The original plan had been to drive down to Sunrise at Mount Rainier late on Tuesday and go owling, sleep a few hours in the car and then be the first on the Mt. Fremont Lookout trail early Wednesday morning hoping to find a White Tailed Ptarmigan. But when I checked the weather for Sunrise on Tuesday morning, it did not look so good. Plan B was to keep the same schedule but to move it a day later. Good thing. Jon Houghton was down at Sunrise on Tuesday on a Seattle Audubon trip and they had snow and such fierce winds that they gave up. Plan B morphed into B plus when I awoke so early on Wednesday morning that I decided to beat the traffic and get to Rainier early and do the Fremont Hike first thing.
I arrived at Sunrise at 7:30 a.m. and what a difference a day makes – not much wind and a few clouds but mostly gorgeous sunshine, so I headed off to look for Ptarmigan at the Mount Fremont Lookout. There were two reasons for the original early morning start in Plan A: I wanted to be the first on the trail thinking that would increase the odds of seeing the Ptarmigan and I know I am not in good shape so I wanted to leave plenty of time to make the hike. Turned out that 7:30 was early enough. I did not see another human being on the entirety of my hike out to the lookout and it ended up taking just over 90 minutes to get there – not as bad as I thought. Unfortunately the Ptarmigan did not appreciate my efforts and none were seen. BUT it was so gorgeous – and there were other treats along the way – so not a big deal. Mount Rainier is simply spectacular – birds or not.
Mount Rainier from Sunrise Trail
The first treat was of course just seeing Mount Rainier from the Sunrise parking lot – is there a better parking lot anywhere? There were dozens of birds at the parking lot – mostly Chipping Sparrows and Dark Eyed Juncos. Less than 1/4 mile up the trail a Sooty Grouse came out of the trees and gave a nice view for a few seconds before returning to its hiding place. I hoped that it would not be the only “Chicken” seen on the trip.
Sooty Grouse in the Morning
The trail has a major fork at Frozen Lake – heading either to Burroughs Mountain or to the Lookout. Ptarmigan have been seen at both places but a good birder had visited Burroughs recently without seeing any so I stuck to my original plan and headed to the Lookout where although no Ptarmigan have been reported from there this year, it has been a good spot for them for me and others in years past. The trail up to Frozen lake had a fair amount of elevation gain at places and my lack of hiking this year was definitely being felt. The next 1.3 miles would have a lot more up so I was glad for the early start.
View of Frozen Lake
The trail to the lookout is mostly along scree – nice for Marmots and wildflowers and possible for Ptarmigan but not very foot friendly and great care has to be taken on each step over the uneven rocks. I found what appeared to be a small Marmot family – three animals together with one being bolder and the others, perhaps young, staying in the background. I am always surprised at how large they are compared to the ground squirrels that are abundant.
Views along the way are nonstop fabulous. With so much sun in the thin air of the high elevation (about 7000′), I was extra careful with lots of sun block and a hat that covered everything. When finally I glimpsed the fire lookout up ahead I knew I would make it even if my legs were a bit weary.
View from the Trail to the Tower
Mount Fremont Lookout Tower
As much as I enjoyed the beauty of the place, the real goal had been to find a White Tailed Ptarmigan. I had seen and photographed one here some years ago and had a great look of one in its all white winter plumage in Colorado earlier this year – but none this year. You feel like you have paid your dues to get to the Tower so it is extra disappointing not to find your quarry. Guess it is a bad year for them here.
White Tailed Ptarmigan (2014 Photo)
White Tailed Ptarmigan in Winter Plumage from Colorado (2016)
In previous visits the Tower itself has always been locked so I was surprised to find it unlocked and open. I made myself at home for a bit – even taking a cat nap on one of the cots giving the Ptarmigan more time to come out from hiding if they were present. A consolation prize was a fly over of three Gray Crowned Rosy Finches – not a common bird but regular on Mount Rainier slopes. Pretty hard to beat the view from the tower as seen in the photo below – even though taken on my phone and through the glass windows.
View from Inside the Fremont Lookout Tower
I spent more than an hour at the Lookout Tower and no Ptarmigan appeared so it was time to head back. I took a quick selfie (not my thing) to show my sun protection and headed out.
Taking the Sun Seriously
Along the trail down the first person I met was Teri Martine – an avid Seattle area birder. She was also looking for Ptarmigan – don’t think she found any either. And then I met Jason Vassallo – yet another Seattle birder – proving how popular this trail is for Ptarmigan seekers.
On the way up I had seen several Mountain Bluebirds and a few Rufous Hummingbirds. Now there seemed to be Mountain Bluebirds everywhere (a theme that would be repeated later closer to the parking area). I had hoped to see and photograph a Clark’s Nutcracker. I heard one off in the distance but no visual. As I got closer to Frozen Lake I could see dozens of people there and on the various trails and I passed at least 20 more people on my way down to the Lake. My decision to come early was a good one. Of course there was lots more great scenery.
Views from Trail
I saw more marmots and an industrious ground squirrel that had harvested vegetation and had what seemed an impossible amount in its mouth as it harvested more. I don’t know if this was food to be taken back to young or material to pad its nest.
Industrious Ground Squirrel
The biggest treat was almost at the end of the trail – with the visitor center in sight. A crowd had gathered on the trail. They were watching a quite large Black Bear foraging on what seemed to be new growth on an Evergreen maybe 100 yards away. Photo worthy.
It was noon by the time I reached the now very crowded parking lot. I birded a bit in the picnic area and had lunch and wondered how I would “kill” the next 9+ hours until it would be sufficiently dark to look for owls. I had hoped to find a Three Toed Woodpecker on the trip and continued that search but found no woodpeckers at all. Many more Mountain Bluebirds (one perched alongside a Yellow Rumped Warbler) and lots of Juncoes and Chipping Sparrows (I had seen a single Fox Sparrow on my descent). Surprisingly no Gray Jays or Nutcrackers but I did add some Mountain Chickadees to my day list.
Mountain Bluebird and Yellow Rumped Warbler
I drove down to the White River Campground thinking I would both do a little birding and maybe look for a quiet spot for an afternoon snooze. It was too busy for the former and too crowded to find a spot for the latter. I drove around a bit and finally just found a wider than most and shadier than most pullout and rested for a couple of hours. Then I returned to the Sunrise parking area – got some coffee at the snack bar, visited the visitor center, scouted some owling areas and did some birding. The snack bar was doing a brisk business despite prices that rival those at Century Link and Safeco – guess that comes with no competition and a captive audience.
Birds were mostly as before but a little slower. The highlight was when I was walking through the picnic area and a bird exploded right by me – a small accipiter – Sharp Shinned Hawk that was gone in an instant but had been very close letting me appreciate the incredible speed. I also heard a couple of Clark’s Nutcrackers and got a distant picture of one perched and then of another on a still distant flyby. My best photo of one this year but pretty poor. Just before digging out my rather pathetic dinner I found a warbler in a small shrub that flashed a lot of yellow. Earlier in the morning I thought I had seen a Nashville Warbler in the picnic area and this appeared to be another one. This time, however, I got a photo and seeing it now with a guidebook handy it is clearly a more common immature MacGillivray’s Warbler – nice photo though.
Still a lot of time to kill so I adopted a strategy of driving back and forth between the Sunrise parking area and the Sunrise Viewpoint constantly looking on the road, beside the road and in the meadows hoping for raptors, wildlife or whatever. I must have made the drive 6 times. It proved a good strategy. First I heard another Clark’s Nutcracker and pulled over and got out of the car in time for some very nice fly by photos.
A bit further down the road I saw a familiar form in the middle of the road and inched up to watch a mother Sooty Grouse and then her three (maybe four) chicks out for a dinner stroll/feast. The mother spent a significant time in the middle of the road itself while the chicks almost always remained in the grass along the road. They remained for a good 10+ minutes even as numerous cars raced by. It amazed me both that they stayed (mom moving to the side of the road and then returning) and that cars sped by despite seeing both me stopped with lights flashing and the bird obvious in the road. Guess they were not birders…
Sooty Grouse Mother
Sooty Grouse Chicks
The light was so good and the mother so cooperative that I took several detail photos including one of the grouse’s tail which I found quite interesting and beautiful.
Sooty Grouse Tail Close-up
I continued my back and forth travels and as the light finally started to soften I hoped to maybe see an owl hunting the many meadows. No owls but it was incredible to see the number of small birds that were along and on the road – mostly I believe young Chipping Sparrows (I saw a number of adults of that species and no other sparrows.) At one point there were 50 birds in the middle of the road and I wondered if they were picking up grit or insects. At exactly 8:22 P.M. (I checked my watch) a large raptor sped across one of the meadows and hit one of the sparrows on the ground not more than 50 feet from the road. It was about the size of a Red Tailed Hawk but was instead an accipiter – a beautiful Northern Goshawk. It grabbed the sparrow and was off again – the whole show over in a matter of a few very exhilarating seconds. I thought that it was dangerous for the grouse chicks to be out in the area – certainly a much better meal.
The Goshawk and Grouse were super fun. Unfortunately I only saw one more “good” bird that evening. It had surprised me that during the day in addition to no Gray Jays, there had also been no Ravens. Now there were three. It appeared that they were scavenging bits of whatever that had been left by earlier visitors – now easier to get as the lot was mostly deserted. As it got even darker I saw several Elk and a single Black Tailed Deer – all in the absolute middle of the road – reminding me of the caution needed on roads here at night.
A nice bird but the plan had been for there to be at least one more – an Owl. Ideally it would have been a Boreal Owl but other possibilities were Saw Whet and Long Eared – all have been found there. But not this night – I searched from 10 until 11:30 and heard not a hoot of any kind. Maybe I should have tried or waited longer, but it had been a too long day anyhow and since I was no longer going to sleep in the car to get an early start on a Fremont Lookout hike, it was time to start the long drive home.
Although the top of the want list species were not found – no Boreal Owl and no White Tailed Ptarmigan – it had been a spectacular day. The last highlight was not an owl but was indeed extremely cool. As I walked back to my car, I saw several people with scopes. They were not looking at birds or animals – they were stargazers. The night was crystal clear and there was no wind. The stars were everywhere and were as bright as I have ever seen them. And the Milky Way was spectacular – how many billions of stars are there – and how many planets – and do any of them have more easily found Boreal Owls or Ptarmigan??!! Mount Rainier – What a Place – and we live so close – fortunate indeed.
The Milky Way at Mount Rainier (online photo)