Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Williamson’s Sapsucker at Ponderosa State Park

Towards the end of May Ellen and I took off for an extended Memorial Day trip to Valley County. This is one of our favorite parts of the state to visit (and stay) and we had a blast for our four-day weekend, enjoying both the birds and some much needed R&R. The next few posts are from our trip, and are broken up by location, rather than date. Sometimes when we visit this area we cave to the temptation to go far and wide to try to take in as much as we can, but this time we really dialed it in, and other then a few extra stops on the way up and back, we spent the majority of our time either at Ponderosa State Park (which is right in McCall) or on West Mountain Road (which flanks the western shore of Lake Cascade, and is where we stayed).

On both the 24th and the 25th, we hiked around Ponderosa SP from the Lily Marsh Trailhead. On the 24th, we focused on the actual Lily Marsh Trail, which wraps around the beautiful (and aptly named) marsh that sits at the heart of Ponderosa SP, and provides great nesting habitat for a variety of water-loving birds.

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Ponderosa SP – Lily Marsh, Valley County. May 25, 2014.

As soon as we got out of the car at the trailhead, we heard the nasally screech of a Williamson’s Sapsucker. Not a bad find for the parking lot!

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Williamson’s Sapsucker at Ponderosa SP – Lily Marsh Trailhead, Valley County. May 24, 2014.

Despite these birds being generally loud and gregarious, they are definitely the more difficult to find of Idaho’s two species of Sapsuckers (the other being Red-naped). This is just the type of place you’d hope to find them though – nice open coniferous forest, especially Ponderosa Pine, at relatively higher elevation.

On the marsh, we found a pair of Bufflehead with chicks. They breed here annually, and being cavity nesters, likely have quite the array of options to choose from out of all the abandoned woodpecker cavities surrounding the marsh.

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Bufflehead at Ponderosa SP – Lily Marsh, Valley County. May 24, 2014.

I’ll admit that for much of the hike, we were too busy trying to swat mosquitoes and bees to really slow down and focus on photographing the birds, though we learned through perseverance that the majority of the bugs have no real intent on bothering you, other than an unnerving number of too-close-for-comfort flybys as you walk through their neck of the woods. Despite being distracted by constant buzzing sounds, we couldn’t help but slow down for this Brown Creeper that hopped to a log not six feet from us.

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Brown Creeper at Pondersa SP – Lily Marsh Trail, Valley County. May 24, 2014.

Along the northern portion of the marsh there are quite a few snags that appear to have been killed by flooding in the marsh, that are providing great habitat and hunting perches for a variety of birds. We enjoyed these Barn Swallows which seemed to be taking a rest or keeping an eye out for bugs to snatch out of the air.

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Barn Swallows at Ponderosa SP – Lily Marsh Trail, Valley County. May 24, 2014.

When we got back to the trailhead, we couldn’t help but look out for another chance to photograph our Williamson’s Sapsucker. This time we got to watch him catch and eat several small spiders off the bark of a tree. If you look close in his mouth in the picture below, you can see a spider in his match, half way down the hatch!

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Williamson’s Sapsucker at Ponderosa SP – Lily Marsh Trailhead, Valley County. May 24, 2014.

In total, we had 28 species in just under two hours, including a great variety of birds that specialize in this habitat.

On the 25th, we hiked up to the northern tip of the peninsula via Huckleberry Bay Mountain Bike Trail, which takes you through some of the oldest and best preserved stands of Ponderosa Pine around.

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Ponderosa SP – Huckleberry Bay Trail, Valley County. May 25, 2014.

It was interesting to see along our hike the various stages of life and death (or decay) that each tree goes through. Some of the older trees bore clear evidence of just how much use the birds can get out of one tree. I suspect the one below may have been colonized by Pileated Woodpeckers at some point – they’re known for excavating large cavities with multiple entrances and exits in a single tree.

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Ponderosa SP – Huckleberry Bay Trail, Valley County. May 25, 2014.

We heard a lot more than we saw on this trail, though one of our favorite finds was a seen and heard Pacific Wren. These guys have a truly incredible song – one that really needs to be slowed down to be fully appreciated. The slower playback reveals halftones and overtones sung at the same time as the main melody, far too much detail for the human ear to pick out at full speed.

Luckily their high-pitched sounds carry well through the forest, making it easy to track him down for a good view.

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Pacific Wren at Ponderosa SP – Huckleberry Bay Trail, Valley County. May 25, 2014.

Chipping Sparrows were all over the place, with their much less interesting (and monotone) call providing a near constant backdrop for our hike.

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Chipping Sparrow at Ponderosa SP – Huckleberry Bay Trail, Valley County. May 21, 2014.

Other great birds from this hike included a Ruffed Grouse, three kinds of woodpeckers (including Pileated and Williamson’s Sapsuckers), Cassin’s Vireos, both Kinglets, a several others, for a total of 22 species in 2 hours. Thank goodness we have made an effort to learn how to bird by ear, because in these dense woods, not many birds are ever seen well, but luckily their calls travel in all directions and give away their presence without the need for a visual. The views of Payette Lake from the top of the trail made up for the views of the birds that we did not get to see.

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Ponderosa SP – Huckleberry Bay Trail, Valley County. May 25, 2014.