Sunday, February 14, 2016

2015 goes out with a bang

After a decent uptick in our luck in November we were re-invigorated to end the year big. We ended November with 291 species, which was much higher than we thought we’d get to this year, and it felt like there were still some nice birds left to chase before the year was over, so we thought we’d push and see how much we could find with the last month of the year.

December 7: Anna’s Hummingbird in Garden City

First order of business was to track down an Anna’s Hummingbird – a bird normally restricted to pacific states and the southwest that has been increasingly wandering into Idaho in the fall and staying over the winter in yards all over the Treasure Valley and the Moscow area. They usually start showing up in August or September, and many of them find a favorite yard to hang out in right away, and then hang out in that same yard through the entire winter. With quite a few showing up in the Boise area these days and staying put at regular locations for months in a row, we were long overdue to get a look at one of these. We got in touch with a friend who has some regulars that have been marked by the Intermountain Bird Observatory for a new study they’re undertaking to try to get a grasp on their apparent range expansion into Idaho. They’ve got at least 3 spending the winter in their yard, and after half an hour or so of watching, one of them made an appearance for us (Idaho year bird #293).

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Anna’s Hummingbird in Garden City, Ada County. December 7, 2015.

December 15: White-winged Crossbills at Dry Creek Cemetery

White-winged Crossbills are an irruptive winter finch that occasionally breeds in Idaho’s panhandle. It’s been awhile since they’ve made a strong appearance, but this winter they started to show up in good numbers in early December around Moscow. A good showing in Moscow put others around the state on alert and pretty soon they were being found in McCall and Idaho Falls as well. We kept an eye out for them when we were around the right kind of habitat (mainly mature spruce with a good cone crop) but never found any on our own. However, Jason Talbot had better luck and found a handful of them at Dry Creek Cemetery in Boise on December 15. I had a gap in my schedule at work so we zipped out for a very quick look. We ran into Steve Hofhine who had just seen them before we arrived, and after just a few minutes of browsing around Steve found the birds again and gave me a holler to come over and take a look. We found 2 birds (Idaho year bird #294), snapped a few quick pics (including one of a more common Red Crossbill they were hanging out with) and then headed back to work.

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White-winged Crossbill at Dry Creek Cemetery, Ada County. December 15, 2015.

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White-winged Crossbill at Dry Creek Cemetery, Ada County. December 15, 2015.

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White-winged Crossbill at Dry Creek Cemetery, Ada County. December 15, 2015.

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White-winged Crossbill at Dry Creek Cemetery, Ada County. December 15, 2015.

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Red Crossbill at Dry Creek Cemetery, Ada County. December 15, 2015.

December 20: Bohemian Waxwing at Dry Creek Cemetery

Somehow we made it all the way to the last 10 days of the year without seeing a Bohemian Waxwing. We went to Dry Creek Cemetery on December 20th to make that right. We couldn’t find one in the cemetery where others had usually seen them, but a quick drive through the neighborhood just north of the cemetery procuced gobs of waxwings, including this Bohemian (Idaho year bird #295).

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Bohemian Waxwing near Dry Creek Cemetery, Ada County. December 20, 2015.

December 26: Savannah Sparrow at Pleasant Valley Road

In 2013 and 2014 we got all four of the zonotrichia sparrows that occur in Idaho. This year, we were just missing Golden-crowned Sparrow, so when Jason Talbot reported one south of Kuna on Pleasant Valley Road we zipped out to try to relocate it. We never found it, but did have quite a surprising group of Savannah Sparrows – very rare around here in the dead of winter.

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Savannah Sparrow on Pleasant Valley Road south of Kuna, Ada County. December 26, 2015.

December 28: Winter specialties on the South Fork of the Boise River

We had some spare time on our hands between Christmas and New Years since I’d taken the entire week off in anticipation of my parents visiting. They weren’t actually able to come out, so we took the opportunity to see what else we could knock out before the year ended. Most of the very few things that were still showing up on our needs alert were pretty far away, and we had some other family visiting on the 28th so we couldn’t take off right away, so rather than chasing something new we just set out to enjoy some nice winter scenery along the South Fork of the Boise River, downstream from Anderson Ranch Dam.

The trip ended up being surprisingly birdy – starting with a nice flock of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches along the road down to the dam. They provided the best up-close views of this species we have had so far.

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Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch (interior race) near Anderson Ranch Dam, Elmore County. December 28, 2015.

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Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch (Hepburn’s/coastal race) near Anderson Ranch Dam, Elmore County. December 28, 2015.

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Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches (two Hepburn’s/coastal and one interior race) near Anderson Ranch Dam, Elmore County. December 28, 2015.

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Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch (interior race) near Anderson Ranch Dam, Elmore County. December 28, 2015.

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Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches (two Hepburn’s/coastal and one interior race) near Anderson Ranch Dam, Elmore County. December 28, 2015.

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Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch (interior race) near Anderson Ranch Dam, Elmore County. December 28, 2015.

Along the South Fork below the dam we had lots of other nice birds, including loads of American Dippers, Steller’s Jays, and Chukars, to name a few.

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American Dipper (showing its nictating membrane) on the South Fork of the Boise River, Elmore County. December 28, 2015.

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American Dipper on the South Fork of the Boise River, Elmore County. December 28, 2015.

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Steller’s Jay on the South Fork of the Boise River, Elmore County. December 28, 2015.

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Chukars on the South Fork of the Boise River, Elmore County. December 28, 2015.

One really fun find was a pair of Ruffed Grouse hanging out in some trees right along the river banks, about eye level with us in the car. It took us an inordinately long time to find these guys for the first time, so it’s still always really fun when we stumble on them again.

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Ruffed Grouse on the South Fork of the Boise River, Elmore County. December 28, 2015.

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Ruffed Grouse on the South Fork of the Boise River, Elmore County. December 28, 2015.

Just before the endpoint of our trip down the river we spotted what looked like an owl way back in a tree probably a hundred yards or more from the road. We were trying to confirm what it was when it flew and zipped toward us, then across the road in front of us, and disappeared into some dense shrubbery on the opposite side of the road. We tried for a while to re-find it but were unsuccessful. However, on the way back out we were lucky enough to find another, right above the road, and it held still really nicely while we shot a few photos out the sunroof of our car. We’ve had a handful of Northern Pygmy Owls in Idaho before, mostly just heard-only, but this was the first time we got a nice solid daytime view of this species in Idaho.

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Northern Pygmy Owl on the South Fork of the Boise River, Elmore County. December 28, 2015.

As the daylight was fading and we were zipping back up to the dam to head home, we had to stop one more time when we found another Ruffed Grouse hanging out in a tree right by the road.

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Ruffed Grouse on the South Fork of the Boise River, Elmore County. December 28, 2015.

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Ruffed Grouse on the South Fork of the Boise River, Elmore County. December 28, 2015.

December 30: Michaud Creek, Silver Creek, Gannett, and Triumph

Our Monday visitors spent the night and headed home on Tuesday, and after they left we were free for the next six days. We decided to make an attempt at one of our biggest nemesis birds of the year – Sharp-tailed Grouse. We’d looked for them all over the Chester area near St. Anthony early in the year where they spend the winter along the creek bottoms, we’d looked for them at a handful of WMAs, historical checklist locations, and other rumoured lek sites during their peak lekking season in May and June, and had searched all over near their only southwest Idaho stronghold near Midvale in the fall. When a report came in from near Pocatello I figured it was just a one-off – that someone had gotten lucky and stumbled upon a handful that would never be re-located. However, soon another couple of reports came in for the exact same location and it seemed like they might be staying put, at least for a bit. We headed to Pocatello on the 29th, and searched the Michaud Creek area west of town in the afternoon as soon as we got there, but stormy weather kept the bird activity pretty low, and we didn’t find any grouse.

We spent the night in Pocatello, and headed back out bright and early the next morning. On the way in we had a nice flock of Common Redpolls. I finally clued in that these guys really like birch, so the extensive water birch thickets along Michaud Creek were the perfect place to find a large flock. We counted at least 120 of these guys, and kept a close eye out for a Hoary in the mix (we never found one).

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Common Redpoll on Michaud Creek Road, Power County. December 30, 2015.

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Common Redpoll on Michaud Creek Road, Power County. December 30, 2015.

We zipped all the way down Michaud Creek Road until the snow got too deep to travel anymore without finding any grouse, but on the way back out we finally saw these great big lumps hanging out in the trees. Finally! A lifer, and Idaho year bird #296! I would have liked to try to sneek a little closer, but there was a fence in the way, and I wanted to be respectful of the private property in the area. Still – I was pretty happy with the shots we got to bring home.

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Sharp-tailed Grouse on Michaud Creek Road, Power County. December 30, 2015.

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Sharp-tailed Grouse on Michaud Creek Road, Power County. December 30, 2015.

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Sharp-tailed Grouse on Michaud Creek Road, Power County. December 30, 2015.

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Sharp-tailed Grouse on Michaud Creek Road, Power County. December 30, 2015.

On the way back out to the main road we had an even closer encounter with the large flock of Common Redpolls. They were quite tolerant of our presence, and we were probably within 10-15 feet of them several times. The lighting was excellent so we took advantage of the opportunity and shot to our hearts’ content.

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Common Redpoll on Michaud Creek Road, Power County. December 30, 2015.

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Common Redpoll on Michaud Creek Road, Power County. December 30, 2015.

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Common Redpoll on Michaud Creek Road, Power County. December 30, 2015.

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Common Redpoll on Michaud Creek Road, Power County. December 30, 2015.

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Common Redpoll on Michaud Creek Road, Power County. December 30, 2015.

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Common Redpoll on Michaud Creek Road, Power County. December 30, 2015.

After that stop we had lots of daylight left, but no reports of anything else to chase and no concrete plans for the rest of my time off. We decided to head over to the Bellevue Triangle area (Silver Creek/Picabo in the southeast corner, the junction of Highway 20 and Highway 75 in the southwest corner, and Bellevue on the north) in hopes of finding a Gyrfalcon – a very rare arctic specialty that’s shown up in this area every now and then over the years. Nothing too unusual turned up at Silver Creek, though it was fun to see moose eating through a stack of hay, a handful of Trumpeter Swans on the ponds at the preserve, and a Belted Kingfisher fishing in the barely open water near the Hayspur Fish Hatchery.

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Moose and Mule Deer near Silver Creek, Blaine County. December 30, 2015.

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Trumpeter Swans near Silver Creek, Blaine County. December 30, 2015.

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Trumpeter Swan near Silver Creek, Blaine County. December 30, 2015.

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Belted Kingfisher near Hayspur Fish Hatchery, Blaine County. December 30, 2015.

We never found a Gyrfalcon on that trip, but as we searched some of the roads around the triangle our best find was a lone Barn Owl – which actually turned out to be the first county record for Blaine County (at least as far as eBird records are concerned). That seemed odd to me, since the agricultural area seemed like a fairly typical place for them to hang out.

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Barn Owl near Gannett, Blaine County. December 30, 2015.

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Barn Owl near Gannett, Blaine County. December 30, 2015.

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Barn Owl near Gannett, Blaine County. December 30, 2015.

We spent the night in Hailey, and for our final birding trip of the year before heading home we went out to Triumph, a tiny little town in the mountains a few miles east of Hailey that’s well-known among birders as a great place to find Rosy-Finches. They come down out of the nearby mountains in the winter to feast at a few neighborhood feeders. We found a large flock right away, that had a nice mix of Black and both races of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches.

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Mixed Rosy-Finches in Triumph, Blaine County. December 31, 2015.

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Mixed Rosy-Finches in Triumph, Blaine County. December 31, 2015.

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Mixed Rosy-Finches in Triumph, Blaine County. December 31, 2015.

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Mixed Rosy-Finches in Triumph, Blaine County. December 31, 2015.

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Mixed Rosy-Finches in Triumph, Blaine County. December 31, 2015.

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Mixed Rosy-Finches in Triumph, Blaine County. December 31, 2015.

When all was said and done we were pretty happy with hitting 296 for the year. Ever since we started birding in Idaho, Cheryl Huizinga has been the #1 (in terms of species seen in Idaho) on eBird, and her highest count prior to 2015 was 295. She’s always seemed pretty unbeatable, so when we hit 295 we were thrilled to tie her highest year ever prior to 2015, and at 296 we were even more thrilled to know we had beaten her previous high count. That being said – in 2015 she really knocked it out of the park, coming in with a total of 308 species! In reality, our competition with Cheryl was unspoken, very friendly, and probably a one-way deal (I doubt she felt like she was competing with us at all since she maintained such a solid lead all year). Cheryl’s an awesome birder who we always enjoy running into in the field, and honestly I would think something was wrong if we ever beat her. That being said – it was pretty fun even just to beat her prior year totals with our 2015 list.

Cheryl’s total of 308 puts her at the #1 biggest Idaho year list ever recorded in eBird, and our total of 296 put us at #2. However, not everybody uses eBird, and there are some pretty impressive list totals in other years that aren’t captured in eBird. I combined some notes from a few other birders that have paid attention to these sorts of records over the years, with list totals kept on ABA.org, counts reported to IdahoBirds.net, as well as those recorded on eBird to come up with what I think is the definitive list of the top 10 Idaho big years so far. Cheryl came in at #3 (with a significant lead over #4), and we came in at #5.

#1 - 318 - Harry Krueger 2004 (IdahoBirds.net)
#2 - 313? - Marty Collar (year unknown, reported by Jay)
#3 - 308 - Cheryl Huizinga 2015 (eBird.org)
#4 - 298 - Jay Carlisle 2009 (self-reported)
#5 - 296 - Stoddard & Ellen Davenport 2015 (eBird.org)
#6 - 295 - Cheryl Huizinga 2014 (eBird.org)
#6 - 295 - Heidi Ware 2009 (reported by Jay)
#8 - 292 - Cheryl Huizinga 2013 (eBird.org)
#9 - 290 - Larry Arnold 2014 (eBird.org)
#10 - 286 - Jay Carlisle 2013 (eBird.org)
#10 - 286 - Jay Carlisle 2014 (eBird.org)
#10 - 286 - Kathleen Cameron 2013 (ABA.org)

I never anticipated we’d get so close to 300 species this year, but in hindsight I really wish we’d have played our cards a little different a few times throughout the year to get across that mark, as only 3 others have.

  • Early in the year there was a Blue Jay that lingered at Hyatt Hidden Lakes Reserve in Boise for a couple of months – I tried for it a few times but should have kept at it until I found it.
  • Over Memorial Day weekend we were in McCall while an insane number of rarities were turning up in southeast Idaho, and I suspect if we’d have gone to southeast Idaho for Memorial Day weekend to get in on the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect and gone to McCall a week later that alone may have been enough to push us over 300.
  • There were Lark Buntings showing up in the desert around Craters of the Moon over the summer that we never tried for.
  • We could have looked for Mountain Quail in the Hells Canyon area.
  • I didn’t find out until a few weeks ago that a Yellow-billed Cuckoo was found in Blaine County mid-summer.
  • We missed out on a few other nice birds like a Hooded Oriole because I usually avoid asking people if I can come to their house to see the birds hanging out in their yard.

I could go on and on with things we could have chased to bump up the year list – there were 337 species seen in the state last year so that means we missed 41 – but truth be told I’m also quite happy to have gotten a number that I feel like we can beat it in 2016. It’s a lot of work and mental effort to keep track of all the planning and logistics that go into getting that many birds in a year, so part of me kind of hopes we can do one more really big year (hopefully breaking our 2015 count) and then sort of take it easy a little more after that. Of course I won’t be able to help myself and will probably always chase new state birds when I get the chance, but maybe after 2016 I’ll ease up on the year listing a bit and try to add a little sanity back into the mix. I guess we’ll just see when we get there!

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