Thursday, March 7, 2013

Guest Post: Scenes from Idaho's Wilderness Areas

Guest post by Jason Talbot

I love to fly fish Idaho’s back country. Whether it’s a day hike or a backpacking trip for the week,the wild of the outdoors recharges my batteries and reminds me of the important things in life. It gets even better when I can share those moments with family or friends. The scenery is spectacular and I can’t help but feel inspired. I love what nature does to my soul. Whether it coming face to face with a bear on the trail, watching a trout rise to my fly, seeing flower covered meadows, taking cover from an oncoming storm, hearing an elk bugle or having my heart jump-started by a flushing chukar - I just can’t seem to get enough.

My newly acquired pastime of birding the last few years has greatly augmented my outdoor experience. I’m much more aware of my surroundings and it generates a certain excitement of "what’s around the next corner?" Idaho’s wilderness areas afford many opportunities to see birds that I wouldn't ordinarily see. I've added a pair of binoculars to my list of non-essential backpacking items. My small pocket camera is the other non-essential item that I carry, but one I would feel incomplete without. The scenes I shoot with my camera are a constant reminder why I need to return and hopefully inspire others to do the same. Each picture tells a story that I never want to forget. The following are a few scenes from my wilderness excursions and birds I saw along the way.

Owyhee Canyonlands Wilderness

Springtime is a great time to visit the Owyhee Canyonlands. The desert is green, it’s not too hot and the wildlife is active. Weather and your vehicle will determine the areas you can visit in this remote, unforgiving high desert plateau of river carved canyons. It is a special place to those who have visited. Adjacent to the wilderness area is the world renowned Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area.

On one occasion while hiking along the rim of Little Jack’s Creek I came across a noisy raptor sounding its alarm call. I soon saw it as it started frantically flying around and realized it was my first Peregrine Falcon seen in the wild. It was letting me know I wasn't welcome. I have also seen Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles, Turkey Vultures, Prairie Falcons, Osprey, Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks and a Ferruginous Hawk. I've also seen Burrowing Owls and Short-eared Owls in the conservation area. Other birds I see in this wilderness area are Canyon Wrens, Rock Wrens, Rock Pigeons, White-throated Swifts, Horned Larks, Chukar, and the iconic Sage Grouse.

One of my favorite outdoor experiences happened while traveling by foot on April Fool’s Day few years back. As I made my way across the sagebrush to a remote canyon overlook I flushed couple of Sage Grouse. After gathering myself, I noticed another thumping sound besides the beating of my heart. I walked a little further and realized there were several Sage Grouse. I noticed males on the small hillside puffing out their chests. The sound I heard was the booming as they strutted their stuff. I was standing in the middle of a mating ritual! At that moment I just sat down and watched - thankful to witness such a spectacular event.
A place known as "The Meanders" on the East Fork Owyhee River
A struggle to survive
I got this lucky photo of a Bighorn Sheep in the Bruneau River Canyon.
The East Fork Owyhee River
A view into Big Jacks Creek
Sawtooth Wilderness

The Sawtooth Wilderness was close to becoming Idaho’s first National Park. This wilderness is aptly named for its scenic granite spires. I have hiked many of its trails and fished many of its lakes and I can’t say enough about how incredible it is. From its pine covered trail-heads to its inspiring bald peaks, the Sawtooths provide for some incredible birds.

My favorite sighting was in the summer of 2010 while working. I was driving along the edge of the Stanley Basin when I noticed a Great Gray Owl fly from the edge of the forest out into the grassy meadow. I noticed it fly low and then pounce into the grass. I got to see several pounces from several perches while it hunted the meadow. I didn’t realize at the time what a grand occasion that really was. In this same area near Stanley Lake I also got a glimpse of my first Northern Goshawk fly and land on a pine tree next to a clearing.

Other birds that were special highlights included close-ups of a Pileated Woodpecker, Wilson’s Snipe, Swainson’s & Hermit Thrush, American Pipit, American Dipper, Western Tanager, Osprey, a soul satisfying view of a Three-toed Woodpecker and my first ever Rufous Hummingbird, Pine Grosbeak and Black Rosy-finch at snowline among the granite spires.
Stanely Lake - near where I saw the Northern Goshawk and Great Grey Owl
Toxaway Lake
It was from this viewpoint above Baron Lakes that I saw my first Black Rosy-finches
Alpine Lake
Boulder White Clouds

The most scenic hike that I've undertaken in Idaho could arguably be the thirty-mile loop around Castle Peak in the White Clouds. It is currently part of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area but has been tied up in the courts for decades waiting to receive wilderness designation.

The scenery and experiences of this weeklong trip with my brothers was unlike any other. I caught my first Golden Trout, escaped an avalanche caused by Mountain Goats along a steep trail, slept with my poncho over my head one night during a bad storm thanks to a leaky tent and I backpacked the last 10 miles/ two days without food or water because I couldn’t keep anything down thanks to the flu. Oh the memories!
Castle Peak and Washington Basin in the White Clouds
My most memorable bird sighting was while lying on my sleeping bag and watching a Red Crossbill in the tree above my head that seemed to disregard my presence. On the lakes edge was a Solitary Sandpiper which took me by surprise in this high mountain lake over 9,000. I remember hearing the chatter of Clark’s Nutcrackers that seemed to be everywhere we went.
Baker Lake
Quiet Lake and Serrate Ridge
Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness

This wilderness is the largest wilderness in the lower forty eight. It is also the closest definition of wild that you’ll find in the lower forty eight. King Salmon travel 900 miles to spawn in its ginger clear streams and reintroduced Wolves continue to hunt the countryside for Elk and Deer.

Hiking along Fishing Ridge in the Bighorn Crags.
The thing I remember most about one of my trips was walking up and getting very close views of Grouse. The Grouse in these alpine areas that I’ve seen include Dusky, Ruffed and Spruce Grouse. It’s the one bird I can get a decent picture of with my small Olympus pocket camera. It’s not uncommon to get great close-up views of Grouse on most hikes I take in Idaho.

Robert Mortensen and I were scout leaders when we hiked into Knapp Lakes/Crimson Lake. I glanced my first Three-toed Woodpecker with Robert on this trip along with a Townsend Solitaire. I loved the evening chorus in camp of a Swainson’s Thrush and Olive-sided Flycatcher as an Osprey watched from a nearby snag. You can read more details about this hike on Robert’s post from August 2010.
A grouse seen along the trail.
Ship Island Lake in the Bighorn Crags
Crimson Lake (Lower lake on the middle left of this photo.) Robert's Double-Dip Lake on the right.
Hells Canyon Wilderness

The elevation in Hells Canyon Wilderness is extreme. Hells Canyon is the deepest river gorge in North America. The Snake River is at 1200’ and the peaks of the Seven Devils rise to over 9,000’. The trail along the river is great to hike in the spring while the Seven Devils can usually be accessed by early summer.

I’ve seen Wild Turkey in the canyon but the biggest memory of hiking the trail along the river is the constant jolts to the heart of flushing Chukar or the less frequent Gray Partridge. The best memory of the high country was a hike where I saw Gray Jays, Stellar’s Jays and Clark’s Nutcrackers all within the same vicinity. These Corvids are seen on many hikes in Idaho’s high country but it really stood out on my trip to the southern Seven Devils. A nice rarity on this trip was seeing a Pine Grosbeak and an unusual number of Mountain Blue Birds.
Hells Canyon hike from Pittsburg Landing to Kirkwood Ranch
Southern Seven Devils
He Devil Peak overlooking Sheep Lake in the northern Seven Devils
Other possibilities for Warblers include Yellow, Yellow-rumped, Townsend’s, MacGillivray’s, Nashville, Wilson’s & Orange-crowned. I have also seen Cassin’s Finch, Chickadees, Red-Breasted Nuthatches, Cedar Waxwings, Evening Grosbeaks, Pine Siskin and Flycatchers to name a few highlights. I've even seen a few Common Mergansers in a high-country lake.

I visited the Gospel Hump Wilderness last fall and got a close-up view of Spruce Grouse and a couple Winter Wrens. I also heard a Northern Saw-whet Owl. The greatest memory of that trip was following wolf tracks down the trail and then stumbling across a fresh kill on the banks of the lake where I was fishing. It doesn’t get much better than that except for watching it all happen.

I will enter the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness for the first time this summer when I cross the Magruder Road and fish the upper Selway River with my brother.

Idaho has so many wonderful places to visit. I feel grateful to live in such a wonderful land and to have so many great experiences and memories.


  1. Phew! Stunning, absolutely stunning.

  2. Wow, what wonderful adventures you have! I'm glad you've added birding to your hobbies!

  3. I also meant to comment on your High Adventure outings. Thanks for being so dedicated to your boys. My youngest son has not had any experiences like that...High Adventure has not been High and it hasn't been much of an much so that he skipped out on most of the last one. Your boys will be forever grateful for these experiences.

  4. Crap. That was a nice change of pace. An Idaho I never knew! Facemelting.

  5. Thank you for sharing these photos - I grew up in Emmett, Idaho but live in North Carolina now. Our children have been asking to go "home" - and these photos take us right there, to the heart of that magnificent state. We are brand new to birding - I am looking forward to a trip back there with my bird goggles and seeing everything with new eyes. And sharing that beauty with our children.