Camas Prairie Notebook, Early Autumn, 2019


WC recently visited one of his favorite birding spots, Camas Prairie,1 to see what was around in early autumn. What wasn’t around was water; Camas Prairie and its birding centerpiece, Centennial Marsh, are seasonal wetlands. This late in the year, it was mostly dry to very dry. A few fields were flooded, but that was water pumped up from the aquifer for irrigation. What was around mostly was clouds of crickets and locusts. In a few places, the ground seemed to be moving. The largest of the insects was what WC has tentatively identified as a Carolina Locust.

Likely a Carolina Locust, Dissosteira carolina, Camas Prairie, Idaho

Likely a Carolina Locust, Dissosteira carolina, Camas Prairie, Idaho

Walking through the fields drove up clouds of these bugs, along with smaller grasshoppers, katydids and beetles. The insects have to have impacted crop yields for the farmers in the easterly end of the Prairie; WC wishes them luck. That may have been why there were so many bug-eating birds around, including Western Kingbirds who you’d ordinarily have expected to be long gone. There were remarkable numbers of American Kestrels around as well, busy snacking on the locusts.

American Kestrel, Camas Prairie, Idaho early fall, 2019

American Kestrel, Camas Prairie, Idaho early fall, 2019

Kestrels generally are suffering a population decline, so it was good to see them at Camas in decent numbers, feeding up for the migration south. Even the Red-tailed hawks were noshing on the grasshoppers.

Red-tailed Hawk, Camas Prairie, Idaho early fall, 2019

Red-tailed Hawk, Camas Prairie, Idaho early fall, 2019

A few lingering Swainson’s Hawks were also feeding on the big ‘hoppers.

Swainson's Hawk, Camas Prairie, Idaho early fall, 2019

Swainson’s Hawk, Camas Prairie, Idaho early fall, 2019

The warblers, except for short distance migrant Yellow-rumpeds, were gone, but flocks of sparrows were still around for the late seed-bearing plants.

Savannah Sparrow, Camas Prairie, Idaho early fall, 2019

Savannah Sparrow, Camas Prairie, Idaho early fall, 2019

American Pipit, Camas Prairie, Idaho early fall, 2019

American Pipit, Camas Prairie, Idaho early fall, 2019

A few obvious migrants like this American Pipit were also moving through, en route to the Southwest for the winter.

Camas Prairie is at 5,000 feet, and gets impressive amounts of snow during the winter. Cattle are grazed in the westerly end during the summer, but the cowpokes were rounding them up and moving them to the corrals for trucking to lower elevations. The cowpokes were mostly on OHVs – the romance of the horseback cowboy is seriously out of date – but what was impressive was the huge flocks of mostly Brewer’s Blackbirds following the cattle, foraging on the insects that the cattle put up as they moved through.

There were no Sandhill Cranes this year. Maybe the migrants are late, but the local breeders were gone. WC did see three coyotes (mis-identified as “wolves” by a deer hunter WC encountered), so perhaps the cranes have all moved on to avoid the carnivores.

WC is unlikely to be back to Camas until next spring. Soon enough, the geology will be buried under snow and the birds will all be gone. What birds do remain in Idaho for the winter generally avoid the higher elevations. But it appears to have been a pretty successful year for the local breeders. That’s a good thing in a climate of bad things.

 


  1. Just to be clear, since there are at least three “Camas Prairies” in Idaho alone, this is the one north of the Snake River Plain, between the Bennett Mountains to the south and the Soldier Mountains to the north. It drains east to the Little Wood River. It’s not a prairie, either; it’s a rift valley. 
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