Sunday, June 30, 2013

CJ Strike Reservoir and another stop at Indian Creek Reservoir

In 2011 we enjoyed our first month of May as birders. Our interest in birds had been developing over the prior two years, and in December 2010 we submitted our first eBird checklist and started thinking of ourselves as birders. Having started birding in the dead of winter, our first time birding during spring migration was exciting and overwhelming at the same time. We had one particular outing that is still one of my fondest birding memories. On May 7, 2011 we had our first “big day”. In one day, we saw 82 species, including 24 lifers, and saw some of southwest Idaho’s most scenic places for the first time. We started at Mountain Home Reservoir, which was covered with six different species of grebes, and the shores were crawling with shorebirds of 12 different species. Next we headed down to CJ Strike Reservoir and added a lot of grassland and sagebrush specialties along the way. We visited Bruneau Dunes State Park and the magnificent Bruneau Canyon Overlook Recreation Area as well, and as the day started to wind down we made a final stop at Ted Trueblood WMA.

No doubt we missed dozens of other species due to our lack of experience at that point, and I often think about how great it would be to repeat the same trip now that we have more experience behind us. Well this year, now that we’ve moved back to Idaho from Colorado, we were looking forward to the chance to apply our improved skills to Idaho’s spring migration. One problem we were happy to have was that we had already had so much success during the early part of spring migration that there were never a huge number of birds to chase all at once. Before May even started we had already seen more birds in 2013 than we saw in all of 2011, so we just had a small handful of target birds for our outing. It was still nice to revisit some of the same places we went on our “big day” in 2011.

We started at Mountain Home Reservoir, but for some reason, Mountain Home Reservoir just hasn’t been quite right for shorebirds this year. I kept expecting it to be covered in shorebirds, since we had seen 12 different species (10 for the first time) when we stopped there two years earlier. This year the only shorebird we’ve been able to find at Mountain Home Reservoir after multiple stops has been Killdeer. We didn’t spend too long there due to the lack of birds, and headed out towards CJ Strike Reservoir. The road out passes through the Snake River Birds of Prey area, and we had quite a few non-photogenic prairie falcons, a handful of other raptors, and a roadkill Great-horned Owl on the way out.

Snake River Birds of Prey sign

Snake River Birds of Prey sign in Elmore County. May 5, 2013.

Our first big stop was Ted Trueblood WMA, which is near the town of Grandview, just north of the Snake River, which is the Elmore/Owyhee County line. Ted Trueblood is a little difficult to bird during the spring, since most public access is closed off during the waterfowl nesting season. There is a road that runs along the north side of the WMA that offers a few good chances to check for birds in the brush and agricultural fields bordering the WMA, and a ways down the road there is a raised platform that’s great for scoping a large section of open water. We found several American White Pelicans, plus a variety of ducks from this viewpoint. The best bird for this stop was a group of a dozen or so White-faced Ibis (our first for Idaho) in the fields north of the access road.

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Ted Trueblood Wildlife Management Area, Elmore County. May 5, 2013.

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American White Pelicans at Ted Trueblood WMA, Elmore County. May 5, 2013.

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White-faced Ibis and Canada Geese, north of Ted Trueblood WMA, Elmore County. May 5, 2013.

Next we finished the drive to CJ Strike Reservoir. In 2011, this is where we saw our lifer Bonaparte’s Gull, Franklin’s Gull, and Bullocks Oriole. As with Mountain Home Reservoir, I’m not sure how the conditions were different than before, but none of these birds were present. There were a few regulars below the dam, but none of the migrants we were hoping for. We headed up to a small park above and to the north of the dam, and were happy to find several Forster’s Terns sitting on and calling from the buoys around the beach.

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Forster’s Tern at CJ Strike Dam, Owyhee County. May 5, 2013.

We followed the southern shore of CJ Strike Reservoir for a ways, and enjoyed several more terns, both Caspian and Forsters, plus a few rails and soras in some of the marshy areas along the shore. At Jacks Creek WMA we called for a Sora and were able to capture a bit of video.

Sora at Jacks Creek WMA, Owyhee County. May 5, 2013.

Later, we stopped at Bruneau Duck Ponds. In 2011 we found our lifer Blue-winged Teal here, along with a large variety of other waterfowl. This year the water was much lower, so the waterfowl were much fewer and farther between, but we did have a bold Virginia Rail calling loudly for a mate.

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Virginia Rail at Bruneau Duck Ponds, Owyhee County. May 5, 2013.

We had a good time and enjoyed quite a few birds on our outing, but it was interesting to see how the seasonal movement of birds changes from year to year. For the most part the entire trip was much less birdy than it was in 2011. We decided to spend the rest of our evening back at Indian Creek Reservoir closer to home, since this year Indian Creek has been the prime birding spot for shorebirds and waterfowl, and has even turned up some surprising passerine migrants.

To make this trip a little different than the dozen or so trips we had already made in the past month and a half, we decided to get out and walk the northern perimeter. On most trips, we stick to the southern and western edges, scoping as much as we can from the car. We haven’t covered much ground on foot, due both to the incredible swarms of insects that are anxious to dine on any exposed skin, and because in my experience the birds at Indian Creek are exceptionally flighty around foot traffic. In 2011, I tried to get out and approach the reservoir on foot a couple of different times, and every time I made it no more than 10 feet from the car before the entire reservoir seemed to flush and take off into the sky. Luckily, on this trip the birds were not as worried about our presence as they had been in the past. My current theory is that earlier in the year the reservoir is mostly covered with waterfowl, which are wary of hunters, and later in the year there are far more shorebirds, which are more accustomed to sharing beaches with tourists

It was nice to get a little improvement to our photos by not having to zoom in on birds all the way across the reservoir. Our pictures still suffered a little bit from the waning evening light, and we still tried to keep some distance between us and the birds to avoid flushing them, but the pictures turned out much better than they would have from the car. Shorebird highlights of this trip included a Spotted Sandpiper, several Least Sandpipers, a pair of Red-necked Phalaropes, and a Semipalmated Plover.

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Spotted Sandpiper at Indian Creek Reservoir, Ada County. May 5, 2013.

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Least Sandpiper at Indian Creek Reservoir, Ada County. May 5, 2013.

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Red-necked Phalarope at Indian Creek Reservoir, Ada County. May 5, 2013.

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Semipalmated Plover at Indian Creek Reservoir, Ada County. May 5, 2013.

There were also several different types of gulls at one sand spit. We found Franklin’s, Bonaparte’s, Ring-billed, California, and Herring Gulls.

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Mixed gulls at Indian Creek Reservoir, Ada County. May 5, 2013.

All in all it was a really fantastic day. The birds were not everywhere we expected them to be, but we still saw plenty. We saw 79 species, just a few short of what we had seen in 2011. Indian Creek really came through for us, with a total of 49 species, including 12 shorebirds, 5 gulls, 5 grebes, and a good variety of waterfowl, raptors, and passerines. As a lovely finish to our day, we enjoyed a beautiful sunset over Indian Creek Reservoir as we walked back to the car.

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Sunset over Indian Creek Reservoir, Ada County. May 5, 2013.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Indian Creek Reservoir, Foote Park, and more

The transition from April to May is a great time to be a birder. There are more birds in more places, and rarer birds closer to home, which makes it almost impossible to plan a bad weekend. The first Saturday in May we focused on a few Ada County hotspots, including Indian Creek Reservoir, Foote Park, Discovery State Park, and Pierce Park.

During our first stop at Indian Creek Reservoir we spotted, among many others, a resting Black-necked Stilt, and a Solitary Sandpiper.

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Black-necked Stilt at Indian Creek Reservoir, Ada County. May 4, 2013.

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Solitary Sandpiper at Indian Creek Reservoir, Ada County. May 4, 2013.

We didn’t spend long at Indian Creek. Since Indian Creek was having such high turnover this spring, we were checking it two to three times a week at points, so when we arrived this day and found most of the same birds we’d been seeing for the past several trips, we hustled along to the next destination.

We spent the bulk of the day in Foote Park. Foote Park is one of the best passerine migrant traps on this side of the state, and lucky for us it’s just a short 5 minute drive from our home in Columbia Village. When we first started birding a few years ago, we heard of a lot of great finds at Foote Park, and always wished we could get in on the action. Unfortunately we didn’t realize for a long time that there was more to Foote Park than just a couple of parking spots and a bathroom. There’s actually a trail that follows a little ravine upslope that goes through a good mix of sage, willows, cottonwoods, and other plants that provide a great stop for migrants passing through.

Foote Park Map

Foote Park birding trail, Ada County.

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Birding in Foote Park, Ada County. May 4, 2013.

We didn’t see anything too rare on this trip, though the Lazuli Bunting numbers were incredible, and we also had a few Nashville Warblers.

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Lazuli Bunting at Foote Park, Ada County. May 4, 2013.

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Nashville Warbler at Foote Park, Ada County. May 4, 2013.

As we headed out of the park we accidentally flushed a Great Horned Owl we didn’t realize was roosting right above the trail. We were thrilled to see one of these birds in such great light.

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Great Horned Owl at Foote Park, Ada County. May 4, 2013.

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Great Horned Owl at Foote Park, Ada County. May 4, 2013.

Our next stop was Discovery Unit of Lucky Peak State Park, which is just across the river from Foote Park. This is where we saw our lifer Black Rosy-Finch, along with Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches back in February. In the spring this place is reliable for Lewis’s Woodpecker. We found two on this stop, though we weren’t able to get great pictures.

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Lewis’s Woodpecker at Discovery Unit of Lucky Peak State Park, Ada County. May 4, 2013.

Although we only got poor photos of a great bird, we also got a great photo of a common bird, just to even things up.

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Brewer’s Blackbird at Discovery Unit of Lucky Peak State Park, Ada County. May 4, 2013.

Our last stop of the day was Pierce Park Road at Sage Glen Court, which is in the foothills north of Boise. This location can be good for a variety of spring migrants, and also has a massive Bank Swallow colony in one of the hillsides. A couple of years ago a Barn Owl nested in one of the larger holes. We haven’t seen one there this year, but the Bank Swallow colony is quite active.

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Bank Swallows at Pierce Park Road, Ada County. May 4, 2013.

Bank Swallow colony at Pierce Park Road, Ada County. May 4, 2013.

We also saw Great Horned Owl nests in three different places on Pierce Park Road, one of them with a younger member of the family taking a look around.

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Great Horned Owl on Pierce Park Road, Ada County. May 4, 2013.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Wonderful weekend on the Prairie Loop

The Prairie loop (or the Blacks Creek Subloop, if you prefer the Idaho Birding Trail’s terminology) is one of the most scenic day trips in southwest Idaho. I know I say every place is my favorite, and Idaho sure has a lot of wonderful places that could compete for that title, but this really is one of my all time favorite places. Ellen and I have always enjoyed exploring the scenery in this part of the state, but somehow managed to avoid finding this gem for the first three years of weekend road trips. We finally made the trip for the first time in 2011, just three weeks before we moved to Denver for work. We crammed two more trips in to the small amount of time we had before the move, and this is one of the top places I used to daydream about that made me long for the chance to move back to Idaho.

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Camas Lilies and hills above South Fork Boise River canyon, Elmore County. April 28, 2013.

The Prairie loop starts (or ends, if you prefer to drive it “backwards”) at the Blacks Creek exit on I-84 (point A in the map below). It starts by heading northeast through the gently rolling foothills, including scenic old barns and a lush riparian corridor that’s bursting with wildflowers in the spring. The loop heads into the Danskin mountains, with several great hiking and OHV trailheads right alongside the road. Willow Creek Trailhead (point B in the map below) sits at the bottom of a steep rise up to the top of a beautiful plateau, and is where we saw our lifer Dusky Grouse. The road atop the plateau offers incredible vistas (one of the best is point C in the map below), with numerous springs, seasonal waterfalls, and prime Lewis’s Woodpecker habitat. Soon the road takes you through the little town of Prairie (point D on the map below), which is surprisingly birdy, and rumored to be breeding habitat for Bobolinks. The roads around and through Prairie are home to an incredible concentration of bluebirds, no doubt thanks to a well maintained bluebird trail. Heading southeast from Prairie, the road descends from the plateau, and down the canyon to follow the South Fork of the Boise River. This is also great Lewis’s Woodpecker habitat, particularly in the campground areas (point E on the map below). After the campgrounds the road heads up to Anderson Ranch Dam (point F on the map below), which is host to numerous Common Loons during their migration. After rising back up into the hills above Anderson Ranch Dam, the road passes Dixie Creek (point G on the map below) which is an excellent roadside marsh, home to many of the local favorites, including breeding Sandhill Cranes. After Dixie Creek the road home is via Highway 20, which meets up with I-84 at Mountain Home, and provides a great opportunity to check for shorebirds at Mountain Home Reservoir (point H on the map below).

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Our version of the Prairie Loop, with favorite stopping points marked. Ada and Elmore counties.

There are certainly many more great places to bird on this loop, and we constantly find ourselves with much more to explore than we have time for. We find some place new and wonderful on every trip. During the last weekend of April, the road south of Willow Creek Trailhead had our FOY Nashville and Yellow Warblers.

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Nashville Warbler, south of Willow Creek Trailhead, Elmore County. April 28, 2013.

Bald Eagles are regular breeders in this area. We saw this one just past Willow Creek Trailhead, as you reach the first edge of the plateau.

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Bald Eagle above the South Fork Boise River canyon, Elmore County. April 28, 2013.

Basalt rock piles are numerous at the bottom of steeply sloped buttes that rise above the plateau. These piles provide great habitat for Yellow-bellied Marmots.

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Yellow-bellied Marmot above the South Fork Boise River canyon, Elmore County. April 28, 2013.

We saw quite a few pairs of breeding Sandhill Cranes on this trip. This pair was seen near the town of Prairie.

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Sandhill Crane pair near Prairie, Elmore County. April 28, 2013.

Western Kingbirds were showing up all the place, and the Prairie loop was no exception.

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Western Kingbird east of Prairie, Elmore County. April 28, 2013.

At one point while driving slowly along the base of one of the buttes, we heard the strangest noise coming from upslope. We definitely got the impression it was coming from some kind of upland game bird, but couldn’t lay our finger on exactly what it was.

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South Fork Boise River canyon, east of Prairie, Elmore County. April 28, 2013.

It didn’t sound like any of the calls in our phone for any of the expected species of grouse. It’s not very often that we hear a sound that leaves us perplexed for so long. We put a lot of effort into being good ear birders, so we weren’t about to let this one go unresolved. A little while later and further along the loop, we saw a Chukar along the side of the road, and it finally dawned on us that we were hearing Chukar up the hillside. I hadn’t thought of them because they’re an introduced species, and I tend to think of the native species more in such wild and beautiful places.

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Chukar near the campgrounds southwest of Anderson Ranch Dam, Elmore County. April 28, 2013.

After figuring out our mystery sounds, we enjoyed the scenery along the river through the campground area south of Anderson Ranch Dam. On our first trip here we saw Lewis’s Woodpeckers in a half dozen different places, at one point when we stopped to cook a lunch in one of the campgrounds, there was a pair in a tree right behind us that was copulating every couple of minutes for the entire time we were there.

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Anderson Ranch Dam Road on South Fork Boise River, Elmore County. April 28, 2013.

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Lewis’s Woodpecker near the campgrounds southwest of Anderson Ranch Dam, Elmore County. April 28, 2013.

As with many marshy areas, Dixie Creek is a great spot to check for Sora and Virginia Rails. On this trip, we had a fairly unobstructed view of a Virginia Rail. These birds are notoriously secretive, so it’s always fun to get to see the bird that’s making all the oinks and grunts out in the cattails.

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Virginia Rail at Dixie Creek, Elmore County. April 28, 2013.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Indian Creek Reservoir and Blacks Creek Reservoir

Towards the end of April we had a few more trips to Indian Creek Reservoir and Blacks Creek Reservoir. Turnover on these reservoirs was significant for the whole month of April, with the mix of birds being quite different each day. We were finding FOY birds every time we visited. Since Indian Creek Reservoir is so close to the highway it’s a convenient place to add to any trip heading east of town.

During this trip, the Great Egrets we’d seen the week before were still present, and Great Blue Heron numbers were much higher.

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Great Egret at Indian Creek Reservoir, Ada County. April 27, 2013.

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Great Blue Herons and Great Egret at Indian Creek Reservoir, Ada County. April 28, 2013.

An Osprey was diving for prey in the shallow water. It amazes me they can hunt in such shallow water without injuring themselves on the ground beneath the water.

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Osprey at Indian Creek Reservoir, Ada County. April 27, 2013.

American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts were probably the most numerous shorebirds.

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American Avocets at Indian Creek Reservoir, Ada County. April 27, 2013.

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Black-necked Stilts at Indian Creek Reservoir, Ada County. April 27, 2013.

A Solitary Sandpiper was probably the best bird of the trip.

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Solitary Sandpiper and Killdeer at Indian Creek Reservoir, Ada County. April 27, 2013.

Blacks Creek Reservoir was a great stop. We saw much more than we were able to photograph, including our FOY Gray Partridge. This was the first time we’d actually walked out to a good viewpoint of the reservoir. We’ve scoped edges of the reservoir from the road before, but didn’t realize how much more there was to see.

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Blacks Creek Reservoir, Ada County. April 27, 2013.

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Blacks Creek Reservoir, Ada County. April 27, 2013.

There were several Caspian Terns on the shoreline, one with quite an impressive collection of leg bands.

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Caspian Tern at Blacks Creek Reservoir, Ada County. April 27, 2013.

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Caspian Tern at Blacks Creek Reservoir, Ada County. April 27, 2013.

We also had California Gull, Eared Grebe, and a Swainson’s Hawk.

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California Gull at Blacks Creek Reservoir, Ada County. April 27, 2013.

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Eared Grebe at Blacks Creek Reservoir, Ada County. April 27, 2013.

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Swainsons Hawk at Blacks Creek Reservoir, Ada county. April 27, 2013.

At this point in the month we were getting more and more excited for songbird migration to pick up. Waterfowl and shorebird migration are great times of the year, but getting new birds by dialing in on tiny specks hundreds of yards away is not quite as satisfying as having warblers singing all around you in the woods.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Harlequin Ducks on Mores Creek

Back in April we had planned a trip up to Grayback Gulch to look for White-headed Woodpeckers that breed in the area. White-headed Woodpeckers are very local breeders, and have a limited number of breeding sites in Idaho. The Idaho City area is probably the best place in the state to look for them. We had made another trip earlier in the season but the snow was a little too deep and we spent more time trying to dig our car out than we spent looking for the woodpeckers.

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Grayback Gulch group campground, Boise County. April 21, 2013.

Birding was pretty slow at the campground. Most reports of White-headed Woodpeckers at Grayback are from the group camping area. We spent a couple of hours traveling the roads nearby, walking around the campground area, and hiking in the nearby area. We didn’t find the woodpeckers on this trip, just a few of the local breeders.

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Dark-eyed Junco at Grayback Gulch group campground, Boise County. April 21, 2013.

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Red-breasted Nuthatch at Grayback Gulch group campground, Boise County. April 21, 2013.

On the way out of the campground we saw an Osprey doing a courtship display high above the campground. The bird was flying in big “U” shaped swoops in the sky, where he would dive, and then pull up until he stalled, and then go into another dive. We captured a bit of video for the small time he was visible above the trees.

Osprey courtship display above Grayback Gulch, Boise county. April 22, 2013.

Although we were disappointed to miss the White-headed Woodpecker, we did get a fantastic consolation prize. Both on the way up to the campground, and on the way back down to Boise, we saw a pair of Harlequin Ducks on Mores Creek. Harlequin Ducks are quite rare in Idaho, particularly this far south. Looking at historical data in eBird, Harlequin Ducks are usually found no more than a few times per year, and almost always in the northern third of the state.

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Location of the Harlequin Ducks on Mores Creek, Boise County.

We spotted the birds while driving up Highway 21, almost exactly at mile marker 28, which is about a mile south of Grimes Creek. We weren’t intentionally trying to bird that particular stretch of the river, but we were keeping an eye on it as much as you can while driving a windy mountain road.

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Harlequin Ducks on Mores Creek, Boise County. April 21, 2013.

Since we only got a glimpse on the first pass we turned around and made another pass. There really aren’t any safe pullouts on this stretch of the road, but with one of us keeping a close eye on the road behind us, and the other manning the camera, we did manage to get a few quick shots.

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Harlequin Ducks on Mores Creek, Boise County. April 21, 2013.

Traffic was slow enough we were actually able to capture a little bit of video before we had to scuttle out of the way.

Harlequin Ducks on Mores Creek, Boise County. April 22, 2013.

We were hoping we could get a data connection on our phones as we got closer to Idaho City so we could write in to IBLE about the Harlequin Ducks right away, but the connection wasn’t good enough to get a message out. We posted to IBLE and the Facebook Idaho Birding group when we got home that evening, and quite a few birders headed out to try to re-find them in the morning. I never heard of anybody that was able to track them down, so we felt pretty lucky to have caught them for the short amount of time they were there.