TWIN FALLS — Another birder might have figured that chirping in the shrubs was just another song sparrow.
Austin Young suspected otherwise.
The Idaho State University freshman, home for Thanksgiving, was birding alone on the overcast, chilly morning of Nov. 23 along the dirt road to Auger Falls Heritage Park. This road in the Snake River Canyon is a favorite of Magic Valley birders and the route of one of their annual Christmas Bird Counts.
But this energetically vocal bird in the shrubs, Young thought, might be one they’d never documented here.
He could see a couple of field marks: a light breast and white speckling on the back and shoulder. But the bird never emerged long enough for Young to take a photograph that was more than a blur, an image that would determine whether the bird was a Pacific wren or a winter wren.
And it’s no small difference.
In 2010, on the basis of vocalizations and genetics, scientists split what they once considered a single species into three: the Pacific wren of western North America, the winter wren of eastern North America and the Eurasian wren.
The Pacific wren? Entirely predictable here. But the winter wren? Since the 2010 split, Idaho had only two confirmed records of winter wren, one in November 2014 near Troy, and one the next month in Caldwell.
Fortunately, to a birder like Young, the two wrens sound nothing alike.
Of course, Young was something of a wonder child in Magic Valley birding. While he was still a Filer High School track star, fellow birders invited Young to lead a field trip at the 2014 Hagerman Bird Festival. At the festival two years later, the high school senior taught a sparrow identification workshop and led another field trip. A few years ago, he photographed what would have been Idaho’s first record for laughing gull — if the Idaho Bird Records Committee had confirmed it.
Telling the story, Young emphasizes the laughing gull was unconfirmed. Then he adds: “I’m positive that’s what it was.”
Young had never seen or heard a winter wren, but he’d listened to recordings of its songs and calls. And on this chilly November morning near Auger Falls, he was practically certain.
He recorded audio of the bird. He looked up all the call types of both wrens. Then he turned to the experts among his peers.
Young’s Facebook post in the Idaho Bird Sightings and Discussion group on the evening of Nov. 23 employed a becoming blend of confidence and humility:
“I believe I may have a Winter Wren sighting from Twin Falls. … The big thing is the voice. You can hear it in the video and it’s very high, much higher than Pacific Wren … the bird in the video really is vocally alike to Winter Wren. I wanted to get opinions first though!”
Idaho Bird Sightings and Discussion is a public Facebook group, but it’s not the place for posting pretty photos, describing your birding adventures or asking bird-identification questions that a little research would answer. A “READ BEFORE POSTING” note from the group’s admin team politely but firmly directs that sort of thing to a sister Facebook group called Idaho Birding.
Rather, Idaho Bird Sightings and Discussion is for serious talk: notable sightings, species status and distribution, advanced identification issues.
There, Young’s post got immediate attention.
That evening, a handful of birders concurred with Young’s identification and congratulated him on the find — among them, the outreach and education director at Intermountain Bird Observatory, Heidi Ware.
“Will go down tomorrow. Great find,” Twin Falls birder Pat Weber wrote. “Glad you came home for break!”
Boise birder Stoddard Davenport offered to send a note to an Idaho birding message board and planned to start his Thanksgiving by making a run for the wren.
“I’ll probably head that way in the morning,” he posted, “and hopefully track it down before I ruin all the family holiday plans.”
The last Magic Valley sighting to attract birders from around the state was the American golden plover that Weber observed in late October near Hazelton. Before that, three reports of scissor-tailed flycatchers brought in the birders and their binoculars: in June near Oakley, in October southwest of Twin Falls and a week later east of Declo.
Now they’d head for Twin Falls again.
‘Little and brown’
Observations submitted to eBird.org chronicle the lonely winter wren’s human admirers on the Auger Falls road.
Nov. 24: Weber. Davenport and his wife. Kathy Eklund, the Declo birder who made the third of this year’s scissor-tailed flycatcher observations.
Nov. 26: Young again. Twin Falls birder Melody Asher, also of scissor-tailed flycatcher fame. Rexburg’s Darren Clark and birding buddy Steve Butterworth.
Asher would have come a day earlier except that she already was heading for a rose-breasted grosbeak at the Hayspur Fish Hatchery near Picabo.
Clark, chairman of the art department at Brigham Young University-Idaho, was visiting Utah when he heard about Young’s wren and opted not to abandon the family Thanksgiving. But his patience paid off Nov. 26 with the first clear photos of the Auger Falls winter wren.
“It has its own charm, but it’s certainly not a crowd-pleaser,” Clark said later by phone. “It’s little and brown and pretty drab.”
The winter wren doesn’t require fantastic plumage to appeal to the serious Idaho birder, of course.
Of all the birders with public eBird checklists, Clark has the biggest Idaho species list.
“And I’ve seen most of the easy-to-get birds in Idaho,” he said. The winter wren was his No. 377.
No individual, Clark figures, could amass an Idaho list of 429 — the number of species ever documented in Idaho by eBird users. Some of those birds might never show up again in his lifetime.
“It would be nice,” the 46-year-old said, “to get to 400 before I die.”
Nov. 27: Young again. Weber again. Caldwell birder Cheryl Huizinga.
And they kept coming.
Anything for a bird
“Lists aren’t the main thing. The main thing is to go looking for birds,” said Asher, walking the Auger Falls road Dec. 3 with a handful of fellow Prairie Falcon Audubon members. She used to track her sightings with X’s in a notebook. “I never knew the numbers until I did eBird.”
Now the numbers are hard to ignore. The rose-breasted grosbeak was Asher’s 194th Idaho species this year. The winter wren, on Nov. 26, was 195. By the Audubon chapter’s Dec. 3 field trip, Asher was up to 196.
“I am working really hard to get 200 this year,” she said, bundled up for the cold walk to the spot where a single winter wren was generating daily eBird alerts of rare-bird sightings. She’d seen the wren on two outings already and thought she heard it another time, but some of her companions were still hoping for their first glimpse.
“Now if you guys see a golden-crowned kinglet, be sure I see it,” Asher told them. “Or a brown creeper.”
As the birders with binoculars worked their way slowly along the Auger Falls road, a vehicle with Idaho Falls license plates stopped. The passenger lowered his window to ask about the winter wren and introduced himself as Jacob Briggs, birding with his dad, Blair Briggs.
“You had the woodpecker picture!” Weber exclaimed before pointing the pair toward a pullout near the winter wren’s hangout. She didn’t have to say she meant Jacob’s May 2015 image of an acorn woodpecker in Swan Valley.
The day before Dec. 3, on their way back from watching McKay’s buntings in Nome, Alaska, the Briggs father and son noted that birders were still reporting the winter wren in Twin Falls. So that’s where they headed next — with Jacob’s huge camera lens and his young son.
The local birders and the Idaho Falls visitors were examining bushes on the south side of the road when, suddenly, shotgun pellets rained out of the sky. Startled and appalled, two birders picked pellets out of the dirt at their feet. Two others pulled out phones to call dispatchers as shot after shot spattered around them.
But nobody left. Every time they heard an explosion on the south canyon rim, they just turned around to shield their eyes and their optics. Blair, struck painfully on his balding head, put on a hat.
“Well, that’s too bad,” Weber said, briefly able to focus her binoculars on the bushes again.
Jacob saw a bird hop up from a drink at the river and fly across the road toward the shrubs. Definitely a wren. But unable to see identifying features in flight, he couldn’t be positive it was the winter wren.
“I don’t know if he’s going to come out with all that going on,” Jacob said sadly.
The repeated gunfire, the birders learned later from a sheriff’s deputy who investigated, came from a group shooting clay pigeons on private property out of sight on the canyon rim. The deputy told them to stop shooting into the canyon, and the pellet rain finally stopped.
But the moment was over.
Weber heard enough to include the winter wren in her Dec. 3 eBird list, with a note: “Continuing bird. Very vocal but glimpses were sparse.”
Jacob, however, didn’t plan to count the wren.
“We heard it calling, so we know it was there,” he said later, “but we never really had a good look at it.”
Birders have their own criteria on the question. But if it’s a species that humans can usually see, Jacob wants to see it.
Maybe another year will bring a winter wren to Idaho.