And so the checklist begins: PFD, fishing license and fishing bag, splash gear and fleece, flip-flops and camp wear, sleeping bag, pad and cot, sand mat—your typical multi-day river trip gear list. Only my list also includes binocs, Sibly and assorted field guides, birding journal, camera, watercolors, pencils… and that’s about the time the complaining begins from my partner and the dry box is full.
The river life of a birder and hobby naturalist is never shy of experience. Ever since I willingly joined this madness around 2007, I can honestly confess I’ve never had a boring day outside. Sometimes birding is the gateway to all things naturalist related. It’s relaxing, interesting and you can bird anywhere. You meet interesting people (nerds) and not all of them listen to classical music and eat quinoa and spit-roasted eggplant, although I do appreciate all of those things as well.
After too many hectic years in big box retail management, I was reinventing myself. I needed more nature in my life, less inside, more outside.
I knew a handful of bird species—great horned owl, bald eagle, red-tailed hawk, hummingbird, heron (or was it a crane?). But I had a lot to learn—and fast—as my position leading hundreds of young minds as an Americorps Volunteer at an Idaho Fish and Game educational nature center was about to begin. I was about to be the person who can answer all those questions about birds—supposedly.
I quickly learned that the most important part of this entire birding conversation is habitat. Those five magical things—food, water, shelter, space and arrangement—that define a species’ survival, population decline or extinction. Habitat can also tell us which species may or may not actually reside in a particular place. Learning about birds includes learning about their habitat needs, behaviors, food preferences, life cycle, predators, and limiting factors to survival.
Coincidentally, as I began my major life transformation, I also happened to be whitewater rafting and embarking on a fair bit of outdoor adventures. Ok, quite a bit. As in, that year my partner and I topped 50 sleeping bag nights despite our crazy demanding jobs.
As those river miles added up, so did my curiosity about all the birds I kept seeing. Most good changes in life begin with a fair dose of curiosity. And curiosity leads to learning. And learning leads to all the field guides that fill my dry boxes.
Birding in its purest form is simply observing. Watching the birds do what birds do. This is when you capture all the details—their shapes and behavior; their colors, patterns and identifying marks; their sounds, calls and movement. Taking all those things in allows you to make a more informed identification. Watching birds and honing into fine detail greatly improves your overall sensory awareness, including your long-range vision, the ability to spot the slightest critter movements, and your awareness of sounds.
Binoculars and optics like a scope are real tools in the field, but they do require a bit of practice to master. When using binoculars, you want to first find the animal or object that you want to see up close. Once you’re focused on it, bring the binoculars up to your eyes without moving your head or eyes. It’s best to start closer then move to things farther away as your skills develop. Using a harness eases neck strain and keeps your optics closer to your body when hiking or scrambling over rocks or steep trails.
Birding on the river is a very special treat. Water is a critical habitat need, so many migratory species nest, feed, and live their best life right along the shores and riparian areas we float through as boaters. In Idaho, we have over 400 bird species, many of which are migratory, staying only part of the year.
I’ll never forget the immature bald eagle that clutched onto a low rock outcropping. Its wings in constant motion as it tried to maintain its connection to the rock. Our raft passed by in silent wonder as we observed its majestic presence and detailed coloring.
Late summer and fall in Idaho are lovely times for slow birding, where you can spend longer time periods watching one species. The quiet Lewis woodpeckers and dwindling numbers of songbirds and swallows create a peaceful stillness in river areas, giving raptors, grouse and some ducks the chance to quietly go about their role in the habitat and season.
On one fall trip on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, we spotted a golden eagle leisurely perched in a tall tree. It remained in our sightline for an hour as we slowly floated by.
Winter birding in Idaho includes many species of waterfowl, the dabblers, divers and so on. Some bald eagles make their year-round homes along Idaho rivers, and in many habitat zones in Idaho. Juncos, chickadees, northern flickers, various owl species, and corvids are common sightings, too. Along river corridors with lower elevations, raptor activity can be quite high. In lakes with spawning kokanee, you can find large concentrations of feeding bald eagles. In North Idaho, the counts have been known to top over 300 eagles.
Spring birding in Idaho is fun and guaranteed to catch you by surprise. Considering Idaho is considered a high migration zone, birders can glimpse neotropical migrants moving through. The transition season can include pockets of songbirds still working together as they do in winter conditions, or in some isolated areas big concentrations of migratory movements, such as the beautiful mountain bluebirds passing through that state.
Late spring and early summer are a flurry of birding excitement in Idaho akin to an epic caddis hatch for fly anglers. There are SO many dang birds and they are everywhere; a little hummer checking out your red river bandanna or swim bottoms out to dry, a red-tailed hawk chasing down a bunny near the groover, a family of owls in camp at night, little yellow warblers skipping along branches just out of your camera lens, swallows dipping in and around at every river bend. The river corridor can be teaming with flying energy and sound.
There are some great resources for anyone interested in learning to bird-watch on or off the river. The Cornell Ornithology website offers excellent identification, education and videos as well as a robust website of other tools and learning opportunities.
Also a part of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, eBird is a great resource if you’re traveling to a new area or are curious about bird species in your area. Use the explore hotspots tab to research different regions to see what other birders have documented. It’s a great way to compare your ID list with what others have documented for confirmation and to gain a historical and seasonal perspective on species.
While this may sound nerdy, I can’t help but defend my fellow birders. We do this with water flows and rapids, camps and side hikes so why not wildlife?
While birding, by nature, isn’t a very intrusive hobby, there are a few birding ethics we should follow to keep our flying friends healthy and thriving in their habitats. Encourage all your boating buddies and budding birders to familiarize themselves with and follow these guidelines. While an extensive list, the most important guidelines for river enthusiasts are to keep your distance, leash your dogs in ground-nesting areas, do not use playback or “call” to birds, keep a clean river camp, and be polite when sharing knowledge.
Migratory birds, specifically, are protected species under the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. But like most things involving the outdoors, the best approach is Leave No Trace.
Some of my best river experiences are related to birds and those vivid memories keep my enthusiasm to continue birding very alive.
During a summer multi-day trip, we witnessed a territorial bald eagle attack right over our group. Shredded feathers floated onto the rafts; we heard the gnashing of bills and talons. The scuffle ended with a near collision with a raft as the attacked eagle fell from its flight.
On another multi-day trip, we unknowingly set up our kitchen in the dwelling of an owl family. Strapped with a red-light headlamp, I perched a few yards outside of camp to observe the clearly frustrated owl family. Silently, I listened and watched in the dark.
And once, a pair of Sandhill Cranes flew so near the front of our raft I felt the breeze of their beating wings against my face, and I could smell the mud on their legs.
All the experiences become special river memories, a part of the trip that reminds me of the importance of our global avian population and their role in it, depending on their habitat needs for survival. Much like my own, I suppose, the things I need to survive and the arrangement of those things together.
Ready to take your birding to the next level along with your paddling skills? Here are some ways to take flight:
Support and engage with your local Audubon chapter. You’ll meet some great birders, make some new friends to learn from and support habitat improvement projects in your area.
Take a field guide, share knowledge and make friends. Nothing brings a group of science nerds together like the flashing of a field guide around a fire. A Sibly guide is a sure bet, but there are a number of apps and other online resources. Just don’t let scrolling your app or field guide replace true observation, where the real birding work happens.
And lastly, start birding anywhere: backyard, neighborhood, local park, etc. They all contain the basics of birding elementals to move those skills onto rivers and water adventures when you are packed and ready to go!
Editor’s Note: Guest Contributor Cass Meissner is a hobby naturalist who loves camping beside a river, taking wildflower walks and birding in all seasons. In her spare time, she creates branded environments for NRS in the marketing department.