Birding Idaho

With 83,569 square miles within its borders- 479 miles north to south and 305 miles wide- Idaho is vast, and ecologically diverse. Parts of 10 major ecoregions extend into the state. The elevation ranges from only 710 feet above sea level at north Idaho’s inland port of Lewiston, to 12,662 feet at Mt. Borah in the Lost River Range. The climate varies from semi/desert or Mediterranean, to subarctic and even tundra at high elevations.

Mountains near Stanley

Idaho’s geology and climate create a surprising variety of habitats and wildlife for an inland state- from the large lakes and wet, heavily timbered forests of the northern Panhandle, the rugged roadless interior with its massive peaks and wild untamed rivers, the agriculture of the Snake River valley, the basalt buttes in the southwest corner, the seemingly endless sea of sagebrush and lava rock in the south central heart of the state, to the rolling pine and sagebrush covered mountains down in the southeastern corner.

From Boreal Chickadees and Varied Thrushes in the north to Juniper Titmice and Sage Thrashers in the south, the birding experience can be as diverse or as specialized as a person could ask for with nearly 300 species of breeding birds, and over a hundred more using the state as a refuelling point on their migration.

Lava at Craters of the Moon National Monument

Southern Idaho is dominated by the sagebrush flats/steppes and agriculture of the Snake River plain, formed by the Yellowstone hotspot. As the earth’s crust passed over it, this plume of magma made its way east across the state over millions of years, beginning in the high desert Owyhee plateau in the southwest corner and then blasting through eastern Idaho’s basin and range region, igniting super volcanoes and leaving lava flows and collapsed mountains in it’s wake.

From its origins atop the hotspot in Yellowstone National Park, the Snake River flows through mountains on the eastern edge of the state and then into this plain, coursing across southern Idaho before turning north and forming the western border as it falls into Hell’s Canyon, the deepest river gorge in North America.

Basin and Range river valley

The northern edge of the Snake River plain is typical of the Intermountain West’s basin and range, with river valleys of riparian and sagebrush/grassland habitat, overlooked by steep mountains and alpine habitat on top.

South of the plain the basin and range is characterized by Great Basin plants and animals, and more rounded mountains covered by Juniper trees on the lower slopes and evergreen and aspen forests on the higher reaches.

Rugged Central Idaho

In central Idaho the basin and range mountains give way to the Middle Rockies and the Idaho Batholith’s granite peaks, the largest complex of roadless areas in the lower 48. Rivers draining out of these high mountains carve out steep, dry, lower elevation canyons along the west side of the state.

Central Idaho is so rugged that only a single paved road connects southern Idaho to the northern Panhandle. US Highway 95 follows the western side of the state, skirting the Batholith by winding through mountains between its western edge and the Hell’s Canyon National Recreation Area before dropping into the lower Salmon River canyon at Riggins. Following the river northward it then climbs up onto the western Panhandle’s Camas Prairie, continues through the rolling agricultural hills of the Palouse and into northern Idaho’s lake region before reaching the Canadian border.

North Idaho Marsh

The Bitterroot mountains along the Continental Divide on its east side, the Selkirks and Cabinets to the north, and the prairies and river canyons on the west give Idaho’s Panhandle, by itself, more biodiversity than many entire states. With its close connections to the ecoregions of the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies, the Panhandle adds both coastal and Boreal species to Idaho birding possibilities.

You can find Vaux’s and Black Swifts, Pileated Woodpecker, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, and Townsend’s Warbler in the north; Rocky Mountain species like Dusky Grouse, Great-gray Owl, Three-toed Woodpecker, Clark’s Nutcracker, and Rosy-Finches; Chukar, Golden Eagle, and Canyon Wren in the dry river canyons; Greater Sage Grouse, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Green-tailed Towhee, and Sagebrush Sparrow in the sagebrush steppes and lower elevation hills; or Ash-throated Flycatcher, Blue Grosbeak, Scott’s Oriole, and Cassia Crossbill in the southern reaches of the state. And with 70 percent of Idaho in public lands, this birding is accessible to everyone- whether hotspots already known, or those yet to be explored.

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