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.

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