Who's Calling? Here's What Some Treasure Valley Birds Look and Sound Like
You don’t need to recognize the birds by their song, like Terry Rich.
You don’t need to wow your friends with a 1-second identification of a fast-moving duck, like Kathy McCoy.
You don’t need $2,000 binoculars or a $1,000 camera.
To become a birder, all you need is an appreciation of nature and to pay attention — with your eyes and your ears.
“You just see so much more when you know what they are,” McCoy said. “It sparks curiosity.”
“And then,” Rich said, “you look for more yet.”
The Treasure Valley has a bustling bird scene with hundreds of species to find, an abundance of parks and wildlife areas to search (not to mention your back yard) and a devoted group of birding enthusiasts who are sharing their passion with schoolkids through several outreach programs.
Heidi Ware of Boise State’s Intermountain Bird Observatory is involved in one of the area’s unique birding experiences: banding birds, including hawks and owls, at the top of Lucky Peak and allowing community members to help release them.
“As a kid, I was really into insects. I switched over to birds,” said Ware, who includes “birdnerd” in her email address. “The reason I like both is they’re everywhere. ... One of my passions is engaging the community in conservation. Birds are the perfect vehicle for that. You can see them in your back yard. It gives you that connection with nature. If you care about birds and protect habitat for them, you kind of protect everything else along with them.”
Boise Parks and Recreation and Idaho Fish and Game have launched projects to accentuate the birding opportunities in the area.
Parks and Rec is about to print a field guide to 99 of the most common birds in Boise. The guide is available online now.
“Birding is super popular,” said Jerry Pugh, community programs coordinator. “The response from people wanting to give input for this guide has been astounding. It’s been kind of a challenge to wade through that stuff.”
Idaho Fish and Game is in the process of updating its Idaho Birding Trail, which was established in 2005. It includes more than 170 bird-rich sites, including 40 in Southwest Idaho, with detailed information on each at IdahoBirdingTrail.org.
“It features pretty much the best birds in Idaho,” said Deniz Aygen, a watchable wildlife biologist with Idaho Fish and Game.
Those programs — as well as the Intermountain Bird Observatory’s hands-on opportunities and the K-12 education program “Bird by Bird” — serve as easy entry points.
And once you’ve tried birding, your eyes and ears will take more notice of your surroundings. You’ll take a closer look at the birds on your daily walk or bike ride and be more mindful of the chorus of bird calls and songs that fills the air right now.
Spring birding season is just beginning in the Treasure Valley with migratory birds arriving. The peak comes in mid-May.
“May through early June is the best,” said Rich, who gives a talk about birds once a month at the Foothills Learning Center. “Everything is singing. The males are displaying.”
Rich has seen 3,058 bird species. He has traveled to the Amazon for birding and is going to Ethiopia this year.
He became interested in birds as a child, studied wildlife ecology and zoology in college and spent his career with the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before retiring.
“My dad was more into flowers than birds,” Rich said. “We’d go out hiking and exploring. I started looking more at the birds than the flowers.”
McCoy also began at a young age with a bird book and pair of binoculars readily available at home. Now she leads a Wednesday morning group outing year-round.
“I just enjoy the excuse to go out and enjoy nature and look at what’s out there,” she said. “And it’s so easy.”
For the intense birders, motivation could come from competition, the scientific pursuit or the will to get “really, really good at what you do,” Rich said.
For him, the appeal hasn’t changed much from when he was a kid.
“It’s the discovery and exploration,” he said. “It’s the treasure hunt.”
Want to try birding?
Foothills Learning Center: Terry Rich holds a talk/walk on the first Wednesday of the month at the Foothills Learning Center (north end of 8th Street in Boise). Next event is at 9 a.m. April 6. See schedule at bee.cityofboise.org.
Golden Eagle Audubon Society: Kathy McCoy leads a group on Wednesdays (meet at 8 a.m. at Janjou Patisserie, 1754 W. State St. in Boise, carpool to sites). Check the schedule on the Golden Eagle Aububon website, which includes information on weekend trips, too.
Family Birding Walk: Golden Eagle Audubon educates children with its monthly event. The next walk is at 9 a.m. Sunday at Hyatt Hidden Lakes Reserve, 5301 N. Maple Grove Road in Boise. Binoculars and field guides are available. Check the schedule on the Golden Eagle Audubon website.
Snow geese near Parma: The Fort Boise Wildlife Management Area attracts thousands of snow and greater white-fronted geese for about a month every spring. The peak viewing time is mid-March through mid-April. Info: IdahoBirdingTrail.org. A birder field trip is scheduled for March 19. More info in the Golden Eagle Audubon calendar.
Catch and release on Lucky Peak: Boise State’s Intermountain Bird Observatory bands hummingbirds in Idaho City during the spring and summer, and songbirds, hawks, eagles and owls on top of Lucky Peak from mid-July through October. “If you come and visit, we’ll stick a little bird in your hand and you’ll get to hold it before they fly off into the wild,” said Heidi Ware, the education and outreach director for the observatory. Info: Facebook.com/IBOBoiseState and ibo.boisestate.edu/visit.
Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area (south of Kuna): The nearest Idaho Birding Trail blue-ribbon site to Boise features a variety of birds but is known for its raptors (eagles, hawks, falcons, others). “It’s a phenomenal sight to be down in that area and hear the calls of various raptors and see them nesting,” said Deniz Aygen, a watchable wildlife biologist for Idaho Fish and Game. “Courtship is starting now. ... People come from all around the world just to visit the canyon, yet many people in the Treasure Valley don’t even know it’s there.” Info: IdahoBirdingTrail.org.
Places to explore
Places in the Boise area with strong bird-watching possibilities include Hulls Gulch Reserve (north end of 8th Street); Hyatt Hidden Lakes Reserve (near Chinden and Maple Grove); the Boise River parks, particularly Kathryn Albertson, Marianne Williams and Barber; the Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge near Lake Lowell; and Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area.
Field Guide to Boise’s Birds: Boise Parks and Rec has assembled a handy guide to 99 of the most common birds in Boise. The guide is available as a PDF online (parks.cityofboise.org, then search “birds”) but a 3.5-inch-by-5-inch printed version should be offered for sale in the next month. Nearly all of the photos were taken in Boise and donated for the project. Four birds have been elusive: the hairy woodpecker, bank swallow, cliff swallow and northern rough-winged swallow. If you get a shot of one of them within the city, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
GoldenEagleAudubon.org: Southwest Idaho’s chapter of the National Audubon Society has a website full of info, including a calendar of events and species checklists for Southwest Idaho and the entire state.
IdahoBirdingTrail.org: Examine the trail by region or species. There are 40 sites in Southwest Idaho. The Idaho Birding Trail Guidebook is $5 at Fish and Game.
Facebook.com/SWIdahoBirders: A local group of birding enthusiasts who take field trips.
Idaho Birding on Facebook: Search for “Idaho Birding.” The group shares bird photos.
AllAboutBirds.org: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology offers a searchable database that provides descriptions, photos, videos, audio recordings, identification tips and other info.
eBird.org: The website collects observations of birders worldwide, creating a massive database that serves as a scouting report for excursions.
ABA.org: The American Birding Association is an international group of birders.
NWF.org: Make your yard welcoming to birds and other wildlife through the National Wildlife Federation.
Birds you might see in the Treasure Valley
Nearly 300 species of birds are on the Southwest Idaho checklist produced by the Golden Eagle Audubon Society. Here are some notable ones:
Bald eagle: Pairs have been spotted along the Greenbelt just east of the Ram and at the Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge near Lake Lowell.
Yellow-breasted chat: “The yellow-breasted chat offers a cascade of song in the spring, when males deliver streams of whistles, cackles, chuckles and gurgles with the fluidity of improvisational jazz,” according to AllAboutBirds.org. “It’s seldom seen or heard during the rest of the year.”
Common merganser: The males have green heads like mallards while the females are redheads. They’ve been spotted recently in the Boise River near Barber Park. “They generally look like a mallard but they’re way cooler than a mallard,” birder Terry Rich said. “You’ll see 500 mallards for every one of these.”
Gray catbird: They hide in dense shrubs, which makes them difficult to see. They also mimic the sounds of other birds. “You’ve got to know what to listen for or you’ll never see them,” Rich said.
Great horned owl: A pair nest in the hillside along the road near the Foothills Learning Center. They have been hanging out during the day in the evergreens outside the Learning Center. The owlets (babies) will start showing themselves in April or May.
Mourning dove: Don’t let the hoots fool you. “Everybody thinks a mourning dove is an owl,” Rich said. “The owl is much louder and makes more of a ‘hoo, hoo.’ It’s more abrupt. The mourning dove tapers in and tapers out, and it’s softer.”