Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Winter birding with a non-birder

For whatever reason, when I first started birding, my family was a bit surprised to hear of my new hobby. My younger brother in particular was perhaps the most surprised, probably because he was out of the country for the first couple of years we were learning the ropes, so he didn't see our transition from non-birders to bird-obsessed, he just saw the end result. He's always been passionate about the outdoors and nature, but from a different perspective (he's a fur trapper and hunter).

Despite his interest in mammals, and the massive amounts of time he spends outdoors on prime birding habitat, he's never had much interest in birds. I've told him every now and then about rare and interesting bird reports we've heard about for some of his favorite stomping grounds, but that never seemed to catch his interest.

Me (on the right) and my brother (on the left) checking out my patch at Diversion Dam, Ada County.
January 20, 2013.

A few weeks ago, he called to tell me about the wildlife management course he's taking at college. His professor is a birder, and is including one interesting element in the final grades for the course: students are graded partially based on the number of bird species they are able to see during the semester.

I ignored the fact that my brother wasn't actually calling to ask for my help, and proceeded to start planning how I was going to make sure he could find more birds than anybody else in his class. Lucky for me, he needed to spend the weekend on our side of the state for a fur auction, so we made him tag along for a few quick birding trips while he stayed with us.

Our first interesting find was a Prairie Falcon perched atop a power line just north of Mountain Home Reservoir.

Prairie Falcon. North of Mountain Home Reservoir, Elmore County. January 19, 2013.

Since it was bitterly cold (and had been for several days) it was a struggle to find any open water, and bird numbers were quite low overall. In hopes of finding some open water (and the birds it would likely attract) we headed up to Anderson Ranch Dam. The plan worked, and right away we found a large raft of Common Mergansers and Common Goldeneyes on the reservoir.

Rather than circling the reservoir, we followed the river downstream from the dam outlent. We weren't able to get pictures of all of our finds, but we did capture a few goodies, starting with these Barrow's Goldeneyes.

Barrow's Goldeneyes. Downstream from Anderson Ranch Dam, Elmore County. Janaury 19, 2013.

It didn't take too long to find a dipper. This is one of those birds that's really fun to find and observe, but since it's not brightly colored, it can be hard to explain to a non-birder why it's such a cool bird.

American Dipper. Downstream  from Anderson Ranch Dam, Elmore County. Janaury 19, 2013.

The best find of the day was a flock of Common Redpolls. The flock managed to put themselves directly between us and the sun, so it was hard to get good views or photos, but a fun find nonetheless. If viewing conditions had been better, we'd have spent a lot more time checking for Hoarys.

Common Redpolls. Downstream  from Anderson Ranch Dam, Elmore County. Janaury 19, 2013.

Other highlights we weren't able to photograph included Stellar's Jays, a heard-only Rock Wren, and a great variety of ducks.

The next day we took my brother to our patch at Diversion Dam in Boise. There were fewer birds out and about than on most trips (we couldn't even find a Song Sparrow, which would be hard to miss most days) but we did have quite a few fly-over Great Blue Herons. We then took him out through the countryside south of Boise hoping for some good raptors. Bird numbers were low on this leg of the journey too, so we hustled along to Wilson Springs Ponds to see what kind of waterfowl we could find.

We got some great looks at a Northern Harrier perched on a fence post near some farmland on our way to Wilson Springs.

Northern Harrier. Kuna Rd, Ada County. January 20, 2013.

At Wilson Springs Ponds, open water once again appeared to be the trick to finding the birds in this cold weather. We had heard through IBLE that the volume of American Robins was quite impressive, and it was still true when we arrived.

American Robins. Wilson Springs Ponds, Canyon County. January 13, 2013.

There was also a large flock of Brewer's Blackbirds.

Brewer's Blackbird. Wilson Springs Ponds, Canyon County. January 20, 2013.

It was just too cold to stay out long enough to take a lot of photos, but waterfowl numbers were fantastic as is usual for Wilson Springs and we enjoyed a nice brisk walk to finish off the day.

Overall we saw 53 species over the weekend, which isn't too bad for just a few hours of birding on a frigid January day. I'm not sure whether my brother actually kept a list for his class, so maybe he'll call me up sometime in April to ask what we saw together before he gets his final grade. Hopefully he'll put the new binoculars I got him to good use. And who knows, maybe spring migration will pique his interest better than winter birding did.


  1. Birding can be a hard sell - especially in winter! And this winter has been so cold! Best of luck getting your brother hooked. My sister's interested in hearing about them, especially the rarities, but I can only get her to go look for them so often.

  2. Honestly part of why I wish he'd go chase some of the rare birds in his area is so I can enjoy the chase vicariously. While the birding was slow on our side of Idaho, his side of Idaho has hosted a Hoary Redpoll, a Gyrfalcon, a Boreal Owl, and quite a few Great Gray Owls over the past month. I can hardly sit still thinking about chasing those birds!