Sunday, May 24, 2015

May 2015: Mud Lake Wildlife Management Area

Mud Lake

I enjoyed going out to Camas National Wildlife Refuge that I started looking around and discovered that there are at least 47 wildlife management refuges in Idaho, within two hours of my home.  Since birding is my new hobby, I decided to check out another one of them.  I found a website called the Idaho Birding Trail.  It has a great deal of information about wildbirds in the great state of Idaho.  One of the "blue ribbon" stops along the trail is at Mud Lake which is also just about twenty minutes from my front door.

Mud Lake was formed from the remnants of an ancient caldera in the same caldera complex that formed the Snake River Plain.  There is also a local legend that a shipment of gold from a stagecoach heist is buried deep in the mud of Mud Lake.

We are in the rainy season here in southeast Idaho, so we didn't know if we were going to have rain or clear skies.  But since we are in Idaho, we figured we'd have a bit of both.  As we drove out to the bird refuge, we encountered monsoon conditions for a few miles, but we soldiered on because the skies over Mud Lake seemed to be clear.

Having never been to the Mud Lake Wildlife Management Area before, I didn't know what to expect and only had seen signs for it in one place, so that's where we decided to go.  Turns out it's the back way.  We skirted the lake on the east side and stopped all along the way anywhere there seemed to be a spur trail or small road to the lake.  I thought it was quite beautiful, but we didn't see a whole lot of birds in the first part of the journey.

I did take a few cool pictures of the first bit, though.

Broken bulrushes on water's edge

These were right next to them

Reflection in the water at the boat dock

I have discovered that Yellowstone has spoiled me as far as wildlife viewing is concerned.  The elk, bison, deer, pronghorns, bears and other animals in Yellowstone are so acclimated to human beings that they don't flinch when we are around.  I've driven right up to many animals in Yellowstone and they never even gave me a second glance.  Not so at the Camas National Wildlife Refuge and the Mud Lake Wildlife Management Area.  They all seemed to be skittish around us.  Last year in Yellowstone, we parked about thirty feet away from a great blue heron which then stood still in the water so we could get a great picture of it.  At both of these wildlife refuges, the herons and other birds fly away as soon as you get anywhere near picture range.  They seem more wild than the Yellowstone critters.  The same goes for the big game.  At Mud Lake, yesterday, we saw a magnificent bull elk with antlers still covered in velvet.  We couldn't get within a hundred yards of him before he took off into the willows.  We weren't driving fast, we weren't making noise.  He just didn't want to be seen.  We had the same experience with a great blue heron yesterday as well.

The road skirted around the lake and passed part of the way through the steppe.  As we drove through that area, I saw something in the road and at the last minute I slammed on the brakes and backed up.  It was a rattlesnake.  I had only seen one rattlesnake in the wild before yesterday and that one was at the Teton Dam.  I backed up and took some pictures of it.  It never coiled, never tried to strike, it just wanted to get out of the way.  I told my brother about the experience and he said, "Did you kill it?"  I told him no.  I'm not much of a killer.  I tried being a hunter when I was a kid.  Didn't do so well.  I'd rather shoot things with a camera than a gun.

Deer at the Mud Lake Wildlife Management Area


Gettin' out of Dodge

The road led back to the lake and whenever we had a fork in the road, we tried to default towards the lake.  We had never been through here before and we needed a landmark to point us the right way so we could get back home without backtracking a whole lot.  We began to see more birds.  I stopped and saw a pelican and a marsh hawk, then we proceeded back around the lake and spooked four bull elk.  Once again, they were over a hundred yards away but they wanted to be farther than that from us.


Marsh hawk

Four skittish bull elk

The road around the backside of the lake was pretty rough and I was unsure if my mini-van was up to the task.  We made it okay, but it was rocky and rough, and we'd drive for quite awhile without a photo op.

The road finally settled and we got on a much better section of it on top of a dike along a canal.  We saw a bunch of white faced ibis in this area.  We began to see a lot more water birds, which is what we came to see.  Next time, the Hot Chick and I decided we'd plan our route a little better to avoid the backside of the lake.  Either that or go in a four wheel drive pickup that would be better equipped for that kind of travel.

We also saw hundreds of Canada geese.  Most of them flew away at the sight of our car (which was not going overly fast) but one pair of geese stayed on the opposite bank of the canal in defiance of us.  Then we noticed their young.  The parents weren't going anywhere.  At that moment, we had everything in the world in common with those two geese.  Humbling.

White faced ibis in flight

Hanging out, walking like Egyptians

More ibis

The Canada goose family

We were driving out of the preserve when I noticed an elevated road that went along the shoreline.  On the one side was the lake and the other were farmers' fields.  I didn't know if the road was still part of the preserve or if it was farm access or both.  There were no signs saying it was off limits or verboten, so I took it.  I looked at a map of the preserve when I returned home and discovered that it was part of the wildlife area.  This area turned out to be the best bird watching area of the trip.  Not that we saw more birds this time (the weather wasn't great for birding) but we drove past much better habitat for waterbirds on this section of the road.

There was a truck several hundred yards in front of us on that road and they spooked the great blue heron we wanted to see.  Curse you, man in pickup!  By the time we got through this section of road, the storm had finally hit mud lake and we were beginning to see torrential rains.  Time to go.  There was one road we didn't get to go on, and I discovered when I looked at the map that it went right to the waters' edge and terminated in a picnic area.  I think that's where I'll start next time.  Have a picnic and watch the birds.  I'm still waiting to photograph the elusive great blue heron.  Anxious for that.

I think this is a grebe

Canvasback ducks

Pelicans and coots

The water was a really cool color, but you can see the sky was getting ready to cry

As we drove out of the preserve, the last bird we saw was a little killdeer.  They continue to be one of my favorite birds.  Probably because they are interesting to look at, have an interesting call and most important, it's one of the birds that I remember my dad teaching me about.  I've always loved killdeer.
The killdeer kept thinking it was going to run away, but then I'd hit the button for my autofocus and the little beep would make the killdeer stop and cock it's head in my direction.  It was surprisingly difficult to shoot because every time I'd get it in focus, the killdeer would come closer to investigate.  I did get a few good shots of it though.  Here's my favorite.
The killdeer

I'll come back to this wildlife refuge.  I really enjoyed the trip.  All of it.  Next time, I'll probably spend most of my time on the south side of the lake though.  That seemed to be where the best habitat was.  But then again, I'd like to see the sage grouse and pheasants.  They'd be up in the steppe with the rattlesnakes.

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