Birder's Log January 2020 With Park Manager Wallace Keck

January 1, 2020 - Birding Big Year

Birding Big Year (Birder's Log 1/1/2020): Traditionally the Big Year begins with an all-out effort to list as many species as possible on the first day - so that during the doldrums of January to March, one can still feel a sense of accomplishment - that the birder is still on track to reach some lofty goal (let's say 300 by 12/31). I had planned to help with the Buhl Christmas Bird Count today, which likely would have me resting on the pillow this evening, reliving an-80+ Big Day, but 5 inches of snow overnight, and raging winds forced me off the track. I stayed home (home includes the parks, Almo Valley and Raft River Valley upstream of the Narrows).

Birding can be a lonely business - miles of muddy roads, wandering cattle searching for a windbreak, and the obligatory raven flyover. I encountered only two vehicles the entire morning, and one was the snowplow. I rarely stepped out of the Jeep today for fear of heat-loss; still I managed to list 22 species - including such delicacies as Evening Grosbeak, Bald Eagle, Golden Eagle, Lesser Goldfinch, and Pinyon Jay. A good start, but nothing to get all uppity about, especially since so many of my birding buddies north of the blizzards likely listed +70. ...and so it begins.

January 3, 2020

A short while ago, 7 of us crazy birders concluded the Annual Jim Sage Christmas Bird Count. We listed 40 species for the day and a total of 1,180 birds - give or take a starling or two. We drove 92 miles, walked a few while circumnavigating the Jim Sage Mountain Range. This is high desert country, and still we logged 8 bald eagles (7 golden eagles) and 8 Gadwalls. Best birds for the day included Gray Partridge, Northern Shrike, Juniper Titmouse, American Dipper, Wood Duck, and American Tree Sparrow. The day began with a take-my-breath-away sunrise and equally a stop-my-beating-heart sunset. Everything looks more intense when birding.

January 9, 2020

Cold, gray, windy, occasional blizzard - yep, it's January, and finding new birds or any bird is a challenge. All the open water in the parks like the Castle Rock pond have been sealed by ice. No ducks or geese to be found for 100 square miles. Even a trip last Sunday up north to the Snake River produced very few birds. They must be in Hagerman - that Banana Belt of Idaho.

Still, I am finding birds - enough to tease me out into the cold. For instance, I was able to coax the American Dipper into view at the Cassia Creek Bridge in Elba last Sunday; and later, while running errands, I caught up with the infamous "gang of eight" great-tailed grackles on the roof of the Ross clothing store. On Monday - one (count them - one) Red-winged Blackbird perched above the visitor center feeders. I bet he's feeling lost and alone.

Wednesday morning, I stepped outside to let Clancy (my non-birding mini-golden doodle) pee. Great Horned Owls were having such a close conversation, that it was affecting Clancy's ability to concentrate. Check! #36. Later in the day, a quick drive down the Narrows Road offered me a perched Cooper's Hawk. I was specifically looking for a prairie falcon, but I'd be crazy not to celebrate in trading one hard-to-get falcon for one equally elusive accipiter.

Two birds on the day is OK, but I wanted more. Up to Stines Creek Picnic Area I went. The parking lot was plowed, but not the trails. I decided to retrace the steps of some visiting snowshoer to a quiet out of the way spot to stand and wait. Soon robins had forgotten my intrusion, and they started popping up everywhere. In the mix was Big Year Bird #38 - Townsend's Solitaire. Although he is considered low-hanging fruit, brilliantly gray and generally a loner, I enjoy his company. Their one-note call echos through the most angry of blizzards, and may be the only sound heard at times in City of Rocks besides your own beating heart.

But the pleasant surprise bird of the week (so far) was a bushtit. Actually there were about a dozen of them, flitting around on rubber rabbitbrush, gleaning the seeds produced just a few months ago. The photo is by no means a county fair contender, but there is enough there to prove my find. (The second image taken a few years ago for comparison). The day is just getting started, and already I am scheming how to bag a chickadee by dusk.

UPDATE: Mountain Chickadee at residence, 5:14 p.m.

January 16, 2020

On a big year, the birder must leverage every opportunity to survey new habitats. Yesterday, I followed up a morning business meeting in Twin Falls with an afternoon of birding in the Hagerman Valley. My list needed a serious boost, and I knew the ponds and Snake River would produce thousands of birds and dozens of new species. I picked up Rob (retired school teacher and avid birder) on the out-skirts of town to be a second pair of eyes. His list was already twice mine, so it was I who would benefit most. Hagerman was still a fair drive away and I needed fuel, so I quickly pulled into McDonalds and had a breakfast for lunch to go. As we approached the first ponds adjacent to the Snake, I found myself disorganized - juggling the last of the Egg McMuffin, binoculars, and zoom lens. I fumbled for a pen and notebook. As predicted, so many species of waterfowl were present that the list grew faster than an Eboli outbreak. I pushed the limits of the pen.....the ink faded out.

At the Hagerman WMA, the open water was covered by waterfowl and the shear weight of them must have raised the 20-acre pond several inches. The listing continued under the direction of a new ink pen....Merganser (common and hooded), Bufflehead, Redhead, Canvasback, Scaup (the Lesser), Rudy, Wood, and on ad infinitum. Suddenly Rob shouts "There's your Cackling Goose!" It was mine in the sense that it was a Life Bird for me. A life bird is so designated when it is the first time you have seen that species in your life. Every bird is a life bird the first time you see it.

Moving on from the ponds, we pulled into the small parking lot of Billingsley Creek WMA. Our only goal here was to list the Virginia Rail which hides in the reeds, far more often heard than seen. I adjusted the recorded call on my Audubon app and proceeded up the trail to the creek. Before I could hit play, the rails were already calling to each other. Sometimes nature is more than accommodating. 38 seconds later, we are back in the jeep and headed to Twin.

I started the day at 41 birds - sightings gathered from January 1 until this trip. I ended the day with 26 more for a total of 67. The journey home was carefree, giddy with pride - you might say I was quite pleased with myself.....until just past dusk I reached the off-ramp at 216 (to Declo). Suddenly I came upon a tall street light that lay across the road. The jeep hit it straight on, blowing out two tires, and cracking the wheel wide open. Each car behind me also struck the pole - one by one we each pulled over with blown tires and untold damage to the under carriage.

With the estimate today, it looks like those birds cost me $61.53 each.

I can't help but wonder. if I had just spent a few minutes less studying the flock of American Pipits, or perhaps staying five more minutes looking for Rob's mysteriously disappearing Greater White-fronted Goose, I would have made it home before the pole blew down, or late enough to be warned by the emergency vehicles that arrived quickly to the scene. The fact is, a big year birder has not the time to count the cost. There are only 350 days left, and I have hundreds of birds to go.

January 25, 2020

What’s in a bird name?

On January 17, a juvenile (first winter) Harris’s Sparrow popped out of a bush at the visitor center – probably the same one I observed on November 27 less than two months ago. Who is Harris, and why is this bird named after him? “Hey Google….” Hmm – Edward Harris – not the one in Apollo 13, the Firm, The Rock, or Enemy at the Gates. Apparently he’s the horse breeding philanthropist who hung out with birding legend John James Audubon. Audubon honored his naturalist buddy with both the sparrow and Harris’s Hawk – a Parabuteo I’m not going to get in Idaho.

The next day I fell in with a small flock of cedar waxwings at Stines Creek Picnic Area. Most were darting in and out of a Rocky Mountain Juniper (aka cedar). Right place, right time, right name. Oh, but the waxwing refers to the Carnauba wax that the bird produces and excretes from its axillaries… just kidding. Wikipedia says, “Some of the wing feathers have red tips, the resemblance of which to sealing wax gives these birds their common name.”

This past Monday, I paid due respects to Martin Luther King Jr - also a birder (no?), got dressed and was all set to chase down the day’s target bird: Red-breasted Nuthatch. All of a sudden one flew into my feeder and totally ruined the day. I didn’t have a back-up plan. Seriously? – red-breasted? It should have been “rust-breasted. Even Sibley describes it as orange. Whatever…#70.

Tuesday found me in Boise in the director’s meeting room on a conference call, talking resources stewardship strategies with my NPS colleagues. Good stuff! Can’t wait to get going on that project this year. But, truth be told, a flock of Black-capped Chickadees (#71) swarmed the bush outside the window, and for a moment I heard nothing but “chickadee dee dee.” Appropriately named? Check! Pardon me, could you repeat what you just said about strategies?”

Which brings me to today. My goal was to at least hear if not observe the wily Spotted Towhee. Up to Stines Creek Picnic Area I went, passing a full parking lot at the Castle Rocks Trail Head. Strangely, no one was at Stines. Out comes the bird song app. I play a few seconds of the call. Immediately, as if waiting all morning for me to show up, Towhee (#72) scolds back from the bitterbrush…towhee.

It’s really not that hard to remember bird names when half the noise in any given forest is an avian creature shouting its name at you. I can almost hear a sparrow shouting “Edward Harris!”


Photos by Wallace Keck