Thursday, September 27, 2012

Nice weekend to head to Lucky Peak summit, see hawks, song birds at ID Bird Observatory

A juvenile red-tailed hawk poses for a photo before being released  atop Lucky Peak. (Courtesy IBO)
The weather looks fabulous this weekend, and it'd be a perfect time to hike or bike to the top of Lucky Peak (aka Shaw Mountain), and take in all of the exciting activities going on at the Idaho Bird Observatory. This is where IBO staff and volunteers count between 6,000 to 8,000 raptors, band 1,000-1,500 raptors, and band 5,000-6,000 songbirds in the fall each year.

This is a great educational activity for kids, families, seniors and adults. Pairing the trip to the top of Lucky Peak with a hike or bike ride just adds to the overall experience. You can drive to the top with a 4WD vehicle, if need be. I'll provide directions and a map for doing either below.

I've always been fascinated by birds of prey since I was in college, when I first saw bald eagles swoop down and catch kokanee at West Glacier in Montana. I took hundreds of photographs with a long lens, and sent framed photos to all of my family for Christmas that year.
Morley Nelson with a golden eagle and his first wife, Betty Ann, with a prairie falcon on her fist 
When I had the privilege of writing a biography, Cool North Wind (Caxton Press 2002), on the great national champion for birds of prey, Morley Nelson, I learned much more about raptors and raptor conservation. Morley was a guy who always understood the need for environmental education, and he took tons of people under his wing over the years to show them all of the cool falcons and eagles at his hawk house in the Boise Foothills.

"You've got to show people how they can feel being a part of the environment," he always would say. "That's a beautiful thing.
Looking for raptors in the sky ... (courtesy IBO)
When you see raptors flying toward the top of Lucky Peak, watch them get lured into a trap by live quail, and see them up close and personal after being measured, banded, etc., it's an unforgettable experience.

"It's hugely important that kids get outside as much as possible because we're losing that with our culture," says Greg Kaltenecker, executive director of the Idaho Bird Observatory.
A young girl gets ready to release a sharp-shinned hawk.  
Kaltenecker launched the hawk-trapping operation on the top of Lucky Peak in 1993 with Boise State University professor Marc Bechard. They tried several different locations and quickly discovered that Lucky Peak was the best place to catch hawks and other birds of prey. It's become one of the most active raptor- and songbird-monitoring locations in the nation.

A friend of mine, Paul Hilding, volunteered at the bird observatory last week. He had a great time.
"For raptor fans, last week was a very good one, and this week should be great as well," Hilding says. "If you like to see raptors up close, IBO in September is the place to be!
Northern pygmy owl (courtesy IBO) 
"While the IBO “Hawk Watch” crew goes on duty at 10 a.m., we seemed to see the most birds in early to mid-afternoon," Hilding continues. "My favorites were two local golden eagles that did a south-to-north fly-by almost every day, early afternoon, flying low into a ravine just behind the hawk traps. So much bigger than anything else, one of the HW crew calls them the "semis" of the avian world.

"Also fun to watch were a peregrine falcon, a couple northern harriers, and numerous kestrels that dove and swooped on the bait birds, mostly avoiding the nets and tormenting the trappers in the blind. The Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks did not share their skill, and seemed to be, by far, the most common catch. We saw at least half a dozen migrating broad-winged hawks, some ospreys and Swainson’s hawks, and a few large kettles of turkey vultures and red-tails, soaring high on the afternoon thermals."

If you drive to the site, Hilding recommends bring binoculars, a lawn chair, sun block, and some treats for Josh and Teague, the two skinny HW staffers who are out there counting birds 7 hours a day, rain or shine. "They seem to be particularly fond of cookies, sun flower seeds, chicken chili and bacon," he says. 
Typical scene on top of Lucky Peak, looking for raptors in the sky ... 
No matter what, definitely bring a good pair of binoculars, a hat and sun block. There's not much shade on top of Lucky Peak. 

Nowadays there are two ways to get to Lucky Peak on foot or by bike:
1. Easiest way - Take Idaho 21 east of Boise to Highland Valley Road, a left-hand turn before you get to Hilltop Summit. Drive 1.3 miles to the intersection with Trail E. Park your rig and either hike or bike to the top of Lucky Peak from here. It's another 4 miles to the top and more than 2,000 vertical feet of climbing to the top. Good workout.
Easy way to the IBO
2. Hard way - Take Warm Springs Ave. east to Harris Ranch. Go past Lucky 13. Turn left on Council Springs and follow that road a quarter-mile to a gate. Hike or bike on the Homestead Trail #12 for 2.2 miles to an initial summit. This is an advanced-level hiking/biking trail because it's so steep. Go left at the Y-junction on Trail #8 and climb another 4 miles more than 2,000 vertical feet on the very steep dirt and rocky road. This route is rated "epic gonzo" in my Boise Trail Guide for hikers and trail-runners. If you're in good shape, though, you'll enjoy the challenge. Hilding's wife, Stephani, trains on Trail #8 to prepare for climbing Mount Rainier. Trail #8 intersects with Shaw Mountain Road just below Lucky Peak. Climb another 300 vertical to the top. Make a loop and take Trail E on the way down, and then peel right on Trail #11 to take a singletrack trail down to the Crow Inn. Total route is 12.7 miles and 3,158 vertical feet of climbing. You should allow at least 3 hours to make the climb. 
Hard way to the IBO (from Boise Trail Guide
The Hawk Watch activities on top of Lucky Peak go through mid-October. "The owls are great this year," Kaltenecker says. "We're banding LOTS each night and we're not even to the peak of the migration yet."     

If you're interested in volunteering at the Idaho Bird Observatory, Kaltenecker suggests that you visit the site and see what goes on. Volunteers working at the site can help you get signed up.

Have fun! I hope to take my kids up there on Sunday.
- SS

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