Ok, Ok … I know I am definitely overdoing the cutesy punning, but it’s my blog and I get to write what I want!! So just go with it and there are even baseball and literature references ahead for those of you whose interests go beyond birding.
Frank Caruso wanted to go birding. Ann Marie Wood ALWAYS wants to go birding. I almost always want to go birding. So we joined forces and headed east. Our choice among several options was clear when my fun friend Deb Essman in Ellensburg/Kittitas said she had time and could join us. We decided to head up into Coleman Canyon – north out of Kittitas – repeating a terrific trip that Frank and I enjoyed with her and her husband Bill last year.
As with most trips there were target or hoped for birds. Deb and Bill have very serious jeeps and spend a lot of time up in the Colockum and Naneum canyons and hills and have seen many good birds (and other wildlife there) including Spruce, Dusky and Ruffed Grouse and Goshawks. Frank and I had seen Dusky Grouse there last year but I believe Spruce Grouse may not even have been officially accepted as a Kittitas record so this was a major “want”. (And more on that later.) And a Goshawk anytime is very special. But there were others as well, including for me a photo of a Williamson’s Sapsucker for the year. We had a nesting group on our visit last year and I had already seen one this year but no photo.
BUT first back to my puns. Whichever way we were eventually going to go, a first stop was going to be at Bullfrog Pond. This is definitely a fan favorite and since Ann Marie wanted a Gray Catbird and Frank wanted a Veery, this should be a great place as I have had both species there often and recently. An early start got us to Bullfrog pond at 7:30 in the morning. The somewhat hidden restrooms that had been closed on all my earlier trips were now open – always welcome. I had also had my Veery close up there on my last trip so that was our first attempt and – failure – no songs, no thrushes, nada. It was a bit bizarre though as the only bird that responded – immediately – to our Veery call – was a Virginia Rail. OK both begin with “V” but what’s with that????
Veery (from Earlier Visit)
I was beginning to regret my promise – “They will both be easy at Bullfrog Pond”. But now puns were to meet reality for after all, I was in the Catbird seat – which as you will see – means being in a very advantageous position. We headed over to my regular birding spot at Bullfrog Pond – down from the gated pullover off Bullfrog Road – and immediately we had a Gray Catbird for Ann Marie – just where I had one last time – and then another and then another. All were raucous and even in the rain were photo worthy. AND – we started hearing Veeries and I mean LOTS of Veeries – first just the short “Breeuh” call and then the full beautiful ethereal song. We only listed four individuals of each species, but there may well have been many more.
As an aside, we also looked for American Dippers along the Teanaway River. They nest under the bridge that crosses the river on Bullfrog Road and I have seen them there on my previous visits. However, as was later explained to us by Bill Essman, lots of water was released from the upper dams per agreement with the Yakima Valley farmers who needed more irrigation water after a particularly hot and dry week. Thus the river was running at least 18 inches higher than just two days ago – not leaving many places for the American Dippers to hang out – or at least to be seen by us.
Gray Catbird in the Rain
So what about this Catbird seat thing? Most sources attribute its popular use to a James Thurber story which appeared in The New Yorker in November 1942, appropriately entitled In the Catbird Seat. Here is part of the story: “Are you scraping around the bottom of the pickle barrel? Are you sitting in the catbird seat?” It was Joey Hart, one of Mr. Martin’s two assistants, who had explained what the gibberish meant. “She must be a Dodger fan,” he had said. “Red Barber announces the Dodger games over the radio and he uses those expressions — picked ’em up down South.” Joey had gone on to explain one or two. “Tearing up the pea patch” meant going on a rampage; “sitting in the catbird seat” means sitting pretty, like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him.”
Now after delivering on my promise, I indeed felt like I was “in the catbird seat” – sitting pretty and everything else would be like whipped cream on top of the sundae. We spent less than an hour at Bullfrog and ended up with 22 species without even crossing the road to the drier woodland area where I am sure we would have added many more. Next we visited the Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds – another favored spot – with the main quest being a Pygmy Nuthatch for Ann Marie. This is my go to spot for these definitely cute little birds and they made a great appearance again. AND we had more Gray Catbirds. We also added a gorgeous male Black Headed Grosbeak at my favorite South Cle Elum feeders.
Black Headed Grosbeak
I had told Deb that we would meet her at her place on Brick Mill Road at 10:00. Being a man of my word – and still being in that catbird seat – we arrived EXACTLY at 10. Usually I am greeted by a throng of their bird dogs, but this time it was silent. Both jeeps were there so I figured they were home but this was different. No worries, my knock brought the dogs and Deb and all was good.
She will probably hate me for this, but here is a bit on Deb Essman – really one of my favorite folks. She (and Bill) spent many years as game wardens in the Park Service and are as knowledgeable as anyone I know (except maybe Mike Denny) about “the wild” – weather, trees, animals, wildflowers, plants and yes definitely birds. They are also fabulous hunters and their home is like a museum in evidence of that with beautiful trophies everywhere – any one of which would make most hunters proud. Deb apologized after our trip for being such a “redneck”, but I told her we liked her red neck and her ethics and love of the outdoors and her big heart are far more important. Many friends have visited the Essmans with me now and there is a ritual of sorts – the bearskin pose in their home. Ann Marie is the latest to oblige – pretty darn cute huh?!!
Ann Marie and the Ritual Bearskin Pose
And this is the place to get back to the earlier reference to Spruce Grouse in Kittitas County. Deb and Bill are up in the canyons many times a month and with their heavy duty jeeps and winches get farther up and in than us flatlanders. They have seen many things there that I can only dream about – wolves, cougars, bears AND Spruce Grouse. They know their birds and unlike some of us listers – have no agenda – just enjoying the wildlife and sharing it with others. Deb is just now starting to take pictures and does not yet have one of a Spruce Grouse but I am sure one will be forthcoming. If she reported a Spruce Grouse – it was there – photo or not. And she has had some amazing finds – like a White Winged Dove (many years back – seen by many visitors) and a Grackle (photographed) this year. This lady knows and loves her birds. I hope to be with her (and her red neck) when a photo of a Spruce Grouse is taken in them thar’ hills. And I hope for a Goshawk there as well.
Back to the trip. Coleman Canyon is beautiful, birdy and completely “other”. It really is like visiting a new world after leaving the flat and frankly pretty boring farmlands in Kittitas. The streams provide water for a great variety of plants, trees and wildflowers and the elevation gains create new habitats to support a rich diversity. There are wonderful views of Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams as well as the Stuart Range and the riparian areas are great passerine hideouts. I am not going into a lengthy description of what we saw where as I hope to do another blog at a later time to better cover that and the beauty of the place. We had around 40 avian species (without any waterfowl, shorebirds or gulls) and this time no grouse and no accipiters but there were lots of woodpeckers, warblers, sparrows, vireos, and flycatchers. And I did finally get my photo of a Williamson’s Sapsucker – one of at least 4 that were seen. Some photos below:
White Breasted Nuthatch
Red Naped Sapsuckers
Unfortunately no bear or cougars or wolves were seen but we had a number of elk, some deer, lots of squirrels and arguably as cute a Chipmunk as could be found anywhere.
Young Bull Elk
We returned to the Essman abode and said our goodbyes. Heading home now would put us in the worst of the Seattle traffic so we extended our stay with a trip to Vantage with a single Burrowing Owl (on private property) along the way and with numerous Rock Wrens (another Ann Marie target) on Recreation Road. The Columbia River had a few Western Grebes and nothing else. We planned one more stop on the way home – briefly up Umptanum and Durr Roads out of Ellensburg looking for Bluebirds and hopefully swifts and a Common Nighthawk.
Burrowing Owl (from same location last year)
We found a few Vaux’s Swifts almost immediately upon starting up Umptanum Road – my only photo of one this year but too far away to even post the picture. Light was also not very good for most of our bluebirds, but there were many with Mountain Bluebirds (Ann Marie’s target) outnumbering Western Bluebirds by at least 2 or 3 to 1. We had more than 20 all told.
It had been a great day – hitting all three of the important parts of birding for me – great people, great birds and great places. And a word about Ann Marie. I expect most people reading this know her and love her. She is a terrific birder with an easy smile that may belie the toughness below. She is the just right combination of driven and patient and thus finds birds that I often overlook. She is on a crazy quest this year. I am certainly no stranger to crazy quests, but I would not like to undertake the one she has chosen. Her goal is to see a different species every day. This means no days off and very strategic planning – and executing. And you cannot stockpile any of the new birds on one day for another that may not otherwise have one. Ann Marie had a number of new birds for the year on this trip – but she could only uses a single one for that day. Choosing which one is tough and calculated. For example both Gray Catbird and Williamson’s Sapsucker were new. She chose the Williamson’s Sapsucker. Can’t carry over the Catbird for another day … but now knowing where they are … easier to go back for one on another day than finding the sometimes unobliging Williamson’s Sapsucker which is also harder to get to.
It was fun to help Ann Marie on her quest. She has helped me in the past on mine as have many others. Hats off to all who help by guiding, sharing, accompanying and supporting others – in birding and in all else that makes life worthwhile. And Hats off to Ann Marie on her quest and to Deb Essman for all her help. And to Frank for putting up with all of us.
Signing off until next time – and still enjoying the (Gray) Catbird seat – Veery much!!