Bird Watching Tips
Go here, look there, and you'll see . . . . if only it were that easy! Looking for raptors in the NCA in the spring can sometimes almost be that easy. Most times it isn't, but it's also not impossible to find raptors if you keep some things in mind.
Download "Where are the Birds" guide.
Look around - Look up
As you are driving out to the area, keep your eyes open. Many people will miss many birds simply because they are not looking for them. A motionless red-tailed hawk sitting on the cross arm of a power pole is easy to miss. Some things to look for that might actually be a raptor include:
- a fence post that is extra tall,
- an extra insulator on a power or phone pole,
- a rock outcrop with a prominent "point" at the top,
- a bird sitting on the wire between poles (possibly an American kestrel),
- in winter, a dark object in a leafless tree.
Also, don't forget to look up. Small dark objects in the sky might be an eagle or hawk soaring high above you.
As they say . . . "Timing is everything." To have the best chance of seeing birds of prey, you must consider both the time of the year and time of the day.
Time of Year - Although you can see raptors in the NCA year round, the best viewing is during the nesting season, mid-March through June. April can be a little slower because one of the adults is typically incubating eggs and not flying. February and March can be very good because many raptors are establishing territories and doing courtship flying. May is also a good month for viewing because eggs are hatching and there are many hungry chicks to feed. From mid-May through June young birds are fledging and learning to fly.
To see when specific raptors are in the area, check out our "Where are they" chart (pdf).
Time of Day - As a general rule, birds are more active in the early morning and early evening. Soaring eagles and hawks need the rising warm air currents (thermals) to soar and will tend to be more active after the sun has been up a few hours.
Although not a requirement for seeing raptors, binoculars will help you to get a better view of these magnificent birds. Binoculars not only allow you to see closer they also may help you see more birds. Often times while following a hawk with your binoculars, you will spot another hawk, eagle, or falcon further away, that is not visible with the unaided eye.
Come prepared to spend some time in the natural habitat of these birds of prey. The NCA is not a zoo. Ninety percent of the time you cannot drive to a viewpoint or overlook, get out of your vehicle, look in a certain direction, and see a raptor flying. But what about the other ten percent? As mentioned earlier, timing is everything. Sometimes, (especially in the spring), you will get lucky and see a soaring hawk or a falcon not long after you pull up to a viewpoint. But to really see and enjoy these birds plan to spend some time at one place. Remember, if someone stopped by your house right now they may not see you. But if they wait around, you will arrive soon.
If you have a whole day to look for raptors, great. If you have half a day, that's great too. If you only have a couple of hours, it can still be well worth the time, but remember, from Boise it is roughly one hour to drive to the Snake River Canyon.
Many people can watch soaring birds for hours on end and marvel at the beauty and elegance of their abilities without ever worrying about exactly what type of raptor they have been admiring. There are also those who will not be satisfied until they know exactly what bird they are seeing. This is where a knowledgeable friend or a field guide comes in handy. There are many field guides available so compare and ask others the good and bad points of different guides.
When using your field guide remember this important quote from Roger Tory Peterson: Birds have wings and like to use them. This means you should watch the bird for as long as possible, taking note of different features before you consult your field guide. If you instantly start looking through your guide when you first see a bird, you may narrow your choices down to three to five birds, and when you look back through your binoculars to check specific features, the bird may not be there.
So when you are looking at an unknown bird start at the head and work your way to the tail, making note of specific features that you see. Once the bird is gone then consult your field guide.