BRUNEAU • It’s time for a southern Idaho spectacle: The migratory raptors that courted in February and incubated their eggs in March will raise their chicks and owlets in April and May in the deep canyon of the Snake River.
This canyon, with its crags and crevices and thermal updrafts, is home to the greatest concentration of nesting birds of prey in North America — and perhaps the world, the Bureau of Land Management says. And the broad plateau is rich in ground squirrels and jackrabbits: raptor food.
The Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area — on 485,000 acres of BLM-managed public land stretching from Kuna to Hammett — offers opportunities to observe some of the estimated 800 breeding pairs of hawks, owls, eagles and falcons that arrive there each spring.
“Every spring, we get this huge influx of raptors coming into the area to breed and raise young,” said Barbara Forderhase, education specialist for the Birds of Prey NCA.
Some species such as golden eagle are there year-round. But spring brings migratory burrowing owls, Swainson’s hawks, ferruginous hawks, ospreys, turkey vultures and prairie falcons. In fact, the abundance of cliff faces and ground squirrels makes the Snake River area the nesting site for a significant portion of the entire prairie falcon population.
The Birds of Prey NCA is “nature in the rough,” the BLM says, with few public facilities. If you explore on dirt roads, make sure your gas tank is full. And you’ll need patience and time; nobody can guarantee that you’ll spot these solitary birds.
“These birds are out there living their lives,” Forderhase said.
For many visitors, the best way to get to know the Birds of Prey NCA may be the series of free hosted hikes the BLM offers.
Free Spring Events
April 23: Wees Bar full-day hike. This 10-mile hike features an area with rich cultural and natural history. Hikers will explore the desert ecosystem and investigate remnants of Priest Ranch as they hike from Swan Falls Dam downstream to Wees Bar. At the bar, they’ll view petroglyphs and remnants of the Wees lava stone house — and perhaps see raptors overhead.
May 7: Guffey Butte full-day hike. This hike is shorter — about 6-7 miles — but has an elevation gain of 860 feet in the first 1 1/2 miles. Part of this hike is on a trail, but the rest is across open, uneven ground. Hikers will view a section of the South Alternate Oregon Trail from the top of the butte and look down on the Snake River and Halverson Bar. Discussions illuminate both human and natural history, and hikers may spot birds of prey hunting or simply soaring on the canyon winds.
May 14: Half-day botany/geology walk. On this two- or three-hour walk, participants explore the shrubs, grasses and flowering plants that make up the desert ecosystem, along with the geology that formed the Snake River Canyon and surrounding plateau.
May 14: Halverson Bar full-day hike. This 6- to 8-mile route takes hikers upstream along the Snake River to investigate remnants of old mining sites and homesteads. The group will aim to have lunch at a lava rock cabin that still stands. On the return, they’ll hike toward the cliffs and pass Halverson Lakes. Here, too, you might spot birds of prey hunting or soaring.
May 20: Raptor identification lecture. In this two-hour evening lecture in Boise, you’ll learn how to identify the 24 raptor species which inhabit the Birds of Prey NCA and southwest Idaho, including eagles, falcons, hawks, osprey, northern harrier, turkey vulture and owls.
May 21: Raptor identification field trip. This full-day field trip will take you out into the Birds of Prey NCA to look for raptors and get experience identifying them in the field.
For any of these, you’ll need to sign up in advance; the raptor ID field trip — for which organizers provide the transportation — is close to filling. To sign up or get details, contact Forderhase at 208-384-3483 or email@example.com.
The hiking trips meet at locations along the Snake River south of Boise, and they draw most of their participants from the Treasure Valley. But it’s a very doable one-day excursion for many in the Magic Valley, too.
For the strenuous hike to the top of Guffey Butte, you’ll need to be physically fit. The 10-mile Wees Bar hike isn’t for everyone, either. Only the Halverson Bar hike would be suitable for children, Forderhase said, and even there they should be at least 10.
Want to request an exception? She’s open to discussing a particular child’s abilities.
“I want to make sure the child is capable of keeping up,” Forderhase said.
Each spring the Birds of Prey NCA offers something even more tempting: a chance to help band Western screech owlets or ferruginous hawk chicks.
Those all-day banding trips are so popular that Forderhase’s roster is full a week and a half after the schedule comes out. And, yes, this spring’s lineup — owl banding on April 30, May 6 and 7, and hawk banding on June 4, 12 and 14 — has already filled. People from as far away as Washington and Colorado signed up.
But keep listening.
Because demand is so high, Forderhase keeps a waiting list in case someone who signed up drops out. Anyone on the waiting list who doesn’t get a spot this year will be contacted first when next year’s schedule comes out, usually in early March.
Explore on Your Own
Exploring in this terrain, you’ll want to carry plenty of water. Bring binoculars — and a spotting scope, if you have one. And plan your outing in the early morning or late afternoon for the best chance of spotting raptors.
You’ll find a printable map of the Birds of Prey NCA — and other advice for visitors — at Blm.gov/id/st/en/prog/NLCS/MNSRBP_NM.html. The main access points are at Swan Falls Dam and farther west, but the area’s eastern side — closer to the Magic Valley — offers good options, too.
Where the Bruneau River flows into C.J. Strike Reservoir is an excellent spot for birding, as well as along the reservoir itself.
Try the BLM’s Cove Recreation Site on C.J. Strike. It’s a fee campground with potable water, picnic shelters and tables, fire rings, fishing docks, an RV dump station and a boat ramp. Find details: Blm.gov/id/st/en/prog/NLCS/MNSRBP_NM/cove_recreation_site.html
Nearby, Idaho Power Co. operates four campgrounds at C.J. Strike: Idahopower.com/OurEnvironment/Recreation/CJstrike/fees.cfm
The Birds of Prey NCA surrounds three sides of Bruneau Dunes State Park, so the park can be a good base for exploration: Parksandrecreation.idaho.gov/parks/bruneau-dunes
Two more great spots nearby are the C.J. Strike Reservoir Wildlife Management Area, operated by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, and the BLM-managed Ted Trueblood Wildlife Area. A good place to learn about both is the Idaho Birding Trail website: Fishandgame.idaho.gov/ifwis/ibt/pub.aspx?id=southwest (click on the “24” and “25” links on the map).
Prairie falcons are one of the first species to leave the area, as ground squirrels head underground when the grasses dry up. The prairie falcons will be gone by mid-July, with other migratory species not long behind.
“The birds that leave are gone by the end of the summer,” Forderhase said.
If you’re hoping to spot a particular species, give her a call for advice: 208-384-3483.