4 Day Birding Tour of Idaho

I have managed to turn many of my friends back home into crazy birders. My friend Mark Markiewicz is no exception; a few years ago Mark’s brother Chris and I began going out kayaking along the Swatara Creek, that runs through Hershey, PA, often and I would always point out any bird species we saw. It wasnt long till Mark and Chris were hooked and each bought a pair of binos and field guides for themselves. Before I knew it they were birding every weekend, racking up quite an impressive PA state list. When Mark heard I was working in Idaho this summer, he knew he had to come visit. This would be Mark’s first visit to the west as a birder, so I knew it was going to be fun. I love being around people when they get to add a lifer! So last Thursday at 4:30pm, Anna and I picked Mark up from the Boise Airport and started on what would be four full days of non-stop birding to the hotspots of Idaho.

As soon as Mark was in the car at the airport, we drove over to nearby Hollilynn Drive to pick up some western specialties such as California Quail, Western Kingbird, Swainson’s Hawk, Black-billed Magpie, California Gull, and Western Meadowlark to name a few. A quick drive up the road towards the World Center for Birds of Prey got us Chukar, an introduced but countable species here in Idaho. Next we drove to a spot back on South Cole Rd that I had discovered earlier in the week. The target here was close-up looks at a Burrowing Owl. We were successful, two adult male owls were perched on the ground right alongside the road!

Burrowing Owl - male (Photo by Anna Fasoli)

Next stop was Discovery Park. A quick walk around the park got Mark his lifer Bullock’s Oriole, Western Wood-Pewee, Cordilleran Flycatcher, and Western Tanager; but where were the Lewis’s Woodpeckers!…this was supposed to be my spot for them, gah! Up next was Foote Park. The usual suspects were present and Lazuli Bunting was a lifer for Mark. It was getting late, so we went downtown for dinner, on the way trying for a glimpse of one of Boise’s Peregrine Falcons, but with no luck. After dinner we drove over to the parking lot of the M. K. Nature Center to try for Western Screech-Owl. Within minutes of arriving, three screech-owls were calling around us but none would come out into view. One of them we narrowed down the exact tree it was in, but just couldnt get a look. A Common Poorwill flew over as a consolation prize.

The next morning we were out bright and early and drove up to Idaho City for a stop at Jennifer Alban’s famous bird feeders! Mark added some classic mountain birds to his life list such as Clark’s Nutcracker, White-headed Woodpecker, Stellar’s Jay, Cassin’s Finch, Calliope Hummingbird, and Black-chinned Hummingbird. Anna sifted through the Pine Siskins on the platform feeder and picked out a female Red Crossbill; a new state bird for her and I. Soon a male joined the female and I almost had a heart attack.

Red Crossbill - female (Photo by Anna Fasoli)

White-headed Woodpecker (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

We felt like we got all we could at Jennifer’s and decided to head out. We had to get down to the Duck Valley Indian Reservation by that evening and so birding today would be pretty speedy. Blacks Creek Reservoir was next on the list. Mark’s lifers here included American Avocet, Cinnamon Teal, Eared and Western Grebe, Long-billed Curlew, and the highlight; a Gray Flycatcher perched on barbed wire on the egde of the sage. Then Indian Creek Reservoir; better looks at Curlews plus Mark picked up Prairie Falcon (incubating eggs), Lark Sparrow, and Rock Wren as lifers. Next on the tour of reservoirs along I-84 was Mountain Home Reservoir. Mountain Home had more waterfowl variety and offered better looks at a few species. Clark’s Grebe and Yellow-headed Blackbird were Mark’s lifers here, as well as Common Nighthawk (Anna spotted a migrating flock of at least 35 passing over in the distance!).

Western Grebe (Photo by Anna Fasoli)

We drove down through Mountain Home, picking up some food and started heading more directly for Nevada. At the Fishermen Access area near the bridge that crosses over the Owyhee River, I was able to call out a Virginia Rail with little effort; a lifer for Mark! Another lifer, the American White Pelican, flew past. We kept driving along 55, heading south. Out in the middle of the desert, I spotted two Mountain Bluebirds perched on fence posts. I made a quick U-turn so Mark could pick up this lifer and then I spotted a Loggerhead Shrike perched on a telephone wire right near the bluebirds; Mark got two lifers for the price of one!

As we drove nearer to Mountain View Reservoir in the Duck Valley, flooded fields were bordering the road. We noticed a rookery of Great Egrets right along the road edge, so we pulled over to watch them and also picked up Mark’s lifer White-faced Ibis and Black Tern. A Sora called from the marsh and many species of waterfowl were foraging around the area while Forster’s Terns and Willets flew overhead. We stopped at the top of the dam of Mountain View Reservoir and Mark added Marsh Wren and Wilson’s Phalarope. Three Virginia Rails and two Sora were calling from the marsh below.

White-faced Ibis (Photo by Anna Fasoli)

 While driving through Mountain City, Nevada a Lewis’s Woodpecker flew right over the car and landed on top of a telephone pole, giving us great looks up close. We arrived at the Duck Valley Indian Reservation around 6:45pm and went out to scout for what birds were around. The next morning we were going to be conducting our second round of bird surveys on the reservation. In a flooded field I was able to call out a beautiful Sora; a lifer for Mark. Other highlights of the evening were a Gray Flycatcher that attacked the window of my Xterra; a Sage Thrasher that gave us a few distant, but satisfying looks; and a Common Nighthawk roosting on the limb of a tree in the front yard of the house we stayed in for the night.

Sora (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Common Nighthawk (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

The next morning we got up before sunrise. Mark would join me for my survey route an Anna would go solo on her’s. Our first point for the morning was filled with bird-song, but we didnt really see many species; Brewer’s Sparrows, Green-tailed Towhees, and Red-winged Blackbirds were calling everywhere. On the walk to our next three points, we began to hear the familiar ‘fitz-bew’ call of the Willow Flycatcher. This was a year bird for me, lifer for Mark, and one of our most commonly heard birds of the morning; we heard at least 20 individuals! Other lifers for Mark while we conducted point counts included fantastic looks at adult and fledgling Long-eared Owls, Orange-crowned Warblers, Red-naped Sapsucker, and Bushtits. We finished up surveys a little before ten, and joined up with Anna back at the house, packed our stuff up, and got back on the road.

Willow Flycatcher (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

At Jack’s Creek at C. J. Strike WMA, the tern and pelican roost was jam-packed with birds. We counted at least 100 pelicans and just as many Caspian Terns. A Willow Flycatcher singing from the top of an actual willow was a new Idaho state bird for Anna and I! Next up was nearby Ted Trueblood WMA. The Yellow-headed Blackbirds and Marsh Wrens stole the show here. We then quickly drove towards the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area, scanning for Ferruginous Hawks the entire way. Finally I spotted a Ferrug perched on a telephone pole. It let us slowly drive right past it and never flew. About a half-mile down the road we found another Ferrug perched near its large stick nest.

Ferruginous Hawk (Photo by Anna Fasoli)

At Dedication Point we spotted a Say’s Phoebe; a lifer for Mark. An adult male Prairie Falcon showed off by doing a flight show for a good 30 minutes, diving and rolling right out in front of the lookout, before settling down on the edge of the cliff. Canyon and Rock Wrens called around us, unfortunately the Canyon Wrens wouldnt give Mark a good enough look to let him count it as a lifer. The wrens were crawling around the rocks below us so quickly all we could really see were flashes of color; like little orange mice. It was starting to get late, so we headed back to Boise, got dinner, and called it a night.

Prairie Falcon - male (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Rock Wren with grasshopper prey (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

The next morning we drove up to Lucky Peak to help out with MAPS banding. Mark was able to hold an ‘Audubon’s’ Warbler and a Black-headed Grosbeak. Other lifers here for Mark included Cassin’s Vireo, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Nashville Warbler, and Dusky Flycatcher. Its always nice to be able to see a species for the first time, in the hand! We left around noon, got lunch, and then began our drive up towards McCall, where we planned to spend the next day and a half.

Dusky Flycatcher (Photo by Anna Fasoli)

Just southeast of Cascade, we stopped at Horse Thief Reservoir hoping for a Red-necked Grebe, but we didnt find one. However we got killer looks at Swainson’s Thrush, Townsend’s Warblers, Warbling Vireos, and a Hammond’s Flycatcher. Next up was the southern end of Cascade Lake. Anna and I joked that it would be neat if some Barrow’s Goldeneyes would still be around, since it would be a lifer for Mark. To our amazement, five Barrow’s were actually out on the lake! We slowly drove around the southern tip of the lake and then up West Mountain Road. Highlights along West Mountain Road included Olive-sided Flycatcher (a lifer for Mark and state bird for Anna and I), Pileated Woodpecker (state bird for me), Bald Eagles, Sandhill Cranes, and a single Lincoln’s Sparrow (would have been a lifer for Mark but he didnt get a good enough look to count it). We finished the day with a search around Bear Basin for Great Gray Owls. We met some birders that had seen one the day before, but hadnt re-found it. We didnt have any luck with finding one either…….

Olive-sided Flycatcher (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Pileated Woodpecker (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

The next morning, we woke up to rain…..darn. The rain fell off-and-on the entire morning, but it was our last morning in the McCall area and we had to make the most of it, so we went on with our plans and delt with the rain. Of course the zip-tie that holds my binocular eye-piece lens-covers on broke, so that made for some annoyingly fuzzy looks at most of the birds. We went to Bear Basin first, but the heavy rain made us decide to head over to Lick Creek Road instead. Along Lick Creek Road, Mark added his lifer Townsend’s Solitaire and Anna and I got our first ‘Slate-colored’ Fox Sparrows in Idaho! At Ponderosa State Park, highlights included great looks at Mountain Chickadees and VERY up close looks at Mule Deer and a female Common Goldeneye on a beaver pond. A male MacGillivray’s Warbler hopped around in a bush two feet in front of me, but I had left my camera in the car. Yellow Warblers and a single Sora called from the wetland at Lily Lake.

Fellow Idaho-birder Cheryl Huizinga gave us directions to a reliable spot for Pygmy Nuthatch near downtown McCall, so we went there next and within 10 minutes had stunning looks a nuthatch that landed right over our heads. A female Calliope Hummingbird flew in to a feeder nearby and Mountain Chickadees were numerous.

Pygmy Nuthatch (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Mountain Chickadee (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

We then went for our third visit to Bear Basin to try for Great Gray Owl and also Williamson’s Sapsucker. We were able to find an adult female and a juvenile. This was a lifer for Mark, so I would have preferred he saw an adult male, but beggars cant be choosers. We heard a flock of birds in the distance that sounded like they were mobbing an owl, so we quickly ran over to see what all the fuss was about. After a few minutes of searching the treetops we spotted the noisy-birds; a flock of Evening Grosbeaks. An awesome species but sadly they werent mobbing an owl, instead just being noisy grosbeaks. We then began driving back towards Boise, but made a quick stop at the the bridge that heads towards Banks, Idaho and added American Dipper to Mark’s life list!

Mark and I trying to get a better look at an American Dipper (Photo by Anna Fasoli)

We made a quick detour to a Bobolink hotspot in Canyon County, a lifer for Mark, and then got some Mexican food for dinner. We drove up Pierce Park road to show Mark the massive Bank Swallow colony as well as get a glimpse of the Barn Owls nesting there, but could only get quick looks at the top of the female’s head. We drove back through downtown Boise, this time spotting the Peregrine perched on top of the Qwest Building, where its nest is located. It was already 9pm, but we knew it wouldnt really get dark till about 9:45, so we decided our last stop of the day (and trip) would be Barber Pool. I figured Lesser Goldfinch was be an easy lifer for Mark here, but for some reason, all the seed feeders had been taken down, so we didint get it. However, Anna and I picked up our first Common Nighthawks, Olive-sided Flycatcher, and Gray Catbirds for Ada County.  Mark was leaving for Pennsylvania early the next morning, making Barber Pool his last birding spot in Idaho. We dropped off Mark at his hotel for the night and Anna and I headed back to our camper-trailer. On the way up to the Boise River WMA, where we live, Anna spotted a Great Horned Owl perched on a road sign along the highway. We were bummed we hadn’t seen this species with Mark, but it was our 164th species of the weekend, so we decided we had done well nonetheless. Mark ended up seeing 76 lifers and I was able to add 9 birds to my state list for Idaho. It was a busy weekend, but I felt like it gave Mark a really great look at not only Idaho’s birdlife but the natural beauty Idaho has to offer.