Cassia Crossbills in Cassia County, Idaho


Cassia Crossbills were easy to locate in the Diamondfield Jack Campground in Cassia County, Idaho.

After leaving Bear River Refuge, I took back roads out of Utah doing a bit of state listing as I drove into Idaho. It is only about two and a half hours drive from Brigham City, Utah to Twin Falls, Idaho, which is the town near the Cassia Crossbill spot. And unlike a lot of my other routes on which I always aimed for birdwatching sites, this time I drove straight to Twin Falls. Actually, I drove straight to Shoshone Falls, which is on the SE edge of the city of Twin Falls. Shoshone Falls is formed when the Snake River plunges 200 feet over a rock ledge. It is a really spectacular natural wonder with the picturesque waterfall and a dramatic, steep-sided canyon. This area holds a special place in my childhood memories because very close to the falls (actually at a spot immediately adjacent to I-80 as you come into Twin Falls) Evil Kinievel tried to jump a rocket-powered motorcycle over the canyon. This was a mega-event in 1974, and I clearly remember all the hype leading up to the event and then watching the attempt live on Wide World of Sports. For readers who never heard of this before--he didn't make it. But, miraculously, he didn't get killed either.

Shoshone Falls on the outskirts of Twin Falls Idaho was one of the most spectacular scenes on a trip full of spectacular landscapes.

It was not just Shoshone Falls itself but also the canyon downstream that presented a breathtaking view.

From Shoshone Falls I checked out some birding spots south of Twin Falls but it was mostly flat agricultural land and not all that interesting. At about 2pm I had a choice. I could go straight toward the crossbill location and be there in 45 minutes or I could go around the mountain, look for pinyon-juniper birds, and drive into the crossbill area basically coming over the from the east mountain. I decided for the longer route. It turned out to be a minor disaster. I almost gave up on the back route right at the very beginning because it was a pretty rough unpaved road but I ran into a couple of birders who assured me it was a good road all the way to the campgrounds on the other side, although they hadn't made the drive in a couple of years. So I started the two-hour trek up the mountain, driving through flocks of sheep and around the odd cow or horse. It was a bit hot and windy, but I was still getting interesting birds like Sage Thrasher and enjoying my trip. By my navigator, I was about 20 minutes from my destination at about 5pm when I passed a guy in a truck who waved for me to talk. I hadn't passed any vehicles on the road for more the 40 minutes. He said I wouldn't make it going forward. He had just been up there and four feet of snow blocked the road. Dang. I had taken my time coming up the road because I anticipated arriving a little after 5. Now it was going to be several hours back down and around. I wasn't sure that I'd make it before dark. There was nothing to do but turn around and go as fast as safely possible (remember sheep, cows, horses) back down the gravel road and basically back to where I had been at 2pm and then up into the canyon with the crossbills on the paved road front entrance. It ended up being only a minor disaster because I made it faster than I thought possible, getting close to Diamondfield Jack Campground with a full hour of daylight left.

I tried to reach Diamondfield Jack Campground, home of the Cassia Crossbill, by coming in from the east on FS 528. Unfortunately after dodging sheep, cows, and horses on the road for 2 hour and being 95% off the way to my destination, I was stopped by deep snow and had to go all the way back around.

I'll write a future blog about the designation of the Cassia Crossbill as a distinct species. My entire trip to see these birds was hypocritical in the sense that I am confident that this population of crossbills is not a distinct species by any logically consistent species concept. I'll explain the biology behind that statement in a future blog. Here, I'll comment on why my trip to see a species that (in my opinion as an ornithologist) is not a species. Birding is not science. The observations that emerge from birding might someday be used for science but birding per se is a game. As with any game, there are a clear set of rules. One of the most central rules is that the designation of species-- which populations of birds are designated as distinct species and which populations are not--is decided by a two-thirds majority vote by a committee of scientists and birders. So, while I'm sure the committee made a serious mistake when they voted Cassia Crossbill to species status, that is completely beside the point when I playing the game of birding. The population of crossbills in Cassia County, Idaho is now on the ABA checklist (the official checklist for the game of birding), and as a birder I found it as fun and engaging to chase this addition to my checklist as it was to chase any other additions to my checklist.

The best place to see Cassia Crossbills is the Diamondfield Jack Campground in the Sawtooth National forest. Based on my experience, it is an easy peasy tick once you make it to the location.

Cassia Crossbills have an extremely restricted range in North America. As a matter of fact, I believe that Cassia Crossbill has the most restricted range of any North American bird species that is not an island endemic. In a sense, Cassia Crossbills are island endemics. They are restricted to Idaho's Albion Mountains which is a completely isolated, small montane feature surrounded on all sides by dry lowlands. The pine forests of the Albion Mountains are like an island of montane habitat in a sea of sagebrush. Over the past tens of thousands of years, birds made it out to the isolated pine forests but red squirrels did not. The lack of red squirrels in this forest for the past 10,000 years played a key role in the evolution of rapid changes in bill morphology in this small population of crossbills. I'll come back to all of this in my post on the science of crossbills.

Most birders who are looking for information on how to see Cassia Crossbills, like I had been a week before my trip, will quickly run into mentions of Diamondfield Jack Campground. Most of the pins in the eBird map for Cassia Crossbill are at Diamondfield Jack Campground and that’s where I headed. I had read that this campground is really a few campsites around the edge of a big parking lot used during the ski season and that is an apt description. The lodgepole pine surrounding the parking lot big mature trees and that is what brings the crossbills in. Right across the road from Diamondfield Jack Campground is an even bigger parking area and unfortunately, that parking area was hosting a dirt bike/ATV gathering the weekend I was there. As I pulled into the Diamondfield Jack Campground at about 7pm on Sunday evening June 14, it was louder than the shoulder of an expressway. Dirt bikes were speeding up and down the road and up the trails into the mountains. It seemed like a nightmare place to camp. And, almost sadly, I got my life Cassia Crossbill right as I stepped out of the car in the midst of the dirt bike noise and engine fumes--I heard the distinctive rolling chip-chip notes of a couple of birds that landed briefly in the trees above me before they flew off. I should have pretended that I didn't see them--I'd have a much better look and listen the next morning.

When Diamondfield Jack Campground proved to be too noisy, I found a peaceful place to sleep at the Petit Campground, just a mile downslope.

I wasn't sleeping in the middle of the dirt bike raceway around Diamondfield Jack campground, so I drove a mile back down the road to the Petit Campground. Instantly, I was back in a peaceful mountain setting. No noise from the off-road rally made it down to the Petit Campground and on this Sunday evening it was completely empty--I was the only one in the whole place. Still, I was a bit disappointed and apprehensive because the Cassia Crossbill was not the only life bird I was seeking in the Diamondfield Jack Campground--I was also hoping to get Flammulated Owl there. Of all the campgrounds in the region, there were more Flammulated Owl records for Diamondfield Jack Campground than any other l location. It turned out, my worries were for nothing.

I was too tired to chase night birds after it got dark, so I went to bed early and got up an hour and a half before sunrise the next morning. I drove up to Daimondfield Jack Campground and birded the area from full dark in the predawn to well after sunrise. Flammulated Owl turned out to be harder than I expected. I clearly heard a Flammulated Owl way off in the distance when I first arrived and started listening, but then an hour of walking around and playing tapes got me no better detection. I was hoping to at least record if not photograph the species, but I didn't really come close to that. I did hear a Poor-will nearby while I was searching for Flammulated Owls.

Cassia Crossbills were easy to find near the Diamondfield Jack campground in the Albion Mountains of Idaho.

Cassia Crossbills were much more accommodating than Flammulated Owls. Right at sunrise, after I had been hearing songbirds like Green-tailed Towhees and Mountain Chickadees for 45 minutes, I started hearing siskins and then the familiar-yet-odd chip-chip-chip notes of Cassia Crossbills. I don't live in the range of Red Crossbills, but travel into the range of red crossbills at least once and usually several times per year. I know the typical Red Crossbill call well and this was clearly a red crossbill like sound but distinctly different. The Cassia Crossbills seemed to be moving about in pairs or groups of three and they were landing not far from me. I was able to take several shots of treetop birds but I missed the best photo of the morning. A group of these birds came down to a stunted pine right along the road--a meter off the ground and only 20 meters from where I stood. I took a minute to study this life bird in my binoculars before I raised my camera and tried for a photo. But I fooled around with autofocus just a second too long and the birds were back in the tree tops before I got the shot. Nevertheless, with really minimal effort I got sound recording, photos, and really good looks at Cassia Crossbill. I think this would be a hard bird to miss during a morning's birding at Diamondfield Jack campground.

Around 9am I packed up and headed out of the Albion Mountains. It was time to get my 50th state.

© 2015 Geoffrey Hill

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