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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Idaho: Cassia Crossbill and Southern Idaho

2019 Narrative

In Brief:

Our first Idaho tour with Austin Young as co-leader was very productive. We found the signature species, Cassia Crossbill, and had good views in both the South Hills and the Albion Mountains to the east. We had a fine variety of gallinaceous birds including Gray Partridge and Chukar, along with both Dusky and Ruffed Grouse. Raptors were well represented and included multiple Golden Eagles and Peregrine Falcons along with a Prairie Falcon. A fine variety of sparrows were seen including Vesper, Grasshopper, Brewer’s and Sagebrush as were multiple Sage Thrashers. Our visit to the Brockman’s feeders in the South Hills produced hundreds of hummingbirds of four species including Calliope and Broad-tailed. Other highlights included two Long-eared Owls, a Black-backed Woodpecker and a Virginia’s Warbler.

In Detail:

Our trip started with a brief evening greeting followed by dinner at Applebee’s nearly next door. The next morning we headed northeast up state route 21 into the Boise National Forest. Our first stop was a stand of mature ponderosa pines behind a home with feeders in Idaho City. We were hoping for White-headed Woodpecker, but none came into the suet feeder despite our contribution of additional suet. We did see some Red Crossbills and interior (lagunae group) White-breasted Nuthatches. Red Squirrels were present too! Slowly we winded up to higher elevations. At a burn just over a pass we found Dusky and Olive-sided Flycathchers, Swainson’s Thrush, Orange-crowned and MacGillivray’s Warblers, Black-headed Grosbeak, Cassin’s Finches, and a “Slate-colored” Fox Sparrow. As we headed northeast, then finally south, we made additional stops. At one burn we found Mountain Bluebirds and a Black-backed Woodpecker, one of the better birds of the trip. Just to the north of Redfish Lake we found a half dozen Sandhill Cranes and Pronghorns. On our hike near Redfish Lake we had Red-naped Sapsucker, several Violet-green Swallow, Wilson’s Warblers , and a fresh plumaged Gray Flycatcher, out of nesting habitat, and thus an uncommon fall migrant. We headed through Ketchum and Sun Valley where once Ernest Hemmingway spent part of the year. Nearing Twin Falls we spotted Swainson’s Hawks, and a few Gray Partridges on the side of the road.

The next morning we headed south up into the South Hills to begin our search for Cassia Crossbill. Our first stop was Diamondfield Jack where we heard and glimpsed several birds. Austin tutored us on exactly what to listen to with the Cassia Crossbill from the other relevant types of Red Crossbill. Some ten types occur in North America and we ended up seeing two of those that day (one type 2, and four type 5). We did see several “Gray-headed” (caniceps) Dark-eyed Juncos, and counted 24 Common Nighthawks in flight in the mid-morning along with a single Cooper’s Hawk. We next headed on to Porcupine Springs, one of the better locations for this species, and here at a small spring, we had good scope views of a pair of Cassia Crossbills (Loxia sinesciuris)and heard others. While colored like other Red Crossbills, their bills are thicker than most. There are a dozen or more Red Crossbill types, one of which is Cassia, now split; another is Hispaniolan Crossbill (L. megaplaga), once lumped with White-winged Crossbill, but genetically more similar to other Red Crossbills.  Suffice it to say, an additional ten species one day may be split once they figure out the taxonomy and assign scientific names and type locations for each. And that’s just North America. In the Old World there may be an equal number. Parrot and Scottish Crossbills have already been split and there are isolated populations from the Canary Islands, Morocco, Himalaya, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Taxonomy is always fluid- it is a river with Red Crossbills. After lunch we headed west stopping first to admire several Lewis’s Woodpeckers than to Brockman’s Feeding Station where a dozen or more hummingbird feeders were present and filled. We had excellent views of all four regular species: Black-chinned, Rufous, Calliope, and Broad-tailed, the latter represented by females and immature along with several trilling adult males. Back in the lowlands we checked a couple of ponds where a variety of shorebirds (including Solitary Sandpiper and Red-necked and Wilson’s Phalaropes) and waterfowl (including two Wood Ducks) were present. Some 75 Franklin’s Gulls were present too. After dinner, most of us went to the falls along the Snake River just to the east, a spectacular scenic site. Here, we also noted a Great Egret, several White-throated Swifts and a Golden Eagle.

The next morning we headed south of Twin Falls to the southern Magic Valley, where Austin worked during the summer. Here in the grasslands we saw Savannah and Grasshopper Sparrows. All of the latter species we saw well were juveniles, a trait I’d noted earlier on the Great Plains with this species. The adults are far more skulking. Along a farm road we had good views of a party of Gray Partridges and along a row of trees we noted both Barn and Great Horned Owls. We headed west to Salmon Falls Reservoir where we noted two second-year Common Loons and a migrant Western Tanager. Farther west in sage we had good views of Sagebrush Sparrows and Sage Thrashers along with an adult Golden Eagle. At Roseworth (Cedar Creek) Reservoir we had a fine variety of shorebirds, including two juvenile Semipalmated Sandpipers. An Eastern Kingbird was also present.  A bit farther on in a small stand of trees we found two Long-eared Owls. That evening we headed up into the foothills on the north side of the South Hills where we heard several and saw one Common Poorwill well. Two Yellow-breasted Chats were heard singing as the darkness enveloped us.

The next morning we left Twin Falls and headed east towards the Albion Mountains. Purple Martin had nested this summer there, the first nesting record for the state of this casual species in Idaho; sadly they had departed a day or two earlier. We did obtain good views of additional Cassia Crossbills along with Mountain Chickadees, Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped (“Audubon’s”) Warblers, and an abundance of Dark-eyed Juncos, both “Gray-headed” and “Pink-sided.” We saw no intergrades and since it was too early for fall migrant juncos, this means that they summered here and likely bred. So, if no intergrades, does this mean assortative mating (= no interbreeding)? I suggested that Austin had a study for his graduate thesis in the years ahead! At the Purple Martin site we heard, and a few briefly glimpsed, a Clark’s Nutcracker. We had a number of White-crowned Sparrows (oriantha). From the Albion Mountains we headed north to Wolcott State Park where we had a picnic lunch and later followed a flock of Black-capped Chickadees that also had Wilson’s and Yellow Warblers, along with a single ridgwayi Nashville Warbler, a likely future split with the English name of Calaveras Warbler from the eastern subspecies (nominate ruficapilla). A Cassin’s Vireo, several Warbling Vireos and a small flock of Bushtits were also present. At the nearby spillway, we sorted through hundreds of Franklin’s Gulls and found two one year old Bonaparte’s Gulls. At American Falls Reservoir to the east we noted a number of Great and Snowy Egrets, Western and a single Clark’s Grebes, and several Caspian Terns. A Racer came out into the road at one point and remained for good views and photos. From here we headed on to Pocatello where we spent the night.

After breakfast Austin took us to an area close to the hotel where we found Juniper Titmouse, Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and nearby a flock of Chukars. Next, we headed south up Mink Canyon to the Kinney Creek Traill. This was a great location and in our short hike had excellent views of several Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays, a pair of adult Golden Eagles close overhead, a Gray Flycatcher, Lazuli Buntings, a singing Plumbeous Vireo, and two Ruffed Grouse which allowed all decent views. From here we headed south, than east to Soda Springs where after lunch we headed north to Alexander and Blackfoot Reservoirs for a leisurely circular drive. A distant soaring Peregrine Falcon (distant but watched for fifteen minutes) and several Bald Eagles were noted.

The next day we headed up to Grays Lake NWR where we could look at one area of the wetlands from the highway. We sorted through the ducks and saw and heard Sora and Virginia Rail along with numerous Marsh Wrens and Common Yellowthroats. A Green-tailed Towhee was heard and seen up slope behind us in the sage. Then Austin noted a male Dusky Grouse too (three were present). Our stop here was the highlight of the day. Later we headed up into the Caribou Mountains, where we had a number of montane species, but unfortunately no Pine Grosbeaks. “Pink-sided Juncos” were common. Late that day we drove down to Montpelier for dinner. Here in August 1896, Butch Cassidy and two others from the Wild Bunch Gang, held up a bank. Our evening dinner saw no such disruptions.

The next morning we headed southwest to the Utah border, then northwest back into Idaho along Interstate 84. At the Juniper Rest Stop we encountered our first Ash-throated Flycatchers, a juvenile being fed by an adult. Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay was also present along with an American Avocet at the sewage pond. We searched in the valleys on the way north for Ferruginous Hawk, Burrowing Owl, and Prairie Falcon. We did find a Prairie Falcon along with a number of Sage Thrashers, but failed to find our other two target species. Pronghorn were numerous. Later in the afternoon we stopped at Black Creek Reservoir where a variety of shorebirds were present. A juvenile dowitcher was present but it was a bit distant and then it vanished. By date and age it should have been a Short-billed, a rare species in Idaho. Long-billed juveniles do not normally arrive until early September anywhere south of the Canadian border. The next morning we returned and re-found the bird. It was a juvenile Long-billed, my earliest ever in fall for that age class. All too soon we returned back to the airport to catch our flights and Austin drove east to catch an afternoon class back in Pocatello.

Jon Dunn, 2019

Created: 30 December 2019