A (mostly) friendly competition between 2 avid birdwatchers that are also friends/co-workers. Who can observe more bird species in Idaho in 2009? Will they still be friends at year's end? ;-)

Thursday, December 31, 2009


What a way to end this year!

Just as I was becoming content with the "almost 300" total of 294 species for 2009, the Howe Christmas Bird Count came along ...

yesterday around 5PM I was in the movie theater with my family, anxious to get home and START packing for the Boise State trip to Kenya which Jay and I are leaving for tomorrow (1/1/10). yikes! I had a lot to do! I had no time to waste...

then...I got the text (in the middle of a fight scene during Sherlock Holmes): "CRESTED CARACARA IN HOWE!!!" (Howe, ID is a 4 hour drive from Boise) My first thought: "crap! no way can we chase that!" My second thought: texting Jay back "what time are we leaving tomorrow?"

YUP, we truly are insane birders! We both rushed home to start packing after our respective movie and soccer game (as of 8PM 12/31/09 neither of us are done). Our plan: to leave Boise at the terrible-horrible hour of 5AM, in order to hopefully miss the correctly forecasted snow storm now hitting us.

We were up Dark and Early :) Sunrise from the road near Arco

After ~4 hours of sleep, we hit the road... *yawn* :O As fellow Africa-traveler/birding buddy Rob Miller put it when he heard of our plan: "you guys are hardcore insane"

Starting @ around 920am, we scoured the area near Howe where the bird had been seen by Steve Butterworth, Kit Struthers, Mike Munts, and Marv Lambrecht the day before, but didn't have any luck. After about an hour, we received one of many calls from fellow birders who were scouring the area...this time it was Larry and Brian with the words we'd been waiting for: "any interest in a Caracara?"

We rushed to drive to the street they described, and arrived to see the group of birders with scopes aimed at a snowy field.....and there was the CARACARA!!!!!

The caracara and his snack....Happy New Year, Caracara. you look miserably cold

We drove in closer and watched for 45 + minutes as the young bird chowed down on a delicious looking piece of carrion. I dont think he realized he was only the 2nd (and probably the coldest) Caracara reported in Idaho. :) He was so cool with his long legs and bare face! woohoo! there were high-fives all around...What an awesome last year bird of 2009!!!

mmmmm, tasty! cow leg? dead cat?

the successful "hardcore insane" new years eve caracara chasers!! :D

The road home.....the snow hadn't hit yet!

this means:

FINAL TOTAL for 2009:

Jay: 298 species---4 of these were Jay state birds

Heidi: 295 species---133 of these were Heidi lifers

The birds Jay saw that Heidi didn't: Chestnut-collared Longspur, Western Scrub-jay, Gray Partridge

Heid saw her ENTIRE 'prior to 2009 Idaho lifelist' except for: Red-shouldered Hawk, Gyrfalcon, and Gray Partridge
you may ask: what's the plan for next year now that "Bird Idaho 2009" is over??? Well we dont know, but we ARE beginning the year birding in Kenya, so......Bird the WORLD 2010???? hmmm.....this could be dangerous! (and interesting...so please keep checking our blog :)


--Heidi and Jay

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas eve gulls & Blue Jay (or, 'The Year of the Iceland Gull')

On Thurs, 12-24, Heidi & I headed to Crouch/Garden Valley to look for one of 2 Blue Jays that have recently starting attending a feeder along with a few Steller's Jays. Actually, back in early November, Garden Valley birders had noticed a Blue Jay or two but it wasn't until last week that they starting keeping a regular schedule ... thanks to Sheri & Linda for keeping us posted!

In most years, I've been able to encounter 1 or more Blue Jays during the fall at Lucky Peak or elsewhere but this hasn't been so the last couple years so we had to go chasing! Progress on the 2009 year list has been quite slow of late - a combo of being busy with other things and it being a slower time of year with fewer bird species around - so it was fun when Heidi first spotted one in a conifer and then it came in to the feeder a few minutes later!

The feeder area by the Birding Store in Crouch

A nice of view of the nearby hills on a cold & beautiful winter day

A shot of the cooperative Blue Jay through my handheld ;-)

Since it didn't take long for a Blue Jay to arrive, we decided it might be worth a quick stop at the Boise dump (Hidden Hollow landfill) to see about the gulls on the way home. We'd found an immense adult Glaucous Gull as well as an adult Mew Gull (no pics) the day before so we wanted to see if anything new might be around.
Adult Glaucous Gull at the Boise landfill on 12-23

When we arrived, admitted gull lover and (fellow frequenter of dumps:) RL Rowland was already there & mentioned noticing an interesting-looking adult gull with grayish wingtips ... it soon flew in and landed nearby. It looked big and with gray-tipped wings as it flew in so we first wondered about Glaucous-winged but the yellow eyes, smaller bill, rounded head shape, and eyes more forward on face suggested otherwise. Maybe biased by the Glaucous the day before (which was cooperative on this day too & arrived about 30 min after we did), my first inclination was that it had some Glaucous in it - maybe crossed with Herring (which could help explain the gray wingtips). But, the longer we looked, the more we wondered about an adult Iceland (Kumlien's because of the gray, not white, primary tips) ... in particular, at one point after the gulls had been flushed & then settled again, the presumed Iceland was perched directly in front of the Glaucous providing a brief comparison. In addition to being smaller, the bird had a longer primary projection, daintier bill, more rounded head, and less of a 'tertial stack' (basically, more attenuated body shape) than the Glaucous.

This & the following 7 pictures are of the presumed Kumlien's (Iceland) Gull seen at the Hidden Hollow landfill (Ada Co dump) on 12-24. Notice the small, rounded head, relatively small bill, pink legs, yellow eyes, long primary projection, and somewhat deep belly. The key feature that got us thinking towards Iceland in the first place is that the primaries have gray shading ...

Here's the best shot I could get of the wing partly open - notice the big 'mirror' (white spot near tip of feather) on primary #10 - the outermost primary - and the gray (as opposed to black) shading at the ends of the primaries

with 2 adult Herring Gulls (1 standing, 1 sitting further back) at its right; the Herrings have longer, slightly thicker bills as well as a more squared-off head shape

Facing the camera (rear right, behind the hordes of Ring-bills and, based on mantle color, 1 California at front right) - notice the smaller, narrower head & neck compared to the Herring @ left

Here it is between 2 adult Herring Gulls (that have different amounts of head streaking)

It was just earlier this year (during spring migration) that we saw my first ever Iceland Gull in Idaho so 2 in one year seems mind-blowing! I'm hoping others, including the other big larophiles in the state, Cliff & Lisa Weisse, might get a chance to see it next week but we've all looked at pics and think it looks good for a Kumlien's!

It's been quite a year for gulls in Idaho, having now seen Sabine's, Bonaparte's, Franklin's, Mew, Ring-billed, California, Thayer's, Iceland, Lesser Black-backed, Glaucous-winged, Herring, & Glaucous in 2010!! Now, just waiting on the Western &/or Slaty-backed to arrive ;-).

Merry Christmas,


Friday, December 25, 2009

Snowy day

Last Saturday, Jay and I went on a long awaited birding adventure with the Henderson clan. We started out on pleasant valley road, mostly in search of horned lark flocks and raptors. It was a cold morning (though not as cold as the single digits earlier in that week!) and the snow was really coming down as we scoured the back roads for birds. We ran into a few flocks of White-crowned sparrows and a flock of Horned Larks, but didn’t find anything unusual mixed in with them. Soon after seeing this first flock of HOLA’s, we got a fun surprise when we saw a Northern Shrike perched on top of a bush. Not quite the raptor we were looking for, but close! And very cool :)
We continued down the road into the middle of nowhere, and began seeing more and more raptors as we went. One of the first birds we stopped for on a power pole turned out to be a Ferruginous Hawk!! It was a great sighting, because I haven’t really seen that many, plus it was one of the Hendersons’ “requested” birds for the trip! Danette had spotted what she thought was a Ferrug at the same spot a few days before, so she was excited to have her mystery bird ID solved! As we watched, the bird took off from the power pole it was sitting on and flew to one a little further down, letting us see the cool white patches on the tops of the wings, and the dark legs….but I was more excited about something else, because as it took off, it launched a great big poop! Yippee! My Ferruginous “poop lifer” :) An interesting conversation followed as I explained my recently started poop lifelist….and I only got a few looks from the Hendersons…I guess they’re used to running into some ‘odd’ birders! Haha.
As we got back into the car, I noticed some bunny prints in the snow along the roadside just below the pole…..I wondered if he knew how close he’d come to being lunch!
We continued on and continued to see more and more raptors on the poles…which turned into some fun birdie quizzes! Pretty soon IDing it as a Rough-legged was not hard enough for us, so Jay moved on to quizzes over age and sex. After pouring over the guides and seeing a few different ages of birds, we soon had it figured out!
At one place we stopped, we got a real raptor treat. In the area we could see from where we had stopped, we saw: 2 Ferrugs, 2 Rough-legs (an immature and an adult…a perfect comparison for our quizzing!) , 2 Harriers (a male and female), and a Red-tail….all but the Ferrug’s were in just one field!!
We continued driving, and saw a Golden Eagle perched next to us on a pole. We slowed down and IT got some great looks at US, staring straight down at our cars. Then, less than a mile away we got a look at a Bald Eagle on a fence line….it was a cool comparison of the huge Bald Eagle bill and the smaller Golden’s. At a farmhouse along the road, we stopped to check out some trees full of doves and soon noticed a small bird of prey sitting in an aspen watching them. It was a Merlin! The snow really started picking up, so the Merlin fluffed up and settled in for the storm as the dumb doves walked on the ground right beneath his perch!!

Ann and Danette checking out the Merlin (see him in the tree?)

Right around lunch time we stopped on the roadside and watched 100's of Horned Larks swirling out in the fields. Jay walked out toward the flock and soon 'herded' them closer to the road so we could scan them in the scopes....sadly, we didnt find anything but horned larks in the mix, but it was still very cool to watch all those birds!
Jay took this picture of all the Horned Lark tracks--cool!
The Flock!
By the time we reached the shore of Lake Lowell, it was a total white-out over the lake...you couldn't see anything! So much for checking out some waterfowl! We decided to take the opportunity to goof off while the snow kept most of the birds hidden. The lake was completely frozen and soon our whole group was out running and sliding on the ice!! Soon we had our sliding technique mastered enough for a sliding contest: Matthew and Jay won for distance, Iris won for style, and Danette and I proudly won for best wipe-outs :)
After some fun, we took a group vote and decided to make a quick check of Jay's favorite hang out, the Dump!! We were disappointed to find when we got there that there were not even 100 gulls there, and all Ring-bills with just one California! So much for turning the Hendersons into Dump fanatics :) (that would have to wait for our later trip to the Boise dump, heehee!)
The sky started to clear up and we headed over to Marsing to check out the park and river there. We saw a cool mix of birds including lots of Ducks, a Marsh and Winter Wren, Orange-crowned Warbler, Pipits, Night Herons (but no Green Heron), Golden-crowned Kinglets, Snipe, and a beaver munching on some marshy plants!!
Once we were done at the park we bundled back into the cars with hot tea and yummy cookies for a fun ride home.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Cascade Reservoir

On November 7th (wow, that was a few weeks ago now!) Jay and I, along with our good friend and super IBO volunteer Gary, took off on a trip to Cascade Reservoir. With loons and scoters showing up in northern Idaho and surrounding states, we figured we'd probably find some. And boy were we right! There were HUNDREDS of loons on the Reservoir, though almost all of them were Common's. We spent the day scouting around the entire shore of the lake, scoping out all those loons. Among them, we were lucky enough to spot a Pacific Loon!! Finally something that was not a Common Loon, and it was a Lifer!

We continued scoping, and continued to see loons! We finished our circuit around the lake, and headed out on the road to check out some raptors. We saw lots of Red-tails and Rough-legs, adn then Jay spotted something unexpected in a field of grazing cattle. We turned around after passing it on the highway and got out the scope. It was a Cattle Egret! The only other Cattle Egrets I've seen were from a million miles away at the mud flats at American Falls, so it was a treat to see this guy strutting around in the field at such close range. We were surprised that this bird would still be in Idaho, but after our post to IBLE, we soon learned that there was a pattern of these guys showing up in the state around this time every year. I enjoyed hearing about many other egret sightings within just a few weeks of us seeing this one...it's cool what you'll learn when you pay attention!

The Cattle Egret in Cascade
The Cattle Egret field and a view of the snow mountains near Cascade

After seeing the Cattle Egret, and a cool Harlan's Redtail, we headed to the shore again in hopes of a Scoter. We found a few more Loons, and also found some cute visitors in the trees....a flock of at least 11 Pygmy Nuthatches! They gave us some great looks, perched squeaking on the tips of the pine branches. It was cool to see them because they were a Lifer for Gary...not to mention they are just downright adorable, I don't care who you are! ;)

Taking a short break from birding: Gary told me the fence was too high to step over without touching it. I sure showed him!! :)

With just a few minutes of daylight left, we had two options: 1) make a quick run to a tiny reservoir nearby, or 2) start the long drive home....surprise, surprise, our motto prevailed once again: "well.....we're already here, so we might as well do it" :)
We jetted down the road to Davis Reservoir, and at sunset on the orange and purple water we could just make out two scoters!!....carefully watching through the scope, we were able to catch hints of a white wing patch on the birds when they turned just right or stretched their wings. Another Lifer for the day! a White-winged Scoter! Guess our motto paid off once again! We watched the Scoters until it really was too dark to see anything, and then made our trip home to Boise.

Running out of light at Davis Reservoir


Monday, November 9, 2009

Black-tailed Gull!! (in Washington)

OK, so maybe this isn't relevant since it didn't occur in Idaho, but it is birding .... and, I received official permission from 'the boss' herself to see this bird w/o her since it wasn't in Idaho. Quite magnanimous, huh?


The story: Last week I was attending a conference in Forest Grove, OR (Partners in Flight Western Working Group) Tues - Thurs. I planned to stay thru Friday in case I decided to join the conference field trip and/or do some other birding. Good thing b/c about a week before the conference, I caught wind of an adult Black-tailed Gull being seen near Tacoma, Washington. I watched the Washington birding hotline all week to see if it was sticking around ... and it did!

Even better news was that Jon and Dave (IBO 2009 hawkwatchers) were on a road trip and arriving in Portland Thursday night .... and they wanted to go up and see the bird and were willing to bring me back to the Portland airport in time for my Friday night flight! The next AM, I got up way-too-early to take various modes of public transport to meet those guys in Portland and they met me in the 'Batmobile' (Dave's sweet ride) and we headed north. Near Battleground, we picked up Stephanie (IBO '09 songbirder - who's about to fly to Australia for a field job!). As she got in, she said, "so, what rare birds are we going after?" Seriously? I love it! Jon hadn't even told her what species we were chasing but she was up for an adventure!!

We arrived to Tacoma just before noon and followed my friend Drew (we took Ornithology together at The Evergreen State College in 1994 and have remained friends and birding/traveling buddies since) to the viewing site. We only had about 10 minutes before a major squall rolled in and chased us down the road. BUT, we were able to locate the bird pretty quickly and enjoyed some quick views at a major lifer for all of us.

To escape the rain, we headed down the road a couple miles to a quirky restaurant called 'The Ark'. We walked in with binoculars around our necks, looking wet and a little bewildered ... one employee asked, "what are you guys up to? birdwatching?" to which we replied, "How'd ya know?" .... "your hat says 'Birdnerd' and you're wearing binoculars!" .... "good point ;-)"

Dave & Jay trying to identify a pair of small, black (& stuffed) birds that resembled a cross between a crow, a Burrowing Owl, and a puffbird ;-) that we found in a Tacoma restaurant called 'The Ark' (they were missing one of their Zebras ...)

After a while, the rain cleared so we raced back to the site to enjoy more views of the bird ...

Birders lined up on shore viewing the Black-tailed Gull (Stephanie, of recent Lucky Peak fame, is at front and my old buddie, Drew - brown hat -, came to meet us even though he'd already seen the bird)

The big gull roost on log booms in the harbor

The main view we had of the Black-tailed Gull as viewed from shore through the scope - you can see the darker mantle than surrounding gulls (including a couple of California Gulls) as well as the smudgy, hooded look to the head (characteristic of adults in winter). Other gulls present include Mew and Bonaparte's.

A close-up view of the adult Black-tailed Gull (by John Puschock; for more pictures, click here)

All in all, a pretty sweet day ... I got to see an old friend, see a major lifer that I'd hoped for over the years, and got to enjoy some time with some characters from the awesome '09 Lucky Peak crew.

Happy birding,


Friday, November 6, 2009

return to Mountain View and CJ Strike Reservoirs

On Saturday morning earlier this week, Jay and I met up bright and early and headed for CJ Strike Reservoir. Our goal birds are still the loons, scoters, and gulls, so CJ Strike is definitely a great place to check these guys out.
We arrived as the sun was coming up, and were sad to see that the water was all covered in a thick fog! We waited around at the base of the dam, watching the flock of gulls that was visible from there, and soon we watched the sun hit the fog and burn it all off.

Fog on the river below CJ Strike
We scanned from a few places along the shore, and saw plenty of birds, but mostly Western/Clarks Grebes and TOO many Common Loons! where are all our Yellow-billed and Pacific Loons? ;)
We then hit the highway again to reach Mountain View reservoir, knowing that we'd return to CJ Strike at the end of our birding day.
We got to Mountain View, and the bird community had changed a lot! Almost all the shorebirds were gone, and more waterfowl had come in to replace them!
We stopped first at the actual reservoir itself, before heading to the productive 'Blue Creek' area below the dam.
Of course there were plenty of loons here too, and we drove to several different vantage points to check out what turned out to be Common's....but we tried our best to make them into something else! :)
While walking to another spot to scope, Jay glimpsed a bird just as it dove underwater....a Scoter!
I'd never seen ANY scoter species before, so I knew whatever popped up would be a lifer! It took a while, since the bird kept diving, but soon we got the scope on it and could see that it had the white patch on the back of its head and no white on its wings...it was a Surf Scoter! We also ended up finding another scoter nearby...also a Surf. Of course we were hoping for the more rare species in Idaho, a Black Scoter, but it was still a year bird for both of us, and a Heidi Lifer!!! My favorite thing about the scoters was the way that they dove....it's so different from what other water birds do! Also...the last lifer/yearbird had been all the way back on October 12, with the Black-bellied Plover...so of course I thought it was about time I got another one! heehee :)
We continued to check out the reservoir and enjoyed watching the very cute Horned and Eared Grebes, and then moved on to Blue Creek. We couldnt believe it when we came up over the rise adn saw TONS of white birds on the water! We ended up estimating that there were 800+ Tundra Swans there! Definitely a change from the 100's of Dowitchers and sandpipers that were there in previous weeks.
The 100's of Tundra Swans at Blue Creek!
We scoped all over the water, and saw tons of waterfowl, and a few Dunlin and Yellowlegs still hanging out...and of course we were checking all the mallards and canada geese to see if we could find a Black Duck or Brant hanging out with them :)
We didn't see anything else 'crazy', BUT, while scoping around, Jay spotted a falcon chasing around a flock of what looked like teal....and the falcon looked HUGE! It landed, and through the wind I tried to keep my binocs on it while Jay set up the scope....a shaky gust of wind came, and suddenly the Falcon was gone! :O NOOOOO! We never got the scope on it, and cant say for sure...but we were pretty sure it was a Gyrfalcon....sad day! Hopefully another Gyr will decide to visit Idaho this winter....and stay long enough for us to see it!
After that, we headed back to CJ Strike and scoped again over the water. There were still lots of Loons..and they were still all commons :) We took a look in the Russian Olives at the Jack's Creek area. Before heading into the trees, we were able to watch a female Sharp-shinned Hawk take out a Robin!! She sat on the road for quite a while with her catch, before taking off and skimming low over the grass with her huge meal!
In the fields and olive trees, we found TONS of sparrows!!! We couldn't believe how many popped up whenever we 'pished'! They were a White-crowns and Song Sparrows, but I'm sure these flocks will be a great place to check for rarities this winter!
In the Olives, we scouted around, and soon I saw the bird we were looking for: a Barn Owl! yay! This was one of the few species I had left to see this year that was NOT a lifer. We had split up on our search, so Jay missed the bird....for a few minutes then, I was caught up to him on the competition by one species! Unfortunately, we continued looking, and Jay soon found the owl perched in a thick bunch of branches....darn! :)

We finished the day with a grand total of 2 yearbirds! (the highest # we've had in a while) and headed for home after sunset...what a great day of birding!
This Saturday, our hope is to make it to Cascade Reservoir (a few hours drive from Boise) where we will hopefully find at least one new Loon species, and maybe a scoter too! We also are considering visiting Garden Valley, a town in Idaho where a Blue Jay was spotted a few weeks ago....
wish us luck!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Finally some Goshawks!

Although the numbers for most raptor species were way up in fall '09, there were very few Northern Goshawks migrating before the middle of October. After a low Goshawk year in '08 and a slow start in '09, I was starting to get restless about whether or not I was gonna get a chance to catch and band one this fall. During my 2 days/week of hawk-trapping, I had not even had a Goshawk come into the trapping station!

(Perhaps a slight explanation is needed: each fall, IBO conducts trapping and banding of migrating raptors in the Boise Foothills [at Lucky Peak and at Boise Peak] using an array of nets & traps. In this way, we usually capture & band between 800-1200 raptors per fall season - consisting mostly of Sharp-shinned & Coopers's hawks as well as American Kestrels. One of the coolest results of this long-term effort is the mapping of migration routes and eventual destinations of banded birds - see this map. For some examples of other catches, see the Merlin and Gyrfalcon links)

Then finally, on my last 2 days of hawk-trapping in '09 (Fri, Oct 23rd & Sat, Oct 24), I was fortunate enough to catch a Goshawk on each day and, therefore, got my fix.

My first Northern Goshawk of the season, a big female - photo by Michele Laskowski

Michele & Katie co-holding the first Goshawk they'd every seen! No, they aren't trying to start a fashion trend with the headlamps ;-) - it's just that it's a bit dark in the trapping blind where they were doing the banding & processing of this bird

A close-up to show the brownish eye color of this bird (usually more yellow - see below)

Now, Heidi wasn't there on Friday and so was a little envious .. and she demanded that I catch another one on Saturday when she was present. Lucky for me, the first bird to come into the trapping station was a Goshawk! It took a while to catch (very windy) but that gave us a great opportunity to watch this impressive raptor in action.

Heidi holding her first Goshawk of the season

Notice the more typical yellowish eye on this bird

Fieldwork is now done for the year so there'll be a lot of office/computer time in the near future but we hope to keep getting out on weekends and we're looking forward to helping out with some Christmas Bird Counts next month!