Monday, April 28, 2014

Rough-legged Hawks, Golden Eagles, and hoarfrost at Hill City

On January 27 there was a family medical emergency and we hit the road to go visit my parents in Rexburg. We got about a third of the way there, and had to stop to feed Nora, and found out while we were stopped that it was a bit of a false alarm, and decided not to go the rest of the way since I had work to get back to. Despite the dark overtones to the day from worrying about loved ones, it was hard not to appreciate the stark beauty of bright blue skies over a frozen landscape.

IMG_3809

Hoarfrost on last year’s harvest stubble near Hill City, Camas County. January 27, 2014.

While we were driving through we couldn’t help but notice the area was loaded with Rough-legged Hawks and Golden Eagles, common winter visitors to this area, where despite the snow cover, the hunting is still easier than where they came from. With such bright light and so many raptors hanging out right near the road on telephone poles, we had to try to get a few good shots.

There were a few more Rough-legged Hawks than Golden Eagles, so we got more opportunities to photograph them. Here are a few highlights.

IMG_3847

At some point I’d love to get a DSLR camera with phase detection autofocus, which works much quicker than the contrast detection autofocus that’s common in most point-and-shoot cameras. Luckily, Rough-legged Hawks have such high contrast between the black and the white tones that even the contrast detection autofocus on our camera really dials in quickly.

Rough-legged Hawk near Hill City, Camas County. January 27, 2014.

IMG_3784

Rough-legged Hawk near Hill City, Camas County. January 27, 2014.

IMG_3874

Rough-legged Hawk near Hill City, Camas County. January 27, 2014.

Thanks to our camera’s (Canon SX50 HS) Sport mode, which shoots at 13 FPS, we were able to get a couple of fun flight sequences where you can see the hawk’s wings in several different positions.

IMG_4028

Rough-legged Hawk near Hill City, Camas County. January 27, 2014.

IMG_4029

Rough-legged Hawk near Hill City, Camas County. January 27, 2014.

IMG_4032

Rough-legged Hawk near Hill City, Camas County. January 27, 2014.

IMG_4034

Rough-legged Hawk near Hill City, Camas County. January 27, 2014.

IMG_4036

Rough-legged Hawk near Hill City, Camas County. January 27, 2014.

Golden Eagles are quite impressive too – and it can be difficult to fully appreciate how large they really are until you see one take off from 20 feet away above your head.

IMG_3891

Golden Eagle near Hill City, Camas County. January 27, 2014.

IMG_3898

Golden Eagle near Hill City, Camas County. January 27, 2014.

IMG_4133

Golden Eagle near Hill City, Camas County. January 27, 2014.

IMG_3924

Golden Eagle near Hill City, Camas County. January 27, 2014.

Normally, this area is also good for Snow Buntings or Lapland Longspurs in the winter, where they can usually be found hanging around with large flocks of Horned Larks. For whatever reason the Horned Lark flocks have been smaller this winter, and the Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs have been almost completely absent. All we saw was a small handful of Horned Larks.

IMG_3822

Horned Lark near Hill City, Camas County. January 27, 2014.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Red-shouldered Hawk near Payette

Back in January, a birder from the Payette area posted a picture of a hawk to the Facebook Idaho Birding page wondering if it might be a Red-shouldered Hawk. On this group, there are a decent number of birdwatchers who aren’t necessarily as experienced as others at identification, and it’s not unusual for someone to post that they think they’ve seen something really extraordinary, only to find out after the experts weigh in that their bird was rather ordinary instead. I kind of expected that to be the case with this post as well, until I actually saw the picture that went with it, and was surprised to see it really was a Red-shouldered Hawk!

If you look at eBird data for Idaho, Red-shouldered Hawks are quite rare here. There are a handful of other records, but they’re certainly not regular at all.

RSHA 2013

eBird bar chart for Red-shouldered Hawk in Idaho, not including 2014.

Some birders came from quite a distance to see the bird, and I found it fascinating to see how all these records had an impact on our understanding of Red-shouldered Hawk distribution in Idaho.

RSHA 2014

eBird bar chart for Red-shouldered Hawk in Idaho, including 2014.

This particular Red-shouldered was hanging out in a slough along Killebrew Drive near Payette, though there was actually another one found in Eagle the next month, so it seemed to be an extraordinary winter for these birds in southwest Idaho.

We tried to find it on the 25th of January, and missed it by just a minute or two several times. We were dealing with a fussy baby in the back, and my dad instincts were enough stronger than my bird instincts that I refrained from just letting Nora scream in the back of the car while we tried to find the bird, and opted instead to find us a nice quiet parking space for Ellen to feed Nora. We did return on the 26th though and had better luck.

On our way out of our neighborhood we saw a mixed flock of finches in a tree, including House Finches, American Goldfinches, and a Lesser Goldfinch.

IMG_3424

Mixed finches on East Lake Forest Drive, Boise, Ada County. January 26, 2014.

On our way out we stopped at Caldwell Ponds so Ellen could feed Nora while we kept an eye out for the Golden-crowned Sparrow that was hanging out there since it was initially found during the Christmas Bird Count. We found it, but somehow these guys always manage to keep a twig or something in front of the crown so you can’t see their most distinctive field mark.

IMG_3518

Golden-crowned Sparrow at Caldwell Ponds, Canyon County. January 26, 2014.

When we got to Payette, the Red-shouldered Hawk was in plain view on our first pass. Much easier than the day before! Sadly, it was a very overcast day, and the bird was quite distant, so we weren’t able to get a lot of great photos out of the trip, but we at least came home with a few identifiable shots.

IMG_3559

Red-shouldered Hawk on Killebrew Rd, Payette County. January 26, 2014.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Front yard Great Horned Owl

One morning in January as we ran out to run an errand, we spotted a Great Horned Owl hanging out in the tree in our front yard. First, he was chomping down on some other bird he caught in the neighborhood (hard to tell what, it’s mostly black, so perhaps a starling), and later, he was just snoozing. Not rare, but fun to have in the yard!

IMG_3164

Great Horned Owl with lunch in his talons. Our front yard in Columbia Village, Ada County. January 23, 2014.

IMG_3247

Great Horned Owl enjoying an afternoon snooze. Our front yard in Columbia Village, Ada County. January 23, 2014.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Elusive Great Gray Owls wintering near Rexburg

Every winter the river bottoms along Henry’s Fork of the Snake River become a magnet for Great Gray Owls. As the harsh winters reduce access to prey in the high elevation forests to the north, many Great Gray Owls wander out into the Upper Snake River Valley and find that Henry’s Fork provides great shelter and food. Henry’s Fork flattens out and turns into a vast array of sloughs just as it gets to the north and east of Rexburg. This is probably the best place to look for Great Gray Owls in Idaho in the winter. Both Ellen and I actually grew up in Rexburg, and every time I see a post or photo of the Great Gray Owls hanging out near Rexburg I have to kick myself a little for not getting more interested in birds while I still lived there, since we have yet to see a Great Gray Owl since we started birding.

GGOW Map

eBird map of Great Gray Owl sightings near Rexburg.

I suspect the birder that has the best connection to these rare winter visitors is Bill Schiess. Bill (or Mr. Schiess as I knew him as a student in his Current Events and AP History classes) is a high school teacher, naturalist, and master fly fisherman. Based on the number of incredible encounters he has had with these fantastic owls, I think it would be also be safe to call him a Great Gray Owl whisperer. If you live in the area and read the Standard Journal, you may have already read some of Bill’s columns about some of the local birds. Check out Bill’s blog for incredible photos he has taken from his close encounters with these owls.

Luckily, both Ellen and I have family in Rexburg that we visit every month or two, so there are usually at least one or two trips during the right time of the year where we have a chance to try for a Great Gray Owl while we’re there. So far, we haven’t been successful, but I’m sure one of these times the stars will align. Last year, my younger brother actually saw 4 or 5 all together in an open field near Warm Slough after we’d tried to find them two different times.

During a trip this past January I really wanted to track down a Great Gray Owl that Bill Schiess had found in Beaver Dick Park. After getting to my in-law’s house and getting Ellen and Nora settled in to bed, I picked up my brother who’s always up for an outdoor adventure at any hour of the day or night and we headed out for a 2am owl chase.

IMG_2768 (2)

My brother helping me chase a Great Gray Owl near Beaver Dick Park, Madison County. January 18, 2014.

After hiking a couple of miles through the snow under a full moon and counting probably a dozen Great Horned Owls, we decided to call it a night. On our way out of town the next day, Ellen and I stopped by for another attempt during the daylight hours. Still no luck, but just like last year, we at least tracked down our Trumpeter Swans for the year instead.

IMG_2926

Nora all bundled up for a quick walk (well for her, a quick nap) at Beaver Dick Park, Madison County. January 19, 2014.

IMG_2939

Trumpeter Swans at Beaver Dick Park, Madison County. January 19, 2014.

On our way home, we stopped to feed Nora in Howe. Normally the area around Howe is a haven for wintering raptors. In some years you can count hundreds of raptors within just a few miles, literally dotting the top of every power line and sprinkler pipe. Not so much on this trip, though we did enjoy watching a Rough-legged Hawk perform a hovering maneuver while hunting over an agricultural field, a feat we usually see American Kestrels perform.

Rough-legged Hawk hover-hunting near Howe, Butte County. January 19, 2014.

Continuing our theme of looking for but not finding owls, we stopped by Camas Prairie Centennial Marsh in hopes of finding a Short-eared Owl wintering in the area. We’ve found one here before during the summer breeding season, but sometimes they are more nomadic in the winter, so it’s a tossup whether or not you might find one in the same area where they breed. We didn’t find one on this trip, but since Nora needed another feeding break anyway, we played Short-eared Owl calls for a while as the sun set, just in case we could draw one in to our quickly fading view.

IMG_3119 (2)

Watching for a Short-eared Owl at Camas Prairie Centennial Marsh, Camas County. January 19, 2014.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Boise winter rarities and learning how to bird with a baby

This January there were several good close-to-town rarities here in the Boise area. This was great for us, since we were eager to start adding some “normal” activities back into our routine after our little girl was born back at the end of November. She proved what a great birding buddy she could be on our first major outing – an overnight trip up to Moscow to see a Northern Hawk Owl. At this young age (6 weeks) she was still spending the majority of her time alternating between sleeping and eating, so we worked out a routine where we would bird from the car for an hour or two while she slept, and when she woke up we would find a nice spot to park and do some stationary birding while feeding her.

Some of the interesting rarities this time of the year included:

  • Western Scrub-Jay – rare but regular resident of southeastern Idaho scrub habitat, very rare in the Boise area. Hanging out around Cory Lane in Boise.
  • Steller’s Jay – fairly common resident of montane forests, but unusual outside the mountains. Hanging out in Boise’s North End near 24th and Anderson.
  • Blue Jay – rare but annual visitor, a great find anywhere in Idaho. Hanging out with the Steller’s Jay in Boise's North End near 24th and Anderson.
  • Varied Thrush – rare but regular winter visitor in northern and central Idaho, much more rare in southern Idaho, except for 1-2 that have wintered in Kathryn Albertson Park for several years now.
  • White-throated Sparrow – rare winter visitor across the state, except for one that has wintered in Kathryn Albertson Park for a couple of years.
  • Glaucous-winged Gull – rare but semi-annual gull, usually found in landfills or major reservoirs among other large concentrations of gulls. In this case, hanging out at Hidden Hollow Landfill in the Boise Foothills.
  • Glaucous Gull – rare but semi-annual gull, usually found in landfills or major reservoirs among other large concentrations of gulls. In this case, hanging out at Hidden Hollow Landfill in the Boise Foothills.
  • Mew Gull - rare but semi-annual gull, usually found in landfills or major reservoirs among other large concentrations of gulls. In this case, hanging out at Hidden Hollow Landfill in the Boise Foothills.
  • Eurasian Wigeon – rare but annual winter visitor, sometimes found in natural places, often found on suburban water features. In this case, DeMeyer Park.

We first checked a couple of ponds in Eagle, but it turned out they were empty, so we headed up to Hidden Hollow Landfill where I got out and checked the massive gull flocks for rarities while Ellen fed Nora in the car (don’t worry, there’s no way I’d let my brand new little girl get out of the car at the dump!)

20140111_140826

Nora waking up from her nap at Hidden Hollow Landfill, Ada County. January 11, 2014.

While looking for a nice vantage point I ran into a very friendly gentleman working at the landfill who asked if I was looking for the “big white gull” that somebody else had been there looking for the day before. He showed me a few pictures on his cell phone of birds he’d seen hanging around, including an American White Pelican and a Bald Eagle. I was surprised how nice and friendly everyone there was, since I would have expected all the landfill employees to just think anybody going there for recreational purposes must be crazy.

20140111_141159

Ellen watching me watch the gulls at Hidden Hollow Landfill, Ada County. January 11, 2014.

We didn’t find any of our target birds, but it was nice to pick up our first of year Herring and California Gulls from among the masses of Ring-billed Gulls. I at least got to practice using the Sport mode on my Canon SX50 HS to capture birds in flight while Ellen fed Nora.

IMG_1716

California Gull at Hidden Hollow Landfill, Ada County. January 11, 2014.

IMG_1724

Herring Gull among Ring-billed Gulls at Hidden Hollow Landfill, Ada County. January 11, 2014.

IMG_1740

Ring-billed Gulls fighting over food at Hidden Hollow Landfill, Ada County. January 11, 2014.

IMG_1780

Herring Gull and Ring-billed Gull at Hidden Hollow Landfill, Ada County. January 11, 2014.

IMG_1870

Ring-billed Gull at Hidden Hollow Landfill, Ada County. January 11, 2014.

Other birds hanging out at the landfill included massive numbers of American Crows, Common Ravens, and European Starlings.

IMG_1881

Mixed birds and refuse at Hidden Hollow Landfill, Ada County. January 11, 2014.

IMG_2098

European Starlings at Hidden Hollow Landfill, Ada County. January 11, 2014.

The birds would have been a lot more fun to view without garbage as the backdrop (or foreground in some cases) but it was still nice to study them and hope for something rare.

IMG_1913

California Gulls at Hidden Hollow Landfill, Ada County. January 11, 2014.

At least there were plenty of birds in flight so that I could shoot the blue (well, gray) sky, cloud formations, or the nearby snowy mountain tops as the backdrop.

IMG_2019

Ring-billed Gull at Hidden Hollow Landfill, Ada County. January 11, 2014.

IMG_2054

Ring-billed Gull at Hidden Hollow Landfill, Ada County. January 11, 2014.

IMG_2109

Ring-billed Gulls at Hidden Hollow Landfill, Ada County. January 11, 2014.

IMG_2113

Ring-billed Gulls at Hidden Hollow Landfill, Ada County. January 11, 2014.

Our next stop after the landfill was DeMeyer Park to pick up the Eurasian Wigeon. These birds are literally “sitting ducks”, and are almost always easy to find and photograph when you know they’re in the area. They hang out with flocks of American Wigeons and can frequently be found feeding on grassy park lawns, often with no nearby obstructions of your view.

IMG_1537

DeMeyer Park, Ada County. January 11, 2014.

IMG_1522

Eurasian Wigeon and American Wigeons at DeMeyer Park, Ada County. January 11, 2014.

IMG_1523

Eurasian Wigeon and American Wigeons at DeMeyer Park, Ada County. January 11, 2014.

IMG_1578

Eurasian Wigeon, American Wigeons, and a pair of Mallards at DeMeyer Park, Ada County. January 11, 2014.

We also made a quick pass through Dry Creek Cemetery, hoping to spot the resident Northern Goshawk. We found another accipiter, a Cooper’s Hawk, soaring above the cemetery instead.

IMG_2135

Cooper’s Hawk cruising over Dry Creek Cemetery, Ada County. January 11, 2014.

At our stop in the North End (near Anderson and 24th) to look for the Blue Jay and Steller’s Jay we struck out on both. We headed to find the Western Scrub-Jay instead, and were more successful. It was getting quite windy, which we worried would keep the jay hidden in denser vegetation, but after scouring the area for 30 minutes he finally popped out of a bush to show off for us. We enjoyed great looks, and even took a bit of video. These guys were quite regular when we lived in Colorado, but this was only our second in Idaho.

IMG_2201

Western Scrub-Jay near Cory Lane and Dalton Lane, Ada County. January 11, 2014.

IMG_2172

Western Scrub-Jay near Cory Lane and Dalton Lane, Ada County. January 11, 2014.

IMG_2208

Western Scrub-Jay near Cory Lane and Dalton Lane, Ada County. January 11, 2014.

Western Scrub-Jay near Cory Lane and Dalton Lane, Ada County. January 11, 2014.

Our last stop of the day was Kathryn Albertson Park. We didn’t find our Varied Thrush or White-throated Sparrow, but did enjoy winding the day down with a few more ordinary birds.

IMG_1516

Cedar Waxwings at Kathryn Albertson Park, Ada County. January 11, 2014.

IMG_2300

Mallards at Kathryn Albertson Park, Ada County. January 11, 2014.

The highlight was at the end of the day when several deer that were hanging out in the park started converging on us near a stone bench back in the north west corner. They got so close! While we enjoyed the close encounter, it is a bit bothersome to see some of the local wildlife become so accustomed to people (and being fed by them) that they approach people with little (or no) fear. I imagine this would put them at risk for unpleasant encounters with people’s pets, with cars, or in other ways.

IMG_2277

Mule Deer near the trail in Kathryn Albertson Park, Ada County. January 11, 2014.

20140111_173555

Mule Deer approaching us at Kathryn Albertson Park, Ada County. January 11, 2014.

We shot a quick video clip showing just how close the deer approached us. Quite the memory for sure!

Ellen and Nora experiencing a close encounter of the deer kind at Kathryn Albertson Park, Ada County. January 11, 2014