Spotting Raptors in Southwest Idaho

Photo by Matt Stuber

“The unique combination of soils, climate, geology and vegetation has created a perfect habitat for birds of prey.” – Morley Nelson, Raptor Advocate and Conservationist

Founded in 1993, the 484,000 acres of Southwest Idaho public land known as the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area hosts the single largest concentration of nesting raptors in North America and, perhaps, the world. Located near Boise along 82 miles of the Snake River, the habit’s flat topography is cut by a deep swath of river canyon lined with 700-foot cliffs. The conditions are raptor nirvana. There are high ledges and crevices for nest-building and currents from the river bottom providing the lift needed for birds of prey to hunt the area’s thriving ground squirrel and rabbit population.

Twenty-four species of raptors can be found here, a combination of permanent and migratory birds that include 200 pairs of nesting prairie falcons, turkey vultures, great horned owls, red-tailed hawks, ferruginous hawks, bald eagles and peregrine falcons.

The canyon plateau is scattered with fence posts, telephone poles and wires, providing vantage points for raptors on the hunt.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversees the habitat and encourages public recreation use. There are six developed campgrounds with boat launches, all located at the bottom of the canyon around C.J. Strike Reservoir. Low impact, primitive camping is allowed away from bird nesting areas. A 56-mile driving and biking loop begins in the small town of Kuna, travels past canyon rim vantage points for raptor viewing, descends into the canyon to historic Swan Falls Dam and loops to Celebration Park, Idaho’s only archaeological park. There, an interpretive center explains the area’s cultural history and a hiking trail leads to Native American petroglyphs.

The BLM maintains an informative website (blm.gov/programs/national-conservation-lands/idaho/morley-nelson-snake-river-birds-of-prey) about the conservation area, describing guide-led and DIY canyon hikes past historic homesteads and mining sites. It includes a calendar of botany and geology walks, raptor identification classes and volunteer opportunities to help band owlets and hawk chicks. It also has downloadable raptor coloring and activity books for children and detailed touring maps for drivers, bikers and hikers.

To plan a trip to Southwest Idaho, go to visitsouthwestidaho.org.