After what has seemed like months, there was to be a break in the weather – at least for one day – and NO rain (or snow) was predicted for Thursday March 16. I had nothing on the calendar for a few days and I have always enjoyed finding the Shrub/Steppe birds as they return to the sagebrush, so I set out early for a trip to central Washington with the possibility of extending the trip for another day depending on how it went. While there were certainly some target birds, mostly this was going to be revisiting familiar places and just enjoying the time out. Oh yeah…I also had hopes of seeing some Sandhill Cranes.
Even at 5:15 a.m. there is too much traffic, but the trip down I-405 was not too bad and there seemed to be nobody else on the road once I hit I-90 going East. Snowing or not, getting over Snoqualmie Pass has been a big problem of late, with many closures and delays for avalanche control. No problems today and I was at my first stop – Bullfrog Pond – just as there was enough light to see. But there was tons of the snow on the ground so not much in the way of bird life or of access. There was no snow there at this time last year. I had hopes (dreams) of a very early Red Naped Sapsucker, which I have had there in April but I settled for three other woodpeckers, Northern Flicker, Hairy Woodpecker and Pileated – none close enough for a decent photo.
On these trips, I head next for the Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds in South Cle Elum. Not as much snow as when I visited last month and the ponds were not frozen. And no surprise, much better birding. The “target” here is the aptly named little Pygmy Nuthatch which nests in the area. When I got to the right spot I immediately heard their high pitched piping call and located several birds including one going into and out of its cavity nest. When two came in pretty close I was able to get a nice photo.
On the road to the fish hatchery, I coaxed in a beautiful Mountain Chickadee (also reliable here) but despite its fervent singing I could not get a White Breasted Nuthatch to come in for a photo. I was happy to capture the sparkling red eye of a Spotted Towhee though.
There was still too much snow to access a favorite feeder spot in South Cle Elum where I usually find Cassin’s Finches and often Evening Grosbeaks, but I did find a few Cassin’s Finches high up in a tree near the old railway station, directly into the sun so a photo will have to wait. Trying to lose some extra pounds, I did not stop at the Cle Elum Bakery and settled for some coffee before heading off to Ellensburg to look for a California Scrubjay that has been hanging around near Second Street. About this same time last year, we visited the campus of Central Washington University (a short distance away) where we had a Townsend’s Solitaire, Red Crossbills and a single White Winged Crossbill. Those birds were not back, but finding the Scrubjay was a nice substitute.
Now it was time to visit the sagebrush or shrub steppe area. I was expecting to find Western and Mountain Bluebirds, Say’s Phoebes and Sagebrush Sparrow and hoping to see Loggerhead Shrike, Sage Thrasher, Vesper Sparrow and maybe even a Brewer’s Sparrow all of which I have seen in the area by this time. I first went south on Umptanum Road out of Ellensburg where the Bluebirds were almost guaranteed and where up on Durr Road I had seen most of the other birds. There was still some snow around (not on the road which was pretty muddy and wet) but the wind was picking up, and that never helps. I easily found numerous bluebirds where the efforts of many in putting up and maintaining nesting boxes has been very successful. I also had several Say’s Phoebes but no other birds of note. The only birds on Durr Road were Dark Eyed Juncos and another Mountain Bluebird. There were lots of House Sparrows on the beginning of Umptanum Road with a couple seemingly very interested in one of the nest boxes.
House Sparrow at Nest Box
Not finding any sparrows was disappointing, but they were more likely along Old Vantage Highway, so I was still optimistic heading off to favorite spots there. However, the wind picked up and either that or my poor birding resulted in finding almost no birds anywhere in the area. One Mountain Bluebird and again some juncos and that was it. I met two other birders at the ranger house stop and they had a similar experience – nada. I missed Canyon Wren and Rock Wren at the Rocky Coulee site, so a complete bust. Undaunted (mostly) I continued on to my favorite Canyon Wren spot about 8 miles down Huntzinger Road. The wind continued pretty strong and the best I could do was a singing Rock Wren deep in the Canyon that would not come in to playback – unusual.
Now what? Although it was possibly a bit early, I thought I would try for Sandhill Cranes in the Othello area. Maybe I went to the wrong spots (many of them) or maybe it was early, but I found no cranes and spent a lot of time looking. It was decision time – head home with meager success for the day or commit to a second day and concentrate on points south. I chose the latter and began the long drive to Fort Simcoe where I knew I would find Lewis’s Woodpeckers, and then after staying somewhere in the area head off to Lyle and then over to the Clark County refuges where I figured I would find the cranes and have a reasonable chance for Wilson’s Snipe and Red Shouldered Hawk.
Fort Simcoe State Park is a wonderful spot – especially when there is nobody else there. This was the case when I arrived -probably because the Park was closed. Fortunately it was ok to walk in past the gate and I had a couple of Lewis’s Woodpeckers almost immediately. My favorite spot for them is Oak Creek Canyon where they are often perched on snags at eye level. Here they are usually high up in the oak trees, so the challenge is to get one lower, unblocked by branches and with the sun in the right place. It took some doing, but there are so many woodpeckers (I saw at least 15 and probably several times that many throughout the park), that eventually I got some good photos – really a beautiful bird.
Overnight accommodations are limited in the area and I eventually found an ok place in Goldendale. I awoke to a heavy frost on the car and a nice sunrise. If only that weather had continued.
Sunrise Scenery and a Silhouetted Windmill
Usually when I head off on a bird trip there is a set itinerary and a tight schedule (luck dependent). It was pretty obvious from the preceding day’s experience that there was a lot of freelancing, and since I had no commitments and am not trying for a giant list this year, I thought I would try some new territory before heading to Lyle. Russ Koppendreyer had reported seeing some Bonaparte’s Gulls at a park off Roosevelt Ferry Road in eastern Klickitat County. I keep track but am not a driven/dedicated County Lister, so seeing one in Klickitat County was no big deal, but why not try something new. So I headed off east on Highway 14. It is pretty country – but also BIG country and I had not realized how far east I was to travel. When I got to the place, there were no Bonaparte’s Gulls, but there were some other birds I had not seen in Klickitat County before, and as I was leaving I heard a staccato call and then a chorus that I thought might be a Lesser Goldfinch. My hunch proved right as there was one on a distant wire across an uncross-able field. So that was a big bonus. I added a lot of new birds for the county (mostly waterfowl) and enjoyed the journey – although I was again a bit off on timing.
I headed back west along Highway 24 to Lyle and then went to the Balch Lake area hoping to find an Acorn Woodpecker. With varying amounts of effort, I have always found this species there. It took a lot of doing but I again found one near where I had three last year on Tuthill Road. I did have at least three Lewis’s Woodpeckers in the area and several Flickers and I wonder if maybe these species are out-competing the Acorns. Now I was off to Ridgefield Refuge – back to Highway 24 and the beautiful Columbia Gorge. Sometime I hope to spend many days there exploring – really a beautiful area. Along the way, passing a rock face near the Crawford Oaks Trailhead, I saw some swallows that I thought might be Cliff Swallows, my first of the year. I pulled over and discovered they were just more Violet Green Swallows – which I saw in the many hundreds over the two days. The habitat looked good for Canyon Wren and I got one to respond from way up on the cliff face. Truly a favorite song.
Now the rain really started in earnest, and the remainder of the day was going to be wet and even wetter. I decided to forego Steigerwald NWR and headed to Ridgefield. It was pouring the whole trip including my time there along the Auto Tour of the River S Unit. The refuge is engulfed in water, higher than I remember in the past. Great for waterfowl, not so much for the birders. A pleasant surprise was a pair of close by Cinnamon Teal near the start of the route. There were hundreds (thousands?) of ducks and geese with Cackling Geese and American Coots most obvious. Also Violet Green and to a lesser degree Tree Swallows everywhere. A real shortage of raptors but I did have a close beautiful view of a Northern Harrier and a very distant and rainy view of a Red Shouldered Hawk. There were no visible Snipe or Cranes and the only good passerine was a single Savannah Sparrow. The rain made viewing difficult at best but the at least 6 Nutria seemed unfazed.
Violet Green Swallow
I had seen Sandhill Cranes at the River S Unit many times in the past so that miss was a disappointment – maybe just too much water. I remembered posts about flocks in the Woodland Bottoms – an unfamiliar area but since it was not far away, I gave it a try. As I was speeding to a site reported on Ebird, I glimpsed a large group of “Great Blue Herons” in a field along the road – of course they were the targeted Sandhill Cranes and were close and photogenic. Interestingly when I returned to the spot after searching elsewhere, maybe 15 minutes later, they had all disappeared into some newly planted vines/bushes. Had they been there originally I would have missed them. Altogether I found 4 flocks with a total of at least 300 birds. Very cool.
Sandhill Crane (in the rain)
Time to head north but it was clear that I was going to hit rush hour. No other options in the rain, so I headed off. The rain was horrible and the spray from autos and especially trucks was blinding. Around Olympia the traffic got very bad and came to a crawl. Rain or not, I decided to detour to Nisqually NWR still hoping for a Wilson’s Snipe and maybe an American Bittern. There was but a single car in the parking lot when I arrived and I saw nobody else while I was there. Again very wet conditions (flooded fields and raining hard) so almost no passerine activity. Hundreds of Violet Green and some Tree Swallows, but the big surprise was a single Northern Rough Winged Swallow (very poor photo) – the earliest ever for me by 9 days. Definitely no Bitterns or Snipe and nothing else of note.
Northern Rough Winged Swallow
It was now about 5:30 p.m. and the traffic was backed up so far from the northbound on ramp for I-5 that I decided to wait and get a bite at one of the road side “restaurants”. It being St. Patrick’s Day, the preferred Bar and Grill was so busy, I could not even find a parking space so I settled for the other. Too many calories of not too good food, but finally I saw that the traffic was at least moving. It took 30 minutes to go the first 6 miles but then it mostly cleared (until Tacoma) and I was actually home before I thought I would be – even though pretty late.
This was a disjointed trip that often deviated – in approach and results – from whatever little planning there had been. I ended up seeing a lot of new birds for the year (and for both Klickitat and Skamania Counties). I had seen some of the expected birds and missed others and had some surprises. Basically there were dibs and dabs of this and that and even with the rain, a very fun time. It is nice not “needing” to see any particular species but still nice when some that are enjoyed are seen according to plan or otherwise. A recurring thought during the trip was just how much open space there is in our state and in our birding areas. The area along Highway 97 for example is vast and I imagine infrequently birded – at least compared to areas closer to population centers or birding hotspots. When I was at Russ’s Roosevelt Ferry Road spot, I looked across the Columbia, and Oregon seemed very close. Maybe not there but at some other such spot on the Columbia and further west, just maybe someday a Wrentit will finally show up in Washington. Maybe one already has and we have just not been there at that remote unbirded spot at the right time.