Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Owyhee Birds

Last weekend I went with a friend to seek a bird I had never seen, the Black-throated Sparrow. They live in the desert of the southwest on rocky hillsides. The very northern extent of their range just enters southern Idaho and one place they had been seen in years past was the Owyhee Mountains of southwestern Idaho.

We stopped at a few reservoirs on the way and saw many wading birds, ducks and even American White Pelicans.

When we got to our destination we were fascinated by the unique habitat. Strange eroding rock formations stood on the skyline, and flowers I had never seen were growing in the oolitic soil.

Then a flash of wings caught my attention. I looked with my binoculars and saw the bold black and white facial pattern that was the Black-throated Sparrow. What luck! They usually spend most of their time on the ground, and this one had flown up onto a shrub. I raised the camera for a photo and it disappeared into the bush. I walked closer and saw it again on the next bush. I again raised the camera for a photo.

Once again it flew. See the wingtip there at the left edge of the bush? Next time I'll have to get a photo that includes the throat. It is called the Black-throated Sparrow for a reason. It was still a joy to see it, though the photo leaves much to be desired.

We went a bit further up the road to walk up a dry wash. This photo is a sign of the West, isn't it? A Black-tailed Jackrabbit by some artifacts of the ancient civilization known as the "Red Neck People."

The dry wash had very interesting textures in the dried mud.

We saw a Say's Phoebe and a Common Nighthawk flew overhead making that strange buzzy call. The sun was getting low on the horizon and a chattering flock of small birds flew down into the wash. Looking through my binoculars I was amazed to see a small bird with a long tail and white eyes!

I imagined a bird with white eyes and a long tail like that would be easy to identify. It wasn't the White-eyed Vireo. Those have some yellowish feathers. This bird had a small dark bill as well, and kept flicking open its wings. Wrentit, I thought. I'd only seen Wrentit once, and that was on the Oregon coast.

They allowed me to get quite a few photos and many good looks. I kept asking my hiking companion, "Did you see the white eye?" Other than the vireo, I couldn't recall any white-eyed birds. Surely this would be easy to identify. When I got back to the car I pulled out my bird guide, and sure enough, the Wrentit has a long tail, short dark bill, and pale iris. But, they live on the Oregon Coast, not in the desert.

When I got home I excitedly checked my Idaho checklist which includes the 405 birds seen in Idaho, and this one had never been seen in Idaho. I posted some directions to my find along with these photos to the Idaho birders discussion list.

When I awoke the next morning I checked my email and two very experienced birds had sent me polite, patient emails explaining the difference between Bushtit and Wrentit. The Wrentit has a dark, streaky belly and the Bushtit has a paler belly and face. The female Bushtit has a white iris. I did see a Bushtit for the first time this spring, and it had dark eyes ... so I guess I had seen a male.

Birds never cease to amaze and interest me. Males of this species have one color eyes, females another. I wonder why?

I thought I might go down in birding history for finding a species new to Idaho ... but instead I might go down in birding history for misidentifying so many Idaho birds! I'm so glad I have my camera, so I can study the pictures at great length. Imagine if I can get it wrong even with clear photos ... how many mistakes could I make from my fallible memory of a quick glimpse?

No comments: