As much fun as it is to bird in far away places, there is always a feeling of “what did I miss” that accompanies being away. In 2013 when I did my (first?) Big Year in the State, I spent 11 days in Texas during the peak of migration (April) and then essentially all of November in Peru (heavy duty birding on an organized trip) and Florida (light birding on a non-birding trip). I know I missed some birds while I was away but those were fun trips in their own right and there is more to birding than just having a Washington list. Right? Right…
Returning from elsewhere though it always feels like I need to get out and revisit some favorite places and especially in early summer, one of those places is Calispell Lake in Pend Oreille County north of Spokane. I first visited the area in 2012 – on a WOS Conference trip. The first trip where I really got to know and fell in love with Calispell Lake was a terrific trip with Jon Isacoff and George Pagos in June 2013. Jon was the best possible tour guide. George and I joined him as part of our own two day whirlwind in Eastern Washington that found 108 species and added 10 new birds to my year list.
While I wanted to get back to Pend Oreille County and particularly Calispell Lake because of the beauty I also had a list of target birds – some new for the year and some new photos for the year and those targets to some degree determined my route and schedule. However I had originally thought it would be a three day trip and as it turned out, some of the successes and some changes in the weather cut that short and once again it was but a two day visit – a VERY LONG two day visit.
A first stop was at the Hyak area feeders at the Snoqualmie Summit to see what hummers were around – even early in the morning some Rufous Hummers were coming for their sugar fix – a good way to start a trip. Next I hit Bullfrog Pond – continuing to move its way up on my favorite birding stops and one where I can generally find Gray Catbirds and also a good spot for Veery. Both were new for the year and easily found. The Catbirds cooperated for a photo but the Veeries were heard only (many). All told 33 species but nothing new or exciting. Birds do not have to be either new or exciting to be greatly valued and appreciated and I just like the feel of this area anyhow so I was in very good spirits when I left.
I continued East with Potholes Reservoir being the next spot on my agenda. Along the way I had one of those strange coincidences that occur in birding. Heading south on Highway 26 on the east side of the Columbia I saw a birder getting back into her car putting a scope away. As a corollary of the rule to look for the birders when you are chasing a bird, I always try to ask birders I meet what they have seen. Turns out this birder was Carol Riddell -an Edmonds neighbor. She, too, was off on an Eastern Washington quest – travelling to meet a friend. We shared notes and headed off to similar but different locations. Potholes was a bust as it often is and the hoped for Forster’s Tern was a no show – not much else showed either and the long necked grebes out in the reservoir were Westerns and distant – not Clark’s and close. My consolation prize were some first of year (FOY) Eastern Kingbirds.
Lind Coulee can be a great birding spot or can be almost completely devoid of birds. On this day, it was mostly the latter BUT one of the very few birds present was indeed a lovely and fairly nearby Clark’s Grebe. Last year a single Clark’s Grebe swam close to a Western providing one of those guidebook comparison experiences where the field marks could be easily noted. This year I was pleased to see the red eye completely outside the black making it a Clark’s Grebe and although alone still a great photo opportunity.
Clark’s Grebe and Western Grebe (Lind Coulee 2015)
Clark’s Grebe (Lind Coulee 2016)
Terry Little is a great source for birds/areas in Spokane and environs and I followed an Ebird post of his to visit the Hawk Creek area in Lincoln County where birds were plentiful including a Least Flycatcher with its constant Che-Bekking call. Also in Lincoln County I birded 7 Mile Road a usually dependable place for Grasshopper Sparrows (which cooperated and posed again).
My next stop was Ames Lake where I had numerous Black Terns last year. There were at least 25 present Wednesday afternoon but none the next day. (It was much windier the second day and this was the only difference.) There may be a better way but I had to backtrack on I-90 and park on the freeway shoulder to get a shot at the terns and the photo – my last stop before my low budget hotel outside Spokane. Thankfully there was no visit from the Washington State Patrol.
My motel was … well it had a bed … and even though breakfast (such as it was) was included, supposedly it was not available until 6:00 a.m. – a reasonable time for most but my birding usually gets me up early so I was pleased to find that I could grab something at 5:30 when I was up and ready to go. An aside…the evening before I had dinner at a nearby spot that catered to truckers. Interesting people watching for sure. Also it had an all you can eat kind of buffet. I passed and had a simple sandwich but if there were world records for most food stacked on a single plate, the holder would surely be the woman who sat two seats down from me – unbelievable. On a much prettier note, my waitress, who I am guessing might have just turned 19 or 20 may well have been the finest looking young woman I have ever seen. I told her so in a grandfatherly kind of way on my way out. I wish I knew someone in the modeling agency business as I think she would be a great model and I also think she could have used a better job. (Would love to add a photo but none available.)
And back to birding…
I headed to Hafer Road in Stevens County. I had good birding there last year and I had noted that Brian Pendleton had a Clay Colored Sparrow there recently so it was a gotta for the trip. I arrived early around 7:00 a.m. and immediately started hearing and seeing birds. In just over an hour along no more than a quarter mile of the road I found 34 species – quite a diverse list including Sora, a flyby Merlin, Eastern and Western Kingbirds, Wilson’s Snipe and Wilson’s Phalarope, House Wren, Gray Catbird and Black Chinned Hummingbird. And the best two species were Clay Colored Sparrow and Least Flycatcher. The former was heard and seen way uphill but absolutely would not move from its perch/territory to give me a photo.
The Least Flycatcher on the other hand was a real mystery at least at first. I thought I heard a “che-bek” call almost as soon as I arrived and it seemed close. I tried playback in shorter and longer doses off and on for parts of the first thirty minutes I was there – nothing – no calls, no movement. So I concentrated on the other good birds. Then I thought I heard the call again – seemingly further away and this time when I played, a male flew in from maybe 50 yards away and landed in a tree quite close but with the sun directly behind it. Easy to tell it was an empid but the back light made for challenging photos and even for clear views.
The guy never shut up for the next 20+ minutes although my only other playback was moving 50 feet away and close to the other side of the road where sunlight was great. No go as it simply would not move from two or three favorite trees – all uphill and backlit. And it was joined by a second small empid and they could have been a nesting pair as only the one sang and the other remained fairly close but nearer to the trunk of the tree. I got the best photo I could and left them alone.
Least Flycatcher (Calling nonstop – and thanks to Photoshop for any detail)
Now off to Pend Oreille County which took me to new territory going up and over a 4000 foot pass along Flowery Trail Road. Good forest and a ski area tucked away meant I had to stop to see what was around. I did not bird all that thoroughly and did not find a hoped for Clark’s Nutcracker, but there were several warblers and both Hermit and Swainson’s Thrushes and a Townsend’s Solitaire.
My first target bird in Pend Oreille County was Bobolink which I think of as the “upside down bird” because it is darker below and lighter up above contrary to most birds. A friend calls it “Blondie” because of the yellow/blond cap. In any event it is a bird I look forward to seeing every year and especially to hearing as it sings in flight and as it flutters over the fields. I headed to a spot near Cusick where I had Bobolinks last year. As I was getting close driving on McKenzie Road through perfect habitat (although I was not thinking of that instead being focused on “the next road where they were supposed to be”) I had my window down and played the Bobolink calls to re-familiarize myself with them. I was probably going 30 mph and bingo – a Bobolink flew up out of the field next to me and flew right in front of the car singing away.
The fields were perfect and the bird put on quite the aerial display often landing on higher weeds and then disappearing in shorter grass and then hovering. I got a good photo on one perch and some ok of it in flight. I continued another half mile at most to my “regular” spot where I found two more Bobolinks. There are miles of good fields here and I am sure there are many more Bobolinks around. It used to be that they were readily found at Lateral C at the Toppenish National Wildlife Refuge but I think those birds are either gone, greatly diminished in numbers or unreliable.
Bobolink in Flight
My plan was then to head to Calispell Lake – going along the Westside Calispell Road at first but to cover the entire area and just slowly enjoy it. The weather was changing however and got progressively worse as I worked my way south. I stopped several times along the way and readily found both American Redstarts and Red Eyed Vireos. I know these birds are often found elsewhere in Washington, but I believe this to be the most reliable area and one where they are in good numbers – obviously breeding. The Vireos were posing on open branches singing away while the Redstarts were more furtive and often buried in the foliage. Finally one came out well enough for a decent shot.
Red Eyed Vireo
This area is also fairly reliable for Northern Waterthrush especially in the area by the bridge where I have had them annually. By now the weather had really deteriorated though with both rain and winds. I was able to hear and then see a couple of Waterthrushes but they remained very furtive and I could not grab a photo of any kind – my only disappointment that day. (I include one from the same area last year taken 10 days earlier.) This was almost a junk bird during my recent Alaska trip but is always a treat in Washington.
As I was stopped along the road a local pulled up in an ATV. These intersections can go a number of ways – birders are not always welcome – but when they are it is a highlight of any trip. He owned the land I was looking at and while not a birder, he knew quite a bit and we must have talked for 15 minutes about life there including the grouse and woodpeckers and ducks and birds of prey that were there to be found. He gave me permission to enter the land and in better conditions I might have done so. Almost on cue, a few minutes later I heard a Pileated Woodpecker on the property. With it getting wetter, I decided it was time to leave and headed back south to try for Clay Colored Sparrow on Stroup Road where I have had them in the past and where Terry Little had reported one recently.
Stroup Road is in the Medical Lake area and is one of many grid roads in the basically farming/grassland country. When I got to the “regular” spot at the 90 degree bend to the west at the bottom of Stroup, I saw two cars parked. I assumed they were birders in this way out of the way spot. But instead it was some young folks doing I don’t know what. My concerns that this would ruin the birding proved unfounded when they left shortly after I arrived and I found the photogenic Clay Colored Sparrow quickly. It is not colorful (clay is pretty dull), but the markings are so striking – a really beautiful bird – so it gets two photos.
Clay Colored Sparrow
No longer planning a second night away, the plan became one with another stop at Portholes searching for Forster’s Tern and then to try yet again for a Poorwill photo – this time at Robinson Canyon. First, however, I decided to drive by Para/McCain’s Pond hoping for a photo of American Avocet and maybe the here again gone again Tricolored Blackbirds. The Avocet cooperated and was accompanied by many Black Necked Stilts and a pair of Wilson’s Phalaropes. The single Tricolored Blackbird clung tight to the reeds in the heavy wind. As I was leaving I got a bonus bird as a Black Crowned Night Heron flew up and past me – my first photo of it this year.
Black Necked Stilt
Black Crowned Night Heron
When some time later I arrived at Potholes, there were five distant terns – four were clearly Caspians and the other was either a Common or a Forster’s. Although they never came close – through my scope I finally got a good look to see the long reddish bill with a black tip making it a Forster’s.
Forster’s Tern (Potholes 2015)
I include the photo above from 2015 for two reasons – first because it is of a Forster’s Tern at Potholes albeit from a year ago and secondly because although there was no close-in Forster’s Tern this time, in almost the exact same spot there was a gorgeous Great Egret – which I had almost missed as I concentrated on the distant terns.
When I first started birding in Washington in the 1970’s, these birds were generally known as Common Egrets but they were definitely not “common” in Washington. Their range has expanded greatly and are easily found at many places in Eastern Washington and far less frequently west of the Cascades.
I stopped for gas and a sandwich in Ellensburg and headed to Robinson Canyon. A good thing about birding in Washington in June is that there is plenty of daylight. But that is not so good for owling or for trying to find Common Poorwills which are best seen as their eyes reflect spotlights or headlights on dusty roads – when it is dark. I arrived at the Canyon around 8:00 p.m. which meant I still had well over an hour before the sun would be down. I drove in and opened the gate and drove the full length of the Canyon to see what was around (just over a mile perhaps). I could I.D. Pacific Slope, Hammond’s and Gray Flycatchers and Western Wood Pewees and some Robins and Cedar Waxwings. Time to rest and wait for the dark. I did so at an open area not too far past the gate and probably dozed a bit from the long day. Around 9:00 P.M. I started hearing some of the “poor will” calls from which the eponymous Common Poorwill takes it name. They seemed to come from the hillsides along the canyon. So far so good. Now if only one or two would come down for a dust bath in my path.
About 9:15 I drove back up to the end of the road and figured I would just slowly head back down as it got dark. At 9:30 I started this trek and … nothing. No longer hearing the calls and definitely not seeing any birds on the road. When I got back down to the gate, I found two boys with flashlights setting up a camp (or at least I think that is what they were doing). They had clearly just arrived since I had been there recently. I figured they had disturbed whatever birds may have been around as they came in so it was time to leave…defeated yet again. I opened and then reclosed the gate and started home. About a half mile down the now paved road, red eyes gleamed in my headlights and then rose up from the side of the road and flew off. Of all places a Common Poorwill had been in the 18 inch wide strip next to the pavement in some grass. Once again – no photo.
Common Poorwill was one of only three of the 359 species I saw in Washington last year that I failed to photograph. The others were Boreal Owl and Flammulated Owl. I still have hopes for photos of them this year – but not doing well so far.
The missed Common Poorwill photo aside, it had been a really fun trip. Too many miles but definitely not too many birds. Not sure if I will get back to Pend Oreille this year – can pass through on the way to Salmo Mountain if I give that a go again. But I hope to be back many times – just a gorgeous place.
4 thoughts on “Heading East – Eastern Washington that Is…”
Great blog and wonderful collection of photos, Blair! Wish I could have been there.
Need to get you there Ann Marie
What a fantastic trip I’ve never been able to get a decent poorwill shot either even with twenty on a road once just shows my lack of skill at night photography lol
I love your redstart and red eyed vireo in particular but love them all