A Little Beyond Bliss: The Hagerman Bird Festival


Bird festivals are a peculiar institution of birders, a kind of tribal gathering for fans of birdwatching. There are dozens, maybe hundreds of them scattered around the world. The first of the calendar year in Idaho is the Hagerman Bird Festival in delightful Hagerman, Idaho.

Hagerman is just a ways past Bliss. Really. You just travel to Bliss, and then a few miles along U.S. 30, down in to the Snake River Canyon, and you are in Hagerman. Nestled on a gravel bench from the Bonneville Flood, between Mountain Home and Twin Falls, the little town is home to the Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument, the remarkable Thousand Springs, a couple of geothermal hot springs, and two large fish hatcheries.

What all those attractions all have in common is layers and layers of volcanic deposits. In particular, the Big Wood River and other streams that drain the Mount Bennett Hills along the north side of the Snake River Plains all run down to the lava fields on the plains and simply sink in to the ground. The fractured lava and basalt soaks the streams up like a sponge. The water emerges from the walls of the Snake River Canyon in a series of cascades. Today, much of that water is diverted for hydroelectricity and irrigation. But enough is still around to create winter habitat for birds. The springs have a constant temperature of 52° F, which makes them highly suitable for fish farming. Hence, the fish hatcheries.

But WC and Mrs. WC, as is usually the case, were there for the bird festival and the birds. And were not disappointed. Here are some random shots.

White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

Alaskans are familiar with this handsome sparrow; it breeds in much of Alaska. It’s one of the few birds whose song names the bird.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

There’s a small Great Blue Heron rookery – communal nesting area – a few miles upstream along the Snake River from Hagerman, so there are Great Blue Herons around. Flying dinosaurs, indeed.

Downy Woodpecker Male

Downy Woodpecker Male

Another bird familiar to Alaskans, this is probably Alaska’s most common woodpecker. It is less common in Idaho – Northern Flickers dominate the ecological niche – but you can find them.

Black-crowned Night Herons

Black-crowned Night Herons

These birds were a long ways away, so this is a heavy crop but you can see three Black-crowned Night Herons, a species that is rare if present at all in Alaska. The one in the middle is an adult; the two on the sides are subadults, likely last year’s kids. That’s an American Coot in the foreground and, if you look carefully, there’s an out-of-focus Belted Kingfisher on the branch at the left edge.

Horned Lark

Horned Lark

Horned Larks also breed in Alaska, but they are a high altitude bird, well above tree lines. Strictly speaking this bird wasn’t in Hagerman, but rather in the Bennett Mountains north of the town, up in the Sage Brush terrain. The Sage Grouse get all the press, but there are other lovely birds there, too.

Pretty cool for birding in mid-winter in Idaho. In addition to field trips, the excellent organizers of the Festival had workshops on things like sparrow identification, presentations and vendor displays. And a private screening of the excellent short documentary, Bluebird Man, the story of the remarkable Al Larson, and further proof of how one person can make a big difference.

It was a lot of fun, all the result of a lot of nice people doing a whole lot of volunteer work. We made new friends and, surprisingly, saw some old friends, including world class nature photographer Tom Walker, of Denali National Park.

WC’s thanks to everyone who put the event on, with special thanks to our field trip guides, Aaron Utz, Austin Young and Zeke Watkins. We’ll be back.

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