I am constantly reminded of my own take on “birding”: It inserts us in situations where there are opportunities to be in great places, be with great people and observe great birds. On a really good trip, we get all three and rarely do we not get at least one. There is no better example of “all three” than my two day trip with Brian Pendleton to the Walla Walla area, birding on our own the first day and then joing up with Mike Denny for another of his grand nature tours the second day before a long drive back to Seattle.
I picked Brian up early on May 10th and we headed East with our first stop being at the feeders at a home in the Hyak area of Snoqualmie Pass. Starting a trip with 5 Rufous Hummingbirds and 3 Yellow Warblers is a good omen. Having two Evening Grosbeaks and an Orange Crowned Warbler – well so much the better.
Orange Crowned Warbler
Among the many great things about birding with Brian is that he is an excellent keeper of “the list”, far better at the details of Ebird submissions than I am (he rivals Ann Marie Wood in this regard) so there is never a concern about missing a bird and it certainly frees me of work I do but only reluctantly. He and I had been on along last year and receiving his many detailed Ebird reports to share was fantastic!!
Our next stop was a favorite for both of us – Bullfrog Pond – after first finding the nesting pair of American Dippers under the bridge along Bullfrog Road – now my “go to” spot for this species. Both of us were looking for new year birds but I had spent more time in Eastern Washington than Brian recently because he had been off on a really fun trip to Texas. This was a productive stop and we had very good birds, many new for the year. Our 38 species included: 6 warblers (with Nashville and MacGillivray’s the most exciting), Warbling and Cassin’s Vireos, Chipping Sparrows, House Wrens, Western Tanager and Virginia Rail. We had hoped for an early Catbird – but definitely too early.
There was no seed and hence no activity at the Cle Elum Ranger Station but we heard a lot of noise across the street and enjoyed the spectacle of 15+ Evening Grosbeaks on a well stocked feeder.
When in Cle Elum it is mandatory to stop at the Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds – lots of birds – nothing terribly exciting but it is always fun to watch the Pygmy Nuthatches – and they are very photogenic.
Pygmy Nuthatch at Nest
We continued on to Ellensburg where a quick stop at the Ringer Loop (road is closed part way due to a serious washout) picked up our first Western Kingbird and then we made a short trip up into the sage on Canyon Vista Road where we picked up both Vesper and Brewer’s Sparrows.
Time for another shout out about birding with Brian. Maybe it is because his birding (like Frank Caruso’s who is similarly talented) started at a young age in the warbler-rich East, but for whatever reason, he has a terrific ear and can readily identify most birds by their song. I keep trying to get better but by far my best approach is to bird with Brian or Frank and just be amazed at and appreciate their talents. Brian’s ear was instrumental in finding the sparrows (and many other birds on this trip).
We then headed down Canyon Road and stopped at Umtanum Creek. I got a great shot of a Turkey Vulture in flight and then we got some seriously good birds in the riparian area near the Yakima River. We had fabulous views of a VERY NOISY Yellow Breasted Chat, our FOY Bullock’s Oriole, Western Wood Pewee and Dusky Flycatcher and the lovely (and recognizable even by me) song of a Canyon Wren.
Yellow Breasted Chat
Western Wood Pewee
We continued south and then east with some brief stops if we saw something of interest from the car. At one stop we found a singing Rock Wren and there were more Western Kingbirds. An “official stop” was at Horn Rapids Park where Jon Houghton and I had dipped on a Chestnut Sided Warbler last year. That had been a month later but you can always hope. We did see many American White Pelicans which are common there, another Western Kingbird and another Bullock’s Oriole.
Continuing on we finally made it to the “Walla Walla area” with our first stop at the Peninsula Unit of the McNary NWR where a Clark’s Grebe had been seen recently. No luck on that but I got my first Great Egret photo – having failed to get even a recognizable photo of the bird that was near UW earlier in the year.
We moved on to the Headquarters area at McNary where we had a lot of good ducks (including 10 Blue Winged Teal) and our first Black Necked Stilt plus we heard the definitely strange “oonk-a-chuck” of an American Bittern. We had hoped for a Black Crowned Night Heron but no go. We did find some Bank Swallows – new year birds for both of us. Brian also added a flyby Pectoral Sandpiper that I missed.
We kept going east and stopped at the Tyson Blood Ponds – at times a great spot for shorebirds (a White Rumped Sandpiper was reported from there last week). We picked some Spotted Sandpipers, lots of Killdeer (15) and Black Necked Stilts (18) and more Bank Swallows but were disappointed not to see any American Avocets – until three flew in on the far end of one pond – a new bird for both of us.
Black Necked Stilts
We moved on to Dodd Road checking the ponds and the cliffs that are used by Barn Owls among others for roosting/nesting. We found owls in at least two of the holes and a highlight for me was a group of Redheads (the duck kind) giving me a great photo of a bird I had seen earlier but missed photographing. There were also numerous Yellow Headed Blackbirds – not a new bird but one that is always great to see especially perhaps for us who hail from West of the Cascades. First Brian and then I heard the distinctive call of a Long Billed Curlew. I got a quick view of it in the potato fields above the Barn Owl Cliffs before it flew further off and disappeared. One last good bird was a Eurasian Wigeon mixed in with its American cousins.
Yellow Headed Blackbird
It had been an excellent day of birding and we had some time left but most of the rest of the story for the day was of disappointment. White Faced Ibis had been seen at Millet Pond but we were unable to find any. A Ferruginous Hawk had been seen on a nest in Touchet up Nine Mile Canyon Road but although we found the nest tree, no hawk was present. However, this was a good location for Lark Sparrow and just as I finished telling Brian my story of getting a Lark Sparrow last year as a “consolation prize” in my locked gate near fiasco at North Potholes indeed a Lark Sparrow sang and posed for us – another consolation gift and a FOY for both of us.
Our final “miss” of the day was a failure to find Lesser Goldfinches (or anything else of note) at Fort Walla Walla State Park. I had seen them earlier but had failed to get a picture so that need/want remained unfulfilled. Again a consolation was our first of many Lazuli Buntings.
It was now late so we grabbed some dinner, checked into our hotel and looked forward to meeting up with Mike Denny in the morning for a guided tour hoping especially for Great Gray Owl and Green Tailed Towhee on Biscuit Ridge or wherever Mike could find one for us. Unfortunately MerryLynn had other commitments so we would miss her great company and great birding skills. We met Mike at his home and headed to Bennington Lake. We had a great treat as Mike pointed out two Great Horned Owl Owlets that were out in the open still quite downy.
Great Horned Owl Owlets
Next we were off to Jasper Mountain in the beautiful Blue Mountains and the new hot spot for Great Gray Owls. Any trip with Mike Denny includes history – and more than natural history as in addition to flowers, trees, animals, birds and geology, he also knows the history of place and people. And he and MerryLynn have birded each spot so much that there is also a long history of observations – last year they saw such and such here and the year before such and such there – and on and on.
The Beautiful Blue Mountains
And so it was as we looked diligently and without success for the Great Gray Owl that would be Brian’s first. Among the birds we did have were many warblers – especially Townsend’s Warblers which seemed to be in every tree.
Not far behind were numerous Yellow and MacGillivray’s Warblers. We also had Cassin’s Vireos, Hammond’s, Dusky and Pacific Slope Flycatchers (MIKE: There is no such thing as a Cordilleran Flycatcher!!!), and both Mountain and Western Bluebirds and two Townsend’s Solitaires.
We changed our search to North Fork of the Coppei Creek Road and found some loud but rarely visible Green Tailed Towhees. Last year Brian and I had visited this spot with Melissa Hafting my good friend from B.C. and had numerous and far more cooperative Green Tailed Towhees. This year we settled for glimpses and songs. We also found a really cool bee swarm.
Green Tailed Towhee Coppei Creek Road from 2015
We moved off the ridge and down to Mill Creek Road where Mike knew of a house with many hummingbird feeders and also many hummingbirds. First we had a fun visit with an old timer landowner that Mike had worked with on a conservation project years ago. He was effusive about the experience with someone who could well have been an enemy. Seemed just right because that is who Mike is – hard to imagine someone not getting along and working together for win-win results. We also found a displaying American Dipper at one of the local creeks. At the feeders we had close-ups of Rufous, Calliope and Black Chinned Hummingbirds – great fun.
Black Chinned Hummingbird
We then headed over to Rooks Park to get that Lesser Goldfinch – we heard one only and never got a look. Mike had other commitments and had already been very generous with his time. He gave us some directions for another spot for Ferruginous Hawk off of Hatch Grade Road and when he learned we were looking for Vaux’s Swift, he suggested we sit awhile at his place and sure enough several flew over not long after we arrived.
We all said our goodbyes and Brian and I went off to find the hawk. We had very specific directions to get us to a Locust tree with a nest and hopefully a Ferruginous Hawk sitting tight. We followed the directions diligently but did not find a Locust tree. Mike would not have made an error so we wondered what we had done wrong as we made a U-turn at the end of the road. Sure enough somehow we had missed a very visible and all alone Locust in a bit of a valley and sure enough there was a big nest with a Ferruginous Hawk sitting tight. And in a strange parallel to our failed attempt the day before, not too far away we found some more Lark Sparrows.
Mike had also given us a good lead on finding Tricolored Blackbirds near the Tyson Ponds. We first made a stop at the Walla Walla River Delta looking for special gulls or terns without success and then headed back to the Iowa Beef Tyson ponds. We scoured the reeds for blackbirds and came up with some good candidates that just would not show themselves well and then a couple came out well enough for good looks and positive identifications with shoulder epaulets that were red and white only. We also found a Bank Swallow colony with birds constantly coming into and then leaving their nests.
Bank Swallow Colony
In what may have been the worst decision we made, we did not return to Millet Pond after the Tyson Ponds. Since nobody else was there that day either, who knows…but the next morning White Faced Ibises were found again…so possibly a major miss.It was now time to head home. We grabbed dinner in Cle Elum where unfortunately the Bar BQ restaurant was closed. It was late and we were both very tired by the time we got back to Seattle but it had been a great trip. Brian had added 20 species to his already impressive year list and I had added a dozen. It was a great trip.
A few words about Brian Pendleton – leaving out many details and hopefully staying within bounds that Brian will find acceptable. For a number of years Brian has dealt with health issues that would have completely depressed and defeated a lesser man. He is very strong willed and of strong character and he loves his birding. Even though those health issues have made it now infeasible to drive and have made use of binoculars nearly impossible, he still is a master in finding birds and identifying them. This is from a combination of good ears, good eyes and great knowledge. He manages many great pictures and uses his camera as binoculars of a sort. It is VERY impressive as is he. And somehow through all of this, he has not just run but completed a number of marathons – and in good times. I greatly admire his will, his skill, his determination and his warmth and character. (And Ann Marie, if you are reading this – ditto!)
He has ambitious goals for this year. I expect he will meet and then surpass them. I will applaud those accomplishments and know what dedication and hard work was required to make them a reality. I will enjoy that success immensely as I have enjoyed the privilege of birding with him. Do it Brian – do it!!!