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? ;-)

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Road Trip to Eastern Idaho .... Day 1

This past week was spring break at BSU, so (mostly inspired by the fact that Cliff and Lisa were pretty sure they'd located a Boreal Owl cavity) Jay and I decided to head off on a road trip for eastern Idaho! While we planned to leave on Tuesday morning, the weather had other plans, and we ended up leaving on Thursday instead. It was killin' us to keep postponing our trip! Needless to say, by Thursday we were pretty excited to finally be on the road!

It was a busy three days, so we are splitting the blogging duties on this one. Heidi's sections will be written in blue, and Jay's sections will be in red. Read on if you dare!

Our final destination was Cliff and Lisa Weisse’s house in Island Park, ID but we had a few other birding stops planned on the way. One of our first stops was to Massacre Rock, where Louie & Ileana Quintana had reporting seeing Juniper Titmice on their way to Wyoming a few days earlier. It was windy, and pretty freakin’ cold, so I guess it wasn’t surprising that the titmice were nowhere to be seen. So, after a few minutes of shivering, we hopped back into the car and headed to American Falls reservoir.

We only spent about an hour there and scanned the river from three different locations: near the landfill (no we didn't actually study gulls there as the landfill material apparently isn't as 'scrumptious' as the fare at those bigger-city dumps ;-), at the cemetary (where we also looked/listened w/o success for Juniper Titmouse - now Heidi's all geeked about finding them!), and just below the dam. There were TONS of birds at this always-very-productive spot, including over 2500 gulls (mostly Ring-bills but a smattering of Californias plus a few Herring and 2+ Thayer's was all we could muster) and many waterfowl. We also enjoyed our first Tree Swallows of the year and Heidi was able to study Violet-green vs. Tree in side-by-side fashion! Other highlights here were some pelicans and a few RB Mergansers among the many other waterfowl.

After our stop at American Falls, we headed for Pocatello where a local bird nerd, Chuck Trost, had told us about a Northern Mockingbird that had been hanging around there (& Louie & Ileana had found the day before). After less than a minute of getting out of the car and walking along a hedgerow, we spotted him! He was easy to find, even for me, with those flashy black and white wings and tail. He gave us some good looks, but then headed deep into the bushes when we tried to take a photo of him. Heidi lifer #1 for this trip!

The camera-shy Pocatello mockingbird. You can see its pretty, light-colored eye

Next we headed to Idaho Falls, where we birded along the river and looked for the Long-tailed Duck that a birder friend Steve Butterworth had posted about on IBLE. After arriving at the spot Steve described, it didn’t take us long to spot the white head among all the Goldeneye that were along the river. Sweet! He was a beautiful male in winter plumage! Jay started to think I was getting spoiled with all this super-easy birding…two lifers, both found within 2 minutes of arriving at the spots! (but we hadn’t seen anything yet!)

Even though it was pretty windy, and getting windier, we decided to at least try to visit Market Lake to look for the Short-eared Owls. It was about 3 o’clock by this time, so we didn’t have very high expectations of seeing any owls. Just after getting to the marshy area, though, we spotted a bird soaring above the marshy areas. A Short-eared Owl! He flew around, and then landed on a nearby fence post to look around, where we were able to watch him for a while before he swooped down into the cattails. Lifer #3 (again, in less than 2 min!! I mean, seriously, who does that? ... and on 3 straight target birds in 1 day!). We took some time to walk one of the windrows in the area and (along with some moose poo) found a flock of waxwings, including 5 Bohemians! Those guys are always fun to see :)

While we were in the area, we also decided to make a quick trip through Sugar City ot look for redpolls; a species we'd been searching for all winter, but didn't have much hope of finding so late in the season. While we didn't find any redpolls, we were happy to discover a male Cassin's Finch in one of the neighborhoods. It wasn't a lifer for me, but it was the first good look I've had of one (besides a few fledglings in the hand at IBO) and I was glad that I was actually able to tell that he was not a male House Finch :)

We continued birding, and eventually made our way to Cliff and Lisa Weisse’s house in Island Park. After meeting their litter of adorable 3-week-old puppies and eating a quick dinner of Cliff’s tasty green curry, we headed out to listen for Boreal Owls. In their back yard (yeah, aren’t we all jealous?) we snowshoed out to where Cliff had found the Boreal’s nest cavity. We stood at a distance as it slowly got dark (and slowly got colder!) and waited for the owls to start calling. After an hour+ with only a few short calls back and forth between the male and female, we heard a strange call from the male, and then it was all quiet. Lifer #4!! We quietly walked back to the house…and learned that it isn't all that easy to snowshoe/ski in the dark! :) When we were far enough away from the nest, Cliff and Lisa explained that the last call we heard had been a ‘prey delivery’ from the male! Cliff explained that during courtship the male has to feed the female plenty of voles before she’ll stick around and nest. aww, how romantic! :)

We also listened for Great Gray Owls later that night, but only heard some Great Horned Owls over all the wind....... to be continued

Don't forget that Wednesday is the day to send in your yearlist counts, and it's also the last day to vote in the handicap poll!!

Friday, March 27, 2009

eBird pledge

Thanks to encouragement from Charles Swift (Moscow, ID birder - and blog follower! - who has pledged a donation to IBO on a 'per eBird checklist we submit' basis), several weeks ago we started submitting checklists from all our birding outings to eBird (http://ebird.org/content/ebird/) to ensure that all the birding we do isn't just for our fun but that the information can be put to use by the folks at Cornell & Audubon (see the eBird website for further info) that are trained in utilizing data collected by citizen scientists. And, we encourage all birders to do the same - it's a cool tool that doesn't take long and, who knows, maybe the info Idaho birders generate will help in bird conservation!

Thanks, Charles, for the encouragement, creativity, and generosity!!


(and, we should take a moment to also thank the other folks who have already made pledges or donations to Idaho Bird Observatory - thank you!!)
Below is the mapping tool in eBird showing locations where people have birded in Ada County, Idaho ... just a hint at the utility of eBird.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

hurry and vote!

Hey Guys!

Just wanted to post a message reminding you to vote on our 'handicap' poll if you havent already
(it's located on the side of this page)
The poll will close on April 1st, which means this week is your last chance to help decide the fate of this competition!
Do you think 20 species for Heidi's handicap doesnt give poor Jay a chance? or do you think Heidi and her birding skills need all the help they can get? You decide!

On a similar note, remember that April 1st is the day to send us your yearlist totals (current up to the birds you see on 3/31) along with your favorite Idaho sighting so far this year. We already have a few birders' lists posted from last month, but hope to continue to get more and more as the year moves on. So, send 'em in!
You can send your list totals and sightings to me at heidithebirdnerd@yahoo.com


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

MORE gulls!

It's spring break for BSU this week, so you all know what that means.....

That's right! It was time for Heidi and Jay to head to the dump! :)

(what...that's not what you were thinking?)

I was already questioning my own sanity when I woke up this morning...but my doubts were reinforced when, on his way to work, my dad tactfully asked "um...didn't you already see all the gull species this weekend?" (...oh wait...does my family read this? heehee :) Hi daddy!)

ahhh, the dump! (is that Heidi driving that thing? ;-)

Anyway, this time we decided to try the Hidden Hollow landfill in Boise to see what it would turn up.
We got there around 9 this morning, and there were tons of gulls! There were mostly California's (~1600), but also plenty of Ring-billed's(~500). Interestingly, there were very few Herring gulls compared to Pickles Butte: less than 5 individuals, versus around 30 at pickles.

Within a minute of arriving, we spotted one of the cool gull species: Our friend, the Lesser Black-backed gull! He was out in a large group of gulls hanging out around some puddles. (wow, much easier to find than last time!)
This bird was a 3rd winter, so we aren't sure whether this is the same guy we saw on Saturday or not. But here's some of the pics we got today...what'cha think? is it the same dude?

The Lesser Black-backed gull! is he the same one we photographed on Saturday?

A new sub species? the LLLBBG (long-legged lesser black-backed gull)

Seeing what could possibly be the same LBB gull made us wonder how many of the birds from the Boise dump also travel over to Pickles butte. And if that's the case, it also made us wonder more about why there would be more Herrings at Pickles. hmmm...intriguing, eh?
so, only 4 gull species, including just one crazy migrant (gee, are we spoiled or what?) a pretty darn good trip to the dump!

We stayed at the landfill till around 11 (please note that that was only two hours!!), and then headed to a nearby park. Earlier in the year one of our birder friends, Danette, had reported a Eurasian Wigeon in the ponds there, and Jay and I had looked without success for this bird in February. When we pulled up today, we saw plenty of wigeons, and after a few minutes of scanning we spotted him! He was on the banks of the pond, where it begins to narrow into a sort of canal. He definitely stood out among all the green heads and pinkish sides around him! what a sweet bird! Thanks Danette! :)
and he was a year bird to boot!

The Eurasian Wigeon with his American buddies

Well, that's all for now! stay tuned, as Jay and Heidi are (hopefully!) soon headed off to parts unknown (aka Island Park) on what is sure to be a great adventure!


Sunday, March 22, 2009

More gulls and the awe-inspiring Snake River canyon

Earlier in the winter on a visit to the Swan Falls area, I'd mentioned to Heidi that a visit to the Snake River canyon in early spring is very worthwhile for the great views of Prairie Falcons & other raptors flying at eye level. Thus, we'd penciled a late March return to this area on the calendar .... and, although we'd heard both a Canyon Wren & a Rock Wren back in January while looking in vain for Gray-crowned Rosy-finches near Lucky Peak dam, Heidi was itching to get a good look at both species. Thus, it was decided that we'd head towards the canyon. BUT, the gull frenzy that started almost 3 weeks ago (with Cliff's find of that interesting, 1st-winter 'Iceland-like' Gull) had continued in the past week and 1/2 with RL Rowland (another admitted 'gull-a-holic') and other birders finding not one, but two Lesser Black-backed Gulls at Pickle's Butte landfill (the first one was found one the same day that RL was able to see the Iceland Gull adult - not a bad day!). And, neither of us had gotten a chance to look so we both agreed that a quick stop at the dump on the way to the canyon was in order.

Thus, en route to the Snake River canyon, Heidi & I stopped to study gulls at Pickle's Butte (Canyon Co) Saturday morning and ended up staying for 4 hours (yeah, quick stop, huh?!). Many birds left the area not long after we arrived but they kept coming back in and it took a while until we finally located some rarities. A couple times (once we'd been there a couple hours) I wondered if Heidi was getting bored so would ask, "Whad'ya think, should we move on?" to which she'd reply, "I don't know, what if something else good is about to fly in?". Morale of the story (much as this might sound crazy to non-birders): it's hard to pull yourself away from the dump when the gulling is good! Overall there was slightly less diversity than a couple weeks ago but we did succeed in finding 1 of the Lesser Black-backed Gulls (an apparent 3rd-winter bird - lifer for Heidi!) as well as 1 Glaucous-winged Gull (1st-winter), 5 Thayer's (including 1 photographed adult), 30 Herring, and loads of Ring-billed (450) and California (>1500).
Lesser Black-backed Gull (3rd-winter - i.e., not quite full adult; top-center facing left). In the same picture are several adult Ring-billed and California Gulls as well as a 1st-winter Thayer's Gull.

Here's the adult Thayer's Gull stretching its wing (though Thayer's appears to be annual in Idaho, the vast majority have been immature [1st-winter] birds and this is the 2nd adult I've photographed this year!)

We also located an apparent Glaucous-winged x Western hybrid 1st-winter bird ... I still need to study it more but, much as I wanted it to be a pure Western, hybrid was my first instinct and that was Cliff's best guess after looking at my crummy digi-scoped photos (of which one is below).

1st-winter probable hybrid Western x Glaucous-winged Gull (the big, dark dude in back). I'm still getting up to speed on the complex world of gull hybrids and their ID but this bird had a larger bill, different head shape, and chunkier overall appearance than nearby Herring Gulls. Also, although the bird appears dark enough to suggest a Western Gull, it's primaries look dark brown with a pale edge (as opposed to black) which suggests it's not a pure Western. Bumber b/c I've never seen a Western in Idaho but it's the first gull with any 'Western blood' that I've seen in the state so at least I'm headed in the right direction!

From there we headed towards Celebration Park (along the Snake S of Melba) and saw a migrating flock of 9 Long-billed Curlews just a couple miles N of the park (!!) and a female Yellow-headed Blackbird at the feedlot N of the park. At the park, we had great views of singing Rock & Canyon Wrens (lifer views for Heidi), Bushtits (another Heidi lifer!) building a nest, courting Say's Phoebes, tons of Violet-green Swallows, a Lincoln's Sparrow in with White-crowns, and a surprise Caspian Tern (another Heidi lifer!) along the river.

Between Celebration Park & Dedication Point, we enjoyed some very cooperative raptors including an adult Harlan's Red-tail and 2 Ferruginous Hawks. Dedication Point was awesome for close views of Prairie Falcons, Red-tails, & more ... we also saw/heard a calling pair of White-throated Swifts (the 6th life bird for Heidi on the day!).
Heidi & Jay at Dedication Point overlook with the awesome Snake River canyon behind.

View down the Snake River canyon from Dedication Point

View up the Snake River canyon from just above Swans Falls dam

We ended the day searching for recently-returned Sage Sparrows (just above where the road leads down towards Swan Falls dam) and struck out as a storm was on its way in. But, we did enjoy more Say's Phoebes, Prairie Falcons, Turkey Vultures, and Red-tailed & Rough-legged Hawks. Hawk migration (especially Red-tails and some Turkey Vultures) was apparent throughout the day.

A great day that yielded 6 lifers for Heidi, including a rare gull and some fun new arrivals! Oh, and (b/c I had already seen VG Swallow last week in Lewiston) that species pulled Heidi one closer in the fierce competition ;-).

Happy birding,


Sunday, March 15, 2009


Yesterday morning, Jay and I headed out for an exciting early morning adventure to Midvale, ID! We joined up with Dave Hazelton, Bruce Ackerman, and Mike Morrison, along with our special visitors Kenn and Kim Kaufman at the entirely too early hour of 6 AM, to head out in search of Greater Sage-grouse. A busy week and about 4 hours of sleep the night before made both Jay and me pretty tired, but we were looking forward to a fun day. (We were also thankful that daylight savings came early, since that meant our meeting time was at 6 instead of 5!).

We started from Meridian, driving to Midvale and taking the highway through Oregon to get there. Luckily it was dark, so no “list-birding” time was lost in Oregon ;) We did run the risk of seeing some Oregon owls , but we were back on the Idaho side by the time it was light enough to see a Great-Horned fly across the highway in front of us. Since he was driving, Jay didn’t see the bird well enough to ID it, but Kenn and I coulda’ sworn it was an Eastern Screech Owl, and I was just about to jot it down on my year list when Jay said he wouldn’t accept it! He wouldn’t believe either of the very reliable and un-biased witnesses who saw the bird. What’s up with that? :)

Kenn and Heidi: perhaps finding yearbirds without Jay :)

"What do you mean you didn't see the Steller's Eider, Jay? it was right there!"
Steller's Eider and Eastern Screech Owl were only a few of the dozens of birds Jay wouldn't let us add to my list...and just because we were paying better attention than him! (hmm...who do you think Kenn is rooting for in this competition? ;)

Once in Midvale, Dave took us to the spot he had scouted the day before. On the way there, we spotted a flock of Wild Turkeys perched in some trees along the roadside. Not only was it cool because I had not seen Turkeys perched that high before, but they were also one of the species Jay picked up in Moscow. (That’s ONE down NINE to go for Heidi to regain the lead!) We reached one of the spots, and sure enough, there were 5 Greater Sage-grouse (including one female)! LIFER for Kim and I!! I’d seen them in photos and stuff before, but nothing prepares you for how really silly (…er…sexy?) they look. They looked so poofy and soft that I just wanted to squeeze them! (I won’t speak for Kim as to what she wanted to do with them, but as she’s now been famously quoted: “I’m no grouse, but I’m kinda diggin’ it!”) I don’t know about the other car (Dave, Bruce and Mike) but there was sure a lot of giggling going on in ours!

At the next lek Dave brought us to, there were 9 grouse, this time all males, and they were really strutting their stuff! The giggles continued, and cameras clicked away as we watched these guys do their thing.
One of the macho Greater Sage-Grouse at the lek.
This photo taken by Kim Kaufman! (see more of her photos on the Kaufman's blog)

In the background here, and throughout the day, were other boy birds showing off in perhaps the more conventional way. Meadowlarks, Red-winged Blackbirds, Brewers Blackbirds, and Horned Larks were singing everywhere! While watching the grouse we also saw a couple hundred Snow Geese and Canada Geese, with of course a few Ross’ Geese mixed in. My favorite part of the stop though, was another visitor to the lek. In the same field of view with my first lifer of the day (the sage grouse) was a Say’s Phoebe!! Second Lifer for the day! Hooray! :D

The obligatory "Bird Nerd Salute" photo :)
re these birders confused? or were there just a lot of birds?

The gang enjoying some delicious flan (courtesy of Sue Hazelton) by the lek. Now that's some gourmet birding!
Bruce, Mike, Heidi, Kenn, Kim, and Dave (once again Jay is hiding behind the camera :)

Okay, I just had to add this photo...you're welcome Mike and Bruce :)
mmmm, flannnn...

After our stop at the lek, we parted ways with Dave, Bruce and the Kaufmans, who had to leave to prepare for the GEAS banquet that evening. So Jay, Mike and I headed off on our own to explore the back roads of the area. We searched barns for Barn Owls, and looked around for anything else we might see. We spotted some Western Bluebirds, and saw our first Vesper Sparrow of the year. We also saw some beautiful raptors, including plenty of Red-tailed Hawks, a few Rough-Leggeds, and some Ferruginous hawks, including one bird in some sort of display flight! Very cool!

On the hill out of Midvale we stopped to watch as 2 Red-Tailed adults (1 rufous morph), 1 Golden eagle, and 3 immature Bald Eagles circled overhead! Also, within less than 10 minutes, we had a Prairie Falcon buzz through! How cool!

A short distance up the road from there, at a patch of water called Devil's Elbow we thought we spotted a Eurasian Wigeon which turned out to be a hybrid (are we allowed to count it as a ‘half-bird’ and combine it with our hybrid sapsucker for our list?) We also spotted other waterfowl including Tundra Swans, Common Mergansers, Mallards, Gadwall, Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Canada Geese, C. Goldeneye, and a group of male Ring-necked ducks hanging around with one female Canvasback.

With an hour’s drive back to Boise ahead of us and the GEAS banquet coming up at 6, we nixed our plans to once again visit the dump and made a dash for home. We all were ready for a nap after our early morning, but didn’t have much success with that!

I have to throw in a note here that I would have had a much easier time with my nap, but had to go take care of a ‘coned’ bulldog I’m babysitting this weekend…did you know that when a dog is scratching one of those plastic cones, it can get kinda loud? :) Ironically, as I type this, the accused nap-robber is snoring away on my lap! and now for your viewing pleasure: poor Bubba, the cone headed doggy


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Uh-oh ....

I should have posted this a couple days ago but between getting ready for my talk Wed and attending talks/networking with many biologists at the TWS meetings, I didn't have time ... sorry for keeping Heidi (& readers) in suspense!!

I never thought I could be so gleeful at the sight of an exotic (non-native) species like a Gray Partridge (sometimes known as 'Huns' or Hungarian Partridge) ... After all, as anyone's who birded with me knows, I have a great disdain for non-native species and the impacts they can have on native birds - and I can get downright whiny if I see too many non-natives (such as the growing number of Eurasian Collared-doves along the Snake River Plain in SW Idaho - and elsewhere - that we've been seeing in #s on virtually every birding trip this year). I should say that it's not the birds' fault and I don't blame them - I'm just not happy that, for example, the European Starling is now the most abundant bird in the US. ... Then why, you might ask, would I have been so pleased to see a group of 6 Gray Partidge in an agricultural field just S of Moscow (the destination for the TWS conference) on Monday afternoon? Because, after almost 2 months of playing catch-up in this year-list competition (I was 'out-of-bounds' in Venezuela until Jan 17) and after a fly-over Clark's Nutcracker along Hwy 55 earlier in the day, these Gray Partridge vaulted me into my first lead over the upstart challenger (otherwise known as Heidi) in the year list competition. "Woo-hoo!!", I thought to myself as my two Idaho Fish & Game traveling companions continued along completely unaware of this momentous event ....

As it turns out, this was just the start & Heidi now has some work to do to get even! On Tuesday morning, I was picked up at my hotel by the avid birder & photographer Terry Gray and another area birder, Diana Jones, for an AM of birding before I returned to my hotel (b/c I still had to practice the talk that I was invited here for ... but I couldn't miss this opportunity to get ahead, right?) around noon. I had met Terry briefly a couple summers ago and both he & Diana were great company and excited to be helping me find year birds as well as just enjoying a great winter day's birding.

March 10 birding team: Diana, Terry, and Jay ... Diana and Terry were a lot of fun and very enthusiastic birding partners!

We explored some areas E & NE of Moscow - including feeders and other birding areas that Terry is very familiar with. We saw a great bunch of very active birds - probably especially active b/c of the snowfall the night before - including an adult Northern Goshawk hunting California Quail (an exotic species - guess who I was rooting for!), loads of Varied Thrushes (at least 30 during the morning including 12 in one area!), and good numbers of finches, chickadees, and nuthatches.
Varied Thrush male - one of many seen throughout the AM (photo by Terry Gray)

One of many very cooperative, and sometimes vocal, Pygmy Nuthatches that we saw on Tuesday (photo by Terry Gray)

In all, Terry and Diana helped me find 6 'year-birds' during the morning, including Wild Turkey, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Pygmy Nuthatch (lots!), White-breasted Nuthatch, Evening Grosbeak, and Pine Grosbeak. Not a bad morning - and the snowy scenery was great! I should note that I'm sure Terry and Diana would be glad to show some of these same birds to Heidi ... but maybe for a price!

But, much as I was gleeful about the partridges, excited to see all the birds on Tuesday AM and finally be in the lead, (beware - Heidi might falsely claim that this is just a sympathy ploy on my part!) I did wish that Heidi could have been along and enjoyed the birds as well - especially because several species are would-be (and much desired - see her wishlist on the 'stats' link) 'life birds' for her and she would have been at least as excited as I was to see/hear them. She'll see them soon enough .... it just might take her a little while to catch up!!!


Monday, March 9, 2009

The Suspense is Killin' Me!

Jay has just hit the road, and is headed for Moscow to speak at a meeting of the Idaho Chapter of The Wildlife Society (http://www.ictws.org/meeting.php).

Uh-oh!! This means a chance for Jay to pick up some of those 'mountain birds' without me!
I'm shakin' in my boots!

cross your fingers guys! Heidi's fate hangs in the balance! ;)

~(a very nervous) Heidi

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Fort Boise WMA and more!

Jay and Heidi joined the Golden Eagle Audubon Society for a fun field trip out to the Fort Boise WMA this Saturday! We were just askin’ for trouble, with a car full that included Sue Norton, Mike Morrison and Gary Robinson ;)

"Team" shot (where's Jay?;-)

Our first stop was a road in the WMA where we were able to see the huge flocks of Snow and Greater White-Fronted Geese (with a few Ross' Geese mixed in) flying over and landing in the nearby ponds. (Claire, who works at the WMA and lead us through the area, said there were about 50,000 Snow Geese in the flocks this year!) We stayed there for a few hours to see the geese and other waterfowl as well as a few Bald Eagles, Northern Harriers and also 5 Red-tailed Hawks circling overhead that gave us quite a show! We also got to hear plenty of Virginia Rails, Marsh Wrens, and Song Sparrows.

GEAS members stand on the road to admire the huge flock of (mostly) Snow Geese!

(don't worry, only a few birders were hit by passing vehicles :)

After visiting the geese, Claire led us on a special tour of the WMA where we saw plenty of birds, including a cute Song Sparrow couple (that little guy was obviously 'twitterpated'!), chickadees, RC Kinglets, and a Golden Eagle. We also got to see a very patient Great-Horned Owl sitting on her nest. Everyone got a great view through a couple scopes they set up

Field trippers line up to view the owl

After a fun time in the WMA it was time for lunch, and our car-load of birders headed off for parts unknown (aka New Plymouth) to search out a Harris' Sparrow that had been reported in the area. After less than a minute in front of the house, we spotted him!! Not only was he a totally sweet bird but he was my 200th LIFER!! woohoo! *now imagine Heidi's "200th lifer happy-pants dance"...which is not at all like RL's "awesome gull happy-pants dance" *It was cool for Jay too, who's only seen 3 in Idaho. Here (and other areas throughout the day) we saw some Sandhill Cranes fly over-another cool year bird!

Sue, Mike, Gary and Heidi checking out the Harris' Sparrow (Sue is showing off her amazing talent of hiding in every one of these photos!--those are her feet at the end--you'd think she didn't want to be seen with us or something :)

Just down the road for the Harris' house, we visited the scenic New Plymouth sewage ponds. There were tons of Snow and Greater White-fronted geese there too, as well as birds like ring-necked duck, lesser scaup, pintails, and through the scopes we were able to spot a Cinnamon Teal! It was another Lifer :) It was a pretty long distance to look out over the ponds, and Sue was saying we should paddle out closer to our birdie friends in a canoe (heehee!)....we were trying to let her down easy, and explain it wasn't exactly a super-duper plan, but then she thought better of her idea when we saw a lovely dead muskrat nearby (eww! no, not because he was dead...but he'd been swimming in there!)
We left the sewage ponds and hit the highway, where we saw our first Turkey Vulture of the year! (They say TV's use their sense of smell to find their food...we wondered if he was headed for that tender muskrat morsel?)

Where might we be headed on that highway, you ask? To the dump of course! No day of birding would be complete without a stop at at least two smelly destinations. We were in search of the Lesser Black-backed gull this time, but didn't have any luck in the 1/2 hour we were there. The dump closes at 5:30 and while Jay begged us to leave him there over night (gosh, that guy might like gulls a little too much, huh? :) we didn't like the looks of some of the mattresses he was considering, and drug him outta there just in time.

hehe, maybe after this (obviously truthful) story Jay will think twice before posting incriminating photos of *ahem* certain people enjoying themselves at the dump (what? Heidi is obsessed with gulls and the dump too??)
With a little bit of daylight left, we decided we wouldn't be true birders if we didn't make one last stop before dark, so we headed off to Wilson Springs. We walked the loop there and saw lots of birds, including Coots, Ring-necked Ducks, Lesser Scaup, Mallards, Bufflehead, Pied-billed grebes and Gadwall. We also saw a Bald eagle and a red-tail, our first Eurasian Collared Doves of the day, Brewers and Red-Wing blackbirds (including one that was chasing down a Kestrel) another singing Marsh wren, and a group of almost 60 magpies! wow!

It'd been a fun day, but I think we were all ready for a nap as we piled back in the warm car at sunset and headed for home.


finishing the day at Wilson springs!
Sue, Gary, Mike and Heidi

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

adult ICELAND GULL!!!! (and Heidi pulls ahead :-(

Heidi & I finally headed back to 'the dump' (Pickle's Butte landfill S of Caldwell) this AM to see if we couldn't find that confusing 'Iceland-type' 1st-winter bird, the 1st-winter Glaucous, and anything else we could stumble across. Heidi had bemoaned the fact that this meant not sleeping in on her only day of the week (aside from Sunday - correct me if I'm wrong ;-) to do so ... but I'd say the below info and her smiles/excitement suggested it was worth it! And, b/c the Glaucous Gull was one of the few species I had over Heidi for the year so far, seeing it vaulted her back into the lead.

Here's Heidi scanning the gulls (garbage not too far away) - she's really hoping her non-birding friends don't get wind of this embarrassing shot!

The BIG story: soon after arrival, I caught a 2-second glimpse of an adult, apparent 'white-winged' (Glaucous or Iceland) gull in flight that went back down into the 'pile' (active dumping area) below where we could see (pretty much right where Heidi's looking in the above photo). I was pretty worked up & we set to looking for it and Heidi soon spotted what turned out to be an adult Glaucous-winged ... a nice find (!) and a new arrival to the dump this winter.

Adult Glaucous-winged Gull - note the pink legs, dark eyes, primaries (wing-tips) only slightly darker gray than the mantle (back), and chunky shape.

Raised wing of the adult Glaucous-winged Gull showing the only slightly grayer primaries.
Even though I was pretty sure I'd seen something with even paler wingtips, I eventually surmised that this was likely what I'd glimpsed - especially as 2 more hours went by and no 'white-winged' adults were seen.... As the clock struck 11 and guilt began to creep in (I'd graded tests 'til 1030pm the night before to afford some 'hooky' time in the AM but still had loads to do;-), we both kept thinking, "we should go". But, we kept noticing funny-looking immature gulls (see far below in this post) that caused a lot of head-scratching ... We finally headed towards the car around 1130 and I said, "One last scan of this area (the 'pile' and slope behind), OK?" That's when I spotted an adult Iceland Gull!!! (to be honest, it took us a few minutes of studying the bird to be sure it wasn't an adult Glaucous - see notes below photos for ID criteria) - perched out in the open in plain view. (So I wasn't totally nuts when I saw those white wings earlier!!). We watched it for 20 minutes as the wind picked up and then rain & hail began ... I was trying hard to get pics b/c an adult Iceland is BIG-TIME for Idaho (immatures of rare species like this are rare enough but adults show up even less often) but I couldn't hold the scope steady in the breeze (or maybe it was my shivering and/or excitement at what we were seeing?). Fortunately, though they're blurry (and thanks for bearing with me ;-), a few turned out decently enough to help verify the identification ...

Adult Iceland Gull - critical ID features include pale wingtips (at rest, as shown here, no contrast with mantle or even a little whiter), pink legs, deep chest/belly, rounded head, and relatively small bill (for a biggish gull). Not shown here but noted was a yellowish-colored eye (not bright yellow like a Herring Gull but not brown like most Thayer's).

The adult Iceland Gull (at left) shown here next to an adult California Gull (hard to see but note darker mantle and yellowish legs) whose bill, though tough to see in this picture, appeared relatively longer than that of the Iceland.

I know this is ridiculously blurry (better than most I tried!!) but a closer view of the wingtip pattern on the adult Iceland Gull.

There were likely 1000+ gulls around from 9am (when we arrived) to 1150am (when we split during a hailstorm) with some gull arrivals (mostly) & departures. They were VERY cooperative and the weather was mostly so ... until the storm drove the adult Iceland and many others off towards Lake Lowell (presumably). In total we saw 7 gull species plus a couple of likely hybrids (the bane of gull-watchers - at least this one!) - including 30+ Herring Gulls of all ages, 1 1st-winter Glaucous, the adult Glaucous-winged, the Iceland adult, ~5 Thayer's Gulls, ~800 California Gulls, and ~400 Ring-billed Gulls. Charles - I'll post to eBird in the AM!!

All in all, a pretty awesome day to be at the dump!!

Parting Shots: those of you with little patience for gull ID have likely long-since fallen asleep on the keyboard (and thanks for coming this far!). BUT, for the gull-enthusiasts (Ryan O. - I know you're still with me!), here are a few individual 1st-winter birds that we observed today whose identities were challenging our brainpower (comments/opinions welcome - as always).

1st, here are a few shots of the potential 1st winter Iceland Gull found last week by Cliff Weisse. To my knowledge, Cliff, Heidi, and I are the only folks to have seen it well and all agree it definitely has Iceland 'blood' - and maybe wouldn't even be questioned as an Iceland if seen in their normal winter range - but is it 'pure' enough to definitively be an Iceland Gull in Idaho (and/or is there also a bit of Thayer's Gull blood)??

1st-winter potential Iceland Gull. Note pale coloring, rounded head, bulky chest/belly, and extensive patterning on wing coverts.

Here, note the extensive white outlines to each primary (wing-tip) feather.

Here you can see the individual primary feathers as well as - from the side - the tail. The tail looks darker than most Icelands ... but has an extensive pale base & terminal band - ???

Next, 2 other immature birds that made us wonder ... "Are they just variants on Herring Gulls or something else?"
Mystery juvenile #1.

Mystery juvenile #2 (Cliff Weisse suggested a likely Herring x Glaucous-winged hybrid which I can buy but I'd rather if it was a Slaty-backed Gull!!).



Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Wood River Valley excursion

Jay and Heidi, along with dedicated volunteer IBO-ers Gary and Jean, headed out for a day of mountain birding on Saturday. We met in Mountain Home to pick up Gary in the early hours of the morning and were soon on our way. No sooner had we hit the highway, after listening to Jay's “Hey guys, what do you say, let’s book it to Sun Valley and only stop if we see something totally amazing” when a blinker went on, the vehicle suddenly decelerated, and we heard those infamous words: “hey, was that a gull?!” We scanned the water for a few minutes, finding mostly mallards and swans, and NO gulls before moving on. (this was grim foreshadowing of the rest of the day, as we did not see any gulls the whole trip! poor poor Jay)
We were on the road! On the drive there we didn’t see much more than blowing snow drifts and the occasional roadside magpie.

After arriving in the valley, we first stopped in Bellevue at a house that had been visited by a Harris’ sparrow. We had no luck with the sparrow, but saw our first batch of gazillions of Pine Siskins that would greet us everywhere we went throughout the rest of the day.
Then it was off to Jean’s house, between Hailey and Ketchum. On the turnoff to her house, we spotted a bunch of crossbills in some conifer trees near the road. We hopped out and soon had some good but fleeting views of both Red and White-Winged crossbills! The White-Wings were LIFERS for both Gary and I! It was great to see both males and females of each species at the same time, and getting to compare their appearance as well as the calls of each species was especially cool.

We met up with Jean, and all piled into her vehicle (with wonderfully heated front seats, which I enjoyed immensely :) and we were off to search for Black Rosy-Finches. We drove through the small community of Triumph and other area neighborhoods, but had no luck with the Rosy’s or our other 'target bird', Redpolls. We did see a new and adorable species for the year, Mountain Chickadees, along with plenty of Black-capped Chickadees, Siskins, Am. Goldfinches, Juncos, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Flickers and House finches.

We headed to a tasty burrito place in Hailey for lunch, where we met up with Robin, Jay and Jean’s cool biologist friend. Then we went for one last check on the Black Rosies in Triumph before journeying back to Bellevue. While we still didn’t find the finches, we did get an awesome view of some Cedar waxwings in the bushes right next to the car. And mixed in with them was a Bohemian! It wasn’t a Lifer, but I was still excited to see it so close up, and be able to compare it with the cedars. I’d only seen Boho’s twice before, and had never gotten to see the wing pattern! Gary also got some great photos, including this awesome comparison shot of a cedar with his big fatty cousin :)

A Cedar Waxwing (on the left) with his Bohemian buddy (right)
--Photo by Gary Robinson--

At another stop after this, Jay claimed to have seen a Hairy woodpecker fly over (a new year bird) but also claimed he didn’t see where it had gone (a likely story, I say! ;) Nevertheless, this meant that Jay was now ahead of me in the competition!

We checked one last time for the Harris’ sparrow in Bellevue, and then met up with Robin again to search for a Barred Owl and Yellow-shafted Flicker that had been reported in the area. After looking for the owl for awhile, Jay decided to try his best “who cooks for you?” call. (He actually did a good job…but that didn’t stop us from laughing at him!)

Heidi, Jay, Robin and Jean have a laugh while calling for the Barred Owl
--Photo by Gary Robinson--

Much to his dismay, the owl never answered Jay; but soon after, we were able to spot a bunch of flickers, including the Yellow-shafted Flicker! We got to check out the cool red marking on the back of its head, and of course the yellow on his wings when he flew! This was another new bird for me…though not technically a lifer.

Next we headed off down the valley to the Hayspur fish hatchery to look for sparrows. The girls took the lead in Jean’s car, while the boys followed in Jay’s vehicle. On the road there, Jay called to say they’d spotted another Hairy woodpecker. And thus we were tied on the year list again! (yeah, I guess Jay can be pretty nice sometimes ;) At the hatchery, while a little bunny looked on, we spotted a White-Throated sparrow!!! We watched him for a while and got some good looks as he hopped around the brush piles with the other birds. How cute! Another LIFER!! (This bird was probably the same one that Jean and the valley’s other birders found on their CBC. A great find!)

As the sun was setting we headed to the silver creek area, where we spotted plenty of water birds, including Lesser Scaup, ring-necked ducks, common mergansers, goldeneye, trumpeter swans, American widgeons and mallards. Finally, with the last few minutes of sunlight, we drove the back roads in the area, keeping an eye out for short eared owls and snow buntings, but finding only a few Horned Larks. After dark, we said goodbye to Jean and headed for home, stopping for burgers and malts in Fairfield on the way, and running in to some ‘fun’ patches of strong wind gusts, with lots of blowing snow! We reached Boise at about 10:30, worn out from a fun day of birding!

Jay and I are now tied at 120 species so far this year! We're putting together a page of other birders' year lists (with species seen as of 2/28) but need some numbers to put up first! So if you want, tally up your Idaho lists for January and February and send them in! You can post them as a comment here on the blog or just send them to heidithebirdnerd@yahoo.com! We also may be including people's 'top sighting' of the year along with their tally so far, so feel free to send that in as well!