Birding Big Year 2016

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.

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