Desert oasis reborn: Blacks Creek Reservoir great for birdwatching

Volunteers didn't give up on Blacks Creek Reservoir and cleaned it up for birds and other critters

pzimowsky@idahostatesman.comApril 2, 2014 

  • ABOUT BLACKS CREEK BIRD RESERVE

    What's out there

    The area is a critical stopover in fall and spring for migrating birds.

    It is known to attract 150 species of birds and has 25 types of mammals and reptiles.

    Blacks Creek Reservoir is 220 acres when full and gets its water from Blacks Creek, a small stream originating in the Danskin Mountains to the southeast. The reservoir hasn't filled in recent years, but when it does, it will fill in important brushy streambanks just upstream from the main reservoir.

    Tips for enjoying the area

    Take a closer look - Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder when it comes to desert potholes. At first they look like watering holes and mud flats in barren grass and sage land. Closer looks reveal nature's oasis in the desert.

    Hiking - It's 1/4 mile or slightly less from the middle parking area to the reservoir for an easy stroll for wildlife watching.

    Informal roads and pathways lead around the reservoir for longer walks. If you circle the reservoir, you'll put in about 2 miles.

    Don't disturb wildlife or nesting birds. Use binoculars or a spotting scope.

    If hiking with a dog, keep it leashed. There are no leash laws in effect but the best way to see birds is to have your dog under control. Don't let your dog chase wildlife.

    There are no public facilities out here. The closest public restrooms on at the I-84 rest areas just west of the Blacks Creek Exit.

    Dress for the weather. With the wind, it can be pretty cold in April and even May.

    It's very hot at the reserve in the summer.

    Getting there

    Take I-84 east (from the Boise area) to the Blacks Creek exit and turn right at stop sign. Drive about 3 miles east on Kuna-Mora Road and look for information signs with Watchable Wildlife Binoculars on the right.

    Parking is found about 1/2 mile east of the train tracks.

    Information

    facebook.com/betterblackscreek.

A chorus of high-pitched shrills came from overhead as a flock of snow geese flew over Blacks Creek Reservoir on a blustery March day.

Their white bodies and black-tipped wings were in stark contrast to the light blue sky in mid-morning sun.

Three pronghorn grazed on a sagebrush plateau about a half-mile from the reservoir.

The land surrounding Blacks Creek Reservoir southeast of Boise, once strewn with bullet-riddled household appliances, has been cleaned up and rehabilitated, and it attracts geese, ducks, shorebirds, songbirds and hawks.

Knee-deep ruts in the creek bed and on the fringes of the reservoir, made by illegal off-roaders, are being leveled and replanted for wildlife.

The Blacks Creek Bird Reserve, as it is formally called now, is a reincarnation of an important wetlands oasis in a land of sagebrush.

With its extreme makeover, the 620-acre area also is an oasis for wildlife watching, especially in the spring.

What seemed like an impossible task, head-strong conservationists and volunteers kept at it and have cleaned up the area, making it more friendly for hikers, bird watchers and photographers to enjoy wildlife.

Over the decades, it was a desert pothole trashed by shooters, mudboggers, garbage dumpers and midnight partiers.

Volunteers hauled about 300 cubic yards of garbage from the area, including a car, sunken boat, computer monitors and couches.

Pintails, swans and other birds use the area as a stopover on their seasonal migrations. Shorebirds are already sparring over places to set up nests.

"This spring, the reservoir is filling up and the bird life is responding," said Sean Finn, a board member of the Golden Eagle Audubon Society. There were more than 70 tundra swans, hundreds of pintails and other ducks on the reservoir last month.

Blacks Creek Reservoir had long been a headache for conservationists, Idaho Fish and Game, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Ada County Sheriff's office because of the abuses.

That changed from 2008 to 2011, when the Golden Eagle Audubon Society and several other groups secured grants of nearly $35,000 from Together Green to start protecting and restoring the area.

It wasn't all rosy, and vandalism continued. Fish and Game officials said the final straw occurred during fall 2011, when someone hooked a chain to the outlet gate of the reservoir and used a truck to tear it out. The reservoir drained, all the fish were killed, and it hasn't been restocked.

After that incident, those working to rehabilitate the area fenced the perimeter and made it walk-in only with no road access.

The trails made by off-roaders were obliterated, and the land seeded and planted.

The vehicle closure has been in place for a year and is holding up well, Finn said.

There has been some trouble. The fence was cut three or four times over the past year, but it was repaired quickly, Finn said.

Blacks Creek Reservoir turned into a conservation success with a variety of groups involved.

Golden Eagle Audubon Society led the charge with the BLM, F&G, Land Trust of the Treasure Valley, Idaho Bird Observatory, Pleasant Valley Irrigation District, Ada County Sheriffs Office and Cub Scout Pack 41.

ENJOYING THE AREA

Blacks Creek Bird Preserve is a wildlife-watching getaway just minutes from Boise.

For Michele Crist, president of the local Audubon chapter, it's the perfect place for a family picnic and to introduce kids to the outdoors and wildlife.

"It's places like this, with just a little bit of water, that attract so many birds," she said, standing on the shore of the reservoir with her binoculars trained on a group of ducks.

Even with low water this spring, Crist and Finn saw a variety of ducks, geese, shorebirds and hawks.

"It's a unique area with many different habitats that bring a diversity of wildlife," Crist said.

Because of that, the Blacks Creek Bird Reserve has been designated an important bird area by Fish and Game and the National Audubon Society.

Even if visitors don't know their birds, they will find interpretive signs with pictures of birds at two parking areas and along the access road to the dam. The signs also explain what type of habitat is in the area.

THE FUTURE

The coalition is working on creating formal trails, but now it's pretty easy to hike around the area.

More interpretive signs with seasonal bird lists will be installed in the summer. Youths will help with the work through further grants, said Crist.

Long-term plans also call for the installation of an outhouse. There are no restrooms at the site.

WHAT'S NEXT?

The Golden Eagle Audubon Society is setting its sights on rehabilitation efforts at Indian Creek Reservoir, another desert pothole about 15 miles east of Boise.

It can be seen south of the interstate near the Stage Stop. It also attracts bird migrations and is used by local birds for nesting.

Pete Zimowsky: 377-6445, Twitter: @Zimosoutdoors

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