by Susie Wall
Idaho’s abundance of undisturbed wilderness and varied environments of forests, mountains, wetlands and deserts make it a haven for the approximately 400 bird species that reside within its borders. To have the best chance of sighting many of these birds in these diverse habitats, get acquainted with the Idaho Birding Trail.
Before you begin, it is important to know that the birding trail is not a trail in the typical sense of the word. It is not a loop to complete or a route to follow from one end to the other. Instead, the trail is made up of over 250 sites covering four regions—North, Southeast, Southwest, and East Central—designed so you can pick and choose where you wish to visit based on location, seasons and the types of birds you hope to see. Sites on the trail include parks, wildlife refuges, scenic byways and rural roads. A few are off a highway or main thoroughfare, but many are remote sites that require detailed directions.
You can find an interactive map online at idfg.idaho.gov/ibt that allows you to choose a site within a region, get directions and gather information on the bird species found in that area. You can also pick up paper maps for each region at any Idaho Department of Fish and Game office. The website is a good place to start when planning your journey, but a map in hand is helpful when you venture into remote areas.
Here is a closer look at the four regions and a sample of some of the best sites found within each one.
The East Central Region encompasses the towns of Salmon, Challis and Hailey and contains the Salmon National Forest and the high peaks of the Sawtooth Range. With only 36 sites, this is the smallest of the four regions in both size and number of sites.
To get a feel for a big chunk of this region, follow all or part the Salmon River Scenic Byway, Site No. 19. Begin at Lost Trail Pass on the Montana border, then branch off to Highway 75 at Challis, eventually ending in Stanley, a journey of 162 miles. The high-altitude forests near Lost Trail are home to Clark’s nutcrackers and pileated woodpeckers. Look for chipping sparrows in the riparian areas
along the Salmon River and watch bald eagles soar over the jagged cliffs outside of Challis. Listen for the guttural call of sandhill cranes grazing in the fields at the base of the mountains as you pull into Stanley.
Croy Creek Wetlands, Site No. 28, is a few blocks off Hailey’s Main Street and part of the larger Draper Wood River Preserve. A boardwalk takes you through a paradise of song birds where yellow warblers and western tanager flit through the cottonwood forest, and yellow-headed blackbirds sway on the tips of cottontails.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Southwest Region is the largest of the four, clocking in at 94 sites. Habitats range from deep canyons carved by the Snake River, wind-swept deserts covering the isolated southwest corner and the dense Payette National Forest surrounding McCall.
Several fantastic birding opportunities are found all along the Snake River. One of the most unique is Shoshone Falls Park, Site No. 72, in the outskirts of Twin Falls. Often called the “Niagara of the West,” the falls plunge 212 feet down from a wide rocky expanse. Stand at the overlook searching for cliff swallows and white-throated swifts swooping below the falls catching insects on the wing. Black-chinned hummingbirds, lazuli bunting and Pacific wren find refuge in the brush along the river.
Eagle Island State Park outside of Boise, Site No. 43, has the honor of being designated an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society. Wood ducks float on the Boise River running through the park, and belted kingfishers perch above the waters watching for the perfect opportunity to strike. Walk the over five miles of trails that lead along the river and through the surrounding open grasslands. Follow Northern harriers as they glide low, hunting over the field, and listen for the winnowing call of diving Wilson’s snipe.
Stark lava beds, lush valleys, and vast fields of sagebrush make up this region’s diverse landscape. The towns of Idaho Falls, Pocatello, and a sliver of Yellowstone National Park lie within its borders.
Tucked into the far southeast corner near Montpelier sits Bear Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Site No. 33, where marsh, meadows and mountain slopes attract a wide range of bird species. Majestic trumpeter swans and colorful white-faced ibis nest on the shores of Bear Lake. Short-eared owls hover over fields of grass searching for voles scurrying below.
Cress Creek Nature Trail, Site No. 54, follows a lovely stretch of the Snake River 13 miles east of Rigby. The trail forms a loop and runs about one mile. Look for spotted towhees and ruby-crowned kinglets flitting among the juniper bushes aside the trail, and peregrine falcons zooming over the cliffs above.
The North Region covers the entire panhandle and extends south past Highway 12 to the town of Riggins. Deep lakes, forested mountains, and the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers in Lewiston bring in a staggering array of birds.
Eight miles southeast of Lewiston lies Site No. 42, Mann Lake, which the trail guide dubs “the best birding spot in the region.” Shorebirds rare to most of Idaho, such as dunlins and red-necked phalaropes, are attracted to the mudflats around the lake from July to October. Common loons, Western grebes and other waterfowl spend their days feeding on the water in the spring and summer.
Site No. 20 includes five sub-locations surrounding Coeur d’Alene and its namesake lake. One of those locations, Higgins Point, is a magnet for raptors. Witness osprey completing their signature dive barely breaking the water’s surface in the summer months. Winter brings in huge concentrations of majestic bald eagles perched high in the pines watching for salmon spawning below.