Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Talbot Family Visits the Idaho Bird Observatory

Guest post from Jason Talbot, a fledged birder and friend of "Birding is Fun!" host Robert Mortensen. Jason and Colleen Talbot are the parents of seven beautiful girls and are expecting their eighth daughter soon!

Boise State University has a bird banding station and Hawk counting viewpoint at the Idaho Bird Observatory on Lucky Peak. It is the southernmost peak on the Boise Ridge just outside Boise, ID. The Boise Ridge is one of the few sites in the west where great numbers of diurnal raptors, songbirds and forest owls concentrate during fall migration. The IBO’s mission is to contribute to the conservation of migratory landbirds through cooperative research and public education.

Our family drove (high-clearance recommended) up on the morning of Aug. 24, 2012 to watch them capture and band songbirds. The girls anticipated the opportunity to hold the songbirds in their hands when being released.

They begin banding songbirds in mid July and wrap up the season with Hawkwatch, Hawk banding & Owl banding the end of October. You can go to their website for details and directions. Go to the Idaho Bird Observatory facebook page for updates to happenings on the peak.

Kylie releasing a Swainson’s Thrush
41 songbirds were captured among 16 different species while we were there.

Townsend’s Warbler
MacGillivray’s Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Wilson’s Warbler
Orange-crowned Warbler
Dusky Flycatcher
Warbling Vireo
Cassin’s Vireo
Swainson’s Thrush
Western Tanager
Lazuli Bunting
Spotted Towhee
Black-headed Grosbeak
Black-capped Chickadee
Black-chinned Hummingbird

The list to the right is the running total of what they’ve captured between July 16th and August 18th. 1,663 birds and 45 species.

Jay, who is the Research Director welcomed us and explained to us about IBO. He is also a soccer player so he made a very good connection with my girls and he was very friendly. It was a lot of fun to watch the girls’ faces as they released the birds and as field staff educated them about birds and conservation while collecting data such as age, sex, body fat, size, etc.

The staff was great at keeping the girls interested and even entertained. Zak and my girls had a contest doing the limbo. It was a lot of fun and well worth the drive. The girls can’t wait to come back for Hawkwatch, Hawk banding & Owl banding in September.

Jacie & Brynn watch while a bird is being freed from the net 
Checking mist nets with IBO staff
Kalyn releasing a MacGillivray’s Warbler
Brynn holding a Nashville Warbler
Jay feeding a Black-headed Grosbeak before release
Madilyn releasing a Townsend’s Warbler
Hailey admiring a Black-chinned Hummingbird
Some of the fun IBO staff with my girls
Madilyn admiring a Dusky Flycatcher
Hailey releasing a Yellow Warbler
We went back to IBO on Sept. 22nd after my girls’ soccer games. We wanted to see the Hawk and Owl banding. I took Jacie, Brynn and Hailey – the perfect daddy-daughter date. The air quality was terrible due to the fires, especially the nearby fire in Robie Creek that an eighteen year old volunteer fire fighter started last week. The smoke just settled in the valley due to the lack of any kind of weather movement. I thought we might get out of the smoke at Lucky Peak but to no avail.

Hawkwatch at Lucky Peak
We started out by walking to the peak where they do Hawkwatch. It’s a great view of the city and countryside. Several scientists count hawks as they fly over on their migration route. There wasn’t much wind generating thermals so it was a slow day for counting Hawks. We saw a few Sharp-shinned Hawks, Kestrel, Northern Harrier, a possible Falcon and a resident Golden Eagle.

The IBO staff counts the migratory raptors by counting only those that fly through a certain corridor and out of sight. It is a measure taken to avoid duplicating counts of resident birds. According to their data from banding and recovery we learned that Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks winter in the state of Sinaloa in Mexico and they are found as far north as central British Columbia in the spring and summer. Red-tailed Hawks and Kestrels winter in central California.

The exciting part was watching Hawks get captured for banding purposes. We watched from above as they captured Hawks near the blind. They used several traps and I noticed pigeons as one of the attractants. They walked the birds up the hill to allow the public to release them.

Sharp-shinned Hawks that were trapped and banded
It was a busy day so we didn’t get to sit in the blind. There were several students being trained that day. We’re going to try again on a weekday in October when it’s less busy and hopefully get an invite to sit in the blind to take part in all the action. Maybe it will be a Goshawk next time!

They stopped watching and catching Hawks around 6:00pm. We walked back down to the truck and cooked up some hotdogs. Our plan was to stay on the mountain until 11:00pm to hopefully have the opportunity to release an owl. I was really hoping to see a Flammulated Owl which I have never seen before. We saw a Northern Saw-whet a few winters ago in the foothills thanks to IBLE. The girls thought it was the cutest thing ever. Both are rare to see in the wild. I knew our chances were slim since we weren’t spending the night but I liked our timing. They had caught both species the last several nights. It does take a little luck to see an owl so where else but Lucky Peak!

The girls waiting for an owl capture
As it began to get dark I laid a blanket down for the girls to sleep on. I told them that I’d waken them if an Owl was captured. As they started playing Owl calls I realized that I had heard a Flammulated Owl before. I was on a fall scout camp a few years ago near Bogus Basin just down the ridge. I heard an owl calling but had no idea what kind it was. It wasn’t until tonight that I realized I was listening to a Flammulated Owl. Mystery solved!

I sat in a chair next to the girls as they slept while I listened to the tape over and over. I soon noticed flashlights returning from the first net run. A voice exclaimed, “Two Owls – one of each”. I couldn’t believe how lucky we were. I woke the girls to see the owls. How fortunate and incredible!
Banding a Northern Saw-whet and Flammulated Owl

How fortunate we felt to see both species at the same time.
The Northern Saw-whet was put on Jacie’s arm until it was ready to fly off. I couldn’t take a picture because Owl eyes need to adjust to the dark before being released. I could tell that the girls were amazed by the look on their faces even though they were very tired. I was really happy that we took a chance and it really paid off. What a marvel! The city lights were also spectacular on our hike back to the truck just after 10:00pm.

The girls received a fabulous education during the two days at IBO. They got to see both sides of what it’s like to be a Wildlife Biologist. The girls were there for the exciting times as well as the long wait. They realized that there is a lot of work and patience involved and that scientists make considerable sacrifices to do what they love. We learned many fascinating things about birds.

They were excited about being paleontologists last year after going to a couple dinosaur museums and going Trilobite hunting with grandpa. They had second thoughts when we tracked across the hot desert in southern Utah to a dinosaur quarry over spring break. They realized scientists spend considerable time in the field away from the comforts of home. It’s been great exposing them to different options for considering their future plans.

I learned a few interesting things about IBO’s purpose and research while visiting and from their website. Through banding they determine bird species and populations over time. By measuring and weighing the birds they can determine that a yearly variation in body conditions may indicate a habitat problem. Scientists can determine winter ranges which will allow for easier predictions of impacts due to habitat loss and climate change. I learned a lot about migration patterns of several songbirds, owls and raptors and what information they collected when captured. How to determine species, age, sex and health were all things discussed but I realized it would take some schooling and lots of experience to get it right.

I noticed the songbird board while I was there. They have now captured 3,161 songbirds and 53 species since Sept. 13th. I think they average between 50-60 species and 5,000 - 6,000 songbirds per year. Kids will find IBO fascinating. I never saw a child or an adult for that matter that didn’t have a smile when releasing a bird. They are doing a great job at educating the public and hopefully sparking an interest in nature. It’s a unique outdoor opportunity and a Boise area must do. Put on a smile – go release a bird!
The smile of a release


  1. Wow, what a great educational adventure for your girls and you! If I am in the Boise area while they are doing the banding I will make an effort to visit there.

  2. What a magical day for your girls! It will probably leave a lifelong memory for them and maybe turn them into birdwatchers!