ALMO — Arriving in Castle Rocks Friday evening, the temperature plummeted quickly and thick graupel fell in the fields, illuminating the rock walls but thickening the looming cloud layer.
Despite some challenging weather, the sixth annual Big Day Birding Blitz went out with a bang on June 8. Seven teams competed in the 12-hour search for species, recording a total of 118 different bird species.
The Prairie Falcon Chapter of the Audubon Society hosted 19 total birders from Idaho and Utah, who all rose bright and early at 5:30 a.m., equipped with binoculars, spotting scopes, birding guides, species checklists and a lot of enthusiasm.
Referee Bill Bridges, also president of the Twin Falls Loasa Chapter of the Idaho Native Plants Society, presided over the competitors and was pleased with the turnout.
“Normally we have three or four teams,” Bridges said. “This year, we had seven teams and more people in the mix.”
Saturday turned out to be much cooler than normal, causing some species to head to lower elevations.
“The hardest part was the weather,” Bridges said. “It was snowing and windy, which means the birds are hard to find. They hide and fight over territory.”
Up with the birds
As part of the Sawtooth Swallows team, I rose with the dawn and assembled several warm layers, dusted off my binoculars and headed for the trail.
We quickly spotted American Robins, Ring-necked Pheasants, Pine Siskins and Lazuli Buntings. The Lazuli Bunting is a spectacular bird with a bright turquoise head, orange chest and multi-colored wings.
This competition being my first time birding, I was amazed at how many species landed on our list throughout the early morning hours.
Identifying the Black-headed Grosbeak was perhaps my finest accomplishment in the early half of the day, especially since spotting through the binoculars after catching birds by sight took some practice. The bird’s bright orange breast and white spotting along its wings were undeniable field marks.
We weaved through the Almo wetlands and up into the Castle towers, logging birds with their calls and specific sightings. A cacophony of bird songs surrounded us in the thin woods beneath the granite towers.
By noon we had at least two dozen species on our list, and it was time to hit some different habitats. Since the City of Rocks bird checklist area encompasses various habitats, to increase the chances of spotting different species, we traversed some of the frontage roads, ripe with fence posts, telephone poles and other prime perches.
There we collected species such as the Western Kingbird, Brewer’s Blackbird, American Goldfinch, Mountain Bluebird and Red-winged Blackbird. Spotting from the car offered a whole new dimension to birding, especially since we could pull up close to our finds from the road and study their markings more precisely against our field guides.
The real score was the Lincoln’s Sparrow, an unusual sighting, especially from 750 East. We were able to identify it by its brown cap with a grey stripe in the middle, olive-brown wings and narrow tail.
A little higher up in the City of Rocks, we set up our spotting scope in a bend of willows and watched Turkey Vultures, Canyon Wrens and Killdeers swoop above the valley.
A mandatory noon check-in at the visitor’s center in Almo brought all the teams together to report their scores. The team in the lead already had 86 species! We had barely crested 24.
A quick stop at Park Superintendent Wallace Keck’s outdoor bird feeder gained us a few more, including the Cassin’s Finch and the Eurasian Collared-Dove, a regal dove with a black ring around its neck and a fanned tail.
Multiple teams were chatting about spotting the elusive Bobolink near the local church and it was surprising to discover how competitive birding really is, which Keck had warned me about.
Back in the field
With just five hours left to bird, we took to the field, stopping at the fishing pond — one of the birding hotspots on the map — to collect a few more species including the Violet-green Swallow and the Spotted Sandpiper.
Wrapping it up
The event concluded with Keck’s keynote speech about birding in the City of Rocks National Reserve and Castle Rocks State Park for 20 years. He awarded this year’s first place to the Snipe Hunters, who spotted 96 species, including the Lincoln’s Sparrow, corroborating our sighting.
The Snipe Hunters have also been the first to spot other species in the area.
“Our team has been the first to document Common Yellowthroat, Cassia Crossbill, Flammulated Owl, and Lincoln’s Sparrow at the City of Rocks,” team member Karl Ruprecht said. “It’s meaningful to be a citizen scientist and help document what birds are using which ecosystems.”
Keck appreciates their important contributions.
“Hands down, they are the dream team,” Keck said. “When those three guys get together, they have 100 years of birding experience among them.”
Their photo of the Lincoln’s Sparrow proved the sighting, and Keck was thrilled to soon add it to the park’s official species list, currently comprised of 178 species.
“The Lincoln was definitely a highlight,” Keck said. “It was new and two different groups saw it in two vastly different areas — the low country and the high country.”
Like Bridges, Keck concluded this year saw some interesting developments even though nothing was strangely out of season.
“It wasn’t a normal year weather-wise,” he said. “The weather held the hummingbirds back but brought the Lincoln’s Sparrows in.”
Ruprecht noted that the precipitation changed his findings.
During dry years, the water birds are concentrated at several “watering holes,” he said. “With so much precipitation this year, there was water everywhere. We didn’t find one duck, which is unusual.”
A continued dilemma
Managing multiple habitats is an ongoing dilemma for Keck and his team.
“We manage to make sure we are benefiting all species and not just one, but everyone is tied to the land,” Keck said. “It’s not just a cow, it’s a rancher, and it’s been that way for a hundred years. How can we make good changes without in impacting the heritage of an area? That is always a dilemma.”
Two main species punctuated Keck’s overall conclusions: the Sage-Grouse and the Pinyon Jay.
“We need to make sure what we do to help Sage-Grouse doesn’t hurt Pinyon Jays,” Keck said. “That’s the dilemma of land managers.”
Keck is troubled by groups pursuing sagebrush deforestation so they can reduce the hawks that prey on the Sage-Grouse. Many birds are dependent on the habitat, he said.
“Do we manage for one species on the brink or do we manage for biodiversity?” he asked. “We can’t keep experimenting on the landscape. We have to get it right. It’s a dilemma.”
What’s to come next year
Next year, the competition will be held on the same weekend — the first Saturday in June — but the window will return to a 24-hour one from 7 p.m. on Friday to 7 a.m. on Saturday.
“In the past, birders from Wyoming, Idaho, Utah and Nevada have participated,” Keck said. “If we can get birders from Oregon and Washington, it will turn into a great western event.”