Sunday, November 10, 2013

Black-bellied Plovers and Sanderlings at Lake Lowell

In the middle of September we spent an afternoon out at Swan Falls Dam. Swan Falls is one of our favorites and it had been a while since our last visit. We had just a sliver of hope at locating Bushtits that are occasionally seen below the dam, but weren’t really holding our breath, we were just hoping to enjoy the scenery. Swan Falls rarely disappoints on that front, with it’s beautiful setting in the Snake River Canyon just below Sinker Butte.

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Snake River upstream from the walkway across Swan Falls Dam, Ada County. September 14, 2013.

On the edge of the canyon, just before the road drops down to the dam, we saw a Golden Eagle soaring just above the canyon rim.

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Golden Eagle (composite photo) near Swan Falls, Ada County. September 14, 2013.

There wasn’t much action in the water upstream from the dam. Occasionally there are a handful of interesting ducks here, but most of the time it’s just American Coots. There were a few Common Goldeneyes preening, a handful of Double-Crested Cormorants sunning on a string of buoys, and a few Barn Swallows were chattering below the dam.

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Common Goldeneye at Swan Falls Dam, Ada County. September 14, 2013.

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Double-crested Cormorants at Swan Falls Dam, Ada County. September 14, 2013.

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Barn Swallow at Swan Falls Dam, Ada County. September 14, 2013.

We did spend a little time downstream from the dam, hoping to hear or see some Bushtits. We had tried a few times for these guys earlier in the year, with no luck, but Larry Arnold had found some just a week earlier, so we thought it was worth a shot. Just a short way downstream from the dam, we pulled over near a gated boat launch, and spent 15-20 minutes listening and watching for them. We were playing calls, hoping to elicit some sort of response, and after some time, we started spying tiny little birds darting in and out of the bushes, faster than we could get a good enough look to ID. We were never able to lay eyes on them, but eventually, we heard one give a short call, just enough to confirm we had a pair of Bushtits buzzing around us. We’ll have to try again next spring to actually lay eyes on them.

On the way home, almost as an afterthought, we decided to stop by Lake Lowell just to see what might be out on all the mud near the lower dam. We had heard from others that shorebird numbers were down quite a bit from previous weeks, but it seemed worth taking a look, and we had some more time in the afternoon.

Most of this year, Lake Lowell has had much less water than for several years prior. When we started birding in 2011 Lake Lowell was just shy of flood levels most of the year. Quite a few of the boat launches around the dam were closed, and many of the cottonwood stands were covered several feet up their trunks in water. The lower water levels this year have made it a much more attractive place for shorebirds. The photo below shows a comparison of typical water levels to water levels more typical of this year. I had to go back to 1992 satellite imagery on Google Earth to find a time when the water levels were as low as they are now.

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Lake Lowell, typical water levels on the left (photo from 2012), and water levels similar to what we’re seeing this year on the right (photo from 1992). Photos from Google Earth.

The action was a little slow for shorebirds from our usual viewpoint atop the dam. There were huge numbers of Canada Geese and a mix of Ring-billed and California Gulls, but Killdeers were the only shorebirds. We decided to try out a new access point instead. We used the first boat launch area on the southern shore of the lake as you head east-south-east from the dam on Lake Shore Drive. From here, the access to the muddy shore was phenomenal, and there was nothing but mud as far as you could see. Luckily there were no inlets to cross, and the mud was fairly stable, so there was no getting stuck like last time.

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Extensive mudflats at Lake Lowell, Canyon County. September 14, 2013.

Despite having heard that shorebird numbers were down, and despite going to Lake Lowell as an afterthought, we were treated to some of the most fun shorebirding we had all season. We didn’t have huge numbers of any one species, but we had a wonderful mix, including a few birds that were new for our state list.

As we typically do, we started off with mostly just Killdeers, but the goodies started picking up right away.

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Killdeers at Lake Lowell, Canyon County. September 14, 2013.

We were surprised to see several late-season Marbled Godwits, along with a remarkable number of Black-bellied Plovers (our first in Idaho).

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Marbled Godwits, Black-bellied Plovers, and Killdeer at Lake Lowell, Canyon County. September 14, 2013.

Black-bellied Plovers are a lucky find when there is just one or two, but we had several different groups, for a total of 15 along that stretch of the beach.

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Killdeers and Black-bellied Plovers at Lake Lowell, Canyon County. September 14, 2013.

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Killdeers, Black-bellied Plover, and Western Sandpipers at Lake Lowell, Canyon County. September 14, 2013.

Quite a bit of the range of shorebird sizes were represented on this trip. On the small end of the scale we had several Least Sandpipers, and on the larger end we had lots of Marbled Godwits.

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Least Sandpipers at Lake Lowell, Canyon County. September 14, 2013.

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Killdeer and Least Sandpipers at Lake Lowell, Canyon County. September 14, 2013.

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Marbled Godwits at Lake Lowell, Canyon County. September 14, 2013.

A lone Pectoral Sandpiper also held still long enough for a picture.

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Pectoral Sandpiper at Lake Lowell, Canyon County. September 14, 2013.

Among the many Black-bellied Plovers, we were particularly pleased to find one that was still in breeding plumage.

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Black-bellied Plovers at Lake Lowell, Canyon County. September 14, 2013.

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Black-bellied Plovers at Lake Lowell, Canyon County. September 14, 2013.

Another great treat was a flock of 9 Sanderlings, another Idaho first for us. It was amazing how their black and white tones stand out against the different shades of brown seen in other shorebirds.

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Sanderlings at Lake Lowell, Canyon County. September 14, 2013.

On another part of the lake, we saw 30+ Great Egrets. These birds are so flighty that I was too nervous to approach them closely, for fear of spooking the whole flock, but we did get close enough to photograph a few of them on the edge.

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Great Egrets at Lake Lowell, Canyon County. September 14, 2013.

Other highlights we didn’t get pictures of included a late Warbling Vireo flitting through the cottonwoods near the parking lot, a Caspian Tern and a Forster’s Tern fishing over the lake, plus several Baird’s Sandpipers and a Semipalmated Sandpiper. It was a great stop, and we’re hoping for low water levels next fall for a repeat!

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