Thursday, January 7, 2016

August highlights: Lots of new state birds on our first birding trip to north Idaho

August was a busy and eventful month, but in the interest of getting caught up on the blog I’ll cover the highlights in a condensed fashion. We still had a lots of great finds and saw a lot of new places, but for the first half of the month we went through a rough streak for photography where we weren’t able to photograph a lot of our birds, and then our main camera bit the dust and left us high and dry for the rest of the month.

August 1-2 – Great Gray Owls near Stanley

We spent the first weekend in August in the Sawtooths trying to knock out our Great Gray Owl for the year. There had been recent reports from the Park Creek Overlook west of Stanley, so that’s where we started.

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Ellen and Nora keeping an eye out for a Great Gray Owl at Park Creek Overlook, Custer County. August 1, 2015.

Someone else was able to get photos of one on a fencepost in the meadow, and while we weren’t lucky enough to lay eyes on one, as it started to get dark we did hear one calling from the woods across the meadow. That night we camped to the east in the Iron Creek dispersed camping area under a bright full moon.

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We were awoken several times in the night by a pair of Great Gray Owls – what sounded like a begging juvenile, and an adult female tending to it. It was super cool to hear them calling so close by! It would have been more fun to actually lay eyes on them, but when I got out the tend to search around for them I heard them move a little further away, and they didn’t come back close again until I got back in the tent.

The next morning we birded a few other locations in the area, lots of the usual suspects were around in good abundance, including this juvenile Williamson’s Sapsucker near Red Fish Lake.

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Juvenile Williamson’s Sapsucker near Red Fish Lake, Custer County. August 2, 2015.

August 8 – White-winged Dove near Warm Springs Golf Course

On August 4th, Larry Arnold found a White-winged Dove while biking on the Boise Greenbelt near the Warm Springs Golf Course. Turns out the bird stayed put for a decent amount of time, giving lots of people a chance to track it down over the next few days. It took us four boring attempts of hanging around the parking lot of the golf course for an hour or two waiting for it to make an appearance, but eventually we found it on the 8th.

August 15-19 – First birding trip to north Idaho

Every year as time goes on my eBird needs alert tends to be dominated more and more by birds in northern Idaho, since we haven’t been up there since we started birding. This year we hoped to make that right by taking a big trip to knock out everything that we could that’s usually too far away. Here’s the route we took, along with our hit list:

Panhandle map

Target birds:

  • Boreal Owl at Galena Summit or Lolo Pass
  • Gambel’s Quail in Salmon
  • American Redstart, Northern Waterthrush, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, and Vaux’s Swift at a variety of locations from I-90 and north.
  • Boreal Chickadee in the mountains northwest of Bonners Ferry.
  • Black Swift at various waterfalls in Boundary County.

We were lucky in that we were able to find everything we were looking for. Unfortunately with many of these birds being creatures of the night, or of dense forests, or high flyers, our photographic success was quite low. We spent the first night camping near Galena Summit, and spent a slow drive going up and down the pass listening for Boreal Owls. We heard a handful of owls, but none of them were Boreal. The next day we headed up to Salmon to look for Gambel’s Quail. On the way we stopped at an old mining town called Bayhorse that we hadn’t heard of before. We saw a few nice birds, including this Lewis’s Woodpecker, though nothing new.

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Lewis’s Woodpecker near Bayhorse, Custer County. August 16, 2015.

In Salmon we drove the Old Lemhi Road to the south and east of town, and found at least two different coveys. Just off camera from this bird were several fresh hatchlings that were scampering around in the grass.

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Gambel’s Quail near Salmon, Lemhi County. August 16, 2015.

That night we headed up to the Lolo pass on the continental divide near the Idaho/Montana border. Lolo Pass has a large rest area, and behind the rest area is a forest road that heads deep into the woods and follows a couple of different ridgelines into the mountains. We spent a while getting our bearings before our light ran out, then headed back to the rest area to have dinner. As dark set in, we headed back out down the road to call for Boreal Owls. We worked our way down the forest road slowly, stopping to listen and play calls every 1/4 or 1/2 mile. When we got to one point where the forest broke into a large open meadow, we played the call and immediately had an owl swoop right over our car! I was super excited at the prospect of having our owl, but wanted to rule out any other owl that might be responding due to territorial instincts. I hopped out, grabbed the spotlight and started scanning trees to try to get a look. I couldn’t ever find it perched, but after calling one more time we got another swoop right over head. This time, when the bird landed in the trees behind us it gave one characteristic call, giving itself away as the Boreal Owl we’d been looking for! A few more minutes of looking around with the spotlight never turned up the bird for a good visual confirmation, but the staccato call is distinctive, and the size we observed as it swooped over the car was consistent. This was definitely one of the biggest highlights of the year! I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and strategizing about how we might be able to find a Boreal Owl, and it was really satisfying to put together a plan and have it actually work out. Hopefully next year we can try again and get some kind of visual documentation as well.

The next morning, we headed into the nifty town of Wallace to get some lunch and re-group before starting the next leg of our journey. We headed up over the Dobson Pass north of Wallace and worked our way towards Shadow Falls, famous for nesting Black Swifts. Unfortunately when we got to our turnoff for the falls the road we needed was closed due to the Grizzly Fire Complex. That turned out to be an important theme for the rest of our trip, as time after time our plans had to change due to fires burning out of control across the entire region. It was a disappointment to miss out on the chance to see nesting swifts at Shadow Falls, but we knew there were other falls in Boundary County that likely had them as well, so we just headed off along the Couer D’Alene river road towards Cataldo and enjoyed finding our first Idaho Chestnut-backed Chickadees and Vaux’s Swifts.

We camped that night near Beauty Bay on Lake Couer D’Alene, and headed up to the mountains northwest of Bonners Ferry the next day to look for Boreal Chickadees. There are a couple of locations there in the Selkirk Mountains, just south of the Canadian border, where Boreal Chickadees are known to breed near the summit. Ongoing fires in the Selkirks limited our options for roads we could access there as well, but luckily our first choice road was just barely outside of a fire closure and was still accessible. We headed up towards the summit and stopped to listen for Boreal Chickadees every 1/10th of a mile or so for the last mile before the summit. We actually had really great luck right away, and heard Boreal Chickadees at about half of our stops, including several small flocks.

On the way back down we stopped at Myrtle Falls, right across the street from the Kootenai NWR visitor’s center to look for Black Swifts. We spotted one from the parking lot, and another above the falls. Better looks would have been nice, but we did get a look at a probable nest under some of the cliffs near the falls.

The next day was our last for this leg of the trip, and we spent our time around Sandpoint and the Clark Fork Delta. Here we found loads of American Redstarts, plus a lone Northern Waterthrush. This was a really unique habitat, it had a totally different vibe than anywhere I’ve been in Idaho before, and we really look forward to getting back up there, hopefully with more time for photography next time! We were really successful in finding nearly everything we were looking for – the only things we missed were long shots anyway – including Clay-colored Sparrow – rare but regular in the panhandle, and White-winged Crossbill – an occasional breeder in the panhandle, more frequently found as a winter vagrant.

August 19-23 – Oregon Coast

The last leg of our trip was more of a family vacation then a birding trip. Still, we had did have a few nice birds as we spent a few days traversing the northern half of the coast of Oregon.

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Cannon Beach, Clatsop County, Oregon. August 21, 2015.

At Cannon Beach, we found a Common Murre that didn’t seem to be doing so well hanging out on the beach. It was docile and completely approachable and seemed resigned to stay put until the end. I’m not sure what was wrong with it – there was nothing that caught my eye outside of it’s odd behavior.

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Common Murre at Cannon Beach, Clatsop County, Oregon. August 21, 2015.

Near the town of Seaside we hit up one local birding hotspot to see if we could find some interesting gulls or rockpipers. Larids included Western, Glaucous-winged, and Heerman’s Gulls, as well as Caspian Terns.

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Western Gull at Seaside Cove, Clatsop County, Oregon. August 21, 2015.

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Glaucous-winged Gull at Seaside Cove, Clatsop County, Oregon. August 21, 2015.

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Heerman’s Gulls at Seaside Cove, Clatsop County, Oregon. August 21, 2015.

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Caspian Tern at Seaside Cove, Clatsop County, Oregon. August 21, 2015.

Is we hopped from rock to rock we tracked down a group of shorebirds hanging out in the surf.

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Shorebirds foraging in the surf at Seaside Cove, Clatsop County, Oregon. August 21, 2015.

Closer inspection revealed that our rockpipers were Wandering Tattlers, and Black Turnstones, both new birds for us, though fairly common for the area.

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Wandering Tattler at Seaside Cove, Clatsop County, Oregon. August 21, 2015.

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Black Turnstone at Seaside Cove, Clatsop County, Oregon. August 21, 2015.

While we were sitting on the rocks shooting pictures of the shorebirds, all of a sudden all of the images went black! We’re not sure what went wrong – it didn’t appear that anything had gotten into the lens to gum things up, but the software seemed to be working just fine. The camera powered up, the lens extended, the display was just fine, and it seemed like the shutter was just jammed shut. Sadly, that was about the end of our photography for this trip, since we didn’t bring our backup camera with us.

August 25 – Sabine’s Gull and Arctic Tern at Lake Walcott

When we got home from our Oregon trip we had a couple of good Idaho birds to catch up on, most notably an Arctic Tern that was found at Lake Walcott. We hadn’t been before, but since the location was also good for Sabine’s Gull which we still needed for our year list we booked it out there one afternoon to track down both birds. While our backup camera wasn’t up to the challenge of documenting our good finds, we did find both birds. It was a quick whirlwind trip and then we zipped right back home.

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Tern over Lake Walcott at sunset, Minidoka County. August 25, 2015.

August 29 – Hudsonian Godwit at Blue Creek

Our last big chase for the month was a Hudsonian Godwit that had been found at Blue Creek near the Idaho/Nevada border. This is a really cool bird for Idaho, and one we felt lucky to have a chance to chase so soon – with how infrequently they turn up in Idaho it seemed like we’d probably have to wait a few years for a good opportunity. I was really wishing I’d had the reach of our ill-fated Canon SX50 HS for this bird, but at least our backup camera allowed us to bring home a documentation shot.

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Hudsonian Godwit at Blue Creek, Owyhee County. August 29, 2015.

Stay tuned for my first trip outside the country – a business trip to Costa Rica that included a couple of decent birding opportunities.

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