KETCHUM — Winter’s sparse snowfall and unseasonably warm temperatures may have skiers chagrined.
But it’s pasted a big smile across the faces of Idaho birders.
Birders are seeing far more birds in the Wood River Valley this winter than they did last winter when the temperature in Sun Valley never climbed above freezing for two straight months and storms dumped feet of snow at a time.
Take Ann Parry, an avid birder from Ketchum. The math teacher counted 40 species of birds near Picabo during the Christmas Bird Count on Dec. 30.
She basked in warm temperatures and nearly snowless fields as she counted about 40 species of birds — significantly more than the number she counted last year.
“Last year, I saw only a few raptors,” she said. “This year, we counted 700 Canada geese in one field.”
Many birds who would normally have been pushed south by deepening snow are hanging around this year, said Poo Wright-Pulliam, one of the valley’s foremost bird experts.
More than 400 waxwings visited the Sawtooth Botanical Garden in December, said Kristin Fletcher, the garden’s education director. They were after the fruit of the native chokecherry shrubs planted their 20 years ago. When they had had their fill, they fluttered like leaves to the creek to quench their thirst, no doubt terrifying the fish that hang out in the creek, she said.
Wright-Pulliam leads bird walks for Ketchum’s Environmental Resource Center during winter and summer. She’s led people on bird walks through the town of Ketchum and she will lead walks from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Jan. 27 at Silver Creek Preserve and from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. March 10 at the Draper Preserve in Hailey.
“Look at the tree tops, shrub tops, fence tops, in the sky and at the mountains,” she tells her followers. “A lot of times, you will find something because you hear it.”
On one bird walk, she led a small group along Trail Creek north of Sun Valley, a scope slung over her shoulder.
She scanned the creek looking for rapids where she might find an American dipper, also known as a water ouzel at work.
The dark grey bird has long legs and bobs up and down as it feeds on the bottom of fast-moving rocky streams. Oil glands keep it virtually dry, which keeps it warm when seeking food in icy rapids.
“We have a lot of dippers here,” she said. “We come in second in the country for dippers, which are called that because they dip.”
She trudged through a small grove of aspen.
This habitat is “pretty darn great for birds, especially the tree trunks with holes,” she said. “You can often see a Northern flicker woodpecker or owl in settings like this.”
Wright-Pulliam hushed everyone.
“I do a lot of my birding by sound. I have 930 species of birds on a BirdsEye app on my phone. It provides a lot of information, including how many eggs a bird lays, what their nest is made of, their habitat,” she said, whistling her version of a bird alarm designed to entice birds out of hiding to see if something is injured.
“If you listen, you’ll find out that kingfishers chatter and dippers do a melodic little tune. A kingfisher utters a four-note song that sounds like ‘hamburger.’ A mountain goldfinch utters ‘potato chip’ when it hits the bottom of a dip.”
While the Trail Creek area is “crazy with birds” in summer, you usually have to be more patient during winter, she said.
“You usually find chickadees, crossbills, golden crown kinglets, Clarks nutcracker and Bohemian waxwings,” Wright-Pulliam said. “We do have indigenous high-altitude birds that hang around in the streams and forests.”
One of the birdwatchers, Annie DeAngelo, spied a magpie.
“A lot of people don’t like magpies. But they’re extremely smart—some of the smartest birds in the world,” Wright-Pulliam told the group. “Magpies can be extremely noisy, hanging out in groups like teenagers, Wright-Pulliam said. And they work well together, as well.”
To illustrate, she told about watching two magpies bent on eating her dog’s food. When the dog went after one, the second magpie ate. When the dog turned its attention to the second magpie, the other helped itself to the dog food.
“A lot of people call them trash birds. But I don’t like to do that,” she said. “If we didn’t have magpies feeing on the carnage on the road, our roads would be filled with road kill. So, they do a job. And people from back East ask all the time what our magpies are. They think they’re beautiful.”
As the group trained their binoculars on the magpie, other birds began coming into the picture. Among them, a golden eagle circling above the Sun Valley Gun Club looking for food among the sagebrush.
Golden eagles are more common around Sun Valley, while bald eagles are more apt to hang around the Big Wood River.
“I don’t know if Trail Creek is big enough for bald eagles,” she said. “You can’t miss their nests—they can get up to two tons as they build on them every year.