Birding Big Year 2016

January 24, 2016

West of Eden – A Birder’s Path to Paradise

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

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