Skip to main content

2023 Lucky Peak Update

Our crew of dedicated technicians has outdone themselves this year with an excellent set of articles about our Lucky Peak fall migration project. This season was full of surprises including some very unexpected highs and some mysterious lows. You can read the whole article, or skip ahead using these links to read about songbirds, hawkwatch, raptor banding, and owls.

The Morning News

By songbird bander and crew lead Lucian Davis

The 2023 songbird season started with a bang – after two years of waiting in vain for days over 100 birds, we banded 107 on the first fall migration banding day. After two record low years in 2021 and 2022, this was a good sign for the coming season. Moving into August however, our captures slowed down significantly, and frequent wind and rain kept nets closed many days. Things picked back up again in September, with our highest day of the season at 126 birds.

Still, it wasn’t quite enough to push us towards a high or even average year.

Fog settles in camp leaving the banding yurt barely visible in the distance. The Mountain Ninebark shrub understory is turning yellow, and the fog is drifting through the Douglas Fir trees. You can barely see the tan roof of the yurt through the mist. Photo Credit: Lucian DavisThe birds we were catching were also unexpected. In 2022, we caught a total of seven Red-breasted Nuthatches all season (a below-average total), so you can imagine our surprise when we had 14 in one net on a single day in August this year! We ended the season with 360 nuthatches, a record high. I equally enjoyed and was frustrated by the challenge of determining the age of the numerous Red-breasted Nuthatches, whose juvenile and adult feathers are only very subtly different.

Despite having banded at Lucky Peak for quite a few years now, I still learn so much each season!

Three small blue-grey songbirds with black and white heads are being gently held with a wing extended on each. They are side by side to compare traits that will allow the birds to be aged. These birds are all of the same species.
Three male Red-breasted Nuthatches with wings gently extended to compare ages. The top two birds are adults, the bottom is a juvenile. Photo Credit: Lucian Davis

Nuthatches were not the only record high, we also set records with Mountain Chickadees (331), Cassin’s Finches (98), Steller’s Jays (5), and Chestnut-backed Chickadees (21). The Chestnut-backed Chickadees were a crew favorite – these adorable chickadees are typically found on the west coast and in northern Idaho, and very rarely stray down into southern Idaho. Their presence, and our other record highs, are due to a large irruption of Rocky Mountain species.

A biologist holds a small chestnut brown, black and white chickadee in photographer's grip. The Lucky Peak banding yurt is in the background.
One of the 21 Chestnut-backed Chickadees banded this year, told from the more common Mountain and Black-capped Chickadees by their chestnut sides and backs, dark brown instead of black cap, and delightfully squeaky calls. Photo Credit: Noah Nei

In addition to our unusual captures, we also observed high numbers of White-breasted Nuthatches (including two captured), Pygmy Nuthatches, Red Crossbills, Steller’s Jays, and Pine Siskins. For the first time since 2006, we caught Red Crossbills, four young birds. These enigmatic finches typically stay high in the treetops, away from our nets. With so many around, we got lucky, and had the opportunity to see this incredible species up close. Crossbills are one of my favorite avian groups…

…and having one in hand was a dream come true!

a closeup of a male Red Crossbill's head. His red feathers are glowing in the light, highlighted by the pure black background behind him. His sharp hooked bill shows the characteristic mismatched upper and lower mandibles.
A young male Red Crossbill banded in October. The strangely crossed bill is an adaptation that allows these birds to pry open pinecones to eat the seeds inside. Photo Credit: Phil Stollsteimer

Other unusual captures included a Pacific Wren, Varied Thrush, the station’s first ever White-throated Sparrow, and two Golden-crowned Sparrows. Irruptions occur when species who move and breed in response to changing conditions move farther south than normal. This can be due to a productive breeding causing juveniles to disperse to a less crowded area, or due to a lack of food in the northern part of a species range, pushing them south in search of food.

A biologist in a blue shirt gently holds a medium sized brown and light orangish songbird on its side with its wing extended.
Varied Thrush are short-distance migrants common in the Northern Rockies, Cascades and the Pacific coast, spending their winters along the coast from Alaska to Baja Norte. Photo Credit: Lauren Tate

Although we don’t yet know the cause of this year’s irruption, documenting it was a highlight of the season. In the final week of banding, we just barely surpassed last year’s final count of newly banded birds, avoiding a dreaded third in a row record low year. However, it was really only two species that saved us, the Red-breasted Nuthatches and Mountain Chickadees!

Without their unusually high numbers, we would be nearly 600 birds behind last year’s record low.

Our numbers for most of our typically abundant species were below average, and it was a record low year for quite a few warbler species, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Western Tanagers, and more. Ruby-crowned Kinglets are usually one of our most abundant species, dominating the captures at the end of the season. We average around 1,000 Ruby-crowned kinglets every year, but this year averaged just under 350 banded, which was nearly 250 birds lower than the previous record low.

A bander wearing a blue coat and a watch gently holds a large blue Steller's Jay in bander's grip. It has a black head and crest . The stunning iridescent blue tail is spread to show the broad tips to the feathers and black tiger-striped barring.
Our first Steller’s Jay of the season, and my first time banding one! This bird had a beautiful broad tail, indicative of an adult, whereas a young bird would have had more tapered tail feathers. Photo Credit: Lisa Viviano

Although it is normal for our numbers to fluctuate year to year, these last three years are unusual. Low years are typically followed by higher years. We ended the 2023 season with only 3,772 new birds banded.

We have some ideas behind these low numbers, but no definitive answers yet.

Among our potential culprits are a mass mortality event in the southern Rockies in fall 2020, drought, and unusually hot weather as well as the various factors we know are causing longer term declines – habitat loss, insect declines, and more.

This has been my third year on the songbird crew at Lucky Peak, and experiencing these record low years has made me increasingly worried about western songbird populations. We’re anxiously awaiting next year’s season, in hopes of better numbers.

A biologist with blue nail polish holds a small gray, black and white songbird in photographer's grip for a photo. The bark of a tree trunk is in the background. You can also see a small part of the person's blue shirt sleeve
A young Mountain Chickadee, bird number 3,719 for the year, an exciting milestone after catching 3,718 total birds in 2022. Photo Credit: Lucian Davis

The Afternoon News


By hawkwatcher Phil Stollsteimer

There’s something special about getting to watch the spectacle of migration in real time. Sitting atop Lucky Peak every day and counting the raptors that passed along the ridge gave me a glimpse into the lives of thousands of individuals and a deeper appreciation for their impressive endeavors.

It was an act of mass relocation unfolding right in front of us- some birds taking on a multi-thousand-mile effort at only a few months old.

While Lucky Peak was just a transient waypoint for the majority of these birds, the hawk watch crew valued every interesting behavior, subspecies, and act of determination that we observed.

A small brown hawk with some white around the throat and above the eye is being held gently by a raptor bander. There is blue sky, green douglas fir trees and grayish-green sagebrush in the background.
Hatch-year male Sharp-shinned Hawk captured on his journey south. Sharp-shinned Hawks may not migrate as far as some other species counted at Lucky, but they move in some of the highest numbers! Photo Credit: Phil Stollsteimer

This is my favorite thing about raptor migration. Unlike most birds, diurnal birds of prey move in the middle of the day, allowing birders to watch their flight. After over a decade of birding, I have spent my fair share of time at hawk watches in the fall. However, there’s nothing like being out there every day throughout the season.

Not only did I fine-tune my ID skills, but I also learned how the birds interact with this specific location.

A side-by-side comparison of an adult male Sharp-shinned Hawk on the left, and an adult male Cooper's Hawk on the right. The plumage and form of both birds is extremely similar. Both have dark orangey eyes, and blueish grey feathers. The sharp-shinned hawk is smaller with a round head. The Cooper's Hawk is larger with a very squared-off head. There is blue sky and green trees in the background.
Accipiters are often considered the toughest birds to identify at a distance for hawk watchers. This adult male Sharp-shinned Hawk (left) and adult male Cooper’s Hawk (right) show off the similarities in plumage and form that these birds have. Photo Credit: Phil Stollsteimer

Being at the southern tip of the Boise Ridge, Lucky Peak is the final haven for many species before they contemplate crossing the barren desert of the Snake River Plain. This rapid change in biomes is apparent in the behavior of many raptors. Particularly as the sun gets lower and the flight comes to an end…

…there is visible hesitancy in the birds to leave the mountains and start over the desert.

While this would occasionally make our job trickier, as we don’t want to double count any birds that circle around the peak as they try to decide whether to continue or find a place to roost, I loved watching this behavior and feeling an understanding of their thoughts.

A raptor bander gently holds a small falcon with a rusty reddish colored back and steel blue-grey wings in the light of the setting sun. There is some blue sky and Lucky Peak's brownish hillside in the background.
Adult male American Kestrel – one of the trickiest species to determine migratory status of at Lucky Peak as they constantly circle the peak to hunt in the evenings. Photo Credit: Phil Stollsteimer

For me, this holistic experience made the slow days much more enjoyable. Unfortunately, these slow days proved to be a consistent theme, as we had many slow days on the peak this season. Between an unusually high number of bad weather days that limited our counting time and any number of factors that influenced breeding success prior to migration, we recorded only 4,858 raptors this fall.

Interestingly, low Sharp-shinned Hawk numbers were one of the main drivers for our mediocre hawkwatch totals. Considering that these small raptors are one of the #1 songbird predators at Lucky Peak, it makes us wonder whether the low prey numbers influenced these tiny predators.

This number falls around 1,500 birds short of the historical average for Lucky Peak.

Species28 Year Average20232023 vs average
Total Of Year63844845Below
American Kestrel971448Below
Bald Eagle119Near
Broad-winged Hawk3945Near
Cooper's Hawk792465Below
Ferruginous Hawl57Near
Golden Eagle4727Below
American Goshawk3811Below
Northern Harrier222142Below
Peregrine Falcon1115Above
Prairie Falcon117Below
Rough-legged Hawk65Near
Red-shouldered Hawk11Near
Red-tailed Hawk1085875Below
Sharp-shinned Hawk1272849Below
Swainson's Hawk124205Above
Turkey Vulture13421595Above

Additionally, we had a great year for passerines and other non-raptor species. We observed the third documented record for both Black Swift and Pinyon Jay at Lucky Peak.

Many bird populations ebb and flow on a regular basis and while this year may not have been a phenomenal year for overall raptor numbers, we still recorded an impressive diversity and above average numbers for multiple species.

A mid-sized falcon with brown body and tan spots on the face is being held gently by a raptor bander during the day. Behind is the blue sky, white clouds and green douglas fir trees of Lucky Peak, and grayish-green sagebrush in the foreground.
Hatch-year female Peregrine Falcon – one of the species that was counted in high numbers this season. Photo Credit: Lisa Viviano

Overall, it was a wonderful season filled with exceptional birds, people, and experiences. We wish all of our migrants good luck on their journey and hope to see them next year!

Raptor Banding

By the Lucky and Boise Peak Raptor Crew

Eden Ravecca: An Unforgettable Day at Lucky Peak

This was my third fall migration season at Lucky Peak volunteering as a raptor bander on my days off. Monday October 2, 2023, turned out to be unlike any other trapping day I’d experienced.

As I arrived around 10:30 am, the station appeared to be suspended in the sky surrounded by a dense cloud. Winds howled, a frigid mist crept in through the windows of the trapping blind. Visibility was reduced to a mere 20 meters and as I sat within the thick fog I wondered if I’d spot any raptors, let alone lure them in. But while I could have opted to close the station, I decided to brave the cold and wait.

in the foreground is the wooden trapping blind (like a small plywood box) sitting on a gravely hilltop. The surrounding background is completely socked in with fog, with no terrain or features visible
Lucky Peak trapping blind on a very foggy morning. Photo Credit: Eden Ravecca

Over the years volunteering with IBO, I’d encountered many beautiful birds of very cool species, from gorgeous dark morph Red-tailed Hawks to majestic Golden Eagles.

But there was one species that remained high on my banding bucket list —the Peregrine Falcon.

During the last two seasons, Peregrines expertly eluded me. On several occasions, they had come blazing through the station, swooping in and peeling up towards the sky before coming back down like missiles. Most of them stuck around for 10 or 15 minutes, seeming very interested and making endless passes, but I was never able to close the deal.

These falcons are incredible creatures! The fastest animal on earth; they carve through the air with such ease and control, even in conditions so windy that the sky is void of most other birds.

They were like a fleeting dream.

Around 3:00 pm, the sky finally started to open up, and within two minutes, a Sharp-shinned Hawk hit the net. That was all I needed, one bird would make the wait worth it.

a sharp-shinned hawk with golden yellow eyes reminiscent of an intensely colored marigold flower. The background shows the wood grain walls of the trapping blind, and through the window in the back you can see a foggy forested scene.
Second-year female Sharp-shinned Hawk – the first bird banded on this foggy October day, featuring her beautiful eye color that was transitioning from yellow to orange. Photo Credit: Eden Ravecca

The wind continued to break up the clouds and the hungry raptors kept coming.

It was a diverse day of banding, including the trifecta of North American Accipiters – Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and (the newly named) American Goshawk!

a scientists holds the large bird of prey against her torso, gently pressing the bird against her chest and arms to hold the folded wings, while her hands hold both feet so that she can attach the small metal leg band. the bird's large feet are about the size of the back of her hand, and the bird's body and tail are about the same length as the scientist's torso
Eden banding a hatch-year male American Goshawk, the largest Accipiter in North America. Photo Credit: Eden Ravecca

The diversity ramped up as the skies continued to clear. Next into the nets came the Falcon species-first, a feisty American Kestrel, followed by a stunning Merlin.

a male American Kestrel held by a biologist in the sunset. His wings are both outstretched, showing off the sharp black and white patterning of his flight feathers, slate-blue shoulders, and orange tiger-striped back. His face has beautiful bold black stripes, and his tail is orange with a bold black stripe. Behind him is a view of Boise in the distance underneath a setting sun
Stunning adult male American Kestrel at sunset. Photo Credit: Eden Ravecca

Then, on that cold and windy Monday, it finally happened.

With just minutes left before closing the station I said “Alright, 10 minutes to catch a Peregrine!” To my delight, the universe was listening and delivered. A magnificent hatch-year Peregrine Falcon tore into the station and graced me with her powerful presence.

a young peregrine falcon looks off camera with intense pure black eyes. her sharply hooked beak is open with a fierce expression. Her pale bluish bill and eye skin, and buffy tan feathers show that she is a young bird
Close-up profile of a hatch-year female Peregrine Falcon, featuring her impressive beak and tomial tooth. This “tooth” is a notch found on the upper mandible that allows falcons to swiftly kill their prey by severing the spinal column. Photo Credit: Eden Ravecca

She’s the largest falcon I’ve ever banded, weighing in at over 950 grams! This was one of the most memorable days I’ve had in the blind, despite the slow start. It wasn’t about the number of birds, but it was the diversity that made it special, and banding my first Peregrine Falcon. I had never banded six species in one day, and when I sent out the end-of-day recap to our banding group text, one of our fellow banders summed it up perfectly: “A blessed day”.

Isaac Grosner: A Dream Come True at Boise Peak

This was my second consecutive fall working for IBO. Last fall, I spent my time at Lucky Peak, working on Hawk Watch and spending a day or two per week in the blind, getting to trap and band many cool raptors. But this year I had my eyes set on one species in particular – a Golden Eagle. I’ve had close calls with them in the past, and was hoping this would be the year that I finally caught one. And since Golden Eagles are more commonly caught at IBO’s Boise Peak station…

…that’s where I headed.

a view of mixed sagebrush, bitter cherry shrubs, and douglas fir trees. There is a small wooden trapping blind structure nestled into the fir trees. In the foreground are a few nets and ropes used for hawk trapping
A view of the Boise Peak raptor trapping station. Photo Credit: Greg Kaltenecker

We officially opened for the season on August 27th, and I didn’t have to wait long to catch some amazing raptors. A beautiful hatch-year male Northern Harrier found its way into my nets on September 10th, dazzling me with its creamy orange body.

A medium sized rusty orange and brown raptor with light tan eyes is gently held by a raptor bander. it looks toward the camera with a goofy surprised look. The blue sky, white clouds, green douglas fir trees is in the background. Two white poles of a raptor net are visible as well.
A hatch-year male Northern Harrier caught at Boise Peak, featuring its distinctly orange body. Photo Credit: Isaac Grosner

A few days later on September 13th a hatch-year male Peregrine Falcon spent two hours stooping and zooming all over my station before I finally caught him!

A medium sized brown-ish falcon with a dark brown eye and open blue-ish beak. There are green buckbrush shrubs in the background.
A hatch-year male Peregrine Falcon. Photo Credit: Isaac Grosner

Then, on September 22nd, I was graced with the presence of a stunning adult American Goshawk! An adult goshawk is a rare catch, and this second-year female wowed me with her beauty and fierceness.

And yet as the season went on, I was still keeping my eyes peeled for the one bird I wanted the most.

A large light silver-gray hawk with thin black streaks on the breast and a black patch on the side of the face. her eye is a light gold with some darker flecks. her pink tongue is visible in her fierce open beak. Blue sky, white clouds, green douglas fir trees and mountains are visible in the background.
A second-year female American Goshawk. Note the striking gray and white plumage distinctive of adults, and the mottled, amber eye. Photo Credit: Isaac Grosner

And then, on October 5th, it happened. I was watching some Sharp-shinned Hawks circling in the valley in front of me, trying to get their attention with my pigeon.

All of the sudden I simultaneously see a massive shadow go over the blind and hear a “whoosh”

…a telltale sign that a raptor is barreling down onto my pigeon from behind. I blink, and there it is: a Golden Eagle, perfectly centered in my bow net. I flip the bow and run out of the blind to the now safely-trapped eagle, barely able to believe what just happened. After three seasons of being involved in raptor trapping, I had finally caught a Golden Eagle! It was a moment I’ll never forget, and one of the most exciting moments of my career as a biologist.

A profile of a Golden Eagle with a fierce look in her deep brown eyes. Her body is covered in dark brown feathers with golden tips on the nape of the neck. The red and blue flannel shirt of the bander is partially visible on the right. There is blue sky, mountains dotted with green trees, and greenish-gray rabbitbrush with blooming yellow flowers in the background.
Success! A hatch-year female Golden Eagle getting ready for release at Boise Peak. Photo Credit: Isaac Grosner

The Evening News

By Phoebe Honscheid

Owls are mysterious. They’re difficult to see, not often heard, and many are active in the darkest hours of night. This is the allure of owl banding: unveiling these cryptic creatures to observe them up close.

This was especially true with the Flammulated Owl, a species that neither of the full-time owl crew had seen before and a big reason for us to come work at IBO.

Lucky Peak is the only migration banding station that regularly catches this elusive, moth-eating owl.

A small Flammulated owl is being held by an owl bander in photographer's grip for a photo with a black background.
A Flammulated Owl after banding. Photo Credit: Phoebe Honscheid

Consequently, very little is known about their migration, ecology, and aging characteristics. Part of our goal this season was to document the plumage of each Flammulated Owl with a series of photographs to help future biologists age these birds.

Needless to say, we were awestruck to find our lifer “Flam” on the third net run of our first night, followed closely by a second capture!

Two owl banders are looking closely at a small brown owl one of them is gently holding with its wing extended. Their headlamps are casting a glow on the owl and the surrounding banding table they are leaning on.
A peek into the banding yurt as owl banders Noah Price and Phoebe Honscheid process an owl. Photo Credit: Emily Ritter

Throughout the next few weeks, we saw a steady stream of Flammulated Owls, typically catching one or two per night until their migratory peak on September 17, when we caught 9 in one night. We caught our first Northern Saw-whet Owl a week earlier…

…having no idea that it would be the start of something legendary.

We had heard from Rocky Point Bird Observatory in British Columbia that they caught more Saw-whets in their first week than in their entire last season. Every four years, Saw-whet populations explode due to a boom in the rodent population. Luckily for us, 2023 was one of those years. Being in a similar migration corridor as Rocky Point, we were hoping that some of these owls would pay Lucky Peak a visit.

And in early October… they came pouring in.

A small brown owl sits atop a biologists arm under the glow of a red headlamp light. it is looking up toward the camera with an adorably surprised expression
A Northern Saw-whet Owl being released to continue its migration. We use red light during release to help their eyes adjust to the dark. Photo Credit: Phoebe Honscheid

After being forced to close on a couple rainy, windy days, we re-opened our nets to catch 22 owls one night, then 50 the night after.

The next night we caught a whopping 84 owls, setting a station record for the most owls caught in a single night, almost doubling the previous record!

We caught an incredible 23 owls on one net run alone! After that night, all I could dream about was extracting Northern Saw-whets from the net…

The hands of an owl bander holding the body of a small brown owl in the left hand and gently extending the wing with the right hand. A green arrow points to an old lighter brown feather amongst brand new darker feathers
The green arrow points to a lighter-colored, retained feather from a previous year, whereas the rest of the feathers were replaced this year. Photo Credit: Noah Price

One of my favorite things about Saw-whets is the variability in their facial expressions and eye color. Every owl also has a distinct personality, some being gentle and calm, others being feisty and fierce.

A collage image of 4 different small brown owls being held gently by owl banders inside the banding yurt. One owl has a goofy surprised look, one has a sweet calm look, one has an adorable big-eyed expression, and one has a grumpy look with angry eyebrows. Banding tools and table are in the background
Four Northern Saw-whet Owls with diverse facial expressions. Photo Credit: Phoebe Honscheid and Noah Price

We ended our season frozen and tired but with 611 Northern Saw-whet Owls, 67 Flammulated Owls, and 678 total owls banded.

Although we didn’t catch any out-of-the-ordinary species, we came in third place for the most Saw-whets, Flams, and total owls since the owl program started in 1999.

Apart from our success with catching owls, we had a lovely fall on the Peak, from watching the sunrise while sleepily closing nets, to watching our resident turkey babies grow into adults, to playing cards in hurricane-level rains. I wish good luck and safe travels to all our dear owls and fellow biologists as they migrate away for the season, hopefully returning to Lucky Peak once again next year.

A beautiful sunset illuminates the blue, yellow and orange of the sky over Boise looking from Lucky Peak. There are douglas fir trees, rabbitbrush with yellow flowers, and gray-green sagebrush in the foreground.
Sunset over Boise as the owl banders open nets and begin their night. Photo Credit: Phoebe Honscheid

This article is part of our 2023 end of the year newsletter! View the full newsletter here, or click “older posts” below to read the next article.

Make sure you don’t miss out on IBO news! Sign up to get our email updates.