Monday, April 27, 2009

Counting Birds at Silver Creek

Blog by Ginny Glasscock. Willet photo by Dave Glasscock.

April 15 may have been the tax deadline, but it was also the date for the monthly bird survey at The Nature Conservancy’s Silver Creek Preserve.

So, having submitted my “extension of time to file” form, I rose early and headed out on a chilly, wet morning to meet up with a dedicated crew of birders : Poo Wright-Pulliam, Dave Spaulding, Jean Seymour, and Keri York.

Each month for the past five years, a core group of knowledgeable volunteers has gathered at sunrise at the Preserve, which has been designated an Important Bird Area (download the preserve's full bird checklist).

These specially recognized locations throughout the world have been selected as being essential and vulnerable bird habitats. Monitoring bird populations over time provides information that can be used in conservation planning to safeguard these critical areas.

There are five set sample points at Silver Creek where our group stops for ten minutes to count each individual bird seen, (or sometimes, only heard). At two of the points, we extend the survey area and time for more comprehensive coverage.

I am amazed at the knowledge of these citizen scientists- how they can differentiate between very similar birds, recognize flight patterns, identify songs, and point out specific behaviors. As the snow flurries swirled around us, I learned to be more observant of the wonderful variety and number of birds that occur on the Preserve.

Some highlights of the day included a willet wading purposefully along the stream’s edge, the tiny marsh wrens hiding in the rushes, and a common snipe that perched on a fence long enough for all of us to get a great view through the spotting scope.

All in all, 38 different bird species were identified for the April count. While I thought that was an impressive number, I was told to expect a much higher count next time. So, in mid-May, my taxes still won’t be done, but I hope to be out streamside again with the amazing bird survey crew. I’m eager to see what we can find!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Visit an Idaho Preserve

Does the recent warm spell have you itching for some summer fun?

Now's the time to start planning a trip to one of The Nature Conservancy's Idaho preserves.

The Idaho Statesman last weekend featured an excellent overview of the outdoor opportunities at our preserves, written by Natalie Bartley.

Our preserves offer a variety of activities, including hiking, canoeing, fishing, hunting, birding, wildlife photography, wildflower walks, lectures and more.

Check out our Public Access Guide, detailing outdoor opportunities across the state.

Read more about specific preserves:

Ball Creek Ranch (Bonners Ferry)

Cougar Bay (Coeur d'Alene)

Flat Ranch (Macks Inn)

Formation Springs (Soda Springs)

Garden Creek Ranch (Hells Canyon)

Silver Creek (Picabo)

South Fork (Swan Valley)

Monday, April 20, 2009


Across much of the country, the woods and forests now echo with the booming gobble-gobble-gobble of the male wild turkey.

Late April marks the peak of the gobbling season for turkeys. Male turkeys gobble and strut to attract females, much as sage grouse strut and snipe winnow.

At the peak of their gobbling--often just before the breeding season begins--male turkeys are extremely aggressive. They will respond to any loud noise. My parents reported one gobbling to a barking dog. A hooting owl, calling crows, thunder or even the slam of a car door can all set off a loud gobbling bout in a turkey.

At one point, turkeys had disappeared over much of the country. In a tremendous conservation success, thanks in large part to hunters, turkeys have now been restored to their historic range. And beyond: Turkeys were not historically found in Idaho but now live in many parts of the state. A century ago, about 100,00o turkeys roamed the continent; today that number is 4.5 million.

Turkeys now may be taken for granted by conservationists. But they are tremendously interesting birds to watch, especially in the spring. They have a variety of calls (listen), and males often strut and fight in the presence of hens.

If you're interested in learning more about turkeys, read Joe Hutto's excellent book, Illumination in the Flatwoods. Hutto, a biologist, raises a flock of wild turkeys and then lives among them to learn more about turkey behavior.

Where to see wild turkeys: Turkeys can be hard to locate in the expansive forests of Idaho. The Conservancy's Ball Creek Ranch Preserve and Garden Creek Preserve are both reliable places to see turkeys. Visit at this time of year and you're likely to hear them gobbling. --Matt Miller

Photo by Sasha Kopf through a Creative Commons license

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Leave It (Mostly) To Beaver

Story by Ginny Glasscock; photo by Dayna Gross.

Now that spring has arrived at the Silver Creek Preserve, we are starting to get “as busy as beavers."

And one of the matters we have turned our attention to is...beavers!

The beaver, Castor canadensis, is listed in my Peterson Field Guide under “Some Odd Mammals”, and they most certainly are!

This very large rodent, (up to 60 pounds or more), is surely unique, with its familiar paddle-shaped tail, huge front teeth, and webbed hind feet.

Their presence in Silver Creek and some tributaries is evidenced by the gnawed willows, water birch, and aspens at the water’s edge. Besides using these woody materials as a winter food source, sticks are employed in the construction of dams.

Beaver dams, and the ponds they create, can have many beneficial effects in stream ecosystems. The increased wetland area provides more habitat for shorebirds and waterfowl. Ponds can act to trap silt, minimize erosion, and slow run-off. There is a stabilizing effect on flows throughout the season, as more water is held back for lower-flow summer and drought periods, and groundwater is recharged.

But there can sometimes also be undesirable consequences. In the spring, precipitation, snowmelt, and a high water table can combine with the increased water-holding capacity of a beaver pond to create flooding .

This can have a negative effect when it interferes with roads, cropland, and grazing areas.

Such has been the case lately at Stalker Creek, requiring that we take action to restore an optimum balance. During the first week of April, Dayna Gross and Ginny Glasscock breeched a small section of this dam by manually removing sticks and mud.

The goal was to increase the flow enough to mitigate flooding of fields and an access road, while maintaining the natural function and appearance of the dam. We were able to get a true appreciation of the beavers’ engineering skills as we yanked, pulled, heaved, and scraped away the materials that were so meticulously crafted into this amazing structure.

Water started flowing through our small break, and lower upstream levels were observed almost immediately. We did not note any fresh tree cuttings in the vicinity of the dam, or any other signs that beaver were currently active nearby. A week- and a-half later, water levels are holding within the desired range, with no rebuilding of the dam evident.

We will continue to monitor the effects of beaver dams throughout the season, and apply a light hand, as needed, to maintain equilibrium in water levels.

Besides manual breeching, The Nature Conservancy has also used water levelers, which are various types of pipe set within or below beaver dams to allow a certain amount of continual water flow.

In the end, we aim in our function as land stewards to protect certain human activities while supporting the role of the beaver, nature’s ultimate water conservationist.--Ginny Glasscock

Monday, April 13, 2009

Drummer in the Woods

THUMP. Thump. Thump-thump-thump-thumpthumpthumpthump.

The ruffed grouse's spring-time drumming is something you almost feel before you hear. It's a low thumping sound, almost like an engine starting. (Listen)

This is the male grouse's way of attracting females. While the sound is often incorrectly described as the feather's hitting the grouse's chest, the noise is actually produced by the wings flapping the air.

Unlike sage and sharp-tailed grouse, ruffed grouse display individually. Ruffed grouse are birds of the forest, so the male usually stands on a large, fallen log to drum, so that it can see in all directions.

Count yourself lucky if you are able to actually see a ruffed grouse drumming. They're wary birds, and more difficult to find than grouse that prefer open country. Instead, listen carefully the next time you're in Idaho's forests, and you may be rewarded with the sound of spring's drummer.

Where to hear ruffed grouse drumming: Ruffed grouse can often be found in forested areas that have a mix of habitats, particularly near streams.

The working forests of northern Idaho are great ruffed grouse habitat, such as in the Kootenai Valley near Bonners Ferry. In that valley, the forested areas of the Conservancy's Ball Creek Ranch Preserve, the Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge and the Boundary Creek Wildlife Management Area all contain good numbers of grouse.

The forested reaches of Hells Canyon and the South Fork of the Snake River are two other good places to check out.--Matt Miller

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

On Curlews and the Coming of Spring

Essay by Virginia Glasscock, assistant manager, Silver Creek Preserve. Photo by Dave Glasscock.

In this part of Idaho, where cold temperatures, snow, and short daylight hours are the “default mode” of winter, we look forward to spring with an enthusiasm unequaled by our friends in more moderate climes.

The powers that be have declared March 20 to be the first day of spring, but we all have our own measures of the actual arrival of this important seasonal milestone. This is such a major occasion that it is celebrated emotionally, not just officially.

Some folks might count spring as starting when they quit using the flannel sheets, or put the snow shovel away, or wash the windows for the first time.

But outdoorsmen always look to the seasonal markers provided by nature. It may be the date of “ground zero”, when the snow is finally gone and bare ground is again visible (often the subject of good-natured wagering). It may be seeing your first ground squirrel, or the observation of a green sprout of something emerging among the sagebrush.

But most people I know use birds as heralds of this highly anticipated season, and everyone seems to have their own favorite.

I dismiss the choice of the robin as a cliché. They always seem to show up before winter is fully spent, then hunker down with their feathers all fluffed out, looking disgruntled. Besides, a bird so common (the 6th most abundant land bird in the Silver Creek Preserve bird counts), doesn’t seem special enough to be appointed the true harbinger of spring.

The sandhill crane also has its many advocates. These birds are large, majestic, and vocal, and they command admiration. It is thrilling to hear their loud calls and watch their antics in the fields. Yet this seems, to me, somewhat too obvious a choice, picking the biggest and flashiest bird around.

While various other bird species also have their champions, my personal choice for the indicator of spring is the long-billed curlew, Numenius americanus.

This large shorebird, buff brown in color, arrives here from its wintering grounds in Mexico in early April, just as the weather is finally changing for good.

They have a variety of loud calls and cries and a recognizable flight pattern, so they are easily identified, even from a long distance. It is fascinating to watch them probe for earthworms in the fields with their improbably long, downward curved bills.

I’m only able to enjoy one of my favorite birds for only a short time before they move on. The curlew seems the most appropriate symbol of all- charming, raucous, and entertaining by turns, and as fleeting as the brief Idaho spring. --Virginia Glasscock

Monday, April 06, 2009

Snipe Hunt

If you attended summer camp as a youth, you may well be familiar with the "snipe hunt," a popular prank. New campers are taken into the woods and hold flashlights up to bags, waiting for the elusive snipe--a bird that allegedly is attracted to light and thus will fly into the bag.

Of course, the snipe never shows and the newbies stand around in the dark woods, left holding the bag. By the time they figure it out, they are likely lost and confused. Meanwhile, back in camp, everyone else is enjoying a big laugh.

When the new campers return, they learn the snipe is a mythical bird that doesn't exist.

Except it does. No, this isn't a belated April Fools joke and no, snipe don't fly into bags at night.

Snipe, which include 20 species around the world, are characterized by their long slender bill and mottled feathers. They're a common bird in wetland areas. The Wilson's snipe is common in Idaho, and now is the perfect time to catch their spring courtship display.

During their courtship, male snipe make a sound that is called winnowing--a term allegedly coined by Henry David Thoreau. It's been described as an eerie flute or a rapid whoop-whoop-whoop-whoop. (Listen).

It sounds like a call, but this sound isn't produced vocally.

The male snipe has modified tail feathers, which are fanned out in the air. The male does a "power dive" and the sound is produced by the tail feathers vibrating.

You are most likely to hear this at dawn and dusk, when snipe can be difficult to spot in the air. But I have heard winnowing throughout the day, and you can see the birds in their dramatic dives by following the sound.

Where to experience winnowing snipe: Any wet, open area along rivers and streams, like the meadows around Silver Creek and the Pahsimeroi Valley. Any wetland area is also a good bet--try the Kootenai Valley, the Weiser area or Thousand Springs. --Matt Miller
Photos by Tom Grey of Tom Grey's Bird Pictures.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

April: What's Happening

Mark Your Calendar:

The Land Trust of the Treasure Valley presents the Patagonia Wild and Scenic Film Festival. Saturday, April 4. 1: 30 pm matinee and 6:30 pm evening show, Boise Centre on the Grove. Award-winning environmental films in a spirit of inspiration and education. Tickets are $10; order on-line, by phone at 208-345-1452 or at the door.

Colombia: Birds, Critters, Culture and Conservation. Tuesday, April 28. 7 pm, MK Nature Center, Walnut Street, Boise. To say Colombia has received a lot of bad press is an understatement. But that's old news; much of Colombia is safe and a perfect place for birders and naturalists to visit. The Nature Conservancy's Matt Miller will give a presentation on the people and wildlife living in some of Colombia's beautiful landscapes, colonial cities and warm ocean waters. Join him for stories of hope for the people and nature of this once violent landscape.
Dubois Grouse Days: The seventh annual Grouse Days is bigger than ever, with events for the whole family on April 17 and 18. Watch sage grouse and sharp-tailed grouse on their spring display grounds, and visit The Nature Conservancy's Crooked Creek Project. Register on-line for all events.
Birding Opportunities: Sage and sharp-tailed grouse aren't the only active birds at this time of year. Get outside and enjoy grouse drumming, snipe winnowing and turkeys gobbling. Long-billed curlews call from meadows, and raptors nest in rocky cliffs. More information on all these feathered phenomena in the coming weeks at Idaho Nature Notes. A good way to enjoy Idaho's birds is by joining a free Audubon Society field trip.
Wildflowers: Later in the month, at lower elevations, you can begin to see dramatic displays of wildflowers, including the beautiful yellow of arrowleaf balsamroot in many foothill areas. And if you want some beautiful wildflowers for your own backyard, the Idaho Native Plant Society has plant sales in April and May around the state.
Marmot Day: Finally, Punxsatawney Phil may have been awake two months ago, but our yellow-bellied marmots are just emerging. Enjoy them in rocky cliffs while you can--they return to their dens for a summer torpor when it gets too hot.