Given the weather this year, the title “A Sprinkling of White” might well suggest a blogpost involving snow. Especially in Eastern Washington where we were yesterday, this has been a year with lots of snow, closing roads, limiting access and affecting habitat and birding. This factoid is representative: “The normal year to date snowfall as of April 12 in Ellensburg is 20.7 inches. At 36.5 inches, the year to date snowfall as of April 12, 2017 is 176.3% higher than the normal.” I first visited Bullfrog Pond just west of Cle Elum on March 16th this year. There was two feet of snow on the ground and the pond was essentially frozen solid. Moving on to the Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds in South Cle Elum, conditions were similar and the plowed snow was piled so high, I could not see the ponds from the car. Ann Marie Wood and I revisited those areas yesterday and there was no snow and surprise, surprise the birding was much better.
But this post is about white in a different sense – although the absence of snow meant that we could join friends Bill and Deb Essman and their all terrain jeep and get to beautiful spots in the hills behind Ellensburg that would not have been accessible on that snow laden earlier date. This post is about good times and some birds we saw including some special ones with LOTS of white – some that were targeted and some that were complete surprises.
It was really cold when we got to Bullfrog Pond just before 7:00 a.m. No snow and little wind, but 26 degrees felt colder. We were hoping to find Sapsuckers and Chipping Sparrows and maybe a Sora. When we heard the rattling call of a woodpecker, we thought it was a good start – but not a sapsucker, instead a pair of Hairy Woodpeckers. Good views but not our target. I thought I had heard a House Wren and took a photo of what I thought might have been the bird – but checking at home, the photo was of a Nuthatch. The song I had heard was not a Nuthatch but without the visual, my FOY House Wren will just have to wait.
Birding was slower than expected (hoped for) and we had a complete strikeout on targeted birds, so we headed off for stop number 2 – the Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds in South Cle Elum. We were greeted by a pair of Hooded Mergansers and numerous Tree Swallows and then headed to the Pygmy Nuthatch spot. This is the “go to location” for this species in Washington for me and they showed quickly and well, as we had close-ups of at least 5 Pygmy Nuthatches – four in one tree ten feet away at one time – Ann Marie’s first of the year. A bonus was a Mountain Chickadee – also a FOY for her and one of three Chickadee species seen on this trip.
We moved on to another favorite spot on the road to the Fish Hatchery. More woodpecker sounds and this time we had our quarry – well not quite… We had hoped for a Williamson’s or a Red Naped Sapsucker. This one was a Red Breasted Sapsucker, the one that is common in Western Washington but is found here as well. We also had a little Downy Woodpecker. Numerous Yellow Rumped Warblers in spectacular breeding plumage also put on a show; and on the way out, we had Pine Siskins also showing off their breeding plumage.
Red Breasted Sapsucker
Yellow Rumped Warbler
We called Deb and told her we were on our way and then raced west on I-90 towards Kittitas. Almost 24 miles later, speeding along at 75 mph, a patch of white caught my eye in one of the side ponds of the Yakima River along the freeway. As birders, our brains become programmed to notice something “different” – a field mark, a movement, a shape, a form. Even though the look was very brief and somewhat blocked by vegetation, my brain had somehow registered “White Pelican” – unexpected at this time or place. It took at least 200 yards to stop. With no state patrol in view, I backed up that distance and we got the confirming look and photo of an American White Pelican – another FOY for Ann Marie and also her first in Kittitas County. Our first meaningful “sprinkling of white”.
American White Pelican
I have written about Bill and Deb Essman before (see for example wordpress.com/post/blairbirding.wordpress.com/5372 ) and won’t embarrass them by doing so at length again. BUT I have to use Ann Marie’s words – they are wonderful company, knowledgeable, gracious, giving and fun, fun, fun! And they have jeeps that can go places most of us can only dream of visiting – including the wild canyons north of Ellensburg/Kittitas and they visit them often and know every twist and turn and also where some really good birds can be found. Their rural home is surrounded by birds at their feeders and their yard list is a staggering 100+ including both a Common Grackle and a White Winged Dove!!! But this day, we were leaving that yard and heading up into the dirt roads of the hills to find a “guaranteed” White Headed Woodpecker that they had seen on two recent visits to a distant and very hard to reach spot in a burned area. So off we went.
Passing through farmlands on the way, we kept our eyes open for Long Billed Curlews. Steve Pink and I had found a pair in the area two weeks ago (See wordpress.com/post/blairbirding.wordpress.com/13409) but none this time. But what a consolation prize when I spotted a gorgeous Wilson’s Snipe on a pipe sitting in perfect sunlight. Steve and I had two on that earlier visit also – but a miserable photo op. This one could hardly have been better. We saw and heard more Snipe later but this one was worth the price of admission.
Time to start climbing – and leaving the pavement as we headed up Parke Creek Canyon. We picked up a Great Horned Owl on its nest and saw some expected birds even if in lower numbers than usual. Lots of Mountain Bluebirds, some Vesper Sparrows, lots of Western Meadowlarks and Horned Larks, a couple of Cassin’s Finches and a brief look at a Townsend’s Solitaire. Surprisingly few raptors and no Western Bluebirds, but we had another beautiful Wilson’s Snipe.
The area was beautiful as we went in and out of fields, sage, trees and had vistas of mountains, windmills and shrub steppe. As usual, I forgot to take scenery photos, so I only have the pictures that are in my mind. The road got rougher and rougher but we never felt in danger or ill at ease as Bill masterfully handled each rut, bump, rock and incline. After almost 2000 feet of vertical gain, Deb said we were approaching the spot where they “guaranteed” a White Headed Woodpecker. It was a thicket of burned trees – victims of one of the big blazes last year. We had already seen many burned pines and lots of trees that had been snapped in half by high winds that had followed some of the fires. Woodpeckers love burns – we were ready – but the first looks were not fruitful.
Of course it was Ann Marie that first spied the White Headed Woodpecker. I could not get on it and worried as she and then Bill said it had flown off. I got out of the jeep and began the chase over fallen trees, avoiding Elk droppings and some mud as I headed north. Then – there it was – in a tree just ahead – another “sprinkling of white” – a female White Headed Woodpecker climbing the trunk of the tree just ahead of me. Some quick photos, and the Essman’s were good on their guarantee (and Deb sighed a sigh of relief).
White Headed Woodpecker
Don’t even think of trying to get to this spot in a regular vehicle – it would be a long walk out when you got stuck. And definitely don’t think about trying the “back up” spot that the Essman’s had in reserve and was further up in case this spot had not panned out. But we had no need to go further. A not so good photo of a singing Cassin’s Finch without the slightest bit of red, and then we were off.
Off meant we were going up and over the Whiskey Dick Wind farm to come out on Old Vantage Highway to continue our search for Shrub Steppe birds. Bill never looked at a map, and Ann Marie and I never had a clue where we were as there were left and right turns that were ignored or taken as we moved forward. Bill and Deb regaled us with stories of their journeys into these hills, often in snow and in very cold conditions and often coming out in areas that were familiar to us, but we could not imagine were accessible via these challenging back roads. We made it to the Quilomene (or Whiskey Dick) Corrals and immediately had singing Sage Thrashers. Later we also had Mountain Bluebirds, Sagebrush, Brewer’s and Vesper Sparrows, and a pair of battling Say’s Phoebes.
As on other visits to this area, we then headed off to Recreation Road and Rocky Coulee hoping for Rock and/or Canyon Wrens. This time, however, we found none. We were working against a schedule but figured there was time for a trip across the Columbia and then up to Frenchman’s Coulee looking for more “sprinklings of white” – White Throated Swifts to be specific. That was the plan but as is often – and thankfully – the case, there was a surprise – a “different sprinkling of white” as we spotted a Great Egret in a little pond just before the turn to the south to get to the Coulee. A county first for Ann Marie and Deb and always a welcomed find.
It was unexpectedly slow at Frenchman’s Coulee with the White Throated Swifts being the only species seen or heard. We had great looks for maybe two seconds as they sped past us (they are after all called “Swifts”) including the eponymous white throats – another sprinkle for us. Now time to get Bill back for an appointment so we headed west for the first time.
Hugs and goodbyes and many thank yous and then Ann Marie and I headed off to see if we could find some more good birds. We searched in vain for Long Billed Curlews but got a nice view of a Merlin on Hungry Junction Road. We headed up the Teanaway Valley where I ALWAYS find Wild Turkeys – well except this trip. We found a “different” raptor that may have been a Red Tailed Hawk or maybe a Swainson’s Hawk. I will run the poor photo by some experts and see what they say (and may come back to this blog post). Time to head home via Cle Elum and a last stop at Bullfrog Pond to see if we could find something new to end the day.
And fitting on this day was a final “sprinkling of white”. At Bullfrog we went to a somewhat different area and quickly heard a “squeal” that I was pretty sure was a Red Naped Sapsucker. I played that call on my phone and it seemed an exact match – and then immediately a sapsucker flew right overhead in response to the call. I thought it was going to land in a nearby tree but it kept going and was too far away to find. It did not return or reply to more attempts to call it in, but when I played the drumming for a Red Naped, we again heard the squeal and then later similar drumming. I did not have a great view as it flew overhead, but there was just enough “sprinkling of white” to differentiate it from its Red Breasted cousin.
Red Naped Sapsucker (from this location in 2016)
No traffic or rain coming home. Lots of sunshine in Eastern Washington and lots of good birds this trip. Most importantly lots of good times with some great folks. That’s what it is all about.