Sunday, February 14, 2016

2015 goes out with a bang

After a decent uptick in our luck in November we were re-invigorated to end the year big. We ended November with 291 species, which was much higher than we thought we’d get to this year, and it felt like there were still some nice birds left to chase before the year was over, so we thought we’d push and see how much we could find with the last month of the year.

December 7: Anna’s Hummingbird in Garden City

First order of business was to track down an Anna’s Hummingbird – a bird normally restricted to pacific states and the southwest that has been increasingly wandering into Idaho in the fall and staying over the winter in yards all over the Treasure Valley and the Moscow area. They usually start showing up in August or September, and many of them find a favorite yard to hang out in right away, and then hang out in that same yard through the entire winter. With quite a few showing up in the Boise area these days and staying put at regular locations for months in a row, we were long overdue to get a look at one of these. We got in touch with a friend who has some regulars that have been marked by the Intermountain Bird Observatory for a new study they’re undertaking to try to get a grasp on their apparent range expansion into Idaho. They’ve got at least 3 spending the winter in their yard, and after half an hour or so of watching, one of them made an appearance for us (Idaho year bird #293).

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Anna’s Hummingbird in Garden City, Ada County. December 7, 2015.

December 15: White-winged Crossbills at Dry Creek Cemetery

White-winged Crossbills are an irruptive winter finch that occasionally breeds in Idaho’s panhandle. It’s been awhile since they’ve made a strong appearance, but this winter they started to show up in good numbers in early December around Moscow. A good showing in Moscow put others around the state on alert and pretty soon they were being found in McCall and Idaho Falls as well. We kept an eye out for them when we were around the right kind of habitat (mainly mature spruce with a good cone crop) but never found any on our own. However, Jason Talbot had better luck and found a handful of them at Dry Creek Cemetery in Boise on December 15. I had a gap in my schedule at work so we zipped out for a very quick look. We ran into Steve Hofhine who had just seen them before we arrived, and after just a few minutes of browsing around Steve found the birds again and gave me a holler to come over and take a look. We found 2 birds (Idaho year bird #294), snapped a few quick pics (including one of a more common Red Crossbill they were hanging out with) and then headed back to work.

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White-winged Crossbill at Dry Creek Cemetery, Ada County. December 15, 2015.

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White-winged Crossbill at Dry Creek Cemetery, Ada County. December 15, 2015.

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White-winged Crossbill at Dry Creek Cemetery, Ada County. December 15, 2015.

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White-winged Crossbill at Dry Creek Cemetery, Ada County. December 15, 2015.

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Red Crossbill at Dry Creek Cemetery, Ada County. December 15, 2015.

December 20: Bohemian Waxwing at Dry Creek Cemetery

Somehow we made it all the way to the last 10 days of the year without seeing a Bohemian Waxwing. We went to Dry Creek Cemetery on December 20th to make that right. We couldn’t find one in the cemetery where others had usually seen them, but a quick drive through the neighborhood just north of the cemetery procuced gobs of waxwings, including this Bohemian (Idaho year bird #295).

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Bohemian Waxwing near Dry Creek Cemetery, Ada County. December 20, 2015.

December 26: Savannah Sparrow at Pleasant Valley Road

In 2013 and 2014 we got all four of the zonotrichia sparrows that occur in Idaho. This year, we were just missing Golden-crowned Sparrow, so when Jason Talbot reported one south of Kuna on Pleasant Valley Road we zipped out to try to relocate it. We never found it, but did have quite a surprising group of Savannah Sparrows – very rare around here in the dead of winter.

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Savannah Sparrow on Pleasant Valley Road south of Kuna, Ada County. December 26, 2015.

December 28: Winter specialties on the South Fork of the Boise River

We had some spare time on our hands between Christmas and New Years since I’d taken the entire week off in anticipation of my parents visiting. They weren’t actually able to come out, so we took the opportunity to see what else we could knock out before the year ended. Most of the very few things that were still showing up on our needs alert were pretty far away, and we had some other family visiting on the 28th so we couldn’t take off right away, so rather than chasing something new we just set out to enjoy some nice winter scenery along the South Fork of the Boise River, downstream from Anderson Ranch Dam.

The trip ended up being surprisingly birdy – starting with a nice flock of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches along the road down to the dam. They provided the best up-close views of this species we have had so far.

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Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch (interior race) near Anderson Ranch Dam, Elmore County. December 28, 2015.

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Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch (Hepburn’s/coastal race) near Anderson Ranch Dam, Elmore County. December 28, 2015.

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Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches (two Hepburn’s/coastal and one interior race) near Anderson Ranch Dam, Elmore County. December 28, 2015.

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Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch (interior race) near Anderson Ranch Dam, Elmore County. December 28, 2015.

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Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches (two Hepburn’s/coastal and one interior race) near Anderson Ranch Dam, Elmore County. December 28, 2015.

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Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch (interior race) near Anderson Ranch Dam, Elmore County. December 28, 2015.

Along the South Fork below the dam we had lots of other nice birds, including loads of American Dippers, Steller’s Jays, and Chukars, to name a few.

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American Dipper (showing its nictating membrane) on the South Fork of the Boise River, Elmore County. December 28, 2015.

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American Dipper on the South Fork of the Boise River, Elmore County. December 28, 2015.

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Steller’s Jay on the South Fork of the Boise River, Elmore County. December 28, 2015.

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Chukars on the South Fork of the Boise River, Elmore County. December 28, 2015.

One really fun find was a pair of Ruffed Grouse hanging out in some trees right along the river banks, about eye level with us in the car. It took us an inordinately long time to find these guys for the first time, so it’s still always really fun when we stumble on them again.

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Ruffed Grouse on the South Fork of the Boise River, Elmore County. December 28, 2015.

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Ruffed Grouse on the South Fork of the Boise River, Elmore County. December 28, 2015.

Just before the endpoint of our trip down the river we spotted what looked like an owl way back in a tree probably a hundred yards or more from the road. We were trying to confirm what it was when it flew and zipped toward us, then across the road in front of us, and disappeared into some dense shrubbery on the opposite side of the road. We tried for a while to re-find it but were unsuccessful. However, on the way back out we were lucky enough to find another, right above the road, and it held still really nicely while we shot a few photos out the sunroof of our car. We’ve had a handful of Northern Pygmy Owls in Idaho before, mostly just heard-only, but this was the first time we got a nice solid daytime view of this species in Idaho.

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Northern Pygmy Owl on the South Fork of the Boise River, Elmore County. December 28, 2015.

As the daylight was fading and we were zipping back up to the dam to head home, we had to stop one more time when we found another Ruffed Grouse hanging out in a tree right by the road.

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Ruffed Grouse on the South Fork of the Boise River, Elmore County. December 28, 2015.

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Ruffed Grouse on the South Fork of the Boise River, Elmore County. December 28, 2015.

December 30: Michaud Creek, Silver Creek, Gannett, and Triumph

Our Monday visitors spent the night and headed home on Tuesday, and after they left we were free for the next six days. We decided to make an attempt at one of our biggest nemesis birds of the year – Sharp-tailed Grouse. We’d looked for them all over the Chester area near St. Anthony early in the year where they spend the winter along the creek bottoms, we’d looked for them at a handful of WMAs, historical checklist locations, and other rumoured lek sites during their peak lekking season in May and June, and had searched all over near their only southwest Idaho stronghold near Midvale in the fall. When a report came in from near Pocatello I figured it was just a one-off – that someone had gotten lucky and stumbled upon a handful that would never be re-located. However, soon another couple of reports came in for the exact same location and it seemed like they might be staying put, at least for a bit. We headed to Pocatello on the 29th, and searched the Michaud Creek area west of town in the afternoon as soon as we got there, but stormy weather kept the bird activity pretty low, and we didn’t find any grouse.

We spent the night in Pocatello, and headed back out bright and early the next morning. On the way in we had a nice flock of Common Redpolls. I finally clued in that these guys really like birch, so the extensive water birch thickets along Michaud Creek were the perfect place to find a large flock. We counted at least 120 of these guys, and kept a close eye out for a Hoary in the mix (we never found one).

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Common Redpoll on Michaud Creek Road, Power County. December 30, 2015.

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Common Redpoll on Michaud Creek Road, Power County. December 30, 2015.

We zipped all the way down Michaud Creek Road until the snow got too deep to travel anymore without finding any grouse, but on the way back out we finally saw these great big lumps hanging out in the trees. Finally! A lifer, and Idaho year bird #296! I would have liked to try to sneek a little closer, but there was a fence in the way, and I wanted to be respectful of the private property in the area. Still – I was pretty happy with the shots we got to bring home.

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Sharp-tailed Grouse on Michaud Creek Road, Power County. December 30, 2015.

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Sharp-tailed Grouse on Michaud Creek Road, Power County. December 30, 2015.

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Sharp-tailed Grouse on Michaud Creek Road, Power County. December 30, 2015.

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Sharp-tailed Grouse on Michaud Creek Road, Power County. December 30, 2015.

On the way back out to the main road we had an even closer encounter with the large flock of Common Redpolls. They were quite tolerant of our presence, and we were probably within 10-15 feet of them several times. The lighting was excellent so we took advantage of the opportunity and shot to our hearts’ content.

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Common Redpoll on Michaud Creek Road, Power County. December 30, 2015.

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Common Redpoll on Michaud Creek Road, Power County. December 30, 2015.

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Common Redpoll on Michaud Creek Road, Power County. December 30, 2015.

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Common Redpoll on Michaud Creek Road, Power County. December 30, 2015.

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Common Redpoll on Michaud Creek Road, Power County. December 30, 2015.

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Common Redpoll on Michaud Creek Road, Power County. December 30, 2015.

After that stop we had lots of daylight left, but no reports of anything else to chase and no concrete plans for the rest of my time off. We decided to head over to the Bellevue Triangle area (Silver Creek/Picabo in the southeast corner, the junction of Highway 20 and Highway 75 in the southwest corner, and Bellevue on the north) in hopes of finding a Gyrfalcon – a very rare arctic specialty that’s shown up in this area every now and then over the years. Nothing too unusual turned up at Silver Creek, though it was fun to see moose eating through a stack of hay, a handful of Trumpeter Swans on the ponds at the preserve, and a Belted Kingfisher fishing in the barely open water near the Hayspur Fish Hatchery.

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Moose and Mule Deer near Silver Creek, Blaine County. December 30, 2015.

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Trumpeter Swans near Silver Creek, Blaine County. December 30, 2015.

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Trumpeter Swan near Silver Creek, Blaine County. December 30, 2015.

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Belted Kingfisher near Hayspur Fish Hatchery, Blaine County. December 30, 2015.

We never found a Gyrfalcon on that trip, but as we searched some of the roads around the triangle our best find was a lone Barn Owl – which actually turned out to be the first county record for Blaine County (at least as far as eBird records are concerned). That seemed odd to me, since the agricultural area seemed like a fairly typical place for them to hang out.

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Barn Owl near Gannett, Blaine County. December 30, 2015.

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Barn Owl near Gannett, Blaine County. December 30, 2015.

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Barn Owl near Gannett, Blaine County. December 30, 2015.

We spent the night in Hailey, and for our final birding trip of the year before heading home we went out to Triumph, a tiny little town in the mountains a few miles east of Hailey that’s well-known among birders as a great place to find Rosy-Finches. They come down out of the nearby mountains in the winter to feast at a few neighborhood feeders. We found a large flock right away, that had a nice mix of Black and both races of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches.

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Mixed Rosy-Finches in Triumph, Blaine County. December 31, 2015.

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Mixed Rosy-Finches in Triumph, Blaine County. December 31, 2015.

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Mixed Rosy-Finches in Triumph, Blaine County. December 31, 2015.

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Mixed Rosy-Finches in Triumph, Blaine County. December 31, 2015.

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Mixed Rosy-Finches in Triumph, Blaine County. December 31, 2015.

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Mixed Rosy-Finches in Triumph, Blaine County. December 31, 2015.

When all was said and done we were pretty happy with hitting 296 for the year. Ever since we started birding in Idaho, Cheryl Huizinga has been the #1 (in terms of species seen in Idaho) on eBird, and her highest count prior to 2015 was 295. She’s always seemed pretty unbeatable, so when we hit 295 we were thrilled to tie her highest year ever prior to 2015, and at 296 we were even more thrilled to know we had beaten her previous high count. That being said – in 2015 she really knocked it out of the park, coming in with a total of 308 species! In reality, our competition with Cheryl was unspoken, very friendly, and probably a one-way deal (I doubt she felt like she was competing with us at all since she maintained such a solid lead all year). Cheryl’s an awesome birder who we always enjoy running into in the field, and honestly I would think something was wrong if we ever beat her. That being said – it was pretty fun even just to beat her prior year totals with our 2015 list.

Cheryl’s total of 308 puts her at the #1 biggest Idaho year list ever recorded in eBird, and our total of 296 put us at #2. However, not everybody uses eBird, and there are some pretty impressive list totals in other years that aren’t captured in eBird. I combined some notes from a few other birders that have paid attention to these sorts of records over the years, with list totals kept on ABA.org, counts reported to IdahoBirds.net, as well as those recorded on eBird to come up with what I think is the definitive list of the top 10 Idaho big years so far. Cheryl came in at #3 (with a significant lead over #4), and we came in at #5.

#1 - 318 - Harry Krueger 2004 (IdahoBirds.net)
#2 - 313? - Marty Collar (year unknown, reported by Jay)
#3 - 308 - Cheryl Huizinga 2015 (eBird.org)
#4 - 298 - Jay Carlisle 2009 (self-reported)
#5 - 296 - Stoddard & Ellen Davenport 2015 (eBird.org)
#6 - 295 - Cheryl Huizinga 2014 (eBird.org)
#6 - 295 - Heidi Ware 2009 (reported by Jay)
#8 - 292 - Cheryl Huizinga 2013 (eBird.org)
#9 - 290 - Larry Arnold 2014 (eBird.org)
#10 - 286 - Jay Carlisle 2013 (eBird.org)
#10 - 286 - Jay Carlisle 2014 (eBird.org)
#10 - 286 - Kathleen Cameron 2013 (ABA.org)

I never anticipated we’d get so close to 300 species this year, but in hindsight I really wish we’d have played our cards a little different a few times throughout the year to get across that mark, as only 3 others have.

  • Early in the year there was a Blue Jay that lingered at Hyatt Hidden Lakes Reserve in Boise for a couple of months – I tried for it a few times but should have kept at it until I found it.
  • Over Memorial Day weekend we were in McCall while an insane number of rarities were turning up in southeast Idaho, and I suspect if we’d have gone to southeast Idaho for Memorial Day weekend to get in on the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect and gone to McCall a week later that alone may have been enough to push us over 300.
  • There were Lark Buntings showing up in the desert around Craters of the Moon over the summer that we never tried for.
  • We could have looked for Mountain Quail in the Hells Canyon area.
  • I didn’t find out until a few weeks ago that a Yellow-billed Cuckoo was found in Blaine County mid-summer.
  • We missed out on a few other nice birds like a Hooded Oriole because I usually avoid asking people if I can come to their house to see the birds hanging out in their yard.

I could go on and on with things we could have chased to bump up the year list – there were 337 species seen in the state last year so that means we missed 41 – but truth be told I’m also quite happy to have gotten a number that I feel like we can beat it in 2016. It’s a lot of work and mental effort to keep track of all the planning and logistics that go into getting that many birds in a year, so part of me kind of hopes we can do one more really big year (hopefully breaking our 2015 count) and then sort of take it easy a little more after that. Of course I won’t be able to help myself and will probably always chase new state birds when I get the chance, but maybe after 2016 I’ll ease up on the year listing a bit and try to add a little sanity back into the mix. I guess we’ll just see when we get there!

Monday, January 25, 2016

Late migrants and a solid start on winter birds

November was a much more exciting month than September or October. We got a new camera at the end of October, and were excited to get out and use it. We had a nice mix of late migrants passing through as well as the start of some of our winter specialties. Here are the highlights from the month:

November 4: Kuna Sewage Ponds

On November 4 we took a quick trip out to the Kuna Sewage Ponds. We didn’t have any particular targets in mind, we just wanted a chance to start getting used to the camera at a place we knew for sure there would be birds. Highlights from this trip included a Peregrine Falcon and a flock of Dunlins.

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Peregrine Falcon at Kuna Sewage Ponds, Ada County. November 4, 2015.

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Dunlins (and a Ring-billed Gull) at Kuna Sewage Ponds, Ada County. November 4, 2015.

November 14: Wildland Firefighters Monument

One of the more exciting finds of the month was a Hooded Warbler that an employee of the National Interagency Fire Center found hanging out around the Wildland Firefighters Monument. At first it seemed like there wouldn’t be any access for birders to be able to go see the bird since the fire center is a closed campus with security procedures that have to be satisfied for anybody to visit, but it actually turned out that all we needed to do was drive up to the gate, tell the security detail we wanted to see the monument, show our IDs, and keep a visitors pass on us while we were there. It took an hour or so of patience, but eventually we tracked the bird down. We got nice looks a couple of times but it wouln’t hold still long enough for pictures. The “safety shot” below is the best I could do when I just hurriedly snapped the shutter the very first time the bird flew in front of me. If you look close the small dot in the center is the Hooded Warbler.

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Hooded Warbler at the National Interagency Fire Center, Ada County. November 14, 2015.

November 15: Simco Road and Ted Trueblood WMA

On November 15 we took Simco Road (about halfway between Boise and Mountain Home) down to the Ted Trueblood WMA near Grandview. We had been on Simco Road a couple of other times recently and had noticed decent sized flocks of Horned Larks starting to gather in the area, so we decided to slow down and start checking them out to see if they had any buntings or longspurs mixed in. On this trip, we did manage to find a small handful of Snow Buntings, a pretty nice find for this close to Boise!

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Snow Bunting on Simco Road, Elmore County. November 15, 2015.

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Snow Bunting on Simco Road, Elmore County. November 15, 2015.

At Ted Trueblood we had loads of Sparrows to pick through. We were hoping to pick up a Golden-crowned, which we didn’t find, but we did get a nice late season Savannah Sparrow.

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Savannah Sparrow at Ted Trueblood WMA, Elmore County. November 15, 2015.

On the island in the center of the main pond we had a nice mix of shorebirds – including Dunlins, White-faced Ibis, Wilson’s Snipes, and this was about the latest we’d seen most of those species in Idaho.

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Dunlins and a White-faced Ibis at Ted Trueblood WMA, Elmore County. November 15, 2015.

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White-faced Ibis at Ted Trueblood WMA, Elmore County. November 15, 2015.

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Wilson’s Snipe at Ted Trueblood WMA, Elmore County. November 15, 2015.

At one little opening in the thick marsh where a small canal ran through we pulled over for a minute to listen for rails and any potential late season Soras. No Soras on this trip, but we did get a nice look at a couple of Virginia Rails.

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Virginia Rail at Ted Trueblood WMA, Elmore County. November 15, 2015.

While we were enjoying the rails we spotted a couple of unusual sparrows, and after getting a decent look they turned out to be Swamp Sparrows. Apparently these guys are somewhat regular at Ted Trueblood, but they’re pretty rare in Idaho, turning up almost exclusively along the Snake River corridor in the southern part of the state.

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Swamp Sparrow at Ted Trueblood WMA, Elmore County. November 15, 2015.

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Swamp Sparrow at Ted Trueblood WMA, Elmore County. November 15, 2015.

November 21-23: Camas NWR

The weekend before Thanksgiving Nora and I headed to Rexburg to spend some time with my parents while Ellen went on a retreat with her sisters. The timing was serendipitous, as Steve Butterworth found a Gyrfalcon while performing a raptor survey near Camas NWR right after we got to town. I spent a few mornings trying to relocate the bird. I never did find it but did have a good time looking. My first trip out yielded a nice flock of American Tree Sparrows and a very mellow Rough-legged Hawk.

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American Tree Sparrow at Camas NWR, Jefferson County. November 21, 2015.

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Rough-legged Hawk at Camas NWR, Jefferson County. November 21, 2015.

Larry Arnold zipped over to try to relocate the bird as well. He did find it, and gave me a quick call to share the details. I followed his directions to the spot where he tracked it down and quickly found a falcon, though it turned out to be a Prairie Falcon instead of a Gyrfalcon. I also flushed a pair of Barn Owls while trying to get better views.

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Prairie Falcon at Camas NWR, Jefferson County. November 22, 2015.

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Barn Owl at Camas NWR, Jefferson County. November 22, 2015.

On one more attempt on the way out of town back towards Boise we still couldn’t find the Gyrfalcon, but did see this nice weasel, which appeared to be mid-transition from its summer to winter coats

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Weasel at Camas NWR, Jefferson County. November 23, 2015.

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Weasel at Camas NWR, Jefferson County. November 23, 2015.

November 28: Simco Road

The day after Thanksgiving we had a really nice layer of hoarfrost across the valley. I figured the extra layer of ice might concentrate the lark flocks on Simco Road near the road where the ground was clear so we headed out to take a look. Turns out that was a good guess. Right off the bat we found a large flock of finches hanging out near the road working over some old sunflowers. We had a very narrow shoulder and a fair bit of traffice, so we only had a couple of minutes to look, but we quickly turned up a Common Redpoll, one of the first of the year around the Treasure Valley, and closer than they’re usually found to Boise.

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Common Redpoll on Simco Road, Elmore County. November 28, 2015.

We found loads of larks hanging out near the road, but the problem was that since there was so much traffic the flocks wouldn’t stay put long enough to get a good look. We started checking side roads instead which turned out to be a great strategy. We found one particularly large flock and hung out right near them and just took our time picking through every bird in the flock. Our patience paid off, as we turned up at least one (and likely two) Lapland Longspurs! This was a new state bird for us, and a species we’ve spent a lot of time looking for each winter.

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Lapland Longspur near Simco Road, Elmore County. November 28, 2015.

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Lapland Longspur near Simco Road, Elmore County. November 28, 2015.

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Lapland Longspur near Simco Road, Elmore County. November 28, 2015.

We ended the month at 291 birds for the year in Idaho, much better than I expected we’d do. The nice bump in November gave us the encouragement we needed to try to add as many more as we could in December to close out the year. Stay tuned to hear how the rest of our 2015 played out.