Alex and I were able to use one of our days off this week to help on the fourth year of the South Hills Bird Census near Twin Falls, Idaho. The count is organized by the Prairie Falcon Audubon Society, and covers a large portion of the South Hills, a fairly unique ecosystem in south-central Idaho.
Alex and I joined Cheryl Huizinga and Denise Hughes from Caldwell, Idaho Friday afternoon in Twin Falls. The count ran from 6:00 pm on friday night to 6:00 pm on saturday night, but we got there a few hours early to scope out our area along Rock Creek Road. Our evening was fairly productive…our most common bird was Lazuli Bunting, which could be heard singing up the hillsides just about every 50 meters. Yellow-breasted Chats were also very talkative, and surprisingly we heard about 30 Swainson’s Thrush singing that evening! We also came across 4 baby American Kestrels, yelling their heads off for their parents to feed them.
We tried really hard to find a Blue Grosbeak that was seen on the second year of the count, but our calls to it went unanswered. Further up the canyon, we spotted an adult Golden Eagle being harassed by a raven high over a cliff. At Harrington Fork Picnic area, Warbling Vireos were abundant, and Cheryl pointed out a few singing Fox Sparrows. Cedar Waxwings were also perched nearby.
We stopped at a number of different spots, randomly picking up new bird species like MacGillivray’s Warbler. At Ross Falls trail, Alex spotted a Broad-tailed Hummingbird high in a tree, and we saw it just long enough for it to zoom past us and go into its distinctive display flight. Further up the road at the intersection with Rogerson Road, Denise picked out a few singing House Wrens, while Cheryl and Alex went after some Cassin’s Finch and Pine Siskins at the ski lodge.
Around dusk, we made our way up Rogerson Road in hopes of seeing/hearing some nocturnal species. We tried calling a Northern Pygmy Owl with no luck, but instead heard a few Common Poorwills calling in the distance. We even caught a glimpse of one sitting in the road! While we started calling Flammulated Owls, Common Nighthawks began calling, and surprisingly, we were immediately answered by a pair of Flammulated Owls! One was on each side of the road from us, and they sounded fairly far away. One flew over our car, but from its calls, it sounded like it landed far away again. However, when we stepped out of the car, Alex spotted its small silhouette in a nearby snag! Apparently Flams are great at throwing their voices. Believe it or not, even though Alex and I are doing Flammulated Owl surveys, this is the first one we’ve seen! It was great to finally catch a glimpse of what we’ve been surveying for over a month now. We came across 3 other Flammulated Owls calling nearby. We ended the evening at midnight with 48 species.
The next morning, we started out fairly early, picking up Dr. Jack Trotter along the way, a knowledgable local birder. We worked our way south through agricultural fields, picking up species like Brewer’s Blackbird, Swainson’s Hawk, Killdeer, and a variety of swallows. A great find here was a pair of nesting Black-necked Stilts at a gravel pit. We stopped at campgrounds along Rock Creek Road, picking up a number of Hairy Woodpeckers and Red-naped Sapsuckers, in addition to Cordilleran and Dusky Flycatcher, Orange-crowned Warbler, and Ruby-crowned Kinglets. On nearby ridges, Turkey Vultures, Common Ravens, and Red-tailed Hawks were a common site. We also got a great look at a Cordilleran Flycatcher! Unfortunately we ate of a lot of dust from the loads of ATV’s and dirt bikes that infiltrated the canyon for the weekend.
We continued up Rock Creek Road until snow blocked our way. At the higher elevations, we found a male Red-Crossbill drinking from a snow melt puddle. This was a target for the day, since the South Hills Crossbill is likely to be split into its own species in the future. We also heard the distinct drumming of a Williamson’s Sapsucker on the hillside here, and spotted a passing Cooper’s Hawk. Denise also spotted a few Red-breasted Nuthatches climbing around the trees. On our way down, we finally nabbed some Green-tailed Towhees! It is fairly hard to get a good look at these birds, but they are very curious and could not ignore the towhee chatter from Denise’s “bird jam” caller.
Around 3:30 pm, we headed back to the agricultural fields in hopes of picking up a few more species. At this point, we were at ninety-something species, and our goal of 100 species for the count was within reach! We found a Double-crested Cormorant and a Clark’s Grebe on a pond, and heard an American Coot in the reeds. Jack was sure we could get a Northern Harrier over a certain field, and sure enough, an adult male was flying right by for us! This was the start of our lucky streak over the last hour and a half of the count. We then headed up a side road into a sage desert that Jack had suggested, and within minutes, Cherly spotted a bird perched on sagebrush. I guess we weren’t expecting one, because we were all shocked to see a Loggerhead Shrike! We continued on, and tried calling for a Brewer’s Sparrow at a few locations. At a spot that looked great for a Brewer’s Sparrow, one immediately flew right at us after we called for it. We tried for a Lark Sparrow and Sage Thrasher, but none seemed to be in the area. We discussed a few more species that were possible, like Chukar and Belted Kingfisher. A few hundred feet back down the road, two Chuckars ran right out in front of us! We then headed for the spot Jack suggested for the kingfisher, and miraculously, we passed by just as one was flying over the willows. Our final total for the count was 99 species (even though we thought it was 100 at the time because of miscounting).
On our way back to town for the evening, a fledged Barn Owl chick was sitting on the fence post (our 100th species for the day). Too bad we missed him for the count! Down in the agricultural fields, Canada Geese were flying over, and we saw a Long-billed Curlew…two species we missed on the count. Go figure!
The next day, we joined Zeke Watkins for birding in a canyon full of juniper to get some juniper-specific species that he had seen in his area of the count the day before. Zeke did not disappoint, and we ended up getting great looks at Black-throated Gray Warbler, Plumbeos Vireo, Juniper Titimouse, Bushtit, and Western Scrub Jay. The jay popped out while we were observing a Bushtit, and posed nicely for my camera. Unfortunately, Alex had taken the SD card out of my camera, so you will have to use your imagination.
Gray Warbler, a new state bird for me!
We had a great time birding with Cheryl, Denise, and Zeke…thanks to everyone at Prairie Falcon Audubon for a great trip!