Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Wrapping up the weekend on West Mountain Road

While it was a sad event, yesterday morning we packed up our things and checked out of our rental cabin at Tamarack Resort. We were worn out from the weekend’s adventures and didn’t plan any major excursions for the day, but we did take a nice slow pace down West Mountain Road on our way out. There is lots of beautiful beautiful and varied habitat along this road, including the large reservoir, marshy inlets, grassy fields, and mixed deciduous and coniferous woods. We didn’t find anything rare on our final trip down this road, but the common birds seem a little more special with such a nice back drop.

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Looking west from West Mountain Road, Valley County. May 25, 2015.

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Looking east from West Mountain Road, Valley County. May 25, 2015.

We had five species of swallows along our drive, including every species regularly occurring in Idaho except for Northern Rough-winged. Right as we pulled away from the resort we came upon this puddle covered in Cliff Swallows gathering mud for their nests. Seeing them huddling close together, wings vibrating in the air above their heads, reminded me of times we’ve seen butterflies “puddling” around food or water sources. Very pretty!

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Cliff Swallows on West Mountain Road, Valley County. May 25, 2015.

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Cliff Swallows on West Mountain Road, Valley County. May 25, 2015.

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Cliff Swallows on West Mountain Road, Valley County. May 25, 2015.

A nearby Bank Swallow was nearby drying off on a fence. It’s amazing to see what incredible feats of excavation they’re capable of with such dainty beaks!

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Bank Swallow on West Mountain Road, Valley County. May 25, 2015.

Tree Swallows seem to have out-competed Mountain and Western Bluebirds this year for most of the nest boxes we saw along the road, though House Wrens seemed interested in displacing a few of them.

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Tree Swallow on West Mountain Road, Valley County. May 25, 2015.

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House Wren on West Mountain Road, Valley County. May 25, 2015.

There was loads of good woodpecker habitat all up and down the road, and it seemed like about every suitably thick fence post or tree trunk had been bored into by something or another. This Northern Flicker was living in a hole on a small post only 3 feet or so high that was placed as an anchor point for a power line.

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Northern Flicker on West Mountain Road, Valley County. May 25, 2015.

Some of the more watery edges of the road hosted a nice variety of ducks and waterbirds, dominated by Western Grebes, Mallards, Gadwalls, Wood Ducks, Ring-necked Ducks, and Cinnamon Teals.

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Western Grebe on West Mountain Road, Valley County. May 25, 2015.

Where the lake shore butted up against a grassy shore rather than the forest, Lincoln’s Sparrows were abundant. The more we’ve learned to recognize their sound the more we’re realizing just how common they are in this area.

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Lincoln’s Sparrow on West Mountain Road, Valley County. May 25, 2015.

The occasional Red-tailed Hawk kept an eye out for rodents in the grassy fields as well. I bet they take the occasional duck or grebe as well, as the opportunity presents itself.

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Red-tailed Hawk on West Mountain Road, Valley County. May 25, 2015.

A few pairs of Sandhill Cranes dotted the shorelines as well. I’d bet that if the grass were any shorter we’d have spotted a few young ones running around the ankles of the adults about this time of the year.

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Sandhill Crane on West Mountain Road, Valley County. May 25, 2015.

My favorite non-bird of the day was this Valley Garter Snake, a subspecies of the Common Garter Snake identified by the three yellow stripes on the black and irregular red spots down the sides. We found this fella lying across the road. After seeing one just like it looking pretty mangled up on Friday, I hit the brakes and helped this one get out of the road so it wouldn’t meet the same fate.

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Valley Garter Snake on West Mountain Road, Valley County. May 25, 2015.

In total, we submitted 46 eBird checklists from our 4 day trip, including a total of 105 species, 9 of which were our first-of-year birds.

Now the next challenge will be to figure if we have the energy for back-to-back trips. We’re considering heading over to southeast Idaho for a few days to try to catch up with all the rarities they’ve had in the past week. I’d bet that most (if not all) of those birds have moved on, but it should still be a decent time of the year to look for new rarities. I have today off of work and can use that time to drive over, but do still need to work Wednesday through Friday. I could potentially work remotely out of my parents house and go birding in the mornings and evenings, as well as on the weekend before we drive home, but I’m not sure whether I’ll just be too late to the party and miss out on everything, or if there are still good rarities to be found. Decisions, decisions!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Pacific Loon at Meadow Creek Sewage Ponds, Varied Thrush at Goose Lake, and more

Yesterday was the last full day of our Memorial Day weekend getaway to Tamarack Resort. We started the day on the patio of our rental cabin, and enjoyed a nice variety of birds before we left the property, including Steller’s Jays that were foraging on and around some of the unoccupied cabins nearby.

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Steller’s Jay at Tamarack Resort, Valley County. May 24, 2015.

We took it easy yesterday, but still had a few fun stops throughout the day. We started off with a trip to Ponderosa State Park to look for an American Three-toed Woodpecker that breeds in the area, then we headed to New Meadows to track down a Pacific Loon that Fred Erland found at the Meadow Creek Sewage Ponds, then we zipped back closer to McCall to look for Williamson’s Sapsuckers at Bear Basin, and finally we headed up to Goose Lake, just to see an area we hadn’t been too before. We did a few other things in the afternoon as well, but some storms were rolling through so we didn’t really see many birds in the afternoon.

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 Map of our route on day 3 of our trip.

At Ponderosa State Park we were focused on finding the American Three-toed Woodpecker. We looked for it the day before as well, and we couldn’t find it either time. We’ll try again later in the season. Nora is getting to be a great little hiker, but doesn’t always like to go in a straight path.

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Nora and Ellen hiking at Ponderosa State Park, Valley County. May 24, 2015.

We did have a nice little flock of Pygmy Nuthatches buzzing around us at one point though. They’re fairly common around here, but we still don’t actually get a good look very often, so they were fun to see.

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Pygmy Nuthatches at Ponderosa State Park, Valley County. May 24, 2015.

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Pygmy Nuthatch at Ponderosa State Park, Valley County. May 24, 2015.

A quick run out to the Meadow Creek Sewage Ponds near New Meadows quickly produced the Pacific Loon we were looking for. It was quite distant, but still identifiable as a first summer bird due to the small size, sharp contrasting border between white and grey on the neck, overall dull color, and lack of an eye ring that would be found on a Common Loon.

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Pacific Loon at Meadow Creek Sewage Ponds, Adams County. May 24, 2015.

After lunch we took a quick drive through Bear Basin to look for Williamson’s Sapsuckers. Last year we saw a male foraging near a trailhead in Ponderosa State Park, but after missing them there this year I looked up the eBird species map for Williamson’s Sapsucker and could see that there was a really nice cluster of reports around Bear Basin, just west of McCall, so that’s where we headed.

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eBird species map for Williamson’s Sapsuckers near McCall. Bear Basin is the cluster of dots west of Payette Lake.

The road through Bear Basin was quite crowded due to all the Memorial Day weekend vacationers. It looked like most were hunting for morel mushrooms, but quite a few were biking and hiking as well. Despite the crowds, we were able to track down several Williamson’s Sapsuckers fairly quickly. Interestingly, we only saw female birds on this trip.

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Williamson’s Sapsucker (female) at Bear Basin, Adams County. May 24, 2015.

Next we headed up towards Goose Lake, an area we had never visited before. The views on the way up were breathtaking, with Granite Mountain in the background and huge rolling forests in the foreground. Just the view is worth the trip, and the drive was much quicker than we thought it would be.

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Granite Mountain from the road into Goose Lake, Adams County. May 24, 2015.

On the way up we saw lots of great woodpecker habitat, and stopped a few times to listen and look for American Three-toed Woodpeckers. We never found one, but did see this Steller’s Jay hanging out on a dead tree.

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Steller’s Jay on Goose Lake Road, Adams County. May 24, 2015.

When we got to Goose Lake the road was covered in snow and we couldn’t travel any further. We pulled to small side road as far as we could before we hit a wall of snow and parked for a bit to re-plan, since we weren’t expecting the snow.

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Road into Goose Lake, Adams County. May 24, 2015.

While we were parked, I was thinking about whether we might be able to tromp around through the snow looking for Spruce Grouse, or if there might be an American Three-toed Woodpecker in the area when Ellen asked me if we had just heard a Varied Thrush. I hadn’t heard what she did, but I have heard of a handful of Varied Thrush reports around McCall, so it definitely seemed possible. We kept listening, and after another minute or two heard the characteristic buzzing call again. It sure sounded like a Varied Thrush to me! We kept listening to hear several different notes, and eventually had heard enough to be sure of the ID. I took a video recording of the call to document the bird, as I wasn’t sure I’d be able to track it down for a picture. Listen for four separate buzzy calls, each on a different note, and spaced several seconds apart in the video below.

After taking the recording I went tromping through the snow to try to get eyes on it. I was assuming it would be on the ground since when they show up in Boise each winter at Kathryn Albertson Park they’re usually foraging quietly on the ground. However, the closer I got the more it sounded like the sound was actually coming from up in the tree tops. I finally dialed in on it and fired off a quick documentation shot before the bird flew away.

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Varied Thrush at Goose Lake, Adams County. May 24, 2015.

We were pretty thrilled with our find, and even more pleased when we got internet later and checked eBird reports to find that they’ve actually been seen exactly once at Goose Lake in 3 out of the last 4 years (our sighting makes it 4 out of the last 5 years), so perhaps we might have a new regular place to check for them if we miss the one that shows up in Boise each winter.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Rarity Roundup, May 2015

The past few weeks have seen some pretty incredible bird movements throughout Idaho, with the best variety and rarest birds showing up in southeast Idaho, predominantly at or near Market Lake, Camas NWR, and Mud Lake. While Ellen and I are thoroughly enjoying our Memorial Day weekend getaway to Tamarack Resort in Valley County, inside I’m twitching a little bit every time I check my email and see a new message about a rarity showing up in southeast Idaho! Normally this would have been a great weekend for us to zip over there and try to chase everything down, but we already had everything booked for Tamarack, so that wasn’t an option (or rather it would be a very expensive option) this time. I’m starting to wonder if we should move our annual cabin getaway to mid-June and just plan on camping out at one of our parents’ houses in Rexburg for the second half of May next year to make sure we can get in on the action!

Here’s a quick summary of the rarities reported over the past few weeks. More information on all of these can be found online via IBLE, eBird, and the two Facebook groups dedicated to Idaho birds (see below for more details on sources).

Northern Idaho:

  • Suspected UPLAND SANDPIPER found near Grangeville by Matt Dresser on 5/4 and 5/11
  • CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPUR found near Priest Lake by Bob and Georgene Bond on 5/20

Central Idaho:

  • PACIFIC LOON found near New Meadows by Fred Erland on 5/22

Southwest Idaho:

  • WHIMBREL found at Kuna Sewage Ponds found by Jason Talbot and Rob Mortensen on 5/14
  • NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH found at Mountain Home Air Force Base found by Carl Lundblad on 5/17

Southeast Idaho:

  • ACORN WOODPECKER in Swan Valley found by Rob Miller on 5/6
  • WHIMBRELS (11!) found near Mud Lake found by Darren Clark on 5/15
  • WHIMBRELS (2) found near Bear Lake found by Jesse and Junice Neubauer on 5/15
  • Suspected ICELAND GULL found near Mud Lake by Jethro Runco on 5/15
  • NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH found at Market Lake found by Steve Butterworth on 5/16
  • NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH found at Camas NWR found by Steve Butterworth, Pat Weber, Cheryl Huizinga on 5/22
  • ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK found near Inkom by Bill Moore on 5/18
  • RED KNOT found near Mud Lake by Dave and Elise Faike on 5/20
  • ARCTIC TERNS (2) found at Island Park Reservoir by Cliff Weisse on 5/21
  • EASTERN PHOEBE found near Inkom by Larry Arnold on 5/21
  • NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRD found at Market Lake by Steve Butterworth on 5/21
  • SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHER found at Camas NWR by Noel Zaugg on 5/21
  • MAGNOLIA WARBLER found at Camas NWR by Cheryl Huizinga, Pat Weber, and Steve Butterworth on 5/22
  • BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLER found at Camas NWR by Cheryl Huizinga, Pat Weber, and Steve Butterworth on 5/23
  • YELLOW-THROATED VIREO found in Carey by Heidi Ware on 5/23

The best sources to keep up with this kind of information include IBLE, the Idaho Birding Facebook Page (predominantly amateur birders and common birds with occasional posts by more experienced birders or of more exciting birds), the Idaho Bird Sightings and Discussion Facebook Page (for more serious discussion and more focus on rarities), and the eBird Rare Bird Alert. If you’re interested in finding out about unusual bird sightings in Idaho, all of these are critical sources.

And just to console myself a little bit, here are a few pictures of a Bobolink Ellen and I found yesterday near New Meadows. It’s not terribly rare, but we missed the ones that we usually find in Garden Valley on Friday so we looked up some locations near New Meadows that I had heard about, and voila, here he is! There are actually two individuals pictured (the first two pictures are one bird, the last two pictures are a different bird) as you can see from the difference in the white barring on the flanks of the two birds. We had two more calling from the grass that we didn’t actually lay eyes on.

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Bobolink near New Meadows, Adams County. May 23, 2015.

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Bobolink near New Meadows, Adams County. May 23, 2015.

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Bobolink near New Meadows, Adams County. May 23, 2015.

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Bobolink near New Meadows, Adams County. May 23, 2015.

The whites and yellows on the black kept getting blown out in the bright lighting, but we’ll probably try for more pictures today since we’ll be making another trip to New Meadows to look for the one rarity on the list that isn’t on the opposite side of the state: a Pacific Loon at the Meadow Creek Sewage Ponds.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Kicking off our Memorial Day Weekend in Valley County

Over the past couple of years we’ve started an annual tradition of spending Memorial Day weekend in Valley County, using Tamarack Resort (near Donnelly) as our base camp and exploring Long Valley and the surrounding mountains for a few days. We just started this year’s trip yesterday, and so far things are off to a great start. Here’s our route so far: starting from Boise we headed up to Porter Creek Road, just north of Horseshoe Bend to see if the Red-eyed Vireo is back yet this year (it wasn’t), then we stopped at the Banks Café to see if they were having good numbers of hummingbirds right now (they weren’t), then we zipped over to Garden Valley to see if the Bobolinks had arrived het (they hadn’t), then we cruised up Highway 55 to Round Valley, and then finished our trip to Tamarack Resort via West Mountain Road that skirts the western edge of Lake Cascade.

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Our route on day 1 of our trip.

We’ve had rain on and off for the past week or two, and yesterday was the same. We had occasional patches of bright sunshine through the dark clouds, and occasional downpours and lightning storms. The stormy weather made for some dramatic skies.

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Garden Valley, Boise County. May 22, 2015.

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Round Valley, Valley County. May 22, 2015.

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Round Valley, Valley County. May 22, 2015.

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Snowbank Mountain from West Mountain Road, Valley County. May 22, 2015.

In Garden Valley, our best bird was this Eastern Kingbird, just our second this year, and the first we’ve photographed this year.

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Eastern Kingbird near Garden Valley, Boise County. May 23, 2015.

In Round Valley, our most unusual bird was this Sage Thrasher. There wasn’t any sagebrush in sight, so I’m not sure what this guy was doing out here in the grass!

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Sage Thrasher in Round Valley, Valley County. May 22, 2015.

Savannah Sparrows were all over the place, as were swallows, most of which were Tree (including the pair pictured below getting down to business), but there was also a handful of Cliff and Barn Swallows.

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Savannah Sparrow in Round Valley, Valley County. May 22, 2015.

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Tree Swallows in Round Valley, Valley County. May 22, 2015.

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Tree Swallows in Round Valley, Valley County. May 22, 2015.

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Tree Swallows in Round Valley, Valley County. May 22, 2015.

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Cliff Swallow in Round Valley, Valley County. May 22, 2015.

On West Mountain Road we had loads of good birds in the woods along the road, but my favorite was the Townsend’s Warblers, present in pretty good numbers for pretty much the entire road.

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Townsend’s Warbler on West Mountain Road, Valley County. May 22, 2015.

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Townsend’s Warbler on West Mountain Road, Valley County. May 22, 2015.

We also had a Lincoln’s Sparrow, at pretty much the same spot as the one we found here last year. I’m sure they breed all along the lake edge, but for some reason this one was the easiest to find two years in a row.

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Lincoln’s Sparrow on West Mountain Road, Valley County. May 22, 2015.

Evening Grosbeaks were present in pretty good numbers too. We have never seemed to be able to find these birds as often as some others, but this year I think we’ve finally committed their call to memory and now we’re hearing their calls much more often than we recognized before.

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Evening Grosbeak on West Mountain Road, Valley County. May 22, 2015.

When we got to Tamarack Resort, we checked into our rental cabin for the weekend, and actually had a pretty decent list of birds just while unloading the car and getting settled in. I’m sure we’ll take more pictures of all the birds around our cabin over the rest of the weekend, but for now, we just photographed these Red Crossbills high on a treetop to confirm the ID.

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Red Crossbills near Tamarack Resort, Valley County. May 22, 2015.

It’s been a great start to our trip so far, and I can’t wait to see what else we’ll find this weekend!

Friday, May 22, 2015

Grasshopper Sparrow on Highland Valley Road

This week Nora and I went for a couple of early morning trips to Highland Valley Road. This is the road that takes you from Highway 21 up to Lucky Peak where the Intermountain Bird Observatory runs a banding station in the late summer and fall. Due to the poor road conditions after all the rain we’ve had lately and the short amount of time available before I had to get back to work, we didn’t go up to the peak, but focused on the lowest 3 miles instead.

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Map of my drive along Highland Valley Road. The Grasshopper Sparrow location is marked by a red star.

As soon as we got off Highway 21 the hillsides were full of birdsong. The area is dominated by sagebrush, but there are little strings of willows and other shrubs at the bottom of every crease in the landscape. As I approached the first such ribbon of green, I heard Lazuli Buntings, Yellow Warblers, and a Wilson’s Warbler calling. We don’t see Wilson’s Warblers all that often, so I had to try to get a shot, despite the long distance and the dim overcast lighting.

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Wilson’s Warbler on Highland Valley Road, Ada County. May 19, 2015.

Lots of other common spring migrants were present in good numbers, including Black-headed Grosbeaks, Western Tanagers, and Bullocks Orioles like this guy.

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Bullocks Oriole on Highland Valley Road, Ada County. May 19, 2015.

Spotted Towhees were calling incessantly, and Lark Sparrows were all over the place.

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Spotted Towhee on Highland Valley Road, Ada County. May 19, 2015.

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Lark Sparrow on Highland Valley Road, Ada County. May 19, 2015.

There was also a handful of Brown-headed Cowbirds, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Brewer’s Blackbirds like this fella.

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Brewer’s Blackbird on Highland Valley Road, Ada County. May 19, 2015.

Thursday morning I got out again, and this time the light was a little better, though the roads were still pretty soggy. Lark Sparrows were all over the place again.

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Lark Sparrow on Highland Valley Road, Ada County. May 21, 2015.

Lots of colorful birds like Bullocks Orioles, Yellow-breasted Chats, and Lazuli Buntings were present in good numbers as well.

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Bullocks Oriole on Highland Valley Road, Ada County. May 21, 2015.

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Yellow-breasted Chat on Highland Valley Road, Ada County. May 21, 2015.

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Lazuli Bunting on Highland Valley Road, Ada County. May 21, 2015.

The highlight of the trip was a pair of Grasshopper Sparrows. Grasshopper Sparrows have become fairly reliable near Avimor (a housing development north of Eagle on Highway 55, and home to several avid birders), but that’s on the opposite side of town from us and I was really hoping to find a regular spot closer to home. As I was driving up Highland Valley Road, I started looking at the grassy hillsides behind the ribbon of willows on the side of the road, and realized this was pretty similar habitat to the hills near Avimor, so I stopped and listened for a while to see if I could hear a Grasshopper Sparrow calling. I kind of thought I heard one pretty early on, but their call is very quiet, and there were a couple of Brewer’s Sparrows nearby, whose calls have some similar qualities, so I wasn’t totally convinced. I went along my drive further up the road, and on the way back down decided to stop and listen again. This time I heard the calls again, and was a bit more confident that they were actually coming from Grasshopper Sparrows, so I hopped out of the car and slowly tried to dial in on the sounds. The birds were staying well concealed and it took my a while to finally lay eyes on one, but eventually I saw this guy perched on top of a bit of low brush. I was pretty thrilled to see it and to snap a few distant photos to record the ID. I would have liked to have been able to get closer and get better photos, but this was one skittish bird!

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Grasshopper Sparrow on Highland Valley Road, Ada County. May 21, 2015.

On the way back down, I was able to confirm the presence of a second Grasshopper Sparrow as well. Now let’s just hope I can re-find these guys next spring! Hopefully this wasn’t a one-off occurrence and I’ll have a new regular spot. This location is just 15 minutes from home, so very easy to keep an eye on.