Waterfowl Watching:

It’s like Bird-Watching, but Easier

Article by Roger Phillips

Photography by Roger Phillips

Originally published in Boise Lifestyle

The honk of a Canada goose or the quack of a mallard is nearly as common as traffic noise in the Treasure Valley. They’re the spokesmodels for the valley’s abundant waterfowl population, and if waterfowl watching were a bingo game, they would be the free space.

Look a little closer and you can see a variety of waterfowl in the valley, and many species can be seen at easily accessible places, such as the Boise River along the Greenbelt, in parks, neighborhood ponds or other nearby locations. That’s the beauty of waterfowl watching: you don’t need to travel far.

And while a good pair of binoculars comes in handy, you don’t have to have them. You’re not trying to spot a small, flittering songbird in a brush patch or identify a raptor from a football field away. Waterfowl are big enough that they’re easy to spot, not to mention they’re usually on the water, and they have beautiful plumage and make some cool calls.

I have never considered myself a birdwatcher, but I am a waterfowl hunter, and one evening on a walk with my wife I started naming all the birds in our neighborhood ponds.

“When did you become a bird nerd?” she asks.

I laughed, but I also realized I had inadvertently become a birdwatcher. Hunting waterfowl has made me appreciate how many different kinds of birds live near water beyond ducks and geese and how each behaves a little differently. It also makes it exciting when I spot a bird that’s rare for the area or one that’s here out of season.

Some of the birds migrate from as far as Alaska and Siberia, and they are resting here before continuing their southward flights. There are too many to list, but aside from the geese and mallards, it’s common to see wood ducks, wigeons, gadwall, goldeneyes and ringneck ducks.

Some are close by because they are avoiding guys like me by staying within the safe confines of city limits. Don’t kid yourself; those carefree-looking ducks are survival-savvy, and when they find a safe place, they stick to it.

Some of my favorite places to spot waterfowl (when I am not hunting them) are those I’ve already mentioned, but there are a few in particular I enjoy and see a lot of birds.

The Hyatt Hidden Lakes Reserve on Maple Grove north of Chinden Boulevard is a 44-acre haven for waterfowl that includes trails, benches and overlooks. It’s an amazing place to watch the evening flights arrive, and whistling wings and bird calls make a beautiful soundtrack.

The MK Nature Center on Walnut Street adjacent to Idaho Fish and Game Headquarters is another cool spot to watch waterfowl. It’s like a miniature wildlife sanctuary with a surprising variety of other wildlife, including mule deer.

If you venture a little farther, Fort Boise Wildlife Management Area near Parma has truly world-class waterfowl watching, but be forewarned: hunting is allowed there. But there’s a covered observation platform where you can watch birds coming and going from one of the ponds that’s off-limits to hunting, and you can drive right to it.

Lake Lowell is another waterfowl magnet, which also allows waterfowl hunting, so don’t be surprised if you hear gunshots while you’re there. But like Fort Boise, there are areas where hunting is restricted on the refuge.

There’s a variety of resources available to help you identify the birds you’re seeing, and one of my favorites is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds” website, Birds.Cornell.edu. You can find color photos of each bird, and you can also listen to the calls each bird makes. I can identify most waterfowl, but I still like to listen to their calls and link the sound to the different birds when I see them in the wild.

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