On December 27, 2015 I finally got my first photo of a Sharp Tailed Grouse. It was at the Scotch Creek Wildlife Area near Happy Hill Road in the Okanogan. There is a good story that goes with it. And it connects to another good story with an unexpected sighting of a pair of Sharp Tailed Grouse at the same place yesterday (July 19, 2016). I will tell both in a bit, but first some preliminaries.
Midday on Tuesday I got a message from a birding friend/acquaintance saying he was in Washington with his wife at Sun Mountain Lodge leaving the next day. He had lost and then found my contact information – the reason for the last minute contact. I had told him previously that I was always game for some birding if ever he visited Washington but I had envisioned a pre-planned trip of a day or two. One of his Washington target birds was a Dusky Grouse and I had told him that Sun Mountain Lodge had been my “go to spot” for them – the reason he was there. By the time I received his message, he had already seen a Dusky Grouse and he was leaving the next day heading north on his way to Calgary. I had not seen a Dusky Grouse in Washington this year – having only a very poor quick observation on my Colorado Grouse trip – the only “chicken” seen on that trip without a photo.
A visit to Sun Mountain Lodge was on my “to do” list – possibly in fact this upcoming weekend. Even though it meant a mad dash with a late start, I decided to go for it and left Edmonds at 3:30 P.M. to see Paul and hopefully my own Dusky Grouse and maybe some other birds. In years past I had generally found Dusky Grouse in the Sun Mountain Lodge employee/visitor parking area or even near one of the Lodge buildings. The plan was to get to the Lodge essentially non-stop, look for a grouse on Patterson Lake Road on the way up, have dinner with Paul and then to spend the night on Thompson Ridge Road in my car – trying for Flammulated Owl there, and then to get back to the Lodge for a dawn watch being pretty sure that Dusky Grouse would be out foraging then.
Everything worked perfectly with a bonus or two thrown in. When I arrived at Sun Mountain I first did a quick sweep of the grounds and parking area – nada – but just as I got back onto Patterson Lake Road out of the employee parking area, I saw a familiar form on the side of the road. There was just enough time and light for a quick photo – I now had my Dusky Grouse observation and photo for Washington in 2016. I was supposed to meet Paul and spouse for dinner at 8:00 – the exact time I found the male grouse. A quick call and being there only ten minutes late was certainly excusable for this bird.
Dusky Grouse Male on Patterson Lake Road
A bonus was the quick phone photo of Patterson Lake below – always a beautiful scene – even moreso with the sun beginning to set. Dinner was great and it was great to revisit with Paul and to meet Karen – another one of those spouses that enjoys the out of doors but believes her man a bit crazy when he chases off after a bird. Chasing a bird at a great place like Sun Mountain Lodge was perfectly okay however!! We could not convince her to try for a Flammulated Owl, and since Paul did not need it for his life list, he too passed when I explained the process and probability – fifty/fifty at best. Also they had to leave early and he correctly calculated that hours left for sleep might be too few. But he had a nice going away gift – and in part to make up for the late contact. An old friend had property on Scotch Creek. He and Karen had visited the day before (wish I had known) and although the friend had said he regularly had Sharp Tailed Grouse there, none were seen that day. He gave me the name and said he would probably allow me to visit.
I had discovered Thompson Ridge on a visit to Sun Mountain Lodge last year. It is an easy road off of Patterson Lake Road and has great forest habitat and a couple of pullouts with primitive restrooms – perfect for a night of owling and sleeping in the car. There are always deer at Sun Mountain Lodge and squirrels and chipmunks are easy to find. In the back of my mind I was hoping that a Cougar would cross the road – the top of my wild animal bucket list. No Cougar – but not even a half mile up Thompson Ridge Road a dark form did cross right in front of the car – maybe 30 yards out – a young Black Bear – maybe a yearling. I had not seen one in Washington for many years – a definite treat even if there was no chance for a photo. Definitely reaffirmed my decision to sleep in the car and not on the ground.
It was quite dark by now – perfect for the birds of the night and just like the previous year about 3 miles up the road, I heard a Flammulated Owl. As usual -I could not locate the exact spot or get him to come in for a photo. Additionally I was able to hear at least two calling Common Poorwills and a Common Nighthawk flew directly overhead, its “pe-ent” call quite clear. A nice threesome for the night with a bear bonus!
Sleeping in the car is “okay” but a definite problem in these parts in the summer is that the light floods in very early – which in this case was okay as an alarm clock so I could get an early start to get back up to Sun Mountain Lodge and see if more grouse were about. Indeed they were. It was before 6:00 a.m. and I am not sure if the front desk was open to check anyone in but if guests had arrived just then and parked in the spot reserved for registrations, they would literally have had to step over grouse to get in. A mother and five chicks were grazing without care on the lawn right at the main entry. At the next building over I found an additional four Dusky Grouse – mother and three chicks – paying me almost no attention.
Dusky Grouse Female (one of two)
Dusky Grouse Chick (one of nine)
I left Paul and Karen a good bye note and then headed off to the Okanogan to check out Scotch Creek and Conconully and maybe more. On the way out I could not pass up some deer photos – at least a dozen on the grounds – bucks, does and fawns.
And the final gift was yet another grouse – another female on the road near Patterson Lake itself. This made it 12 Dusky Grouse for the trip – definitely more than I have ever seen there or anywhere else before.
Last Dusky Grouse of the Visit
Now – back to the pay it forward stories that are the important part of this post. I had been to the Okanogan with Jon Houghton in late November 2015. We had a great trip but there had been little or no snow and when we tried to find Sharp Tailed Grouse at Scotch Creek and elsewhere, it was the usual story – none. During the next month, however, the area had lots of snow and reports were out that Sharp Tails were being seen eating in the water birch along Scotch Creek – driven up out of their normal grass habitat where they are a challenge to find/see. Samantha Robinson and I headed over to try our luck.
There was a lot of snow on the roads and a lot of snow on the ground in the Scotch Creek Wildlife Area. When we arrived I could see some forms in the willows off the road that were promising. Still from the road, through my bins I could confirm that they were Sharp Tailed Grouse – but a bit too distant for a photo – something we both wanted. There was so much snow, it was hard to tell where the road ended and the shoulder began, but I picked what I thought was a likely and safe spot and pulled over so we could get out and pursue our quarry. I thought I was on solid ground but it turned out that there was a drainage ditch and one wheel was okay – but the other not. My four wheel drive was not up to the task – uh oh!!
But first things first, we left the car and moved towards the birds. Indeed the snow was a plus in this case and we could identify at least 6 Sharp Tailed Grouse and there may have been more. One perched at the top of one of the Water Birch and I finally had a picture of a Sharp Tailed Grouse in Washington.
Sharp Tailed Grouse – Scotch Creek December 2015
But as I said – the snow was definitely not a plus for our car – stuck alongside the road. Remember my main mantra – birding provides the opportunity to intersect with good places, good birds and good people. So far the trip had given us two of the three and now good people were to be included as well. As opposed to us “city folk”, the locals there knew how to be prepared for snowy conditions. Almost as soon as we got back to the car, two other cars stopped to help. We tried to just push the car out – no go. But they also had a shovel and within a few minutes enough snow was removed to get the traction to get us unstuck and on our way. In addition to a very large thank you, I tried to offer some “gas money” – politely refused with the statement – just doing what everyone should – helping others when needed just like we would want to be helped if we needed it. Saved our day and brought big smiles to our faces – and they had smiles too – a very fine experience.
Later that day we visited a number of other spots in the Okanogan Highlands, and Conconully including Common Redpoll, Bohemian Waxwing, Northern Pygmy Owl, Black Backed Woodpecker and some large flocks of both Gray Crowned Rosy Finches and White Winged Crossbills. Great birds but not able to top the Sharp Tailed Grouse at Scotch Creek.
White Winged Crossbill (Okanogan Highlands December 2015)
Fast forward to yesterday. I arrived at Scotch Creek and there was definitely no snow – already 72 degrees and clear skies. I had not been able to reach Paul’s friend . I first hiked in to the area that is accessible and noted the very tall grass. I had low expectations of finding any grouse but it was beautiful and there were other birds including some very active Lazuli Buntings that reacted to simple “pishing” no need to use playback at all.
Lazuli Bunting with Insect
When I returned to the pullout where I had parked the car I saw that another car was parked nearby but paid it no attention other than wondering if another birder had arrived. I checked messages and had one from Paul’s friend saying that while he was not able to meet me, he gave permission to enter his land and said to have anyone contact him if I was stopped. Just then I heard a knock on my window. It was a young woman who had been in the car I had noticed. She was not just parked there, she was stuck there – with a completely flat tire. Her three year old son was in the back seat and although she had a spare tire, she did not have a jack or tire wrench. Could I help? Of course and also of course, images of being helped out of the snow in December came immediately to mind. We spent the next 20 minutes plus trying to get the car jacked up and the tire changed. I could not get enough lift from the jack to get her car up sufficiently high to get her tire off. She also did not have a cell phone, so I let her use mine to call her husband who was at work – at an auto shop in Omak. He was out. Our plan B was to get her, her son and her groceries to her home in Conconully.
I was planning to go there anyway but now I had permission to go on the private property about where we were and would have headed to Conconully only after that. No matter – it would add a bit of time but the priority was clear. Off we went to Conconully and the only damage may have been a little melted ice cream. A big thank you from her and her extremely well behaved son, smiles all around – deed done – feeling good.
Birding was slow in Conconully – not a single Woodpecker or Nutcracker and definitely no Goshawk. Would it be any different back at Scotch Creek? Well it would be a new experience and high grass or not, it would be fun. So back to Scotch Creek and onto the ranch land and it really was a beautiful drive – on a primitive road/track in fields with high grass, some sage, some water birch and no grouse – until almost at the end two Sharp Tailed Grouse flushed from the field and flew directly across the car before quickly disappearing in the grass again. No photo this time – except for a Western Meadowlark with an insect – but maybe a little local thank you and reminder of good people to be found everywhere. Scotch Creek is a very special place in my birding life now.
Western Meadowlark with Insect
I tried some other areas in an unsuccessful search for woodpeckers and then called it a good day and headed home. About half way I looked at tide tables and thought they looked good for a visit to Eide Road to see if the shorebird extravaganza reported by Marv Breece might still be around with my hope being a photo of a Semipalmated Sandpiper. It added some miles and time to an already too long trip but despite the usual slow go on U.S. 2 I arrived at Eide Road at just after 6:00. Two cars in the parking area suggested that other birders might be there and hopefully were on some good birds. As I walked towards the pond, I noted two birders with big lenses on the far side, but they did not seem to be watching anything and when I could finally see the pond, there were no birds to be seen.
When I joined Gregg Thompson and Andy (Anderson?) I asked if I had missed the show or if they show had been a “no show”. They said there had been a large flock of shorebirds until a Peregrine chased them all off about 5 minutes ago (now I really hated Highway 2). And yes there had been at least one probable Semipalmated Sandpiper in the mixed flock. They are both good company so I hung around and a couple of birds came in. Andy took off but Gregg and I stayed and slowly some birds returned. They remained a little skitterish and took off and came back a couple more times. All told there was a nice assortment of Long Billed Dowitchers, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs and some peeps – including at least one and probably two Semipalmated Sandpipers. Good light helped enable a decent photo.
Long Billed Dowitcher
I know I have never had 24 hours of birding that included Sharp Tailed and Dusky Grouse, Flammulated Owl, Common Poorwill and Common Nighthawk and Semipalmated Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs and Long Billed Dowitcher. Probably never will again. But I do hope I will have many more 24 hours that include good people – birders and helpers and friends and those that I can help – throw in any good birds and some beautiful places and what more can you ask for…