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Northern Idaho: A Three-Year Retrospective

By Ryan Healey and Lesley Howard, IMBCR Survey Technicians 

Lesley and I have worked with the Intermountain Bird Observatory as the northern Idaho field crew for three seasons now. We are enamored by the beauty of that country, by its rewarding but challenging terrain and surprises – including crossing rushing creeks, climbing mountain ridges, and the occasional run-in with wolf packs, mountain lions, and bears.

No field season is ever dull and each is a unique adventure.

an expansive view shows a sunny blue sky, rolling mountains with conifer forest, and a biologist standing on the edge of a rocky ledge, overlooking it all
IMBCR survey technician Ryan Healey in the Clearwater National Forest, Idaho. Photo Credit: Lesley Howard

This year stood out amongst others as it was a particularly wet and snowy one. We got hit by the same storms that flooded Yellowstone, and often found ourselves running for cover and sopping wet.

Only in Northern Idaho is being waist deep in snow while simultaneously getting drenched by rain in the middle of June part of the equation.

While these conditions can be hard and sometimes unforgiving, they are worth it as every ridge has its own unique vista and every transect has a chance for a Great Gray Owl or Pine Grosbeak family.

a grassy hillside slopes down to a massive stream rushing with whitewater. spruce trees and a misty horizon show in the background
Many creek crossings were impassable during surveys in summer of 2022 due to late snowmelt and large amounts of rainfall in northern Idaho and western Montana. Photo Credit: Jennifer Boisvert

It is hard for us to choose one location, transect, or forest that is our favorite. Over the years, we have been fortunate to spend time from the Salmon River to the Canadian border. So long as the mosquitos aren’t too thick, every spot in between has its charm, and at this point has a good story. I will let Lesley share some of those stories with you now!

This year Ryan and I backpacked into a site that was new to us, exciting for him and perhaps a bit daunting for me. The hike began on a day early in July at a forgotten trailhead that led us to traverse over an adjacent spruce-fir forest covered ridge.

We quickly descended into a dense windfall where the trail unfortunately fizzled out.

Hoary Marmots whistled to mark our change in tactics as we bush-wacked through dense regrowth, creeks and seepages that slowed our pace, facing us with the decision to camp on a rocky outcrop for the evening. The phenomenal views of the valley and adjacent ridgelines from our unconventional campsite were enhanced as the sky faded from a lilac at dusk to deep purple during sunset.

The skies were clear, the moon was full, and the temperature favorable – a recipe for a great night sleeping outdoors.

image shows a breathtaking view of the sunsetting over the mountains through bluish, pinkish and redish hues reflecting off of the clouds. Silouettes of fir trees border the image
Fieldwork opportunities like these offer never-ending views and memories to last a lifetime. Photo Credit: K. Moore

Our morning hike began early while the moon radiated its bright glow from high in the sky as Ryan safely led us through a boulder field, around cliffs, and along a moose trail through dense alder. His expertise in finding game trails has been indispensable and kept us safe that morning during our two-kilometer traverse. We sloshed through seepages down into the valley, finding the intact section of our original trail, and arrived at the survey with perfect timing. We were ready for a full morning of birds at 2,275 feet lower in elevation than where we started the day prior. The recently burned forest in this valley gave us a perfect view…

 …the setting moon and cotton candy-colored sunrise while we traversed from point to point through the tall grasses and wildflowers sprouting among charred ground.

Our minds circled back to the long, steep slope that stood between us and our vehicle as dark clouds built into layers among the bright blue sky. We were coerced to exit to the ridge just as quickly as we arrived in this beautiful valley.

a scientist with full pack and field gear smiles tiredly at the camera. Behind is a sloping hill covered in loose rock, thick green shrubs, and burned tree snags
IMBCR survey technician Lesley Howard in the Clearwater National Forest, Idaho. Photo Credit: Ryan Healy

On another day, we visited a survey site we had surveyed during two other years called Gold Creek. This name is still a bit of a mystery because it is neither located on Gold Creek, nor have we found any gold in the creek that transect straddles (darn!). Early in June there was persistent snow in the dense spruce-fir forest at Gold Creek, which made for a chilly morning that then turned challenging as clear skies became intermittent rain.

We trudged through the slush, snow, and puddles, as we continued to work in between the raindrops.

a chunky songbird with a gray body and brilliant rosy red head
A male Pine Grosbeak. Photo Credit: Darren Clark

Just before a workday-ending downpour arrived, Pine Grosbeaks graced us with their presence and brought with them a bubbly energy that sustained us through the soaking wet hike back to our cars.

It is not every day we encounter this beautiful species in northern Idaho!

So it is a treat every time our paths cross with these plump, pink male or chartreuse female, parrot-like boreal birds.

a pickup truck with shell is strewn with all kinds of clothes and field gear covering the roof rack, doors, and mirrors
Survey technician drying gear out after a very wet survey morning in the damp northern forests. Photo Credit: Jennifer Boisvert

Great birding, Pikas, alpine lakes, and potential Grizzly Bear encounters make every season interesting, and that has kept us coming back to the north for more adventure!

image shows a dirty snowbank with huge bear footprints stamped into the snow
Fresh Grizzly Bear tracks in the snow near a Northern Rockies survey transect. Photo Credit: Jennifer Boisvert

The IMBCR breeding bird survey program has been ongoing in the Northern Rockies and Intermountain West since 2009. Every year IBO hires approximately 20 avian survey technicians to help conduct breeding bird surveys across UT, ID, and MT, from mid-May to mid-July. In 2022, we conducted a total of 89 bird surveys in Utah, 115 surveys in Idaho, and 184 surveys in Montana, on both public and private lands. We detected 246 species across all 3 states this year. It is an asset to have such talented and committed avian survey technicians as Ryan and Lesley help with this effort. We hope they will return for many more years!

If interested in joining our survey team, and you have a combination of outdoor field experience and bird identification skills, please contact Jeremy Halka ( and Jennifer Boisvert ( Hiring starts in January.

This article is part of our 2022 end of the year newsletter! View the full newsletter here, or click “older posts” below to read the next article.

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