Snake River Birds of Prey

Birding on a cliff overlooking the Snake River.

June 11 – 18, 2020.

I’m not sure exactly how the idea to visit Idaho popped into my head. It must have been some #vanlife Instagram image or perhaps a photograph of some picturesque Idaho campsite from the Campendium newsletter. Whatever it was, up until that point I had never thought of Idaho as a destination and when I did decide that we should head that way, I had no idea about where to go. So I pulled up google maps, opened up my traveling apps, and started poking around.

I found lots of stuff but one of the most intriguing places was the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area. This NCA is a habitat for the greatest concentration of birds of prey in North America. Being fledgling birders we were pretty excited to go.

The conservation area is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. It encompasses approximately 484,000 acres of public land along 81 miles of the Snake River in southwest Idaho. It is named for Morlan “Morley” Nelson, a national authority on birds of prey and advocate for raptors and their importance in a healthy ecosystem.

We were traveling across a large flat mostly treeless plain as we entered the NCA. I looked around at the featureless landscape and wondered where all the birds lived. Although I had read a bit about the area and had downloaded this great brochure about the NCA I had failed to realize that the Snake River runs through a canyon. Once we reached our campsite along the river down in the gorge, all the raptors would be nesting in the cracks and crevices high on the rock walls towering above us. This flat field we were driving through served as their hunting ground.

We found a campsite inside the NCA at Swan Falls, a free campsite managed by Idaho Power who also owned a hydroelectric power plant and dam on the river. There were 20 numbered Idaho Power sites along the Snake River and a couple of boat ramps. North of these sites were also BLM sites. You could also disperse camp in any appropriate (previously used) sites anywhere in the NCA. On one of our hikes, we saw some great spots along the canyon rim overlooking the stunning river below.

We spent six days at Swan Falls birding and hiking. It appeared that most people came to the area to boat and fish so our walks were pretty quiet. We planned to kayak on the river but the weather turned bad and we were itchy to move on before it cleared up. But we didn’t go far. We landed just up the river at Celebration Park, a county-owned park with $5 camping and free wifi. Since our previous location at Swan Falls had been an internet dead zone it was nice to catch up on the world.

At Celebration, we met a couple of super nice birders who came all the way from North Dakota to look for raptors. Although they had a high-powered scope focused on a bald eagle nest across the river, they were very disappointed that they weren’t seeing that many birds of prey. I have to admit that we were a bit disappointed that we didn’t see that many either. Perhaps it was just too late in the season for raptors. But we did get to see a hawk and a crow have an aerial fight as we walked along the canyon wall. We saw all kinds of new species of birds, reptiles, bugs, plants, and critters. We got to camp right on the river. We met some super nice people. And as always, we learned all kinds of new stuff.

* All pics are click to enlarge.

Morley Nelson & Swan Falls

Panorama of the Snake River and the Swan Falls camping area.
There was a trail right behind our campsite on the Snake River. We followed it to this view looking south.
Eight-spotted Skimmer.
Tule Bluet.
Black-billed Magpie. We saw these birds everywhere in Idaho. They go Yak, yak, yak when they are just hanging out and Yak, yak when they are flying.
Violet-green Swallow.
Cliff Swallow.
Small Milkweed Bug.
Western Tiger Swallowtail.
Red-tailed Hawk. Most of the hawks at Morley Nelson made their nests high up in the canyon. We were lucky to see a pair in some lower rocks right along the road.
Red-tailed Hawk.
Common Thread-waisted Wasp along the Halverson Bar trail, a 5-mile meandering path that takes you from Morley Nelson to Halverson Bar and ends at Celebration Park.
Northern Rough-winged Swallow.
Halverson Bar is two miles of curving sandbar along the Snake River with two shallow lakes below rimrock and tall sand dunes. It was named for brothers Al and Roy Halverson who used to own property to the north.
Homesteader home along the Halverson Bar trail. Not sure if this was his house but for 40 years a gentleman named William C “Doc” Hinsom lived along the Halverson Bar. He was 3/4 African American and 1/4 Native American. Doc made stone tools, trapped, tanned hides, mined, photographed, and played music on homemade instruments. He would share tales with people who came to visit him. “Every day through the summer, there were crowds of people who come to see me. I don’t know why.” He died in 1944 at the age of 94.
Mountain Cottontail. We hiked half of the Halverson Bar trail when we were at Swan Falls and then hiked the other half when we moved to Celebration Park.
Yellow-bellied Marmot.
We went birding on top of the canyon wall too. Snake River to the south.
Snake River to the north.
Rock Wren.
Panorama of Morley Nelson’s flat plane on top of the canyon. This is where birds of prey hunt for ground squirrels. This shot was taken from Initial Point on top of a lava butte where the entire state was initially surveyed.
Prairie Falcon hunting.
View of the Swan Falls Dam. Celebration Park is just a few miles or so around the bend.

Celebration Park

The historic Guffey Railroad Bridge at Celebration Park built in 1897.
The Guffey Railroad Bridge was restored for pedestrian and horse riding traffic.
Brown-headed Cowbird.
Brown-headed Cowbird.
Brewer’s Blackbird.
The trail to Halverson Bar from Celebration Park.
One of the two Halverson Lakes that sit along the Halverson Bar trail. The lakes were original natural depressions that filled with water seasonally. They were deepened by farmers and homesteaders. The lakes are filled these days from irrigation runoff from farming on the plateau.
Caspian Tern flying over Halverson Lake looking for lunch.
Celebration Park is Idaho’s only archaeological park. We hiked through the Bonneville Flood melon gravel finding many petroglyphs. This elaborate style of petroglyph is called “Great Basin Curvilinear art.”
Petroglyphs like this one that looks like a lizard are called “representational.”
Some of the arms on this petroglyph align with the solstice and equinoctial sunrises and one aligns with the North Star.
Yellow Warbler.
Western Kingbird.
Ornate Tree Lizard.
Black-billed Magpies.
Geese swimming away.
Bullock’s Oriole.
Black-billed Magpie.

14 thoughts on “Snake River Birds of Prey

  1. I don’t know where on the Snake River you are, but if you aren’t too far from Lava Hot Springs, ID, I can recommend it highly.
    I stayed there a couple nights visiting a security guard who had worked for Douglas Aircraft for years. When he retired back to Idaho he invited everyone to visit him. So one day, while going east on I-80 through Salt Lake City at about 3 PM, I looked at the map and decided Lava Hot Springs wasn’t that far away so I headed up there. On arrival I sought out a phone book to look MacIsaac up and couldn’t find him. So I tried the operator who asked who I was. Mac, it turned out was working part time as a deputy sheriff and was unlisted for obvious reasons. The operator volunteered to call Mac and let him know I was in town. She called me back within minutes and directed me to a Texaco station a couple blocks from where I was; Mac would meet me there. So I gassed up while waiting and sure enough Mac showed up in a pickup truck. He invited me to join him and his wife for dinner which I did. They said I could stay there overnight. After a great dinner Mac’s wife suggested he take me down to the hot springs for relaxing after my long drive that day. I protested that I didn’t have a bathing suit; they said they had plenty of all sizes-no problem. So off we went to the hot springs, which are operated by the state so the cost was something like 50 cents admission. We changed into our suits and waded into the springs. They have signs telling you the approximate temperature in that area. They go up to 160 degrees or more! I made it to 140 and had to call it quits after a few minutes. It was relaxing and I slept like a baby that night; conked out as soon as my head hit the pillow. There is also a town swimming pool, fed by the springs, but at a much lower temperature. Golf courses and other amenities make it a tourist destination. I assume there might be parking for RVs somewhere too. Some of the older houses near the spring are heated by spring water in the winter. Retired Idahoans get those.

    1. Thanks for the great story. We are in Montana now. We did make it by Lava Hot Springs but we will have to Mark it on the map for next time. I doubt I will make it into the 140 degree water, though, but it does sound relaxing.

  2. Duwan, You sure are making great use of your new camera. Stunning landscape and professional quality photography of your subjects.
    Enjoying yours and Greg’s blogs as always.

    Chris & Liz

  3. Great shots and wonderful info. I wanted to do a self-supported bike tour in Idaho in the 90’s. I had things pretty much planned out and was figuring out when to go when I shared my trip info with a friend familiar with Idaho. He told me I was planning to tour the “high desert” and it probably wasn’t a good idea. Resources were far apart and whatever I was thinking, it would have been tough to make the route as I had it. This was all before internet so, all I had were some maps with basic info on them and everything geared towards car travel. I never made it up. Now, you’ve got me interested again. Maybe not on a bike this time. How is cell coverage up there? Even Boise isn’t that big, up therer.

    1. We just toured a bit of southern Idaho – mainly along the Snake River. We saw lots of farm land.

      We didn’t get to see much of Boise – we only went there to shop. They have a Trader Joe’s – the only one in Idaho, I think. But the town looked very nice as we were driving through it.

      Cell coverage is always hit and miss where ever we go. We had no cell service at our campsite in Swan Falls but sometimes we’d get bars on our hike. We got reception on top of the canyon so sometimes we’d spend a few hours sitting in the van up there catching up on the world. Usually we get some reception in towns – even small ones and we drove through quite a few of those.

      I have no idea if Idaho has changed much since the 90s. I think, with good panning, a bike trip through the state could be doable. I wouldn’t recommend a bike trip through somewhere like Utah, though. There are many stretches in Utah with a whole lot of nothing.

  4. The Snake River looks gorgeous and so does camping along and above it. You guys find the most amazing places. Your research always pays off, Duwan. Whenever we hit the road again (and hopefully visit Idaho at some point), I swear I will spend more time figuring out where to go and what to see. We always wing it (and miss out on fantastic areas), because we are too lazy to research or feel we don’t have time for it. Maybe this will be better and easier when (if) we retire. 🙂

    I thought terns were saltwater birds? Wonderful photos as always!

    1. We thought terns were salt water birds too. We saw lots of birds we didn’t expect to see in Idaho.

      I love planning but it takes so much time. I think I did most of our planning for Idaho when we spent those two weeks in Sedona. Now are in Montana and I don’t have much of a plan. I know we will discover things as we go, though.

  5. Duwan this could be an advertisement for Idaho tourism! I had no idea this area existed. It looks so calm and peaceful and your photos are stunning as usual. also I enjoyed hearing about William C “Doc” Hinsom. As Liesbet mentions above your research definitely pays off in finding these incredible spots.

    1. Thanks! Idaho needs to work on their promotion, I think. If I didn’t love finding new places, I’m not sure how I would have come upon Morely Nelson.

      I was intrigued by Doc too. We met a guy kind of like him in the Bahamas. He lived on an island by himself, living self sufficiently – growing his own food, keeping goats and birds. He was a real character and was very welcoming to all the sailors who came to visit him.

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