Skip to navigation, or go to main content.

WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Idaho: Cassia Crossbill and Southern Idaho

2022 Narrative

IN BRIEF: The highlight of our southern Idaho tour was highlighted by Cassia Crossbill in the South Hills. We obtained recordings of their calls which were confirmed by Austin Young. During the tour we recorded nine species of woodpeckers including Lewis’s, White-headed and a single American Three-toed. Shorebirds were numerous and included a scarce (for Idaho) juvenile Stilt Sandpiper and an adult Pectoral Sandpiper. Other highlights included Gray Partridge, Chukars (flock of 20 at one spot), Ferruginous Hawk, Long-eared Owls and plenty of Sage Thrashers along with several Sagebrush Sparrows. Franklin’s Gulls were locally abundant. A long-staying adult Neotropic Cormorant along the Snake River in Twin Falls was most unexpected. We tallied 154 species.

IN DETAIL: Our tour began with a drive to Idaho City along the Boise River, then along Moores Creek. We noted a few Ospreys as well as two Wild Turkeys (introduced). We visited feeders at a local’s home. Her yard was full of birds. We were greeted by two Evening Grosbeaks, our only ones of the trip. She was most gracious and birded with us around her yard. There were lots of hummingbirds visiting her feeders, notably Rufous, Black-chinned (the most numerous species) and Calliope. Cassin’s Finch was the most numerous passerine but there were also Pine Siskins and Lesser Goldfinches. The abundance of birds also attracted a Cooper’s Hawk. We were particularly keen on woodpeckers that were visiting her suet feeders. These included a Hairy, but more importantly two White-headed Woodpeckers, a scarce and local species in Idaho, here at the eastern limit of its range. Two White-breasted Nuthatches were of the subspecies tenuissima of the “interior West” subspecies group, very likely a separate species from the eastern and Pacific groups of subspecies.

Later in the morning we headed gradually north and east noting a few species, notably Black-headed Grosbeaks and Western Tanagers. We stopped north of Stanley to admire Pronghorn and family groups of Sandhill Cranes. At a nearby burn we saw two Downy Woodpeckers, but more importantly we had excellent views of a drumming female American Three-towed Woodpecker (subspecies fasciatus). This is the first time we have recorded this uncommon species on the tour. It is worth noting that at the very same burn a year ago we had a single Black-backed Woodpecker. These two related species in the genus Picoides are both attracted to burns, particularly Black-backed Woodpecker.  Here we heard a Townsend’s Solitaire. That evening, after checking into our hotel in Stanley, we had a delicious dinner at the Sawtooth Hotel.

The next morning after a yummy breakfast at the Stanley Baking Company, we drove north towards Lake Stanley, stopping briefly in town to compare Cliff and Violet-green Swallows. We also noted several Mountain Bluebirds, the state bird of Idaho. Near Lake Stanley we slowly birded a forest noted for woodpeckers and noted a juvenile male Williamson’s Sapsucker and a Pileated Woodpecker, another trip first. A female Red Crossbill was also seen along with a few Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels and Red Squirrels. At Lake Stanley we had exceptionally good views of several Western Tanagers, including an adult male. The main highlight was a family group of Canada Jays that passed through. On the lake itself, a female Bufflehead with an accompanying duckling were present along with Common Mergansers. A breeding plumaged Eared Grebe was for a time just a few feet away. On the way back out we had nice views of a Clark’s Nutcracker.

We then headed south towards Sun Valley, a world-famous ski area. Just south of Stanley we had good views of a Prairie Falcon and also noted a juvenile Red-naped Sapsucker on a telephone pole well away from taller trees. On the south side of Galena Summit we stopped for a road killed American Marten, an animal that I’ve never seen in life, but have noted three road kills now. From here it was a steady drive through Ketchum and Hailey, and we eventually arrived in Twin Falls. After checking in to the Hampton Inn and carefully protecting (!) our room keys, we had an early dinner at La Fiesta Mexican Restaurant, and then headed south to North Cottonwood Creek on the north side of the South Hills. We saw numerous Lark Sparrows and at one riparian area saw five Sage Thrashers, Yellow Warblers and heard a Yellow-breasted Chat. Several Common Nighthawks passed over as dusk approached and at dusk we had excellent views of several Common Poorwills on the road. On the way out we flushed a Great Horned Owl along the side of the road.

The next morning we headed right up into the South Hills in search of the Cassia Crossbill. Initially the birding was slow with no crossbills. We did note and study several Common Nighthawks that were flying about. Later, we stopped at a burn on the way to Hummingbird Bar and here we found Cassia Crossbills, the same place we found them the year before. We got recordings of their calls which were confirmed by Austin Young, our co-leader on the previous three tours and who helped to originally organize the tour. He knows the Cassia Crossbill well as he lives in southern Idaho, and most importantly knows their calls. Whether this taxon is more different from other types of Red Crossbills is a matter of debate. It was thought to be present only in the South Hills and the Albion Mountain, isolated ranges where Red Squirrels are absent and the lodgepole pine cones and crossbill (bills) have evolved differently from mountains where the squirrels are present. The specific epithet of Cassia Crossbill, sinesciuris, translates to “without squirrels.” Recently, I heard that they believe they have located Cassia Crossbills at a location in Colorado, although I do not know the details. Here we also saw many Cassin’s Finches and several female type Lazuli Buntings along with a juvenal plumaged Townsend’s Solitaire, and nearby also had an Olive-sided Flycatcher. At the burn multiple Lewis’s Woodpeckers were present, our 9th species of woodpecker of the trip. At the Brockman’s hummingbird feeding station, we had many hummingbirds of four species, including Broad-tailed which we studied and compared carefully to the Rufous and Calliopes. Several trilling adult male Broad-tails with their rose throats were present too. We also heard a Gray Catbird.

Later at two farm ponds east of Kimberly we found a variety of shorebirds, most notably including a scarce (for Idaho) juvenile Stilt Sandpiper. Other species included Black-necked Stilts and American Avocets, Lesser Yellowlegs, Semipalmated, Western, Least and Baird’s sandpipers, and Wilson’s and Red-necked Phalaropes. Three species of gulls, including some 75 Franklin’s, were present along with lots of waterfowl. At a nearby small pond we had excellent views of Northern Rough-winged Swallows and for the day in the lowlands we tallied some 20 Swainson’s Hawks. That evening we visited the “twin falls” at Shoshone Park for which the city is named. While the scenery was spectacular, birds were few in number.

The next morning we headed mainly south and west. Our first significant sighting was a perched adult Ferruginous Hawk. In the grasslands and sagebrush we were fortunate to find a single male Gray Partridge along the side of the road. Here Brewer’s Sparrows and Sage Thrashers were very numerous and for the day we tallied eight Loggerhead Shrikes. In a line of trees we noted a well-hidden Barn Owl. Later at the Simplof Pond west of Rogerson, where we were admiring Yellow-headed Blackbirds, a car pulled up and a lady held up her binoculars to indicate she was a fellow birder. She had lots of invaluable tips for us and spent part of the day birding with us. Our first stop, after stopping at Salmon Falls Reservoir, was the sagebrush a few miles west.

Here we obtained decent views of several Sagebrush Sparrows and also noted a single immature Golden Eagle. Farther west, at Cedar Creek Reservoir, we observed Clark’s, Western and Eared grebes along with a small flocks of Northern Pintail and White-faced Ibis. Shorebirds were sparse, but we spotted a Long-billed Curlew and a small group of four sandpipers which included a Pectoral (adult), two Western (adult and a juvenile) and a juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper. The Long-billed Curlew was a tour first for us. They breed in southern Idaho, but most appear to leave by August. The Pectoral is an uncommon migrant in Idaho, and nearly all birds seen in the West are juveniles that appear later (September). The adults pass south some 1500 miles farther east in the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys. Later, and after the leader found the right road (!), we noted two Long-eared Owls (and Barn Owls and Common Nighthawks too) in the junipers on the road to Cooonskin Butte. On the drive we flushed numerous Horned Larks and Vesper Sparrows.

The next morning, our local fellow birder joined us along the Snake River in Twin Falls where with her assistance she spotted the rare Neotropic Cormorant, an adult on a rock with nearby Double-crested Cormorants. This bird has been present for months and I believe it is a 3rd state record. The species has been expanding its range to the north over the last decade.  Three Common Goldeneyes were on another rock in the river. Here we also noted two White-throated Swifts with the swallows overhead and had excellent views of both Rock and Canyon Wrens and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers (western subspecies obscura).  American Goldfinches were present too.

Our next stop was the parking lot at the Walmart in Burley where several Great-tailed Grackles maneuvered amongst the parked cars. At Lake Wolcott State Park amongst the tall trees we had a picnic lunch and listened to the singing Western Wood Pewees and Yellow Warblers. A few migrants were noted here too including a singing Cassin’s Vireo, a female Townsend’s Warbler and Wilson’s Warbler. A Hammond’s Flycatcher was briefly seen. At the spillway, Common Terns and some sixty American White Pelicans were present along with several hundred or more Franklin’s Gulls.  From here we headed east, stopping briefly to scout the southwest side of American Falls Reservoir, before continuing on to Pocatello to the Holiday Inn Express which was on a hill overlooking the city. We dined at Portneuf Brewing.

After breakfast the next morning we stopped at a nearby location where we found Juniper Titmice and not far away we were able to locate twenty, or more, Chukars. One stayed out in the open for scope views. Bullock’s Orioles were also present. We stopped at the restrooms at Cherry Creek where a female Moose with an accompanying calf were present across the creek. Our walk along Kinney Creek was quiet, but we did have several Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays along with a Gray and a Dusky Flycatcher and two Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. Up on Scout Mountain we had a picnic lunch and did a bit of birding noting numerous Red-breasted Nuthatches, a Warbling Vireo and compared Black-capped and Mountain Chickadees in a mixed flock.

Later we headed north towards Idaho Falls to look for a summering Long-tailed Duck. The pinned location we were given proved incorrect, although Spotted Sandpipers were numerous and we had good looks at a nesting Osprey and multiple Bank Swallows. Upriver we finally located the Long-tailed Duck, but by then the heat (nearly 100 degrees) was overwhelming. That night we had a very nice dinner at Jaker’s, very close to our hotel.

On our final day we started at American Falls Reservoir where we admired several adult Swainson’s Hawks and Bullock’s Orioles, all perched at very close range. We then headed to the dam area where we had a variety of shorebirds, Semipalmated (one), Least, Western, and a single Baird’s. An adult Long-billed Dowitcher in breeding (alternate) plumage was also present. Ducks were numerous (mostly Northern Shoveler and Green-winged Teal ), and we recorded a female Lesser Scaup and a several Redheads. Some 100 American White Pelicans were present. Passerine migrants were scarce and we noted only a single Black-headed Grosbeak. A juvenile Peregrine Falcon made a dive at the shorebirds near the dam. Perhaps most notable ornithological event was the excellent comparison of both Forster’s and Common Terns (both adults and juveniles).  Also notable there was the swimming American Beaver that was close by. From here we drove west getting lunch at a roadside west along the interstate. By the time we arrived in Boise, the heat was searing, the high reaching 105 degrees.  Since several  of us had predawn flights, we chose to get an early dinner at the nearby Applebee’s rather than go into Boise.

                                                                                                                                                                               -          Jon Dunn

Created: 27 September 2022