Good Birds, Bad Weather and Bad Views (of Birds That Is) – Salmo Mountain and Northeastern Washington

Salmo Mountain is about as far away from my Edmonds home as you can get and still be in Washington.  Just under 400 miles away, it is in the extreme northeastern corner of the state and is approximately 3 miles from Canada and 3 miles from Idaho.  I first visited the area in 2012 on a wonderful Washington Ornithological Society trip led by Terry Little on October 5th, my birthday.  I have returned in late September or early October each year since.  The area is one of the best and most accessible boreal forest habitats in Washington and has some very special birds accordingly.

A clarification – “most accessible” does not mean you simply pull off the pavement and park.  My destinations this past weekend included Salmo Mountain, Bunchgrass Meadows, Sullivan Lake and Highline Road.  All told that meant almost 100 miles of driving on unpaved roads – mostly in good condition, but I had a flat tire there two years ago.  The nearest towns are Metaline Falls and Ione, Washington.  A couple of motels and not much in the way of food or other services.  We are talking remote – but also talking very beautiful.


Birders, like me,  come to this area with hopes of finding three boreal specialties and several other species that are also found elsewhere but can be fairly reliable here as well.  The three main targets are Boreal Owl, Boreal Chickadee and Spruce Grouse. The other goodies include Dusky and Ruffed Grouse, American Three Toed Woodpecker, Red and White Winged Crossbills, Gray Crowned Rosy Finch, Pine Grosbeak, Northern Pygmy Owl and Northern Goshawk.  I have found all of these species on one or another of my visits and my combined trip list for all visits is 51 species.  While I have been fortunate to have found Boreal Owls each year, they have been “heard only” and this rare owl remains one of only three non-review board species in Washington for which I have no photo.  So getting a visual and a photo was the prime objective for this visit.

Before heading off on my trip I had checked the weather and it looked pretty good with maybe a few sprinkles but in the mountains you never know.  I have been at Salmo in bright sunshine and with several inches of snow on the ground.  This time I had none of either – lots of clouds, a few spotty sunbreaks and sadly lots of wind, rain, thunderstorms and hail.  I arrived midday Friday and had only clouds and after checking in to the very basic but clean Circle Motel in Metaline Falls, I headed off to Bunchgrass Meadows.  Last year I had my first ever photo of a Spruce Grouse there and always had Boreal Chickadees there on previous trips.  Despite being the only car on the road up (Harvey Creek Road), this time I found no grouse and while I had several Boreal Chickadees, they remained camera shy high up in the trees.

Spruce Grouse from Bunchgrass Meadows in 2015


About 12 miles in I met a hunter on a serious off road vehicle who said that grouse “were everywhere” – better at dusk and dawn of course.  Failing to find any gallinaceous birds at all, I planned to return early the next day.  I found a couple of American Three Toed Woodpeckers and I had a flyover by a screaming Northern Goshawk but in general the birding was much slower than I remembered from earlier visit.

After a couple of hours, I headed off to Salmo Mountain planning to bird slowly on the 20+ miles of unpaved road and to arrive at the summit around 5, wait until dark and then seek the main quest – Boreal Owl. It rained lightly for a few moments on my climb but nothing too serious.  Still the birding was slow.  No grouse at all and again some uncooperative Chickadees – both Mountain and Boreal.  Last year we had found a spot where Boreal Chickadees had nested.  None were there this year but some serious tapping told me that some woodpeckers were.  I could not penetrate the thick woods to get to the sound but eventually was able to draw two American Three Toed Woodpeckers out and get a few pictures.  A third remained hidden deep in the woods.

American Three Toed Woodpecker


I continued up the road and met two hunters in more camouflage clothing than I have ever seen.  Not sure I would have noticed them if they had been standing in the woods rather than by their car.  They were talking to a Border Patrol officer – a local who was also a serious hunter.  They too said that grouse “were everywhere”.  Interestingly though they knew only about Ruffed Grouse and “Blue Grouse” and were unaware of Spruce Grouse even existing.  They were not bird hunters.  Of most interest to me were their stories of bear sightings including two grizzlies about a week ago and also of “many” cougars – also recently.  If push came to shove I would probably take a photo of a Cougar over a Boreal Owl, but it would be a tough decision as both are just below seeing a Smew on my bucket list.

Leaving them I made it to the end of the road at the Lookout Tower and was greeted by peals of thunder and lots of wind and then some very serious hail.  Not exactly good owling conditions.  I was exhausted from almost 12 hours of driving so I waited for a change in weather with a short nap – hoping that lightning would not accompany the thunderstorm and strike the mountaintop.

Salmo Lookout Just before the Storm


The pounding hail and then heavy rain did not allow for much sleep but I dozed off and on for about an hour.  Finally it cleared enough to enjoy part of the view.  The good news was that the wind was blowing away some of the clouds but it did not portend well for successful owling.  A photo as the sun was going down was a nice reward however.

Sunset from Salmo Mountain


I waited another hour and then set off to find an owl with spotlight and camera ready.  On previous visits we have had as many as three Boreal Owls within a half mile of the tower.  As said before, I have yet to actually see one – or at least see one clearly – my only “view” being of an even darker form flying over against the dark sky.  Sometimes owls have been heard within the first 20 minutes.  Other times it has taken many hours.  this night was to be in between.  Not a sound for over an hour so I moved further and further down the road.  Finally at about 8:45 I heard a few repeated hoots and then a “skiew” call.  It was not close and there was no response to playback despite many attempts over a quarter mile along the road. It was now somewhat clear but still windy and I think that contributed to the poor results.

A Representative “Photo” of My Typical Boreal Owl Experience


I went back to the car and began the 20 mile drive back to a paved road.  As I have done successfully with Flammulated Owls, I planned to stop and use playback – although instead of every 1/2 mile it would be every 1/8 mile.  After 5 unsuccessful stops I felt a few rain drops and sensed that more were coming so I gave up and set out for the motel.  On these roads at night there is no visibility except for headlights and even they are not very useful around some of the sharp turns.  There is also the constant awareness that some wildlife might suddenly appear and while I would have loved to have seen a Cougar or Grizzly, I certainly did not want to hit either one or the more likely deer or moose that I knew to be around.  That coupled with a strong desire to not hit any or rocks or worse yet slide off the road meant travel was slow.

Not more than another half mile down, two shadows appeared on the road.  When my headlights captured them, I saw two young Moose ambling along and then in the center of the road not more than 200 feet ahead of me.  I snapped a couple of photos through the windshield and then flashed my lights to encourage them to move off the road as I followed slowly.  In about 1/8 mile one got the message and bounded off to the right.  The other stayed on the road.  When I approached it trotted ahead.  When I stopped, it stopped.  I tried honking, shouting, and more flashing but this moose really like the road.  Our start and stop game continued for almost a mile – at least 10 minutes.  Finally it slowed enough and pulled off to the right enough that I felt safe getting close enough to try a pass.  It was literally five feet away from the passenger window when I could finally get by and continue.

Moose on Salmo Mountain


The Moose that Just Would Not Leave the Road


During much of my way down, there had been a light rain.  Just as I made it back to the motel around midnight, it started to pour!  I ran up to my room and within minutes of getting in I crashed hard.  Six hours later I was up and wondered what the weather was.  It was still dark and still raining although now just some sprinkles, but there were pools of water in the parking area and I was not optimistic for a good day.  I left shortly thereafter hoping to get back to the Harvey Creek Road to Bunchgrass Meadows at dawn to see those grouse that “were everywhere”.

As expected the Harvey Creek Road was very wet and muddy.  It was no longer raining but there was a constant drip of water from the trees.  Grouse were nowhere to be found and not much else was around either.  I went in over 12 miles and had barely a handful of birds.  The weather did not look like it was about to change, so I made the executive decision to cut the trip short and forego another trip up Salmo for the night. But I really wanted to at least find a grouse so watched carefully on the way back down to Sullivan Lake Road and then decided to try another road I had noticed earlier and which had been mentioned by the Border Patrol guy – Highline Road not far from the road up to Salmo which was north of Sullivan Lake (the road to Bunchgrass is just south of the lake).  I stopped for a photo of one of the many beautiful spots along the creek.

Harvey Creek


Last year there had been a flock of Gray Crowned Rosy Finches at the bridge just south of Sullivan Lake so I made the stop.  No Rosy Finches but in addition to the Common Mergansers, Mallards and Canada Geese in the lake, there was a pair of Red Crossbills, some Common Yellowthroats and an American Dipper.

Red Crossbill


American Dipper


Highline Road proved a good decision.  Less than a mile up the road I came around a bend and flushed a male Spruce Grouse.  It flew to a log still visible in the woods.  In the single most frustrating moment of the trip, I got my camera tangled up in my seatbelt strap.   I had forgotten to go to “birding mode” where I buckle the strap but have it behind my back.  By the time I got untangled the bird had scooted off and there would be no photo.  I hoped for more but felt I had blown my best chance and was NOT a happy camper.  There were no more grouse, but the road was more birdy than any of the others I had been on this trip.  One traveling flock included Boreal, Chestnut Backed and Mountain Chickadees, both Ruby and Golden Crowned Kinglets and Red Breasted Nuthatches with another American Three Toed Woodpecker flying by. Again the birds would not come down from the upper branches and the lighting was terrible in any event.  So still no good photo of a Boreal Chickadee.

Red Breasted Nuthatch


I went in about 7 miles on Highline and saw a single other vehicle on the trip.  On my next visit I think I will go even further to explore.  But not this day so it was back down and a return to the motel to check out early.  Pretty hard to call a trip that includes Moose, Boreal Owl, Boreal Chickadee, Spruce Grouse, Goshawk and American Three Toed Woodpecker a bust but the weather was a downer and the views were just not very good and the photos (the few that I took) even worse.  It was a VERY long drive back   But there was one very good “bird” bonus.  The original plan would have gotten me back late Sunday night.  Instead I was back late Saturday and thus could observe some Seahawks flying very high on Sunday morning.


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