Kittitas County Birds – Changing Experiences in March

In the past three weeks I have made three trips to Kittitas County culminating in a Seattle Audubon Society trip that I co-lead with Jean Olson on March 26th.  The other two trips were a scouting trip with Jean for that SAS trip on March 20th and a trip on March 5th with two friends that was driven by a barely successful search for the White Winged Crossbills that had been seen on the Central Washington University campus.

The three trips varied in some details with places added or subtracted and varying times spent, but all three included significant birding visits to Bullfrog Pond, South Cle Elum (especially including the Northern Pacific Railroad ponds), numerous stops along Old Vantage Highway including the Quilomene Wildlife Area and Gingko State Park and stops along Huntzinger Road.  Other differences were the number of people involved, birding styles and of course the passage of time.  It is this latter difference that is the focus of this blog post.  I have spent a lot of time comparing the observations in these areas from each day and it is interesting to note the differences in the three weeks that passed from the first to the last trip.  Here we go:

Some over-arching numbers (just for the three areas per above – not the entire trips):  On March 5th, a total of 44 species were observed; on March 20th that number was 52 and on March 26th the total was 50.  Since the effort was more concentrated on the 20th that is not surprising.  The deviations do not seem large and indeed there was a substantial overlap of species seen on each trip.  But lest anyone thinks the bird life was static, note first that the total number of species seen for all the areas combining observations for the three dates was 72!  So the species seen each time did differ significantly.  Equally important to note was that the behaviors, distribution and numbers of individuals also differed greatly. The weather was generally the same each day so that was not an important variant.

And the pattern was similar in some other spots that were not visited consistently on each trip (more time in and around Ellensburg and Kittitas on the 20th for example – although on the 5th we did visit CWU for the single White Winged Crossbill amid a flock of Red Crossbills and on the 26th we made a quick visit to the “Western Scrubjay spot” where we saw a single bird and then a small flock of Red Crossbills.  None of those species were seen on the 20th.)

What follows is a set of observations about the different or differing experiences for each trip.  This is NOT a scientific study – just some thoughts and data points from the three trips.

On the first trip we had marvelous views of actively singing Sagebrush Sparrows at the Corral Spot in the Quilomene.  On the later trips we worked hard to get distant views of mostly quiet Sagebrush Sparrows.

Sagebrush Sparrow3
Sagebrush Sparrow March 5th

On March 5th we had a very responsive and photogenic singing Canyon Wren at my “go to” spot on Huntzinger Road south of the dam.  On later trips – not a one anywhere – a great disappointment especially for the Audubon Group.

Canyon Wren4
Canyon Wren on Huntzinger Road March 5th

On the first trip we never heard nor saw a Sage Thrasher.  By the 20th we heard their songs “everywhere” and had great visuals of many – often quite close.  On the 26th we had to work much harder to find them and they seemed less vocal and more distant.

Sage Thrasher3
Sage Thrasher  Quilomene March 20th

On March 5th we looked very hard for shrikes and found none.  On both March 20th and 26th we had multiple Loggerhead Shrikes – active and singing/calling.

Loggerhead Shrike
Loggerhead Shrike – Quilomene

On March 20th we had many Tree Swallows at the Railroad Ponds – pairing and staking out nest sites.  We had seen barely a handful on the 5th and on March 26th in addition to the Tree Swallows we had maybe two Northern Rough Winged Swallows and a couple of Violet Green Swallows at the RR Ponds.  We had some Violet Green Swallows at Huntzinger on the 20th but none on the other two days.

Tree Swallow2
Tree Swallow at RR Ponds
Violet Green Swallow
Violet Green Swallow at Huntzinger Road
Northern Rough Winged Swallow
Northern Rough Winged Swallow

We had very active Say’s Phoebes at a number of places on each trip.  They seem to be showing up in many irregular spots in the state so it would have been very surprising not to see them.

Say's Phoebe
Say’s Phoebe – Gingko SP (3 times)

White Pelicans were seen from Huntzinger Road on the Columbia  on the 20th but not on either of the other days.  Males had prominent breeding “horns”.

White Pelican Male in Flight
White Pelican (not from trip)

Pygmy Nuthatches were seen at the Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds on each trip but the numbers increased dramatically by the 20th and by the 26th they seemed to be pairing up and excavating nest cavities.

Pygmy Nuthatch Pair
Pygmy Nuthatch Pair

The feeders in South Cle Elum were basically inactive on the 5th.  On the 20th we had numerous Pine Siskins, American Goldfinches and House Finches plus maybe a half dozen Evening Grosbeaks.  On the 26th there were no Grosbeaks but there were at least two Purple Finches and a single Cassin’s Finch in addition to the other species.

Evening Grosbeak
Evening Grosbeak

Red Tailed Hawks were relatively few on the 5th while they were plentiful on the 20th and 26th.  We had a Northern Rough Legged on the 5th and maybe one on the 26th.  Our only Prairie Falcon was seen on the 26th at Quilomene.

We looked for Burrowing Owls at a “regular” spot on all days and none were found.  With the exception of a very active Pileated Woodpecker seen well on the 20th and 26th and Northern Flickers each trip, Woodpeckers were almost completely absent.  On the 26th, the Pileated seemed to be excavating a nest hole.

Pileated Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker at the RR Ponds

We had good diversity of waterfowl but the numbers were down for almost every species by the 26th.  We did have Common Mergansers at more spots then – but we probably looked harder then as well.  We saw only a Female Hooded Merganser at the RR Ponds on the 26th while males were present on the other days.

On the 5th we did not travel on Umptanum Road to look for Bluebirds, so I am not including observations from that location on the latter two trips, but in general and along Vantage Road, Western Bluebirds were almost non-existent on the 5th while we saw quite a few Mountain Bluebirds and the pattern was just the reverse on the next two trips.

Mountain Bluebird
Mountain Bluebird Quilomene Wildlife Area March 26th
Western Bluebird
Western Bluebird Quilomene Wildlife Area March 20th

It was also a general observation that we saw far fewer Black Billed Magpies than we expected or that we remembered seeing in the area in years past.

Although we never saw one in the Quilomene, we heard at most one or two Brewer’s Sparrows there on each trip.  On the 26th I had a fleeting glimpse of one on Umptanum Road and others in the group had good looks at one in the same spot later.  They also had a Vesper Sparrow – a species not seen elsewhere although they are generally common in the Quilomene among other spots. I had three of them there singing last year on March 18th and again on March 22nd – when I also had five singing Brewer’s Sparrows and three Sagebrush Sparrow’s.

There are no great lessons learned from these observations other than March is a time when birds are beginning to arrive in the Sage Shrub Steppe areas and each trip can bring new birds and new behaviors.  It definitely seemed that on the earlier trips birds were just staking out territories and were more demonstrative and responsive accordingly.  By the end of the month nest building and pairing up were clearly underway.  Similarly there does seem to be a pattern to the arrival dates for the swallows with the Tree Swallows leading the way followed by the Violet Green and then the Northern Rough WingedsBarn and Bank Swallows should be coming soon.

I greatly enjoy this area and its birds.  Soon warblers will start arriving in force at Bullfrog Pond and the RR Ponds and the flycatchers are heading our way as well.  Spring has definitely sprung!!


2 thoughts on “Kittitas County Birds – Changing Experiences in March

  1. Thanks again Blair for sharing your birding experiences. Eastern Washington
    is such an adventure for finding birds.


  2. One of the best posts you have done and fantastic photos! Not easy to get those Pygmy nuthatches so nicely.

    Ilya and I enjoyed birding this area last year it’s truly special!

    Love that canyon wren, sagebrush sparrow, sage thrashers and those bluebirds especially!

    Glad you had a great trip


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