Really Deep Into the Sagebrush

Three weeks earlier Ann Marie Wood, Frank Caruso and I had joined Deb Essman in Ellensburg for our first Sagebrush birding of the (See year. ,  That had resulted in our first Mountain Bluebirds, Say’s Phoebes and Sagebrush Sparrows of the year.  Deb invited us back later in the month to load up on her seriously off road capable jeep to go deep into the sage in one of her favorite places – relatively unvisited areas of Gingko State Park and into the Whiskey Dick Wildlife area.  Thursday March 28th was the day.

Before meeting up with Deb, we stopped at a marshy area on Parke Creek road where we heard but could see a Yellow Headed Blackbird.  What we did see very well was a very noisy, showy and photo-friendly Wilson’s Snipe.

Wilson’s Snipe

Wilson's Snipe

We got to Deb’s, loaded into the jeep and said goodbye to husband Bill.  We headed for Sagebrush Country.  Along Vantage Highway, we found some more Mountain Bluebirds and our first Sage Thrasher of the year – a target bird as they had just recently arrived to their breeding ground.  We also had a fleeting look of another FOY – a Vesper Sparrow.  Seen in flight off some sagebrush, it could be identified by its blandness, white on the outer edges of its tail from the top and the eye ring which Deb glimpsed.  Still a little early for them, it was the only one on the trip.  Should be easy in another week or two.

Sage Thrasher

Sage Thrasher

Our target area was accessed through a locked gate at the first road just off Recreation Drive – an area where Black Throated Sparrows had been seen for a few years until 2014.  It may well be my favorite sparrow and I sure hope they return.  We were now in new territory for all of us except Deb who knows every road within miles – including many that sure do not look much like roads and which your car and mine would not be able to handle.  We eventually did meet another group – researchers from Western Washington University, but otherwise we were completely alone.  It was beautiful and it was glorious.

Ann Marie, Deb and Frank and Our Birdmobile

The Gang

This is habitat that is not crawling with birds at any time and it was generally not real birdy for us.  In another two or three weeks there will be more, but one of the fun parts was not knowing just when something might show up.  In the first few miles, the only species we had were Horned Lark, Western Meadowlark, American Raven, American Robin and Sagebrush Sparrow.  We had seen the latter on our first trip out with Deb.  They are always great to see, but Deb promised us many more ahead.

Horned Lark

Horned Lark

We gained altitude and at many points in our twisting and turning travel, we could see either south or east across the Columbia to familiar places but only from ground level when there.  The new perspective was great.  One great view was down the Columbia to Wanapum State Park and Wanapum Dam.

Looking South Down the Columbia

View of Wanapum

As we continued along as Deb had promised we found lots of Sagebrush Sparrows.  Some were calling and some were singing.  Pictures were easy.  All told we probably saw a dozen of these guys – almost as many as I had seen in Washington in all my birding in years past.

Sagebrush Sparrows

Sagebrush Sparrow3

Sagebrush SparrowV


It was barely visible sitting on its nest and buried in thick brush, but a highlight was a Long Eared Owl.  Deb had discovered the nest and really wanted to share it with us.  She was relieved when we could at least make out its “ear” tufts.  Our trip ended (before we turned around an d retraced our way back to he gate) maybe 8 miles in where Whiskey Dick Creek runs into a wet area at a cove on the Columbia.  We (not Deb) were surprised to hear at least 5 and maybe as many as 7 Virginia Rails here,  We also had a Rock Wren and a Say’s Phoebe.  Our best bird was a FOY Loggerhead Shrike.  Deb had seen it the previous week but we heard it only several times and could not coax it in.

Frank and Ann Marie had another FOY bird that was old hat for Deb and that I had seen in larger than ever before numbers in the Okanogan in January.  We were treated to two different observations of Chukars,  The first two flew off – actually exploded off and disappeared.  The third came later and after a short flight we could just make it out on the ground.  This is perfect habitat for them.  Deb had promised – well sort of – so again she delivered  – and was relieved.

When we returned to Recreation Drive we headed down to the boat launch.  As in our previous visit we had a Say’s Phoebe and a very photogenic Rock Wren.  We ran into Lonie Somers and his friend who was up from Alabama.  It was interesting to compare notes as we had birded some of the same areas (with the exception of the heavy duty 4WD places.  They had seen Brewer’s Sparrows – one of our targets that we failed to find but not a Sage Thrasher.  We met another interesting group here – a group of Bighorn Sheep – up close and not concerned by our presence.

Rock Wren

Rock Wren1

Bighorn Sheep

Bighorn1  Bighorn

We birded our way back to Deb’s.  The wind had picked up and I think that probably kept the birds out of view hunkered down in the stage.  Deb had to prepare for a class, so it was hugs all around and goodbye.  It had been about as fun as a day could be – familiar territory in a very different way.  Deb knows so much about that area – plants, animals and despite what she says – birds.  In Whiskey Dick we had seen a small group of Mule Deer.  Deb gave some lessons from Deer 101 and we learned that Black Tail Deer and Mule Deer are the same species – different subspecies – while White Tailed Deer is a different species altogether.  Now the trick is to remember this.

Frank, Ann Marie and I continued birding as we made our way west.  We picked up a FOY Osprey for Frank on Canyon Road and then looked for Bluebirds and Sage birds on Umptanum and Durr Roads.  As I said, the wind really blew and we did not find any sage birds but we had lots of both Mountain and Western Bluebirds on Umtanum Road.  I had seen Westerns in January but this was a FOY for Frank and Ann Marie.

Mountain Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird

We also saw the Great Horned Owl on its nest on Umtanum Road.  Earlier we had seen another Great Horned Owl in its nest near Deb’s house and later we saw a third one maybe 10 miles west.

Great Horned Owls on Nests

Great Horned Owl on Nest

Great Horned Owl2

We completely struck out at the Railroad Ponds in South Cle Elum – where we at least hoped to add some species for the day trip.  But even though we probably saw maybe seventy species for the day, this was not a day to be measured with numbers.  Yes we all had new birds for the year which was great, but the success of this day was much more in the great times with great people in great places.  Great birds were a bonus.

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