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? ;-)

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Muddy roads & Heidi's 100th lifebird of 2009!

We started the week waiting out the rain (and mud) in our attempt to get up the road to Lucky Peak (Idaho Bird Observatory's main research site in the Boise Foothills) for a day of breeding-season bird banding. We have run a MAPS station at Lucky Peak since 2000 - it's part of a continent-wide monitoring program that involves one day of capture and banding in every 10-day period of the summer. On Saturday night, with Heidi's younger brother Isaac in tow, we tried the road up to Lucky Peak in anticipation of clearing weather for Sunday ... BUT, we were turned back by mud & very slick roads before we even got to the steep section. After slip-sliding for the umpteenth time, I turned to Heidi & Isaac and asked, "Do you both agree that we should turn back?" and saw big eyes and fervent nods in return!

The rainy weather this late May & June has been phenomenal and I've certainly appreciated the cooler weather. But, it's also starting to make it hard to fit in all the field work that we (& other IBO crews - studying Long-billed Curlews & Flammulated Owls) are doing this summer.

Heidi & I finally made it up to Lucky Peak on Sunday night and got the nets ready for Monday AM when our dedicated friends & volunteers Dave, Carol, & Gary arrived for the morning of banding. Lucky Peak is one of my favorite places in the world so it's always great to get back there for the first time each summer. As we walked back into camp @ dusk, we were greeted by a very close Flammulated Owl hooting away! ... As usual, Monday was a very enjoyable day of banding and fun company highlighted by a male Yellow-breasted Chat that Gary pulled out of the net - the first we've ever caught there during the breeding season! We also caught about 65 other birds, including 12 or so that were recaptures from prior years ... it's fun to think how far these birds have traveled in the intervening months.

The star of our 1st banding day of the season - a stud male Yellow-breasted Chat

After a couple hours in town on Monday afternoon, Heidi & I raced off to Shoshone to pick up the 'government rig' - a Ford Expedition we're using for our surveys on BLM lands - and arrived just before dark to a flat spot out in the sage we'd found the previous week to set up our tents. We spent the next 4 days surveying in primarily sagebrush country between Shoshone and Bellevue on either side of hwy 75.

On Tuesday, we split up to cover different areas and I got lucky in being able to access a couple spots along the Big Wood River in addition to many sagebrush & grassland areas. I was impressed with the diversity in the riparian habitat - Gray Catbirds, Yellow-breasted Chats, and Willow Flycatchers sang alongside more abundant & widespread species like Yellow Warblers and Bullock's Orioles. As it turned out, this was just a teaser of things to come ... on Wednesday, Heidi covered a few other survey points a little lower on the river and, among other interesting birds, turned up 3 different singing Least Flycatchers! After counts, we decided to head back to that area and bird a bit as well as take a flyer on calling for Yellow-billed Cuckoos. YB Cuckoos have declined drastically in the West in recent decades and there's a lot of concern for their population status - so much so that western population is actually a candidate for listing as 'threatened' or 'endangered' under the Endangered Species Act. Thus, there's a lot of interest in documenting where they still occur during the breeding season and trying to protect that habitat. At our second stop, (much to our surprise - after all, I'd seen a grand total of 1 cuckoo in Idaho previously) we soon heard a response to our broadcast - a cuckoo was actually singing about 120 yards away! After a long minute or 2, Heidi said, "Hey, what's this bird? Is that it?!" Sure enough, the cuckoo had snuck in closer to where the broadcast had been playing and perched up on some dead willow branches (much to the dismay of a nearby oriole who began some sort of aggressive display aimed at the cuckoo!) ... and stayed long enough for me to snap a couple pictures through the scope! AND, on Monday Heidi had calculated that she'd seen 99 new species so far this year and wondered what might be 100th ... neither of us imagined that Yellow-billed Cuckoo would be it (can you believe she's up to 100 life birds?!). More importantly, the hope is that this isn't the only individual in the area ... we hope to fit in some more surveys in other potentially suitable areas nearby.

A Yellow-billed Cuckoo heard & seen along the Big Wood River!

Yellow-billed Cuckoo habitat along the Big Wood River - notice the multi-layered riparian habitat structure

On Wed after counts, the rains returned and turned some roads into greasy tracks ... we got lucky on Thurs & Fri in that we were able to avoid rain during our morning surveys. But, that didn't stop some sections of roads from being a little nutty!

The slightly dirty Ford Expedition (making sure we could see :-) at a gas station in Fairfield - the mud layer turned out to be quite the status symbol. Heidi even had one guy strike up a conservation about how he would LOVE to go muddin' on the road we'd been on! ;-)

We were fortunate to not get stuck in a couple places - thanks to 4-low and maybe a little luck - and able to press on to keep exploring new landscapes and the birds breeding there. At one point, though, we had accumulated so much mud & grass up over the 'protection pan' under the engine that we had to spend 45 minutes under there scraping and pulling to reduce the risk of fire ...Here's Heidi proving she's not all girly-girl and not afraid to get dirty!

But, I guess all that hard work tired her out as she needed to nap for a while in the spic-n-span truck the next day ... ;-)
(I'll have you all know that I had a headache at the time...and someone had promised me there would be no photographic evidence of this nap! sheesh, what a meanie! :)

Heidi & Jay (beyond the muddy hood) and the scenic, if off-kilter, view to the Fairfield area ... and the building thunderheads

On Friday we continued from our last survey point on out to hwy 46 en route to scout some riparian survey areas West of Hailey. But, first we needed a stop for some 'tots' and chocolate malts at the Wrangler in Fairfield ...

Heidi's new favorite restaurant (when she realized it'd only be 4 miles out of our way, she said, "Oooh, can we get some tots?!")

That's our birding news from this week. We'll spend much of the next few weeks between the Big Wood River valley and the Sawtooth National Recreation Area performing surveys in cooperation with several agencies, including Bureau of Land Management, Idaho Fish & Game, US Fish & Wildlife Service, and the US Forest Service. Because we've seen so many bird species already in 2009, there aren't too many more species that we can search for in south-central Idaho but we'll hope to locate more cuckoos as well as get lucky with some higher elevation birds like Northern Pygmy-owl and Spruce Grouse ....

Hasta luego!



  1. Hi. I'm carrying your story on sunvalleyonline.com. Great photography.
    Gary Stivers

  2. Loved your story and pictures! Sounds like good, dirty fun!And to see all those birds at close enough range to photograph is amazing. Keep up the competition!
    tisa mccombs
    avid birdwatcher

  3. Good stuff guys! Keep up the good work. I'd love to visit and help at the IBO above Lucky Peak. How does one go about volunteering and when is the best time?

  4. Robert (& others) - Sorry for the delayed reply ... Check out http://www.boisestate.edu/biology/ibo/ for more info and/or contact me directly. Look forward to seeing you up there!