TWIN FALLS — Pat Weber quietly, slowly scanned the Snake River through binoculars — then suddenly came to life.
“There’s a tern! Yay! It’s a Caspian tern,” Weber said. Then she added for my sake: “That’s a good one.”
Fellow birder Jan Simpkin didn’t need the explanation. Weber swung her scope and its tripod to her shoulder, and both women hustled downstream for another glimpse of the tern.
“This is where you walk fast,” Weber said over her shoulder.
Until that moment, speed wasn’t important on the morning of Aug. 10, as Weber and Simpkin watched and listened along the road to Auger Falls Heritage Park.
Breeding season was long past, but the lull before fall migration still offered good birding — and surprising close to the city’s busy streets. I asked Weber to recommend three summer birding spots close to Twin Falls, then I tagged along as she and fellow Prairie Falcon Audubon members visited each one.
Novice birder? Download the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s free Merlin Bird ID app and head out to one of these spots at sunrise.
Road to Auger Falls Heritage Park
Where: From Blue Lakes Boulevard North at the north end of Twin Falls, take Canyon Springs Road west and down into the Snake River Canyon. Just after passing the city’s wastewater treatment plant, park in one of the pullouts beside the road and continue on foot.
When: Weber chose 7 a.m., before traffic to the park picked up. (Then again, she chose the magic hour of 7 a.m. for each of our outings.)
The experience: Walking northwest on the gravel road, we had two habitats to watch: a steep sagebrush slope on our left and the tree-lined Snake River on our right. Before the sun broke the canyon rim, a “Chi-ca-go” call announced the presence of California quail, American white pelicans flew along the river and American crows appeared on the rim.
“Oh, wow, look at them all — coming up along the ridge,” said Weber, already tapping entries into her eBird app.
Spring and early summer are the best times to watch the swallows whose nests line the canyon wall’s cliffs here, she and Simpkin told me, but still they identified northern rough-winged swallow, violet-green swallow and barn swallow that morning.
More birdsong started popping as the first rays of sunlight descended the canyon wall onto the brush.
“In this whole symphony of song, picking them out is kind of difficult,” Simpkin said. Then a mallard’s quack broke in. That one’s easy.
I reported a flash of bright yellow in the trees, and Simpkin suggested it might simply be sunlight on the wings of a mourning dove. But soon I was vindicated.
“Oh, there he is!” Weber said. “It’s a yellow warbler.”
“Good eye,” Simpkin told me. “I totally missed that.”
These are encouraging companions for a novice. And Simpkin, a College of Southern Idaho biology professor, was handy for explaining the turkey vulture’s characteristic flight pattern or why all those double-crested cormorants were sunning themselves on rocks in the river.
“This really should be how you start every morning,” she said.
When Weber’s Caspian tern sighting dialed up the excitement and sent the women hurrying downriver, they were rewarded instead with another unexpected treat in the bushes on the bank.
“Bushtits. How cool,” Weber said.
“There’s several of them in there. See how the bush is just shaking?” Simpkin added. Then, after a pause: “Wouldn’t mind seeing that tern, though.”
As Weber announced it was time to start back, the tern made another brief appearance on the wing.
“Oh, come back, honey,” she said, then she consoled herself: “OK, I wasn’t making it up.”
That morning’s bird list: 26 species, including red-tailed hawk, northern flicker, rock wren, canyon wren, yellow-breasted chat, song sparrow, spotted towhee and ring-billed gull.
Rock Creek Station and Stricker Homesite
Where: The grounds of the historical homesite at 3715 E. 3200 N., south of Hansen, are open to the public. You can wander through the trees behind the house, and from the road out front you might watch ravens, Swainson’s hawks and red-tailed hawks on wheel lines in the nearby farm fields.
The experience: Weber recruited Simpkin and fellow biology professor Randy Smith for our Aug. 13 outing on the Stricker property. After focusing their binoculars on kestrels, robins and swallows from the parking lot, the three soon left the manicured lawn for the tall grasses among the song-filled cottonwoods, willows, elms and box elders.
Traditionally, Simpkin said, birders have seen a pair of nesting great horned owls behind the house; they didn’t make an appearance that morning, but a couple of barn owls did. Nineteen white-faced ibis passed through in a ragged V above our heads. The birders lingered happily over a western wood pewee, watching a closeup of its behavior on the phone attached to Weber’s scope.
I struggled to point my borrowed binoculars at a black-chinned hummingbird, and Simpkin offered advice: Keep your eyes on the bird, then move the binoculars up to your eyes.
That makes sense, of course.
“It does,” she replied, “but somebody always has to tell you.”
Weber and Simpkin paused, puzzling over an unfamiliar call, before Weber suddenly identified it: “Oh! It’s a sprinkler.”
“Oh, for crying out loud,” Simpkin said.
Weber turned to me and my notebook: “Don’t you dare.”
Later, as we walked back to our vehicles, Simpkin asked Weber to play a recording of a male pheasant’s call on her Sibley eGuide to Birds app.
“How about a sprinkler?” Weber said. “Would you like me to play a sprinkler, too?”
That morning’s bird list: 23 species, including great blue heron, belted kingfisher, yellow warbler, black-headed grosbeak, Bullock’s oriole, house finch, house sparrow and rock pigeon.
Where: On the north side of the college campus, a series of settling ponds helps to clean the irrigation water of the Perrine Coulee on its way to the Snake River. Planted in cattails, bulrushes and other riparian plants, the wetlands attract a lot of red-winged blackbirds. Deer leave hoof prints, a trail camera has caught raccoons, and a fox has raised her litters there.
From North College Road, turn north into the same gravel parking lot that serves the Twin Falls Farmers Market. A fence separates the wetlands from the parking lot, but the public is welcome to enter a pedestrian gate and walk the wide dirt path that winds among the ponds.
The experience: The three birders of my previous outing returned Aug. 17 for our 7 a.m. date at the CSI wetlands, joined by Cindy Rapp, Sarah Harris and Austin Young. Rapp reported seeing an otter at an earlier visit to the ponds, and Simpkin quizzed her to determine whether it might instead be a muskrat. That conversation was inconclusive, but the sighting still earned the biology profs’ interest.
Recent reconstruction of North College Road at the Cheney Drive intersection brought the road right up against the riparian area, and Smith expects to see roadkill.
“That road smashed through some sweet habitat,” Young said.
About to head off for his first year of college, Young has earned the respect of older birders with his ability to identify species by ear. Weber consulted him on the swallows — “Barn swallows are kind of squeaky,” he said — and he tried to teach me to distinguish a yellow warbler. I wasn’t a great birdsong student while also taking notes and photos, but I didn’t want to admit it on the spot.
Everyone exclaimed over a western tanager.
“See,” Weber said, “you always get a surprise bird.”
That morning’s bird list: 20 species, including lazuli bunting, yellow-headed blackbird, goldfinch, mallard, killdeer, belted kingfisher, kestrel and crow.