BOISE — The Snake River Plateau is a desolate place. It is, by all appearances, an arid wasteland where tufts of cheat grass, and parchment-like lichen bonded to ancient rocks, are the only vegetation for miles around.
Coursing through this bleak panorama is a great canyon, carved some 14,000 years ago by the cataclysmic Bonneville Flood. In its wake, the torrent left basaltic cliffs that rise hundreds of feet above the river to the brink of the plateau.
This is a fearsome, frightening landscape, a place raked by thunderstorms and seared by relentless sun, a desert shared by jackrabbits and ground squirrels, rattlesnakes and scorpions.
It is, in other words, a great place to live — if you’re a raptor.
More than 800 pairs of raptors of 15 different species — the greatest such concentration on earth — nest in crags and crevices in the precipitous cliffs. They emerge from their hideaway homes to ride updrafts, from which they scout the surrounding land for the small mammals that comprise their diet.
These birds are protected within the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area, a Bureau of Land Management-administered parcel of nearly a half-million acres, and enclosing 81 miles of river.
Almost within shouting distance of the conservation area, but completely unaffiliated, is the World Center for Birds of Prey. The planet’s foremost independently operated facility for the breeding of endangered raptors and educating the public on conservation issues, the World Center sits on a windy hilltop six miles south of the Idaho state capitol.
Not everyone might want to drive six hours from Central Oregon to spend a weekend with eagles, hawks, falcons, owls and even (shudder) turkey vultures. But the passionate people who devote their lives to these birds of prey help to make the journey a highly satisfying one.
Raptor specialist Trish Nixon has worked at the World Center for Birds of Prey since 1997. Starting as a volunteer, subsequently moving into a staff position, she is one of several employees who work in the Velma Morrison Interpretive Center, the World Center’s principal educational facility.
“Our purpose is to expose (the public) to birds indigenous to North America, and to exotic species that people might otherwise have to travel overseas to see,” she told me — then paused and, with a bit more vehemence, continued.
“And we must dispel the myths that are floating around out there, about birds of prey,” she said. “They’re just minding their own business. My god, leave them alone.”
I didn’t fully understand Nixon’s concern until I watched her presenting her avian ward, a 1-year-old Eurasian eagle-owl named Wally, to a couple dozen visiting adults and children.
One woman confessed her fear of birds, cringing whenever the large owl looked in her direction. Another revealed that she worried about hawks and eagles swooping down and stealing away her shar-pei. A teenager talked about a viral YouTube video which showed a large bird making off with a toddler.
Nixon bristled at the mention of that last item, which was proven to be a hoax. “No raptor can carry more than half of its body weight, at most,” she said. “That’s it. So it’s physically impossible for a big, 4-pound red-tailed hawk to pick up a 14-pound dog.”
Because of their hollow bone structure and layers of feathers, most birds look far heavier than they actually are. Wally, the owl, was no exception. “How much do you think he weighs?” she asked her audience. Guesses ranged from 20 to 60 pounds.
The truth was much more modest. Wally weighs just 5 1/2 pounds, she said.
Saving the condor
The World Center for Birds of Prey is the face of the Peregrine Fund, a conservationist agency established in Cornell, N.Y., in 1970, by falconers seeking to save the endangered peregrine falcon from extinction. The Fund established its headquarters at Boise in 1984.
Rehabilitation of sick or injured birds is not a function of the Peregrine Fund. “Our function is strictly the breeding and release of endangered birds of prey,” Nixon said. “We can’t afford to have any avian diseases in our population.”
In its 43-year history, the Peregrine Fund has bred and released more than 6,200 birds of 34 species in 27 countries, some of them as far from Idaho as Madagascar and the Philippines.
Of prime interest right now is the California condor, the largest land-bound bird in North America. Growing to 25 pounds with a wingspan of 10 feet, it is a scavenger that can live to be 60 years old. Yet its wild numbers had been reduced to just 22 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiated a preservation program in 1987.
A quarter-century later, the bird is slowly recovering, as birds are hatched in a handful of zoos and other facilities such as the World Center, and subsequently re-released into the wild.
“It’s still one of the most endangered birds on the planet,” Nixon cautioned. “But we’ve got more California condors than anybody.” Through February, the wild population of condors in California, Arizona and Baja California was reported at 233, with another 166 in captivity — 57 of them in Boise.
A handsome pair — if naked heads to which rotting flesh from carrion might adhere can be considered handsome — are resident in a tall screened aviary outside of the interpretive center. And an exhibit in the “Conservation Room” describes how lead poisoning has been identified as a leading cause of condor fatality, thinning the birds’ eggs much as DDT once did to peregrine falcons before the pesticide was banned.
In all, 30 birds are displayed at the interpretive center. Among them the American bald eagle, the harpy eagle and ornate hawk-eagle of Latin America, and the Bateleur eagle, which is native to sub-Saharan Africa. Also exhibited are the Arctic gyrfalcon and two tropical American falcons, the Aplomado and orange-breasted falcons.
Docents guide visitors on tours of the interpretive center, where they can see raptor incubators, demonstrations with live birds and instructional panels on identifying raptors in flight. A theater shows films on the Fund’s domestic and international conservation activities.
Like many at the World Center for Birds of Prey, Nixon might have talked all day about her beloved birds. She and just one other raptor specialist, she said, are responsible for all 30 raptors in the interpretive center.
“We handle their training, diets, trimming talons and beaks, vaccinating against West Nile virus, cleaning cages ... everything,” she said. “And we must look at the birds’ ages, history and personalities to decide which birds are okay for public education.”
Some of the birds, she said, were adopted from wildlife rehabilitation centers. Others are retired falconry birds.
She waxed poetic when she began to talk about feathers.
“Every single bird is equipped for the purpose for which nature intended,” Nixon said. “Each bird is designed for specific purposes, right down to the time of day, the season and their migratory behavior. The way the feathers work and the body functions — these birds are lightweight and energy efficient, but powerful and tenacious.”
A case in point, she said, is the peregrine falcon.
“They dive at speeds up to 250 miles per hour,” Nixon asserted, “yet their feathers are replaced only once a year. These feathers take a lot of abuse!”
As she held Wally, the Eurasian eagle-owl, on a tether, she ruffled his fringed wing feathers and sunk her hand deeply into his soft, sound-absorbing plumage.
“Owls’ feathers allow them to fly silently at night,” she explained. “Their facial disk is like a cupped hand that directs sound into their ears — which are asymmetrically placed, one high, one lower, to help them to triangulate sound.
“I am constantly amazed by the ‘miraculousness’ of these creatures.”
One of the World Center’s birds is named Morley. That’s not an accident. Morley was the prized gyrfalcon of Morley Nelson, for whom the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area was formally renamed in 2009.
Nelson (1917-2005) was the face of raptor conservation not only in southern Idaho, but throughout much of the American West. As a falconer, Nelson influenced the Idaho State Legislature in 1958 to enact a pioneering raptor-protection law. He worked with public utility and electric companies to modify transmission lines to minimize the likelihood of electrocuting large birds.
And Nelson was instrumental in establishing both the National Conservation Area and the World Center for Birds of Prey.
The conservation area is best reached via Meridian and Swan Falls roads, about 35 miles southwest of Boise.
Sixteen miles past the village of Kuna, the Dedication Point observation point has a quarter-mile trail leading to a lookout atop the cliffs that overlook the Snake River. Other good viewpoints, at river level, are the Swan Falls Dam (five miles past Dedication Point) and Celebration Park (several miles further west near tiny Melba).
My mid-spring arrival was timed to coincide with the time when bird populations are highest in the conservation area, shortly after eggs have hatched. I sat serenely for several morning hours, armed only with binoculars and an impressionable mind.
I watched as slender prairie falcons — the largest population in the preserve — soared below and above me, their eyes peeled for tiny and prolific Paiute ground squirrels. It was a thrill to see one bird plummet arrow-like into the sparse growth and circle upward with an inert piece of fur between its talons, tail dangling below.
Raptor specialist Nixon had told me that a typical raptor’s talons can exert between 300 and 400 pounds of pressure. “A small animal doesn’t stand much of a chance,” she said.
The largest resident of the conservation area is the magnificent golden eagle, which typically weighs about 10 pounds with a wingspread approaching 7 feet. This bird has a built-in population-control mechanism: The first-hatched chick of its two eggs usually kills its younger sibling, ensuring itself all of its parents’ food deliveries.
Other nonmigratory Snake River raptors include the common red-tailed hawk, ferruginous hawk, Swainson’s hawk, kestrel, northern harrier and the turkey vulture. There are also seven resident owls, including screech owls, barn owls and great horned owls. Many bird watchers consider the most intriguing to be the burrowing owl, which makes its nest in holes vacated by ground squirrels and badgers.
Peregrine falcons are one of nine migratory species. Bald eagles and ospreys also frequent the conservation area.
Although a cliff-top perch is a thrilling place from which to view these birds of prey, riverside venues have a particular appeal.
For instance, Swan Falls Dam, operated by the Idaho Power Co., is flanked by a small park that extends into several miles of primitive campsites between the river and the cliffs. It’s a favorite of waterfowl and songbirds, from cormorants to red-winged blackbirds.
A remarkable 33 million cubic feet of water per second erupted through these walls at peak discharge of the Bonneville Flood. It littered the area with large rounded boulders, called “petrified watermelons” by the locals. When human inhabitants, the ancestors of Paiute Indians, arrived in the canyon following the retreat of Ice Age glaciers, they used these rocks for their petroglyphs.
Many of these carvings are preserved downriver at Celebration Park, which was established in 1989 as Idaho’s only archaeological park, at the western edge of the conservation area. Especially on weekends, volunteers lead interpretive tours of the petroglyph sites from a visitor center that is currently undergoing a major renovation.
The conservation area also contains some well-preserved sections of the historic Oregon Trail, remnants of three 1860s mining settlements, ranches and an Army National Guard training facility.
Of special interest, joining the eastern edge of the preserve near the town of Mountain Home, is Bruneau Dunes State Park. The highest single-structured sand dune in North America, rising 470 feet above an adjacent lake, is located here with smaller dunes; because they are trapped within a natural basin, they don’t drift in the manner of most dunes. Trails up to 6 miles long circle the lake and dunes. In spring, they are alive with colorful desert wildflowers.
The Bruneau Dunes belie the desolate image of other parts of the Snake River Plateau. But there’s a connecting thread: The raptors still soar overhead.