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, April 2, 2009

Road Trip to Eastern Idaho .... Day 3

Saturday AM: After the long snow-shoe earlier and then the success with the Boreal Owls on Friday night, we were all partly buzzing with excitement and partly dead-tired. Thus, when the discussion turned to, "what are we doing on the way back tomorrow?", we struggled to decide between sleeping in (lazy but good for you) and waking up way too early to hope that one or more Sharp-tailed Grouse might have just enough hormones surging to make an early appearance at a lek we had directions to on the Sand Creek WMA (which, unfortunately, I am not allowed to give out - but I do highly recommend the Dubois Grouse Days coming up on Apr 17-18 which would give a chance to see these guys and Greater Sage-grouse!). In the end, Heidi's argument of, "we're already over here so we should, right?" won out even though I think we were both a little skeptical as we got into the car at 545am to make the hour+ drive in the dark on too little sleep ("adios & thanks again, Cliff & Lisa!!"). Apparently Sharp-tails begin their lekking behavior 2-3 weeks later in the spring than the Sage-grouse and the helpful WMA manager I spoke to didn't have a lot of hope that we'd have success so ...

We arrived after dawn but before sunrise and didn't see much going on ... we eventually got out of the car (I was told the lek was far enough away that this wouldn't disturb the birds) in order to listen better. It took a while but we finally started hearing an odd and very distant hoo-ing and a few other strange sounds that sounded familiar (I've seen these guys on leks a few times before, especially in South Dakota) BUT we couldn't see any birds. Soon we had a couple of flyover Common Redpolls (first of the year and a would-be lifer for Heidi) but the lighting was poor and there wasn't much to see. Thus, here we were with two potential life birds for Heidi but neither giving good looks :(. Soon enough we heard some wing flapping in a different direction and a Sharp-tail got up and flew across in the distance in front of us (and another redpoll fly-by around the same time)!! The cool breeze and lack of further activity led us back to the car ... (I hope you've all realized by now that when Jay says 'cool breeze' it means that Heidi is freezing her butt off!--similar to when he says "DUDE, it's hot!" and Heidi barely thinks about taking her coat off :)

After our first stop of the morning with some not-too-satisfying looks at redpolls, it was off to try and find some hot breakfast and coffee in the teeny town of St. Anthony. While grabbing some food at a Subway, we planned our next stop. We decided to head out on nearby Sand Creek Road to see if we could find any more grouse. Driving the road, we saw some fun birds including cool raptors like Rough-legged and Red-tailed Hawks, Harriers, and Mountain Bluebirds, Townsend’s Solitaires, Red Crossbills, and W. Meadowlarks. The coolest part, though, came when we were standing outside the car to listen for more grouse. A flock of finchy birds flew over us, and by now the sounds were somewhat familiar…they were Common Redpolls!!! Lifer #8!! We were able to watch this flock of about 25 birds for more than an hour while they fed on the ground in the sagebrush. Jay was slowly being driven nuts with the fleeting glimpses of some shorter-billed birds that we were getting (we were of course hoping for some Hoary Redpolls to be in the mix) but I was pretty content to just watch these adorable little birds! They would stay and eat on the ground very near to where we were standing, and then all at once they would get up and fly a few feet away and settle back down. It was fun to listen to their calls and watch them land on the sage and the barbwire fence before going back to the ground for their breakfast. They were SO cute when they would sit all puffed up and look towards us with the stern looking black markings on their little faces!…yes, I am unashamedly in love with redpolls :)

A little female Common Redpoll on the sage

Once I got my fill of studying & enjoying the redpolls (it had been a while since I'd seen a big group of these guys), we decided we oughta head for Boise and chose to try the northern route with the hope of a stray Gyrfalcon or other fun birds. We saw loads of raptors along hwy 33 between Rexburg and Howe, mostly Rough-legs but some Red-tails and Ferruginous mixed in ... and one biggish female Prairie Falcon that made me stop for a 2nd look!

We continued down the highway, still seeing plenty of raptors, when Jay once again put on his ‘birder brakes’, and I instinctively looked for the nearest power pole for another raptor quiz…but this time it was a Northern Shrike! I’d only seen one before, and from kind of far away, so I was pretty excited! It was an immature bird, and it was cool this time that I was able to see the thinner eye line and the faint barring on the chest. Jay left me to continue scoping the bird, and I was only half listening to the sparrowy noises coming from the roadside when something unfamiliar hopped up next to the shrike! I said something like, “woah! Jay get over here it’s a new sparrow!!” It was interesting enough that this bird had just landed on the same bush as one of its mortal enemies, but even cooler that it was a Sage Sparrow! Lifer #9!! (Whew! Jay confirmed that I had actually guessed right that it was a Sage Sparrow!) We followed this guy a little ways and were able to find another Sage Sparrow too. They were fun to watch running around on the ground with their flippy little tails in the air but we waited in vain to hear one sing....

After a 'Lifer hi-five', we looked back to the perch where one of the sparrows had just been, but saw something bigger sitting in its place. I couldn’t see what it was, but when Jay got the scope on it, we both couldn’t help but laugh. It was a Sage Thrasher! Another Lifer!!! (#10, if you’re still counting) It was cool that both these summertime birds were already back, even though it was still pretty cold! We enjoyed these birds for a little longer, and were both cracking up at my crazy good luck as we headed back to the car. (seriously, 2 lifers on the same perch ... & 30 seconds apart!)

We pressed on, heading for home and Jay’s soccer game that he was hoping to make (yeah, he wasn’t tired enough after getting up at 5:30AM to go grousing ;) We made a short stop at the Craters of the Moon visitor center, and had the chance to see a 'Pink-sided' Junco and a ‘Canadian Rockies’ Junco (according to Sibley) mixed in with the regular Oregon Juncos.

As we got near the Silver Creek preserve area in Blaine Co, we both took note of a raptor on a powerline all hunched over. I'd been quizzing Heidi on raptor ID (and many other birds too - after all, she is training for standardized counts this summer ;-) all along and was impressed, especially given the poor view we'd had, that she had the same thought as I did (Osprey), but I wasn't really expecting one yet up this high. We turned around just in case and, sure enough, there was an Osprey with a recently-caught fish. We said, 'Welcome back, dude!' and pressed on ....

As we neared Fairfield, the snow was becoming much deeper in the fields along the road, and we were commenting on how we had missed the Snow Buntings when we had visited this area on our Sun Valley trip in Feb. Then we started noticing more Horned Larks on the roadside. We soon pulled over when we saw a flock of more than 50 larks, and decided to drive down the side road to get a better look at the flock. The farther down the road we went, the more larks we saw, and we ended up counting about 400 of them! Scanning through one of the groups, it didn’t take long for Jay to spot her…a Snow Bunting!! Woohoo!! Lifer #11 for the trip! She was much more faded than we had expected, with gray and white on her body, and only a little orangey-brown on her head; and she still had the lighter winter-colored bill. I guess it makes sense that she’d almost be in breeding plumage by this time of year. While I was watching her, she started rubbing her head in the snow, and took a sort of ‘snow bath’. How cute!! It was another fun surprise bird that we were not expecting to still be here!

We rolled into town around 7 and I dropped Heidi off with her 'happy-to-see-her' family and raced off to try to catch whatever I could of my game (I'll have you know, I actually drove very responsibly, TY very much!) but arrived just as the first half was ending. I suited up and did my best - we lost :( - believe it or not, it actually felt good to run around after the long car ride ... but the combo of sunburn from our long snow-shoe trip, too little sleep, and soccer made me a zombie for the rest of the weekend! Time to get some sleep!

Until next time .....

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