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East Idaho for the Birds

Published online: Jul 06, 2022 Discover Idaho Falls, East Idaho Outdoors, Outdoors Steve Smede
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FOR TOURISTS AND LOCAL SPORTING NUTS ALIKE, our region is well known for its blue-ribbon trout fisheries and healthy big game populations. Less appreciated, however, is its reputation as an avian corridor. Within 45 minutes of Idaho Falls, you can find three major bird sanctuaries–all easily accessible off of Interstate 15.

Market Lake Wildlife Management Area
I-15 Exit 135 near Roberts
Once an actual lake formed by seasonal flooding, the original Market Lake dried up due to late 19th century railroad development. It has since found a new life as a mixed-use resource for agriculture and wildlife. According to the Idaho Dept. of Fish & Game, which manages the property, it includes 8 miles of dikes, 6 miles of canals and 7 miles of ditches. It features 2.5 miles of trails and 13 miles of roads, as well as information kiosks and signage throughout.

Market Lake is a favorite pit stop for migrating songbirds. We’ve had especially good luck in the early spring spotting yellow-headed blackbirds and western meadowlarks. It’s also an oasis for a variety of resident and migratory waterfowl, serving as a waystation for 100,000-plus ducks, 40,000 snow geese and hundreds of Canadian geese, tundra swans and various shorebirds.

Fun Fact: According to the National Audubon Society, water output of the springs feeding Market Lake is only 25% of what it was back in the 1970s. One potential solution by the Idaho Dept. of Fish & Game is to purchase water from upstream reservoirs and bring it into the marshes.

Mud Lake Wildlife Management Area
I-15 Exit near Mud Lake & Rexburg
Established in 1940, this 11,500-acre property near its namesake town was originally designated as a breeding and nesting sanctuary for waterfowl, but now serves in that role for a variety of wildlife species. Long before that, it was a seasonal sink that fed the Snake River Aquifer. The shallow lake and adjacent marshes now offer critical habitat for nearly 80 species of birds.

The sheer number of birds here is staggering. Upwards of 160,000 migratory waterfowl and shorebirds make use of the area. In the spring, Mud Lake has been a hotbed for snow geese in recent years, as migrating flocks are hard to miss. Grebes, herons, loons, swans, egrets–Mud Lake has them all. Birds of prey range from falcons to bald eagles, hawks, owls and more.

Upland species can also be found here, including ring-necked pheasant, gray partridge and sage-grouse.

Fun fact: The average depth of Mud Lake is only 5 feet. Even so, it offers some decent fishing and boating opportunities, including two boat launch access sites. Both also include overnight camping and restrooms.

Camas National Wildlife Refuge
I-15 Exit 150 near Hamer
This 11,000-acre wildlife oasis sits just outside the farming community of Hamer. Flanked by majestic mountains to the north and west, the refuge is easily accessible about 5 miles from the I-15 exit. It harbors critters of all kinds, but is especially hospitable to a variety of bird species. Loop roads provide easy-access pull outs throughout the property, and you can park and hike the non-motorized sections as well.

Camas hosts an impressive roosting spot for bald eagles, which crowd the treetops in late winter. Depending on the snowpack, March and April welcome upwards of 50,000 waterfowl. Songbirds are also prolific, especially in May and June. Other notable birds include sandhill cranes, red-tailed hawks, owls, curlews and healthy populations of ring-necked pheasant and sage grouse.

The refuge is open to the public daily from 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset.

Right next to the property headquarters, you can hop onto the official Camas birding trail. It’s 1.8 miles and easy to traverse over a gravel surface—perfect for eavesdropping on migratory songbirds.

Fun fact: Camas National Wildlife Refuge is part of the Southeast Idaho National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which consists of six refuges within the National Wildlife Refuge System: Bear Lake, Camas, Deer Flat, Grays Lake, and Minidoka National Wildlife Refuges, and the Oxford Slough Waterfowl Production Area.

Harriman State Park
WHILE NOT EXACTLY CLOSE to the trifecta of bird sanctuaries off of Interstate 15, the hallowed waters of the Henry’s Fork can make for an exciting day of bird-watching, especially within the borders of the area’s crown jewel–Harriman State Park. Nestled on the shores of the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, Harriman is like a mini-Yellowstone in some respects. Its 4,700 acres, shrouded in a dense forest of lodgepole pines, are home to large numbers of trumpeter swans, white pelicans, loons and double-crested cormorants.

Check the perimeter of Silver Lake and the island channels adjacent to the old homesteads for a variety of other resident and migratory species, including a symphony of songbirds.

Source material: Idaho Dept. of Fish & Game, Harriman State Park and Bureau of Land Management

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