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.
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.
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.
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.
We went birding on top of the canyon wall too. Snake River to the south.
Snake River to the north.
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.
The historic Guffey Railroad Bridge at Celebration Park built in 1897.
The Guffey Railroad Bridge was restored for pedestrian and horse riding traffic.
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.
Ornate Tree Lizard.
Geese swimming away.