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.

South Fork Boise River Pano 3

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).

Prairie Loop Map 1

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.

South Fork Boise River 2

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.

South Fork Boise River 3

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.

VIRA 1

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

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