Our Neighborhood Kingfisher

I hear his “rattling” as he flies over our trees on his way to breakfast. Our neighbor has a large pond that is stocked with goldfish. The bird perches on a zip-line cable that is stretched over the pond. He watches below, plunges down and spears a fish, and then flies to a small bridge that leads to an island within the pond. He then smacks the head of the fish against the metal railing to kill it before ingesting it. Having observed this behavior, I set up my portable blind beside the bridge. I get in it each morning, before sunup, for most of a week. The “rattling” alerts me to his presence and I get ready for him to land on the bridge. This gives me the opportunity to get some good Kingfisher photos.

The BELTED KINGFISHER is a species in which the female is the more colorful. She has a rusty red belly stripe. They are 13” long and have a noticeable crest that looks to need “combing”.

They nest in burrows, dug in banks, close to fish inhabited waters. A short tail creates less drag as they exit the water after a dive. I became a Kingfisher lover from the time I first noticed one winging and “rattling” its way above Rock Creek, in southern Twin Falls County.


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.

The Chukar: A favorable introduction

by Dave Hanks

This national bird of PAKISTAN can, also, be found in the Mediterranean Islands, Turkey, Iran, Eastern Russia, China, Nepal, and now the United States. Most introductions to the USA have been detrimental, but not this bird. It has become established in the rocky grasslands and canyons of the western USA.

The Chukar’s name resembles its call – a rapid series of “chuck – chuck – chuck – chuck” and a shrill “whitoo” when alarmed. This partridge is a plump 14 inches long, has a white face that is encircled with a black ring that runs through the eyes and down to its throat, light grayish-brown back, buff belly, and Rufous streaking on its sides. It is a striking, multicolored bird that leaves no question as to its identity.

I have had acquaintances tell me that it was their favorite upland game bird to hunt. The Chukar is not only fun to hunt, but is good eating – even considered of gourmet quality. These characteristics have prompted the breeding of this species on game bird farms, thereby keeping a viable wild population. It is very easy to keep and breed in captivity.

Whenever you find yourself in the rocky canyons of Nevada, Utah, or South-West Idaho, look for this bird.


A member of the pheasant family

Rocky Mountain High

by Dave Hanks

This title is taken from a John Denver song of a few years back. It is reminiscent of the privileges we have to be able to live “out here” – especially if you value nature and the great outdoors. And we have a lot of special places that one can go to enjoy without making a major excursion across the continent. Some are fairly close to home. I will name a few.

The Hagerman Wildlife Refuge, Boise City Parks, and Market Lake at Roberts; are all good sites to observe waterfowl, non-game swimming birds, and kingfishers. The Centennial Marsh, west of Fairfield, is a favorite spot of ours. Besides the species listed above, there are many wading birds, and a large kestrel population. While there, we also make the short junket east to Silver Creek and the Hayspur fish hatchery at Picabo. All these sites have a nice assortment of water-related species. The Camas Refuge by Hamer, Idaho, not only has the water birds, but we have seen Moose, Elk, Porcupine, Muskrat, Pronghorn, and other mammals there.

Good assortments of forest species are right here in Cassia and Twin Falls Counties: (i.e.) Rock Creek, City of Rocks, Lake Cleveland, and North Heglar Canyon – one of our most productive spots for photos. The Centennial Valley of southwestern Montana is relatively close and has good Moose and Pronghorn populations, along with song birds at the Lakeview Campground. It is also the site for the restoration of the Trumpeter Swan.

We have benefited greatly from lesser known wild spots and wildlife refuges. But of course, Yellowstone and other national parks are well known and visited, The National Bison Range, just northwest of Missoula, Montana, is a place we rank very high. It’s a longer drive to get there, but the rewards are great: Bison, Pronghorn, Elk, Bighorn Sheep, White-Tailed and Mule Deer, Coyote, Black Bear, and an assortment of birds are all there.

I grew up on a farm and have always been a “country boy” at heart. At various times in my life I’ve been called, by some, “a country hick”. Not too complimentary at the time, but I’ve grown to appreciate that fact. Yes I am a country “hick”.

Bison Coming down the drive over the mountain on the National Bison Range

Coming down the drive over the mountain on the National Bison Range

A Sage Grouse Tale

by Dave Hanks\

Oh how I wish I was cute! How I wish I was clever –
	Enough to cause “chuckles” at my endeavor.
	I would write an ode, I would write a poem,
	About photographing Sage Grouse in their desert home. 

	So I’ll try once more. I’ll try again,
	To tell a grouse tale with paper and pen.
	I needed those grouse – needed their pictures “by gum”,
	And I knew just the place where there might be some.

	So I journey out west, where there’s nary a tree,
	To the Low Sage Plateau with my wife’s company.
	In the evening we went to that wide open space,
	Cause before it gets light, I must be in place.

	Set up my blind by that rock over there.
	Enter at 4:30 AM, with time to spare -
	To be in place before the sun has “riz”,
	And not “spook” the birds. It’s a touchy “biz”.

	In the blind in the dark. I freeze my “butt”,
	But all around I can hear those Sage Grouse strut.
	They boom and they flutter – Their wings beat the air,
	But I’m safely “tucked in” and glad to be where –

	I can get “close-ups” when it finally gets light.
	I can get good photos. They should be alright!
	In time the sun obliged, and “Oh what a sight”!
	Those grouse were strutting – They didn’t take flight!

	There they were, right under my feet.
	Man they were close and that was so “sweet”.
	I shot frame after frame. That I did.
	It was hard to stop. Of that I don’t “kid”.
	But a curious Pronghorn seemed out of his mind.
	Bounded right up to look into my blind.
	So off the birds flew. Flew off in their “glory”.
	But I got good pictures – That’s the end of this story!

(Yellow eye brows and air sacs – White ruff and erect tail feathers)

Color Hues and Geographic Location

by Dave Hanks

Returning from an excursion in the pine forests of central Oregon, I’ve become more impressed with the color intensity of its various lifeforms. I’ve always thought Ponderosa Pine to be a most attractive tree – from its long (three in a bundle) needles to its reddish (or yellowish – depending on location) bark. I would suppose that variations in color intensity would depend a lot on soil nutrients. Animals eat the vegetation and are no doubt influenced by those same nutrients. After observing the dark reddish color of the Ponderosa tree trunks, I also observed that the squirrels were of a darker shade than the same squirrel species we have around Southern Idaho. Their color mimicked the Ponderosa bark. Likewise, I have noticed the House Finches in the Desert Southwest to be of a brighter shade of red than our Idaho finches.

Black Bears are essentially black, especially in the eastern USA, but out here in the west you might see an occasional cinnamon colored one. These brown ones are a genetic recessive, but have evolved over time to be in tune with their surrounding environmental hues.

Anyone who has raised cattle realizes that the color of the meat produced depends a lot on the feed the animal has been fattened on. This, also, applies to the brightness of a Western Tanager’s red head, which is greatly affected by the amount of carotene the bird can obtain from its surrounding food sources. Geographic climate variations affect each area’s vegetation, which in turn affects the pigmentation of the animals in that area.

The Yellow Pine Chipmunk is a bright, tawny to a pinkish cinnamon. They prefer open forests where the sun casts sharp shadows. The squirrel’s Ponderosa Pine woodland habitat gives this rodent its name.

As we prepared to leave this place, after a restful night, nostalgia set in as we observed a big, bright, full moon that was visible behind a backdrop of Yellow Pine and further mystified by the various vocal utterances of a group of coyotes.

A Yellow Pine Chipmunk at a seep

A Yellow Pine Chipmunk at a seep

Cassia’s Common Ground Squirrel

The adult males emerge from hibernation in January, followed by the females in February. They then breed in March and a litter of 5 – 8 young are born in April. The gestation period is short, which allows them to reproduce, and then return to hibernation in mid-summer when grasses become dry. Nature’s main purpose for smaller rodents is as a food staple for larger animals. Mass reproduction is therefore necessary to maintain a species.

These squirrels dig two types of burrows. One is dug in feeding areas and is short and shallow. Its purpose is a quick escape from a predator. A large burrow is also dug with extensive tunnels, which in most cases connect colonies and enable them to stick together. Entrances to this large burrow will have 4 to 6 inch piles of dirt surrounding them.

Many ground squirrels are hard to differentiate between without catching them for a closer inspection. A half dozen species are so much alike that the area they are seen in is the best identification guide. TOWNSEND’S GROUND SQUIRREL is our local inhabitant. Its skull and teeth must be measured and examined to make a positive identification.

Plain, undistinguished ground squirrels are not a very exciting to most folks, who generally consider them a great nuisance, but they have a definite role to play in the natural scheme. Large hawks, foxes, coyotes, and others would be at a loss with out them. Squirrels also can serve as a buffer between predators and domestic animals – lessening domestic predation.

On the alert and surveying the scene

The Common Loon: Bird of Northern Lakes

Loons migrate though Idaho, on their way to Canada, in April. They will stop over at lakes on the way to rest and feed. Two such lakes are the Twin Lakes just north of Preston, Idaho. These lakes contain fish, and thus are inviting layovers. The aforementioned knowledge lured us to these water bodies in early April. April weather being unpredictable, gave us a bitter cold, overcast, and windy day and night before relenting into a decent day that followed. The loon population was not nearly as great as had been promised, but I did get some pictures – and that was what our objective was. Loons like to stay well out in the lake, which makes getting close-ups difficult.

Loons symbolize wilderness and solitude. They have one of the most haunting calls you will hear in the wild. It is this call that was central to the movie “On Golden Pond”. The Chippewa Indians believed the call to be an omen of death. Other tribes ascribed the call as a message of power.

Loon nests are constructed of weeds and grass and are found along lake shorelines. They use the same nest year after year, and nesting is the only time they spend on land, as they have trouble walking. However, they are built for speed in the water. If an enemy gets too close to the chicks, they do what is called a “penguin dance”. They fold their wings next to their body and swim upright in a maneuver that looks like a penguin.

Loons can stay underwater for 5 minutes and swim underwater for a half mile. Once up, it seems, they stay only briefly before diving again. They would much rather dive than fly – although they are good fliers.

Besides the common Loon, we also have the Yellow-Billed, the Pacific, the Arctic, and the Red-Throated – which also lives in the arctic on small water bodies on the tundra. There is something about this bird’s call that penetrates and leaves an impression – once heard, you’ll never forget it!

A common loon in the water Laying over during migration to the north at Twin Lakes, Idaho

Laying over during migration to the north at Twin Lakes, Idaho

Long-Tailed Weasel: Feared Predator of the Lesser World

What has one of the most powerful bites for its size in the predator world? What has a small head and tube-like body that can go down most burrows? What predator is a greatly feared hunter, in the rodent world in which it hunts? What animal must kill around 500 rodents a year to satisfy its upkeep? It’s the Long-Tailed Weasel.

Voles (commonly known as field mice) are its “ice cream species” (that is the food an animal prefers above all else). However, larger prey will be taken when voles are not available. They will eat the head and thorax first and any leftovers are stored in the burrow. Weasels do not hibernate and so they will kill more than they can consume. This is added to their larder for times when prey is scarce.

This weasel is brown above and yellowish below and in northern climes turns white in winter, except for its tail tip which remains black. Males are twice as heavy as females. Its cousin, the Short-Tailed Weasel (or Ermine) has a white belly and is slightly smaller. Weasels are Mustelids (like skunks) and have scent glands that produce a strong odor for marking territory, defense, and most often used during the mating season. They also have well defined whiskers, which are quite sensitive and useful for navigation in darkness or in secluded places. They can swim or climb trees when necessary.

The Long-Tailed Weasel is the most wide-spread carnivore in the western hemisphere. The habitats they frequent always have water close at hand. We have experienced them in Waterton Provincial Park in Alberta and at Lake Cleveland – where we often see them “slithering’ out of the rocks and then quickly disappearing.

This small, elongated predator is retiring, but can be very aggressive if confronted.

A young weasel  at the water

Young weasel at the water

Our Yard: Cottontail Habitat

We have a bunch of Cottontails,their tails are silky white – I see them every morning, before the sun is bright

They especially like our bushes,and the cover that they give – They sneak back and forth from them, what a way to live!

They are so very cute, so cuddly and so plump – And when they hop away I see, The white bobbing of each rump

The mornings promise excitement, from the wild things on our place – And I’m so ever grateful, that they seem to find the space

To romp around so freely, it makes me feel so good – But with a yard like ours, I guess I knew it would!

There are 16 species of cottontails, and these rabbits only live for 12 to 15 months. Only one in a hundred will survive to see its third fall. Their short life span, and the heavy predation upon them, requires these critters to be heavy reproducers. They may raise as many as 6 litters a year. Breeding starts in March and lasts through early autumn. Their nests are not dug, but are slight depressions scratched out under dense vegetation. The doe lines it with dry grass and her fur. She gives birth up to eight blind, furless young in each litter. The bunnies grow rapidly and are totally independent at five weeks. On the average, only 15 percent of the young will survive their first year.

Cottontails have very keen eyesight and hearing. They will usually freeze when they sense danger, but will flush if approached too closely. Movement is usually accomplished by short hops, but they can run at speeds up to 18 miles per hour over short distances – their endurance is limited. They will often zig-zag to confuse a pursuing predator.

Cottontails eat grass, ferns, herbs, and your garden plants. They can become a threat to young growing vegetables – like our young corn shoots – which require us to surround them with some type of protection. This reminds me of the Peter Cottontail stories and the “scritch-scratching” of Mr. MacGreagor’s hoe.

A Mountain Cottontail in our yard

A Mountain Cottontail in our yard