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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Idaho: Cassia Crossbill and Southern Idaho

2021 Narrative

IN BRIEF: Our trip this year was successful in finding Cassia Crossbills in the South Hills. In addition, we had Red Crossbills and even a pair of White-winged Crossbills. Other highlights included eight species of woodpeckers including White-headed, Black-backed and Williamson’s Sapsucker (an American Three-toed was also briefly seen), Ruffed Grouse, Gray Partridges, Ferruginous Hawk, Prairie Falcon, Juniper Titmouse, 100’s of Franklin’s Gulls and a fine variety of migratory sandpipers, some of which were seen and studied at very close range. Rarities included a family group of Blue Grosbeaks and a single juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk (elegans subspecies).  The weather was warm to hot and was smoky at times due to fires. On our last day a strong cold front with rain came through which greatly lowered temperatures and cleared the air.

IN DETAIL: Our trip started with us heading up route 21 along Mores Creek to Idaho City. Here we saw a number of hummingbirds, primarily Black-chinned and a few Rufous. Cassin’s Finches and Spotted Towhees were numerous and a dozen Red Crossbills were seen in the area. A single Black-headed Grosbeak was noted and Wild (introduced) Turkeys strolled the grounds. Nearby at Grayback Gulch Campground we saw our main target, a White-headed Woodpecker, a scarce and local species in Idaho, here at about the east end of its range. While here we also heard what sounded like a Red-shouldered Hawk, but figured it was perhaps a Steller’s Jay imitating one. But then we actually saw the calling bird in flight, and it was a juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk (Pacific coast elegans subspecies), a rarity for Idaho. This subspecies has been expanding its range north and east in recent decades. Later at lunch at Whoop-em-up Campground, Austin heard some call notes which suggested White-winged Crossbill to him, a species he had never seen, let alone heard. Sure enough, Austin located them, a pair. From here we headed east and then south to Stanley.  At a burn site we found a female Black-backed Woodpecker and a Townsend’s Solitaire. Sandhill Cranes and Pronghorn grazed in the meadows nearby.  Two Peregrine Falcons and a Willow Flycatcher were seen during the day.

The following morning after a delicious breakfast at the bakery in town, we birded a local area, including Stanley Lake. Austin got onto an American Three-toed Woodpecker, but sadly it flew before we could get onto it. We did see two Williamson’s Sapsucker, five Canada Jays, two Clark’s Nutcrackers, a Brown Creeper, a Lincoln’s Sparrow, and a Spotted Sandpiper, still with traces of downy feathers in the plumage. A female Redhead (our only one of the trip) was spotted and a Yellow-bellied Marmot was heard. Later and farther south, we noted two Bald Eagles and a juvenile Red-naped Sapsucker at our picnic site. Certainly one of the highlights was the Columbia Spotted Frog.  Late in the day after checking-in at the hotel, we went out late in the day to Cottonwood Creek. We noted three Blue Grosbeaks at a riparian patch, including a singing male. They nested here this year. It is a rare and local nesting species in Idaho. At dusk we noted four Common Poorwills, including at last two on the road.

The next morning, we headed up into the South Hills to search for the key species of the trip, Cassia Crossbill. We stopped in the canyon of the Fourth Fork of Rock Creek and heard a Canyon Wren singing. We checked the small spring near Porcupine Springs Campground, a favored spot in the past for Cassia Crossbill. We were unsuccessful, but we did see MacGillivray’s Warbler and Dusky Flycatcher. Some saw a Cordilleran Flycatcher too. While we were there, we counted over 50 Common Nighthawks, all flying north. A single Cooper’s Hawk and two Sharp-shinned Hawks were noted. The Sharp-shins must have been nesting as one was calling. The only time I have previously heard this species call in nearly 60 years of birding was just a few days earlier in west-central Idaho. Its calls were totally unlike Cooper’s (much higher pitched). From here we headed down to Shoshone Basin Road. Just before the turnoff we spotted a Ruffed Grouse standing on the side of the road. From here we headed up the road and stopped at a burn and studied several Lewis’s Woodpeckers. In our haste to get out, I had left the keys in the van, and then the van self-locked with the keys in the van. Ugh! Fortunately, we had a signal and I called AAA and they sent a locksmith to us. This took a few hours, so we picnicked at an adjacent house with a table out front. Austin knew the owners and we received permission. We studied hummingbirds at the feeder, including several Broad-tailed.  Once the locksmith arrived, they were into the van with almost startling rapidity. Also, while there, we had eight Cassia Crossbills that were both seen and heard.  To be clear, although split as a species there are over 10 other types of Red Crossbills found in North America, and about that number in the Old World too. Two of those (Scottish and Parrot) have already been split as full species, so there might be some two dozen species of Red Crossbills, or more, or, conservatively, just one.  From here we went to Brockman’s feeders to the west where we studied hummingbirds of four species. These included a few colorful adult male Broad-tailed. Two Gray Catbirds were present too. Near dusk we looked for White-throated Swifts at the falls but were not successful. That evening after dinner we gave our farewells to Austin who needed to carry on with his graduate research.

The next morning, we headed south to Rogerson and then a bit east. In agricultural country we noted some 10 Gray Partridges and in a line of trees also saw Barn and Great Horned Owls. Good numbers of Brewer’s Sparrows were noted. We headed well to the west to search for Sagebrush Sparrows, but sadly only briefly glimpsed a single bird. We did see a juvenile Loggerhead Shrike and an Eastern Kingbird along with multiple Sage Thrashers.  At another site to the northwest, we located four Long-eared owls roosting in junipers.

After breakfast the next day we headed to the southeast checking the riparian area where we had seen the Blue Grosbeaks along Cottonwood Creek. It was full of birds, including two of the Blue Grosbeaks plus several Lazuli Buntings. Also noted were Eastern Kingbirds, two Lark Sparrows, two Yellow-breasted Chats, some 10 Yellow Warblers, four Sage Thrashers, and four immature Bullock’s Orioles. An Olive-sided Flycatcher was clearly a fall migrant. A sitting immature Golden Eagle was on the edge of the canyon to the south and we had excellent views of it perched and in flight. At some nearby ponds to the north we studied numerous sandpipers which included a Solitary, five juvenile Lesser Yellowlegs, Black-necked Stilts, two adult Long-billed Dowitchers and single Baird’s and Semipalmated Sandpipers along with a few Westerns and Leasts. Phalaropes were numerous with some 135 Red-necked and 15 Wilson’s. Some 200 Franklin’s Gulls were here too. A Ring-necked Pheasant sounded off in the bordering willows. From here we headed east stopping at the Walmart near Burley for Great-tailed Grackles, then on for lunch at the lovely wooded picnic area at Walcott State Park. Black-capped Chickadees, Western Wood Pewees and singing Yellow Warblers were present along with a Downy Woodpecker, immature orestra Orange-crowned, and a Wilson’s Warbler. At the nearby spillway there were hundreds of Franklin’s Gulls along with numerous Forster’s and a single Common Tern.  American White Pelicans and Double-crested Cormorants were numerous, and we saw a single adult Black-crowned Night-Heron. Later we settled into our very nice hotel in Pocatello.

The next morning, we birded the juniper woodland near our hotel. We noted Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays, two Bushtits, several Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and two Juniper Titmice. A single migrant female Townsend’s Warbler was noted too. Nearby we saw a Gray Flycatcher. After lunch we visited American Falls Reservoir where we studied Western and a few Clark’s Grebes. We noted concentrations of water birds at the southwest end of the dam. While shorebirds were not numerous, we had excellent of juvenile Least, Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers, literally at our feet. American Avocets were present as was a single juvenile Willet. Two Caspian Terns (adult and a juvenile) were present and Common and Forster’s Terns were numerous, all giving excellent and close comparative views in flight and at rest. A single male Red-breasted Merganser was unusual and had no doubt summered locally. A little farther north on the east side we saw a flock of eight Marbled Godwits, our only ones of the trip. That evening we had a very good dinner near our hotel. Austin and his wife joined us for a reunion.

Before dawn the long-awaited front arrived. It arrived with lighting and thunder, heavy rain, and much cooler temperatures! We headed up to the Arbon Valley where we hoped for Sharp-tailed Grouse, but when they are not on leks, our chances were probably low and with the wet vegetation and ground, we saw none. We did have lovely views of an adult Ferruginous Hawk and one or two Prairie Falcons. Vesper and Savannah Sparrows were numerous. On our way back to the north we noted a Say’s Phoebe (likely a migrant) along with Western and Eastern Kingbirds. Back at American Falls Reservoir we noted the cottonwoods were full of migrants and spent much time looking at them before having a picnic lunch. Five species of Empidonax were present, including a Cordilleran, and an Olive-sided Flycatcher was here too. Warblers present included a briefly seen Nashville of the distinctive subspecies, ridgwayi. After lunch we looked at the shorebirds noting multiple juvenile Baird’s and two Semipalmated Plovers. Then the cool north winds eased off and nearly all of the shorebirds left!  From here we headed west on Interstates 86 and 84, arriving back at our hotel in about two and a half hours. After dinner nearby, the tour concluded.

                                                                                                                                                                                -          Jon Dunn

Updated: February 2022