Among raptor fanatics, the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area is not only a mouthful of words but also a world-famous site for viewing lots of raptors representing lots of species, at close proximity. In 1993, about 485,000 acres of public land along 81 miles of the Snake River in southwestern Idaho, was declared a national conservation area. The entire purpose of this area is to promote raptors – what more could you want? I visited the area around this time last year and it was magical. Anna and I spent almost an entire day exploring the area and managed to see 15 species of raptor! The following list is 10 reasons why you should (right now!) go to Idaho and explore the Snake River Birds of Prey Area for yourself.
Reason # 10 – Bald Eagles
This conservation area borders the Snake River and therefore attracts many wintering Bald Eagles. Anywhere that allows through the area that offers access to or views of the river could allow for some really great looks at Bald Eagles. This time of the year, eagles that wintered farther south are also moving through the area as they head north. Watch for them as they soar on the updrafts along the canyon walls.
Reason # 9 – Burrowing Owls
During the second week of March, many Burrowing Owls have returned to southern Idaho from their wintering grounds in the extreme southwestern US and also Mexico. Carefully scanning the ground as you drive through the conservation area could result in great looks at male owls that have just arrived and have begun to re-establish their home areas and prepare for the arrival of the females. I usually first notice a Burrowing Owl by its distinct and harsh bark-like call.
Reason # 8 – American Kestrels
American Kestrels overwinter in most areas of Idaho but many also move out of the area in the winter, to locations farther south. During this time of the year, the first noticeable movements of kestrels northward has begun. Standing at Dedication Point is a great area to scan for kestrels, merlins, and both of the small accipiters as they ride the updrafts along the canyon walls and slowly progress north to where ever they might end up breeding.
Reason # 7 – Ferruginous Hawks
Many Ferruginous Hawks are also beginning to return to their breeding areas this time of the year. Many of these massive Buteos nest in and around the national conservation area. Later in the spring you can search for their nests on top of telephone poles. This time of the year you should expect to see a lot of adults establishing their territories as well as many immature birds moving through.
Reason # 6 – Golden Eagles
As a birder from PA, I get to see Golden Eagles on a fairly regular basis during spring and fall migration but it’s usually very distant birds flying past a hawk watch. Out west however, Golden Eagles are quite abundant and regularly encountered and able to be observed while perched, at close range. The conservation area is probably the best location I have seen this personally. During this time of the year, many golden eagles are using the conservation area to hunt and are easily seen from any of the main roads.
Reason # 5 – Northern Harriers
The conservation area is mostly wide-open grassland, making it the ideal habitat for Northern Harriers. It is easy to get great looks at these birds there. Also, back in early January my friend Rob Miller found a dark type Northern Harrier there.
Reason # 4 – Red-tailed Hawks
As each week goes by, more and more Red-tailed Hawks return from areas farther south than Idaho, and many of then filter right through the Snake River Birds of Prey Area. This area of Idaho is perfectly positioned so that all the different color types and patterns of the western Red-tailed Hawk come together. It is not out of the question to see multiple Red-tails at once and to have each of them be a distinctly different overall coloration.
Reason # 3 – Swainson’s Hawks
The second half of March is when the first noticeable numbers of Swainson’s Hawks begin to arrive in Idaho. As one of my favorite birds and also one of the best mascots of the western US is the Swainson’s Hawk, and what better way to see them than at the birds of prey area as they soar over the grasslands.
Reason # 2 – Rough-legged Hawks
As the Swainson’s Hawks arrive, the Rough-legged Hawks begin leaving. For the next three weeks you have an excellent chance to see many, many Rough-legged Hawks if you visit the conservation area. Drive through and scan slowly for Rough-legs hovering low above the ground or perched on the large boulders scattered across the landscape.
Reason # 1 – Prairie Falcons
No where else on Earth do Prairie Falcons breed in higher density than at the Snake River birds of prey area. I don’t think there is much more than needs to be said than that. If you go to Dedication Point, you can look down on a pair of Prairie Falcons that nest in that area each year and are busy right now defending that territory against migrant falcons.