On the Road – Car Troubles and Birds in Eastern Washington – Part II

As I closed my previous post my BMW had  “died” a half mile east of the Marina near Bateman Island, and had been safely towed to the Service Department of BMW Tricities on Thursday evening and was in the helpful and capable hands of Mandy Slaugh, Service Advisor. In the morning they would look into the problem and let me know. I would either have the car back that day, have it on Saturday or face a giant problem getting back to Edmonds and then somehow with eye surgery impending have to get back to Richland, get the car and get back once again to Edmonds.

Car Trouble 2

Whatever fate was going to be revealed on Friday morning, I was now in a very nice rental car from Enterprise that was rented on a daily rate regardless of mileage so with my car out of my helpless hands and in their competent ones, I had decided to carry on to Walla Walla to join Mike and MerryLynn Denny for a day of birding. If nothing else (and there was much else) it would distract me from my problem – a role that birding often performs for me.   Walla Walla was less than 60 miles away. It was disappointing that I could not bird this area as had been the pre-breakdown plan but at what I believe is milepost 300 a single Black Crowned Night Heron flew over the road in front of me – a species I had hoped to see in daylight.

I spent the night in Walla Walla at the Red Lion – normally a good brand – but not in this case. Nice folks but a cinder block cell block with very noisy heating units. Not recommended. If any of you reading this are inventive types – how about inventing a silent air conditioner/heater unit for motels. There is a fortune to be made there. Not a great night of sleep as I still pondered the fate of my car (and the cost to be paid), but in gorgeous weather I met Mike and MerryLynn at their home and birds were ahead of us.

The Dennys as You Often See Them

Mike and MerryLynn

At the end of their emails/posts the Dennys sign off with:

Mike & Merry Lynn Denny

Birding the Beautiful Walla Walla Valley

“If you haven’t gone birding you haven’t lived.”

I would revise that to be “You haven’t lived if you haven’t gone birding in the Beautiful Walla Walla Valley with Mike & MerryLynn Denny.” Doing so is guaranteed to produce fabulous birds, fabulous places (well maybe the Poop Piles excluded), beautiful scenery, great company and more information and insight than is possible to process about every bird, reptile, tree, mountain, plant, river, mushroom and everything else you will encounter. I have been fortunate to have birded with them many times and there is always a special treat. Two special memories below.

Great Gray Owl on Biscuit Ridge with Jon Houghton – May 20, 2015

Great Gray Owl (2)

Western Screech Owl – Whitman College Library May 8, 2015

Western Screech Owl

Birding with the Dennys is also a whirlwind as they guide you to place after place after place where either recently (they bird almost every day) or in the past such and such a bird has been seen or might be seen. You visit parks, rivers, ponds, open spaces, mountains, wildlife areas and places you really have no idea where you are. All have birds – and depending on timing sometimes LOTS of them. This day was primarily a scouting trip for their Owls By Day trip the following day (and I just read their report and it was very successful) so yes we looked for some owls but there were other birds as well.

For me at least the first bird of note was a Prairie Falcon gleaming in the sunshine perched on a post on a ridge up ahead. All falcons are super. In Western Washington I most frequently see Peregrine Falcons and Merlins and Prairie Falcons are a rarity. Even in Eastern Washington I never see as many of this species, described as “very nasty” by Mike, as I would like so this was very welcome.

Prairie Falcon

Prairie Falcon3

As we drove the wheat fields on our way to Hollebeke HMU we saw many raptors (including some beautiful Northern Rough Legged Hawks), many many Horned Larks, and were often serenaded by Western Meadowlarks. We searched in vain for Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs, both possibilities but not this time. It felt like spring time.

My deal with the car dealer was that they would text me their findings sometime around 10:00 a.m. There is not always (there is rarely?) cell coverage in some of the remote areas we visited so Mike made a special effort to get us up on a ridge around that time and indeed there was a message. The main problem was that it needed a new starter, and there were a couple of other less expensive matters as well. They had the parts and could have it done that afternoon. While I dreamed that maybe it was just a fuse or a loose wire, I had actually expected something worse than this. Not in the budget planned for the month, but really no option, so the go-ahead was given and at least I knew I would be able to get home and not have to return again next week – back to birding.

Hollebeke has been a favorite owling site for the Dennys especially for Long Eared Owls having had more than a dozen (or was it two dozen?) there one time. Unfortunately it is “(mis)managed” by the Army Corps of Engineers (don’t get Mike started) and the Corps had recently devastated much of the habitat – clearing brush and Russian Olives – the roosting spots for many of the owls. It was very sad to see. We still had some birds, but Mike was so distressed that he decided to not include it on the trip the next day. We flushed a Barn Owl, a Long Eared Owl and a Great Horned Owl – but fleeting looks of fleeing owls only – no photo ops. MerryLynn had a pair of Great Horned Owls out in the open but they were flushed off by a Bald Eagle before we could get there.


Among the birds at Hollebeke were Cedar Waxwings, both Kinglets, a Fox Sparrow and at least two White Throated Sparrows (heard only by Mike and me). There were lots of California Quail and surprisingly to me a lot of Varied Thrushes. The Dennys said Hermit Thrushes are often there – but not this day. There were amazing numbers of Song Sparrows including many of the very white Great Basin form. We spent a lot of time there and hiked over two miles. DO NOT try this on your own – it is very confusing with criss-crossing trails and paths. I eventually would have found my way out…I think.

Fox Sparrow

Fox Sparrow

It had gotten quite warm – over 50 degrees and we were hungry and thirsty when we got back to the car. So some sustenance for a late lunch and now off to Fish Hook Park – where a Northern Saw Whet Owl was GUARANTEED (sort of). Mike and MerryLynn had directed me there for a Saw Whet on an earlier visit in 2014. As is often the case these tiny owls can be found tucked into low lying branches which sometimes require you to duck in to see them. Quite tame, they usually remain in place staring back at you. Such was NOT the case in 2014 as one flew out right past my ear as soon as I ducked in – the only time that has happened.

One way to find an owl is to look for whitewash – on the ground, leaves, branches etc. If found that means an owl had at least been there – and it still might be. The best way is simply to go with Mike and MerryLynn – not only are they excellent spotters of whitewash – they also know every roosting spot in Walla Walla County – so they go right to the tree. And that was what we did at Fish Hook and indeed a Northern Saw Whet Owl was tucked in where expected. It was even smaller than I remember as it had pulled in its feathers instead of puffing them out. They really are tiny (and yes cute). Seeing one of these guys or a Northern Pygmy Owl for the first time each year is always a shocking reminder of just how small they are.

Northern Saw Whet Owl

Northern Saw Whet Owl2

The other really nice find at Fish Hook was a large flock of Purple Finches – rare at this time and location. They were feeding on White Ash seeds and always seemed to have branches in front of them no matter what angle we took. There was one very “purple” male and the rest seemed to be females or immatures. The picture below is pretty poor but identifies the species.

Purple Finch

Purple Finch

Before heading off to Ice Harbor Dam which had provided an awesome Gull show when the Shad were dying off about a week ago, we stopped at Charbonneau Park and had another beautiful little Northern Saw Whet–too close to even focus for a picture. At Ice Harbor there were a couple of Mew Gulls – new in Eastern Washington for me (but having seen 1000 plus recently at Point No Point and hundreds at Crescent Lake with the Black Headed Gull(s)) and many Ring Billed and California Gulls in addition to a few Herring Gulls and many immature Glaucous Winged Gulls. On this day we could not find the Long Tailed Ducks but there were many Barrow’s Goldeneyes and American White Pelicans – the males beginning to show their breeding “horns” on those extraordinary bills.

Mew Gull

Mew Gull Flight

American White Pelican – Male with “Breeding Horn”

White Pelican Male in Flight

It was now time to head back. I had gotten a message that my car was ready and I was not sure if I would stay over another day or head home staying the night at Yakima or Ellensburg depending on my condition and road conditions on the pass. We checked a few more spots including the Delta. It was too dark to even try for a Tricolored or Rusty Blackbird at the “Poop Piles” but there were indeed hundreds of birds on the distant wires nearby.

We were back at the Denny’s home and I loaded up to head back to Richland. It had been a great day and given what could have been not a bad ending for my car problem either. It was impossible not to think of what could have been if the starter had given up at any of the remote spots we visited today. Rarely was there any traffic, rarely was there cell coverage and it would have been miles from any tow company and many more miles from that friendly dealership in Richland. It would have been a disaster…

Good bye hugs and then I was heading west again. A last treat was a fly over Wilson’s Snipe as I reached Richland. It was the 85th species seen on my two day trip. Such numbers always amaze me as it just does not feel like there is that much diversity when I am in the field. But Washington is an incredible place to bird and when you have such a great community sharing information and birders like Mike and MerryLynn – there are many birds to be found.

I drove in to the dealership and saw my car parked close – ready to go and even washed!! Mandy went over the details and I learned that they had also found a problem with the tank that holds the engine coolant. BUT they did not have a BMW part to solve it. Knowing that I wanted to head home and that a major leak could create yet another problem and certainly the threat of same being cause for worry, they had taken on themselves to put in an off market replacement. A problem though was that it would not be read properly by the sophisticated BMW indicator system so it would show that the coolant was low. Mandy explained this would not be a real problem but that I should have the part replaced with a BMW part to solve the indicator problem…she made an adjustment in the bill to recognize the duplication of the work and part that would be required. Repeating what I said earlier – they really were fantastic in every way. If I was going to buy another BMW – I might drive there to do so. (And maybe get a little birding in as well…)

It was now 5:45 and I was 235 miles from home. Maybe just having the car re-energized me so I decided to head off and play it as it developed. I got to Yakima – still feeling good. I got to Ellensburg – still feeling good and the pass conditions said rain and snow but not a real problem. I decided to go for it. Incredibly heavy rain in Cle Elum – if this was going to continue as snow as I climbed into the mountains this could be a problem. But as is often the case it actually gets warmer going west from Cle Elum and Snoqualmie Pass had light rain only and far less traffic than usual. Sure the large trucks are not fun to follow or pass but there were really no problems. I made it safely and then just as I hit I-5 with 15 miles to go, it was as if my body starter had given out. VERY tired. Took my time (unusual for me) and pulled in to Edmonds at 9:45. Exhausted – but I had survived another adventure.

Once again – life should be about collecting good stories – and being sure to survive to tell them.

I have to end with special thanks to Mike and to MerryLynn and to Mandy. Looks like the “M’s” were my guardians this trip.




3 thoughts on “On the Road – Car Troubles and Birds in Eastern Washington – Part II

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