Birding Big Year 2016

January 24, 2016

West of Eden – A Birder’s Path to Paradise

Filed under: Birding, Uncategorized — wfkeck @ 11:27 pm

Winter Birding for Red-breasted Nuthatches

The blitz is over; my birding buddies are gone; the vast majority of local winter birds have been listed; and now begins the arduous task of hunting the stragglers one by one.  I have my hit list.  I review it each morning and fantasize that today is the day to log a Cassin’s Finch, Bushtit, or Kinglet (Ruby or Golden – I’ll take either).  They come slowly.  First a Western Scrub-Jay appears at the home feeder – tick #65 on January 3…too easy.  A few days later, while hunting titmice off a snowy road in the Reserve, I hear what the Audubon App calls a guttural kraaaa.  Ahhhh, #66, Clark’s Nutcracker! And so it goes, day by day, habitat by habitat, I methodically “work the problem” of finding hidden species.

There is a risk, being so transparent with my findings.  The longer I am out of touch with my birding friends, the more suspicious I become of their malicious sandbagging, that is to report fewer birds for their year list, when in fact they are likely soaring past me in the count.  I’ve got to keep the edge. My employees sense the agitation, restlessness, single-minded obsession.  Right or wrong, I have assigned one of my temporary employees the collateral duty of looking out the visitor center window for any bird with red crown-feathers….hoping for a Cassin’s.  He is to buzz me immediately should that hue appear at the west-side feeders.  It doesn’t appear; he doesn’t buzz.

Furthermore, my employees instinctively know that a good evaluation hinges on this critical performance: if a visitor walks in and happens to mention the word bird, birder, birding, bird checklist, or the actual name of a bird, they are to press the red button behind the counter that immediately alerts me of the emergency.  Before the unsuspecting visitor can inhale, I am down a flight of stairs, front and center and asking, “So!  You a birder?”  Just such an incident occurred on Thursday, January 7.

Not a single visitor entered the City of Rocks Visitor Center that day, until just minutes before closing.  In walks Russell, a senior citizen, traveling alone across the country. He waits a few seconds patiently while I chat with Josh, a seasonal ranger who is in the final minutes of his term of service here.  Josh had asked me about which bird field guide he should buy.  When it comes to birds, my advice tends to be ridiculously thorough.

Our attention turns to Russell who is browsing the brochure rack.  “How can we help?”  As if entertaining angels unaware, I quickly discover that Russell is a birder and has traveled down our 50-mile, icy, dead-end road for two purposes: to get his National Parks passport stamped….and to look for a few life birds.  We talk well-past closing, and I give him some insider info on birding locales.  Russell is the perfect gentleman, he listens to me pontificate about where to find the good birds as if I were the resident expert, and he a novice birder looking for a mentor.  Something inside me decides to ask the all-important question, “what’s your life list these days?”  Russell sheepishly admits a number north of 600.  All the wind under my primaries are knocked out.  I am in the presence of greatness.

I happen to mention to Russell that I am headed east for birding tomorrow.  Russell is as well.  I reveal my need for Sharp-tailed Grouse, and he confesses that’s a lifer for him too.  I share with him a number of hotspots between City of Rocks and his Friday evening destination – Fossil Butte National Monument.  “Maybe I’ll see you at one of those places,” I say with honest enthusiasm.

Friday, January 8, I tuck the hit list into my Sibley’s Field Guide and slip off toward a secret canyon I recently read about on Facebook.  My birding expedition takes me the long way via the Narrows Road and across the vast Raft River Valley. North 81 out of Malta, I take Yale Road to a Chukar hotspot near an LDS Ward, but only Gray Partridge and Ring-necked Pheasants will play the game.  On to Lane’s Gulch and out to the Snake at Coldwater.  Nothing new, and no Bald Eagles along the Osborne Loop.

I had hoped to bird the American Falls dam before lunch, but when the stomach growls, not even a lifer can compete.  I push on to Pocatello and the only real sandwich in town – a Schlotzsky’s Original on sourdough.  With a mouth soured from salt and vinegar chips that even Dr. Pepper can’t cut, I return west I-86 for the purpose of this trip – Michaud Creek Road and Sharp-tails.

What are the odds?  Russell is parked just off the road in the last wide spot before entering the Michaud Creek drainage.  I pull up alongside, invite him to leave the RV parked, and join me for a jeep tour up the canyon.  Two sets of eyes are better than one, and he gladly accepts.  Our strategy plays out, I concentrate on the icy canyon drive, while Russell scours the willows.  Our first pass yields no birds, except a large flock of Wild Turkey grazing fallen seed from a resident feeder.  The drive back down….nothing.  We turn around and repeat.  Ebird and Facebook both list this as the Sharp-tail Grouse hotspot.  On the second trip up the creek, we periodically park and take a more aggressive approach known as the serendipitous flush.  The birds won’t reveal, and doubtful a birddog could do better. Fortunately the canyon offers us a parting gift – 30+ Redpolls anxious to be photographed.

Russell and I part ways, but not before promising to stay in touch for a potential meet in Texas this spring.  It seems both of us have plans to bird the Edwards Plateau when the Golden-cheeked Warblers and Black-capped Vireos return.  I fully expect to drive over 2,ooo miles and find Russell holding a pair of binoculars on a warbler as I pull into the Kerr Wildlife Management Area.  The day ends with Hooded Mergansers below the American Falls Dam, and one lonely American White Pelican below Lake Walcott.

Sunday, January 17, I wrap up the sermon, usher the Albion congregation out the door and race up Mount Harrison for Red-breasted Nuthatches, Brown Creepers, and Red Crossbills.  Only the nuthatch is faithful.  The following day “I have a dream” that American Tree Sparrows are waiting east of Almo.  I celebrate MLK along the Narrows Road with #76 Harris’s Sparrow.  January 20, a half day in Hagerman yields nothing new, but a return to the Twin Falls area the following day proves unforgettable.

Genesis records that after the fall of man, the Lord God drove Adam out of the garden, east of Eden.  He placed a cherubim and a flaming sword to guard the way to the tree of life.  Paradise lost.  As if guided by the Spirit, I find myself exiting I-84 to bird the backroads of Hazelton and Eden.  Tonight I speak to the Loasa Chapter of the Native Plant Society, but this afternoon, I am hunting Merlin, my nemesis bird.  Indeed, east of Eden the tree of life is bare.  Hazelton is unproductive.  From there, Hwy 25 proceeds west to Eden. Kestrels perch on power lines like imps of confusion, masquerading as angels of light.  And then suddenly, west of Eden, I find the secret portal to paradise. A slightly larger falcon dives from a pole and flies toward the setting sun.  Size can be deceiving, but there is something about this bird that differs.  I pull over and watch him fly for a quarter mile into an ancient grove.  Minutes later, I am parked below the tree of life, watching with amazement as #77  Merlin – my third sighting ever – rocks back and forth in the winter wind. A birder’s paradise found….west of Eden.

Winter continues undeterred, and the path of life for a snow birder is one of perseverance and hope. The first birds of spring are still three weeks away.

January 15, 2016

If Jim Sage was a Birder

Filed under: Birding, Uncategorized — wfkeck @ 6:00 pm

The Jim Sage Mountains under a Birder’s Sky

One of the benefits of living in a state with over a hundred mountains is that some go almost completely unnoticed, unvisited, and unappreciated.  I prefer my mountains to be forgotten by the world, completely neglected, and unexplored.  There are three mountain ranges easily within view of my office in downtown Almo (an unincorporated village of about 120 souls spread out over 120 square miles).  All three to some degree meet my criteria.


The Albion Range to my left (west) rises 10,339-feet and boasts Cache Peak as the highest mountain in Idaho south of the Snake River.  But with so many mountains in the state higher than 10,000 feet, that distinction fails to impress.  The Albions are nowhere near as dramatic as the Sawtooths, or as well known as the Boulders, White Clouds, Salmon River Mountains, or Lost River Range, the latter of which contains Idaho’s highpoint, Mount Borah, at 12,668.  But the Albions do attract hundreds of thousands of visitors annually to the City of Rocks on the south end, and to Mount Harrison on the north end with its Pomerelle ski slopes and the scenic cirque (du soleil) called Lake Cleveland.

To the south of my office, stands the Raft River Mountains – a range as secret as the polygamous families that once lived in its winter shadow.  The Raft Rivers run east and west as only a handful of ranges do, such as the Unitas in Utah and the Ouachitas in Arkansas.  Like Cache Peak to the north, the Raft River Range was named by fur trappers. I have only summited this range once in the nearly 18 years that I have gazed upon it.

It is the range to the east that strangely draws my heart – Jim Sage.  Unlike most mountain ranges, the Jim Sage are not overlaid with a National Forest or even a wilderness designation.  Most of the range is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and there are no developed recreation areas or even advertised access points. I am still discovering routes to its secret precipices.  According to Almo historian Janice, Jim Sage was a bachelor who lived near the mouth of the canyon also called by his name.  The 1880 census records him as being 50 years old and originally from Arkansas, my adopted home state.  Janice also informs me that near the end of his life, he lived at the base of Castle Rock.  A small headstone in Sunny Cedar Rest marks the final resting place of old Jim.

I first attempted a solo traverse of the 12-mile Jim Sage crest on April 12, 1996.  My eagerness was rebuffed by a late season winter storm.  After a frigid night, huddled alone on the massif and waking to fresh snow over my tent, I bailed off the mountain early the next morning and hitch-hiked back to Almo.  My second ascent occurred on May 16-17, 1997.  Thanks to the synergy of hiking comrade Dale, we succeeded in traversing the crest in two easy days.  The third and most recent attempt (May 26, 2012) included hiking companions Trace, Alice, and Joyce – all seasoned mountaineers.  Unfortunately, a freak storm moved in and buried us all day in heavy rains and impenetrable fog.  After wandering around in cloudy circles, lost in the steep west-facing canyons, we admitted defeat.

Most of my forays into the Jim Sage these days have been up the southern-facing Jim Sage Canyon, not to summit, but to seek out the mountain’s birds. And there be good birds! Black-throated Gray Warblers, Gray Flycatchers, Plumbeous Vireos, Western Scrub-Jays, Bushtits, Ash-throated Flycatchers, Rock Wrens, nesting Ferruginous Hawks, Golden Eagles, and many more.  I visit the canyon often in summer, hoping to find another location in Idaho for the geographically restricted Scott’s Oriole.  This bird invades Idaho for a few summer months each year to breed in the cedar hills west of Stone.

Today, January 2, 2016, the Jim Sage Mountains are the central hub of yet another Christmas Bird Count and another full day of birding.  Its 6:55 a.m., minus nine degrees, and very dark, and yet three vehicles are already in the visitor center parking lot, waiting for me to unlock the building and get the bird count organized.  By 7:15 a.m. all parties are assembled: Kathy, Sharon, and Rich from the Trapper Creek count earlier in the week have joined me, as well as Rob and Cindy who birded with my yesterday in Hagerman.  Melody, who we ran into yesterday while giving her car a jump in Hagerman, is also here.  Dick from the Boise area, who birded with me on last year’s count, is offering his vehicle for the carpool, and two retired fellows from the Twin Falls area also volunteer to drive.  Ten birders, three vehicles, two scopes and binoculars all around, we head out to look for the Short-eared Owls I encountered yesterday.  I hop in the vehicle with Bob and John – admittedly, two amateurs who read about the count in the Times-News, and decided it is never too late to learn the birds.

We strike out on the owls, and patrol the Narrows Road up and back for the first birds at first light.  The darkness and lack of birds allows Bob and I to get to know each other.  His friend John sits quietly in the back.  Like Joseph yesterday, Bob drills me with great questions about birding in general, and identification techniques for the hard groups of birds – like sparrows, or buteos.  When talk turns to weather, a conversation is likely to die a quick death; but when bird surveys and science are the topic, you can bet things will get animated.  Before I know it, Bob is sneaking in questions about global warming and Tea Party politics.  He admits that Ted Cruz is way too liberal for him, and I am left wondering where the conversation could possibly go from here.  Fortunately, it is all good natured, and I remain in their good graces once they realize I am a state employee and not federal.  Birds transcend politics, religion, and even weather.

Talk returns to birds, as well it should – we have magpies and ravens to count!  The vehicles take turns leading the other two, and periodically, we all stop and exit the vehicle to bird the brush or to scope a perching bird a quarter-mile away.  Our scoping techniques yield kingfisher, bald eagle, and a handful of mallards on an unfrozen hole in the Raft River ice.

Heading east on the Narrow’s Road, we agree to a new strategy.  Six of us walk ahead along the road, and the vehicles follow about 30 yards behind.  Brilliant idea Wallace….I breath to myself.  Quickly we flush a Spotted Towhee, and then three more.  Towhee’s are thick in these parts from Spring to Fall, but very few overwinter here.  The big lens comes out, and I click off a few close-ups of Big Year Bird #58. Down the road another mile, we repeat the process below the volcanic cliffs. We hope to see Barn Owls here, but after checking the usual alcoves, none appear.

“Check again,” Kathy calmly chides.  There’s a Barn owl in there.  “No,” I reply.  “I checked several times.  You are confusing the white-wash from last year’s nest as this year’s bird.”  Kathy, steady as a golden eagle on her nest, repeats, “check again, that’s an owl.”  I launch into a series of “I’ll eat my hat if,” or “I’ll buy lunch if that’s an owl.”  Rob takes a side and ups the ante.  “That’s not only a bird, that’s two!”  Out comes the scope and Melody gives steady aim.  Seconds later I am eating crow and choking down bits of hat.  On the plus side, I get to add Big Year Bird #59.

A quarter mile down the road, we give chase to #60 Prairie Falcon, and then scour the reeds and brambles of the Stanrod Road crossing of the Raft River to find #61 Black-capped Chickadee.  Three miles later we run into the largest flock of the day, an estimated 700 Red-winged Blackbirds (#61).  Just beyond, we stopped to scope out a pond fed by thermal springs.  Every year it produces 2-3 species of waterfowl.  Just before the tripods are set, I perform a quick scan of a pool near the pond that appears to contain one American (aka Skinny) Dipper splashing in the rising steam. “Uh, put your scopes away.  Nothing to see here folks.”  This is just the kind of incident that gives birders a bad name.  Fortunately, just outside of Malta, we find all the ducks and geese we want – in fact too many to count.

For the past few years, our birding teams would plan a 30-minute break at the Cattleman’s Restaurant for hot cocoa, pie, and compiling.  This year we find it closed and relocate to Bake Central for turkey sandwiches (since domestic birds don’t count on the survey).  Kathy, Sharon, Melody and I go over the numbers.  As usual mine are too conservative.  Apparently we’ve seen a lot more magpies and ravens than I have recorded.

The second half of the day is always shorter than the first, according to my fuzzy math.  We hit a few more trusty birding hotspots, before the journey takes us south again around the west side of Jim Sage.  Before leaving the wide valley of Malta, we add one Ferruginous Hawk and yet another Prairie Flacon.  Conner Junction gives us the gift of 14 Pinyon Jays, and the Elba Cemetery produces an explosion of half-buried Gray Partridge. By 4 p.m. we are back to the visitor center and posing for a group photo.

My eyes are shot from eight hours of squinting into glass, but I am able to tally 39 species for the day, seven new birds for the Big Year, and a total body count of 1,986.  All we really did was circumnavigate the mountain in vehicles.  I can’t help but wonder at all the species we might have seen up the mountain on foot.  If Jim Sage was a birder, he would have stepped out of his 1880 cabin on a cold winter day and flush a Greater Sage Grouse.  Ole Jim would have enjoyed a Juniper Titmouse disrupting the silence with his incessant picking at an old pine nut. He would have savored a pair of noisy scrub-jays hurrying up the canyon for no particular reason.  If Jim Sage was a birder, he’d likely ask me kindly to put down my pen, stop for a minute and just be in the moment.  Jim Sage would never win a Big Year…if he was a birder.

January 10, 2016

Binge Birding (Part 2) – The Big Year begins with a Big Day

Filed under: Uncategorized — wfkeck @ 9:48 pm
0198 - Barrow's Goldeneye1

Barrow’s Goldeneye

It all comes down to this. After months of talking a good game, scheming, and dreaming, the Big Year is here.  Every birder knows, A Big Year begins with a Big Day.  I have to set the pace and let everyone know that I am serious, especially myself.  I will list 300 species of birds this year, and at least 50 of those will be this day, January 1, 2016.

4:00 a.m.  The Champaign bubbles are playing racquetball in my head.  What was I thinking?  For the past few years, I have gone to bed long before the giant potato dropped in Boise; but somehow Susan talked me into staying up past midnight.  I ease into the morning, make coffee, check Facebook, slurp down a bowl of Corn Chex, then stumble into the shower for a proper wake-up.

5:55 a.m., the Jeep is loaded, extra snacks are packed.  Susan gives me that “Go get ’em” look.  It’s time.  Somewhere under these four layers of clothing is a sweating, courageous heart ready to face the dark, the minus seven degrees, 300 miles of driving, and 12 hours of binge birding.

6:00 a.m. Bird up! Great Horned Owl.  Check! I am off and running.  (Note to the non-birder: No, I do not have to see the bird to count it if I can properly identify it by call or song and have seen the bird at least once in my life.  No, I do not have to photograph the bird to prove I saw it.  Yes, the Big Year is a competition that relies completely on the honor system.  Since I am competing against myself, there would be no point in getting up at 4:00 a.m. just to cheat).

7:20 a.m., driving around the Almo Valley in the frigid dark for 80 minutes would have been miserable if not for the frequent Facebook notifications from friends, wishing me Godspeed.  At this speed, I’ll be lucky to list nine birds.  But then there is movement in the Darn (my invented term for that period between Dark and Dawn where you can see just enough to be frustrated that you can’t see a darn thing).  There is something perched on a fence post 15 yards from me.  I roll down the window, cut the engine and wait for another 5% sunrise.

The bird on the post is hawk-size, so I patiently expect to be listing a Red-tailed or Rough-legged Hawk within minutes.  Just beyond the perched bird are two similar-sized avians airborne in moth-like flight.  I decide to test a theory and cue up the Audubon call on my cell phone app for Short-eared Owl.  Bingo! The birds in flight turn and rush right toward me.  Yikes!  Right toward me!  The first flies within inches of my jeep window, veering off at the last second.  The blood is pumping now, and the dawn is breaking.

Over the next hour, all the usual suspects make the list – raven, magpie, harrier, those previously mentioned buteos, a starling, and a robin.  Before leaving the valley for the unfrozen pastures and open water of the Snake River Plain, I list 22 species, including Northern Shrike, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and White-breasted Nuthatch.  Its time to bird my way through Elba, Albion, and Declo to pick up Joseph, a Burley High School senior whom I have agreed to mentor into the addiction.

Joseph and I met during the City of Rocks Big Day Birding Blitz last June. Even then Joseph was discipling his own flock of would-be birders.  For his senior project, he is planning to teach a birding class this spring.  His life list is already significantly past the century mark, a feat I did not reach until after college.  I am afraid the only thing I might teach him is that this is what your brain looks like on birds – after a 30-year binge that is.  Perhaps I can scare him straight, and to reconsider a milder form of the vice such as bird “watching.”

The drive through town is productive, finally listing House Sparrow, Great-tailed Grackle, and American Crow.  We drive out to Lake Walcott and quickly add another ten birds, including a Barrow’s Goldeneye, a duck that is far less common than the aptly-named Common Goldeneye.  I shout to Joseph, “Did you see that Barrow’s?  “No, just the Common,” he says.  I saw the key field marks.  I am going back to attempt a photo.  Joseph gives it another look as well and agrees.

There is no time to look for song birds in the large hardwood trees that make Lake Walcott State Park an oasis in the desert.  We’re headed to Hagerman for the motherlode.  Hagerman is the ultimate winter birding destination in southern Idaho.  The mostly unfrozen waters of the mid-Snake are a waterfowl magnet, and waterfowl attract Bald Eagles.  Joseph makes good use of the 45-minute interstate drive by peppering me with questions about birding, identification techniques, and a dozen others that I never thought to ask at his age.

Before Hagerman, I must stop in Twin to pick up two other birders – Rob and Cindy, who are also doing a Big Year.  In fact, this is Rob’s third Big Year (at least), and he has come up through the ranks of birding faster than anyone else I know.  Rob is resolute, well-traveled, and well-funded; therefore, he is dangerous competition.  The bug has also bitten his wife, and now the two make quite the dynamic duo.  In birding, it is important to keep your friends close, and your competitors even closer.

By 3 p.m. we reach the Hagerman stretch of the Snake, and begin listing birds so fast that the ink lags behind the stroke. Coot, Bufflehead, three species of Grebe, and ducks galore.  A California Quail calls from the scrub a hundred yards behind us, and Tundra Swans cruise the Bell Rapids impoundment.  Ruddy, Ring-necked, and Redhead….Canvasback, Cormorant, and Common Goldeneye…. Within the hour we have easily added 18 birds.  Four sharp birders can make short work of the task.

As the sunrays hit us sideways and the temperature takes a dive, we proceed to the final stop, the famous Eagle Tree of Hagerman (although technically, the locally popular eagle roost is only slightly closer to Hagerman than Buhl).  Neither Joseph nor Cindy have seen the roosting tree that can sometimes hold over 50 Bald Eagles.  Rob and I talk up the locale for several miles, but the high praise is unwarranted tonight.  Only a handful of eagles are seen.  Near Box Spring Canyon, Rob, who is half buried in the backseat of the Jeep, hollers “Pheasant!” All three of my companions see it, but my eyes are fixed on the distant road ahead.  Quickly, I turn the jeep around and watch the pheasant run across the road – Bird #56!

The lack of food (or perhaps I should be more clear – the lack of healthy food) is calling in the chips on my stamina.  It’s getting “Duck” (that period between Dusk and Dark where you can see just enough to be frustrated that you can’t see much). My functionality is quickly waning, and I still have a two-hour drive home.  A pair of Mourning Doves cling to the frozen power line alongside one of Jerome County’s magnificent dairies.  That does it, Bird #57, I am calling that the last bird of a respectable Big Day.

The shuttle stops in Twin and Burley.  My birding buds and I will be at it again in less than 13 hours.  The Jim Sage Mountain Christmas Bird Count starts at 7 a.m. in Almo, and they have agreed to help with the census. Somewhere on the drive south of Burley, my salty fingers fumble with extra large fries and cell phone.  “Hey Susan, I’m headed home…..I couldn’t possibly list another bird…..I’m stuffed.” “Take your time,” she says. “I’m still watching season 4 of Downton Abbey on Amazon Prime.”  Apparently we all have our secret little binges, but I’m not one to judge.


January 7, 2016

Binge Birding (Part 1) – The Trapper Creek Christmas Bird Count

Filed under: Birding — wfkeck @ 10:57 pm

Common Redpoll – Bird of Redemption

Fourth watch of the night, December 28, I have awakened without alarm, and begin final preparations for what can only be described as a full day of binge birding.  The Oxford Dictionary defines a binge as a short period devoted to indulging in an activity to excess, especially drinking alcohol or eating.  But there will be very little food involved, and absolutely no alcohol.  A birder must preserve all faculties to survive the binge.

I am headed out for the Trapper Creek Christmas Bird Count, a scientific endeavor to document all birds within a 7.5-mile radius, centered over the hinterlands south of Oakley.  A Christmas Bird Count, or CBC for short, is a census conducted annually to determine the presence and trending population of birds across North America.  The first non-consumptive count was established on Christmas Day 1900 to phase out the competition of shooting the most birds on Christmas.  Yes, those were dark days in the birding world, and we’re not proud of it.

The Trapper Creek count requires teams of birders to travel assigned routes and count everything that flies, roosts, chirps, squawks or caws.  It’s too early for singing.  Birders assemble at Searle’s Gas Grub & Goodies at 7:00 a.m. – but I have been here since six.  Binge Birders can’t wait to indulge.  By 7:30 a.m., it is obvious that two birders are a no-show.  Perhaps it is the 16-degree weather.  Now four of us will have to cover the 140 miles of roads within the 113,094 acres that is the Trapper Creek Survey.

Kathy’s in charge, and hands out the assignments.  Rich and Sharon who have traveled from Jerome, head off toward the west side of the Goose Creek Reservoir along the Trapper Creek Road.  I leave the jeep and take on the role as co-pilot and compiler in Kathy’s truck. Long before birds can cast their shadows we are rolling down the Goose Creek Road, squinting for that first bird.  I call out “Raven!” Kathy stops the truck, takes a quick look and counters, “uh, I don’t think so.”  Only five minutes into the 10-hour binge and I have made a rookie mistake.  Sheepishly I mark down Red-tailed Hawk and look for the next bird – something to redeem my reputation.

Twenty minutes later, redemption comes along the steep canyon descent.  LGB’s are flitting on the snowbank, so we slide to a halt and jump out for a better assessment.  Junco. Junco. Junco.  Wait!  There it is, my bird of forgiveness – a Common Redpoll.  Don’t let the name fool you.  These Redpolls are not so common this far south in Idaho.  I frantically grab the zoom lens and give chase.  This could be the photo of the day.

The morning wears on; the crackers and Dr. Pepper come out.  The good birds appear, but well-spaced between the Magpies and Ravens.  “Did you count that Magpie?” Kathy asks.  “I think so, but they are all starting to blend together.”  Kathy turns the truck down a steep, snow-choked side road and I begin to panic.  #1 because I am not driving, and #2 did I mention I’m not driving?  She knows her truck and what it will do, but all the while I am thinking – no cell coverage, passing vehicles come about every 30 minutes, and it’s a long hike out of here if she drops a tire off the edge.  The road is nearly imperceptible.  “Scrub Jays!”  Never mind, take the road.  There are good birds down here.

A half mile further, Kathy finally yields to my whining, parks the truck a quarter-mile short of her intended destination.  We agree to split up.  She hikes down to the cliffs to check-off a Canyon Wren.  I saunter back up the road and study a much smaller cliff, but also bag a good bird – Chukar.  Twenty-five minutes later we head back out of the canyon with five new species on the day.  As the truck regains the main road, I breathe easy, and choke down a honey bun.

By mid-afternoon we have worked our way back toward Oakley and a rendezvous with Sharon and Rich.  We exchange our findings and swap brief stories of the good birds and the ones that got away without a proper id. Sharon restocks our food supply with baggies of dried fruit and chocolate-covered cherries.  Then it’s off again to the graveled routes and canal roads of west Oakley.  This is House Sparrow country, although they barely outnumber the Ravens and Magpies.

By 3:30 p.m., we arrive at the lower end of Little Cottonwood Canyon and park the truck for a little foot patrol.  This diminutive canyon, which is not much more than a wet ravine in an otherwise sea of sagebrush, is productive: Mountain Chickadee, Bushtit, and one Great Horned owl that flies up and down the canyon until I am convinced of his identification.  Kathy was assured from the start.  Golden Eagles are perching every quarter-mile it seems on the taller sagebrush and junipers.

As the last of Monday’s light slips over the South Hills, we peruse the urban streets of Oakley, hoping for a birdfeeder well stocked by a bird “watcher.”  We make a quick stop at my parked jeep, and I decide to unload most of my gear.  The front seat of the truck has been cramped with backpack, scope, camera, tripod and extra clothing. With less than 30 minutes of birding, I just want to be comfortable.

Five minutes later, Kathy makes a slow turn down one block at the edge of town.  Immediately out the passenger window I find myself at eye-level with a bird perched atop a fencepost not more than 12 feet away.  I can hardly believe what I am seeing, and yet I know it immediately.  After binging on birds for almost 10 hours, I come fully alert.  “Merlin!”  Birders speak of their nemesis bird with affection. The Merlin is my white whale. This medium-sized falcon has eluded me since October 3, 1993, where I observed one for a few fleeting seconds in an abandoned field, Lee Creek Valley, Arkansas.

Where is my camera?!!  I have the perfect shot!  I can already envision my 400 mm Canon zoom lens capturing with sharpness and clarity his head in full-frame.  Sadly, I have traded the photo of a lifetime for legroom. The moment is surreal.  Kathy quietly snaps a few shots from her camera.  I slump back into the seat trying to camouflage my self-condemnation.  The truck slowly pulls away.  Grayness sets in.  The sky can no longer hold back the snow.

In the silence, I realize this was the best and worst moment of the day.  I have birded to the max. I am exhausted.  I feel guilty and bloated.  I think to myself as I stuff one last chocolate-covered cherry down my throat, I just want to go home.  140 miles of snow-covered roads, 40 species in the dead of winter, 2,117 birds…my first binge is over.  By week’s end, I’ll be right back at it.  The start of the Big Year is quickly approaching.

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