Road Trip: Camas Prairie for Short-eared Owls


Idaho Intermountain Bird Observatory has a Short-eared Owl survey under way. It’s another citizen science project. WC and Mrs. WC were assigned a survey route in the Camas Prairie, east and a little south of Boise.

Camas Prairie, Southcentral Idaho

Camas Prairie, Southcentral Idaho

If you were riding a covered wagon across the seemingly unending Rocky Mountains, WC supposes any largish flat area seemed like a prairie. But Camas Prairie’s not a prairie. Current thinking is that the long, east-west trending, flat-bottomed valley is a rift valley, a smaller-scale version of the East African Rift. The passage of the Yellowstone Hot Spot under what is now the Snake River Plain, south of Camas Prairie is thought to have pulled the rift open, much as a wet paper towel tears if you hold one side down and pull on the other.

From Cluer and Cluer, "The Late Cenozoic Camas Prairie Rift, South-central Idaho, Contributions to Geology, v. 24, no. 1, pp. 91-101 (May 1986)

From Cluer and Cluer, “The Late Cenozoic Camas Prairie Rift, South-central Idaho, Contributions to Geology, v. 24, no. 1, pp. 91-101 (May 1986)

Like many rift valleys, Camas has filled off and on with a lake, leaving the classic level bottom of lake sediments. The westerly end of of Camas is a swamp today. And, not coincidentally, prime bird habitat. Because WC wasn’t there for the geology; WC was there for the birds. Here’s a sample of what we saw.

Horned Lark, Camas Prairie, Idaho

Horned Lark, Camas Prairie, Idaho

This handsome fellow should be en route of Alaska, soon. WC has photographed them on the scree slopes of the south face of the Alaska Range.

There are a lot more sparrows, the infamous Little Brown Jobs, than Alaska enjoys.

Lark Sparrow, Camas Prairie, Idaho

Lark Sparrow, Camas Prairie, Idaho

Vesper Sparrow, Camas Prairie, Idaho

Vesper Sparrow, Camas Prairie, Idaho

Alaska doesn’t have many wrens, either. Idaho has lots, including this songster.

Rock Wren, Camas Prairie, Idaho

Rock Wren, Camas Prairie, Idaho

He was in a territorial sing-off with a nearby competitor. It’s pretty unusual to find a wren that’s this approachable and this far out in the open.

But the target species was Short-eared Owls. Unhappily, the first one we saw was a road killed bird not that far from our study area.

Road-killed Short-eared Owl, Camas Prairie, Idaho

Road-killed Short-eared Owl, Camas Prairie, Idaho

But to balance it out, we saw a couple of live ones, one before we started our route, out in the bitterbrush.

Short-eared Owl, Camas Prairie, Idaho

Short-eared Owl, Camas Prairie, Idaho

When this bird shows you the back of his head, he/she is practically invisible. This bird was also about a quarter mile off; this is a heavy crop.

We didn’t see any Short-eared Owls on our survey route. Zero birds is data; it’s just not as much fun. We did see Elk, Mule Deer, Pronghorn, a Black-crowned Night-heron, a nice selection of other raptors, jackrabbits and our first mosquitoes of the year. And we were rewarded with a magnificent sunset.

Sunset, West Camas Prairie, Idaho

Sunset, West Camas Prairie, Idaho

And, just to make a point WC supposes, after we had completed the survey and were driving out, we found one more Short-eared Owl, in near-total darkness.

Short-eared Owl, Camas Prairie, at ISO25600

Short-eared Owl, Camas Prairie, at ISO25600

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