Birding Big Year 2016

February 8, 2016

Last Day, First Month: A Big Year

Filed under: Birding, Uncategorized — wfkeck @ 2:09 am
1384 Bushtit8

Bushtits dashing in and out of sagebrush

Already I can feel the self-inflicted pressure of underachieving. Today is the last day of the first month of the big year.  Reality inevitably trumps fantasy.  I had dreamed of listing 100 birds by close-of-business, January 31.  I suppose if I were being completely transparent, I actually had the audacity to believe I could list a hundred birds on January 1.  But that’s sort of like those juvenile imaginations of dating a cheerleader, winning the lottery, or climbing Mount Everest.  My list sits at 82.

With a heightened sense of urgency, I give the Sunday morning benediction and dash for Declo.  I hear tell of tales – easy Pintails and Teal just a short drive away.  I still need Gadwall and Bushtit, Creeper and Wood Duck.  All of these are high on my hit list, and cheap targets based on tips I received earlier in the week.  Gone are the days of new birds haphazardly arriving to the visitor center feeders, like the large flock of Brewer’s Blackbirds a week ago, or the swooped-in Goshawk, or the Lesser Goldfinch that yesterday fed alongside its duller cousin American Goldfinch.  I seriously have to go get them now.

Although sunny, the weather outside my jeep is frightfully chilled.  Winds drive the late-morning temperature into the miserable.  At the junction of Hwy 81-new and 81-old, east of Declo and huddled in the warmth of the vehicle, I peer into the frozen wetlands that mark the deserted end of Marsh Creek. This is where Kathy claims to have seen too many Northern Pintail and Green-winged Teal to count.  There are no ducks here now, just a marsh hawk, looking for voles.  He’s hungry, and my list is starving.

Wood Ducks elude me along the sure-fire habitat of Granny’s Pad Road, and even her lagoons are frozen.  I am in need of open water.  I find some north of the I-84 Snake River crossing, but even here only a few crazy Goldeneye and a Common Loon dare to swim.  Perhaps it is the same loon I checked-off last Wednesday on my way to Walcott.  This will not do.  I am due a new bird, somewhere, somehow.  I can feel the minutes ticking by.  I am starting to panic.

And now I am hungry!  I need to pick up bird seed at C-A-L Ranch and check the open waters that separate north and south Burley, so I might as well grab a #3 at McDonalds.  Birds eat better than birders.  With ketchup and grease still moisturizing my lips, I swing into Lex Kunau Park and erect the scope.  A raft of waterfowl is huddled on the frozen bank of Cassia County, a few football fields away. Maybe I can tease out a Gadwall.  Unfortunately it is the mallards that tease. Just as I am about to rush back to the Jeep’s warmth and fragrance of fries, an odd “duck” is swimming with a dozen-plus Canada Geese.  Back out comes the tripod and scope.  Even in the glaring sun distantly down river I can make out a goose of another color.  Partly assisted by the wind-chill, I stare frozen, waiting for this odd goose to turn into the light.  Finally, it reveals a patchy white lore that is almost all that separates a domestic Graylag from a rare winter find – #83 Greater White-fronted Goose!

I give up on Gadwalls and head back to Almo in hopes of a last minute score on Cassin’s Finches or Bushtits. An hour later, I am at the office unloading 40-pound bags of black oil sunflower seeds.  Out the window, I see a pick-up pull-up.  We are closed on winter Sundays, but I am always ready to serve.  Low and behold it is Rob and Cindy from Twin Falls, driving an hour and a half in hopes of listing the Northern Goshawk and Lesser Goldfinch at the feeders. I had posted earlier in the week these arrivals to Facebook.  The odds of seeing the Goshawk today are only slightly better than my future summit of Everest, but the Lesser Goldfinch is quickly “bagged.”

In separate vehicles we caravan to Smoky Mountain Campground.  Rob needs a Juniper Titmouse.  Cindy is in Sunday shoes, and waits in the truck while Rob and I walk the frozen loop.  Snow and ice crunch below our boots, making it difficult to hear even a raven.  We talk of future birding trips, and the respectable showing we both have made in January.  Still, we can’t help but feel a stronger finish is within reach.  We scurry to add one or more before sunset.

Despite the cold, I lower the window and drive slowly out of the campground. My plan is to stop every 50 yards and attempt to call in a titmouse.  Instead I catch the faint chips and twitters of Bushtit.  I jump out, and signal for Rob to cut his engine.  They are here somewhere in the tall sagebrush just north of the road.  Rob can hear them too, and their quick dash here and there focus our attention.  Finally, dangling upside down on a dried sagebrush flower stalk, is #84 Bushtit. High fives and cheers quickly follow.  We are emboldened to get one more.

With Rob and Cindy following, I proceed toward Bath Rock, stopping at the occasional pinyon-juniper woodland to call out for Cassin’s Finches.  The only thing we get is colder.  The sun is slipping behind Mount Mahogany.  At Bath Rock, snow drifts thoroughly obstruct further progress. At 4:30 p.m., we are the only ones in the entire park.  It is here we must make our final stand for January.  A Townsend’s Solitaire takes note atop a naked aspen snag.  He hears my Cassin’s call, and probably muses, “its too early for them.”

Yet the recorded noise is enough to spur a woodpecker to leave one hidden perch for another.  We see its undulating flight, but only for a second at a distance of 50 yards. I immediately think Hairy Woodpecker, partly because I need one, but also because it just seemed bigger than downy.  Rob and I close the gap between the parking lot and the pinyon pine it landed in near campsite 54. The snow is piled high from a dozen December storms, and we posthole our way to a proper distance.  I “dial-up” the call and play it once.  Rob quickly reports that the bird has moved to the very tallest snag.  “It’s a Hairy!” he shouts twice to convince both him and me.  I lock in and confirm to my own satisfaction, the bill length to head width ratio is indeed more than half.  A Downy Woodpecker is less than half and noticeably diminutive. Another round of high-fives are served.

Rob and Cindy descend the long road out of the “City” and back to Twin.  It’s a school night, and teachers need their rest.  I have hopes for one more bird, but 20 minutes later, even I must acquiesce to dusk and bitter cold.  Rob finishes the first month of his big year with 83, I with 85, and Kathy, according to her Facebook post – with 87.  That places me somewhere in the top 25 of Idaho Birders in 2016, based on Ebird checklists thus far submitted.

Here’s the crazy thing, no one is really competing with me, at least not officially. My second place standing among two other birders means nothing. My competitive human nature wars against my joy of nature.  Such internal conflict can only be resolved by the practice of helping other birders find what they have yet to see.  Kathy regularly texts rare and unusual sightings, and Rob also passes on hot tips as he gets them.  Other birding buds continue to invite me to bird their area, and Travis is my inside man for what’s happening at Walcott. Such is the nature of big year birders. We are our own champion and critic.

But then with a hint of deviousness, I begin to plot a secret trip to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge.  I think I can pull ahead this week!




  1. I always think I’m not competitive but when it comes right down to it we all are! Enjoyed the blog!


    Comment by Kathy Lopez — February 9, 2016 @ 3:05 am

  2. Without a doubt, the competitive is hard-wired in you! 🙂 Whether birding or chess, there’s always that little ‘gotcha!’ I’m really enjoying reading each installment of Big Year 2016. And once in awhile, just to be a little-year-wanna-be 😉 I will see a bird that I can point and shoot, think of Wallace and his Big Year, photograph and post on FB. Keep on birding our friend.


    Comment by Linda Z — February 9, 2016 @ 4:40 am

  3. It’s a joy to read your posts/blogs. Today’s reminded me of long ago army and Indian scouts as they traversed the Wild West. Scouting for birds is much more appealing to some of us and your story telling makes your adventures as intriguing as big screen 3D.


    Comment by AGM — February 9, 2016 @ 8:43 pm

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