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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Idaho: Cassia Crossbill and Southern Idaho

2020 Narrative

IN BRIEF: What an excellent tour! Each day birding the nooks and crannies of southern Idaho was different, as we birded over 10 unique habitat types and picking up local specialties all along the way, along with a few rarities. The very first day we were greeted with incomparable views of White-headed Woodpecker, dapper Western Bluebirds, countless MacGillivray’s Warblers chipping at nearly every stop, three woodpecker species in a recently burned forest, and spacious, scenic views of three different mountain ranges at a stop along the highway at ~9,000 feet. The remainder of the trip was filled with Idaho’s endemic Cassia Crossbill perched ~15 meters away, Virginia Rail feet away, tens of owls consisting three species, raptors galore, butterfly bonanzas, mammal manias,  intimidating canyonlands, beautiful waterfalls, awe-inspiring mountain ranges, peaceful forests, local cuisine, and more. The group’s positivity and humor combined with the Idaho landscape and wildlife made this trip memorable.

IN DETAIL: The first night in Boise, the group convened for the first time at at the hotel, where we proceeded to briefly get to know each other, discuss expectations, rules, and itinerary. Hang out and discussion continued through the dinner at a local Applebee’s with it being late and within walking distance of the hotel.

Rising early the next morning, we set out northbound from Boise to the ponderosa forests of Idaho city, where we got up close views of White-headed Woodpecker, Cassin’s Finch, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Steller’s Jay, multiple sparrow species, and two species of goldfinch. A pit-stop at a local gas station provided easy birding for Western Bluebirds. We even picked up seasonally Common Yellowthroat and Grasshopper Sparrow in an isolated patch of grass and cattails! Continuing north and east, easy birding stops along the highway to the town of Stanley provided Yellow, MacGillivray’s, Nashville, and Audubon’s Yellow-rumped Warblers. A walk through a recently burned forest revealed Downy, Hairy, and Black-backed Woodpeckers, with a special view of a herd of ~30 Pronghorn moving through the forest, a sight not commonly seen. The views of birds and wildlife were augmented by spacious overlooks of the Sawtooth, Boulder, and White Cloud mountain ranges. Following the rest of the highway to Twin Falls brought us through subalpine forests wrought with Clark’s Nutcrackers, montane forests abounding with sparrows and woodpeckers, cottonwood forests filled with Elk, incredible lava rock flows, expansive sagebrush flats, and agricultural areas overflowing with Swainson’s and Red-tailed Hawks.

We started the following day headed straight into the infamous South Hills, one of two small mountain ranges that the Cassia Crossbill calls home. We were rather quickly welcomed by a small flock of Cassia Crossbills at Porcupine Springs! Excellent views as they fed and perched ~15 meters away in the tops of the pines. The remainder of the day was spent perusing the nooks and crannies of the South Hills and the adjacent farmland habitats. Highlights included the ‘Gray-headed’ subspecies of Dark-eyed Junco, Mountain Bluebirds, Loggerhead Shrikes, and a sublime desert sunset with Sage Thrashers flying around us like Rock Pigeons in an urban park.

As the sun rose the next day, we found ourselves south of Twin Falls watching a small flock of Gray Partridge to be followed by a roosting flock of 6 Barn Owls in a nearby grove of trees. From there, we ventured into the vast flatlands to find a Ferruginous Hawk, 15 (Wow!) Long-eared Owls, Sagebrush Sparrows, and an array of songbirds inhabiting a riparian area. The songbirds included MacGillivray’s, Wilson’s, Audubon’s Yellow-rumped, and Orange-crowned Warblers, Western Wood-Pewee, ‘Western’ Warbling Vireo, and more.

Then came migrant trap day! On the way to Pocatello from Twin Falls, we stopped at Lake Walcott State Park, a well-known passerine migrant trap, and American Falls Reservoir, the single best place for shorebirds and wading birds in Idaho during migration. Lake Walcott near Rupert produced excellent looks at American White Pelicans, Franklin’s Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls, and other water birds. However, Nashville Warbler, Cassin’s Vireo, Western Wood-Pewee, an adult male Summer Tanager (Wow!), 3 (another Wow!) Broad-winged Hawks, and a Mink stole the show. Broad-winged Hawks are rare fall migrants and there are only ~15 total accepted records for Summer Tanager in Idaho, only 3 for the fall! Alas we continued east to American Falls Reservoir where we were welcomed by 7 sandpiper species, 2 plover species, 3 tern species, Western and Clark’s Grebes, and a variety of waterfowl.

We spent the following warm morning birding for local specialties in the Pocatello area, getting excellent views of a flock of 30+ Pinyon Jays, a male Ruffed Grouse, and numerous butterflies. Lunch was attempted at a local sandwich company but plans there were thwarted by the long line of people wanting the same thing.  We found another sandwich place just down the road. Following lunch, the drive from Pocatello to Soda Springs was beautiful with a stop to see the ever-expanding Great-tailed Grackle at a gas station in McCammon, only to see the first confirmed local Great-tailed Grackle record meandering in the grass at our hotel. The evening was spent on the patio at an excellent local bar and grill. At this point the evening cooled to a nice 65 degrees F or so and was complimented by a sighting of a neighborhood Great-horned Owl.

The next day started at 0700 getting coffee at a local drive thru. A short drive south to Georgetown produced Yellow-headed Blackbirds and flocks of Sandhill Cranes. From there, we went east and north into the mountains east of Soda Springs. These aspen-conifer forests produced Townsend’s Solitaire, Clark’s Nutcracker, 5 sparrow species, Mountain Bluebirds, and more. A short drive west and then north brought us to Grays Lake NWR, where we were welcomed by Common Yellowthroats, “Western” Marsh Wrens, Virginia Rails, Sora, Peregrine Falcons, and multiple waterfowl species. Lunch at the refuge headquarters allowed us to indulge our curiosity concerning the history of the refuge. We began making our way back to Soda Springs, a highlight was excellent views of adult Green-tailed Towhees. After some time to rest and relax, we enjoyed local Mexican food and visited the local Soda Spring. Carbonated mineral water flows out of the ground at this site. The carbonated spring was historically bottled and sold as a soda drink. It is certainly potable, which led to several of us dipping our cups and taking a swig of all-natural Idaho mineral soda.

The next day was a long drive across the southern portion of the state broken up into several birding localities. Birding below the American Falls Reservoir dam provided views of Common Mergansers, Great Egret, Osprey, and we heard Canyon Wrens singing in the cliffs around us. As we plowed across the desert and agriculture, we came to Mountain Home and headed south to the Snake River from there. Highlights were 35 Red-necked Phalaropes Golden Eagles, Ruddy Ducks, Eared Grebes, Rock Wrens, and American Pipits. From there we drove to Boise, where we birded cottonwood forests, to find extravagant Wood Ducks and Bewick’s Wrens. The tour concluded after fine dining on the patio at a special alehouse in downtown Boise.

-          Austin Young, 2020

Updated: n/a