Friday, May 30, 2014

Snowy Plover at Mountain Home Reservoir

Towards the end of April the hot news in the Idaho birding world was a Snowy Plover that had been found at Mountain Home Reservoir. Last year Dave Lawrence found one at C.J. Strike Reservoir, although it was the same day that we found our Harlequin Ducks, so we didn’t feel too bad about missing it. However, we were glad for the chance to add one to our list this year, so we headed to Mountain Home Reservoir as soon as we had a chance. Snowy Plovers actually breed south of Idaho in California, so most that we see here are probably overshoots during spring migration.

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Mountain Home Reservoir, Elmore County. April 25, 2014.

It was a dark, overcast day so conditions weren’t great for photographs, but we enjoyed trying anyway. There were plenty of great birds around, with an especially good mix of shorebirds.

One of our first finds was this handsome Cinnamon Teal.

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Cinnamon Teal at Mountain Home Reservoir, Elmore County. April 25, 2014.

Black-necked Stilts and American Avocets were probably the most abundant shorebirds on this trip, though Least Sandpipers weren’t far behind.

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Mixed waterfowl and shorebirds at Mountain Home Reservoir, Elmore County. April 25, 2014.

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Black-necked Stilt at Mountain Home Reservoir, Elmore County. April 25, 2014.

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Least Sandpiper at Mountain Home Reservoir, Elmore County. April 25, 2014.

We also had a handful of Lesser Yellowlegs.

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Black-necked Stilt, American Avocets, Lesser Yellowlegs, and Least Sandpiper at Mountain Home Reservoir, Elmore County. April 25, 2014.

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Lesser Yellowlegs at Mountain Home Reservoir, Elmore County. April 25, 2014.

Normally Semipalmated Plovers might be enough on their own to draw a lot of attention from birders, and we probably had around 10 of them on the reservoir, certainly an unusually high count for Idaho.

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Semipalmated Plovers at Mountain Home Reservoir, Elmore County. April 25, 2014.

Several Long-billed Dowitchers were around as well. Though their size and shape, as well as somewhat uniform dark color make their fairly distinctive, they also have a unique habit of really mashing their whole face down into the water. It’s not uncommon to seem them pretty much up to their eyeballs in the water, probing for food in the mud.

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Long-billed Dowitchers at Mountain Home Reservoir, Elmore County. April 25, 2014.

Among the non-shorebirds, we had quite a few American Pipits, which we almost always find cavorting around with shorebirds, and our first-of-year Franklin’s Gull.

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American Pipit at Mountain Home Reservoir, Elmore County. April 25, 2014.

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Franklin’s Gull at Mountain Home Reservoir, Elmore County. April 25, 2014.

The real highlight of the trip was finding the Snowy Plover. We didn’t find it on our first couple of passes along the reservoir’s edge, but patience paid off and eventually we found it.

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Snowy Plover at Mountain Home Reservoir, Elmore County. April 25, 2014.

If you hadn’t already noticed a theme for our trips lately, I should point out that we owe quite a few of our best sightings this year to Nora. She sleeps fairly well in the car when we’re out birding, but we try to time things right to land at some birdable location for when she wakes up and is ready for a fresh diaper and a meal. The 30-45 minute breaks we take to feed her have helped us be more thorough and observant at locations where we might normally just make one good pass and then move on. We sat and watched the Snowy Plover pace up and down the shore while Nora ate. It was fun to see it shuffle past a Least Sandpiper, and then see the Least Sandpiper jump and spin around as though it were somehow frightened by the equally tiny Snowy Plover.

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Snowy Plover and Least Sandpiper Mountain Home Reservoir, Elmore County. April 25, 2014.

Here we had a nice lineup of the Snowy Plover next to a Semipalmated Plover and a Least Sandpiper, all of which are among the smaller shorebirds in North America.

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Snowy Plover, Semipalmated Plover, and Least Sandpiper at Mountain Home Reservoir, Elmore County. April 25, 2014.

After finishing up at Mountain Home Reservoir, we made a quick trip down to C.J. Strike Reservoir – Jacks Creek WMA. There we had our first-of-year Western Kingbirds, which were also the first-of-year Western Kingbirds for Owyhee County.

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Western Kingbirds at C.J. Strike Reservoir – Jacks Creek WMA, Owyhee County. April 25, 2014.

Other nice first-of-year birds included Bonaparte’s Gulls, as well as Caspian and Forster’s Terns.

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Caspian Terns, Forster’s Tern, and Bonaparte’s Gulls at C.J. Strike Reservoir – Jacks Creek WMA, Owyhee County. April 25, 2014.

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Forster’s Terns and Bonaparte’s Gulls at C.J. Strike Reservoir – Jacks Creek WMA, Owyhee County. April 25, 2014.

Another fun find was a Clark’s Grebe, which you can distinguish from the more common Western Grebe by the white surrounding the eye, and the thinner black stripe running down the back of the neck.

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Clark’s Grebe at C.J. Strike Reservoir – Jacks Creek WMA, Owyhee County. April 25, 2014.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The long-awaited Ruffed Grouse at Bell Creek

For the past year and a half, our nemesis bird has been the Ruffed Grouse. To me, a true nemesis bird isn’t a rarity, instead it’s a bird that occurs in your area with some regularity, but can be frustratingly difficult to find. They can truly get under your skin, because it feels like you should be able to find it, and you’ve been doing everything right, but for some reason a quality encounter just hasn’t ever materialized.

Ruffed Grouse are a fairly common resident of Idaho forests all over the state. They’re widespread, present year-round, spend the majority of their lives within a few hundred meters of their favorite drumming log, and even loudly broadcast their location through the forest as they drum on logs in the spring to impress the ladies. Last year they were far and away the most common Idaho bird that we did not see. We could find really rare birds (for Idaho) like a Harlequin Duck (we have the southernmost Idaho record for this species in eBird outside the Greater Yellowstone area) , or a Brambling (an ABA code 3 rarity), but Ruffed Grouse were being seen left and right all over the state and we couldn’t find one.

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eBird map of Ruffed Grouse sightings in Idaho in 2013.

Our failure to find them wasn’t due to a lack of effort:

Last fall as we got closer to Nora’s due date, our efforts waned a bit as it seemed wise to quit wandering as far from home for a little while, but we vowed this spring to finally get our Ruffed Grouse. On April 12, our new favorite little forest hotspot on Bell Creek north of Crouch yielded several drumming Ruffed Grouse, which we were thrilled to hear. At least these were definitely live birds, and their drumming sound is diagnostic, definitely good enough to add them to our list. However, after all the trouble we had looking for them last year, we weren’t quite satisfied to hear them only. Just a week later, we returned to Bell Creek to see if we could finally see one, and not just hear them.

We started our day enjoying the bounty of bluebirds at Round Valley, and then headed over to Bell Creek in the afternoon. As soon as we got out of the car, we started hearing drumming, which surprised us since it was the middle of the afternoon, rather than early in the morning when they typically focus their drumming efforts. We took some time to just listen and see what other birds we could see/hear while feeding Nora before we started hiking around. The area was loaded with Spotted Towhees, though there was enough ground cover that it was hard to get a clear photo.

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Spotted Towhee at Bell Creek, Boise County. April 19, 2014.

We could hardly wait to get on our feet and start chasing them down after listening to them drum all around us for half an hour. Even Nora was getting in on the excitement!

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Nora can hardly believe what she’s seeing! Bell Creek area, Boise County. April 19, 2014.

We hiked an old ATV trail that follows Bell Creek, and to our amazement we laid eyes on our first Ruffed Grouse in just a tenth of a mile up the trail! We were thrilled to find it, lay eyes on it, and finally get a soul-satisfying-view. We watched the bird, and it watched us, until it slowly sauntered across the creek and up the opposite hillside, disappearing into understory. It was amazing to see just how well it’s camouflage worked. There were times when we knew we were looking directly at the bird, and couldn’t make out a single feather until it twitched, or started walking again. Quite effective plumage!

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Ruffed Grouse on Bell Creek, Boise County. April 19, 2014.

We continued a little further up the stream, and heard a Pacific Wren singing its heart out further up the trail. We’ve had a couple of Pacific Wrens before, but hadn’t had a chance to photograph them in Idaho before, so we took advantage of the opportunity to chase it down and try to get some pictures.

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Pacific Wren on Bell Creek, Boise County. April 19, 2014.

These feisty little birds have one of the most impressive songs in the bird world. They deliver their song with incredible speed and energy, and the complexity is incredible.

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Pacific Wren on Bell Creek, Boise County. April 19, 2014.

We had a truly wonderful day in the field, and were thrilled that Bell Creek produced a couple more excellent experiences for us. We’ll definitely be returning to this area often.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Round Valley Bluebirds

On April 19 we took a drive up to Valley County to see Round Valley, a place we’ve passed dozens of times on the way to and from McCall, but have never really explored much before. As you’re driving north from Boise on Highway 55, the turn for Round Valley comes up just as you break out of the steep canyons and winding roads after Smiths Ferry.

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Round Valley, Valley County.

The scenery was fantastic, with canals and streams meandering through grasslands and wildflowers, bordered by snow covered mountains.

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Round Valley, Valley County. April 19, 2014.

The birds weren’t bad either. There wasn’t a tremendous amount of diversity, but the species that could be found were iconic and beautiful. One of our first birds was this Yellow-rumped Warbler, which turned out to be the first-of-year for Valley County.

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Yellow-rumped Warbler at Round Valley, Valley County. April 19, 2014.

We also had a couple of snazzy looking Vesper Sparrows meandering around near the fence lines.

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Vesper Sparrow at Round Valley, Valley County. April 19, 2014.

It can be difficult to get a good view of the rufous shoulder patches, which can really help with identifying these birds.

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Vesper Sparrow at Round Valley, Valley County. April 19, 2014.

Meadowlarks were present in decent numbers, including this fellow singing from the top of an old barn.

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Western Meadowlark at Round Valley, Valley County. April 19, 2014.

A few Horned Larks were bouncing around as well, but luckily one of them stayed put long enough for a decent photo opportunity.

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Horned Lark at Round Valley, Valley County. April 19, 2014.

Also present in high numbers were Savannah Sparrows. These small sparrows are quite shy, and tend to be one of the first birds to spook as you approach them. Every now and then you can find one that will stay put close enough for a decent picture.

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Savannah Sparrow at Round Valley, Valley County. April 19, 2014.

The real stars of the show were the Mountain Bluebirds, which were present in the dozens. These members of the thrush family can be found in mountain meadows all over the state, and have the unique distinction of being our state bird.

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Mountain Bluebirds at Round Valley, Valley County. April 19, 2014.

The females are more drab than the males, but if you get a good view, they have their own subtle beauty, and the hints of blue seem to stand out even more in contrast.

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Mountain Bluebird (female) at Round Valley, Valley County. April 19, 2014.

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Mountain Bluebird (male) at Round Valley, Valley County. April 19, 2014.

The high numbers of bluebirds afforded great opportunities to see a range of behaviors, including a pair sharing a grub, and a rocket launch into flight.

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Mountain Bluebirds at Round Valley, Valley County. April 19, 2014.

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Mountain Bluebird at Round Valley, Valley County. April 19, 2014.

After spending a while in Round Valley we headed up to Cascade for a bite to eat, and spent a few minutes at the Sugarloaf Area of Lake Cascade. There were lots of bluebirds around that area as well.

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Mountain Bluebird at the Sugarloaf Area of Lake Cascade, Valley County. April 19, 2014.

Ospreys are quite abundant near Lake Cascade and the surrounding rivers, streams, and reservoirs. We enjoyed seeing quite a few work on their nests, and hunt for fish in the lake.

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Ospreys at the Sugarloaf Area of Lake Cascade, Valley County. April 19, 2014.

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Osprey at the Sugarloaf Area of Lake Cascade, Valley County. April 19, 2014.

Coming back down from the Sugarloaf Area, there’s a short pass over a wooded hill before you get back to Cascade, and we pulled over for a minute to see what we could find. Immediately we heard all sorts of great forest specialties calling, though the vegetation was so thick it was hard to see much. We did get a decent view of a Mountain Chickadee, and a Golden-crowned Kinglet.

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Mountain Chickadee north of Cascade, Valley County. April 19, 2014.

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Golden-crowned Kinglet north of Cascade, Valley County. April 19, 2014.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Little Camas Reservoir, Prairie, and Long Gulch

On April 13 we had a lazy Sunday afternoon drive out to Little Camas Reservoir, Prairie, through Long Gulch to the Middle Fork of the Boise River, and then back down to town via Arrowrock Reservoir and Lucky Peak Lake.

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Our trip from Boise (point A/E) to Little Camas Reservoir (point B), Prairie (point C), Middle Fork of the Boise River (point D) via Long Gulch, then back to Boise.

We had a few nice birds, at Little Camas, though an awful lot of stuff was just too far out on the mud to get good photographs. We had our first-of-year Blue-winged Teals, American Avocets, Willets, and American Pipits.

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Little Camas Reservoir, Elmore County. April 13, 2014.

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American Pipit at Little Camas Reservoir, Elmore County. April 13, 2014.

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Red-tailed Hawk at Little Camas Reservoir, Elmore County. April 13, 2014.

On our way to Prairie we saw several Ospreys at the Anderson Ranch Dam. They nest on a couple of different poles at the bottom of the spillway. We’ve seen as many as 5 Osprey on 3 separate nests here in the past, but it looked like just 2 nests were occupied this year.

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Osprey at Anderson Ranch Dam, Elmore County. April 13, 2014.

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Osprey at Anderson Ranch Dam, Elmore County. April 13, 2014.

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Osprey carrying nesting materials at Anderson Ranch Dam, Elmore County. April 13, 2014.

Prairie was loaded with bluebirds as usual, though we didn’t see any Western Bluebirds on this trip, only Mountain Bluebirds.

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Mountain Bluebird near Prairie, Elmore County. April 13, 2014.

We also saw a Say’s Phoebe hanging out in town as well.

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Say’s Phoebe near Prairie, Elmore County. April 13, 2014.

This was our first time driving through Long Gulch. It looks like great habitat, especially for woodpeckers, with all the dead wood on the hillsides where there have been several fires in past years.

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Long Gulch, Elmore County. April 13, 2014.

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Red-tailed Hawk in Long Gulch, Elmore County. April 13, 2014.

At the end of Long Gulch we came out on the Middle Fork of the Boise River and found a place to have a sunset marshmallow roast with Nora.

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Nora hanging out on the Middle Fork of the Boise River, Boise County. April 13, 2014.

Soaring above our campsite was a large flock of swallows, and after picking through them for a bit we spotted a couple of White-throated Swifts, though it was far too dark to get a flight picture of a bird that small so high in the sky. Along the river, we found a pair of American Dippers, and we were able to spot the nest as well.

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American Dipper on the Middle Fork of the Boise River, Boise County. April 13, 2014.