Friday, November 6, 2015

Five killer rarities in July

Most years we’ve seen about 90% or more of the species we’ll see all year long by the end of June, and things really start to slow down in July. This year, even though numbers dropped off quite a bit by July, the small handful of new birds we did have were really extraordinary.

The first was a Black-throated Blue Warbler that the IBO crew found at their Boise River Banding Site on July 6. Ellen and I just live a few minutes away (and their current study site used to be our old patch) and thanks to an instant message from Heidi Ware we got the news really fast and were able to zip right over. Sometimes a chase can be really frustrating, but this warbler was actually really easy to find, as it was singing constantly, and we heard it right away as we headed into the banding site.

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Black-throated Blue Warbler at the IBO Boise River Banding Site, Ada County. July 6, 2015.

A few other people who were also able to get there quickly were also able to find it, but it was gone by the evening, and as far as I know we were the only ones able to get photo documentation. This was Idaho’s 18th record of Black-throated Blue Warbler, 8 of which have been submitted to and accepted by the Idaho Bird Record Committee. Lately they’ve been averaging one appearance every other year.

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Black-throated Blue Warbler at the IBO Boise River Banding Site, Ada County. July 6, 2015.

A week later, Alex Lamoreaux (bird blogger extraordinaire at NemesisBird.com and seasonal crew for the IBO) found a White-rumped Sandpiper at Lake Cascade. I hustled up there, hoping to beat an approaching storm that some other birders had noticed heading towards the lake, but ended up getting stuck behind a chip sealing operation on Highway 55 that added 45 minutes to the travel time. Luckily I arrived just in time, and got to meet and hang out with Alex for a bit while we waited for the bird to put in another appearance. A large flock of Western Sandpipers came in and gave us something to pick through for a bit, but eventually we found this guy hanging out all by himself. Interestingly, this guy/gal is missing its eye on the right side. I’m not sure if that has anything to do with whatever misnavigation landed it in Idaho. This was Idaho’s 7th record for White-rumped Sandpiper (the 6th was a month earlier near Mud Lake). Before 2015 the most recent record for this species in Idaho was 2006. Pretty great find!

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White-rumped Sandpiper at Lake Cascade, Valley County. July 13. 2015.

The very next day Bruce Ackerman and some friends found a Least Tern at Jacks Creek WMA (on C.J. Strike Reservoir). I bailed out of work a little early when I heard the news and Ellen, Nora, and I all rushed out to Jacks Creek. When we got there we ran into Cheryl Huizinga, Denise Hughes, Heidi Ware, and Jay Carlisle. It’s always good to run into them, and when you bump into them you know there’s something awesome around. We found the Least Tern right away, hanging out on a log in the shallow end of the reservoir. This was only Idaho’s 5th record, the first in 17 years!

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Least Tern at Jacks Creek WMA, Owyhee County. July 14, 2015.

The log ended up being quite a hit for terns, and later a Forster’s Tern and Black Tern showed up as well.

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Least Tern, Black Tern, and Forster’s Tern at Jacks Creek WMA, Owyhee County. July 14, 2015.

The Least Tern was quite feisty and chased off the Black Tern every time it got too close. Later a Common Tern showed up to add even more fun to the action (note the faint carpal bar on the leftmost bird).

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Common Tern, Forster’s Terns, Black Tern, and Least Tern at Jacks Creek WMA, Owyhee County. July 14, 2015.

While we were enjoying the terns, there was a gull that caught Jay’s eye on a different log. After some careful study, the bird was suspected to be a Laughing Gull. Everybody busted out their field guides and stared this bird down good and hard, watching for all the necessary clues to clinch the ID, and finally it flew – giving the last few crucial details that weren’t visible on the resting bird. It was a Laughing Gull, and what I suspect will be the first accepted state record for Idaho! There was one earlier record that wasn't accepted, and of course this bird is still subject to review by the IBRC, but I presume it won’t have a problem getting accepted, as at least 6 of the 7 voting members of the IBRC made a trip out and were able to see the bird for themselves. It was fun to be there as the bird was discovered, and despite it’s nondescript appearance, this was among the best finds we had all year.

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Laughing Gull at Jacks Creek WMA, Owyhee County. July 14, 2015.

Speaking of first state records, a couple of weeks later Mary Rumple found a Phainopepla at Foote Park! This is just 5 minutes or so from our house, so we zipped out to try to find it on a lunch break as soon as we heard the news, but we couldn’t find it after 30 minutes of searching before I had to get back to work. Later that afternoon, several others were able to find it, and once it was confirmed the crowds started building out at Foote Park. I suspect that’s more people than have ever been to Foote Park at once, it’s usually pretty quiet. It had made an appearance for a few other birders just before we arrived in the afternoon for our second try, and we staked it out for another half hour before it finally made another appearance. At first it just made a few sounds and provided just a short glimpse deep in some thick brush, but a few minutes later it flew up to a prominent perch where everybody could see it and started singing away for the crowd.

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Phainopepla at Foote Park, Ada County. July 30, 2015.

What a great find, and it was especially nice that it showed up so close to Boise so lots of people were able to enjoy it. It’s a pretty tough bird to photograph well in such harsh lighting but we were happy to have something to take home.

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Phainopepla at Foote Park, Ada County. July 30, 2015.

Two first state records plus three super rare finds for Idaho made for one heck of an exciting “slow” month!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

June highlights: bird banding on the Boise River, Danskin Mountain Lookout, and a clean sweep on juniper specialties in southeast Idaho

June was another busy month, with lots of great birds coming through to keep up with. June’s usually when we clean up on all the migrants and summer residents we couldn’t squeeze in in May.

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Locations that we had eBird checklists for in June.

In the interest of getting the blog caught up a little quicker, and since I’ve already blogged about a lot of these locations in more detail in the past, I’m going to cover all the June highlights in rapid fire succession. Here goes:

June 1: Cheryl Huizinga found a Cattle Egret hanging out with a group of Great Egrets in Marsing. They’re not super rare, but can be pretty tricky to find some years, so we zipped out to see it as quick as we could.

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Cattle Egret near Marsing, Canyon County. June 1, 2015.

June 3: We took a lunch break drive up to Grimes Creek to find our Veeries for the year. We quickly found several, right in the exact same stretch of the road as we found them in 2013 and 2014. It’s great to have a reliable spot for this species!

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Veery on Grimes Creek Road, Boise County. June 3, 2015.

June 6: Started the day off by taking a group of scouts to the new IBO Boise River Banding site. The scouts seemed to have a good time, and especially got a kick out of getting to hand-release a few of the birds after the IBO crew finished up with them. As always it was nice to run into a few other birders (Danette Henderson, Dan Cook, Jay Carlisle, Heidi Ware), plus in an odd twist I met my neighbor that’s lived across the street from me for a couple of years for the first time!

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IBO crew and onlookers at the IBO Boise River Study site, Ada County. June 6, 2015.

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Yellow-breasted Chat at the IBO Boise River Study site, Ada County. June 6, 2015.

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Yellow Warbler at the IBO Boise River Study site, Ada County. June 6, 2015.

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Heidi Ware helping the scouts hand-release a bird at the IBO Boise River Study site, Ada County. June 6, 2015.

After the trip to the banding site, we headed up towards a little ravine in the foothills along Pierce Park Road that’s pretty reliable for Bewick’s Wrens. We parked a little off the road and listened for a bit. A Yellow-breasted Chat came by, and then after a few minutes a Bewick’s Wren popped out for us. We’ve seen them before in Idaho, but this was the first time we were able to get photos.

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Yellow-breasted Chat on Pierce Park Road, Ada County. June 6, 2015.

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Bewick’s Wren on Pierce Park Road, Ada County. June 6, 2015.

We spent the afternoon in the foothills and mountains northeast of Horseshoe Bend off of Porter Creek Road. There weren’t too many birds of note, and the only one that held still for a picture was this female Cassin’s Finch.

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Cassin’s Finch along Porter Creek Road, Boise County. June 6, 2015.

June 7: We drove up to Danskin Mountain, and hiked up to the lookout. This was our first time up Danskin Mountain. The road was a little sketchy but the views at the top were worth it.

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Danskin Mountain Lookout, Elmore County. June 7, 2015.

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Danskin Mountain Lookout, Elmore County. June 7, 2015.

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Female Black-headed Grosbeak at Danskin Mountain Lookout, Elmore County. June 7, 2015.

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American Pipit at Danskin Mountain Lookout, Elmore County. June 7, 2015.

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View of the South Fork of the Boise River Canyon from Danskin Mountain Lookout, Elmore County. June 7, 2015.

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Sagebrush Lizard (I think) at Danskin Mountain Lookout, Elmore County. June 7, 2015.

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View looking west from the Danskin Mountain Lookout, Elmore County. June 7, 2015.

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Burrowing Owl on the way home from the Danskin Mountain Lookout, Elmore County. June 7, 2015.

June 13-17: We took a big trip out to the far southeast part of the state, just north of the Utah border to track down all of our juniper specialties. This trip is one of my favorite parts of the summer. So many great birds to track down, like the following:

  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Bushtit
  • Juniper Titmouse
  • Black-throated Gray Warbler
  • Virginia’s Warbler
  • Plumbeous Vireo
  • Western Scrub-jay
  • Pinyon Jay
  • Ash-throated Flycatcher
  • Scott’s Oriole
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • and more!

Our targets and itinerary were similar to what we did on part of our big southeast Idaho trip last June, but for the most part we were more efficient (and more successful) than last year. Plus we had a lot more good photo opportunities.

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Ash-throated Flycatchers on Black Pine Road, Cassia County. June 13, 2015.

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Loggerhead Shrike on Black Pine Road, Cassia County. June 13, 2015.

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Plumbeous Vireo in the Stone Hills, Cassia County. June 13, 2015.

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Western Scrub-jay at the Juniper Rest Stop, I-84, Cassia County. June 13, 2015.

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Juniper Titmouse near Castle Rock State Park, Cassia County. June 13, 2015.

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Ferruginous Hawk on Black Pine Road, Cassia County. June 14, 2015.

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Sage Thrasher on Black Pine Road, Cassia County. June 14, 2015.

One of the best highlights was finding our first Northern Mockingbird in Idaho. We’ve seen them in a couple other states, but they’re a really nice bird for our Idaho list. We spent a lot of time chasing them around the hills to try to get good pictures, and for the most part, they stumped us.

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Northern Mockingbird on Black Pine Road, Cassia County. June 14, 2015.

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Northern Mockingbird on Black Pine Road, Cassia County. June 14, 2015.

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Northern Mockingbird on Black Pine Road, Cassia County. June 14, 2015.

At the City of Rocks, the Provo Wall hosted a pretty great concentration of birds.

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Virginia’s Warbler at City of Rocks, Cassia County. June 14, 2015.

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Virginia’s Warbler at City of Rocks, Cassia County. June 14, 2015.

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Green-tailed Towhee at City of Rocks, Cassia County. June 14, 2015.

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Violet-green Swallow at City of Rocks, Cassia County. June 14, 2015.

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White-throated Swifts at City of Rocks, Cassia County. June 14, 2015.

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Black-throated Gray Warbler at Smoky Mountain Campground, Cassia County. June 14, 2015.

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Black-chinned Hummingbird at Smoky Mountain Campground, Cassia County. June 14, 2015.

Of course one of the major highlights for this trip every year is tracking down the Scott’s Oriole – southwest desert specialist that for some reason breeds annually in this area, despite how far it is from its main habitat. It primarily depends on yucca, which are nowhere to be found around here. Last year we found them on June 9th, and that’s the earliest they’ve ever been found in Idaho, but since they were there this early last year we thought it was worth a shot this year. We lucked out and found a male and female pair.

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Scott’s Oriole south of Black Pine Road, Cassia County. June 17, 2015.

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Scott’s Oriole south of Black Pine Road, Cassia County. June 17, 2015.

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Scott’s Oriole south of Black Pine Road, Cassia County. June 17, 2015.

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Female Scott’s Oriole south of Black Pine Road, Cassia County. June 17, 2015.

Interestingly, by looking at the earliest date they’ve been known to have fledged offspring in Idaho (early July) and working backwards through the time required to build a nest, lay eggs, begin incubation, hatch all the eggs, and fledge the young, it seems likely that they’re actually arriving sometime in the second half of May, so it’s probably worth trying even earlier in future years.

June 27: Unfortunately the treacherous two-tracks we travelled in the Stone Hills looking for the Scott’s Oriole and the old age of our SUV combined to send us limping home in a severely overheating car. This left us vehicularly-disabled for several weeks as the initial problems turned into a cascading series of additional problems, ultimately ending in the demise of our car. This meant a couple of slow weeks for birding towards the end of the month, but we did make a quick trip up to Warm Lake on June 27th to look for Red-necked Grebes. They breed here each year, and we easily found our target.

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Red-necked Grebe at Warm Lake, Valley County. June 27, 2015.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Big week(end) in southeast Idaho

While Ellen and I were enjoying our annual getaway to Valley County over the Memorial Day weekend a handful of experienced birders in southeast Idaho were turning up rarities left and right at some of the big regional hotspots. While we were having fun and adding lots of great birds to our year list, most of them were regular migrants or summer residents that we could have gotten at other times of the year, so I was wishing we’d planned our big Valley County trip for another week or two later in the year and had spent Memorial Day weekend in southeast Idaho instead. Hoping that there were still some good birds lingering the next weekend, and being overdue for a visit to our families in that part of the state anyway, we planned a back-to-back trip to southeast Idaho on our drive home from Valley County. We got home on the afternoon of the 25th, ran a few loads of laundry, and headed out again on the morning of the 26th.

Our first stop was Carey, where Heidi Ware had found a Yellow-throated Vireo. We staked it out for a while and found lots of vireos, but none of them with yellow throats. Our best find was a Myrtle Yellow-rumped Warbler, a nice reward for paying closer attention to a species that we usually don’t spend much time focusing on.

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Myrtle Yellow-rumped Warbler in Carey, Blaine County. May 26, 2015.

The next stop was Camas NWR. We arrived just before sunset, and it was stormy, so the skies were quite dark. It took the bright colors of a close-range Western Tanager to get our only usable photo of the evening.

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Western Tanager at Camas NWR, Jefferson County. May 26, 2015.

The best bird of this stop was a Short-billed Dowitcher, our first in Idaho. This bird had been found by a few other birders earlier in the week, and we were happy to be able to re-find it. Short-billed and Long-billed Dowitchers are quite similar, so it takes a lot of careful study to pick them apart, and honestly without knowing that other birders had found one in the area I’m not sure I’d have had the patience to sort through all the details necessary to find the bird. The best description I could find for how to tell apart Long-billed and Short-billed Dowitchers was written by Greg Gillson, an excellent birder and blogger focusing on the Pacific Northwest. He describes Long-billed as having a heavily spotted throat and barred upper breast, with entirely orange underparts. A caurinis Short-billed should be pinkish red with a variable amount of white on the belly, with heavily barred flanks, and a densely spotted breast. The bird I saw fit Gillson's description of a spring caurinis Short-billed quite nicely, and caurinis is the expected race of Short-billed for western N. America. Unfortunately the light was too difficult to bring home any photos to help with the documentation.

We camped out at my parents house in Rexburg for the week, and since I hadn’t planned any time off from work I worked from my parent’s basement for the week. We spent the early mornings and evenings hitting up a lot of the big hotspots, mostly focusing on Camas NWR, Market Lake WMA, and Mud Lake. The morning of the 27th, I let Ellen and Nora catch up on some much needed rest while I headed out at sunrise for another trip to Camas NWR. Camas was loaded with good birds at first light, including 6 species of flycatchers (among which Least Flycatcher was the most exciting), loads of Wilson’s Warblers, and a good variety of waterfowl, raptors, and others for a total of 42 species in about an hour and a half.

On the 28th I headed to Market Lake WMA at first light. I got about an hour and a half in before I had to head back and get to work, and I found 64 species total, without even getting all the way down to the windrows which could have easily added another 20 species. Short-eared Owls stole the show as they bobbed and dove over the marsh on either side of the road on the way in. This seems to have been a really good year for them.

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Short-eared Owl at Market Lake WMA, Jefferson County. May 28, 2015.

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Short-eared Owl at Market Lake WMA, Jefferson County. May 28, 2015.

During the day I kept an eye on the eBird rare bird alert, and were excited to see a report of a Little Gull found by Jethro Runco at Mud Lake. As soon as I saw the alert Ellen and I made plans to head out and look for it in the afternoon after I finished work. An afternoon storm was rolling in as we drove out, and that made the viewing conditions pretty difficult, and we learned after our arrival that Mud Lake is home to a pretty sizeable colony of Franklin’s Gulls, which are superficially quite similar to Little Gulls, which meant that we had to pick through hundreds (if not thousands) of Franklin’s Gulls to find our target.

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Stormy skies near Mud Lake, Jefferson County. May 28, 2015.

 

 

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Stormy skies over Mud Lake, Jefferson County. May 28, 2015.

The primary features we were searching for included a lack of black on the upper wing tips, all black underwings, and smaller size relative to the Franklin’s Gulls. The distance made size difficult to judge, and the lighting made it hard to tell how light or dark the wings were, but we carefully scanned the lake for a couple of hours anyway. These next couple of pictures give you a good sense of what we had to pick through to try to find the Little Gull.

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Mixed gulls and waterfowl on Mud Lake, Jefferson County. May 28, 2015.

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Mixed gulls and waterfowl on Mud Lake, Jefferson County. May 28, 2015.

We took occasional breaks from scanning the lake to look for migrant songbirds in the surrounding trees. Lots of good birds were present, though nothing really rare. The best songbird was probably a Least Flycatcher, known to breed in the area some years.

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Least Flycatcher near Mud Lake, Jefferson County. May 28, 2015.

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Northern Rough-winged Swallow near Mud Lake, Jefferson County. May 28, 2015.

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Western Tanager near Mud Lake, Jefferson County. May 28, 2015.

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Eastern Kingbird near Mud Lake, Jefferson County. May 28, 2015.

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Belted Kingfisher near Mud Lake, Jefferson County. May 28, 2015.

The morning of the 29th we headed back to Mud Lake for another try at the Little Gull. We still didn’t find it, but tracked down another decent handful of songbirds in the surrounding Russian Olives and Cottonwoods, and on the way out we had a nice up-close encounter with a young Short-eared Owl.

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Gray Catbird near Mud Lake, Jefferson County. May 29, 2015.

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Hermit Thrush near Mud Lake, Jefferson County. May 29, 2015.

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Short-eared Owl near Mud Lake, Jefferson County. May 29, 2015.

With a little extra time before I had to get back and get to work, we made a quick trip to Market Lake WMA. We focused on the windrow this time since we only did the marsh on the prior trip, and turned up 46 species in an hour and a half. We didn’t find anything rare, but did add a year bird or two. Short-eared Owls continued to put on a show all along the road in and out of the marsh.

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Short-eared Owl near Mud Lake, Jefferson County. May 29, 2015.

On Saturday the 30th I didn’t have to work, so we made a full day of it. Since we still hadn’t found that darn Little Gull, we started at Mud Lake again. Lots more gulls to pick through, and still no luck. We were hoping there would be more good stuff to chase while we were in town, but by Saturday the Little Gull was still the only rarity that anybody had found, and we weren’t turning up anything else on our own either, so we kept staring at those darn Franklins Gulls hoping to turn one of them into our Little Gull.

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Franklin’s Gulls at Mud Lake, Jefferson County. May 30, 2015.

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Franklin’s Gulls at Mud Lake, Jefferson County. May 30, 2015.

On the way out we ran into another young Short-eared Owl, and had nice up-close encounters with a Swainson’s Hawk and a Long-billed Curlew.

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Short-eared Owl near Mud Lake, Jefferson County. May 30, 2015.

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Swainson’s Hawk near Mud Lake, Jefferson County. May 30, 2015.

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Swainson’s Hawk near Mud Lake, Jefferson County. May 30, 2015.

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Long-billed Curlew near Mud Lake, Jefferson County. May 30, 2015.

A few other local birders were out canvassing some of the other local hotspots, so we were anxious to hear if any interesting reports might come in during the day. With nothing turning up by the time we were through with Mud Lake we just headed back to Market Lake in hopes of checking out a few different access points we hadn’t seen before. We didn’t really find any out-of-the-ordinary birds, but luckily the ordinary birds are still pretty nice at Market Lake.

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Market Lake WMA, Jefferson County. May 30, 2015.

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Savannah Sparrow at Market Lake WMA, Jefferson County. May 30, 2015.

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Common Yellowthroat at Market Lake WMA, Jefferson County. May 30, 2015.

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Cinnamon Teal at Market Lake WMA, Jefferson County. May 30, 2015.

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Northern Shoveler at Market Lake WMA, Jefferson County. May 30, 2015.

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Marsh Wren at Market Lake WMA, Jefferson County. May 30, 2015.

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Great-tailed Grackle at Market Lake WMA, Jefferson County. May 30, 2015.

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Black-crowned Night-heron at Market Lake WMA, Jefferson County. May 30, 2015.

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Western Painted Turtle at Market Lake WMA, Jefferson County. May 30, 2015.

The most surprising find actually wasn’t a bird, but was a North American River Otter. I’m not sure if they’re established in the area or where this guy came from, but it sure seemed odd to see him at a desert marsh rather than on a lake or river. Too bad he was moving too quick to get a nice clear shot.

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North American River Otter at Market Lake WMA, Jefferson County. May 30, 2015.

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North American River Otter at Market Lake WMA, Jefferson County. May 30, 2015.

With nothing rare turning up at Mud Lake, Market Lake, or Camas NWR we decided to head out to the opposite side of Jefferson County to get a few juniper-loving year birds instead. In the Heise area we went looking for Juniper Titmouse, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Bushtit, and more. We found most of what we were looking for, so it was a nice stop.

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Broad-tailed Hummingbird near Heise, Jefferson County. May 30, 2015.

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Blue-gray Gnatcatcher near Heise, Jefferson County. May 30, 2015.

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Wild Turkey near Heise, Jefferson County. May 30, 2015.

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Red-tailed Hawk with a snake near Heise, Jefferson County. May 30, 2015.

On Sunday morning (May 31) we said goodbye to family and headed out for one last attempt at the Little Gull at Mud Lake before heading home to Boise. We took another close look at our field guides and camped out to watch for the gull again. We found a few Bonaparte’s Gulls, which are smaller than Franklin’s Gulls so they always need a good second look.

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Bonaparte’s Gull at Mud Lake, Jefferson County. May 31, 201

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Little Gull from The Sibley Guide to Birds of Western North America.

Eventually we got bored of staring at the same view of the lake and decided to cover as much of the perimeter as we could in case there was a better viewpoint we hadn’t tried yet. There were loads of birds all over the place, but we never found anything too unusual.

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Canvasbacks at Mud Lake, Jefferson County. May 31, 2015.

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Redheads at Mud Lake, Jefferson County. May 31, 2015.

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Osprey at Mud Lake, Jefferson County. May 31, 2015.

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Ring-necked Pheasant near Mud Lake, Jefferson County. May 31, 2015.

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Gray Partridge near Mud Lake, Jefferson County. May 31, 2015.

On the west end of the lake there are huge colonies of White-faced Ibis and Franklin’s Gulls. It seemed like every square inch of available space was occupied, and it was interesting to see the ibis and gulls mixing side-by-side throughout the marsh rather than occupying separate areas by species.

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Gulls and ibis at Mud Lake, Jefferson County. May 31, 2015.

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Franklin’s Gull at Mud Lake, Jefferson County. May 31, 2015.

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White-faced Ibis and Franklin’s Gull at Mud Lake, Jefferson County. May 31, 2015.

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Franklin’s Gulls at Mud Lake, Jefferson County. May 31, 2015.

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Caspian Tern at Mud Lake, Jefferson County. May 31, 2015.

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Gulls and ibis at Mud Lake, Jefferson County. May 31, 2015.

When we completed the loop and found ourselves back on the north side of the lake where the Little Gull had most frequently been seen from. We decided to give it one last shot before we hit the road. The Franklin’s Gulls had mostly left the main body of the lake, so it was easier to scan through the gulls that are left.  After a total of 13 hours of searching across four days in a row, we finally re-found the darn thing. After all that time searching for this bird the views were pretty disappointing, but at least diagnostic. All black hood, pale gray wings with no black tips, smaller than nearby Bonaparte’s, and dark under the wings when it flew.