Sage meets conifers on Lucky Peak (Photo by Narca)
At the Western Field Ornithologists' annual meeting, Alan and I join an all-day field trip to the bird banding station run by Idaho Bird Observatory, a research institution under the auspices of Boise State University. The station is perched atop Lucky Peak, about 2500 feet above Boise. IBO director Greg Kaltenecker hosts us.
The dirt road winds up the mountainside, through sage steppe habitat that shifts into Douglas-fir near the top. Along the ecotone between conifers and sage grows a band of fruit-laden shrubs and trees, mostly chokecherry and bitter cherry. (I taste one––yes, it's well-named!) These cherries attract hundreds of migrant songbirds. Today Western Tanagers outnumber the other species. An out-of-place Chestnut-sided Warbler spotted by Ron Martin adds spice to the morning.
The banding operation is really three separate efforts: in one area, songbirds, hummingbirds and woodpeckers have been banded for about 13 years; on a nearby promontory a hawk-banding operation has been underway for about 15 years; and a nighttime owl-banding operation was begun in 1999.
The banding station is exceedingly well-placed. Not only does it lie amid the cherries, but Lucky Peak is a jumping-off point for migrants moving south from the mountains of central Idaho. It's the southernmost peak on the Boise Ridge, and beyond it lies the desert of the Great Basin. Migrant hawks use the thermals generated along the ridge, and songbirds eat berries and insects, fueling up for the next stage of their journey. So thousands of migrants concentrate atop Lucky Peak.
Greg Kaltenecker and Alan Craig at mistnet (Photo by Narca)
Jay Carlisle and his enthusiastic interns conduct the songbird banding. Net lanes run through the cherry trees, and a small building houses the banding station itself. We join the banders on their rounds of the nets and admire the warblers, thrushes and grosbeaks as they are processed, then released to resume their journey.
About noon we climb to the hilltop and join the hawkwatch. During the next 4 hours, about 70 raptors stream past, including 2 Golden Eagles and an Osprey, along with the more common species. Accipiters are the most numerous. Below our perch, researchers at the hawk-banding station run a series of traps for capturing raptors. During the afternoon, they capture and band 13 Cooper's Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks, and American Kestrels.
Cooper's Hawk at banding station (Photo by Narca)
Banding programs run from mid July through October, and visitors are welcome. Check the IBO website for details: www.idahobirdobservatory.org. Their blog also details the species and numbers of individuals captured during the past couple of field seasons. In 2008 a big highlight was an immature Gyrfalcon!
You can find more photos from our day on Lucky Peak in my photo gallery.