An adult Sandhill Crane. South Fork of the Snake River, Idaho. Photo: Bureau of Land Management

Birding the States

Birding in Idaho

National Wildlife Refuges National Parks Acreage of Important Bird Areas
7 7 4,458,368

Scenic mountains, sagebrush, forests, rivers, and lakes combine to make Idaho an alluring and rugged landscape that also comprises some of the largest unspoiled natural areas in the country. Protected wilderness and outdoor recreation areas are connected by an extensive birding trail that spans 2,000 miles and 175 different sites (see the interactive map).

For starters, take a short drive from Boise, the state’s capital and major city, to Deer Flat, one of the oldest national wildlife refuges in the country. In early summer, birders delight at the sight of Western Grebes dancing on Lake Lowell. Another easily accessible site near Boise is the famed Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area, protecting hundreds of pairs of nesting raptors along the Snake River. Stay a little while longer to visit the nearby World Center for Birds of Prey, a globally important research and education center.

With such a vast network of destinations and protected lands, you can set out forth in any direction and find spectacular birding. In the north, for example, explore national forests and mountains dotted with glacially formed lakes, and the rolling hills of the Palouse Prairie. In spring, flocks of Sharp-tailed Grouse gather on prairie breeding grounds as males tamp their feet and rattle their tail feathers to attract mates, a lasting memory for anyone who enjoys birds and nature. 

Idaho Birding Hotspots

 


Camas National Wildlife Refuge

This 10,500-acre refuge in southeastern Idaho has the top bird list in the state with more than 260 species. Waterfowl and raptors are among the highlights, but it’s also home to sagebrush birds and migrant and nesting songbirds.

Stop at the refuge office two miles west of Interstate 15 for advice and brochures, but in spring and fall don’t be in a hurry to drive away. The vegetation around the headquarters often attracts migrating flycatchers, warblers, and other songbirds.

The auto tour route passes both wetland and upland areas. Just a few of the breeding birds seen here are Trumpeter Swan, ten or more species of ducks, Greater Sage-Grouse, Eared Grebe, American White Pelican, American Bittern, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Northern Harrier, Sandhill Crane, American Avocet, Long-billed Curlew, Wilson’s Phalarope, Franklin’s Gull, Short-eared Owl, Peregrine Falcon, Sage Thrasher, Yellow Warbler, Western Tanager, and Yellow-headed Blackbird.

As many as 50,000 waterfowl can be present at the refuge in spring and fall, when Sandhill Crane numbers also peak. Snow Goose is especially common in spring, along with hundreds of Trumpeter Swan and Tundra Swan. Dozens of Bald Eagles can be present in winter.
 

Hagerman Wildlife Management Area

Set alongside the Snake River in south-central Idaho, Hagerman is famed for large flocks of wintering ducks, as well as nesting waterbirds.

The main entrance is from a road into the state fish hatchery off Highway 30 south of the town of Hagerman. Birders should stop first at a rest area 0.3 mile north for access to wetland habitat and a small patch of woodland that can attract migrant songbirds.

Trails around the impoundments in the main part of the tract can be walked to explore the area. Thousands of ducks winter here, along with Trumpeter Swan, Tundra Swan, possible Golden Eagle, common Bald Eagle, and occasional umcommon or rare gulls such as Herring, Thayer’s, or Lesser Black-backed.

Hagerman’s long list of breeding-season species includes several ducks, California Quail, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Osprey, Northern Harrier, Virginia Rail, Black-necked Stilt, Caspian Tern, Belted Kingfisher, Marsh Wren, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Yellow-headed Blackbird.
 

American Falls

Sites near this town west of Pocatello offer a wide variety of birds, including waterfowl, raptors, and shorebirds. In a relatively small area it’s possible to explore a reservoir, seasonal mudflats, and riparian habitat.

On the shore of American Falls Reservoir northeast of town, stop at Willow Bay and Seagull Bay in fall to look for geese, ducks, loons, American White Pelican, gulls, and terns. When mudflats are present in late summer many waders and shorebirds can be present, including White-faced Ibis, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Willet, and Baird’s Sandpiper.

Birding is also good along the Snake River below the dam. The dam, the cemetery on the east bank, and the fish hatchery on the west bank are favorite locations for viewing waterbirds, Bald Eagle, and varied songbirds. The fish hatchery has a nature trail where trees provide shelter for birds, and has a species list of more than 150.

American Falls is a productive location throughout the year (midsummer is the slowest time), but the presence of migrant shorebirds makes late summer and early fall especially good.
 

Mink Creek Recreation Area

Just south of Pocatello, Mink Creek Road leads into the Caribou National Forest, where picnic areas, trails, and other sites offer sightings of mid- and high-elevation birds. This is a trip for late spring into fall, before serious winter weather sets in.

Just after entering the national forest, walk a part of the Kinney Creek Trail or explore the Cherry Springs Nature Area for breeding birds such as Ruffed Grouse, Common Poorwill, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Calliope Hummingbird, Red-naped Sapsucker, Willow Flycatcher, Gray Flycatcher, Dusky Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo, Juniper Titmouse, Western Scrub-Jay, Mountain Bluebird, MacGillivray's Warbler, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Fox Sparrow, Green-tailed Towhee, Western Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak, Lazuli Bunting, and Lesser Goldfinch.

Continue along the road, taking the east (left) fork 1.5 miles after entering the national forest. In areas near the Scout Mountain campground there’s a chance for Dusky Grouse, Flammulated Owl, Northern Pygmy-Owl, Hammond’s Flycatcher, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Mountain Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Hermit Thrush, and Pine Siskin.


Market Lake Wildlife Management Area

This 5,000-acre tract just north of the community of Roberts is a favorite destination of Idaho birders. It’s home to large seasonal flocks of waterfowl and shorebirds, as well as birds that nest in the wetlands and sagebrush grasslands.

In spring migration season you can see Tundra Swan, Great White-fronted Goose and Ross’s Goose, and as many as 50,000 Snow Geese. More than a dozen species of ducks nest at Market Lake.

Other breeding birds include Trumpeter Swan, four species of grebes, American White Pelican, Black-crowned Night-Heron, White-faced Ibis, Northern Harrier, Virginia Rail, Sora, Sandhill Crane, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Willet, Long-billed Curlew, Franklin’s Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Forster’s Tern, Short-eared Owl, Marsh Wren, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and Bullock’s Oriole. At the northern end of Main Marsh, birders walk paths through shelterbelts of trees to check for migrant songbirds.

In winter the refuge can host Bald Eagle, Rough-legged Hawk, Long-eared Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, and occasionally Northern Shrike.
 

Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area

Several hundred raptors breed along 81 miles of the Snake River Canyon in southern Idaho, including as many as 200 pairs of Prairie Falcon, the highest nesting density in the world for this species. Some of the other species breeding here are Golden Eagle, Ferruginous Hawk, Peregrine Falcon, and as many as seven species of owls.

Much of this 757-square-mile area is rugged, remote, and nearly roadless, so places to see it are limited for the average visitor. Taking Swan Falls Road south from the town of Kuna leads to a canyon overlook at Dedication Point; another overlook is three miles farther along. The views here are superb. In summer you’re likely to see Swainson’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, and Prairie Falcon near the roadsides.

Among the nesting birds found here are California Quail, White-throated Swift, Say’s Phoebe, Common Raven, Horned Lark, Violet-green Swallow, Cliff Swallow, Rock Wren, Canyon Wren, and Sagebrush Sparrow. Another good birding spot is Celebration Park, south of the community of Melba.

Birders visiting this area should consider a visit to the World Center for Birds of Prey, just a few miles south of the Boise airport. The center’s conservation programs and research have helped many endangered species around the world, including California Condor, Harpy Eagle, Gyrfalcon, Peregrine Falcon, and Aplomado Falcon. The center offers a variety of exhibits and special programs featuring live raptors.
 

C.J. Strike Wildlife Management Area

This large area of land and reservoir 50 miles southeast of Boise has one of the highest cumulative species counts of any site in Idaho. Because of game-management activities, parts of it are closed at times from February into summer.

Tens of thousands of waterfowl can be present here in migration and winter, including Snow Goose, Trumpeter Swan, Tundra Swan, and dabbling ducks. Winter offers chances to see loons, Golden Eagle, and Rough-legged Hawk.

Many birds breed in the area. You might find several species of dabbling ducks, California Quail, Western Grebe, Clark’s Grebe, American White Pelican, Osprey, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Franklin’s Gull, Forster’s Tern, Caspian Tern, Willow Flycatcher, Cliff Swallow, and Yellow Warbler. Woodlands anywhere in the area can be good for migrant songbirds.

To reach the single most productive birding area, drive west from the town of Bruneau on Highway 78. Two miles after the Highway 51 intersection, turn north at a road marked Jacks Creek. Continue to reach the reservoir, all the while birding the roadside and impoundments. Return to Highway 78 and continue west 1.6 miles, turning north at the Cottonwood sign to reach another good birding area at the reservoir. There are several other access points that can be explored with a local map.
 

Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge

This 11,300-acre just west of Nampa is one of the region’s best birding destinations, centered on 9,000-acre Lake Lowell. It’s known for waterfowl, sagebrush birds, winter raptors, and especially for fall shorebirds.

Birding Deer Flat usually involves quite a bit of driving, hugging the perimeter of Lake Lowell. The official driving tour is 29 miles long. A visit to refuge headquarters on the north shore is very helpful, along with having a good map.

When water is pumped from Lake Lowell in summer, it exposes mudflats that attract 20 or more species of shorebirds. Among them are usually Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Marbled Godwit, Baird’s Sandpiper, and Western Sandpiper. Wilson’s Phalarope and Red-necked Phalarope are sometimes seen.

Tens of thousands of waterfowl may be found on and around Lake Lowell in migration, with peak duck numbers in December. Snow Goose, Canada Goose, and Mallard are most common, with species such as American Wigeon, Common Goldeneye, and Common Merganser among the many others present.

Nesting birds around the lake and in the surrounding sagebrush habitat include California Quail, Western Grebe, Clark’s Grebe, Double-crested Cormorant, American White Pelican, Great Blue Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Osprey, Bald Eagle, Virginia Rail, Forster’s Tern, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Black-headed Grosbeak, Lazuli Bunting, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and Bullock’s Oriole.
 

Harriman State Park

This park is surrounded by a 16,000-acre wildlife refuge, located less than 20 miles from both the Montana and Wyoming state lines. The environment is classified as part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. With its mix of grassland, coniferous forest, and lakes, Harriman boasts a bird species list of nearly 190.

The park is most famous for its wintering population of Trumpeter Swan, though the species can be seen here year-round. Many other species of waterfowl winter in the park, including Barrow’s Goldeneye.

Nesting waterbirds include several duck species, Red-necked Grebe, Double-crested Cormorant, American White Pelican, Great Blue Heron, Long-billed Curlew, and Caspian Tern.

Look in fields and forest and along lakeshores for breeding Sandhill Crane, Osprey, Bald Eagle, Red-naped Sapsucker, Mountain Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Mountain Bluebird, Dark-eyed Junco, White-crowned Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Western Tanager, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Red Crossbill, and Pine Siskin. Gray Jay appears in winter, and Great Gray Owl has been seen, though rarely.
 

Mud Lake Wildlife Management Area

This area, Market Lake WMA, and Camas National Wildlife Refuge are located within about 20 miles of each other in southeastern Idaho, and all rank among the state’s favorite birding locations.

The lake, marshland, and open semi-arid surrounding area attract a great diversity of both land and water birds. Geese, Trumpeter Swan, and around 20 species of duck are present seasonally; many species of ducks nest here. Pied-billed Grebe, Eared Grebe, Western Grebe, American White Pelican, White-faced Ibis, shorebirds, and gulls also frequent the lake. Franklin’s Gull breeds locally.

Golden Eagle, Bald Eagle, and Rough-legged Hawk appear in winter, while Northern Harrier, Swainson’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, and Short-eared Owl nest. Greater Sage-Grouse and Sandhill Crane are seen occasional, and nesting passerines include Western Kingbird, Eastern Kingbird, Horned Lark, Black-headed Grosbeak, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and Bullock’s Oriole.

Mud Lake is reached by a network of farm roads north of Highway 33. A good local map is a must. 

Birding Trail

Idaho Birding Trail 

Its license plates may still talk about famous potatoes, but Idaho is a place where birders should keep their eyes on the skies (and leave the fries for later). The plains and canyons along the Snake River are renowned for their concentrations of birds of prey, making Idaho a mecca for raptor biologists and birders from around the world who are drawn to the state’s hawks, eagles, and falcons, and hundreds of other bird species. The Idaho Birding Trail features 173 sites in four sections of the state, from north to south. If you hike through the forests of northern Idaho, you’re sure to notice many of the smaller songbirds, from hyperactive mountain chickadees to Townsend’s warblers and Cassin’s finches, all adding their sparks of color to the dark conifers. Get out into more open areas, though, and chances are you will be distracted by the big birds. Powerful golden eagles and ferruginous hawks, dashing peregrine falcons and prairie falcons, and more than a dozen other raptors are the star attractions here. Water birds abound as well. Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge hosts trumpeter swans and one of the largest nesting concentrations of sandhill cranes, as well as Franklin’s gulls, ducks, and geese.  —Kenn Kaufman