Mysterious Interloper

by Dave Hanks

In 2003 and 2004 I was called upon to identify a mysterious bird seen in the tall trees in the south-west section of Burley. I say mysterious because the species involved managed to stay hidden most of the time, or at least when I was called to observe it. After much searching and discussion of behavior, an unlikely visitor was identified. Unlikely because this bird is closely associated with marshes, where it nests. Because the river is within easy flying distance is the only reason that seems logical for this large wading species to be where it was sighted.

The AMERICAN BITTERN is 28 inches long with a voice that sounds like water gurgling. When alarmed it will stand in the sedges with neck stretched skyward, looking much like the reeds that surround it.

Immature Night Herons are also streaked and could possibly be confused with the bittern.

It is a hard species to approach and to get photographs requires a bit of luck.

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The Spotted Towhee – A Colorful Sparrow

To most people, sparrow means a small, brown, drab bird. But some members of the Sparrow family are very colorful. Such is the Spotted Towhee. It has a black head, a black back trimmed with white blotches, rust-colored sides, a white belly, and a bright-red eye. These colors combine to make this bird very striking.

My young daughter was the first to discover this bird in our yard, on an April morning now long past. Its flame red eye especially caught her attention. We also were struck by the contrast between its rust-colored sides and white belly. The way those colors shone in the sunlight, left an impression on us all.

This species likes to stay on the ground close to cover where, at the slighted provocation, it can disappear quickly under bushes. Towhees scratch through the ground litter, with both feet at once, when looking for food. This behavioral trait gives the bird a saucy, perky demeanor.

Length = 8 ½ inches Voice = a rising “tow-hee” or whining “chee-ee”

A Spotted Towhee, with flame red eye,

looks at me as I pass him by.

Hopping and scratching with both of his feet,

stirring the leaf litter for something to eat.

Rust-colored sides, in the sunlight glow,

a perfect contrast to white-belly below.

He’s a perky, saucy, colorful beast,

and he tugs at my heart-strings to say the least!

This is a very attractive and loveable bird and it always stirs up feelings of excitement and warmth whenever we spot it! Idaho also has a Green-Tailed Towhee which, in addition to a greenish back and tail, has a bright, brick-red crown. All towhees are ground feeders and skitterish. Both Idaho species visit our yard in April and May.

(Scratching the leaf litter)

It is not a Chipmunk

It’s not a Chipmunk!

It’s a GOLDEN-MANTLED GROUND SQUIRREL! This particular one is so appealing that my wife named him “Cutie Pie”. He is coming to a seep, where we are in a blind, to drink. Chipmunks are only about half as large and have stripes on their faces. This squirrel has two bold white stripes, encased in black, across its back. The head is a solid golden-tan.

Seeds, especially conifer seeds & Pinyon Pine nuts, make up 1/3 of this guy’s diet. Fruits, green vegetation, insects, and even fungi are also eaten. Cheek pouches are handy to carry large quantities of food to the burrow to be eaten later or during hibernation. The burrow is shallow and can be up to 100 feet long. It is usually under a log, a boulder, or under tree roots. Hibernation lasts from October to May and the squirrel puts on a heavy layer of fat to survive it. They will also wake up periodically to eat and then return to sleep.

In spring, they will have one litter of 4 to 6 young after a gestation period of 26 to 33 days. For grooming, they will roll in the dust to remove parasites. They then will curl up, head to tail, and use their well-developed claws to pull through their fur to clean it.

If you are at a campsite in coniferous or mixed forest, you are sure to encounter them. They have no fear of people, and I have had them crawl up on my knee, had them on the bumper of our truck, and even in our camper’s side compartment. When trying to lure birds in by putting out seed, these fellows can become a real nuisance by either scaring off the birds or by consuming the lure – then their cheek pouches really become enlarged. Some individuals that frequent campsites can become quite obese

(“Cutie-Pie” waiting his turn at the seep)

SWAINSONS HAWKS: Long Distance Migrators

From Idaho to Argentina is quite a flight, even for an airplane, but that is where this hawk goes each winter. Swainson’s Hawks love rabbits and ground squirrels and open country is where the hunting is best. They trade their niche here, each winter, with the Rough-legged Hawk –who comes down from the far north each late autumn.

Look for the tan bib and for some white around the chin, and don’t confuse it with the Red-tailed Hawk, who has a belly band. This raptor is tamer and easier to get close to than others. When driving in open country, they can often be seen perched on roadside posts. We like to visit the Centennial Valley of Montana every September. The new crop of hawks have fledged by then and many kinds are scattered across the upper Red Rock Lakes area. Swainson’s are well represented among the offerings.

This is a western hawk and arrives here in April and leaves in September. It may hunt from a tall perch but usually soars to spot prey. It will also take snakes, frogs, birds, and small rodents. Young hawks eat a lot of grasshoppers and crickets while learning to care for themselves. Nature has an ingenious adaptation for predatory birds. The fledglings are half again heavier than the adults when they leave the nest. This extra weight is lost as they learn to hunt.

Swainson’s Hawks are monogamous and return to the same nest every year. The nest will usually be in a tree next to farmland or next to a riparian (streamside) area. Four white eggs are laid and they require 34 to 35 days to incubate. The babies will fledge one month later. In two years the immature hawks will be ready to breed.

When in open country, keep your eyes alert and listen for a drawn out “skreeee”. Perhaps you might see this bird.

(Surveying the landscape from a north Heglar Canyon road post)