Long-time readers will recall WC and Mrs. WC participate in a citizen science project, surveying Short-eared Owl populations across the Intermountain West. One of the routes we survey is in Weiser Cove, where the Weiser River emerges from the westerly Idaho Batholith to its confluence with the Snake River. This is our fourth year surveying the route, and this past weekend we made the first of the two required surveys.
(With the exception of a counter clerk at a Maverick’s gas station in Weiser, we maintained a social distance from everyone. This was a pandemic-appropriate birding trip. Even at the gas pump, we sanitized the gas pump handle and the push buttons on it before pumping gas.)
We stopped at the Fort Boise Unit of the Deer Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Thousands of Snow Geese, hundreds of ducks and the usual wetlands suspects: Belted Kingfisher, Marsh Wren and Song Sparrow. Good birds. Driving on to Weiser, we stopped for lunch along the river and were treated to crane music, as a flock of Sandhill Cranes, far overhead, sang and called their way to the north. Not spring birds, precisely, but precursors of spring birds. The world is a better place when you hear cranes calling.
We did some additional birding above Weiser Cove, in the rolling hills between U.S. 95 and the Idaho Batholith. For Idaho, it’s relatively low elevation, topping out at less than 5,000 feet. It was sagebrush steppe until a few decades ago. Now the sagebrush is badly fragmented, with invasive cheatgrass dominating the landscape. A few stretches are farmed but mostly it is grazed land – sometimes it seems like all of Idaho is grazed land – dissected by Crane Creek and its tributaries. In some of the drainages, there are small stands of trees, which quite often have nests in them. For example:
Owls are among the very earliest of North American birds to nest; again, a sign of the coming spring, if not spring itself.
Probably the highlight of the day was finding six Chukar. Chukar are an introduced game bird, native to Europe and Asia. They are pretty difficult to find – ones that have been found have been shot, because game birds – and even harder to photograph. Most of WC’s Chukar photos look like this:
(Remember, that photo was taken with a 500mm lens and a 1.4 teleconverter, effectively a 740mm lens. But while dealing with a camera malfunction when photographing Golden Eagles, WC noticed this bird, hunkered down on the road. The moment WC pointed his camera at it, the bird started to move. But still, a reasonably decent shot:
It was low light under cloudy skies, and the photo is far from perfect. But WC will keep the shot.
Oh, you ask how many Short-eared Owls were seen in the survey?
None. Zero. Again. Still.
But no birds is data, too. At least that’s what WC keeps telling himself. And it was a fine day of birding.