Where eastern Idaho’s bird population celebrates the holiday season

Living the Wild Life

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All photos courtesy Bill Schiess | EastIdahoNews.com

The Short-eared owl perched motionless on a pile of weeds in the early morning light as I drove slowly across the lower Little Lost River Valley just east of Howe. As I turned around, two more shorties flushed, landing near the first one. I studied them while I waited for the light to increase so I could get some good pictures of them.

The two larger ones mostly remained motionless, watching me while the one that appeared to be the pair’s chick, hid behind a tumbleweed occasionally peeking out. When I began taking pictures, a Northern Harrier started harassing them and all took flight.

This was Thursday morning, December 27, the day scheduled by the members of the Snake River Audubon Society to do the Howe Christmas Bird Count. By the time we were to meet at the Howe Community Center at 9:00, I had recorded 19 species of birds.

Six of some of the most dedicated birders in Idaho, Kit Struthers, Carolyn Bishop, Teresa Meachum, Mark Delwiche, Steve Butterworth and Darren Clark, got their assignments to go in the 15-mile diameter circle around Howe.

I asked if any of them had seen anything interesting and if any had seen many Rough-legged hawks. I had been mostly occupied by the owls, a few Snow buntings and looking for Gray-crowned and Black rosy finches.

“We have already seen over 100 roughies, mostly out of our circle,” Butterworth acknowledged. “They are all over the place.”

Since I had not been given an area to bird and had been stealing birds from the Butterworth-Clark area, I took them where I had seen the owls and the rosy finches. One owl was still out in the open but the finches were gone.

I am not a prolific birder. I love to target a specific bird or groups of birds to study and to photograph. I spent most of my mid-morning looking for Golden eagles and falcons but still recording the other birds that I ran into and the Rough-legged Hawks were the most numerous. I was rewarded by finding a couple of eagles fighting over a perch.

By lunch I had found 22 species, among them were five Golden eagles, nine Prairie falcons, 62 Rough-legged hawks, two Ferruginous hawks, a Barn owl, a Great-horned owl and the three Short-ears. About half of them were eating or had harvested a rodent.

The Howe area hosts one of the most impressive raptor winter conventions in the nation which has to be a huge blessing to the farmers working the Little Lost River agriculture lands. Along some fields, almost every power pole had a raptor perched on it and most irrigation circles had multiple rodent-eating machines looking for a snack. With over 600 pairs of eyes looking for a careless rodent, only the truly smart and lucky will survive.

At lunch, Bishop, Struthers and Meachum reported seeing five Virginia rails at a warm spring north of Howe so my afternoon goal was to get pictures of them. What a show – oh, you will have to wait a week for that story.

After a meeting to tally the day’s counts revealed missing Gyrfalcons, but with almost 400 Rough-legged hawks and about 20 Prairie falcons, there is plenty of bird action to see. An early morning drive on the side roads gives you a chance to see owls with the hawks and eagles showing up after it warms up a bit.

As I rounded a bend heading for Mud Lake, my mirror revealed a glowing western sky to add another beautiful sight to the others I had enjoyed for the day.