Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Spruce Grouse and Great Gray Owl at Cape Horn

In mid-June we took a trip up to the Cape Horn Lakes west of Stanley and the Sawthooths. We were hoping to take advantage of our great success in the first half of the year to spend more time focusing on 1-2 birds at a time that are harder to get. The main targets for this weekend were Spruce Grouse, Great Gray Owl, and American Three-toed Woodpecker.

On the way up we saw a flock of bright red Cassin’s Finches near Moores Creek Summit on Highway 21.


Cassin’s Finch at Moores Creek Summit, Boise County. June 14, 2014.

At Cape Horn we drove Cape Horn Road through the meadows north of Highway 21 before heading to the lakes. We were hoping to find a Great Gray Owl that’s been seen in the area a few times over the years. We’ve looked before without any luck, so didn’t have very high expectations. Instead we just enjoyed a few other more common birds, like Western Tanagers, Olive-sided Flycatchers, and Tree Swallows.


Western Tanager at Cape Horn Road, Custer County. June 14, 2014.


Olive-sided Flycatcher at Cape Horn Road, Custer County. June 14, 2014.


Tree Swallow at Cape Horn Road, Custer County. June 14, 2014.

As we were headed back from the eastern end of Cape Horn Road towards the west end where you turn off for the Cape Horn Lakes, we still kept an eye out for a Great Gray. As we were passing near the guard station, we finally saw one (though at quite a distance) flying over the creek and into the trees! That was our lifer Great Gray, but it sure was frustrating to only get such a fleeting, distant glimpse! We spent a while trying to figure out how to get closer to the area we’d seen it so we could relocate it, but couldn’t find any public access points to where we needed to go. Feeling a little incomplete, we eventually gave up and moved on with our day. At least we know a good place to focus our search on our next trip!


Map of the Cape Horn area. Drive through the Marsh along Cape Horn Road from point A to point B. Cape Horn Lakes at point C. Great Gray Owl seen briefly at roughly where the red star is placed.

At Cape Horn Lakes we were impressed with the quiet and the beauty of the lake! We only saw one lake, so it isn’t clear why the official name is Cape Horn Lakes (plural), but I didn’t let that curiosity detract from the moment.


Cape Horn Lakes, Custer County. June 14, 2014.

It didn’t seem like there were a ton of birds in the area, but we took our time, went for a nice slow walk, and little by little encountered one bird after another, until pretty soon we actually had a decent list. See here for a full list of the 25 species we saw at this location from our eBird checklist.

We found a few waterfowl on the lake, mostly on the furthest end, so it was hard to make them out. It looks like this is a pair of Lesser Scaup. Given the time of the year, I suspect they are breeding here.


Lesser Scaups at Cape Horn Lakes, Custer County. June 14, 2014.

As we hiked along the edge of the lake we kept an ear out for any American Three-toed Woodpeckers. We heard a few candidates, but never confirmed one. At one point, we heard a Spruce Grouse clucking up the hillside, not too far from us! They’re incredible at blending into their surroundings, so we couldn’t ever track it down for a visual, but the sound was distinctive. We sure can’t wait for our first chance to actually get a good view of one, instead of just hearing it. Even without better views of the birds we went looking for, we still had a great time, and have fond memories of the quiet and beauty we enjoyed on that day.


Hiking (hey that’s us!) along Cape Horn Lakes, Custer County. June 14, 2014.

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