a popular tourism event, drawing hundreds of people to Choteau and the surrounding area to witness the spectacle. In response, community organizers in Choteau organized the annual Wild Wings Festival in honor of the migration, a weekend-long event filled with guided tours, presentations from wildlife biologists and community dinners.
That annual festivity was canceled the past two years due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic. This year the Wild Wings Festival has returned to central Montana, with an expanded emphasis upon providing a range of alternative events to people wanting a bit more than just driving out to see the geese.
“Sometimes it’s hard to watch the birds all day,” Carr acknowledged. “They go out to feed for a while, so you don’t see them all day. We’re trying to have other events going on during that time. This year we’ve done a better job of talking to each of the businesses in the community to let them know what’s going on so they have an opportunity to capitalize off of it.”
The scheduled events taking place in Choteau next weekend include an art show, live music, interpretive presentations, and a wild game feed. A complete listing of events can be accessed at
However, the premier event and why the festival is being held at all is, of course, the geese themselves. In coordination with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Wild Wings Festival includes a schedule of caravan-style trips around the Freezeout Lake Wildlife Management Area with wildlife biologists on hand to offer some context into what participants are looking at.
“It’s a little bit different than what we’ve done in the past,” Carr said. “In 2020 when we planned this, we actually rented some of those big stagecoach buses and we were going to do it that way, but this year because there is still the concern of COVID we decided to do it caravan style. People will follow in their vehicles, and then we’ll stop at certain locations. We’ll have FWP biologists at those locations that will be talking about various migration patterns and what we’re looking at. This is sort of the first year that we’re trying it just to sort of see how it works.”
Like the birds themselves, people wanting to participate in the caravan tours will have to arrive in Choteau at the crack of dawn-ish. The tours will set out from the Stage Stop Inn in Choteau at regular intervals between 6:30 and 10:30 a.m. Feel free to contact the Stage Stop Inn directly for more information.
The confluence of people and wildlife in a single location does portend some inconveniences. Nature moves at its own schedule, undeterred by the exigencies of the human world. Experiencing it in all its glory requires a bit of patience and toleration for other people who’ve taken time away hoping to have a similar experience.
“Be prepared for wind,” Carr advised of those planning to attend the event. “That’s probably the number one thing. It can be a beautiful day out and 50 degrees, but if it’s windy it’s going to feel like it’s in the 20s. Definitely be prepared for wind and cold.
“A good set of binoculars is definitely key, and chairs are great. Sometimes I like to bring a book so that you can read for a little while, or if you bring a bird identification book you can use it because there’s other birds there besides the snow geese during this time. The swans are also going to be there in large numbers.”
Carr said that dogs are welcome as long as they are well-behaved and under control.
“If a dog is on a leash it’s probably not a big deal, but if your dog is going to run into a field of snow geese, that’s probably not a great thing.”
“Be careful when you’re driving and if you do want to watch birds be sure you pull off the road,” she added. “There’s been several vehicle accidents there because people will be watching the birds or going really slow and someone’s trying to pass them. There’re people out walking, too. Be patient, be courteous, drive cautiously and share the road. It’s certainly not something to do if you’re going to be in a hurry.”