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Birding by Car and Canoe

30 May - 14 June 2001

by George West

A trip to McCall, Idaho provided an excuse to do a little birding and fishing in the cool air of central Idaho after several weeks of heat in southeastern Arizona.  We drove northwest from Green Valley to Las Vegas via Phoenix and Kingman and then northeast on I-15 a short distance to connect with Route 93 that runs north along the eastern border of Nevada the entire length of the state.  Our first day took us to Caliente, NV with many stops on the way.  The only sighting of interest in Arizona was a Common Black Hawk north of Wikieup on Route 93.  Once out of the congestion of Las Vegas, we made better time.

In Caliente, we found a clean and reasonably priced place to stay at the Shady Motel.  Dinner at the pizza place on the corner was good.  Breakfast at the Brandin' Iron Café (closed Mondays, open at 6:00 A.M.) was convenient.  Around town we found a hummingbird feeder that was supporting a number of Black-chins.  The trees had many Bullock's Orioles and Western Kingbirds.  Just north of town in a canyon is a marshy area with Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Cinnamon Teal, Mallards, coot, and a Phainopepla at the northern edge of its range.  

The road to Ely (pronounced Eelee) is relatively straight.  Parts are bordered by wet grasslands to the east and a gradually sloping hillside to the west - some of which is pasture and some sagebrush.  Along here, we saw three Golden Eagles on the power poles, along with Northern Harrier, Ferruginous, and Red-tailed Hawks.  The fields had nesting Horned Larks, Lark Sparrows, Long-billed Curlews, and Sandhill Cranes.  We found Sage Thrashers in the brush.  Just south of Ely is a small lake - perhaps called Steptoe Lake.  The road crosses the northern end of the lake, but birding is best at the south end.   There is one access through the fence from Rt.  93 just to the north of the south end of the lake.  With a high clearance vehicle, you can drive this dirt tract to the lake margin.  Here we saw the following: Redhead, Canvasback, Ring-necked Duck, Ruddy Duck, Mallard, Cinnamon Teal, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, Killdeer, Black-necked Stilt, Long-billed Curlew, White-faced Ibis, Forster's Tern, Ring-billed Gull, Eared Grebe, American Coot, Great Egret, Black-crowned Night Heron, Sandhill Crane, Cliff Swallow, Savannah Sparrow, Red-winged, Yellow-headed, and Brewer's Blackbirds.   Route 93 north of Ely to Wells is mostly over 6,000-feet elevation.  Snow is visible on the surrounding peaks that reach over 11,000 feet.  The wide valleys are covered with sagebrush.


After entering Idaho, we left Route 93 and turned west on highway 30 towards Boise.  This is the Thousand Springs road that parallels the Snake River and ends up on I-84.  Near Hagerman is a rest stop that gave a good variety of birds.  This is on the north side of Route 30 just after some marshes visible on that side of the road.  It is clearly marked.  A short trail leads to marshes where there were blackbirds, Canada Geese, Ruddy Ducks, Redhead, Pied-billed Grebe, Great Blue Heron, and Mallards.   We found three Common Nighthawks sleeping in the trees right over the rest room.  There were also a number of Eastern and Western Kingbirds, Yellow Warbler, Common Yellow-throat, Western Wood-Pewee, Cedar Waxwing, and Song Sparrow.  We drove a back road down to the Snake River in the evening and found flocks of Tree and Cliff Swallows, Double-crested Cormorant, Great Egret, Black-crowned Night Heron, Canada Goose, Spotted Sandpiper, Belted Kingfisher, Ring-billed Gull and Forster's Tern along the river.  Common Merganser and Western Grebe were on the river.  Bullock's Oriole, Ring-necked Pheasant, California Quail, House Finch, Song Sparrow, and Canyon Wren were along the hillsides.  

Interstate 84 to Boise and the lower section of Route 55 north can be passed quickly.  However, most of Route 55 winds up through the canyon of the Payette River ending up in Payette Lake in McCall, Idaho.  The southern portion of the North Fork of the Payette from Banks up to Cabarton are white-water rapids used by very daring kayakers.  The northern portion of the same river from Cabarton Bridge to the town of Cascade is flat and good for canoeing.  

In McCall, we stayed in a condo for a week and met friends Ronni and Bob W. from Olympia, Washington.  McCall is one-mile-high elevation and cool in early June.  Around the condo were several mule deer and a family of red fox.  Apparently the latter are very common here as we saw several here and there in the area.  Walking the pine and fir forested areas around Payette Lake gave us the following species: Canada Goose, Common Merganser, Common and Barrow's Goldeneye, Bufflehead, Northern Harrier, American Kestrel, Spotted Sandpiper, Common Snipe, Ring-billed Gull, Calliope Hummingbird, Northern Flicker, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Western Wood-Pewee, Tree, Violet-green, Cliff, and Barn Swallow, Steller's Jay, American Crow, Red-eyed, Cassin's and Warbling Vireo, Black-capped and Mountain Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, American Robin, Hermit Thrush, Mountain Bluebird, Yellow-rumped and Yellow Warbler, Western Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak, Fox, Song, and Chipping Sparrow, Dark-eyed (Oregon) Junco, Lazuli Bunting, Western Meadowlark, Brewer's, Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbird, and Brown-headed Cowbird.

On June 2 we drove to Hell's Canyon of the Snake River.  In the canyon were Bald Eagle, White-throated Swift and Canyon Wren.  This is an interesting place to visit with lots of good birding and picnic spots.  You can take a jet-boat ride in the canyon below the dam, but we ran out of time.   On June 3 and 4 we visited the Cambridge area along the Weiser (pronounced Weezer, despite its spelling) River and its tributaries.  Flyfishing below Cambridge was moderately successful with some rainbow trout caught on both wet and dry flies.  Caddis flies were hatching but there were few rises.   Birds in this area included: Bufflehead, Ring-necked Duck, Swainson's and Red-tailed Hawk, Killdeer, Long-billed Curlew, Spotted Sandpiper, Common Snipe, California Quail, Ring-necked Pheasant, Mourning Dove, Common Nighthawk, Western Wood-Pewee, Warbling Vireo, Black-capped Chickadee, Black-billed Magpie, Northern Rough-winged and Barn Swallow, House Wren, Gray Catbird, American Robin, Cedar Waxwing, Yellow Warbler, Black-headed Grosbeak, Bullock's Oriole, Western Meadowlark, Red-winged Blackbird, and Bobolink.

It was snowing when we got up on June 5, but this turned to light rain as we drove south down the Payette River on Route 55 to Banks, and then east along the South Fork of the Payette River to Lowman.  Again, this is a beautiful wild river with some flat water and some good kayaking rapids.   There are well-marked accesses to the river.  However, to the east, the canyon walls are very steep and once on the river, it is a long way through some good rapids before you can get out again.  We did see American Dipper on the rocky rivers, a Red-naped Sapsucker, and a few Evening Grosbeaks in the pines.  

On June 6 the weather lifted but it remained cold in the higher elevations of McCall.  We drove west on Route 55 to New Meadows (good place to eat is the Sagebrush Barbecue Café) and then south to Council and on a dirt road to Goodrich.  Here the weather was partly cloudy but the temperature had risen into the 60s.  We put the canoe in on the Weiser River and floated about six miles to just north of Cambridge.  The river was lower than normal and there were many rocks to avoid.  With four of us in the canoe, there was little free-board.  We only partly swamped once and had to line the canoe through the white water.  However, fishing was good.  We got about 10 rainbow trout with two good fish at 16 and 18 inches.  These latter two were caught on a large marabou fish imitator fly.  With the banks of the river lined with cottonwoods and willows, there were many birds.  Of interest was the large number of Lewis's Woodpeckers and Eastern Kingbirds.  I estimated at least 40 of each of these two species in the six miles of river.  Other species not seen earlier were Yellow-breasted Chat, Great Blue Heron, and Belted Kingfisher.  

On June 7, we decided to float the North Fork of the Payette from Cascade to the Cabarton Bridge.  This turned out to be a l3-mile and three-hour paddle.  Despite the current, the wind slowed us down.  There were no rapids.  The bottom was sandy with few places for fish to hide.  We saw the following species of birds not found earlier: Many Osprey, Swainson's Hawk, and a pair of nesting Sandhill Crane on a grassy river bar.  We fished the fast water below the Cabarton Bridge and caught a few rainbow trout.   Bob got one 19-inch beauty.  The fish were feeding on a recent hatch of salmon flies.   June 8 and 9 took us east and north to Missoula, Montana, and then west and north to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.  This route follows the Salmon and Bitterroot Rivers north and then the St.  Regis River west along interstate 90 to Coeur d'Alene.  Here we visited our friend Terri D.  who has a spread in the pine and fir forests above Coeur d'Alene Lake.  In her yard were the following birds of interest: California Quail, Hairy Woodpecker, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Western Wood-Pewee, Violet-green Swallow, Steller's Jay, Common Raven, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Black-capped and Mountain Chickadee, American Robin, Townsend's Solitaire, Swainson's Thrush, Spotted Towhee, Chipping Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, a flock of about 40 Red Crossbills, a pair of Cassin's Finch, Pine Siskin, Evening Grosbeak, House Finch, and Brown-headed Cowbird.

On June 11, I fished a small portion of the St. Maries (pronounced Mary's) River between Fernwood and Clarkia along Route 3.  I managed to get three nice cutthroat trout and some other strikes using dry flies (mostly green-bodied humpys).  The only bird species seen here and not other places was Northern Waterthrush.  

June 12-14 brought us back to Green Valley along the same route we had taken earlier.  The distances from Coeur d'Alene to McCall, ID is 275 miles along very windy roads.  From McCall, ID to Caliente, NV is 623 miles, and from Caliente to Green Valley is 625 miles.  The total distance of 1,520 miles (same distance as the Alaska Highway from Dawson Creek, BC to Fairbanks, AK) is a tough three-day drive allowing little time to stop.  Next time we may drag the little trailer along so we can make the trip in a more leisurely fashion.

Dr. George C. West
Wildlife Clip Art and Wildlife Jewelry
Green Valley, AZ