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  • Winter Birding in Central Idaho

    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.

  • Birding on the 2021 Global Big Day

    The Global Big Day, in eBird’s words, is an annual celebration of the birds around us. Each year birders all over the world go outside and look for birds. This year, despite lockdowns in south Asia, more than 7,000 species were seen by 51,000 participants. My brother and I and a friend named Aidan decided to explore a bit of southwestern Idaho this Big Day. We started at Blacks Creek in Ada county looking for anything special. We didn’t see any Long-eared Owls, even though one had been photographed just a week before. But then again, I’ve quite the knack (and a long and distinguish history, in fact) for missing Long-eared Owls, so this wasn’t surprising. But there were California Quail, a Brewer’s Sparrow, Horned Larks, Western Meadowlark, an American Goldfinch, and Killdeers. A pair of Long-billed Curlews flew calling over the sagebrush and landed in the distance, and a group of White-faced Ibises flew low over us towards the reservoir. A few other birders were ahead of us near the water, and they came back and told us they had spotted two Dunlins. Dunlins are rather uncommon in Idaho, especially in spring, so we set out for them. Soon we spotted them. They looked sharp in their breeding plumages of gray, black, and rufous. We laid down I the mud and slowly worked towards them as they foraged on the water’s edge, and soon we were able to get a few pictures. We left Blacks Creek and drove some back roads, adding Spotted Towhee and Lark Sparrow, and then we visited Indian Creek, another reservoir that wasn’t too far away. At Indian Creek it was a little less windy and there were more birds: we saw Cinnamon Teals, Ruddy Ducks, Spotted Sandpipers, a Semipalmated Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitchers, an American White Pelican, Red-tailed Hawks and Northern Harriers. When we were finished at Indian Creek, we took off for a hotspot about an hour away called Camas Centennial Marsh. Camas Centennial Marsh is located on the Camas prairie, a wide expanse of land that is surrounded by hills and mountains. It freezes over in winter, but during the summer many birds breed in the marshes and damp grass. We drove around the outskirts a bit before hitting the main marsh area. Here there was a pair of Wilson’s Phalaropes, a pair of Willets, Savanah Sparrows, an American Kestrel, Cinnamon Teal, a Wilson’s Snipe, and a Long-billed Curlew. It was still quite windy, but the sun was getting warmer. Unfortunately, the higher the sun got in the sky, the harder it was to get well-lit photos. At the main marsh there were more Brewer’s Blackbirds, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, another Wilson’s Snipe, and two more phalaropes not far out on the water. One of the phalaropes was a female Wilson’s Phalarope, and the other was a female Red-necked Phalarope. It was a treat to see them next to each other. We got out of the car and slowly worked our way towards them, and soon we were at the water’s edge. They were incredibly tame as the foraged near the shore. Once, they even came within two feet of us! At point we lowered our long lenses and just watched them. The main challenge was trying to photograph them without shadows: the afternoon sun was harsh and it was hard to get good lighting. The phalaropes stayed within ten feet of us for about fifteen minutes, and as they were drifting away we noticed several Least Sandpipers walking towards us. They were almost as tame as the phalaropes. We stopped to get some photos of them, and then moved up the road where some Willets were foraging. The Willets were tame, too. I had never been to Camas before, but if the birds let you this close every time, I’ll have to go again! After another forty minutes, we decided it was time to leave. We hadn’t seen any Virginia Rails or Soras, but after our experience with the phalaropes, we didn’t feel like we were missing out too much. But then, right as we were driving out of the marsh, a Sora crossed the road right in front of us, and then a Virginia Rail dashed out from the reeds into the road. It was neat to see both of our rails within seconds of each other, even though they were both soon in the reeds again. Of course, we had to get out and look for them. After a few minutes we obtained a few photos of one of the Soras (there were actually two more) and then we had to leave. But the rail surprise was the perfect ending to our trip.

  • Birding and Backpacking in Karnali Pradesh

    Situated in the northwest of Nepal, the state of Karnali encompasses some of the most rugged territory in the country. It is much drier than in the east, and the hills are much more jagged. The bird life is not as concentrated, but the west comes with its own share of interesting species: Kashmir Nuthatch, White-cheeked Nuthatch, Koklass Pheasant, Cheer Pheasant, Bar-tailed Treecreeper, Rufous-naped Tit, Black-throated Accentor, and Black-and-yellow Grosbeak are all western Himalaya specialists. A few weeks ago, my brother, Dad, and I took a backpacking trip into the lower region of Karnali. We took a bus from Surkhet into Dailekh district (Karnali roads leave something to be desired, I learned) and then we started walking. The first few days in Dailekh ranged from 2,000-6,000 feet in elevation, and many of the birds we saw were similar to the birds in the Kathmandu valley: we recorded Asian Paradise-Flycatcher, Purple Sunbird, Blue-capped Rock-Thrush, Egyptian Vulture, Red-headed Vulture, Blue-winged Minla, Lesser Yellownape, Chestnut Bunting, Upland Pipit, Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrike, and Ashy Wood-Pigeon, among others. The fourth day of trekking brought us to a village called Panipokhara, where we stayed the night. The village was situated at 6,500 feet, and the jungle around it was a mixture of oak and rhododendron there were Streak-breasted Scimitar-Babblers, a Slender-billed Scimitar-Babbler, and Alpine Swifts, Streaked Laughingthrushes, Speckled Wood-Pigeons, and a pair of Gray-winged Blackbirds. A Mountain Scops-Owl and Collared Owlets called during the evening and into the night. The next morning we started up early and began to climb up to a 10,000 foot lekh. Here it started to become interesting, as far as avifauna was concerned. The oak forest that grew on the lower slopes held many bird species, including Himalayan Woodpecker, Hume’s Warbler, Ultramarine Flycatcher, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Green-backed Tit, Tickell’s Leaf Warbler, Stripe-throated Yuhina, White-tailed Nuthatch, Variegated Laughingthrush, Green-tailed Sunbird, Wedge-tailed Green-Pigeon, Gray Bushchat, and Hoary-throated Barwing. As we climbed, the forest started to change into a mixture of oaks and firs. Here we recorded Goldcrest, Rufous-vented Tit, Variegated Laughingthrush, White-cheeked Nuthatch, Himalayan Griffon, Eurasian Kestrel, Eurasian Jay, Large Hawk-Cuckoo, Yellow-billed Blue-Magpie, Koklass Pheasant, Gray-sided Bush Warbler, Himalayan Owl, and Crested Serpent-Eagle. At one point, I was following a bird wave and managed to grab my camera just in time to snap several photos of a nuthatch that was passing by. Upon investigation it proved to be a Kashmir Nuthatch, one of the birds that I most wanted to see during this trip. The Kashmir Nuthatch has a very restricted range and can only be found in the hills of Kashmir and a small portion of northwestern Nepal, so this was a worthwhile sighting by all accounts. Eventually we reached the top of the lekh and topped out at 10,050 feet. Here the forest was a mixture of firs, spruces, rhododendrons, and large, towering hemlocks. We found White-throated Tits, Gray-crested Tits, Rufous-vented Tits, Coal Tits, a Spotted Nutcracker, a Bar-tailed Treecreeper, Chestnut-bellied Rock-Thrushes, Bonelli’s Eagles, Spotted Laughingthrushes, Collared Owlets, Collared Grosbeaks, Rufous-gorgeted Flycatchers, Red Crossbills, Hume’s Warblers, Blue-fronted Redstarts, Rufous-breasted Accentors, and a single Alpine Accentor sulking in underbrush. Twice Bearded Vultures flew overhead, landing on rocky crags in the distance. I missed photos of the first bird but managed a few of the second as it glided swiftly over us. When we had crossed over the lekh at 10,000 feet, we passed from Dailekh to Kalikot district. There is no data for Kalikot district on eBird, so we were entering the first eBird data for the region. Interestingly enough, we recorded four species on the windswept lekh that I see regularly enough in my own backyard outside of Kathmandu: Oriental Turtle-Dove, Scarlet Minivet, Blue Whistling-Thrush, and Verditer Flycatcher. The Verditer Flycatchers seemed to prefer more open areas adjacent to the forest, while the other three species were deep within tracks of hemlocks. Avifauna in Nepal is closely tied with elevation changes and the different ecosystems that flourish in them, so it’s interesting that a bird like Scarlet Minivet can exist in the warm near-sea-level lowlands of Nepal as well as a 10,000 foot hilltop in the high hills. We eventually descended from the ridge and five hours later we made it into the village of Haaudi, which is located at around 5,500 feet. We were back on the edge of the oak belt again, and we recorded Wild Rock Pigeon, Blue Rock-Thrush, Blue-capped Rock-Thrush, Himalayan Cuckoo, Rufous Sibia, Whiskered Yuhina, Tickell’s Leaf Warbler, Himalayan Bulbul, Gray-headed Canary-Flycatcher, Black Eagle, and Black-throated Sunbird. Late into the night a Mountain Scops-Owl called above the village. The next morning we started out for Maanma. The path stayed around 5,500-6,000 feet for much of the route, covering fields, pine forest, and bits of broadleaved forest. The birding was nothing out of the ordinary, although there were many landscape opportunities in the morning sunlight. I still had my short lens on when a Himalayan Griffon flew past us, and I snapped several photos from eighteen millimeters as it circled above us once and then flew out of sight. But when looking at the photos later, I decided that they were much more interesting than normal close-up photos would have been. The town of Maanma is perched precariously along a flat ridge, one side of which runs down to the Karnali river and the other side of which climbs up to a 10,000 foot peak. Along the ridge and hillsides, there are a fair number of birds to be found. We recorded Pink-browed Rosefinch, Alpine Swift, Himalayan Griffon, Himalayan Rubythroat, Fire-tailed Sunbird, Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird, Variegated Laughingthrush, Russet Sparrow, Black-chinned Babbler, Yellow-breasted Greenfinch, Rufous Sibia, Collared Owlet, Striated Prinia, Bearded Vulture, Rock Bunting, Crested Bunting, Black Francolin, Common Chiffchaff, and Tickell’s Leaf Warbler, among others. We stayed here a few days before taking a bus back down the Karnali highway and eventually to Kathmandu. In closing, here is a landscape photo, my favorite from the trip. Morning light is shining down onto two homes in Kalikot, a scene that is widespread in the region but nevertheless one that tells very much about the people of Karnali and their way of life there.

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