During winter in Idaho, birds are often sparse, but birding can be rewarding. Species like Common Redpoll, Lapland Longspur, Snow Bunting, Northern Shrike, Bohemian Waxwing (and if one is really lucky, Gyrfalcon, Hoary Redpoll, Northern Hawk Owl, and Snowy Owl) descend from northern latitudes. Other species descend from higher elevations in the mountains, like Pine Grosbeak, Black and Gray-crowned Rosy-finches, and Northern Pygmy-Owl. I had the chance to spend some time birding throughout southern and central Idaho, looking for some of the winter birds Idaho has to offer.
This winter has been a good one for winter birds: there are still two and a half months of winter left, but so far Hoary Redpoll, Snowy Owl, and Gyrfalcon have already been recorded in the state. Common Redpolls, normally uncommon, are abundant this winter. Redpolls were one of my first targets, and I was fortunate to find a small group of eight in Owyhee County one morning together with Bushtits, Song Sparrows, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Dark-eyed Juncos, and a Rough-legged Hawk. Incidentally, they were the first record of that species on eBird for Owyhee County, although plenty have been recorded since then.
One of my hopes was to see and photograph rosy-finches. Gray-crowned Rosy-finches nest in the Rocky Mountains in Canada, Montana, and a little bit of Idaho. During the winter, they can be found throughout the lower foothills and plains, foraging in fields at flocking and feeders. Often accompanying them are Black Rosy-finches, a less abundant species that nests throughout the mountains of central Idaho, and a few mountain ranges in Utah, Wyoming, and Montana. Like most of the finch family, rosy-finches tend to be quite nomadic in the winter, but they do frequent feeders on the outskirts of towns, so these are often reliable places to find them. One such town that was recommended to me was Triumph, Idaho. More fit to be called a neighborhood, Triumph consists of about twenty homes situated in a gulch between two ridges near the Sawtooth mountains.
Triumph was around three hours away, so a friend Aidan and I left early and got there around nine in the morning, half an hour after sunrise. The sky was overcast but bright, and the temperature -10 degrees Fahrenheit, a little cold for December. About five feet of snow covered the ground and bushes. Presumably because of the cold, birds were not active at all. We saw the regulars: juncos, chickadees, ravens, and magpies, but nothing else. After an hour of driving backroads looking for birds, we returned to Triumph, having only added Pine Siskins to our list.
During our second drive through Triumph, we spied several siskins at a feeder, and one Gray-crowned Rosy-finch with them. Upon a closer look, there turned out to be a small flock of both Gray-crowned and Black Rosy-finches feeding, along with chickadees, siskins, juncos, and goldfinches. The homeowners graciously let us photograph the rosy-finches from their backyard. As the temperature climbed to 3 and then 5 degrees, birds started to become more active. We stayed in the area for about an hour and a half, adding a flyover Golden Eagle to our list and taking more photographs of the rosy-finches.
As we drove out of Triumph on our way to Ketchum to look for Pine Grosbeaks, we were on the lookout for a group of Chukar that we had been told about. Scanning the nearby hillsides, we nearly missed them, huddled in a group several feet from the road. One bird was even laying in snow on the roadside, oblivious to our vehicle! We slowly approached them in our car and were able to get quite close for photos. They were a nice addition to our day, the remainder of which was uneventful. We recorded Snow Buntings and more Common Redpolls, but couldn’t find American Dippers, Pine Grosbeaks, Lapland Longspurs, or Short-eared Owls.
The next week I spent around the greater Boise area, seeing some local birds of interest like Golden-crowned Sparrow, Red-naped and Red-breasted Sapsuckers, Western Bluebird, and Bohemian Waxwing. I missed Varied Thrush, Long-eared Owl and Northern Shrike. One snowy day, I went out looking for birds to photograph in the falling snow and happened across a heron hunting on the Boise River. After about twenty minutes of crawling toward it on the riverbank, I was able to position myself to where I got a clean view of the heron with a diffused background. I took multiple photos, but things took an exciting turn when the heron caught a ten-inch rainbow trout right in front of me.
I left the heron undisturbed and drove out into the sagebrush to look for more birds. The snow stopped as I got into the sage, and birds started to come out, forage, and fly overhead. I was able to record Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs in flocks of Horned Larks. Rough-legged Hawk, Savanah Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Pine Siskin, Cedar Waxing, and Dark-eyed Junco were all present as well. Most importantly, there was a large flock of about 120 Common Redpolls foraging noisily along the roadside. Normally rare around Boise, it was nice to see them in such large numbers in Ada County. They provided plenty of photographic opportunities, and a few were nearly too tame: when I pished, one rosy-covered individual landed on a fencepost three feet in front of me! He was too close for my camera to focus, but fortunately he let me back up and take some shots. The redpolls were a great way to end the day, and I drove back into town, glad for the chance to see and photograph these visitors from the north.