Yesterday our Ornithology class took a field trip out to the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area. This area is believed to include the largest concentration of raptors in the world. It is a productive wintering ground for many species and holds a significant summer and year round population as well. An estimated 800 pairs of raptors nest in the area. Sixteen raptor species nest in the area, including the American Kestrel, Ferruginous Hawk, Golden Eagle, Northern Harrier, Osprey, Prairie Falcon, Red-tailed Hawk, Swainson's Hawk, Turkey Vulture, Barn Owl, Burrowing Owl, Great Horned Owl, Long-eared Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Short-eared Owl, and the Western Screech Owl. An additional eight species winter in the area, including the Bald Eagle, Cooper's Hawk, Gyrfalcon, Merlin, Northern Goshawk, Peregrine Falcon, Rough-legged Hawk, and Sharp-shinned Hawk. The large expanse of SouthWest Idaho desert, inside and outside of the conservation area, is teeming with ground squirrels, snakes, jack rabbits, and other rodents, providing an excellent food source for this community.
It was a good field trip, although it was a bit rushed. We had less then 4 hours from leaving school to be back at school with a close to an hour drive each way. Anyway, we did find some interesting birds. I was able to get a couple good photographs.
In addition to these, we did see a number of Swainson's Hawks, mostly in their nest trees. We observed one couple mating. It didn't appear that any they were incubating eggs yet. We watched White-throated Swifts flying the Snake River Canyon, saw Golden Eagles on their nest, and heard Canyon Wrens sign their beautiful song. I was really hoping to see my first Burrowing Owl of the year, but we came up short. The other van did see one, but we missed it.
It was an interesting drive to and through the conservation area. With my new understanding and awareness of the Sage Steppe habitat, it was interesting to note that it is almost completely destroyed in this area. Replaced by the much less productive, from a biodiversity perspective, cheat grass. Cheatgrass burns regularly, which will prevent the Sage Steppe from recovering on its own. It is a difficult conservation problem. As a result, the Sage Grouse are gone from this area, the rabbit population is nearly gone, endemic plant species are on the edge of extinction. This has to have a significant impact on the raptors of the area as well. In addition, almost every nest tree available was in use by a pair of Swainson's Hawks. The number of trees available in the area is way down do to cheat grass fires. The result is that the number of Swainson's Hawks summering here is also down. In another area we passed a field that was used for agriculture for many years. It hasn't been used in at least five years. Still, there was not a single weed or blade of grass growing on it. What does it take to destroy a piece of land so thoroughly that in five years, nothing, not even cheat grass, will grow on it? This area is still a tremendous asset for the world and we are lucky to have it in our backyard. I just hope that the damage can be stopped and some restoration will be successful.