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Camas National Wildlife Refuge


By Bill Schiess

“Oasis of the desert” is the unofficial title of the Camas National Wildlife Refuge in the northern edge of Jefferson County, northwest of Hamer.  The Headquarters of the refuge was originally ranch building constructed out of area lava rock.

Late spring and early summer is the peak time for visitors while the spring migration of waterfowl, shorebirds, raptors and songbirds make their way north is in full swing. Resident birds nest and raise their young at the Camas National Wildlife Refuge entertaining visitors all summer long. Fall migration is another peak time for visitors to be drawn to Camas.

One of the most beautiful sights of Camas is the spring migration of Snow geese through the area. Snow geese will number in the thousands utilizing area grain fields for food and the ponds on the refuge to roost at night. They are usually in the area from March through April.
Located just 35 miles north of Idaho Falls and five miles north of Hamer; the over 10,000 acre Camas NWR is named after Camas Creek that runs through it.   Beaver Creek also supplies water at times to the refuge.  During the winter most of the series of canals, creeks and ponds are dry due to the lowering of the water table.  Agriculture practices, along with years of drought have stolen water from the springs and streams of the area so spring runoff is very important.  Ponds, canals and wells have been constructed over the years to control water necessary for migrating waterfowl during the spring and nesting during the summer. Ancient cottonwoods, willows and shrubs provide food and shelter to over a hundred species of songbirds and raptors.

Hundreds of Tundra swan and thousands of Snow and Ross’s geese kicks off the early spring migration followed soon by other waterfowl.  Songbirds and shorebirds show up during May and June.

A bird checklist available at the headquarters of Camas NWR, lists 176 species that can be found there.  Another 39 accidentals or very rare sightings have been documented at the refuge.  Each spring rare birds are found migrating like an Ovenbird, White-eyed vireo or a Carolina warbler. A sighting like these draws birders from around the West in hopes of seeing rare birds.

In June last year, a group of four birders located 82 species of birds at the refuge in a day.

Spring is not the only time for enthusiasts to invade Camas. Broods of waterfowl and shorebirds along with local nesting songbirds can be observed during midsummer.

By the middle of July, the fall migration of those early nesting birds moving from above the Arctic Circle to Central and South American start showing up at Camas. This migration is at a slower pace stretched out over three months, but for birders, it is an important time for observations.

Up to 50 American Bald eagles roost in the cottonwoods of Camas NWR each winter from December until April.
Starting in December a very special migration begins as Bald Eagles show up to roost in the large cottonwoods. Up to 50 of these magnificent birds show up each evening to spend the night together.  The national bird may travel up to 70 miles each day to get to a favored feeding spot. 

With all the reeds, cattails and willows, other wildlife can also be found on the refuge. This last winter 40 bull elk fed on the refuge nightly.  White-tailed deer, porcupines, weasels, coyotes and fox can be regularly seen. Moose are usually year around residents.

There is an auto routes available for visitors to enjoy the birds and wildlife from their vehicle while all roads closed to vehicles are open to year around hiking. Hikers are limited to roads only from March 1 to July 15 to protect the nesting waterfowl.

“The refuge is managed during the summer for nesting birds,” said Brian Wehausen, manager of Camas. “We welcome visitors to enjoy but they must abide by the rules.”

Camas National Wildlife Refuge is on the bucket list of experienced and beginning birders all over the nation. Area expert birders often visit to try to locate rare birds that are often blown in by storms. Early morning and late evening are the best times to observe most wildlife at this bird oasis in the desert.

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